By Oreste Pinto
Towards the end of May 1945, I was asked to attend a conference of Resistance leaders in Edinhoven where honours and awards for patriotism were to be discussed.
It must have been the second or third day of the conference that someone mentioned Spitfire Johnny. The official meeting had.broken up for that session and I was drinking coffee with perhaps half a dozen of the Resistance representatives. One of my companions was a man named Bloot. He was slight and stooping, a thin academic figure with sparse gray hair. He spoke softly in a dry, pedantic voice. You would have taken him for a University professor but he was one of the most ruthless and cunning guerrilla fighters I ever came across.
Another man present was Ritten, a big burly creature with two fingers missing on his right hand. He also had fought the German invaders bitterly and had personally killed more than a dozen of them in commando-type raids. Men like these had resisted for many years, long before there had seemed any hope of victory and before the R. A. F. had begun to drop arms and ammunition to them. In the beginning, if one wanted to kill a German sentry, the job had to be done with bare hands or a sharpened kitchen knife. Looking round the gathering, I thought that each of these men deserved a whole chestful of medals.
As always happens when fighting men are gathered together, the talk turned to those who did not survive. Someone - I think it was Ritten - said, "There ought to be a posthumous award for Spitfire Johnny."
"Not posthumous," Bloot interrupted him. "He's still alive."
"No, he's dead, I tell you."
"He can't be dead - unless something's happened to him in the last few weeks. A friend of mine saw him less than two months ago."
"With due respect, I can't believe that. I've seen his grave with these eyes - on a farm not far from Zutphen," said Ritten.
"A grave's not evidence," Bloot argued dryly. "Anyone can dig a hole and write a name on the headboard. I won't believe Johnny's dead until I actually see his body. This is just another of his tricks, I'll be bound."
"How would you identify his body, if you did see it?" Ritten retorted. "You never met him in the flesh, did you?"
"That's true - but I still won't agree- he's dead. Not till I get definite proof."
"Isn't his grave proof enough?" said Ritten.
The argument was beginning to go round in circles and, besides, I was getting intrigued with this strangely named character who
I guessed to be a Resistance man, whether dead or alive. To break up the debate, I asked, "Who is this Spitfire Johnny you're talking about? I've never heard of him."
"Never heard of Spitfire Johnny?" asked Ritten in his turn, incredulously.
"Colonel," he said impressively, "we've all done something for this country of ours. But none of us here - and he spread his maimed hand to take in the whole company - could equal the achievements of Spitfire Johnny. I'm surprised you never got to hear of him back in England. After all, he was an Englishman."
"/s an Englishman," Bloot corrected him.
"Is or was - and I for one know he's dead, poor fellow - Johnny .was a great man. Your King ought to give him the Victoria Cross."
"But who was he?" I persisted. "How did he get that name?"
Bloot butted in. "Don't let us talk about him in the past tense. To me Johnny will always be alive. He is an Englishman, a fighter pilot in the R. A. F., who got shot down in a sweep over Hilversum at the beginning of last year. The engine of his plane failed and he must have known he would never get back across the North Sea. So he glided on over Apeldoorn and finally crash-landed a few miles away. He was hurt when he crashed and he holed up in a farm between Apeldoorn and Zutphen until his leg got better. Then, instead of working his way back to England, Johnny decided to fight his own private war against the Hun.
"The Resistance was never too active in North-East Holland. There were too many German troops around and it was too near the frontier. But you should have seen the difference when Johnny got going. He derailed troop trains, ambushed military convoys, attacked staff headquarters - why, once he took on a whole brigade and got away with it! If there had been more like him to harass the Germans at that time, Holland would have been liberated long ago, I tell you."
"But what's his name - his real name I mean? And what does he look like?" I asked.
For once Ritten and Bloot were in agreement. They shook their heads in unison. Ritten said, "I don't know his real name. He was always called Spitfire Johnny - 'Spitfire' because that was the make of plane he was flying and 'Johnny' because - well, because his name was Johnny. I don't have to tell you, Colonel, that most of us Resistance men adopted nicknames and tried to keep our names hidden, in case the Gestapo took reprisals on our families. It didn't pay to go round asking a Resistance man what his name was!"
I nodded and then asked, "But can you describe him? Was he tall, short, dark-haired, fair - what did he look like?"
Ritten replied, "I don't know. I never saw him in the flesh."
"Nor did I," said Bloot.
"But someone must have known him personally," I persisted. "A man doesn't crash a Spitfire in a country, step out and go on fighting
the Germans for over a year without ever meeting a soul. What did he fight with? Where did he get hold of the weapons and ammunition? Where did he stay at night? Who fed him? He must have had some helpers. Who are they - and where are they?"
Bloot gave a dry grin. "Colonel, you are very good at asking questions. Unfortunately, we are not good at giving the answers in this case. Why don't you go to Zutphen? There must be someone there who can tell you more than we can."
"They say that his lieutenant was a beautiful woman," Ritten added. He outlined a rough figure of eight with his cupped hands in the smoky air and whistled. "Why don't you call on her, Colonel?"
"When I get time, I will," I answered. "An unsolved mystery hurts my professional pride."
The conversation turned to other topics and, perhaps an hour later, the gathering broke up.
Two days afterwards, I returned to my duties and for several weeks I had neither the time nor the opportunity to investigate the mystery of Spitfire Johnny. At occasional off-duty moments my mind switched back to the talk at Edinhoven and I wondered just how much of the story was true and how much was rumour. Ritten and Bloot were tough realists who would not easily be taken in by a completely fabricated yarn. Yet, they were both firmly convinced of Spitfire Johnny's existence.
(to be continued)