Jack Hilton is a battle hardened fighter pilot.
At 93-years-old, he’s lived a good life. But during the Second World War, it was a life filled with perpetual stress and one he cheated death on an almost daily basis.
He’s been shot down once, had anti-aircraft fire sandblast his plane and nearly blew himself up taking off with two, 1,000-pound bombs. He has crash landed more times than he would like to remember.
And of the 28 men he deployed overseas with, he was one of only eight that returned.
His squadron lost 50 per cent of its pilots every 90 days.
I met Jack at Airdrie’s Cedarwood Station in late October after he agreed to have a sit down with me to discuss his time spent as a fighter pilot serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) for this year’s Remembrance Day edition.
His story is one of miraculous survival and of riveting suspense.
This is the story of how one man helped support Canada during a time we needed it the most.
In the service
Hilton joined the air force in September 1939 at the tender age of 19 out east in Toronto with his heart set on becoming a plane’s gunner.
“I like guns,” he says frankly with a faint chuckle. “No common sense, just one of those things.”
But after basic training, his co-ordination was impressive enough that the powers that be informed him he was selected for pilot training, gunner dreams be damned.
He didn’t object.
“You were in the military, you just do what you’re told — you don’t have any choice.”
Hilton began his flight training in Windsor, Ont. on a Fleet Finch — a bi-plane with a seat in the back for an instructor — earning 25 hours.
On his first solo trip, nerves took their toll and nearly ended what would be a storied fighter pilot career.
“My solo trip took me three circuits to get that stupid thing down; it was almost a controlled crash,” he laughed. “After three circuits, I was so mad I was going to get it down, even if it killed me.”
He managed to get it down safely and was promptly shuffled to Brantford, Ont. to earn 75 hours of flight experience at a twin engine flight school there.
Hilton eventually became a flight instructor and was given the choice of where he wanted to deploy in Canada.
“I was from Toronto, and I had so many relatives, so I said, ‘where’s the farthest station west?’”
The response? “McLeod.”
Known as Fort McLeod today, Hilton arrived in Alberta and logged two years training greenhorn pilots on the Avro Anson — a forgiving airplane that boasted a pair of 400 horsepower engines.
It was this constant training that Hilton later credits for saving his life in the war.
The air force soon transferred Hilton to Bagotville, Que. in early 1943 where Hilton was groomed for war on the Hawker Hurricane, a single-seat fighter plane.
On a training flight, a large piece of the engine block blew out, spewing glycol over the red-hot engine.
“You’d think I was a skywriter — I was streaming smoke all over the place,” he chuckled.
He lined up his approach to belly-land the disabled Hurricane in a farmer’s field.
Nearby, Hilton said a priest was witnessing the inevitable crash and rushed to the field.
“I was skidding it in, stuff was flying, he jumped up on the wing and said, ‘my son, my son, I’ve come to give you the last rights of the church,’” Hilton said. “I said, ‘Father, I’m not of your faith but thank you very much.’”
He was invited by the priest for steak dinner – a rarity in wartime – and he was back flying the next day.
“There was no medical, no grief counsellor, just, ‘here my boy, take this (plane) up.’ It was war time.”
Sent to war
Hilton’s first taste of war came when he was transferred to the 118 Fighter Squadron stationed on an American base in Alaska on Annette Island, near Kitchaket.
He flew 16 sorties along the coast, all reconnaissance-based missions searching for Japanese aircraft carriers possibly floating nearby.
While the squadron shot down one enemy plane, they never found any carriers.
“We didn’t have the range and they didn’t come in close,” he reflected.
On Nov. 9, 1943, Hilton and his 27 other squadron mates landed in Liverpool, England and became the RCAF’s 438 Fighter Squadron, eventually being based near Bournemouth, in the country’s south tip.
The squadron soon converted to the Hawker Typhoon, a single-engine fighter-bomber that was heavily armed with four, 20mm cannons and the capability to haul two, 1,000-pound bombs.
At 93, Hilton’s memory is tack sharp. His hands gently rub together as he leans over, elbows resting gently on his legs as he carefully picks his words to describe his story.
His eyes dart across the room as he begins to recount his first mission into Nazi-occupied France.
It was a 32-plane dive bombing run on a railway terminal.
Despite his years of flight experience in Canada, Hilton only had eight hours in the Typhoon.
“It was very interesting because none of us knew what the hell we were doing,” he laughed. “Still to this day I don’t know if I hit my target, but I rolled over from 20,000 feet down to about five, got rid of my bombs, sprayed whoever was in front of me and we came home.
“Fortunately, for me, I had my experience behind me because I was an instructor. When I went overseas, I had more flying hours than anyone else in my squadron and that’s what kept me alive. I didn’t do stupid things because I learned.”
Hilton and company began constant missions attacking trains, steam engines and box cars. Shooting anything that moved and quickly returning to base.
But the Germans were smart and often set up traps to catch unsuspecting fighter planes on strafing runs.
“One train we attacked, four of us came in right on the trees — and I mean on the trees — 100 feet off the ground,” he said, his hands mimicking two planes flying single file through the air. “As we came in, the box car sides of the train fell down and was what we call a flak trap.”
The Germans had baited the fighters with a train packed with anti-aircraft guns.
Hilton was looking down the barrels of multiple guns that were hidden inside.
“They were pumping those shells like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “I fired as I went by, but some of my buddies pulled up, which you should never do. I went over and down below the trees. The guns have a stop on them, and can only go so low.”
His squad leader pulled up short and had part of the tail of his plane blown off. Luckily, the plane was able to limp home.
“That was one terrifying experience was to look down the muzzle of multiple antiaircraft guns,” he said. “The Germans were quite happy to see us come.”
Invasion of Normandy D-Day
As the Allied Forces began preparing for D-Day in June, 1944, Hilton always knew something big was brewing.
It wasn’t difficult to notice the buildup.
“I’ve never seen so much armour — it’s a wonder England didn’t sink into the sea,” he said. “We had tanks under every tree, armoured personnel under every tree, in every field and bush. It was incredible.”
The pilots lived in tents near their planes. Terrible weather often delayed their flight plans.
But finally, the 438 Squadron got off the ground to provide ‘top cover’ for ground units storming the beaches. They hammered armoured positions ahead of the infantry and took out any aircraft in range.
“It was chaotic,” Hilton recalled. “I looked down at the troops and watched the boats go ashore. These little black dots would run up the beach. Some made it, some didn’t.”
The Typhoons would fly in from the English Channel low. As Hilton and the squad approached the cliffs of Juno Beach, they would pull the nose of their plane skyward and release their bombs in an effort to lob their payload on the dug-in Nazi guns positions.
Hilton would let go of his bombs, quickly gun down anything he could find on the ground and then return to base. He’d catch some rest as another pilot took out his plane. When he returned, Hilton went back out. Repeat as necessary.
He’s not sure exactly when the bullet hit his wing, but the hole left no mistake he had been hit. Thankfully, it had minimal effect.
Six days after D-Day, the Typhoons moved base just inland from the fighting at Juno Beach in France.
“We landed on an interlocked, 2,500-foot metal strip in a field,” Hilton said. “We had to land at 100 miles per hour. Our brakes were well used.”
But brakes were the least of Hilton’s worries.
As he exited the plane, the stark reality of his new surroundings sunk in.
A sniper’s bullet crackled from a nearby position, targeting Hilton as he exited his plane. It narrowly missed the back of his neck.
“I made like a worm down the side of that airplane,” he said. “He was in the grain field somewhere. I was just lucky.”
Transferred to the Royal Air Force in Belgium
After suffering losses to their ranks, Hilton was again transferred to the Belgian city of Antwerp, when he joined the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) 193 Fighter Squadron a month after D-Day.
He was being ferried into Belgium in a transport plane with other pilots to join the squadron when the plane took a direct hit to a wing from a German antiaircraft gun positioned along the coast of France.
The engine burst into flames and sputtered smoke.
“We looked around, we knew we had our parachutes with us, but we were too low, we couldn’t jump,” Hilton said. “So what comes, comes. Most of us just looked at each other and shrugged.”
What came was a perfect crash landing in yet another farmer’s field. Everyone survived.
It wouldn’t be the last time Hilton’s plane was hit and he miraciously survived.
Most flights Hilton piloted were less than an hour long. He’d roll in, hit the target and roll back.
One trip into Germany, an anti-aircraft shell exploded right below the nose of his Typhoon.
“When I say hit me, I could see the explosion of the shells right in my nose of my airplane,” he said.
Fearing the engine was toast, Hilton began preparations to bail out.
“If you lose your temperature, your engine seizes up, so I just rolled my coop top back, and undid my straps,” he said. “I had a leg over the side of my aircraft ready to bail out.”
The engine survived.
“The nose of my airplane was just like you had sandblasted it — it was shiny as a new nickel,” he laughed. “All the camouflage paint was gone. I got hit dead in the nose. We had armour plate under it, so I was spared. It exploded just below me and I got the blast. I was just on the fringe of it. I was lucky, very lucky.”
There was also the time during take off, a 1,000-pound bomb detached from his wing and exploded underneath him, virtually ripping the plane’s underbelly apart.
“My engine wouldn’t come up to full power as I was coming up,” he reminisced. The plane laboured into the air; he dumped the bomb in an effort to shed some weight. “When I jettisoned, one exploded on the ground and knocked (out) my undercarriage fuel, lines, I couldn’t put the wheels down.”
Once again, Hilton was forced to land his debilitated plane on its belly.
It wouldn’t be Hilton’s last crash landing.
While returning from a mission bombing tanks, Hilton prepared to land his Typhoon at the squadron’s airbase in Antwerp.
He began “rounding out” for his approach, putting the plane in a sort of stall. As he approached the landing strip, a wind gust pushed his plane off course and his wheels clipped a bomb hole from where the Germans had attacked previously.
The crash ripped off the plane’s wheels and sent Hilton and the Typhoon cartwheeling down the strip. It stood up on its nose before stopping and falling back on its belly.
“It was a mess,” he said. “If it hadn’t gone back on its belly, it would have broken my neck.”
All that was left was the cockpit and the engine. The fuselage and wings had snapped off in the dramatic crash.
With three broken ribs, Hilton unstrapped himself and ran from the plane.
“I was crouched over running down the runway . . . and the ambulance was chasing me, and (the medic) wound his window down and asked ‘where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m getting away from that sucker before it blows up!’”
Hilton received 10 days holidays for his troubles.
SS HQ bombed
During a later mission in Belgium, Hilton said he departed for his most gratifying mission.
Hilton said the men were sent to attack a farm house that was being used as a headquarters for the German SS, a paramilitary group known for their brutal tactics.
“The SS were mean, mean dudes,” he explained. “As mean as you can get.”
Four planes from the squadron flew in only 500 feet above the ground as they raced up the town’s streets towards the farmhouse.
Armed with 10-second delay bombs, the squad dropped the bombs right through the roof of the building.
“We had delayed action bombs with 10-second delays so you didn’t blow up the guy behind you,” Hilton explained. “When we were finished, there was a hide of a brick was all that was left. That was the only gratifying one you could say you enjoyed doing. Everything else was so remote. You’d hit, you’d leave. You wouldn’t see it. That was very visual.”
Kill or be killed: emotional toll of war
For all the close calls Hilton experienced, his operations generally went smoothly. He was a pilot who got the job done.
Some weren’t so lucky. On both sides of the equation.
Returning from a train-bombing mission, Hilton caught sight of a Nazi plane snapping photos over Antwerp.
He swooped in behind and closed the distance.
“You get so close you can’t miss,” he allows. “That’s the only way to succeed. With 20mm shells, it just knocks the wings off.”
“He shouldn’t have been there and he wouldn’t surrender. If a plane drops his wheels, he’s surrendering. Wheels up, you’re still in combat. If he would have dropped his wheels, we would have pulled back and escorted him home.”
Hilton also saw his share of loss. On many occasions he saw his friends shot out of the sky.
“You look over and one guy is on fire and you yell ‘bail out, bail out!’,” he said. “You don’t know if he hears you or not, but down he goes. Big boom.”
Hilton said there was simply nothing he could do about it.
“All you can do is say tough luck for him,” he said. “All the gut chewing and hand wringing, and beating yourself against the wall doesn’t do you any good. You’ve just got to carry on. It’s a matter of sucking it up. I know it sounds strange, but that’s the way it is. It’s the mood that the time brought on.”
As an officer, Hilton would pack up belongings of the dead pilots and write letters to their wives.
Everything took an emotional toll.
“When you come home (to base from a mission), you’re good and tired,” he said. “(And then) we were always under shellfire.”
“All this stuff builds up — your nerves are on edge and you’re cranky as can be. You try to forget about it, but it’s still there.”
100 missions and a ticket home
Hilton always knew he was close to his 100th mission — the required count to be sent home.
He didn’t want to dwell on it or know exactly when his last mission would be to avoid being mentally unprepared or finding some bad luck.
Eventually, in 1945, Jack Hilton was given the news he had flown his final mission. But they asked him to instead stick around and test fly airplanes and fix them up.
He wanted none of it.
“I said, ‘hell no, I’m not test flying anything. I’ve pushed my luck as far as I can go,’” he laughed. “If I was test flying, sure as shoot something would blow up.”
He said he was finished with war and he wanted to return to being a civilian.
In 1945, Hilton returned to Calgary. The military gave him a new suit, $100 and a pin for his efforts.
After dabbling as a horse and cart driver for a bakery in Calgary immediately following the war, Hilton eventually re-enlisted in the Air Force and worked with radar and other electronics for 25 years before retiring. He eventually wound up in real estate and then worked in the stationary business (school furniture), operating an agency in Calgary representing companies out of Ontario.
On Oct. 23 of this year, Hilton and his wife Ethel celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. The couple live together at Airdrie’s Cedarwood Station and have four children.
Looking back, Hilton was thankful he could serve his country. But he also counts his blessings and knows just how close, on so many occasions, he came to never making it home in one piece.
“Every day I count my luck,” he said with his eyes welling up. “Every day, somebody is sitting on my shoulder. I did things, saw things, was in things, that you wouldn’t believe. You just wouldn’t believe that you could come out of something like that alive.”