Around 100 people have packed Grantham crematorium this morning to say goodbye to a local war veteran following a social media appeal.
SGT Ray Johnson served throughout the Second World War, from September 1939 to late 1945, as part of the 152 (Hyderbad) Squadron and died on September 3, 2016.
He only has three living relatives and so veterans group, Friends of 152 Squadron, with the families permission, begun a campaign to get people to attend his funeral and give him the send off he deserves.
Today, between 80 and 100 people attended a service to remember his life, with people travelling from across the country to attend.
Jay Beecher, from Peterborough, was offering people lifts to the crematorium from around the county. Afterwards he said: “Endless people from across Peterborough and Grantham turned up to hear stories of a man who, as a little boy, had his tonsels removed by his local doctor on the kitchen table, who stripped a truck and did a gin smuggling run across Calcutta, who was given a gun and told by his officer to “look out for enemy planes” and (when he saw any) to “shoot the b******s down”. A man who fought in the Battle of Britain to defend his country, and a man who lived, loved, and laughed.
“Great turn out for Ray, mostly by people who hadn’t ever met him but who realised that every person has a life story to be celebrated.”
Lyndsey Young, who attended, said: “There was a grand turnout for Sgt Ray Thompson’s service, military, ex-military and civilians, all bidding him final farewell.
“The room was full, as was the cloisters.”
Few could boast the kind of wartime record Ray has in his possession, having signed up in July 1939 and served not only in the Battle of Britain, but also in the Bay of Biscay, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Arakan and Manipur, to name just a few, before being part of the first squadron to re-enter Burma in 1944.
Speaking to our journalists in April 2016, Ray said: “We were one of the most travelled RAF squadrons in the war. Is it any wonder, with all this travel and change of scenery, I hadn’t given much thought to leave?”
However, when he chose to join the RAF he had no idea he would be part of the same squadron throughout the war, nor of the adventures it would take him on. His first day though, might have given him an indication of what was in store.
“I was posted to No2 Flying Training School at Brize Norton, and on reporting to the armourment section was told to pick up the Lewis gun and pan of ammo. I would be taken to a gun pit on a blister hangar on the other side of the aerodrome, and was to stay there until I was relieved,” Ray remembers.
“When I enquired what I was to do, the Flt Sgt told me that if an enemy aircraft came over I was to ‘shoot the b*****d down’. This I thought was wonderful, to be given the defence of the RAF Brize Norton after being in the airforce for such a short time!”
After passing his amourment course in Wales, it was in January 1940 that Ray was posted to the 152 Squadron, who were equipped with the now iconic Spitfires, and stationed at Acklington.
As part of the ground crew, it was Ray’s job to ensure that the planes were armed and ready for battle, and he relates how you never knew when helping to strap in the pilots, whether you would be seeing them again.
In July, the Squadron moved to Warmwell near Weymouth for what became known as the Battle of Britain.
“I flew there in a Handley Page Harrow, seated on a pile of full Spitfire ammo boxes,” adds Ray. Of course the RAF’s defence of the country has gone down in history as a pivotal moment of the war, with the 152 Squadron credited with taking down 59 enemy aircraft. Yet Ray is keen to highlight that this was only the beginning of the Second World War story for him and his comrades in the 152. After several relocations all around the UK, they discovered that they were being sent overseas, and in October 1942 boarded a ship on the Clyde to take part in ‘Operation Torch’ – the landings in North Africa.
“The squadron had become a completely mobile and self-contained unit, with its own motor transport, medical stores, etc. It was capable of moving at one hour’s notice, and did so many times over the next three years,” explained Ray.
He then found himself in Malta, a country which has since bestowed upon him The Malta George Cross Fiftieth Anniversary Medal, to add to his many decorations. From there, the 152 covered the initial stages of the Sicilian Landings, known as ‘Operation Husky’.
They then left Europe and travelled across Asia, finding themselves based at RAF Tulihal, in Manipur, India. While the air battles relentlessly continued, there was also time to have a laugh amongst the close-knit squadron.
“At Tulihal the C.O. was prevailed upon to allow a ‘hooch run’ to Calcutta. So an officer and myself flew in the Havard over the mountains, and the Ganges Delta to Calcutta, minus the ‘chutes and anything else that would take up gin space,”
He added that they had filled the plane with so much gin ‘if we had been hit then we would have gone up like a great firework’.
On being released from service in December 1945, he returned to Grantham where he has remained ever since, spending 47 happy years of marriage with his late wife, Joan.