‘Living History’ By Jim Davies

‘Living history’ is certainly a term to describe John Holtham, Life Vice-President of the Stone & District Branch of the Royal Air Forces Association (RAFA), and that term is particularly appropriate in this the centenary year of the Royal Air Force.   John’s father was a founding member of the RAF in 1918 and John was a navigator in the RAF from 1943 to 1947 and a reservist navigation instructor from 1951 to 1957.   He has also been an active member of RAFA from ‘time immemorial’. Now aged nearly 94 John is still going strong (he gave up tennis only a couple of years ago!) and lives in Fradswell.

Like many who’ve made a great contribution to the community of Stone, John actually hails from elsewhere (South London, like yours truly) and his personal link with the RAF started when he became a founder member of the Air Training Corps in 1941 during his evacuation to Devon. The war was now  raging and as soon as he could he joined up and qualified as a wireless operator in April 1944 (he was paid the magnificent sum of 7/- (35p) per day because he was a Leading Aircraftman; the others got only 3/- (15p)).

His potential was spotted and he was sent to Canada to train as a navigator and by November 1944 he was qualified on the Mosquito, the famous ‘wooden wonder’ that starred in the epic 1960s film 633 Squadron.

A Mosquito MkVI, the type in which John Holtham flew

Before returning to the UK he had the chance to visit friends at Colorado Springs near Denver and enjoy the unrationed American dream.  But all too soon he was packed with some 12,000 fellow passengers on board the second Mauretania for an 11-day voyage back to the Clyde.   Christmas Dinner on board comprised American combat food called ‘K’ rations.  Welcome back to the war!

Keen to get involved in action John still had to complete his operational training and ended up at Croft near Darlington where he found himself once again in the company of roistering Canadians. For John the war in Europe ended too soon and he also missed out on being sent to the Far East where matters came to an end anyway in August 1945.

Nevertheless, John’s training was not wasted.  He was posted to Cambrai-Épinoy in France on No 487 (New Zealand) Squadron, famous for the daring Amiens Prison raid of the previous year.  At last he was doing some proper flying in the impressive Mosquito Mk VI (four machine guns and four 20mm cannon plus bombs and rockets – they could really spoil your day!).

John Holtham’s father in 1918 framed in a piece of WW1 aircraft propellor

However, John found himself employed on more peaceful pursuits, particularly during the Nuremburg trials when he was moved to Germany and was frequently engaged in flying the Trial transcripts to England.   He obviously did that job well because he then moved onto important VIP flying during that still chaotic post-war period in Germany.  John recalls in particular flying General Sir Alexander Galloway back to UK in his VVIP aircraft when they also had on board a compassionate case in the person of a young Army soldier who was spectacularly airsick and left the General’s lovely aircraft in a less than pristine state!

But matters were beginning to return to normal and one of John’s last jobs was to fly to Northern Ireland and collect the turkeys for Christmas Dinner 1946 – a bit of an improvement on ‘K’ rations on board the Mauretania!

RMS Mauretania as a troop ship in wartime grey camouflage

John toyed with the idea of staying in the RAF but he was offered £3.10s (£3.50) per week to resume his studies.  His last flight was on 25 January 1947 by which time he’d accumulated over 500 flying hours.

John Holtham in June 2018

John qualified as what we now call an optometrist and met and married Pat in 1951.  Pat was a senior social worker and they came to Stone when Pat took a post at Stoke Hospital in 1976 following which she soon became the Area Officer for Staffordshire.  John moved his opticians practice to Hanley and he may still be remembered by some Gazette readers.  John and Pat’s daughter, Sarah, currently lives in Moss Gate.