John Keatinge Haire

Sergeant John Keatinge Haire was a pilot with RAF 145 Squadron during the Battle of Britain who sacrificed his life to save others on the Isle of Wight.

Sergeant

John Keatinge Haire

Those he flew with in RAF 145 Squadron knew him as "Bunny". Sergeant John Keatinge Haire was only 20 years old when his Hawker Hurricane was shot down on 6th November 1940.

Sergeant John Keatinge Haire (748611) served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve during World War Two. He died on 6th November 1940 aged twenty years old. His colleagues nicknamed the young pilot “Bunny”.

Born on 25th September 1920, he was the son of Sidney Hume Haire and Nora Julie Haire of 122 Earlswood Road, Belfast, Co. Antrim. Sidney, born on 8th June 1877, was a retired motor engineer and he and Nora had two other children. Nora died on 20th August 1960 and Sidney died on 6th June 1974.

John’s elder brother Major Sidney Sedgwick Haire died aged 28 years old, killed in action in Egypt on 23rd July 1942. He served in the Indian Army Ordnance Corps attached to 161 Motor Brigade. His grave is in Row XXVII, Grave A 22 of the El Alamein Cemetery, Egypt.

After leaving school, John joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service. He qualified as a clark on 23rd November 1938. With war approaching, he decided to leave the monotony of a desk job for the excitement of flying with the Royal Air Force in June 1939.

John Keatinge Haire in the RAF

Sergeant John Keatinge Haire of Belfast, Co. Antrim seated centre of the front row while at No. 2 Flying Training School prior to joining RAF 145 Squadron. Photo from battle of Britain Monument website.

John Keatinge Haire in the RAF

Called up on 1st September 1939, Haire went to No. 1 Elementary Flying Training School at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England. There, he began training on 4th December 1939.

From 13th May to 17th August 1940, he undertook the No. 2 War Course attached to A Flight at No. 10 Flying Training School, Ternhill. While training, he stayed in digs at Oaken Gates, St Albans Road, Hatfield, Hertfordshire. On 18th August 1940, he joined No. 6 Operational Training Unit at RAF Sutton Bridge.

On completion of training throughout the year, Haire joined A Flight of RAF 145 Squadron on 11th September 1940. While with 145 Squadron, he flew Hurricanes from RAF Dyce, Aberdeen, Scotland.

The Battle of Britain

The Operational Record book for 145 Squadron shows strong winds blowing all day on 17th September 1940. It was on this day John Keatinge Haire flew his first operational patrol. He took to the skies in a Hawker Hurricane Mk I from 1545hrs to 1615hrs.

His second and third patrols were on 20th September 1940 for 2 hours between 1440hrs and 1640hrs. He spotted no enemy planes. A fourth 1-hour patrol followed on 21st September 1940.

On 8th October 1940, RAF 145 Squadron moved to RAF Tangmere, Sussex and Haire made another 10 patrols over the course of the month. Each patrol lasted around an hour and each time was incident-free, with the Belfast-born pilot sighting no enemy planes.

Wednesday 23rd October 1940 was a day to remember for John Keatinge Haire. The morning started with bad weather and poor visibility but RAF 145 Squadron carried out patrols regardless. Haire flew as Red 2 alongside Pilot Officer Robert Yule as Red 1. The two patrolled over Beachy Head, Sussex above the cloud canopy at 16,000 feet.

At 1710hrs, they spotted a Junker JU88 heading north-west out of the clouds at 15,000 feet. Both RAF pilots climbed into the sun intending to launch a beam attack. The JU88 turned east and dived steeply with black smoke trailing from an engine.

Yule attacked first, firing 4 short bursts of 960 rounds from a distance of 350-200 yards. Haire followed up with 2 bursts of 400 rounds between 250-150 yards. Incendiary bullets entered the Junkers’ fuselage and the upper and rear gunners returned fire but this stopped mid-attack. The JU88 released its bomb load and disappeared into the thick cloud, trailing white smoke from the port engine.

Yule’s combat report stated the JU88 had standard camouflage of dark green on top, with light blue beneath. It sported yellow roundels around crosses on the fuselage. The likely plane was JU88A-1, which eventually came down near Neuilly Hospital, France. Feldwebel Kissel died in the crash and 2 NCOs sustained injuries.

Friday 25th October 1940 saw an improvement in the weather and RAF 145 Squadron carried out several patrols. Sergeant Haire took part in two of these. At 0920hrs, the entire squadron joined with RAF 213 Squadron at 10,000 feet to patrol the Tangmere base. They landed at 1100hrs without encountering any enemy. At 1125hrs, the squadron again patrolled over Dungeness and Tenterden, Kent. All planes apart from those of Pilot Officer Yule and Pilot Officer Baudouin de Hemptinne returned at 1300hrs.

On 26th October 1940, RAF 145 Squadron once again patrolled in cloudy weather. This time, they covered from Selsey Bill to Winchester, Hampshire. Again, there were no enemy interceptions.

Shot down over Isle of Wight

Sunday 27th October 1940 was a sunny day and RAF 145 Squadron once again joined with RAF 213 Squadron to patrol at 15,000 feet. They covered between Mayfield and Tenterden, Kent, climbing to 31,000 feet without spotting the enemy. They landed at RAF Tangmere at 1220hrs.

At 1630hrs, 11 planes from RAF 145 Squadron took off to patrol over the Isle of Wight as Southampton and Portsmouth had been bombed. Haire acted as a “weaver”, flying above and behind the other 10 planes to prevent surprise attacks from above or behind.

At 1715hrs on 27th October 1940, Sergeant Haire was shot down by an ME109 over the Isle of Wight. He remained with his Hawker Hurricane V6888 until the last possible moment, guiding it away from a small village. On this occasion, he brought his Hurricane down safely on a beach near Bembridge. The RAF salvaged the Hurricane and used it as an instructional airframe.

Isle of Wight Coastguard Leonard Rowe observed the plane coming down and wrote to John’s parents on 15th April 1941:

Dear Mr Haire,

I was greatly touched by your letter of 10th. My thoughts were with you at the time of your great loss of your gallant son. It was sad news to my wife and me to hear of John (which he became to us), whose end came so close to his short stay with us. I refused to believe it for a time because he had written that he had been granted a week’s leave and it was only 10 days after he went from here.

John came into our lives in exactly the same manner as he came to the end. It was about 5 o’clock on the Sunday afternoon with a battle close overhead; we saw a plane circle to make for its base with smoke coming from its engine and eight miles of water to cross.

About 30ft high he made a sharp left hand turn over a 20ft high cliff and landed just in the water. I lost no time in getting to him, but I was relieved when I got to the cliff edge to see him getting on to the wing of his aeroplane. When I got him ashore he asked me to go with him to get the wireless and other small things ashore and not until then could I persuade him it was time to have a bath and some food.

I was determined they would not send him back to his base that night before he had got a bath, dry clothes, food and a good sleep. My wife dried out his clothes out ready for the next morning and mothered him during his brief stay with us. We talked very little, only of his home in Belfast and his rides on his motor bike along with another chum. He was a fine lad, not at any time did he think of himself and was afraid of being a trouble to others. For our part we have been proud to have been of service and grateful to one of them who have gallantly given their lives to save our homes. God bless them.

Rowe took John to his home, Beachclose, Firelands, Bembridge. there, he met the coastguard’s wife and two children; Muriel aged 11 years old, and 10 year old David.

He told the family of the moment his plane went down:

When halfway over I decided to go back over the island, with smoke and steam coming from the engine I made ready to land. I looked over the side and saw houses in front of me. I made up my mind to crash on the shore or just in the sea.

After this incident, Haire spent a week on leave, which he spent with his sister. She worked as part of the war effort in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. He returned to duty on 4th November 1940. By this time, the Battle of Britain was officially over but ME109s and ME110s still roamed over the south-east of England.

Grave of Sergeant John Keatinge Haire

Headstone commemorating Sergeant John Keatinge Haire and his brother Sidney Sedgwick Haire, both killed during World War Two and buried in Dundonald Cemetery, Dundonald, Co. Down. Photo taken in 2018. Copyright Peter McCabe - Belfast City Cemetery Tours.

Death at Arreton Farm

On 6th November, over the Isle of Wight, Haire was again shot down, this time by a BF109. As before, he took off from RAF Tangmere. The morning had been quiet but early after saw Major Helmut Wick’s JG2 “Richthofen” Squadron bound for Southampton. RAF 602 Squadron and RAF 145 Squadron scrambled and engaged. This would be John Keatinge Haire’s last Royal Air Force sortie.

Had Haire bailed out earlier, the stricken Hurricane may have come down in the village killing many people. He remained on board long enough to steer away from houses and businesses in the village. John stayed in Hawker Hurricane V6627 too long and was too low by the time he made it onto the wing to parachute to safety. The parachute never had time to properly deploy.

Air Raid Precaution Warden George Calloway from Arreton Village watched the burning plane come down. He was one of the first to arrive at the crash site.

The young pilot and plane came down in a ploughed field near Haseley Manor, Arreton, Isle of Wight. He was alive although unconscious when a local vicar, Reverence Burbidge, arrived on the scene. He aided the airman to the best of his ability and performed a final blessing. Burbridge later wrote to Squadron Leader AH Boyd at RAF Tangmere commending the bravery of Haire and the sacrifice he made to save the lives of others.

Boyd, in turn, passed these commendations to Haire’s parents Sidney and Nora in a letter to Belfast. After his death, the Royal Air Force also sent his parents a small Air Ministry cardboard box containing:

  • 1939-45 Star with Battle of Britain Bar.
  • Air Crew Europe Star.
  • War Medal.

Sergeant John Keatinge Haire’s grave is in Section D4, Grave 102 of Dundonald Cemetery, Dundonald, Co. Down. His funeral took place on 13th November 1940.

Thanks to Simon Muggleton at Battle of Britain Memorial Website for his extensive research into Sergeant John Keatinge Haire.

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