Florence Horsman-Hogan remembers the colourful 'matchbox armada' pilot with a wicked sense of humour
IN HIS memoirs, The Ups and Downs of a WW2 Glider Pilot, Johnny Wetherall details how he was captured by the Germans in 1944, and how well he was treated by them. While being moved around from camp to camp, he frequently ended up in very unusual circumstances.
"I had the rather hair-raising experience of being taken into a German forces canteen in a railway station packed with German soldiers and airmen, me dressed in a British army uniform with a red air- borne beret on my head."
This line sums up what is, for many, the very essence of Johnny: cool and calm in the face of adversity.
At the tender age of 17 he had joined the British army, signing up with the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and then joining the Army Air Corps.
Born John Aubrey Bruce Wetherall on February 2, 1925, in Headington, Oxfordshire, to parents Billy, a First World War veteran, and mother Grace, who worked in the Ministry of Defence, it could be said Johnny was destined for a life in the army.
On September 16, 1944, 1,425 men went to war in plywood planes. Johnny piloted a seven-tonne Horsa troop-carrying glider into Arnhem, the Netherlands. This historic mission was part of Operation Market Garden, in which troops attempted to take control of the bridge spanning the Rhine. This event went down in military history and was the subject of Cornelius Ryan's book A Bridge Too Far, published 36 years ago, and a 1977 film of the same name.
To quote the Daily Mail of 1957: "The finest hour of the men who flew the 'matchbox armada' began on September 16th, 1944. Fourteen hundred and twenty five men set out for Holland in planes made in Britain's furniture factories. Six hundred and eighty seven men came back."
The book told the true story of the doomed attempt by Allied Forces to break through German lines and secure the bridge over the Lower Rhine River in what was then occupied Holland. After spending a few days defending the landing zone for the other soldiers arriving, the troops were overrun. Johnny was hit by a bullet in the cheek and subsequently lost his right eye. He was then captured by the Germans and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp. He escaped seven months later. In his memoir he details his capture, life as a PoW and escape across Europe.
Johnny returned to Oxford following the war and worked with Morris Motors before being transferred to Dublin in 1947 when Morris opened a factory in Portobello.
He met and married his beloved Audrey in 1952, and they lived in Deansgrange with their three children, daughters Ann and Janet and son Bruce. They were to lose Bruce tragically in 1982.
Having been a great supporter of the army War Veterans' Association and friend of Leopardstown Park Hospital in Foxrock (a care facility for British ex-servicemen) for over 16 years, he and Audrey became resident there in 2006.
A true gentleman, he had the amazing ability to imbue a sense of wellbeing in all who visited, or cared for him. At 84 years old he took to the skies again in a glider. His wicked sense of humour was legendary; his oft-quoted, "Why be awkward when with a little bit of effort you can be bloody well impossible," belied his gentle nature. Johnny was far too much of a gentleman to ever be awkward. However, he could be very much an impish character. Out to dinner with family one evening, he was asked by a guest to "keep an eye" on her chair. And so he did, placing his glass eye on her chair awaiting her return.
On Friday November 2, 2012, Johnny departed this earth and embarked on the greatest flight of them all. As the Reverend John Tanner spoke his eulogy over Johnny's grave in Deansgrange cemetery, an air force plane flew overhead. And I swear that as I watched that plane, in my mind's eye I could see Johnny's face in the window, topped jauntily with his red beret, grinning happily and waving down at us. A poignant and fitting tribute to a most extraordinarily wonderful man.