Spitfire MK356

Spitfire ML214 and Johnny Plagis

Spitfire Mk IX MK356's colour scheme (based on Spitfire Mk IX ML214 '5J-K' of No. 126 Squadron)

At 1500 hours on Monday 14th August 1944, Squadron Leader ‘Johnny’ Plagis, the Commanding Officer of No 126 (Persian Gulf) Squadron, roared into the air in his Spitfire from Harrowbeer airfield near Plymouth for a ‘Rodeo’ mission over France. He was leading 11 Spitfire Mk IXs, each of which was carrying a ‘drop tank’ containing extra petrol, endowing them with about 3 hours flight time. A ‘Rodeo’ was a low-level, squadron-size, fighter sweep over occupied territory, with no specific target in mind, looking for targets of opportunity and helping to ensure the air superiority that the Allied forces now enjoyed over Europe, at least in daylight. For Plagis and three other pilots in the formation, this was their second mission of the day; they had already flown an uneventful ‘Ramrod’ operation that morning, escorting Lancaster bombers to attack shipping near Brest. On this sortie the Harrowbeer Wing Leader, Wing Commander Harold ‘Birdy’ Bird-Wilson, had decided to come along for the ride, as he often did, in his personal Spitfire MK782 which wore his initials ‘HB-W’ as its code letters.

Spitfire Mk IXc ML214 ‘5J-K’

126 Sqn logo Johnny Plagis was flying his personal Spitfire Mk IXc ML214, coded ‘5J-K’, which he had chosen as his own when he took command of the squadron in July. Built at the Castle Bromwich ‘shadow’ Spitfire factory in early 1944, ML214 was delivered to 126 Squadron on 7th May 1944, fresh from the factory via a Maintenance Unit where it was fitted with its operational equipment.

For Operation OVERLORD, the ‘D-Day’ invasion of Europe in June 1944, all Allied aircraft, including the Spitfires of 126 Squadron, were painted with black and white invasion stripes on the upper and lower surfaces of the wings and around the rear fuselage for identification purposes. In early July 1944 orders were issued to remove the upper surface invasion stripes and so ML214 now wore the stripes only on its lower surfaces. For some reason, a number of the UK-based Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) Spitfire squadrons, notably those in No 10 Group, painted non-standard narrower stripes on their aircraft (nine inches wide instead of the standard eighteen) and this was how the 126 Squadron Spitfires were marked.

Plagis named all of his personal Spitfires after his sister ‘Kay’ (Katrina). ML214 bore her name on the port side above two scrolls which, on 14th August 1944, carried 14 swastikas - his kill markings. Plagis was about to add to his score.

Sixteenth Kill

As the squadron swept the area south of Paris they chanced upon 10 Luftwaffe fighter aircraft, a mixture of Messerschmitt Bf109s and Focke-Wulf FW190s that were about to land at an airfield. The enemy aircraft had their wheels and flaps down and were at about 500 to 800 feet, at slow speed in the circuit, when the 126 Squadron Spitfires ‘bounced’ them. The outcome was swift, decisive, merciless and total. Six of the enemy aircraft were destroyed, one was probably destroyed and three were damaged.

Johnny Plagis tore into the enemy and his skill, aggression and ruthlessness as a fighter pilot, honed in action since 1942, was evident to all as he blasted two enemy aircraft out of the sky and seriously damaged another. His tally was actually exceeded by Pilot Officer Riseley who claimed two enemy aircraft destroyed and one probable, whilst Flying Officer Flinterman destroyed two more.

The Spitfires then strafed the enemy airfield with their remaining ammunition, hitting a Dornier Do217 bomber parked on the ground and damaging a staff car which ran off the road and hit a tree.

Plagis led the 10 Spitfires (one had returned early with technical problems) safely back to Harrowbeer, where they landed at 1800. This was to be Johnny Plagis’ last air-to-air kill of the war, but he had become the top-scoring Rhodesian fighter ace with 16 kills (plus three probably destroyed and 6 damaged).

Ioannis ‘Johnny’ Agorastos Plagis

Ioannis Agorastos Plagis was born to Greek immigrant parents in Hartley, Southern Rhodesia, on 10th March 1919.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he tried to enlist with the Rhodesian Air Force, but he was rejected because, officially, he held Greek citizenship. The RAF, however, had no such foibles and readily accepted him for pilot training in 1940.

He began his training in Rhodesia in October 1940 and, on completion of his initial flying training, he was sent to Great Britain in the spring of 1941 to attend the Spitfire Operational Conversion Unit, No 58 OTU, at Grangemouth, Scotland. His Greek names were something of a ‘mouthful’ and he was quickly christened ‘Johnny’ upon his arrival in the UK, a name which stuck for the rest of his life.

When his operational conversion training was complete, Plagis was classified as “Above Average” in all his flying assessments. He was posted to fly Spitfires operationally with 65 Squadron in late June 1941, but was moved, appropriately, to 266 (Rhodesia) Squadron the following month.

To Malta

Johnny Plagis 185 Sqn When 266 Squadron began converting to Hawker Typhoons in January 1942, Plagis volunteered to fly a Spitfire off the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle as part of the delivery of the first 15 Spitfires to the beleaguered island of Malta. On 7th March 1942 (three days before his 23rd birthday) he flew Spitfire Mk Vb AB346, ‘GN-K’, fitted with a 90-gallon ‘slipper’ tank, off the deck of the Eagle from a position off Algiers, 650 miles from Malta, during Operation Spotter. Guided by several Bristol Blenheims, all fifteen Spitfires reached Malta safely.

The arrival of the first Spitfires on Malta turned out to be literally in the nick of time as the Island’s defensive force had almost ceased to exist. Sixty of the Island’s overall total of 75 aircraft had been destroyed within the previous five-week period. The arrival of the 15 Spitfires therefore doubled the effective defensive force, as well as providing a fighter that could match the opposition. Assigned to the newly-reformed 249 Squadron, Plagis found himself thrown into a veritable cauldron of action, vastly outnumbered in the air and at great risk from the continuous Axis bombing raids when on the ground.

Malta Spitfire Ace

Plagis scored the bulk of his wartime victories during the next three months in the savage mass dogfights raging over Malta. In his first combat, only three days after arriving on the Island, Plagis claimed a ‘probable’ against a German Bf109. During the next fortnight he damaged another Bf109 and a Junkers Ju88 bomber.

On 20th March his good friend and fellow Rhodesian, Pilot Officer Doug Leggo, was killed during a dogfight off Malta. Having been hit by fire from a Bf109, Leggo baled out, but a 109 swooped on him and either fired at him or its slipstream collapsed the parachute and Leggo fell to his death. Johnny Plagis was distraught and blamed himself for the death of his friend, as he had tried to persuade him not to fly when he thought that he was not fit to do so. Plagis vowed to “shoot down ten” for Doug, “if it takes me a lifetime.”

On 25th March he claimed his first kill against a Ju87 ‘Stuka’ dive bomber, and also damaged another Ju87. On 1st April, Plagis became the first Spitfire ace on Malta when he destroyed four enemy aircraft in one day (two Ju88s, a Bf109 and a Ju87). On 1st May, Plagis was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) the citation for which stated: “…With complete indifference to the odds against him, he presses home his attacks with skill and courage… He has set an outstanding example.”

185 Squadron Malta

In the ‘target rich’ environment of Malta, Plagis’s score increased to 8 confirmed kills. Then in early June, along with two other experienced Malta combat pilots – Squadron Leader Tony Barton and Flight Lieutenant Jimmy Peck – he was flown from Malta to Gibraltar in a twin-engine Lockheed Hudson. At Gibraltar the three of them embarked on HMS Eagle with orders to lead 32 Spitfires off the carrier to Malta as part of Operation Style. This was the only occasion that Malta veterans led a delivery of reinforcement aircraft. Plagis took off from the carrier for the second time in his life on 3rd June 1942. The 32 Spitfires launched in 4 groups of 8 aircraft each, but only 28 made it to Malta. It proved to be the only time that the Luftwaffe managed to intercept a delivery of reinforcement aircraft; Jimmy Peck’s group bore the brunt of an attack by German Bf109s and four of the Spitfires in his formation were shot down.

When they landed on Malta, Plagis became a flight commander on 185 Squadron, which was formed with the new Spitfires and pilots. He had first arrived on the Island slightly less than three months earlier as a Pilot Officer, had been promoted to Flying Officer and was now already an acting Flight Lieutenant and flight commander, such was the attrition rate amongst pilots and the value of combat experience.

Breaking Point

John Plagis with DFC Three days later, on 6th June, Plagis destroyed two Reggiane Re.2001 Falco II (Falcon) fighters of the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force). The next day he scored his final kill on Malta against a German Bf109. His score now stood at 11 confirmed destroyed (including 2 shared destroyed ‘half kills’), plus 3 probably destroyed and 5½ damaged.

The stresses, strains and deprivations of life on Malta, the intense combats and the constant bombardment had by now taken its toll on Plagis’ health and he was deemed to be suffering from a complete physical and mental break down. He was flown to Gibraltar in a Whitley bomber, and from there, aboard a Sunderland flying boat, back to the UK, where he was found to be suffering from malnutrition, scabies and extreme fatigue. His efforts, which had brought him to breaking point, were recognised by the award of a Bar to his DFC on 3rd July 1942.

Spitfire Instructor

Once restored to health and cleared to fly again, Plagis became an instructor and a flight commander on No 53 OTU, which at the time was based at RAF Llandow, near Cardiff. Here Plagis could pass his hard-earned operational experience on to new Spitfire pilots. He was now classified as an “Exceptional” pilot. Flying as an instructor in wartime was almost as dangerous as operational flying; the chief risks being from the weather and aircraft whose best days were behind them. As Plagis approached the end of his tour of duty as an instructor at 53 OTU, his friend and fellow OTU instructor, Sqn Ldr Tony Barton DFC and Bar, was killed in a flying accident on 4th April 1943. Tony Barton was an ex Battle of Britain pilot who had served with Johnny Plagis in Malta where they had become firm friends. The last ever photograph of Tony Barton was taken by Johnny Plagis on the day that his friend died. He must have felt his loss keenly.

64 Squadron

Plagis returned to operational flying in April 1943 with a posting as a flight commander on No 64 Squadron, which at the time was based at Ayr in Scotland, flying the Spitfire Mk Vb. The squadron moved back to the 11 Group Sector in the south east of England to operate, rather nomadically, at various airfields (Friston, Gravesend and West Malling) during August and September 1943, before settling down for a while as part of the Coltishall Wing with 12 Group in Norfolk. From here the squadron operated on numerous fighter sweep and bomber escort missions.

On 24th September 1943, Plagis was flying his Spitfire Mk Vb BL734, ‘SH-B’, on ‘Ramrod 22’, providing close escort to the second ‘box’ of 72 Martin Marauder twin-engine medium bombers bombing Evreux airfield. The bombing proved very accurate and Evreux was suitably ‘pasted’. Then on the way back, not far from Rouen, a single Luftwaffe Bf 109G came in behind the squadron and - somewhat recklessly in the circumstances - tried to attack the bombers. Plagis promptly took his section down after the German. He gave the Bf109 four good bursts and saw it crash in a fireball on the edge of a large wood. Two months later, during a similar mission on 24th November, Plagis destroyed a FW190 over Ouest Den Helder, Holland.

The ‘Peter John’ Link

Plagis and Cooper From late 1943, Plagis’ fellow flight commander on 64 Squadron was Flight Lieutenant Tony Cooper, whose story features on pages 18-21 of this magazine. Cooper and Plagis served together during the build up to D-Day, Operation OVERLORD itself and the operations that followed the successful invasion, moving with the squadron to the temporary airfield at Deanland, near Lewes in Sussex, in April 1944, and then to Harrowbeer later in June. They became good friends, spending off-duty time together, sometimes playing snooker or poker (Plagis was apparently fiercely competitive and liked to win). Tony Cooper told the author, “Johnny Plagis was very much the fighter pilot and I liked and respected him enormously”. When Cooper’s son Peter John was christened in 1944, Plagis became his godfather.

The link that will exist for several years from now between the two colours schemes of the BBMF’s D-Day veteran Spitfires, AB910 and MK356, is a strange and unplanned coincidence. Spitfire Mk Vb AB910 will appear as Tony Cooper’s 64 Squadron aircraft named ‘PeterJohn 1’ after his new-born son; MK356 will represent the Spitfire flown by ‘Johnny’ Plagis’, the baby’s godfather!

126 Squadron

In July 1944, Plagis was promoted to Squadron Leader and given command of the reformed No 126 Squadron, part of the Harrowbeer Spitfire Wing, which was now equipped with Spitfire Mk IXs, including the one he chose as his personal aircraft, ML214 ‘5J-K’. The squadron flew a mixture of bomber escort and fighter sweep missions, roaming over enemy occupied France, and also strafed ground targets, especially rail transport and military vehicles.

On 29th July, the Harrowbeer Wing Spitfires carried out an unusual pre-planned low-level bombing raid against a German Army headquarters and garrison in the small Brittany village of Scrignac. The raid was led by Wing Commander ‘Birdy’ Bird-Wilson, with Plagis leading 126 Squadron and his friend Tony Cooper leading 64 Squadron. Each Spitfire carried a 500-lb bomb under the centre of the fuselage. Intelligence indicated that all of the French civilian inhabitants of the village had been evacuated and only the German garrison remained. The raid appeared a total success, with the German HQ and much of the village destroyed and only the church left standing amongst the rubble. This apparent success was reported in the British newspapers the next day and Plagis was interviewed on the BBC radio nine o’clock news to give the post script of the raid. (Years later, after the war, amidst rumours regarding double agents, it came to light that there had been some misinformation and, in fact, the local population had not been evacuated from Scrignac. Tragically, 23 civilians including women and children had been killed in the raid).

A sortie led by Plagis on 1st August, escorting Mosquitos to bomb fuel storage tanks in France, is typical of the missions flown by 126 squadron at this time. The Mosquito’s bombing was inaccurate, but the Spitfires strafed the fuel tanks and set them on fire. They then strafed 30-40 railway trucks and set them on fire, before subsequently attacking several military vehicles and 20-30 German soldiers caught in the open. In the midst of all this, Wing Commander ‘Birdy’ Bird-Wilson shot down and destroyed a Bf109 south of the town of Angers.

Bradwell Bay

Plagis with Officers At the end of August 1944, the Harrowbeer Wing, including126 Squadron, relocated to Bradwell Bay in Essex, from where it continued its bomber escort and fighter sweep operations, under the leadership of Johnny Plagis, but now roaming over Belgium and Holland. On 3rd September, ‘Birdy’ Bird-Wilson led the Squadron with Plagis taking a Section Leader’s role, escorting Lancasters on a daylight bombing mission against Venlo airfield. The bombing was reported as being excellent, with the airfield “completely covered”. One Lancaster was hit by flak and seen to go down vertically. Another Lancaster was escorted back to England by a section of the Spitfires after it was hit by flak which knocked out the two starboard engines. Flying on only the port engines, the bomber lost height down to 500 feet over the sea, but made a safe landing at an airfield near Ipswich.

On 13th September when Plagis took off on a mission from Bradwell Bay in his Spitfire ML214 ‘K’, the tail wheel fell off. He completed the 2 hour and 50 minute mission, escorting 100 Halifax bombers on a daylight raid against Osnabruck in Germany, and made an excellent landing with no further damage to his aircraft or himself. Indeed, the aircraft was flying again 2 days later.

‘Bridge Too Far’

On 17th and 18th September 126 Squadron escorted the Paratroop-dropping C-47 Dakotas and glider-towing Halifaxes and Stirlings of the British First Airborne Division on Operation Market Garden, the famous Arnhem battle immortalised in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’. Plagis did not fly on the squadron’s initial Market Garden missions, which were reported in the squadron records as “uneventful”, but ML214 was involved, being flown on these escort missions by Flight Lieutenant John Garden. Plagis flew his aircraft on two subsequent back-up missions escorting Dakotas on 25th and 26th September.

Distinguished Service Order

‘Johnny’ Plagis flew his final sortie in his Spitfire ‘K’, ML214, on 7th October 1944 (after that he flew Spitfire NH295 '5J-E'). On 31st October he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), the citation for which read: “Since being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross this Officer has participated in very many sorties, during which much damage has been inflicted on the enemy. Shipping, radio stations, oil storage tanks, power plants and other installations have been amongst the targets attacked. On one occasion, he led a small formation of aircraft against a much superior force of enemy fighters. In the engagement 5 enemy aircraft were shot down, 2 of them by Squadron Leader Plagis. This officer is a brave and resourceful leader whose example has proved a rare source of inspiration. He has destroyed 16 hostile aircraft.” After the war had ended, Plagis was also awarded the Dutch Flying Cross.

Mustangs

In December 1944, 126 Squadron converted to Mustang IIIs and moved to Bentwaters. Plagis was promoted to Acting Wing Commander and became the Wing Leader. He led the Bentwaters Mustang wing on numerous escort and attack missions. His last operation was flown on 27th March 1945, providing escort to the Mosquitos on Operation Carthage for the famous precision bombing raid on the ‘Shellhus’ Gestapo HQ in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Post War

Plagis with meteor jet After the war had ended, Plagis returned to Rhodesia where he took command of the RAF’s Kualo base at Bulawayo until October 1945. He then returned to Britain and took command of 234 Squadron, flying Gloster Meteor jet fighters, from July to September 1946, and then commanded 266 Squadron, also flying Meteors, until December 1947. Plagis left the RAF in May 1948 and returned to Rhodesia, where he was much feted and had an avenue named after him in Rhodesia’s capital city, Salisbury, where he set up his own business. He married and had four children.

Tragic End

Tragically, in 1974, Johnny Plagis DSO DFC and Bar, a war hero and fighter ace with 16 confirmed victories, who had served in two theatres of operation with distinction, and who had earned the respect and admiration of his men, committed suicide by shooting himself. He was probably the victim of what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. It was a sad end for a man no longer able to bear the psychological scars that the war had left on him; he was just as much a casualty of war as his many friends and comrades who died in battle.

Images:

Header Image: Spitfire MK356 with invasion stripes (Copyright © Richard Paver).

Image 1: 126 Squadron logo.

Image 2: Johnny Plagis DFC in a 185 Squadron Spitfire Mk Vb in Malta, June 1942.

Image 3: Johnny Plagis in 1942 with his Rhodesian pilot’s ‘wings’ and DFC medal ribbon with ‘Bar’.

Image 4: John Plagis (L) with Tony Cooper (R) (via Tony Cooper).

Image 5: (L to R) Squadron Leader Johnny Plagis (OC126) Squadron Leader John MacKenzie (OC64) and Wing Commander Birdy Bird-Wilson (CO Harrowbeer Wing) (via Tony Cooper).

Image 6: John Plagis with Meteor jet post war (via Tony Cooper).

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