The Biggs' Boys

By Ken Stofer

Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved

Biography of John Blandford Latta, DFC k/a

242 Squadron, Battle of Britain, KIA, RAF

    John Latta of Victoria, B.C., was a fisherman and owned his own troller. From January 5, 1930 to February 16, 1933 he served continuously in the 1st Bn. (16th CEF) Canadian Scottish Regiment of the Non-Permanent Active Militia of Canada.

    At age 24, in January, 1939, Latta travelled with six other Biggs' boys, Stewart Harrison, George Dewell, Frank Child, G.S. Dyke, George Welsh and G.J. Munro by train to Saint John, New Brunswick where they embarked January 13 on the Duchess of Athol, arriving Liverpool, January 18, 1939. On arrival in Liverpool Latta left for London to try for a Short Service Commission. He was successful and became an Acting Pilot Officer on probation in the General Duties Branch of the Royal Air Force, March 6, 1939 and was posted to #4 E & R Flying Training School, Brough, Yorkshire.

    On April 12, 1939, he earned his Pilot's Certificate for private flying machines, for all types of land planes and moved on to #12 Flying School on May 13, 1939. On November 6, 1939 he was posted to 242 Hurricane Fighter Squadron. At this time he was graded Pilot Officer on probation, which was confirmed in appointment on March 6, 1940. He became a Flying Officer on November 6, 1940.

     The Victoria, B.C. Daily Colonist reported on December 17, 1939: "John Latta, son of Colonel and Mrs. W.S. Latta, who left Victoria early this year for England and qualified for a short service commission in the Royal Air Force, won his wings after a short, although strenuous training period, and was one of the Canadian flying officers posted to the All-Canadian squadron recently formed. Writing to his parents John says, 'It will be an honor in days to come to have belonged to the original squadron as one of its flying officers.' The All-Canadian unit is a fighter squadron(242). John says that the majority of flying officers are fresh from training school and need a lot more training in fighter tactics before they get down to business. The commanding officer of the squadron is Squadron Leader F.M. Gobeils, Ottawa and a Royal Canadian Air Force man.

     'We all like him very much,' says the young flyer, who is one of Captain Seymour-Biggs' proteges. He also tells in his letter about the visit of Hon. T.A. Crerar, Minister of Mines and Resources, and the Canadian High Commissioner, Vincent Massey, to the squadron headquarters, and of the former's invitation to Christmas dinner in London. John also added that he had just been made parachute officer for the squadron."

    A feature article in a 1939 Liberty magazine (date and author unknown) captioned CANADIANS IN THE RAF - A thrilling look at the volunteers in the first all-Dominion Air Squadron reported ..."John B. Latta of Victoria, B.C., a commercial salmon fisher, owned his own trolling boat, but he couldn't make a living, owing to Japanese competition he says, and 'anyway, there were more exciting things in life than fishing.' His parents thought he was crazy, he states, when he determined to cut loose and go to England to enlist. But they're proud of him now."

    The following are letters Latta wrote to his brother Bill:

    June 1, 1940: "Dear Bill: still alive and kicking but pretty tired as we have been going from daylight till dark for some time now. We have been doing our best to protect the B.E.F. during their embarkation from Dunkirk, and it certainly hasn't been any picnic. The squadron bag is about thirty enemy machines now, and I have got three sure ones myself. Naturally, we haven't got off scot-free ourselves, but our losses haven't been too bad.

    The Germans seem to be throwing nearly everything they have in the way of aeroplanes at us, and so far in any of our dog fights we have been pretty badly outnumbered. Just last night about eight o'clock six of us were jumped by about thirty M.E. 109's [the german fighter] and for about 15 minutes it was pretty hot. It seemed wherever I turned my nose I just had to press the trigger and let fly. We got four of them definitely, and were lucky to get back with only one of our chaps missing. The patrol before that we managed to get on to a formation of their bombers who must have lost their fighter escort, and we were able to get at least five of them.

    It is a very awe-inspiring sight this battle that is raging over there, and practically the whole coast from Calais to Ostend seems to be in flames and although it is a tragic business, we haven't lost heart yet. The channel is just a mass of ships of all descriptions from fishing smacks to battleships, and they are certainly doing a wonderful piece of work in getting the boys back.

    I haven't had to bail out yet, and the only serious damage I have had to a machine was a bullet in the undercarriage, which disrupted the hydraulic system and jammed the wheel about half down. There was nothing I could do about it and had to land that way when I got back. However, I didn't hurt myself although the machine was pretty well written off.

    We have been going steady for ten days now, and are expecting to be relieved shortly for a rest cure up North. I certainly won't be sorry to see it come.

    Will have to close now as we will be up in half an hour, so the best for now.

    Please don't worry too much, as I probably shall wiggle through somehow.

   August 1, 1940: Everything going on very quietly. Have had no action at all this past week. Our days are all much the same; up at 4 a.m.(we sleep at our dispersal station) at readiness till 7:30. Usually sent away on two or more trips daily, patrolling a convoy or on interception duty. Some rest between times during the day. All hands on duty at dusk and finally 'hit the hay' about 11 p.m.

    The aircraft intercepted often turns out to be a friendly machine. Yesterday three of us were returning from convoy patrol and had just crossed the coastline at about 3,000 feet when we were ordered by the ground control to go up to 10,000 feet to look out for enemy aircraft approaching the coast.

   We hung about for 15 minutes or so until we were ordered down and found out, as we had suspected, that we had been chasing ourselves all the time. The visibility was bad at the time, and the Observer Corps had not been able to identify us. This often happens and always gives us a big laugh at the expense of the control people.

    The only excitement I have had recently was when three of us were on convoy patrol. There were thick banks of clouds around (when) we spotted a Jerry some miles away and took after him. We chased him into thick cloud about 7,000 feet, and by the time I got through I could see nothing of Jerry or the other two boys, so I hightailed it back to the convoy. I was not back five minutes and flying alone, when another Jerry bomber appeared about a mile away. I went after him and he made for the clouds. Just before he reached them, I pumped about half my ammunition into him, and the last I saw of him his starboard engine was ablaze. I lost him in the clouds and mist but I don't think he would ever see Germany again.

   August 11, 1940 Very little of note happening up our way of late, apart from a little fun over a convoy about four days ago. It was very cloudy at the time and the clouds were low down, about 1,000 feet. We had no sooner arrived on patrol when a Heinkel 111 nipped out of the clouds over the convoy, dropped a bomb, which missed by about 100 yards, then nipped back in again. He carried out this procedure several times, just appearing for a matter of seconds each time. If he was over the convoy he would drop a bomb. He dropped four in all but all pretty wide. At last one of our boys (there were three of us), knocked out one of his engines and he fell alongside the convoy. It was great sport while it lasted (much like a duck hunt back home) as everybody had at least three cracks at him before he finally came down.

   August 24, 1940 We really haven't been doing much in the way of encounters lately. Most of the fun is going on farther south. However, we have been spending a good deal of time in the air, and when on the ground always stay close to our machines. The Jerries often send the odd machine up our way during the day, mostly singletons, especially if it is cloudy, and this provides us with a bit of excitement tracking them down, or trying to.

    Three of us jumped one yesterday, a Dornier 215, and I guess he never knew what hit him. All three caught him at the same time, one from above, one from dead astern, and myself from below. We only put a five second burst each into him, but he practically blew up. I must have hit his loaded bomb rack. The only damage to one of our fellows was a dint in his wing from a piece of flying debris.

    Four days ago Jerry sneaked up on our airdrome through the clouds and let go his stick of bombs (10 in all) but luckily he was a bit out and they fell in a field about 200 yards outside the drome, doing no damage. The fact that he got away with it made us feel pretty sore, but it might have been worse.

    The boys down south are certainly doing a good job of work, and it is evident the scores of enemy planes brought down are well underestimated.

    However, they still keep coming in their hundreds, so there is no doubt Jerry must have a colossal reserve of aircraft. How long he can furnish pilots and crews at the present rate of destruction is the question. Am in the pink and hope the family are keeping the old spirits up.

   September 8, 1940 We have been kept on the job pretty steadily for the past two weeks and any spare hours we get are spent sleeping as a rule. We spend most of our time on patrol around London during the day. Leave "home" first thing in the A.M., spend the day at a more southern aerodrome and return again in the evening. The squadron has knocked down 22 Jerries in the past week for the loss of only one pilot, which is pretty fortunate going.

    We knocked down 10 of them day before yesterday when we ran into one of the big formations they have been sending over. I have no idea how many there were, but I imagine between 100 and 150, only 30 to 50 of them were bombers and the rest fighters. There was a squadron of Spitfires working on them when we and a squadron of Czecks in Hurricanes arrived.

    Our first section of three got through to the bombers okay, on the first attack and managed to dispose of a couple, but the rest of us were too heavily engaged by fighters to get through in any kind of formation. The Jerry fighters were keeping well above the bomber formation, so after about a five minute dog fight in which I got in two short bursts at different Jerries without having time to observe any effect, I managed to get away for a bit and below the bombers formation where it was comparatively quiet. I was able to carry out an attack of about 10 seconds then on the bombers without being disturbed and managed to get one before an M.E. 110 appeared on my tail and I had to beetle off.

     They (the 110's), are twin-engine fighters and pretty dangerous as they pack two cannon besides four machine guns. He managed to get a few shots into my tail plane and rudder, but not enough to impair the flying qualities of the machine to any extent, so I was able to get back home okay. It was all very thrilling and really a marvellous sight as the battle covered about 10 square miles with the center of it being the bomber formations, all in all I imagine about 200 machines engaged. Our C.O., I believe I told you, has two artificial legs (Douglas Bader), had a couple of bullets through his cockpit and on getting down the first thing he looked at were his wooden legs. He was very disappointed when he found he had no bullet holes in them. What pleased the boys most was that among the victims were two M.E. 109 (fighters) with yellow noses.

    These machines are supposed to belong to a crack squadron whose leader (Galland) has quite an impressive bag, so we are hoping their "old man" was one of them. The Germans did quite a considerable amount of damage on this raid, I believe, but are losing a tremendous number of machines and must be noticing their losses of pilots and crews. It is cloudy today as it was yesterday, so there has been very little doing and we have been getting a little rest although we can't stray far from our machines.

    It has just gone dinner time now, so I must break off and get some before a "flap" begins.

   September 24, 1940 I am sorry I have been so long in getting a letter off to you, but now that things show signs of slowing down a bit I will do better. Since last writing we have been in about six big 'do's', our big day being September 15, when the squadron shot down 21 Jerries in two fights. The first scrap was a bit of a cinch as we ran into a bomber formation of about 20 with only about six of a fighter escort. The Jerry fighters promptly beat it and I don't blame them as there was a wing of us (about 50 machines). Anyway I doubt if any of the bombers got away as one pretty well had to get in line and wait one's turn for a shot. We are travelling round four or five squadrons at a time now with our C.O. leading the wing, so our squadron gets first crack at anything going. The C.O. won the D.S.O. last week, mainly for the part he played in the September 15 'do'. In the second argument that day we had more competition as we ran into Jerry before we got up to his height and this time there were between 200 and 300 fighters protecting about 50 bombers. This time instead of attacking we were pounced on by the M.E. 109's who had about 5,000 feet advantage on us, so it was pretty uncomfortable for a while. I was able to knock one down definitely and damaged another that got away in a cloud. The squadron got 10 out of that lot and we didn't lose a man although two of the boys had to bale out but landed without getting hurt. I collected the odd bullet in my wings, but they did no damage.

    We have been operating with one squadron of Czecks and another of Poles. They are really wonderful fighters as they like nothing better than to get a crack at Jerry and the more of him there are the better they like it. They pretty well all have relatives whom they have had no word from since the beginning of the war, so you can imagine they are not particularly fond of the Germans.

    I am sorry I cannot give you more detailed accounts of these scraps we get into, but things happen so fast in them that it is difficult to retain any impression of what goes on. In dog fights this is particularly so, and I think a good deal of one's reactions are instinctive as a number of times I have managed to get on to the tail of a Jerry and afterwards have had no clear recollection of just how it was done.

    I had a letter from dad a while back saying he wouldn't let too much of this stuff get into the papers and I would appreciate it very much if you would keep it out, as eventually it all comes back here where it sounds a bit silly. Don't worry too much as I feel sure things will quiet down from now on as the weather is beginning to break and we will get a rest.

     Lots of love, "John"

    An article appearing in a Vancouver paper September 26, 1940 reported: "More than 100 German raiders destroyed by Dominion men. Six times in the last fortnight, the Royal Canadian Air Force Squadron and the Royal Air Force's All-Canadian squadron have helped save London from air attack, it was disclosed in an Air Ministry statement, which credited the two units with destroying more than 100 German raiders...they met the raiders and chased them over the houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey to Hammersmith. One pilot officer, who was once a salmon fisherman in British Columbia, [LATTA], shot down one of the six bombers which the squadron destroyed."

    Latta writes to his brother: October 13, 1940 "Dear Bill: Still okay, as you can see and having a very restful day. Weather foggy down south. Actually we haven't had an engagement since the 27th, so it may settle down to a restful winter, that is if we stay up here. The boys south of London are still getting plenty to do, but evidently have not needed our help for the past two weeks as we have only been over London twice since the 27th and both times failed to find any excitement, however, we are still kept standing by and that is why I find it so hard to get a letter away. That keyed-up feeling does not seem to allow one to concentrate on writing. I was very fortunate in this last 'do' we had on the 27th September, we ran into 40 or 50 M.E.109's and when the smoke of battle sort of cleared away I found I had added two more planes to my bag. Both the poor blighters practically blew up in mid air. The gas tanks on the 109's are situated right behind the pilot and I must have got incendiary ammunition into those tanks both times. The poor sods didn't have chance of getting out.

    I collected a burst or so along the bottom of my plane, but apart from knocking a few bits off one wing and a few pieces out of my tail plane not much damage was done.

    Well I must close now or dinner will be over, so cheerio for the present. Lots of love, "John"

    In early November, 1940 John Blandford Latta was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and he received the following letter from the then Premier of the Province of British Columbia, the Hon. T.D. Pattullo:

   "Dear Pilot Officer Latta, May I congratulate you on your being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

    Your father and mother must be very proud of you as indeed are all the people of British Columbia.

    We shall all be pulling for you to come through safely.

    With all good wishes, I am, Very sincerely yours,

     Signed T.D. Pattullo

   On a mission January 12, 1941, despite heavy anti-aircraft fire and attempts of Messerschmidts to intercept, 242 squadron pilots, Latta from Victoria, McKnight from Calgary and Brown from Toronto, tore out of the clouds to within a few feet of the ground, sending bullets ripping into the panic-stricken Huns at the rate of hundreds a minute. Suddenly McKnight's plane was seen to stagger and a few seconds later the young ace baled out. That was the last seen of Latta by his pals.

    Andy Southall whose story appears in this book, wrote in a letter to his parents: "John Latta was one of the best pilots in the squadron and was popular with everyone. The last time I saw him he was smiling as usual while preparing to take off on the patrol from which he did not return."

    John Blandford Latta was reported killed in a flying action on January 12, 1941.

    The Vancouver Daily Province of January 13, 1941 reported John Latta missing in action, as follows: "A Victoria flying ace with the Royal Air force, Pilot Officer John Blandford Latta, D.F.C., is missing as a result of Sunday's daylight operations against the Nazis.

    "His father, Col. W.S. Latta, D.S.O., M.C., inspector for the B.C. Land Settlement Board, has received the cablegram from the Air Ministry.

    "It is believed here he did not return from the raid in which R.A.F. planes machine-gunned German trenches on the French coast. Latta was a member of the All-Canadian squadron in the R.A.F [242] and this squadron played a part in the Sunday attack.

    "The Air Ministry informed Col. Latta that further inquiries are being made through the International Red Cross, in view of the possibility he may have been taken prisoner.

    "Three planes failed to return from Sunday's day raids. Pilot Officer Latta has a host of friends in Victoria where he spent his youth. He went to England in 1939 to join the R.A.F. and has distinguished himself on numerous occasions since war broke out.

    "When he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross a few months ago, the citation read: 'he displayed great coolness in the midst of fierce combat.'

    "Writing to his parents, John said he did not know why he had got the decoration because 'the others did more than I did.'

    "As part of the Canadian squadron he took part in the momentous daylight air battles over London in September. The day the R.A.F. planes shot down 185 machines his squadron bagged at least 20. At that time he had eight to his own credit definitely and shared in others.

    "On one occasion he landed his own plane practically in tatters after shooting down two enemy machines. The tail assembly was almost shot away, the fuselage badly riddled and the undercarriage gone, but he brought his plane down to a perfect 'belly landing' instead of bailing out. This may have been the feat for which he received the D.F.C."

    On February 6, 1941, Latta's squadron buddy Flight Lieutenant Hugh Tamblyn wrote from Royal Air Force station Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, to John's mother as follows:

    "Dear Mrs. Latta: Nothing which can be said will ease your sorrow but I should like you to know that we in the squadron held John in high regard and were shocked at his failure to return, tho proud that he was last seen engaged with the enemy.

    "No need to tell you what a fine man he was but I can tell you he was a good fighter and we can ill afford to lose men with such qualities. Please accept our deepest sympathy.

    "Perhaps you would like to know that the shortbread sent by Mrs. Ball and cigarettes by Mrs. Aitken have been distributed amongst the squadron.

    "Should you desire information I shall be pleased to give you all possible.

    "I am yours sincerely," (signed Hugh Tamblyn)

    [Two months after writing this letter Flight Lieutenant Hugh Tamblyn, D.F.C., was killed in action].

    An Air Ministry letter dated February 22, 1941 to the father of John Latta, read as follows: "Sir I am directed to refer to a letter from this department dated the 15th January, 1941, and to inform you that it is regretted that no further news has been received of your son, Flying Officer John Blandford Latta, D.F.C. since he was reported missing on the 12th January, 1941.

    "Your son was leading a section on patrol off the French coast between Calais and Ostend at 2 p.m. on the 12th January, 1941, when enemy fighters were encountered. Your son's aircraft was lost sight of during the engagement which ensued, and as he failed to return to the base it is feared that he was shot down as a result of enemy action.

    "I am to add an expression of the department's sincere sympathy with you and your great anxiety, and to assure you that should any further news be received it will be immediately communicated to you.

    "I am, sir, Your obedient servant"

   From Buckingham Palace to Lt. Col. W.S. Latta D.S.O. and Mrs. Latta: "The Queen and I offer you our heartfelt sympathy in your great sorrow.

    "We pray that your country's gratitude for a life so nobly given in its service may bring you some measure of consolation.

    (signed George R.I.)

Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved

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