Orders & Medals Society of America Forums British Medal Collecting British Medals post 1939 Soldier, Prisoner of War, Escaper, Policeman

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    D.O.B: 11th November 1918 (a date I bet he always remembered)

    Son of Brigadier Robert Johnston, C.B., D.S.O., M.C. (Ex-4th Cavalry, commanded 2nd Lancers 1922-27, retired 1936. Colonel of the 2nd Royal Lancers 1939 – 1948).

    He was educated at Wellington (Combermere dormitory) from 1931-1936.
    At the end of his time in 1936, he was School Prefect, Head of dormitory and Head of School .
    He was also a member of the Hockey XI and the 1st Rugby XV from 1934-1936, which he captained in 1936.

    After Wellington he attended Sandhurst from probably February 1937 to July 1938.
    He was nominated to Sandhurst as a King’s India Cadet, this meant that the India Office would pay his fees but in return he had to join the Indian Army. He played Rugby for the R.M.C. Sandhurst while a cadet in the position of hooker. He was awarded the Sword of Honour at Sandhurst, which is awarded to the Officer Cadet considered by the Commandant to be, overall, the best of the course. He was Senior Under Officer. He also won the Norman Medal (awarded to the top Indian Army Cadet), the prize for Military Law and the prize for German (which was probably was going to be more useful in a few years then anyone thought).

    He passed out fifth from the top of his class after the July 1938 passing out examinations and was commissioned from Sandhurst on the 25th August 1938, onto the Unattached List, Indian Army.

    He was attached to the 2nd Battalion, The Green Howards on 10th October 1938 (all newly commissioned British officers bound for the Indian Army were attached to a British regiment in India for a year to gain experience before joining their regiments) and from them on the 14th September 1939 he was appointed to the Indian Army & 2nd Royal Lancers (Gardner’s Horse).

    In June 1940 he was appointed a Military Intelligence Officer with the Intelligence Bureau of the Government of India. The Intelligence Bureau was India’s MI5 and MI6 combined and MIO’s were seconded to work with the Indian Police in difficult or disturbed areas, where they acted as Field Agents of the IB and a liaison between the Military and the Police to which end they were granted the rank of Additional Superintendent of Police. This posting may have some bearing on his future career.

    Promoted to Lieutenant on 25th November 1940.

    The regiment’s orders for mechanization as an Indian Motor Regiment were received on 18th October 1939. The regiment marched from Jullundur to Sialkot at the end of November. The regiments final mounted parade was held there on 19th December, however the regiment did not see the last of its mounts until August 1940. They mechanised slowly during 1940 but they were not armoured – they were mounted in soft skinned trucks with eventually some 2 pounder guns. They were chronically short-equipped, especially of radios, and would be even when they eventually went into action in April 1941.

    The regiment, together with the Prince Albert Victors Own Cavalry [11th Frontier Force] and 18th King Edward VII’s Own Cavalry formed Sialkot Area, later 3rd Indian Motor Brigade from July 1940, under the command of Brigadier E. W. D. Vaughan, late C. O. 2nd Lancers.

    He was an Acting Captain and Commanding H.Q. Squadron when the regiment and the brigade were mobilised for active service on the 7th January 1941. He left for Egypt commanding the regimental advance party at this time, the bulk of the regiment not leaving Sialkot until the 19th January. They sailed from Bombay on the 23rd January, arriving of Suez on the 6th February 1941. From here they entrained and travelled to El Qassassin where they found Johnston and the advance party who ferried them by lorry to El Tahag camp, where the regiment settled down to training.

    They moved to Mersa Matruh on the 8th March 1941 and started desert warfare training and orientation. This was followed by a move to El Adem, which took place over two days, the 27th & 28th March. On the 2nd April Brigadier Vaughan, commanding 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, and his three C.Os were summoned to Cyrenaica Command H.Q. at Barce and were ordered to reconnoitre positions on the Barce escarpment. However, on returning on the evening of the 3rd April plans had changed – Rommel’s fast moving offensive was the cause.

    The situation was confused. The very weak 2nd Armoured Division around El Aghelia, consisting in the main of worn out British and captured Italian tanks, had provided very little opposition to Rommel who had launched his offensive on the 24th March to retake El Aghelia. With this success Rommel executed a plan to cut across the southern desert towards Tobruk and cut off the retreat of British forces. On his route was El Mechili. The units of the Western Desert Force were confused and unable to co-ordinate due air attack crippling communications links.

    The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade (minus the 18th Cavalry who were to garrison Tobruk) were the only mobile unit available and were ordered to occupy El Mechili to provide a base for 2nd Armoured Division to fall back on and re-organise. A dump of stores being created at El Mechili for the 2nd Armoured Division to resupply itself. It was now a race to see who would get their first – 2nd Armoured Division or Rommel.

    El Mechili’s major features were a little mud fort around which a few hovels clustered and a little further away a landing ground. Italian troops had defended it at the end of January when British forces had captured it. However it was the junction of several desert routes and the well’s there were the only place for many miles where any supply of water in quantity was possible.

    An Australian anti-tank regiment and a wireless link to Cyrenaica Command H.Q. for air support demands were added to Brigadier Vaughan’s command.

    The bulk of the 2nd Lancers and the 11th P.A.V.O. Cavalry moved from El Adem via El Timmi (where Brigadier Vaughan, the three C. O.’s and the anti-tank regiment joined up) to El Mechili over the evening of the 3rd April and afternoon of the 4th April.

    By 1530 hours on the 4th El Mechili was reached and an all-round defensive position, forming a tight box with roughly 2 ½ mile long perimeter and a diameter of 1,500 yards was formed.

    The landscape of El Mechili and the local area can be described thus : 700 yards to the north of the fort a low, irregular ridge ran east to west, cut in one place by a wadi running south. The wadi splits in two 400 yards north east of the fort, one spur running due west of the fort to the wells and dumps, the other continuing south of the fort, petering out in a patch of thickish scrub slightly beyond the brigade perimeter. In places the wadi was 6 to 10 feet deep, so providing an anti-tank obstacle.

    To the south and west the landscape was flat, open, unbroken ground which to the south ran for nearly two miles, ending in a low escarpment, beyond which were salt plains.

    To the west the ground was more undulating but open , broken by a low ridge about ½ mile to the south west.

    Dominating the whole area was an isolated feature to the north west beyond the brigade’s perimeter.

    The 2nd Lancers were assigned the west face, the PAVO the east, split roughly along the line of the wadi, north to south. The R.H.Q., surrounded by H.Q. Squadron commanded by Johnston, was in the southern spur of the wadi about 200 yards south-east of the fort. Covering patrols were sent out and the troops began to dig in and settle down.

    By lunchtime on the 5th April the force under Vaughan’s command consisted of the 2nd Lancers, 11th PAVO Cavalry, 35th field squadron Bengal Sappers & Miners, 3rd Light Field Ambulance, 3rd Motor Brigade M. T. Company, RIASC, and the 2/3rd Australian Anti-Tank regiment. This last unit consisted of six troops of four Bofors each, weapons that had been captured from the Italians and which they had never fired and had no experience of, having been anti-aircraft gunners before. They were very short of ammunition and were uncertain which was armoured piercing or not.

    “A” squadron of the 18th Cavalry which had been stationed at Gadd-al-Ahmar some 30 miles to the South-East was ordered to reinforce the defences on the 6th after encountering superior enemy forces occupying Gadd-al-Ahmar. They arrived on the afternoon of the 7th.

    On the 6th April it was expected the armoured brigade and support group of the 2nd Armoured Division would arrive to give the brigade the weight and hitting power it so sadly lacked.

    Enemy activity was reported to the south and at 1100 hours a small lorried infantry attack was repulsed by the PAVO and prisoners taken. Enemy artillery had taken up position to the south and east and would be responsible for some harassing fire.

    A column set out from El Mechili that afternoon to find the 2nd Armoured Division which they almost did. What they encountered coming towards El Mechili was the Divisional Commander (General Gambier Perry) and his advanced HQ with one surviving cruiser tank. They joined up and arrived at El Mechili about 2130 hours on the 6th. The armoured brigade and support group of the 2nd Armoured Division never did arrive, having taken a different route from what was ordered.

    General Gambier Perry was a general without a command. Communications had broken down completely. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade were on their own. He left Brigadier Vaughan in command of the defence, though now under the overall command of 2nd Armoured Division. At around 1800 a German officer appeared in front of the PAVO positions and passed on a demand to surrender, which was rejected.

    Soon after dawn on the 7th the rear divisional HQ of the 2nd Armoured Division appeared and now Gambier Perry’s command consisted of 180 soft skinned vehicles. Patrols now reported enemy columns on all sides. The brigadiers requests for air-strikes met with no response. The morning and early afternoon of the 7th passed quietly enough, with a second German request to surrender again being rejected, however the brigadier expected the third request would be backed by more definite action.

    Without the armoured support expected of the 2nd Armoured Division, the offensive & defensive capability of the brigade was minimal – soft skinned vehicles, small arms and two pounders did not amount to much. Mid afternoon an Italian column tried to approach the position and were taken prisoner .

    At 1730 hours the third demand came in, signed by Rommel himself. The request rejected, a brisk bombardment was opened up which lasted an hour and a half, which registered on all the defensive positions but did little actual damage.

    At sunset sixty enemy tanks appeared to be mustering to the south of the position, suggesting that tomorrow the assault would finally come. However at 2130 hours Brigadier Vaughan was summoned to 2nd Armoured Division HQ and told that orders had been received from Cyrenaica Command H.Q. to withdraw to El Adam to the east.

    The brigade was to escort the 2nd Armoured Division HQ at first light in a rolling box formation, with the PAVO providing the right and left flank guards and 2nd Lancers bringing up the rear. Start time was 0615 hours. The one surviving cruiser tank and the 18th Cavalry squadron were to rush the guns to the east, firing as they went. The whole success depended on getting amongst the guns before it was light enough for the guns to function.

    The cruiser tank was late so with half light gone it was 0630 when the squadron of the 18th Cavalry went in mounted on trucks and after dismounting and carrying out a bayonet charge on the artillery position on Gun Ridge, taking some prisoners in the process, broke clear. The cruiser tank arrived after the squadron had advanced but gave some assistance before it was destroyed and the crew killed.

    3rd Indian Motor Brigade HQ came next at 0645 but by then all hell had broken loose with heavy shell fire from three sides. A number of the lead trucks got away but the rest turned back. On their return it was found that the reason for this break out, the 2nd Armoured Division HQ, never got even to its starting point.

    The PAVO had moved out as flank guard to the Brigade HQ and under heavy fire, dust, smoke and confusion broke out, without the rest of the main body. They continued on to El Adem.

    For those left behind the main German assault hit at 0745 from the south and south-east, nearest the positions held by H.Q. and C Squadrons, 2nd Lancers. The brigadier had been right – this was the more definite action planned, irrespective of the breakout. When the artillery fire died down German Mark III’s & IV’s rolled into the position in three waves after neutralising the Australian anti-tank guns. They did not, however, over run the position, fearing mines, but were content to dominate it until Italian infantry could move up.

    What the Germans did not know was that there were no mines as there had been no time to lay them but the defenders did not know that this was what was stopping the tanks over running the position. A high volume of small arms fire was kept up on the vision slits and hatches of the tanks, so much so that defenders had nothing left when the Italian infantry finally arrived.

    The defenders did all they could to inflict casualties on the tankers, but were hampered not having not the right equipment. The brigade was well dug in which prevented greater loss of life.

    The defenders of the R.H.Q. took part in this effort. A German tank was advancing on the wadi where the R.H.Q and the H. Q. company were sheltering. If the tank got into the wadi it would have no problem wiping them out. Captain Sproule, the Adjutant, seizing an anti-tank rifle (I suspect a Boys rifle, the only one in the regiment), dashed forward out of the wadi to a small heap of stones, closely followed by Captain Johnston with more ammunition. From this exposed spot they brought fire to bear on the tank’s tracks until, inevitably the tank picked them out and with its first burst killed Sproule outright. Johnston, very luckily, was only spattered by splinters of stones thrown up by the machine gun burst and, after playing dead, was able to get back to the squadron lines. However their action had proved decisive – the tank veered off and did not approach again.

    This was a moment in the regiment’s history. Both officers were sons of the regiment, their fathers having served together in the 4th Cavalry and later both commanded the 2nd Lancers, Sproule followed by Johnston. They had been to the same public school (Wellington) though not at the same time. Sproule was Johnstons senior by seven years but they must have known of each other most of their lives.

    For his part in the action, Johnston was recommended by his C.O., Lt-Col De Salis, for the Military Cross after the latter’s escape from captivity to Switzerland in November 1943.

    A second attempt for the 2nd Armoured Division HQ to break out was organised for 0800 to go east, however the column came under heavy machine gun and artillery fire and so turned back and surrendered.

    Three small parties of the 2nd Lancers broke out, but the bulk of the remaining forces, including Captain Johnston, were taken prisoner. Though the original objective of saving the 2nd Armoured Division failed, the stand by the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade delayed Rommels advance, buying valuable time for the 9th Australian Division to get into Tobruk and prepare its defences.

    He was sent initially to camps in Italy but with the Italian surrender in September 1943 he was moved to Germany, as with all the other POW’s who’s camps the Germans had taken control of. One of his camps in Italy was P. G. 17 in the castle at Rezzanello (near Piacenza.

    In September 1943 he, with three other officers (one being Captain Acworth, his fellow 2nd Lancers officer taken at El Mechili) escaped from Stalag VIIA (Moosburg). It was the largest prisoner of war camp in Germany and a transit camp. They hid in the interpreters block outside the main camp until nightfall and climbed out the wash house window. They got as far as the outskirts of Munich before being recaptured.

    At the beginning of 1944 he was at Oflag VA (Weinsberg) where he helped two South African officers escape by being carried out concealed in cupboards. Johnston and another officer used the same route as well. They reached Engen three days later (over 100 miles away and only 10 miles from the Swiss border) but were caught when they unexpectedly met a German patrol.

    He was eventually released from German hands at Oflag VII B (Eichstatt) on the 28th April 1945.

    He married Lt-Col C. P. Bayer’s (late C.O. 11th PAVO Cavalry, also taken PoW shortly after escaping El Mechili ) only daughter, Diana Eve Betty (born 1924) in June 1945.

    He was recommended for the Military Cross for gallantry on the 8th April 1941 at El Mechili however this was downgraded to a Mention in Despatches (London Gazette 21/1/47) in recognition of gallant and distinguished services in the field

    He also received a Mention in Despatches for his escaping activities on the recommendation of M.I.9., the escaping organisation (London Gazette 28/2/46)

    Promoted Captain 25th Aug. 1946 from Lieutenant & Temporary Major (LG 28/3/47)
    (his seniority was later retro dated to 1st July 1946 (LG 12/9/47)

    On the 29th July 1947, at 29 Military Hospital, Hanover, B. A. O. R. his wife Diana bore him a son.

    Retires from the Special List (ex Indian Army) as Captain (Honorary Major) 15th September 1948.

    I can but speculate why he joined the Kenya Police but my thinking goes like this. He had lost four years of his regular career as a Prisoner of War when many of his contemporaries had been gaining experience and promotion. The British Indian Army was ending and he possibly did not fancy a transfer to the British Army with a probably curtailed career.
    His father in law, C. P. Bayer settled in Kenya, where many British ex-Indian Army officers and civil servants had relocated after Indian independence. It would have offered a familiar world rather than a grim bomb damaged post-war England with its rationing.

    Joined the Kenya Police ?.

    Appointed Superintendent of Police 14th April 1955 (Kenya Gazette 7th June 1955)

    Naming on AGS suggests his rank was Superintendent (S. P. F. E. F. Johnston). Medals to regular Kenyan Police officers I am told just show rank, no unit.

    Commissioned in to the Regular Reserve of Officers for the Intelligence Corps from Spec. List (ex Ind. Army) to be Captain, 2nd Oct. 1954 retaining the honorary rank of Major.

    Died Nairobi, Kenya on the 22nd January, 1957, aged 38 from a Cerebral Haemorrhage and hypertension. On his death certificate was a Police Superintendent.

    His wife remarried Squadron Leader Tom James in January 1958. He served in the RAF from 28th Nov 1937 to 23rd Dec 1957 when he retired. He was still alive & living in Kenya in 1973.

    1939/45 Star
    Africa Star
    War Medal with Mention in Despatches emblem.
    Africa General Service 1902-56 one clasp Kenya (S. P. F. E. F. Johnston)

    Now I know the details of his post war career are thin. I suspect he may have been involved in the intelligence side of things, with his time as an MIO and his commission into the Intelligence Corps RARO may have been so he could have some official rank when dealing with the army, the reverse of his time in India. The WW2 medals are representative of his entitlement.

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    Dear NWFrontier,

    Thank you for posting this article. It was fascinating to read the short biography of my grandfather, Johnny Johnston. I have never been able to find much information about him, with the exception of what I have learnt from my family, and much of it is anecdotal, for example, he was captured during one of his escape attempts because he had overlooked his hairy legs whilst disguised as a nun! He also wrote beautifully; one of my most prized possessions is a scrap book of his poetry and short stories.

    I would love to know your source(s) for the information in the article, and whether you know anything else about him. Perhaps you are related to him too?

    In any event, I wanted to thank you very much for the article.

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