An hour with Johnny CHECKETTS
Program that traces the career of the Spitfire pilot

By clicking on "This is your Life" you will be able to access the show that traces the career of Johnny Checketts through testimonials from friends and veterans of 485 Squadron. This report, which dates back to 1990, is in English but you can see this hero with a human dimension in all its simplicity with sensitivity to skin. A palpable emotion ....... a real hero.






THE EXCAVATION OF 485 SQUADRON (RNZAF) SPITFIRE EN572

 In the autumn of 2013, Alain Obee, a member of the Somme Aviation 39-45 Association, aided by Alain Boutté, met two people who had witnessed the wartime crash of an RAF fighter in the village of Aigneville. Alain Obee carried a wartime police record of the incident and one of the witnesses – 92-year-old Mr Bonvarlet – had very accurate memories of the air combat and the crash that followed. It was the Spitfire piloted by Sqn Ldr John Milne Checketts. During the late afternoon of Monday, September 6, 1943, Mr Bonvarlet was working in the fields around Aigneville when an aerial dogfight began overhead. He saw a RAF fighter crash a few hundred metres away. The pilot had bailed out, landing near the adjacent Corroy Wood. The aeroplane, which was already in flames as it fell, exploded on contact with the ground and continued to burn.

JOHNNY CHECKETTS, THE PILOT
February 20th 1912 - April 21st 2006

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73 Years later, the Spitfire’s Engine Returns to Johnny Checketts’ Birthplace

 Thanks to the good will of a handful of men, this Spitfire engine is on the roaod to be delivered to the birth place of its pilot, 73 years after it had crashed on French soil (arrival due to January 29 2017).





The engine gets dressed for the journey

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Before closing..........

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Pierre Ben and the motor ready for departure

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On the way to New Zealand ...
A 2-month boat trip

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CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CRASH

On September 6, 1943, the Spitfires of 485 Squadron were tasked with protecting Martin B-26 Marauders sent to bomb the marshalling yard at Serqueux in Seine-Maritime. Suddenly, 20 Luftwaffe Fw 190 fighters flying high above the Allied formation dived down to attack. Squadron Leader Johnny Checketts shot down one of the opponents, but was then attacked by several German fighters. His Spitfire IX, EN572, was hit and caught fire. Though burned and wounded, Checketts was able to release his cockpit canopy and bail-out. As soon as he landed, he was helped by a local resident, Mr Desgardins, who took him on his bicycle to a hiding place in Corroy wood. The next day Checketts was handed over to members of the Bordeaux Loupiac escape network who, after a long journey strewn with pitfalls, helped him return to England. The last stage of Checketts’ home run was organised in Brittany by members of the Réseau d'Evasion Vannetais escape network. They arranged for him to stay at the Lavenant family’s farm – codenamed "L' Echelle de foin" – in the village of Saindo in Theix, before crossing the Channel back to Britain.



Johnny Checketts’ Amazing Escape

 In the late afternoon of September 6, 1943, the Spitfire of Squadron Leader Johnny Checketts (EN572) crashed into flames before the eyes of André Bonvarlet who was working with horses in his field at Aigneville.
He saw the pilot bail-out and open his parachute. He landed in the open plain near Tours-en-Vimeu, near the Feuquières road, leading to a place called Le Gros Borne. The open location offers no hiding place and, nearby, farm workers watched as they loaded a cart with hay. They saw a cyclist, 19-year-old Robert Desgardin, approaching the pilot.
Desgardin said they must act very quickly because German soldiers were stationed in the vicinity. Indeed, a Commandant had his headquarters at the Mabille Castle in Aigneville, and a garrison of soldiers was located at the nearby village of Acheux-en-Vimeu, just four kilometres from where the pilot had landed.
Robert Desgardin did not hesitate, with the wounded and burnt pilot sat precariously upon the luggage carrier of Desgardin’s bicycle, they set off downhill towards Tours en Vimeu, looking for a hiding place. Initially, to keep the pilot from German eyes, he took Checketts to Corroy Wood on the right of the road from Feuquières to Tours en Vimeu. Although the hiding place was a simple bush, it was unlikely to be discovered. The heroic cyclist then continued on alone to find his uncle, Edouard Deloziere, and told him what had happened.

First shots of bucket

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The engine ....... at 3m 50 depth

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Firewall partition

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Johnny Checketts in 1952

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Johnny Checketts
and Circa

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The engine and hub before cleaning and sanding

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Alu burnt visible on a wall of the pit

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Intercooler

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Detail of some pieces

Engine Mount - Tank Belt - Piston Connecting Rod- Base Windshield

Hub before sanding

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Hub and motor before cleaning, sanding, assembly, varnishing and ........ packaging

Article published in October 2015

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Article published in November 2016

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Mr Desgardins to the place where he took Johnny Checketts ..... on his bike

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M Desgardins age 19

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Marie Lavenant and J. Checketts in 1990

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Johnny Checketts
and his wife's grave

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Article published in October 2015

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Half-machine gun and fairing of 20mm gun found during the 3rd recognition.

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A third search took place on September 13, 2015. This time the results were more promising. The farmer, Mr. Boulnois, kindly helped Pierre Ben and Ghislain Lobel to remove the first 50 centimetres of earth where the metal the detector sounded. However, as the echo signal was weak, they decided to postpone their search for a week and return with better equipment.



However, their spirits were lifted as the second metre of earth was excavated. This time more aircraft parts – and, further down, the complete Merlin engine – were revealed. The engine still had its exhaust manifold present on one side, with the quadruple hub, intercooler and tank shield plate all being found in good condition. A multitude of fuselage parts, plus the bottom of the cockpit windscreen, tank straps, and engine mount, were found at a depth of 3.5 metres.

AN OUTSTANDING CHARACTER

Born in Invercargill on February 20,1912, John Checketts studied at the Invercargill South School and Southland Technical College. Working as a motor mechanic, he was 28 years old when he began his RNZAF pilot training in October 1940. He gained his Pilot Officer wings in June 1941 and was sent to England. After converting to Spitfires, he joined 485 Squadron that November.
On February 12, 1942, the squadron took part in the famous but unsuccessful Channel Dash attack against the German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which left Brest harbour to seek shelter in a German port. On May 4, 1942, Checketts was shot down and had to bail-out into the Channel before being recovered by the Royal Navy. That June, he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and posted to ‘Sailor’ Malan’s Central Gunnery School at RAF Sutton Bridge before joining 611 Squadron at Biggin Hill in January 1943. He was tasked with leading 611 Squadron’s ‘A’ Flight in April 1943 he shot down a Fw 190 on May 30 south-east of Trouville.

Promoted to Squadron Leader in July, he took command of 485 Squadron at Biggin Hill. He destroyed four enemy fighters that month, a Fw 190 on the 15th, two more on the 27th and a Bf 109G on the 31st. While leading his unit during an operation to St Pol on August 9, 1943, his section encountered eight Bf 109s, claiming six shot down. Checketts was credited with downing three of the fighters while also damaging one of the two that managed to escape. For this action, he was awarded an immediate DFC.


J. Checketts with 485 Squadron pilots
(2nd from the right)

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The book about J. Checketts

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Two RNZAF aces
Johnny Checketts and Alan Deere

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While German troops searched for fugitive, the French escape-assistance system sprang into action. At nightfall, a man entered the wood and met the aviator. Together, they walked to a farm, where they collected bikes and cycled towards Vismes-au-Mont.
Upon arriving at the home of 26-year-old Marcel Lecointe and his wife Charlotte,
Checketts met Pilot Officer EA Haddock, a Typhoon pilot from 181 Squadron who had been shot down on July 15, 1943.
Checketts’ burns were treated by Doctor Delabarre who, on several occasions, cycled from Oisemont – about 12 kilometres away – to secretly attend his wounds. Also, a man known only under the pseudonym of "the architect" brought him civilian clothes to wear.
A couple of weeks later, Checketts left Vismes-au-Mont for Abbeville aboard a gasifier-powered pick-up truck. It was driven by the 20-year-old son of Édouard Delozière, accompanied by Marcel Lecointe. From the road to Hesdin, they took the fork leading to Boufflers, where Checketts was delivered to the front door of Gourlay Manor. Here he was helped by Madame Tellier, a peacetime solicitor and wartime member of the Organisation Civile et Militaire (OCM), a group of army officers and civil servants who secretly provided intelligence information to the Allies
Checketts stayed there for three days before the ground floor of the building was requisitioned by the Germans. Then he was taken by car to a French policeman’s home in Auxi-Le-Chateau. The driver spoke fluent English, French and German and turned to be a Typhoon pilot who had been shot down six months earlier! He said he had stayed in France to help the Resistance and worked for the Germans as a driver!
Among the fugitives at the French policeman's home was Libby, a Norwegian pilot shot down five months earlier and Terry Kearins, downed on July 15.

From there Checketts and Kearins were taken to the coastal town of Plomodiern for a short while, where they met two American airmen that were in hiding inside the chapel of Menez-Hom; before moving the short distance to Camaret, near the post of Brest. Again, for unknown reasons, Libby did not travel with them on that part of the trip.
Checketts and Kearins joined other allied aviators hidden in Mr Batany's bakery. From there, either alone or in pairs, they had to take a canoe out to a waiting fishing boat called "Le Suzanne-René". Frequent German patrols along the quays made the whole operation extremely risky, and bad weather hampered the Channel crossing. Finally, in the middle of the afternoon, two Typhoons appeared overhead to shepherd the fishing boat across the water to a British Royal Navy base. The aircrew were then transported to Penzance, Cornwall, to start their rehabilitation.


The Participants
M. and Mme Lecointe, arrested and deported, they died a few years after their return to France.
Mr. Edouard Delozière, who died in 1977.
Mr. Jean Delozière, who died in 2009.
Mrs Tellier, who died in 1974.
Mrs Marie Meyer, who died in 1945.
Mlle Agnès de Nanteuil, arrested by the Gestapo in March 1944, she died from wounds received during a forced march in August 1944 (She was inside a train en route to the concentration camps and died at Paray Le Monial)
Mlle Marie Lavenant, the eldest daughter of the family, decorated with the Military Medal after war and with the Légion d’honneur in 2004. She passed away on July 20th 2016.
M Robert Desgardin, died in 2016.

This article has been written with the help of Mr
Jean-Luc Van Keirsbilck,  Marie Van Belle's son in law (Marie Lavenant' s married name), who provided important details about the writing of this article, notably by indicating the real name of the boat that helped J. Checketts to return to England (this one is often mistakenly called "Suzette" instead of Suzanne-René)



While providing high cover for a group of bombers attacking Amiens on August 19, 1943, the squadron was intercepted by a group of Fw 190 and Bf 109s. In the battle that followed he claimed on enemy aircraft as probably destroyed and another as damaged.
On September 6, 1943, Checketts himself was shot down in the circumstances explained at the beginning of this page.
Evacuated by the resistance, Checketts met a fellow 485 Squadron pilot, Sergeant Kearins, who had been shot down on July 15th. The two men joined a group of eleven others who crossed the Channel aboard a fishing boat on October 21, 1943.
Upon his return, Johnny Checketts was assigned to the Central Gunnery School Fighter Wing as an instructor. In April 1944, he took command of No. 1 Squadron equipped with Hawker Typhoons but after six weeks with this unit, he was promoted to Wing Commander and took charge of 142 Wing, flying Spitfires from Horne. He later moved with the Wing to Westhampnett, Merston and finally, on September 26, 1944, Manston. His last operational sortie took him over Arnhem in September 1944, where he claimed his last victory – a shared ‘kill’ – with one of his squadron leaders.
In 1945 he became Wing Commander - Tactics at Central Fighter Establishment. His decorations included the DFC awarded on August 13, 1943, the DSO (December 1943) the US Silver Star (August 1944), and the Polish Cross of Valour (April 1945). He was credited 14.5 victories,three probables and eleven damaged  during his combat career.  .

After the war, he returned to the RNZAF, and became Station Commander at Wigram, Fiji and Taieri before retiring in 1982. He died on April 21, 2006 aged 94.



Terry Kearins

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The next day, the same car, but with another driver took the three evaders to Amiens station where, chaperoned from a distance by a young woman they were not allowed to speak to, they took a train to Paris.

After arriving at Paris Gare du Nord, they were all supposed to take an underground line to the Gare de Lyon before boarding a train to Switzerland. However, during their journey, a counter-order was received, sending them Sens, south-east of Paris. There, for unknown reasons, Libby, the Norwegian, was separated from the group.
Checketts and Kearins continued their journey to Joigny, where they were met and welcomed by Gabrielle and Louise Meyer.
A few days later a man ‘from Paris’ informed them that they would not go to Switzerland, but straight back to England.
They were sent back to Paris where they re-joined Libby and all three fugitives caught the train to Vannes via Orleans, Tours and Nantes. They were met by 21-year-old Agnès de la Barre de Nanteuil, who took them to the Lavenant family farm near Vannes in Le Saindo en Theix. They stayed there for a week before taking a train to Quimper where another woman was waiting to meet them. She took them to the Café Nargeot.






Agnès de La Barre de Nanteuil arrested by the Gestapo, wounded, she died at 22 while she was in a train en route to the concentration camps
Code Name "Claude"

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Soeren Kjell Liby (or Libby)

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The first on-site investigation of the crash site took place in December 2013, but the field was already sown with wheat. When a second search took place in November 2014, the plot was then covered in rapeseed. The search team found some small pieces of Aluminium, enough to confirm the general area of the crash zone, though the height of the crop prevented the precise impact spot from being determined.

Mr Bonvalet witness of the crash

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The following Saturday, September 19, they were joined by Etienne Boulnois, nephew of the farmer and friend of Pierre Ben. Etienne owned a mechanical digger which made the task considerably easier. Beginning the excavation, a few items were found in the first metre of earth. These were little more than a few pieces of fire-damaged Aluminium, which made the researchers somewhat pessimistic about finding anything more substantial underground.

Marie Lavenant, Johnny and Marie's mother

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485 Squadron Spitfire, OU#H EN 572, first rank fifth position

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French Brevet Militaire

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English page with the precious help of our friend THOMAS ALLETT

The Medals of John MILNE CHECKETTS
DFC-DSO-US SILVER STAR-POLISH CROSS OF VALOUR-ADC
And...... many others

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THE MOTOR ARRIVES AT CHRISTCHURCH
FEBRUARY 22nd 2017

THE REPORT OF THE FRENCH TV FR3 PICARDIE
ABOUT THE EXCAVATION OF THE MOTOR

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"Suzanne-René" the 11 meters long
fishing boat

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A model of the "Suzanne-Réné"
Ex Voto in the church of Molène Island

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THE STAR TALKS ABOUT THE ARRIVAL OF
THE MOTOR IN CHRISTCHURH
(NEWS OF MARCH 2nd 2017)
With the crew of J.M Balcon, Joseph Morvan and Alain Marchand, the "Suzanne-René" under the nose of the Germans, transported 18 airmen to Newlyn: 14 Americans and 4 English (Louis Calvez "La Presqu'île de Crozon").

The engine on display since March 24th 2017

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Chris and Mary Jane CHECKETTS,
Johnny' s children.

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A family meeting at the museum to celebrate the arrival of the engine

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THE ENGINE IS NOW ON DISPLAY AT WIGRAM AIR MUSEUM, NEW ZEALAND

Detail of the panel in front of the motor at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.

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'Courtesy of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand'
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