John, or Snapper as his fellow pilots called him, or Jack as his family knew him, was born on the 14th August 1913 at Naitmuk, Victoria. He became a jackeroo and after the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the RAAF in Melbourne on the 13th October 1940. Snapper followed the path of many Spitfire pilots and completed his training at No.53 OTU at RAF Heston in England in October 1941. He was then posted to 457 Squadron “B” Flight. Snapper was a man of many names as apparently his ground crew nicknamed him “Nervous,” though probably not to his face, as he impressed all in the UK with his whip cracking displays.
At that stage of the war, 457 Squadron was based on the Isle of Man at Andreas. The Squadron had had a slow introduction to active operations. It had only been declared operational on the 7th August 1941, and it then escorted convoys and patrolled over the seas to Britain’s west, but much of its time was devoted to training. The Squadron effectively became an operational training unit (OTU), preparing Spitfire pilots for other squadrons, particularly 452 Squadron RAAF, that were more actively engaged.
With the imminent return of 452 Squadron RAAF to Australia, 457 Squadron was redeployed for more active service with 11 Group at Redhill, just south of London, on the 22nd March 1942. For the next two months it conducted patrols over southeast England and the English Channel, and escorted bombing raids and conducted sweeps to engage enemy aircraft in the skies above occupied France and Belgium.
Under orders to return to Australia, 457 Squadron withdrew from operations in Britain on the 28th May 1942. It sailed for home on the 21st June, arrived in Melbourne on the 13th August 1942, and re-assembled at Richmond on the 6th September 1942. The Squadron then began refresher training at Richmond with a motley collection of aircraft, its Spitfires having being commandeered in transit by the Royal Air Force in the Middle East.
457 Squadron returned to front-line service on the 20th January 1943. It became part of No.1 Fighter Wing defending Darwin and was initially based at Batchelor in the Northern Territory. The Squadron relocated to Livingstone on the 31st January 1943. While there, it was re-equipped with an updated version of the Spitfire, imported from Britain, which arrived in a grey and green camouflage scheme. This led to the Squadron nicknaming itself the “Grey Nurse Squadron” and adorning its aircraft with a distinctive shark’s mouth on the nose.
After Snapper’s tour in the Darwin area, where he had one shared confirmed victory in 1943, he was posted to No.55 OBU (Operational base Unit) at Birdum and then to RAAF Parkes as an instructor. Snapper was discharged on the 2nd April 1946 from the Air and Ground Radio School.
At some stage after he returned to Australia, Snapper married a reporter who worked for a Sydney newspaper. After the War, he managed an earthmoving business and was well known throughout western NSW.
The photo was taken at Livingstone Field near Darwin in October 1943 and shows Snapper in his Spitfire. The two fitters are Andy Anderson and Bill Conant. Bill, with his foot on the wing, painted the “Pegasus” and all the other motiffs for the Squadron.
Snapper gets a mention in Darwin Spitfires by Anthony Cooper:
Meanwhile, 457’s Blue Section were vectored northward: Rex Watson and Bill Gregory were ordered to climb to 3,000 feet to orbit over Cape Gambier, while Snapper Newton and Rod Jenkins were to make 32,000 feet over Cape Fourcroy – respectively over the south-east and south-west corners of Bathurst Island. The controller had positioned them there to cut off two of the usual Japanese withdrawal routes, but both caught the same enemy machine. Newton could not coax his engine to go above 30,000 feet, so he told Jenkins to go ahead without him. Gregory saw the enemy first, at 31,000 feet just to the south of him, heading outbound. He and Rex Jackson closed slowly in from the side, flying at 190 knots IAS (307, TAS) on a course that was almost parallel with that of the enemy machine. Watson in contrast to Newton, found that his aircraft was performing well, for he kept up with the Japanese machine even with his drop tank on. Once he got ahead of it, he turned in for a beam attack, but the Ki.46 was going so fast that he quickly found himself having to reverse his turn and roll in behind it. From there he fired deliberately three times, repositioning himself before each burst. Despite the failure of one of his canons, he saw hits: puffs of smoke came from its port engine and there were strikes all over its fuselage and rear glasshouse. Watson then pulled out to one side to let his No. 2 attack, and from this broader viewing angle he could see that he had “riddled” the enemy machine with his gunfire. Although his own wingman, Bill Gregory, could not catch up, Rod Jenkins had meanwhile seen the Ki.46 go past, and joined the pursuit. He now came in from directly astern with a good overtaking speed and kept firing right in to 50 metres, when the enemy machine suddenly blew up right in front of him, spraying oil all over his windscreen. The flaming aircraft disintegrated, its broken wreckage plunging away vertically to crash onto Bathurst Island, 16 kilometres north-west of the Roman Catholic Mission. This confirmed kill was shared between Jenkins and Rex Watson. Jack Newton, held back by his poorly performing engine, had to content himself with firing from extreme range and watching the others get the kill. (Web master: It is interesting to note that Snapper is referred to Jack as well as Snapper in this extract.)
Bruce Read and David Hamilton.
Updated by Vince Conant.
The Spitfire Association