Torbay man's double military record of distinction covering two wars

Commander Philip Johns

Commander Philip Johns - Credit: Submitted

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s Blue Plaques was chosen. This week: Commander Philip L Johns RN

It is not often Torbay Civic Society are asked by a member to consider a plaque to a relative but this was the case for a nephew of Commander Philip Johns RN.

The commander turned out to be an amazing star of Torbay, having achieved honours in the First World War and  then joining military intelligence (MI6) in the Second World War, and was again honoured for distinguished service.

Having researched Mr Johns, it was obvious he was a worthy recipient of a Blue Plaque at what was his home in 1934 - Ellington Court, St Luke's Road South, Torquay.

Once his nephew, another Philip, had arranged sponsorship the next stage was to visit the commander's home, accompanied by a member of the committee.

Now converted into a number of luxury apartments, we met the owner, Aston Parker, who gave his permission  for the Blue Plaque to be installed on his premises.

The placement of the plaque was important as the home was a gated community and viewing was necessary.

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Then with the town hall having agreed, Mayor Gordon Oliver and chairman of the council Mrs Jane Barsby would attend to formally assist Philip Densham unveil the plaque to his uncle, the event was agreed for July 15, 2014.

On a fine sunny day, a goodly number of people, members and public attended the event, following which we all then enjoyed refreshments in the large garden with its superb views of Torbay, all of course beyond the security gate.

Mr Densham wrote the biography for us which was specially lucky, as he was able to draw on his uncle's personal memoir notes, used earlier when producing his own autobiography.

The Blue Plaque honouring Commander Philip Johns

The Blue Plaque honouring Commander Philip Johns - Credit: Submitted

Having been born in Exeter in 1900, Mr Johns had joined the Royal Navy in July 1917 before retiring in 1922.

Then in 1939, having rejoined the Royal Navy, he served with MI6 before amazingly serving with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and later in charge of the Dutch and Belgian sections of the Special Operation Executive (SOE) or to us the so-called Churchill's Secret Army  - or Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.

Finally, at the end of the Second World War in 1946 Philip retired as Acting Commander Philip Johns RN.

With this double military record of distinction covering two wars, Commander Johns was exceptional and he now encapsulated his life and wartime service in a book titled 'Within Two Cloaks; Missions with SIS and SOE'.

His distinguished record in World War One had seen him get a British War Medal and Victory Cross and later after World War Two, he was awarded the Officer Order of Orange Medal (Netherlands), a Legion of Merit Medal (USA) and in 1948 the Croix de Guerre (from Belgium) before finally the Order of the Crown, bestowed on him by Prince Regent no less - being a special honour given only to Allied military personnel who helped Belgium through the Nazi occupation.

Commander Johns died on March 9, 1993, in Florida USA.

In discovering these many honours put additional pressure on the society, as I was aware that all embassies in London would need to be informed of what the society was about to do. 

The  Ambassador Laetitia van dem Assum responded immediately thanking the society for their commemorative plaque, followed up by the Belgium Embassy at Grosvenor Crescent who wrote to thank us for this 'excellent initiative' but confirming that due to being overwhelmed by commemorative events and an ever-reducing number of diplomats, sadly they would be unable to send someone to Devon for the unveiling. They wished us every success with our special event.

Readers may recall I have already highlighted the Blue Plaque stories of Eileen Nearne MBE and Muriel Byck, who both served in the SOE and were residents of Torquay.

Bearing in mind Commander Johns played a significant role in military intelligence and the SOE it would have been fascinating to know if he had met either lady.

Eileen alone survived the war and came Torquay where she remained a recluse until her death in 2010.

A full colour obituary commemorative pamphlet to Commander Philip Leslie Johns RN can be obtained by sending two second class stamps and an stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society,  4 Palace Avenue Business Centre, Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ1 1DE.

Torbay Civic Society's pamphlet about Commander Philip Johns 

Torbay Civic Society's pamphlet about Commander Philip Johns - Credit: Torbay Civic Society