The remarkable Dudley Johnson, the brave Cotswold soldier awarded the VC
From the Boer War to Dunkirk, this Cotswolds recipient of the Victoria Cross led a remarkable career
The attack foundered in the face of murderous enemy fire. It looked as though the planned crossing of the Sambre Oise Canal would fail as soldiers took cover 100 yards from the water. It was in such situations that men required leaders: Acting Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Graham Johnson was just such a man.
Born near Bourton-on-the-water, the picture postcard Cotswolds village that attracts coachloads by the score, Dudley Johnson would choose a military life that was at odds with the charm of the place that gave him life. The Victoria Cross, this nation’s greatest award for valour, is hard to come by. Dudley Johnson’s VC would be the most prestigious of a line-up of decorations, which included the CB (Companion of the Order of the Bath), DSO (Distinguished Service Order) & Bar, MC (Military Cross) and three times Mentioned in Despatches. But who exactly was this man?
Born in February 1884, the son of former Army officer Captain William Johnson and his wife Rosina Arnott, Dudley would grow up in a large family, with seven brothers and one sister. He was born at Rockcliffe, close to Upper Slaughter, and in 1891 the family moved to Fernbank at Oddington. He was educated at Bradfield College, in Berkshire, a private school established in 1850. Notable Old Bradfeldians include not just Dudley Johnson and five of his brothers, but many other military figures, including an Admiral of the Fleet, a Marshal of the RAF, and a British Army General. For a young man contemplating a military career, this was clearly no bad alma mater.
In 1901, by which time Johnson
was aged 17, he embarked on a military career. He served as a Second Lieutenant with the Wiltshire Militia in the Boer War, during which he was deployed to St Helena, to guard Boer POWS (the volcanic island had previously been the final place of exile of Napoleon Bonaparte). Johnson was subsequently awarded a regular commission when he transferred to the South Wales Borderers in 1903.
Johnson found himself serving with his infantry battalion in China when WW1 commenced in August 1914. Later that year (November 5/6, 1914), he was awarded the first of his two DSOS, for actions in the defeat of the German garrison at Tsing-tao. Six months later he was in action again facing the Turks at Gallipoli (1915), where he was wounded on April 25, on ‘S Beach’, during the landings at Cape Helles, part of the allied invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula by British, French, Australian and New Zealand forces.
By 1917 he was serving on the Western Front, and in early 1918 he was appointed as an acting Lieutenant Colonel to command the 2nd Battalion The Royal Sussex Regiment. Johnson would be wounded a second time, this time on the Somme, on May 27, 1918. He was awarded the MC in January 1918 and a second DSO for actions at Pontruet (France) in September 1918.
The war was entering its end-game, but Johnson’s brush with destiny was also approaching. He was aged 34 when the actions occurred that led to him receiving the Victoria Cross. As part of the last major offensive operation on the Western Front, Johnson found himself commanding his battalion as the Allied advance reached the line of the Sambre Oise Canal in Northern France on November 4, 1918, just one week prior to the Armistice.
The battalion had been ordered to cross the canal by a lock south of Catillon but had come under intense artillery and machine gun fire, preventing any such crossing. In dire circumstances, such as these, it is the understandable instinct of men to hunker down, take cover, and await orders.
They will look for someone to inspire them, a man with an almost suicidal disregard for danger, who will lead them where they didn’t think they could go. We think of it as ‘the right stuff’, the French term it ‘elan’: maybe it was something drummed into Johnson at Bradfield. As the attack wavered and the men hesitated, it was Dudley Johnson who, armed with nothing more than his walking stick due to his recent wound having not yet healed, took command in these crucial moments, personally leading the assault on the canal. Beaten back by heavy fire, Johnson ordered the men to regroup, then led another attack, which this time carried the canal, thereby effecting a crossing. The success of the operation was due entirely to the leadership of one man, who completely disregarded his own safety to secure the battalion’s objective.
Johnson would hold various instruction and staff posts between the wars, and commanding officer appointments between 1928 and 1940. By September 1939 this country was at war for the second time in a generation. He was by then a Major General and
‘Dudley Johnson, armed with nothing more than his walking stick, personally led the assault on the canal’
General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 4th Infantry Division between 1938 and 1940. His division played a front-line role in the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) campaign in France, including the evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk.
After Dunkirk, Johnson was appointed GOC Aldershot Command and then Inspector of Infantry. He retired from active military service in 1944, aged 60, but remained regularly in uniform as Colonel of the South Wales Borderers until 1948.
In 1912 Dudley Johnson had married Marjorie Grisewood, daughter of the Rev Arthur Grisewood, who was for many years the vicar of Daylesford. The couple had three children and Marjorie died in 1950. With her loss, he would spend the last quarter-century of his life a widower.
Johnson died himself in December 1975, at the grand age of 91.
He is buried in the churchyard of Christ Church, Church Crookham, in Hampshire, where his gravestone features the badge of the South Wales Borderers (he was an Acting Lt. Col. with the S.W.B. at the time of his VC action).
Inside the church is a framed memorial to Johnson, featuring, two photographs of him, one in military uniform, and one in later life when he was a churchwarden at Christ Church (1948-68), plus a replica of his VC.
Johnson is also honoured in Bourton meanwhile, where not only does he have a new road named after him (‘Dudley Johnson Close’), but where there will also be a plaque unveiled at the village’s war memorial, at 11am on Saturday, November 10, commemorating the local lad who went on to win the VC.
Dudley Johnson’s VC, the date on the medal’s reverse is 4th November 1918, the date of the action at the Sambre Oise Canal
Memorial inside the church at Church Crookham to Dudley Johnson
The Bourton-on-thewater war memorial alongside which the plaque will be placed on November 10, 2018