A hum­ble hero: the last Dam­buster, Squadron Leader Ge­orge ‘Johnny’ John­son, re-cre­ates his fate­ful flights

The last sur­viv­ing Bri­tish Dam­buster, Squadron Leader Ge­orge ‘Johnny’ John­son, tells his 12-year-old ad­mirer, Oliver, about the Sec­ond World War raid that changed his­tory. Jonathan Self lis­tens in

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graph by Mark Wil­liamson

‘The first thing Oliver said when we took our leave was how much we owed to Johnny John­son and to the oth­ers

THe last Bri­tish sur­vivor of Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise, the Dam­busters raid of 1943, is my 12-year-old son Oliver’s hero. His copy of Squadron Leader Ge­orge ‘Johnny’ John­son’s mem­oir, The Last Bri­tish Dam­buster, is so well thumbed that the pages are fall­ing out. His bed­side ta­ble can’t be seen for books such as Dam­buster Crash Sites and The Dam­buster Raid: A Ger­man

View and one has to en­ter his bed­room with con­sid­er­able care to avoid be­com­ing en­tan­gled in his re-cre­ation of the at­tacks, which in­cludes nine Air­fix mod­els of Lan­caster bombers sus­pended from the ceil­ing.

If asked why he’s so fas­ci­nated by the raid, his re­sponse is that it com­bined tech­no­log­i­cal bril­liance, out­stand­ing brav­ery and ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ge­nu­ity.

Not be­ing above a bit of in­ge­nu­ity him­self, Oliver sug­gested that it would be a real feather in my jour­nal­is­tic cap if I could ob­tain an in­ter­view with Johnny —awarded an MBE in The Queen’s birth­day hon­ours this year—and, when I was suc­cess­ful, in the best tra­di­tion of the RAF, he vol­un­teered to ac­com­pany me on my mission. In fact, he more or less as­sumed com­mand, rel­e­gat­ing me to trans­port and sup­plies, while he took on in­tel­li­gence and what amounted to—given the num­ber of ques­tions he pro­posed to ask—in­ter­ro­ga­tion.

Al­though Oliver was hop­ing to learn about a wide range of sub­jects, from the use of car­rier pi­geons (to be re­leased with mes­sages tied to their legs, should a plane be downed) to the prac­ti­cal jokes played by the Squadron Leader dur­ing the war (was it true he bombed the Ital­ians with rice pud­ding?), his over­rid­ing de­sire was to hear about the events of May 16 and 17, 1943.

even now, most Bri­tish school­boys know all about the Dam­busters’ raid. They will be aware of its ob­jec­tive—to de­stroy three of Ger­many’s most vi­tal dams and thus slow down the coun­try’s weapons pro­duc­tion—and will un­der­stand how im­pos­si­ble this ap­peared to be un­til Barnes Wal­lis came up with the bounc­ing bomb that would skip across the sur­face of the wa­ter be­fore hit­ting the dam wall, sink­ing and det­o­nat­ing. They will have heard of the op­er­a­tion’s leader, Wing Com­man­der Guy Gib­son, and the intensive train­ing re­quired to have any hope of get­ting the bombers safely to the Ruhr and eder val­leys and back.

How­ever, it’s one thing to know the facts and quite an­other to hear a first-hand ac­count. Johnny was just 21 when he agreed to join the newly formed squadron for a se­cret, one-off mission. He had al­ready par­tic­i­pated in 30 oper­a­tions, ei­ther as a gun­ner or as a bomb aimer. As he told us about the ex­cite­ment of lowlevel, night fly­ing, his re­la­tion­ship with the other crew mem­bers, the brief­ings, how they had to switch planes at the last minute ow­ing to a tech­ni­cal fault, the jour­ney across europe, be­ing shot at, the smells, the noise, the cold, the nine dummy runs be­fore he was able to say ‘bombs away’ and 1,000 other tiny de­tails, the op­er­a­tion came alive to such an ex­tent that I be­gan to feel I’d lived through it my­self. Johnny may be 95, but he’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary racon­teur.

Not that he con­fined him­self to sto­ry­telling. He an­a­lysed the raid from the Ger­man and Bri­tish per­spec­tives, crit­i­cised the re­vi­sion­ists who, he pointed out, were not there and con­sid­ered the moral as­pects of hav­ing to kill civil­ians. He spoke with ad­mi­ra­tion of Group Cap­tain Leonard Cheshire, who later took over 617 Squadron, and how he’d warned the work­ers in en­emy fac­to­ries that they were about to be bombed so they could es­cape.

He dis­cussed per­sonal sac­ri­fice, fear (he was more wor­ried about let­ting his crew down than about the Nazis), the lessons to be learned from the war and whether sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions un­der­stood what sac­ri­fices had been made on their be­half. He ex­pressed great faith in to­day’s youth, who, if need be, he felt, would prove them­selves ev­ery bit as ca­pa­ble.

Johnny’s achieve­ments dur­ing the war were such that, had he done noth­ing else of note dur­ing his long life, he would still be wor­thy of adu­la­tion. How­ever, it is the years be­fore 1940, when he vol­un­teered for the RAF, and af­ter 1962, when he re­signed his com­mis­sion, that I found the most fas­ci­nat­ing.

The youngest of six chil­dren, he was born in Lin­colnshire in 1921. His fa­ther, dis­tant and iras­ci­ble, was the fore­man on a small farm—the fam­ily was ex­tremely poor. Shortly be­fore Johnny’s third birth­day, his mother died and, af­ter that, he was raised by his older sis­ter, Lena. When he was 11, he got a place at the Lord Wandsworth Agri­cul­tural Col­lege and barely seems to have gone home again.

He was work­ing as an as­sis­tant park keeper in Bas­ingstoke when war was de­clared—at that time, his am­bi­tion was to be head park keeper in one of the great Lon­don parks and to start his own fam­ily.

He re­turned to the sub­ject of fam­ily re­peat­edly. When he met his fu­ture wife, Gwyn, in 1941, it was his first in­tro­duc­tion to a close-knit, af­fec­tion­ate fam­ily en­vi­ron­ment. She and their chil­dren be­came the en­tire fo­cus of his life; he stopped op­er­a­tional fly­ing just be­fore his first child was born in 1944 and gave up any hope of pro­mo­tion a decade later by re­fus­ing a post­ing that would have meant con­stantly mov­ing.

In 1962, he re-trained as a teacher, pro­gress­ing to adult ed­u­ca­tion, first at Ramp­ton Hospi­tal and then at Balder­ton Hospi­tal, where he was in­stru­men­tal in trans­fer­ring men­tal­health pa­tients into shel­tered, com­mu­nity hous­ing long be­fore it be­came com­mon­place.

I was born 14 years af­ter the war ended and I was raised to be grate­ful. Grate­ful for the food on the ta­ble and the roof over our heads, for the fact that we lived in a free coun­try and grate­ful to the men and women who had risked and, only too of­ten, lost their lives on our be­half.

To my sur­prise, I have, with­out re­al­is­ing it, passed some of that feel­ing to Oliver, be­cause the first thing he said when we even­tu­ally took our leave was how much we owed to Johnny and to the oth­ers who weren’t as for­tu­nate. Lest we for­get.

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