Our last Dam­buster

At 21, bomb aimer Johnny John­son lay in the nose of a Lan­caster to play his part in one of the most dar­ing raids of the Sec­ond World War. Now 95, and the sole Bri­tish sur­vivor, he tells Nigel Richardson about that night. Pho­to­graph by Joel Red­man

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - NEWS -

Ninety-five-year-old Johnny John­son re­calls one of the Sec­ond World War’s most au­da­cious acts. By Nigel Richardson

FOR JOHNNY JOHN­SON, the Dam­busters raid was just an­other day at the of­fice. Af­ter reach­ing its tar­get and drop­ping its load, his Lan­caster bomber landed back at RAF Scamp­ton at 3.23am on 17 May, 1943. On the evening of the same day, a Mon­day, John­son caught the bus into Lin­coln with his new wife, Gwyn, to go to the pic­tures.

On the bus, peo­ple were al­ready chat­ter­ing about the in­ge­nious moon­lit at­tack on Ger­many’s in­dus­trial heart­land, news of which had bro­ken on the BBC. He re­calls the con­ver­sa­tion with Gwyn. ‘I said, “I wish they’d bloody shut up” – or words to that ef­fect. She said, “Why?” “Be­cause I was on that raid.” “Why didn’t you tell me?!”’

Nearly 75 years later, Johnny John­son re­mains self-ef­fac­ing about his role in one of the most sig­nif­i­cant and res­o­nant events in Bri­tain’s wartime his­tory. At 95 years old (he was 21 at the time of the raid), he is one of only two sur­viv­ing crew mem­bers of Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise, the top-se­cret mis­sion to breach dams and flood mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries in the Ruhr val­ley (the other sur­vivor, Fred Suther­land, is Cana­dian and lives in Al­berta). John­son was the bomb aimer on one of only two planes to reach the Sorpe Dam, which was at­tacked not by means of Barnes Wal­lis’s fa­mous bounc­ing bomb tech­nique but by an ‘in­ert’ drop of a sin­gle-bomb pay­load from di­rectly above. As John­son will ex­plain to me, this in­volved an al­most im­pos­si­ble ma­noeu­vre that he im­pro­vised from his eyrie in the Lan­caster’s Per­spex nose bub­ble, which he called his ‘of­fice’.

We meet in his flat in a re­tire­ment vil­lage near Bris­tol, where ev­ery­one greets him as Johnny and the staff re­fer to him, with af­fec­tion and pride, as ‘our lo­cal celebrity’. Dressed in a grey suit with pur­ple 617 Squadron tie, John­son is a com­pact, neat man with a ready smile. As the last Bri­tish Dam­buster, he has ac­quired a tal­is­manic aura and can ex­pect to be much feted in 2018, which marks not only the cen­te­nary of the found­ing of the RAF but the 75th an­niver­sary of the Dam­busters raid. ‘I en­joy meet­ing peo­ple,’ he

says. ‘If they’re in­ter­ested I’ll talk and it’s a nos­tal­gia trip for me, so it works both ways.’

On the walls of his liv­ing room a cou­ple of an­tique Chi­nese prints lose the fight for promi­nence with Dam­busters pho­to­graphs and me­men­tos. On a ta­ble, a 1:72 scale model of the Avro Lan­caster John­son flew that night, with the call sign AJ-T, has suf­fered worse dam­age than the real one, which landed with noth­ing more se­ri­ous than a shot-out star­board tyre. He loved the ‘mu­sic’ of the Lanc’s four Rolls-royce Mer­lin en­gines, he says, but has paid for it since: the deaf­ness he suf­fers is due in part to be­ing sub­jected to the close-quar­ters din of those en­gines over 50 com­bat mis­sions. But he is ar­tic­u­late and im­pas­sioned, and re­mem­bers the five-and-a-half hours that changed his life with clar­ity: ‘I will never for­get it and it will al­ways raise the same, how can I put it? Joy, ul­ti­mately at be­ing able to do the job prop­erly.’

Lis­ten­ing to John­son, it quickly be­comes ap­par­ent that his en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with the Dam­busters is some­thing more than a nos­tal­gia trip. He is also stand­ing in and stand­ing up for all the oth­ers, now dead, who wore RAF blue and flew night af­ter night down the throat of the en­emy. For, like all vet­er­ans of Bomber Com­mand, he feels ag­grieved that their con­tri­bu­tion to the war has still not been ad­e­quately recog­nised.

At the time, the tar­get­ing of res­i­den­tial ar­eas was a source of of­fi­cial dis­quiet, to the point that Churchill later dis­avowed the fire­bomb­ing of Ger­man cities, and it re­mains a con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject. John­son says he is ‘not a Churchill man’ and has no time for the crit­ics of Bomber Com­mand’s wartime role. ‘I have a pet hate of what I call “rel­a­tive” his­to­ri­ans,’ he says. ‘I ask them two questions: “Were you there?” and “Were you aware of the cir­cum­stances at the time?” The an­swer is no, so keep your bloody mouth shut.’

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ger­man civil­ians were killed by bombs dropped by Al­lied air­craft, and it wasn’t un­til 2012 that Bomber Com­mand re­ceived its own me­mo­rial (in Lon­don’s Green Park) to the 55,573 air crew who were killed in the war. In place of a proper medal, vet­er­ans have re­ceived only a clasp. ‘All I’m ask­ing for is a Bomber Com­mand medal,’ says John­son. ‘They [BC vet­er­ans] have ab­so­lutely no recog­ni­tion apart from this mis­er­able clasp. Mine’s still in the box and there it will stay un­til we get some­thing bet­ter.’

There is a sep­a­rate but re­lated con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the fail­ure of the Gov­ern­ment to award John­son a knight­hood de­spite high-pro­file cam­paigns and pe­ti­tions (as an NCO he re­ceived the Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Medal im­me­di­ately af­ter Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise, and in 2017 an MBE). But John­son de­clines the in­vi­ta­tion to sound off. In­stead he says sim­ply, ‘On the mat­ter of the knight­hood it didn’t even en­ter my head.’ And this, I re­alise, is a typ­i­cally mod­est re­ac­tion. He quickly cor­rects any­one who refers to him as the ‘last Dam­buster’ (‘I have a col­league in Canada’), and laments the lack of recog­ni­tion for the ground crew (‘They get a lit­tle bit left out’).

John­son’s ori­gins are as hum­ble as can be. He was born Ge­orge Leonard John­son in Lin­colnshire in 1921, the sixth child of a farm labourer who had lit­tle time for him (his mother died when he was three). As he ac­knowl­edges in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, his fel­low crew in the Dam­busters squadron, 617, be­came the fam­ily he never re­ally had. On the day we meet, he is shoot­ing a pro­mo­tional film for the RAF Benev­o­lent Fund and in­tro­duces him­self as ‘the bomb aimer on the crew of Flt Lt Joe Mccarthy…’; Mccarthy be­ing the Amer­i­can pi­lot of AJ-T, whose me­mory he ev­i­dently wor­ships.

When he vol­un­teered to join the RAF in June 1940, at the age of 18 (be­com­ing ‘Johnny’ overnight), John­son had been work­ing as an as­sis­tant park-keeper in Bas­ingstoke. He trained as a pi­lot (‘I man­aged to go solo but my land­ings weren’t quite what they should have been’) but flew op­er­a­tionally as a gun­ner and then bomb aimer. In De­cem­ber 1942 he joined Mccarthy’s crew on 97 Squadron, based at Wood­hall Spa in Lin­colnshire, and flew 19 mis­sions over en­emy ter­ri­tor y between 21 De­cem­ber and 22 March 1943, without suf­fer­ing a scratch. Late in March 1943 Mccarthy’s crew was one of 22 cho­sen by Wing Com­man­der Guy Gib­son to train for a top-se­cret, one-off raid from RAF Scamp­ton: 617 Squadron was born. John­son wan­gled leave to marry Gwyn in Torquay, and over the fol­low­ing six weeks the squadron prac­tised the two el­e­ments that would be cru­cial to the suc­cess of the raid: low-level fly­ing (akin to driv­ing a car at speed through a tun­nel with only a few inches’ clearance ei­ther side) and the pin­point re­lease of bombs across wa­ter so they ‘bounced’ in the man­ner of skim­ming stones be­fore slam­ming into a tar­get.

As they prac­tised, the crews of 617 Squadron were in the dark about the real tar­gets of the op­er­a­tion. It wasn’t un­til the pre-raid brief­ing, con-

John­son has no time for crit­ics. ‘Were they there?’ No. ‘So they should keep their mouth shut’

ducted by Gib­son and the in­ven­tor of the bounc­ing bomb, Barnes Wal­lis, on the af­ter­noon of 16 May, that they learnt the truth. Mccarthy’s crew were one of five planes as­signed to at­tack the Sorpe Dam. John­son re­mem­bers the sense of ‘dis­ap­point­ment’ when they were told they would have to fly above the top of the dam and re­lease the bomb di­rectly onto it .‘ This meant we wouldn’t be us­ing the bomb­ing tech­nique that we had been prac­tis­ing for those six weeks,’ he says.

The raid on the Sorpe is the un­fash­ion­able part of the Dam­busters story (the 1955 film, with Michael Red­grave as Wal­lis and Richard Todd as Gib­son, fo­cuses on the de­struc­tion of the Möhne and Eder dams). But in terms of hu­man en­deav­our it was ex­tra­or­di­nary. ‘When we found the Sorpe, that was when the trou­ble re­ally started – try­ing to get the run in right,’ says John­son. Mccarthy had to start his ap­proach on the west side of the dam but the church spire in Langscheid vil­lage was in the way. This meant he had to fly over the spire then tip the Lan­caster into a steep dive of sev­eral hun­dred feet be­fore lev­el­ling out to de­liver the bomb. Fur­ther­more, on the east side of the dam hills rose to a height of around 1,000ft, which re­quired Mccarthy to pull the Lan­caster into a sharp climb on the other side. All this had to be done in less than 10 sec­onds.

It was John­son’s job, ly­ing in his bomb aimer’s ‘of­fice’, to de­cide if and when to drop the bomb. They did six or seven runs but still John­son wasn’t sat­is­fied. The rear gun­ner, in par­tic­u­lar, was grow­ing fran­tic. At this point some – per­haps most – peo­ple in John­son’s po­si­tion would have set­tled for an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of ac­cu­racy. He con­tin­ued to call ‘dummy run’, mean­ing they had to go round again, un­til, on the tenth at­tempt, plane and tar­get were aligned to his sat­is­fac­tion and he pressed the but­ton. ‘We were down to 30ft and when I said, “Bomb gone,” “Thank Christ!” came from the rear tur­ret. And that was that.’

Mccarthy ’s crew were one of only two planes to reach the Sorpe Dam and drop their bomb on it, and the struc­ture was not breached, in con­trast to the Möhne and the Eder. Of the 19 air­craft that took off on the raid, three re­turned without hit­ting the tar­get and eight were shot down or crashed. Fifty-three of the 133 air crew were killed. ‘A tremen­dous loss for one squadron for one night’s raid,’ John­son says, ad­ding that the drink­ing af­ter­wards was in a spirit of ‘com­mis­er­a­tion’ rather than tri­umph. ‘I went back to the Sergeants’ Mess for a meal and there were so many empty chairs it wasn’t true. And the WAAF wait­resses, many of them were in tears.’ Nev­er­the­less, and de­spite the re­vi­sion­ist anal­y­ses of some his­to­ri­ans, Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise was, he be­lieves, worth it. ‘It proved to Hitler that what they thought was im­preg­nable the Royal Air Force could get to and de­stroy. It did de­lay some of their am­mu­ni­tion pro­duc­tion – not as much as we’d have liked but cer­tainly some of it – but I think the most im­por­tant re­sult was the morale ef­fect it had on the peo­ple in this coun­try.’

John­son (re­luc­tantly) ceased op­er­a­tional fly­ing in April 1944, re­mained in the RAF af­ter the war ended and re­tired in 1962 with the rank of Squadron Leader. He then worked as a teacher, in­clud­ing at Ramp­ton high-se­cu­rity psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal in Not­ting­hamshire. Gwyn died in 2005. Their chil­dren, grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren smile out from umpteen framed pho­to­graphs on a side ta­ble in his liv­ing room.

John­son’s com­mit­ment to the RAF, both its past and present, re­mains in­tense. He sol­diers un­com­plain­ingly through nu­mer­ous takes for videos for both the Benev­o­lent Fund (‘They do won­der­ful work,’ he says) and the April Fools Club. Named af­ter the date on which the RAF was formed – 1 April, 1918 – the lat­ter is a group of busi­ness­men ded­i­cated to help­ing EX-RAF per­son­nel find em­ploy­ment in civilian life and rais­ing money for the Benev­o­lent Fund, which sup­ports peo­ple suf­fer­ing from trauma, dis­abil­ity, be­reave­ment and fi­nan­cial wor­ries.

The AFC is cur­rently try­ing to raise £1 mil­lion to pro­vide a new wing for the RAFBF’S Princess Ma­rina House, respite ac­com­mo­da­tion on the south coast for both serv­ing and for­mer RAF per­son­nel who are suf­fer­ing from ei­ther men­tal or phys­i­cal ail­ments, and the video John­son shoots while I’m there is played at a fundraiser in Lon­don a few days later. ‘The whole room was spell­bound,’ Tim My­cock, the chair of the AFC’S fundrais­ing com­mit­tee, tells me af­ter­wards. ‘Hav­ing Johnny in­volved is just the most amaz­ing thing.’

The defin­ing event of John­son’s life was un­suc­cess­ful in terms of the mil­i­tary ob­jec­tive: the dam was not breached. But John­son is clear in his mind on what Barnes Wal­lis said at the brief­ing be­fore they took off: it would take five or six bombs to do the trick. He and his crew could have done no more, which is what he means when he says they did the job prop­erly. ‘It was al­ways the same on any bomb­ing raid – once we started the bomb­ing run my job was to con­cen­trate on the bomb sight and the aim­ing point. That was what I was there for – to drop those bombs as near as I could to that aim­ing point. Noth­ing else.’ When fate tested him as few are tested, Johnny John­son was equal to it, which is as much as you can ask of any life. Johnny John­son is help­ing a cam­paign by the April Fools Club to raise £1 mil­lion for the RAF Benev­o­lent Fund and to com­mem­o­rate the 75th an­niver­sary of the Dam­busters. Go to april­foolsclub.co.uk for more in­for­ma­tion

‘We were down to 30ft and when I said, “Bomb gone,” “Thank Christ!” came from the rear tur­ret. And that was that’

Below: a Lan­caster bomber; the breached Möhne Dam

From top: a Lan­caster prac­tises over Eye­brook Reser­voir in the Mid­lands; Johnny with his 617 Squadron crew and in the RAF in 1962

The mo­ment a bounc­ing bomb is re­leased, as drama­tised in the 1955 film The Dam Busters

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