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
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