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Tom Cleaver
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Squadron Leader Johnny Johnsonthe last Dambuster

December 9, 2022 · in News · · 7 Comments

I noted in the author's foreword of my coming book on VIII Fighter Command that none of the people in the book, many of whom I had been privileged to know, were still alive.

Obituary from The Telegraph:

Squadron Leader Johnny Johnson, who has died aged 101, was the last survivor to fly on the Dambusters raid, which attacked the Ruhr Dams in May 1943.

Johnson was the bomb-aimer in the crew of American Flight Lieutenant Joe McCarthy, DFC, who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force before the USA had entered the war. On May 16 1943, 19 crews of No 617 Squadron were briefed for Operation Chastise, a low-level attack to drop Barnes Wallis’s revolutionary “bouncing bomb” on three major dams in the Ruhr. McCarthy’s crew was one of five assigned to attack the Sorpe Dam.

As the engines of their Lancaster were started, McCarthy’s crew discovered a technical fault and had to switch to the reserve aircraft. Taking off 35 minutes late from RAF Scampton, near Lincoln, they crossed the Dutch island of Vlieland at very low level just before midnight. One aircraft had been forced to return after hitting the sea and losing its bomb, and a second was damaged by German gunners and also had to return. Two more were shot down leaving the McCarthy crew as the only survivors tasked to attack the Sorpe.

A thick mist in the nearby valleys made navigation at 100 feet difficult, but once the crew had found the target, McCarthy set up an attack along its length. Hills either side of the dam made the bombing run particularly difficult and McCarthy had to dive the heavy bomber to 60 feet and level out for a few seconds before climbing out to avoid hills on the other side of the valley. The responsibility for a successful attack then rested with Johnson, the bomb-aimer.

The crew made repeated runs to get the speed and height correct and it was not until the 10th attempt that Johnson was satisfied; he released the bomb accurately alongside the dam. The explosion from the direct hit was insufficient to break the huge earth wall of the dam and McCarthy set heading for base. They retraced their steps across Germany and the Netherlands and landed back at base.

The two primary targets, the Möhne and the Eder dams, were breached, but eight of the 19 Lancasters failed to return, with the loss of 53 aircrew.

There were many gallantry awards for the crews, including the Victoria Cross for the leader, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a DSO for McCarthy and the DFM for Johnson.

George Leonard Johnson, always known as “Johnny”, was born in Lincolnshire on February 25 1921, the youngest of six children; his mother died when he was three. His later education was at the Lord Wandsworth Agricultural College in Hampshire; he volunteered for flying duties in the RAFVR and joined in 1940.

After training as an air gunner he joined No 97 Squadron in July 1942, flying Lancasters. He went on bombing operations with a number of different crews until completing a short course as a bomb-aimer.

When he returned to No 97 he joined McCarthy’s crew, and on December 21 1942 he flew his first sortie with his new crew, when the target was Munich. Night fighters badly damaged their Lancaster and McCarthy had to make an emergency landing on return. Over the next three months the crew flew 19 operations, including attacks on Berlin, Hamburg and industrial cities in the Ruhr.

By the end of March, Johnson and his colleagues had completed their tour of operations and were due for a rest. However, McCarthy had recently met Guy Gibson, who was forming “X” Squadron for a special task. Gibson selected the McCarthy crew, and the squadron was soon given the number 617.

Johnson was due to be married and was given four days’ leave for his wedding before heading for Scampton and six weeks of intense low-flying and bombing training. The pilots and navigators learnt of the target the day before the operation but it was not until early the following day that Johnson and the rest of the aircrew discovered they were to attack the Ruhr Dams.

Following the raid, Johnson went on to fly another 19 bombing operations and was commissioned. McCarthy was promoted and became one of the key leaders under the new CO, Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, described by Johnson as “the best commander I ever served under”.

No 617 was issued with a new bomb-sight in order to drop the 12,000 lb blast bomb. During the spring of 1944 the squadron attacked key industrial targets with the huge bomb, many of them in France during the build-up phase to D-Day. Johnson flew his 50th and final operation on April 10 before becoming a bombing instructor.

After the war, he trained as a navigator and flew with Coastal Command’s No 120 Squadron flying the new Shackleton aircraft, a derivative of the Lancaster. In 1957 he left for Singapore to be an operations officer in a maritime air headquarters. After three years he returned to the UK to spend his final tour in the RAF on a Thor ballistic missile site in Lincolnshire. He decided to leave the RAF in 1962.

Johnson then trained as a schoolteacher, and after gaining four years’ experience he moved to teach inmates at Rampton Hospital before spending 14 years teaching and counselling at a mental health institution. His work with people with psychiatric issues attracted widespread praise and was recognised, together with his other public service, by the award in 2017 of an honorary doctorate by the University of Lincoln, of which he was extremely proud.

He retired in 1980 and moved to Torquay, where he was active in local politics and was elected as a councillor for Torbay. He was also the chairman of the local Conservative Association.

After the death of his wife Johnson moved to Bristol. In 2008 he returned to the Ruhr Dams while a documentary film was being made. He recognised that the raid was exciting and valuable at the time, but in later life, once he became aware of the scale of losses on both sides, he questioned the need for the attack and regretted the heavy loss of life. He was very moved after meeting German locals and survivors. His performance and manner during the filming received wide acclaim.

By the time of the 70th anniversary of the Dams raid in May 2013 there were few survivors left, and it marked the beginning of a period when the quiet and modest Johnson became a celebrity. He made many appearances including at the Royal Albert Hall and the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and he had a 20-minute audience with the Queen. In May 2018 he flew in the Lancaster of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – occupying the bomb-aimer’s position.

In the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Honours he was appointed MBE, “for services to Second World War remembrance and the community in Bristol”. When asked his feelings about his award, he replied: “It is the squadron that is being honoured with this, not me.” His pursuit of suitable recognition for the work of Bomber Command never flagged.

Johnson was a great raconteur. He analysed the Dams Raid from the German and the British perspectives, criticised the revisionists – who, he pointed out, were not there – and he considered the moral aspects of having to kill civilians. He feared letting his crew down more than he feared the enemy. He also believed that today’s youth would prove themselves just as capable as his generation.

Johnson remained a lifelong friend of Joe McCarthy and his family and he spoke highly of his pilot in his 2014 memoir The Last British Dambuster.

Johnny Johnson married Gwyneth Morgan in May 1943; she died in August 2005. Their son and two daughters survive them.

3 additional images. Click to enlarge.


7 responses

  1. Another Good Man sailed away, at least full of years.
    Rip

  2. Per ardua ad astra!

  3. Unfortuantely another exceptional man passed away,
    may he rest in peace.

  4. The passing of a fantastic hero, but you can’t resist plugging your forthcoming book.

  5. Thanks for the great post, Tom (@tcinla). When I was a kid, it seemed like there were WW2 vets all over the place. And now they are all gone. It is amazing how quickly they have passed away. There were all great men and women, and I worry that we won't see a generation like them again.

  6. More of a testimony of a life well lived. Unfortunately, for most people leaving a foot print in the sand in the end is to be washed away by time. Johnson took from humanity by dropping the bomb, but, gave back what he took by serving his country and the community. Some would call it the greater good. Which isn't always pretty.

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