The Dambusters’ last surviving British crew member
Interview of John “Johnny” Johnson from the Bristol Post of 13 May 2013
As of 8 April 2014, Johnny Johnson was still going strong.
Bouncing Bomb: Westbury-on-Trym veteran on being the Dambusters’ last surviving British crew member
By David Clensy | Posted: May 13, 2013
(c) by Bristol Post
George “Johnny” Johnson
(photo courtesy of the Bristol Post)
BRISTOL POST INTERVIEW BEGINS HERE:
“As we mark the 70th anniversary of Operation Chastise – the famous Dambusters bouncing bomb raid – David Clensy meets George “Johnny” Johnson, the last British survivor of the Dambuster air crews, at his Westbury-on-Trym home.
It is quiet in the lounge of George Johnson’s Westbury- on-Trym home – the sound of rain against the window is the only thing that breaks the silence as the 91-year-old settles himself in his armchair, preparing to talk about his part in the most-famous night in the RAF’s history.
Looking through the streaks of rain on the window, his piercing blue eyes narrow, and perhaps the lounge window turns into the glass of the rattling bomb-aimer’s sight that he found himself looking through 70 years ago, as his chisel-jawed American pilot Joe McCarthy circled over the heart of Nazi Germany’s industrial machine.”
Information on American pilot Joe McCarthy
Then Flight Lieutenant RAF, American Joseph Charles “Joe” McCarthy DSO DFC and BAR, being introduced by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC to His Majesty King George VI after the Dambusters’ Raid.
Comments Charles McCain: “Joe McCarthy had made his way to Canada before the USA became a belligerent in World War Two and joined the Royal Canadian Air force. Many RAF bomber crews were comprised of men from different parts of the empire including the Royal Australia Air Force, Royal New Zealand, etc. So McCarthy was officially in the Royal Canadian Air Force but the only way to know that would have been a small patch on the standard RAF uniform which said, “Canada”.
Also, after they completed training and were dispatched to the manning depots, the men self selected into their bomber crews. On a specific day, the command would put all the different men in their different specialties in one large hanger and they would mill about until they had found a crew they liked. The higher-ups never got involved.”
After the war, Joe McCarthy became a Canadian citizen and enjoyed a successful career in the Royal Canadian Air Force. You can read more about him here:
Interview with George “Johnny” Johnson resumes here:
“It is clear that in his mind’s eye he has returned to the moment on 16/17 May, 1943 when his finger hovered over the button that would release the bomb from his Lancaster bomber. Beneath the bevelled glass wall of the cramped bombardier’s position, the ground was racing just 30ft beneath him at 220 knots.
The edge of the night-shrouded German valley gave way to a moonlit stretch of water and the thin concrete line of the Sorpe dam. Now on his tenth run along the length of the dam, the sight rushing beneath him was familiar. But this time the 21-year-old – known to his crew-mates as Johnny – was confident enough to press the button and hear the bomb releasing noisily below.
No. 617 Squadron practice dropping the ‘Upkeep’ weapon at Reculver bombing range, Kent. (photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)
With all the suave understatement expected of a RAF man, Johnny said: “Bomb’s gone.” But the Canadian voice that crackled back through his headphones – that of rear gunner Dave Roger – was less reserved. “Thank Christ for that,” he retorted. But before Johnny had chance to look down and see the impact, the talented pilot was already pulling the aircraft aggressively upwards in order to avoid the imminently-approaching valley wall.
“I couldn’t see a thing,” Johnny recalled, 70 years on, “but Dave got a clear view of the 1,000ft water spout that erupted from the partially-damaged dam – the water momentarily engulfed his gun position as the plane flew away vertically.”
The action that night of the specially-formed 617 Squadron over the dam network at the core of Germany’s industrial heartland has since gone on to become the stuff of Second World War folklore – thanks in large part to the 1955 film, The Dambusters, starring Richard Todd as the unflappable Wing Commander Guy Gibson and Michael Redgrave in the role of Barnes Wallis – the engineer who cracked the concept of using a bouncing bomb to destroy the dams.
The film is currently being remade by Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson, with a script by Stephen Fry – and both men have visited Johnny in his Bristol home to hear his firsthand memories of the raid.
For Johnny, it was a briefing given by Wallis in the spring of 1943 that gave him and the rest of the squadron the first indication of the job they had been brought together to do. “I’d volunteered for the RAF only a couple of years before, serving at first as a gunner and then as a bomb aimer, before I was given the chance to join Guy Gibson’s mysterious, new, special squadron,” said Johnny
“We were told that the squadron was being formed for a single raid but none of us knew what the target was.It was only when Wallis spoke to us, and showed us a film of his bouncing-bomb experiments, that we began to make guesses about what it could be. The common guess was that we would be using the bombs against the German battleships. But none of us guessed about striking dams – which seems silly now, given that much of our initial training with the bouncing bomb used the dam at the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire as the target.”
“I can remember being given the instructions for making a special sight for the mission, using a triangle of plywood and a carefully-spaced pair of pins. I didn’t know it then, of course, but the idea was that we would be able to line up the pins with the towers on the dams. For the bouncing bombs to work it was essential that we were at exactly 60ft, travelling at exactly 220 knots, and the barrel-like bombs were being spun at 500 revolutions per minute before being released.”
“It was just like skimming a pebble on a lake – you had to have all the elements right for it to work.” But Johnny and the other aircrew did not find out what their target was until Gibson’s briefing a few hours before taking off on the mission. “He explained everything to us, told us to keep our mouth shut until we were in the air and sent us to the mess to eat bacon and eggs while we waited for take-off.”
The briefing held one disappointment for Johnny – his plane would be targeting the Sorpe dam. Unlike the other targets – the Mohne, Eder and Ennepe dams – the geography at Sorpe did not allow a bouncing bomb to work.
(Comments Charles McCain: “The Sorpe dam was an earthen dam and not nearly as easy to destroy as the other two dams made of cement and stone since the earthen damn could absorb a lot of the shock waves generated by the falling bombs).
“Instead we were told we would have to approach the dam from the side – running down one side of the valley and back up the other side after dropping the bomb,” said Johnny. “We were all a bit disappointed, after all the training, that we wouldn’t be using the revolutionary bouncing bomb. But we were still eager to make a good job of the mission.”
But after months of training, when Johnny, Joe and the rest of the crew climbed into their Lancaster bomber at 8pm to take off on the mission, the plane refused to start. “The other planes were all taking off, and now, after all that preparation, our Lancaster had developed a hydraulic leak,” said Johnny. “She didn’t want to fly that night. So we had to all jump out and climb into the one and only back-up plane we had.
“Joe said ‘Quickly, everyone into the spare aircraft, before someone else gets it’. The last thing we wanted to do was to miss the mission.” Now 30 minutes behind the first wave, the crew travelled across the Channel and over Germany at a low level in order to keep beneath the enemy radar. “To be there, in the bomb-aimer’s position, with the moonlit landscape rushing beneath – so close you felt you could almost reach out and touch it – was incredibly exhilarating,” Johnny said, with a smile.
“Our gunner saw a goods train halfway across Germany and he asked the skipper’s permission to have a shot at it. We only realised it was a heavily-armed military train when it returned fire – and, given our low level, immediately hit us. Thankfully we escaped, seemingly without major damage. It was only later, when we landed safely back in Lincolnshire, that we realised our tyre had been burst. It made it a bumpy landing – but if the shot had been a fraction further over they would have hit the fuel tank and we’d have been blown to smithereens.”
After the partial success of the strike on Sorpe – the blast cracked the surface of the dam but failed to breach it – the crew made their way back over the Mohne. There they had the satisfaction of seeing water still inundating the valley beneath the devastated wreckage of the Mohne dam, just 20 minutes after another 617 crew had released Wallis’ bouncing bomb on the valley.
“It looked like an inland sea had just appeared right at the heart of Germany’s industrial machine,” said Johnny. He would go on to enjoy a successful career with the RAF after the war, retiring as a squadron leader in 1962, before training as a teacher. But his dambusting experiences of May 1943 would be something on which he would be able to dine out for the rest of his life.
“I never tire of people asking about it,” he said. “It’s always a kind of nostalgia trip for me to talk about the mission. “We didn’t really know on the night just what we had achieved. It was only when we picked up the newspapers the next morning that it really hit home. Then I was hit by the tragedy of losing 53 fellow airmen during a single night. But with the passing of time you have time to think more about the longer-term consequences of war.”
“A few years ago I travelled back to Germany and visited the Sorpe dam for the first time. I stood at the point where my bomb landed and I looked down the beautiful valley, with its little houses and farms, trees and rivers and people living their lives. Then, I thought for the first time, part of me was glad that our bomb hadn’t breached the dam and swept all of that away.”
Aviation historian Colin Higgs, who has just published a new book about the mission – Voices in Flight: The Dambuster Squadron – said the operation endures in the national consciousness because of the timing with which it occurred.“It was at a time when we were not yet winning the war – certainly in the eyes of the British public,” said Colin. “The RAF had experienced only limited success with its bombing and here was a massive strike against the German industrial system in a single night.”
“It was such an audacious attack. This was so much about Barnes Wallis – the great engineer and inventor behind the bouncing bomb. He had identified the dams as a good military target very early on in the war. But he also realised they were almost impossible to strike with conventional technology. Rather than accept that, he sat down and started trying to invent new technology.”
But Johnny said Wallis did not fully recover from the realisation that his bouncing bombs had led to the death of so many aircrew on that fateful night. “He later told our squadron leader, Guy Gibson, that he couldn’t get over the fact that his big project had led to so many deaths of young airmen,” Johnny said. “Gibson told him that every airman takes off every night not knowing whether he will come home but it was a feeling of guilt that Wallis took with him to his grave.”
Operation CHASTISE: the attack on the Moehne, Eder and Sorpe Dams by No. 617 Squadron RAF on the night of 16/17 May 1943. A practice 10.000 lbs ‘Upkeep’ weapon attached to the bomb bay of Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s Avro Type 464 (Provisioning) Lancaster, ED932/G ‘AJ-G’, at Manston, Kent, while conducting dropping trials off Reculver. (Official RAF photo taken in May 1943 and courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
617 Bomber Squadron which carried out the Dambusters attack in photo taken prior to the mission. (photo courtesy of British Ministry of Defence)
LEST WE FORGET
133 RAF aircrew participated in the Dambusters attack. Of those, 53 lost their lives–a casualty rate of almost 40 percent. The dead were all young men in the prime of their lives.
Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
From the poem Here Dead We Lie
by A.E. Housman