George ‘Johnny’ Johnson is the last surviving crew member of Operation Chastise, which dropped ‘bouncing bombs’ on German dams in May 1943. The bomb-aiming Dambuster told Adam Becket and Sarah Newey his remarkable story.
Operation Chastise, more commonly known as the Dambuster Raid, has become entrenched in the British narrative of World War Two – not least because of the overwhelmingly popular 1955 film. But the film ‘has to be somewhat disappointing’ for it doesn’t tell the full story; the assault on the Sorpe Dam, which Johnson was involved in, wasn’t mentioned.
We met Johnny before he gave the inaugural Richmond Lecture – ‘not a lecture, a talk; I don’t lecture’ – to a captivated audience of 400 students and staff. During WWII, Johnny completed 50 operations, mainly as a bomb aimer, and received six medals for his service.
Yet he doesn’t like to be called a hero. As he organises his medals he laments that not everyone involved was rewarded, rather than focusing on his own important role – ‘operators, and the gunners, the flight engineers got nothing – which to me, was wrong. They all took part, very much a part, in the raid.’
Now 94, he has been speaking about his experiences since his wife died 10 years ago ‘to think about something instead of grieving all the time’ – and what a story he has to tell.
‘We had been used to flying at 10, 15, maybe 20 thousand feet at a push; but we had to get down to 100ft, or most of the time less than that. As a bomb aimer, I’m lying at the front of the aircraft, and the ground is just whizzing past me as we fly. So exhilarating. It really, really was.’
Johnny signed up to the RAF in 1940; ‘the army didn’t appeal one bit’ after he’d seen WWI films depicting trench warfare, and he dislikes water – ‘so the RAF it was’. While he didn’t want to be a pilot both due to the responsibility and a perceived lack of aptitude, ‘the selection committee thought differently’ and Johnny was sent to Arcadia in Florida for training.
But in the end he didn’t make it as a pilot – ‘my landings weren’t quite what they should have been’ – and he returned to Britain in 1942, ‘no nearer to the war than I had been when I signed in 1940.’
He left his mark on the Americans, however. Johnny recalled how ‘their petty discipline and their sloppy marching really got on my nose’, so before they left for home a group of Brits put the air corp in their place – ‘we fell in RAF style outside the dining room, and we marched back at 160 paces to the minute, arms swinging waist high upwards and backwards – the looks that were going round!’
Once back on home soil, Johnny trained in gunnery and was posted to 97 Squadron, where he flew on night operations with any crew in need of a bomb aimer or rear gunner.
It wasn’t long after that he joined Joe McCarthy’s crew, an American in the Canadian air force – ‘6ft 3, and the breadth to go with the height. Big in size, big in personality, big in pilotability.’ The pair became lifelong friends, and it was with McCarthy’s crew that Johnny flew in Dambuster raid on the 16th May 1943.
Despite his age and subject, we can’t stop Johnny speaking, with his daughter Jenny having to interrupt him when he goes slightly off on a tangent. It is this that makes him so fascinating though: all 94 years of experience coming to him as if it had just happened. He’s an amusing and self-deprecating man, full of life and enthusiasm: ‘I probably talk far too much,’ he tells us.
The raid itself was top secret, and aimed to destroy three large dams in the Ruhr valley using Sir Barnes Wallace’s new bouncing bomb. But those involved knew little about the operation until the briefing on the day and the target proved a big surprise – ‘I don’t think dams were even considered.’
The objective of the mission was to destroy the dams in order to disrupt German industry and hydro-electric power supply. Johnny’s crew was aiming to destroy the Sorpe dam, but it took ten flyovers in their Lancaster plane before Johnny and Joe were both happy and released their bomb. The crew were clearly getting a little tetchy by this point – ‘won’t somebody get that bomb out of here’ came a voice from the rear turret after the seventh flyover.
Although they dropped the same bomb as those on the Möhne and Eder dams – which weighed ‘9,000 pounds, of which 6,500 was explosive’ – Johnny’s team used an inert drop rather than bouncing it over the reservoir. Johnny seemed slightly disappointed that ‘we never had that experience.’
While the attack on the Sorpe dam failed, it was always the least likely to be breached. Success was also restricted when other Lancasters were shot down en route to the Sorpe, or had to turn back to England before reaching the target.
As Johnny told us: ‘Although we didn’t achieve an actual breach of the dam, we did our best.’ Flying on the way home, their plane flew over the Möhne and Eder dams, something he calls ‘the outstanding part of the whole trip.’ This was the ‘lasting memory of the whole trip,’ as the crew saw something few others witnessed – ‘there was water everywhere, it was just like an inland sea.’
‘I used to say as a young man that if I ever met one of those [historians], I should hope my hands were tied behind my back, because I’m not quite sure what I would do with them.’
Yet although Johnny describes the operation as ‘the highlight of my operational career,’ he neglected to tell his wife about his involvement until she overheard a conversation on a bus a week or so later. ‘She wasn’t impressed’ – laughing at his oversight he commented that ‘I just about got away with it.’
The pair had married six weeks earlier, when McCarthy managed to persuade his superiors that Johnny deserved a few days leave, and both were consistently optimistic that he would return unharmed: ‘with Joe, as I say, I never once felt that I wasn’t going to come back. I knew that he would always bring me back. And strangely enough, my wife had the same confidence.’
Johnny talked to us about Sir Barnes Wallis and Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the two men responsible for the operation. Asked what Gibson was like to work with, he responds ‘that is a $64,000 question,’ calling him ‘arrogant’ and ‘bombastic’ while noting out that he had ‘something to be arrogant about.’
Pointing out that he wonderfully led the squadron on the operation, Johnny tells us ‘attack-wise, he was a great leader and a great man, but otherwise a little difficult to get on with.’
In contrast, Barnes Wallis ‘really was a wonderful man,’ who ‘hated being referred to as an inventor.’ Johnny’s eyes light up at this point, as he tells us about the mastermind of the dams raid. ‘I have a postcard with his picture on it, with his titles at the bottom, with a quotation at the top, “I thought about how an engineer could help to end the war.” And that was his philosophy.’
Despite being so jovial, there is one group of people Johnny feels disdain for; those he calls ‘retrospective historians’. They are, he says, historians ‘who after the war claimed that the Dams raid should never have taken place, that it achieved nothing.’
This is the only moment that we see Johnny slightly angry in the whole interview; ‘I used to say as a young man that if I ever met one of those people, I should hope my hands were tied behind my back, because I’m not quite sure what I would do with them.’
In his view, if they weren’t there, they should keep their ‘bloody mouth shut.’
Johnny is an inspirational man to meet, not just because of his actions during the war, but also due to his achievements since. He remained in the RAF for a further 15 years after WWII before becoming a primary school teacher, and then working in mental health and adult education. His daughter, Jenny, suggested it was actually his later work which she admired him for most – ‘that’s what I’m most proud of because that was something he did as an individual, if you see what I mean.’
Indeed, Johnny’s autobiography, ‘The Last British Dambuster’ is a life story, not just a book about his involvement in the iconic raid – something his family had insisted on. But when discussing the book, Johnny’s modesty comes across once more as he admits to feeling ‘almost ashamed,’ as ‘it’s come out in my name but it was put together by a ghost writer, and he’s done a wonderful job. I just talked, as usual.’
The evening was a fitting start to Bristol SU’s new Richmond Lecture series, and it seemed like the Last Surviving Dambuster enjoyed speaking as much as the 400-strong audience enjoyed listening to his witty and humble talk.
‘I have to say I feel privileged, and yes honoured, to have been able to take part in that particular raid.’
If you missed Johnny’s lecture at the Anson Rooms, make sure to listen to recording on the University of Bristol Soundcloud account where it will shortly be uploaded. Wendy Darke will be giving the next lecture on 08 March.
Were you at Johnson’s ‘talk’? What do you think of his and his comrades’ endeavours? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @EpigramFeatures.