Dambuster of the Day No. 100: Ronald Marsden

Marsden PH

Pic: Peter Humphries

Sgt R Marsden
Flight engineer

Lancaster serial number: ED910/G

Call sign: AJ-C

Third wave. Crashed on outward flight.

Ronald Marsden was born on 8 May 1920 in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, one of the five children of William and Emily Marsden. The family lived in Stockton, where he went to school. He joined the RAF in 1935 as a young apprentice at the No 1 School of Technical Training in Halton.

He then served in ground crew in a number of establishments. When the new trade of flight engineers was established, Marsden was quick to apply and was sent to the No 4 School of Technical Training in St Athan.

He qualified as a flight engineer in September 1942, and was posted to a conversion unit to join a crew. It would seem that he met up with Bill Ottley and his colleagues there. Marsden went on to fly with Ottley on all the 20 operations he completed in 207 Squadron, so he is unlikely to have hesitated when offered a posting to the new 617 Squadron. His crewmate Jack Guterman, who was always interested in his colleagues’ intellectual life, described Marsden as being ‘philosophical’ and owning a book on anthropology.

Unfortunately, the crew did not complete their first operation in 617 Squadron, and six of them died when they were shot down near Hamm on 17 May 1943. Ronald Marsden and his comrades were originally buried in by the Germans in Hamm, but were reinterred after the war in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.

More about Marsden online:
Entry at Commonwealth War Graves Commission

KIA 17.05.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Ronald Marsden and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Dambuster of the Day No. 99: Warner Ottley

Grantham Ottley lores

Pic: Lincolnshire Library Services

Plt Off W Ottley DFC
Pilot

Lancaster serial number: ED910/G

Call sign: AJ-C

Third wave. Crashed on outward flight.

Warner Ottley was born in Battersea, London on 4 March 1922, the oldest of the three sons of Warner Herbert Taylor Ottley and his wife Hilda, née Edwards. Although given his father’s first name, he was always known by the nickname of Bill. His father was a civil servant, working in the War Office, and had been awarded the French Legion d’honneur for his work with that country during the First World War.

Ottley was educated at Hurstpierpoint College, and was still at school when the war broke out. He joined the RAF in 1941, and was selected for pilot training. He went to Canada for training, qualified as a pilot in August 1941 and returned to the UK three months later.

After further training he was sent to his first operational squadron, 50 Squadron, in June 1942, but then immediately reposted to 83 Squadron, then based at Scampton. Between 29 July and 6 August 1942 he flew on four ‘second dickey’ operations with Flt Sgt L.T. Jackson as pilot.

Ottley was then transferred to 207 Squadron and flew on several more operations before being transferred to the squadron’s conversion flight. There he was teamed up with the bulk of the men who would make up his Dams Raid crew: Ronald Marsden, flight engineer; Thomas Johnston, bomb aimer; Jack Guterman, wireless operator; Fred Tees, air gunner; and Jack Barrett, navigator. The crew transferred back to the main squadron and undertook their first operation together on a ‘gardening’ trip to Biarritz on 23 November 1942.

Ottley made close friendships with most of his crew, particularly Guterman and Barrett, with whom he shared an interest in music and art. Guterman provides a vivid description of his skipper in a letter written in late 1942:

I now occupy the bed next to Ottley (the fellow in between left today and we are glad as he was deadly dull) so now I am entertained all night by his long and endless store of anecdotes (some of which are remarkably funny but could hardly be accepted with any degree of morality in the drawing room) so it is impossible to relapse into status melancholis.
I have just read the former paragraph out to Ottley himself whose sole remark was ‘Oh Christ’ – but he’s really quite respectable. We were listening to the news just now and his remark on an announcement concerning the calling up of women (of a certain age) was: ‘Oh Yes! My mother gets great sport out of this calling up business. It’s the only way of finding out her best friends real ages: “You know Bill, Mrs X once told me she was 35 but she registered today so she must really be 41!”’ That’s the sort of thing I have to put up with.

Jack Guterman, letter to Babs Guterman, dated “Friday”, probably October 1942, courtesy Guterman family

Ottley went on to fly on twenty further operations with this crew between December 1942 and April 1943, although there were the occasional minor changes in personnel. Guterman reached the end of his tour on 8 March 1943 and so the last three operations for the crew each had a different person as wireless operator. The crew’s final operation in 207 Squadron was on 4 April 1943, with a trip to bomb Kiel.

Ottley and his crew were then transferred to 617 Squadron, one of the last crews to arrive. Ottley had been commissioned and then recommended for a DFC by this point, although the decoration wouldn’t be confirmed until after the Dams Raid and was backdated to 16 May 1943.

The Ottley crew undertook their first training flight in the new squadron on 8 April 1943. About five weeks later, they were designated to be the first crew in Operation Chastise’s Wave Three, the mobile reserve. Their duty was to be in the air over Germany after the earlier two waves had done their work, and then be diverted by 5 Group headquarters to attack whatever target it deemed necessary.

Ottley led off the wave, and AJ-C was airborne at 0009 on Monday 17 May. It crossed the Dutch coast at about 0130 and proceeded on the same route taken earlier by the First Wave towards Ahlen. At 0231, Group sent the code word “Gilbert” to AJ-C, and the signal was acknowledged. This meant proceed to the Lister Dam. A minute later a change of plan occurred, and the code word “Dinghy” was sent, instructing AJ-C: “Eder destroyed, attack Sorpe”.

The second signal was not acknowledged, indicating that AJ-C had met its fate at about 0231. Ken Brown, flying AJ-F a few minutes behind, reported seeing him hit the ground at 0235. He recalled later: “Ottley, on my right, was hit and pulled up, his tanks exploded then his bomb – the whole valley was lit up in a bright orange.” Bill Townsend and Lance Howard in AJ-O also saw AJ-C’s final demise.

Sitting in AJ-C’s rear turret, Fred Tees later recalled the sequence of events:
… Tees heard the wireless operator say over the intercom “Möhne gone,” and almost immediately Ottley began “We go to…,” when “a hell of a commotion” occurred to interrupt him. The aircraft was suddenly bathed in searchlight and a tremendous barrage of flak struck it, mainky from the port side. … Distinctly he heard Ottley say, “I’m sorry boys we’ve had it,” and thereafter Tees’ memory of events became blank.
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, p.189

AJ-C hit the ground at Heessen, five miles north-east of Hamm, which suggests that it was probably hit by flak west of Hamm itself. Tees’ turret was blown clear of the rest of the aircraft and he regained consciousness on the ground, very badly burnt, and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner.

Bill Ottley and the rest of the crew died instantly. They were originally buried in by the Germans in Hamm, but were reinterred after the war in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.

As further proof of Ottley’s interest in arts and culture, in March 1945 the Hurst Johnian school magazine reported that his record collection had been donated to the school’s Gramophone Society. Bill’s father, Warner Ottley, worked in the War Office throughout the Second World War, and received the award of a CB in the New Year’s Honours List in 1945. He died in 1980.

Thanks to Alan Wells and the Guterman family for help with this article.

More about Ottley online:
Entry at Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Details of Warner H T Ottley’s awards

KIA 17.05.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Warner Ottley and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Best for both sides as Les Munro accepts medals offer

Les_Munro_at_Bomber_Command_Memorial_(med)_big

The generous offer by Les Munro to sell his medals and memorabilia to raise funds for the Bomber Command Memorial in London has now been matched by another from the British peer and collector Lord Ashcroft, which means that the collection will stay in New Zealand.
Lord Ashcroft has offered to pay £75,000 for the collection and the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland is donating a further NZ$20,000. The collection will be displayed in the Museum.
This seems to be the best result possible. The medals and memorabilia (which include a signed menu from the post raid dinner at the Hungaria Restaurant) will now stay in New Zealand as a permanent reminder of the proud role played by the country’s aircrew in Bomber Command. And the fund to maintain the memorial gets a substantial financial boost.
Les Munro (and his family) should be congratulated for their generosity in making the collection available for posterity. Incidentally, the listing for the sale contains a very long article about Les, which can be downloaded as a PDF and is well worth reading.
Lord Ashcroft is well known for his philanthropy and his interest in military history. He is a trustee of the Imperial War Museum in London, which houses his collection of Victoria and George Crosses.

AJ-E Memorial: unveiling details finalised

Invitation english version 13032015

We are very pleased to announce that the details for the unveiling of the memorial to the Dams Raid crew of Lancaster AJ-E have now been finalised. Regular readers of this blog will know that a memorial stone and plaque are to be erected at the site in Germany where this aircraft crashed at 23.50 on Sunday 16 May 1943. The crew of seven, captained by Flt Lt Norman Barlow DFC, were all killed.
The unveiling will take place at 11.00am local time on Sunday 17 May 2015, the 72nd anniversary of the Dams Raid, at Heeren-Herken, near Haldern.
The memorial has been organised by local historian Volker Schürmann and the Haldern local history society, Heimatverein Haldern. The money to pay for the memorial stone and the plaque was raised by public appeal, and many readers of this blog were generous in making contributions.
The speakers will be Volker Schürmann, Charles Foster and Rob Holliday, a member of the family of Plt Off Alan Gillespie DFM, representing the families. Wreathes will be laid by the families and a representative of the RAF.
All are welcome at the event.

“Part of our country’s glory”

RH21 Coates score1 lores

Pic: Ray Hepner Collection

This blog has a new good friend, the collector Ray Hepner, who is very kindly allowing me to show some items from his archive over the next few weeks. The first of these is a copy of the sheet music for The Dam Busters March, autographed by its composer, Eric Coates. The item shown above is the vocal version with words by Carlene Mair.
The stirring words are not often performed, perhaps because they are not widely known. They read as follows:

Proudly, with high endeavour,
We, who are young forever,
Won the freedom of the sky;
We shall never die!
We, who have made our story
Part of our country’s glory
Know our hearts will live on
While Britons fly!
Britons fly!
We know our hearts will still live on
While Britons fly!
While Britons fly!
Words by Carlene Mair, © Chappell 1954/1956

To my mind, these are rather better words than the rather dirge-like recent hymn, about which I posted last June.
Not much seems to be known about Carlene Mair, other than that she wrote a book about the history of Chappell, the music publishers, and also the words in English for Chappell’s collections of Bavarian and Welsh folk songs.  She also wrote an English translation of Charles Trenet’s La Mer, but not the words to Beyond the Sea, which uses the same tune and later became a hit for Bobby Darin. Any further information would be gratefully received.

Dambuster of the Day No. 98: David Rodger

Rodger album pics lores

Pic: Rodger family

Flg Off D Rodger
Rear gunner

Lancaster serial number: ED825/G

Call sign: AJ-T

Second wave. First aircraft to attack Sorpe Dam. Mine dropped successfully but failed to breach dam. Returned to base.

David Rodger was born on 23 February 1918 in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Canada. He went to the local technical school and then worked for the Algoma Steel company. He joined the RCAF in October 1941, and trained as an air gunner before leaving for the UK. By then he had also been commissioned. In September 1942, he joined 97 Squadron at RAF Woodhall Spa and took part in one operation on a trip to Bremen in an aircraft piloted by squadron CO Wg Cdr G D Jones. He then suffered a broken kneecap in an accident, and had a spell in hospital.

In January 1943, rear gunner Sgt Ralph Muskett was forced to stand down from Joe McCarthy’s crew after prolonged bouts of air sickness, and Dave Rodger was selected in his place. He thus became the third member of the RCAF in this crew. He went on to take part in 15 operations with McCarthy in 97 Squadron before they were all transferred to 617 Squadron in March.

Before the Dams Raid, all the rear gunners had set up the turrets of their scheduled aircraft in the way that suited them. Most chose to have the Perspex windshields removed, believing that they had better visibility without them and each would have made further adjustments to their seats and gun positions. When the McCarthy crew had suddenly to switch from the allocated AJ-Q to the spare AJ-T, none of these refinements had been made. Fortunately, Rodger was given a few minutes extra while McCarthy himself went off in hunt of the missing compass deviation cards so he was able to remove the Perspex, with the help of ground staff.

When they reached the Sorpe Dam, Rodger’s droll wit was tested to its full by the repeated attempts by McCarthy and Johnson to get into the correct position to drop the Upkeep mine. As Johnson recalled later:

Sitting in the rear turret, Dave Rodger was getting the worst of all this. He could not see what was coming, but he could feel the aircraft diving, running level and then, without warning, pulling up sharp. Because he was furthest from the aircraft’s centre of gravity, every movement was exaggerated for the rear gunner. In a tight turn, a steep dive or a harsh climb, Dave had to put up with a G-force that made his life very uncomfortable. It was hardly surprising after the sixth or seventh dummy run that we heard Dave’s voice grumbling from the tail: “Will somebody please get that bomb out of here!”…
On our tenth run in, both Joe and I were satisfied that we were right on track. I pushed the button and called “Bomb gone!” And from the rear turret was heard, “Thank Christ for that!” As we pulled away, Dave Rodger now had the ringside seat. He said “God Almighty,” as the explosion threw a fountain of water up to about 1,000 feet. “Jesus, that spray has come right into the rear turret. Not only have I been knocked about all over the place by you buggers, now you’re trying to drown me!”

George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, The Last British Dambuster, pp 171-2

Rodger continued to fly with McCarthy throughout the rest of the crew’s tour. He became 617 Squadron’s Gunnery Leader on 11 September 1943, was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and received the DFC in 1944. The citation noted “his calm resolution in the face of the heaviest opposition, which has been an inspiration to his crew”.

When he was stood down from operational flying, Rodger was offered the chance to return to Canada and work as an instructor for the rest of the war. He decided to take the opportunity, and on his return he married his Canadian girlfriend Nell Barbet. Whilst in the UK he had secretly been taking dancing lessons in order to impress her.

After the war, he returned to work at Algoma Steel in his home town of Sault Ste Marie, and stayed there until retirement. He and Nell went on to have nine children. Dave Rodger took an active part in many Dambuster reunions in Canada and travelled to the UK on several occasions. Joe McCarthy and he last met up at Rodger’s 80th birthday party in 1998, shortly before McCarthy’s death later that year.

Dave Rodger died on 1 September 2004. He was cremated locally and his ashes scattered in his own garden, and at the family cabin on Lake Superior.

Thanks to Patti Rodger Kirkpatrick and the rest of the Rodger family for help with this article.

More about Rodger online:
Daily Telegraph obituary

Survived war. Died 01.09.2004

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Dave Birrell, Big Joe McCarthy, Wingleader Publishing, 2012
George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, The Last British Dambuster, Ebury Press, 2014

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Dave Rodger and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Dambuster of the Day No. 97: Ronald Batson

USAAF&RAF FRE_004452

This photograph, taken in August 1943, shows six members of Joe McCarthy’s Dams Raid crew fraternising with recently arrived USAAF personnel.
The printed caption on the reverse reads: “Passed By Censor No. 279211. Allied Airmen Get Together At U.S. 8th Air Force Bomber Station. Newly-arrived American airmen in the European Theatre of Operations are visited at their bomber stations by members of the R.A.F. who have had considerable experience of operational flying. In the course of friendly conversations they learn a great deal of useful knowledge. The Commander of one U.S. Bomber Station has declared that, thanks to these informal knowledge, his men are three months ahead of schedule in the field of experience. Associated Press Photo Shows:- Standing under the tail of a Martin B-26 Marauder Bomber, a group of R.A.F. and U.S.A.A.F. airmen get together at an 8th Air Force Bomber Station ‘somewhere in England’. They are (left to right): Lt. John Helton, of Clifton, Texas, Sgt. Ronald Batson, of Ferry Hill, Durham, Capt. W.M. Brier, of Anniston, Ala.; F/Sgt. Leonard Eaton, of Manchester; P/O. Don MacLean, of Toronto; Sgt. Len Johnson, of Newark; Lt. John Bull Stirling, of Annapolis; Flight Lieut. Joe McCarty, of Long Island, N.Y. (The D.S.O., D.F.C. Dambuster); Lt. Laurence McNally, of Bridgford, Conn.; Capt. Grover Wilcox, of Anahuac, Texas; and Sgt. Bill Radcliffe, New Westminster, D.C.” [All spelling and punctuation as in original.] [Pic: American Air Museum in Britain/IWM.]

Sgt R Batson
Front gunner

Lancaster serial number: ED825/G

Call sign: AJ-T

Second wave. First aircraft to attack Sorpe Dam. Mine dropped successfully but failed to breach dam. Returned to base.

Ronald Batson was born on 5 December 1920 in Ferryhill, Co Durham, the older son of Joseph and Elizabeth Batson. He was a grocer’s assistant before enlisting in the RAF in March 1941.

After qualifying as an air gunner, he was posted to 106 Squadron Conversion Flight in early September 1942. He quickly teamed up with Joe McCarthy whose logbook confirms that Batson and Bill Radcliffe first flew with him on the same day, 11 September 1942, in a Manchester on a training flight. Their first operation was on 5 October. Batson was the only one of McCarthy’s crew to fly on every single operation in 97 Squadron with his skipper. By late March 1943, they had amassed 31 trips.

On the Dams Raid, Batson was in the front turret of AJ-T. On the way back from the Sorpe, he spotted a goods train and asked McCarthy’s permission to attack it. The crew hadn’t realised, however, that this wasn’t an ordinary goods train but an armoured flak train, whose gunners responded with vigour. It was probably a shell from this which punctured a front tyre, and caused a problem a few hours later when landing at Scampton.

Batson went on to fly with McCarthy throughout the rest of his tour, and was recommended for a DFM in February 1944. The award was approved in June, with the citation reading:

BATSON, Ronald. 1045069 Flight Sergeant, No 617 Sqn.
Sorties 37. Flying Hours 264.30. Air Gunner.
“Flight Sergeant Batson has completed 37 operational sorties as Mid-upper gunner and has been operating continuously since October 1942. He has flown against many of the most heavily defended targets in Germany including Berlin, the Ruhr, Hamburg and Cologne and took part in the low-level attack on the Sorpe Dam. His enthusiasm and fighting spirit have invariably been of the highest order and he has proved his ability to face the heaviest opposition with complete calm and resolution. It is considered that the exemplary manner in which this NCO has executed his duties with the result that his captain has been able to place complete confidence in him merits the award of the Distinguished Flying Medal.”
12 February 1944
Remarks by Station Commander – “This air gunner has been engaged in operational flying for well over a year. His enthusiasm for operations has never flagged and he has set a fine example to all other air gunners. Strongly recommended.”

By the time the McCarthy crew came off operations in July 1944, Batson had reached the rank of Warrant Officer and had completed more than 60 sorties. He was posted to a training unit for the remainder of the war.

Ronald Batson had one brother, Douglas, who also volunteered for the RAF. He was killed in a freak accident on 23 August 1944, when a USAAF B24 Liberator bomber crashed into a cafe in Freckleton, Lancashire. He is buried in Duncombe Cemetery, Ferryhill, Co Durham. How ironic that one brother flew on more than 60 operations over occupied territory and survived, while the other died while eating in a Lancashire snack bar.

After the war Ronald Batson returned to Durham for a while, and worked for the Banda duplicating machine business. He later moved to Fleetwood in Lancashire. He was married twice, and moved back to Leeholme, Co Durham, with his second wife Muriel in the 1990s. He died there on 25 November 2006.

Thanks to the Batson family and Kevin Bending for help with this article.

Survived war. Died 25 November 2006.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Dave Birrell, Big Joe McCarthy, Wingleader Publishing, 2012
George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, The Last British Dambuster, Ebury Press, 2014

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Ron Batson and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Dambuster of the Day No. 96: George Johnson

Johnson

Johnny Johnson as a newly commissioned Pilot Officer, probably photographed in late 1943. [Pic: Torquay Herald Express]

Sgt G L Johnson
Bomb aimer

Lancaster serial number: ED825/G

Call sign: AJ-T

Second wave. First aircraft to attack Sorpe Dam. Mine dropped successfully but failed to breach dam. Returned to base.

George Leonard Johnson was born on 25 November 1921 in Hameringham, Lincolnshire, the sixth and last child of Charles and Ellen Johnson. He was known as Leonard to his family, but when he joined the RAF he was nicknamed “Johnny”, and this is the name by which he is mostly known now. His father was a farm foreman, living in a tied cottage and the family grew up in very poor conditions. Ellen Johnson died when Johnny was three, and his family life was very disrupted. Eventually his older sister Lena moved back home and he went to a local primary school in Winthorpe.

At the age of 11 he was sent as a boarder to the Lord Wandsworth Agricultural College in Long Sutton, Hampshire. At the time, this was a run by a charity catering for the children of agrocultural families who had lost one or both parents. He did reasonably well at school and passed the School Certificate as well as playing cricket and football, and winning several athletics events. When he left school in December 1939, he started work as a park keeper in Basingstoke.

Johnson volunteered to join the RAF in June 1940, applying to become a navigator. He was, however, selected for pilot training. Eventually he joined up in November 1940, but the actual training took some time to materialise, since there was a huge bottleneck, so he was posted to various establishments. There was some compensation for all the moving around – at one posting, in Torquay, he met the woman, Gwyn Morgan, who would later become his wife.

In June 1941, Johnson was eventually sent for pilot training in Florida. More than one-third of those selected for pilot training were eventually “washed out”, which was what happened to him. As he always doubted he had the necessary skills, he was not surprised and he opted for air gunner training instead, when he arrived back in the UK in January 1942.

In July 1942, Johnson was posted to 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa. He was designated as a spare gunner, without a regular crew, and so he flew with various skippers if one of their own gunners went sick. His first operation was on 27 August 1942, flying with the highly experienced Sqn Ldr Elmer Coton on a trip to Gdynia in Poland. However, an engine failure en route led to an early return, so the first time he saw action was the following day, on an operation to Nuremberg.

Johnson flew on a handful of operations but then the opportunity came up to train as a specialist bomb aimer, on a course at the nearby base of Fulbeck. He completed this course in late November 1942. Within a month, a vacancy for a bomb aimer came up in Joe McCarthy’s crew. At first Johnson wasn’t keen on flying with an American captain, but a conversation with McCarthy changed his mind, and he was introduced to his future crewmates. What united them, he wrote later, was the fact that they all had inbuilt confidence in McCarthy whom they regarded as the best pilot on the squadron.

Johnson’s first trip with McCarthy was an operation to attack Munich on 21 December 1942. It was packed with incident. In appalling weather, they were attacked by fighters and on the return trip lost complete power in one engine and suffered problems in another. They were forced to land at Bottesford.

Johnson went on a further 18 operations with McCarthy, which brought him to the end of a full tour with 97 Squadron. Knowing that he would then be entitled to some leave followed by six months working in a non-combat training role, he and Gwyn arranged their wedding for 3 April 1943. The ceremony was nearly called off when the whole crew were transferred to 617 Squadron for a new secret mission, and all leave was cancelled. His new CO, Guy Gibson, however relented, and gave them four days off.

In all the training for the Dams Raid Johnson practised dropping the mine as their aircraft flew straight towards the target at low level. However, on the afternoon of Sunday 17 May, when the five crews detailed to attack the Sorpe Dam received their briefing they were told that they had to fly along the dam wall and drop their mine at its centre. It would roll down the wall and explode when it reached the correct depth.

Following the delay in setting off and the switch of aircraft to AJ-T, they realised that they were the only crew which had got as far as the Sorpe Dam. McCarthy soon realised how difficult the attack was going to be, even though there were no flak batteries present to defend the dam. The approach involved flying over the small town of Langscheid, which had a prominent church steeple, and then dropping very low so that the mine could be dropped in the exact centre of the dam. It took a while to get the approach correct but eventually, on the tenth try, McCarthy managed to make a near perfect run, getting down to about 30 feet. Johnson released the weapon, and shouted “Bomb gone”.

Although AJ-T had failed to breach the dam, McCarthy, Johnson and navigator Don MacLean were all decorated for their part in the raid. Johnson received the DFM and travelled up to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. As a non-drinker, he didn’t participate in the festivities that followed.

Johnson was commissioned in November 1943 and went on to fly with McCarthy on all his subsequent 18 operations with 617 Squadron up until April 1944. At that point, knowing that Gwyn Johnson was shortly to have their first child, McCarthy insisted that he stand down. Reluctantly, Johnson agreed and was sent back to Scampton as a bombing instructor and served out the rest of the war in various training jobs. After the war, he was told that if he qualified as a navigator, he would get a permanent commission. He accepted this offer, and stayed in the RAF until 1962, retiring with the rank of Squadron Leader.

Johnson then retrained again, this time as a teacher. He worked first of all in primary schools and then later in adult education, including a period teaching psychiatric patients at Rampton Hospital.

When Johnny retired, he and Gwyn moved to Torquay, where Gwyn had been brought up. They became active in local Conservative Party politics, and Johnny was elected as a councillor, and became chair of the constituency party.

Gwyn Johnson died in August 2005 and for a while Johnny withdrew from public life. But then he started accepting invitations from the media for interviews and documentary appearances, and now he is one of the most familiar of the dwindling number of Bomber Command veterans, and has played a full role in the recent anniversaries of the Dams Raid.

As “the last British Dambuster”, Johnny now occupies an important place in what sometimes seems an insatiable public interest in the events of 16/17 May 1943. But, as his son Morgan points out in the last chapter of Johnny’s autobiography, “he is the first to recognise that all this attention is not purely about him personally, but is directed at what he represents. The Dambusters became a wartime legend that captured the public imagination and, as the last British survivor of that night, he represents all of them and what they achieved. There are many, many other stories of individual and collective achievements during World War II. Stories of extraordinary courage, of battles won in impossible situations, of acts of heroism against overwhelming odds. But the Dambusters remain high on the list of public affection. And that is what he will be remembered for, by the public at large.”
George “Johnny” Johnson, The Last British Dambuster, Ebury Press, 2014, p.298.

More about Johnson online:
Media biography compiled by UK Ministry of Defence

Survived war.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Dave Birrell, Big Joe McCarthy, Wingleader Publishing, 2012
George “Johnny” Johnson, The Last British Dambuster, Ebury Press, 2014

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Johnny Johnson and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.