Sqn Ldr George Leonard ‘Johnny’ Johnson MBE DFM turns 100 this week, on Thursday 25 November 2021. Although he is best known to the public for his role in the Dams Raid in May 1943, he has led a long and interesting life both before and after that historic couple of months.
He was born on 25 November 1921 in Hameringham, Lincolnshire, the sixth and youngest child of Charles and Ellen Johnson. Although his first name was George 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 has been mostly known for the rest of his life. His father was a farm foreman, living in a tied cottage, and the family grew up in very poor conditions. His mother died when Johnny was three, and after this his family life was very disrupted, due to his father’s abusive nature. However, when his older sister Lena moved back home for a while the situation improved 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 run by a charity catering for the children of agricultural 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 to a good standard, and winning several athletics events. When he left school in December 1939, he started work as a park keeper in Basingstoke.
Johnny volunteered to join the RAF in June 1940 and eventually joined up in November that year. He was posted to various training establishments but there was some compensation for all the moving around – at one in Torquay, he met Gwyn Morgan, the woman who would later become his wife.
Finally qualified as an air gunner, in July 1942 Johnny 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 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.
Johnny flew on a few more operations but then the opportunity came up to train as a specialist bomb aimer. He took up the chance and completed the course in late November 1942. Within a month, a vacancy for a bomb aimer came up in Joe McCarthy’s crew. McCarthy was an American who had crossed the border to enrol in the Royal Canadian Air Force in order to join the war while the USA was still at peace. 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 went on nineteen 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. However, 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.
Their new CO, Guy Gibson, however granted them four days leave when McCarthy insisted. Several other crews had been told by their previous COs that they could take leave before their new posting, but this strategy had not been suggested to the boys from 97 Squadron.
Johnny and Gwyn on their wedding day, 3 April 1943. [Pic Johnson family]
As he has described on a number of occasions, Johnson and his crew dropped their mine as instructed on the Sorpe Dam but failed to breach it. McCarthy, Johnson and their 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. At that point in his life he was a non-drinker, so 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 next eighteen 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 RAF 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.
Now in his forties, Johnson was without a job. So he 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 he retired, he and Gwyn moved to Torquay, where Gwyn had been brought up. Although she came from a Welsh mining family brought up in the Labour tradition, she was a keen Conservative, a strong admirer of Margaret Thatcher. ‘The lady’s not for turning’ became Gwyn’s own catchphrase, used to settle any minor family disputes. The pair had been active in local Conservative Party politics for a while, but after the move to Torquay Johnny was elected as a councillor, and became chair of the constituency party, having to deal with the wayward activities of their local MP when he plotted against Prime Minister John Major. Johnny also took part in reunions and other activities relating both to 617 Squadron and the wider world of Bomber Command, and the pair were very happy with frequent visits from their growing numbers of grandchildren.
However, this came to an end when Gwyn was diagnosed with cancer and spent the last eighteen months of her life in declining health.
Gwyn Johnson died in August 2005 and for a while Johnny withdrew from public life. I first spoke to him a year or two later, while researching my book about the life of David Maltby and his crew, and he told me then what a terrible blow it had been. Shortly afterwards, he started accepting invitations from the media for interviews and documentary appearances. As the number of Bomber Command veterans have inevitably dwindled over the last fifteen years he has become one of its most familiar faces. Johnny is still a compelling speaker and a willing interviewee, although these activities have necessarily been restricted in recent times.
He has always worked hard for charity, particularly campaigning for improved resources for mental health, and this was recognised in 2018 with the award of an MBE, an honorary doctorate at the University of Lincoln (back in his home county) and a flight over the Derwent Dam in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster. His public appearances during this period always resulted in a steady stream of people wanting to shake his hand and take a selfie.
Like many of the generation which came of age during the war years, Johnny has always said that he was simply doing his job. The fact that by doing this he was risking his life, defending liberty against those who sought to bring tyranny to these shores, is immaterial. The qualities by which he has lived his first one hundred years are those of honesty, discipline, respect and loyalty. As he enters his second century let us all wish him the best, and hope that he has many more years to devote to his service to the nation.
Operation Chastise was a complete failure, as Harris admitted at the time and again in 1945.
It was also a war crime.
I can assure you that had the Germans figured out a workable method of attack, they would have blown up dams all over the place.
Chastise did not blow up any dams. Only two dams were breached, and the Germans easily repaired most of the damage within a fortnight.
Harris was right – the failed operation should never have been allowed to take place, since it was a complete waste of resources.
It’s a pity that as per usual in cases like yours that you choose to put a classic, left leaning badly researched, ignorant spin, consistent of not knowing what the hell you are talking about. This post was to celebrate the 100th birthday of a very brave and decent man, not to hear your totally incorrect, biased drivel
Harris was correct – Chastise was a complete failure that achieved nothing.
My grandfather was in the RAF during World War II and he admitted the operation was not a success in any way.
Congratulations James on the most out of context comment that has ever been posted. Not to mention its cowardly undertones.
Total and absolute rubbish, I’ve studied the Dams Raid for over 40 years and taken visitors to visit the areas.
Firstly it caused catastrophic damage to two dams meaning that emergency repairs diverted massive resources away from other work for many, many months. Secondly it gave total and absolute credibility to Barnes Wallis and his original plans for “big bombs” meaning that both Tallboy and Grand Slam could be designed and used from June 1944 onward.
WW2 was not a simple operation, it consisted of many interacting facets, without one, another would not have been possible.
Thirdly it gave a huge moral boost at an important time in the War’s progress. I could go on but this post is about a very brave man in George Johnson and his achievement in reaching 100 years of age.
Most of the damage was repaired within two weeks. Barnes Wallis himself admitted the raid was a failure.
It was only a morale boost because it was oversold to a guillble public who relied on cinema newsreels and heavily censored newspaper reports for information.
Speer and Harris admitted the raid was a complete failure.
Six weeks after the raid, the Ministry of Economic Warfare in London reported that, though the destruction was serious and would involve a large amount of repair work, “the Möhne damage did not touch the main industrial centres”. Decrypts by codebreakers at Bletchley Park showed the emergency was quickly controlled. Historian Sir Michael Howard dismissed Operation Chastise in his official history of British Grand Strategy as “a spectacular feat of skill and courage, but one whose effect on the German war effort was, unfortunately, slight”. Barnes Wallis’s “bouncing bomb” was never used in action again as it had proved too costly in lives, and unusable in any other circumstances.
It’s such a shame that posts like yours detract from the main point of this subject. Johnny Johnson was a very brave man who did his duty, whether you think that was misplaced or not. You should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself sir and take your “Keyboard Warrioring” somewhere else.
I will not comment further except to say you are a despicable individual who could even think such things let alone write them! . Look at yourself in the mirror and hang your head in shame! [Message edited]
The Area Bombing Directive was contradictory to Article 25 of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, and sparked international debate if the directive could be classified as a legalisation of war crimes against the German civilian population.
The carpet bombing of German cities was state-sponsored terrorism.
War is a crime but, thanks to this man and his generation, you get to say what you like.
We should have destroyed the Soviet Union and Communism permanently in 1941.
Backing the Soviet invasion of fascist Poland in 1939 was fatal for our long-term interests, as the Suez Crisis showed.
Your comments are becoming more and more intemperate. Cease this activity or I will be forced to ban you.
This article is a salute to a man who has dedicated his life to the service of his country.
Charles Foster, Administrator.
Shame on you for even writing this, detracting what this post was all about.
Sent from my GalaxyDear sir, many congrats on 100 not out,a fine performance.Eye on the ball,straight bat and who knows!Thank you for your service to our nation.
Absolutely superb tribute to a great man.
Well done sir! I enjoyed reading your autobiography a few years ago and appreciate this fine tribute today. Happy 100th, Johnny!
Absolutely brilliant achievement, well done to him. I have had the privilege of meeting him a couple of times, nice man, have a good day.
Well done on reaching 100 your efforts serve to remind us all what the cost of freedom is. You certainly fit Leonard Cheshire’s definition of a hero.
The UK was denying half of the world its freedom during World War II.
Backing the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 led to half of Europe being overrun by Communism, and Britain becoming a satellite of the United States.
Well done Johnny on your 100 not out! I fitting tribute to a wonderful role model and brave Dambuster. The world has a lot to be thankful for thanks to men like you, I take my hat off to you sir!!
Chastise was a war crime and a complete failure.
Well done Johnny on your 100 not out! I fitting tribute to a wonderful role model and brave Dambuster. The world has a lot to be thankful for to men like you, I take my hat off to you sir!!
Congratulations on your 100 birthday Jonny your brave actions during the second world war are an inspiration to us all. I wish that there were more of your generation still with us. God Bless you.
It is a shame Churchill was bribed by Sir Henry Strakosch to betray the UK.
Hearty congratulations on your centenary Sir! Fantastic news – many happy returns!
Best wishes on your Century Sir ! You have led an Outstanding and very Worthwhile life full of Achievements that still inspire people around the World . Congratulations !!!!!
My grandfather was in the RAF during World War II.
He said we should never have declared war on Germany, given the state of the UK today.
Backing the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 proved to be fatal for our long-term interests.
I suggest folks that this idiot “James” is ignored. He knows very little about the Dams Raid but is under the impression that he does. I will not give him the platform he desires to spread garbage of the highest order. He claims to speak for several people including Barnes Wallis and Arthur Harris yet the content is garbage. A case of a little knowledge is dangerous !
My warmest congratulations to George “Jonny” Johnson on an enormous life achievement irrespective of who he is or what he has done.
We should have destroyed Communism forever in 1941.
Patton was right – “we fought the wrong enemy”.
RAF Bomber Command were war criminals.
So sad Churchill was allowed to commit treason in order to save Chartwell and his finances.
Well done Johnny on reaching your 100th year.
Tony Knight, Ignore this buffoon. He sounds like an off shore hack that spews drivel to irritate everyone
Congratulations and best wishes Mr Johnson, you have my gratitude and thanks for all of your endeavours – during and since the war.
Hello Janet, you have a famous name. Are you family of Sydney Hobday. If yes, and I hope Charles will not mind me plugging my Facebook page, you might want to look at the page called Remembering Dambuster Les Knight DSO. @Charles, you have written a wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.
I don’t think so, we are doing my husbands family tree but nothing has shown up
Wishing Mr Johnson a very Happy 100th Birthday.
For you are a true ambassador & representative of your generation who gave so much for the freedom that we enjoy today.
On behalf of this nation I thank you for all your endeavours & to apologise for the oversight in not receiving your long awaited knight hood.
Good batting Johnny, Congratulations on reaching 100. A very Happy Birthday to you. Tony
There was a time James not that long ago when your comments would have been a treasonable offence & you would have gone to the gallows. fortunately for you that decent upstanding people like Mr J Johnson who gave their all for the freedom of speech.
Happy 100th Birthday Johnny! A great achievement.
A very Happy Birthday Sir, Ive had the good fortune to spend time with Johnny at the 617 Reunions a wonderful Gentleman
Congratulations Johnny! I had the great pleasure to know Johnny while making the documentary, “Last of the Dambusters”, for Channel 5 some years ago (I believe it’s now on You Tube). He is a very decent, warm-hearted man who simply but courageously did his duty and in the documentary also expressed great sympathy for the civilian victims of Operation Chastise. Definitely not a warmonger by choice but dutybound to confront (and thankfully defeat) one of the greatest evils history has known. He has a wonderful open hearted attitude to everyone he meets, especially the younger generation.