Pic: Johnson family
I am sorry to have to report that the last Dambuster, George Leonard (‘Johnny’) Johnson died yesterday, 7 December 2022, at the age of 101. As Sgt G L Johnson he flew on the RAF’s most famous Second World War bombing operation, the attack by 617 Squadron on the dams of the Ruhr and Weser valleys. He was the bomb aimer in the seven-man crew of a Lancaster aircraft, piloted by Flt Lt Joe McCarthy.
George Leonard Johnson was born on 25 November 1921 in Hameringham, Lincolnshire, the sixth and last child of Charles and Ellen Johnson. Although his first name was George and he was known as Len or Leonard to his family, when he joined the RAF he was nicknamed ‘Johnny’, and this is the name by which he was 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 his family life was then very disrupted, due to his father’s abusive nature. His older sister Lena was living away from home, in service as a maid and it wasn’t until she moved home that 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.
Johnson volunteered to join the RAF in June 1940, applying to become a navigator. He was, however, selected for pilot training and eventually joined up in November 1940. 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.
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, arriving 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 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 few more operations but then the opportunity came up to train as a specialist bomb aimer, and he completed the course in late November 1942. Within a month, a vacancy for a bomb aimer came up in Flt Lt Joe McCarthy’s crew. McCarthy was one of the several thousand Americans who had joined the Canadian air force before Pearl Harbour, and had gained a reputation as an excellent pilot. There were three Canadians in his crew of seven and at first Johnson wasn’t keen on flying as part of a British minority 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.
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 all power in one engine and suffered problems in another. They were forced to land at Bottesford.
Johnson soon gained the confidence of his crewmates and flew on eighteen more operations with McCarthy in the spring of 1943, which brought him to the end of a full tour of thirty operations 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 at RAF Scampton, under the command of Wg Cdr Guy Gisbon, for a new secret mission and all leave was cancelled.
Determined that Johnson would keep the date, McCarthy assembled his entire crew and marched all six of them into Gibson’s office. Johnson described what happened next in his 2015 autobiography.
“‘The thing is, sir,’ [McCarthy] said, very forcibly, ‘we’ve all just finished our tour and we are all entitled to a week’s leave. My bomb aimer is due to be married on the third of April and let me tell you he is going to get married on the third of April!’
There was a short pause while the others, no doubt, wished they were anywhere else except standing in the office of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson DSO, DFC and Bar, who had a fearsome reputation as a strict disciplinarian and had been known by the crews of 106 Squadron as ‘The Arch-Bastard’.
He looked us up and down and said, ‘Very well. You can have four days. Dismissed.’
Thank you Joe! I left for Torquay immediately, before our new CO could change his mind.”
In fact, McCarthy and his crew didn’t know that several other crews had been told by their previous COs that they could take leave before their new posting, and therefore would not arrive at Scampton for several more days. Although he didn’t say so, Gibson was probably relieved not to have all his new men arriving at once. He would have known at this stage that he didn’t yet have enough aircraft for his new squadron to train on, so a crew going on leave for four days was hardly going to upset the schedule too much.
Johnny returned from his wedding and honeymoon to start the training. At first all they knew was that they would be flying at very low level – below 100 feet – and would need to be able to drop their spinning ‘mine’ with great accuracy. They didn’t know that the weapon had been designed by the scientist Barnes Wallis to ‘bounce’ on the waters of a lake where its momentum would carry it up to a target, where it would sink below the water level and then explode. The target was the German dams in the powerhouse of the Ruhr valley, but they didn’t find this out until the day of the raid, Sunday 16 May 1943.
In his training for the Dams Raid Johnson practised dropping the mine as his aircraft flew straight towards the target at low level. However, on the Sunday afternoon, McCarthy, Johnson and their colleagues were told that they would be one of the five crews detailed to attack the Sorpe dam, an earth embankment-type dam with a concrete core. This meant they had to fly along the dam wall and drop their mine at its centre. It would roll down the wall on the water side and explode when it reached the correct depth.
McCarthy’s Lancaster was supposed to lead off the wave which was detailed to attack the Sorpe Dam but when a technical problem was discovered on their favoured aircraft they had to transfer to the spare. They realised when they got to the Sorpe Dam that they were the only crew of the five which had got that far. Having to line up a completely different approach, over land and along the dam wall, took them a while to get correct but eventually, on the tenth try, McCarthy managed to make a near-perfect run, getting down to about 30ft, and Johnson released the weapon. However, the dam failed to breach, and the crew had to make their lonely way home.
Although AJ-T had failed to breach the dam, Johnson, McCarthy 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. 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 eighteen more 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.
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, the town where Gwyn had been brought up. Although she came from a Labour-supporting Welsh mining family, 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 Johnson was elected as a councillor, and became chair of the constituency party, amongst other things having to deal with the wayward activities of Rupert Allason, the local MP. Allason was a Maastricht rebel and a plotter against the Prime Minister John Major, who Johnson admired. Johnson 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.
Gwyn Johnson died in August 2005 and for a while Johnson withdrew from public life. But then he started accepting invitations from the media for interviews and documentary appearances, and as the number of those who had served in Bomber Command during wartime inevitably dwindled he became one of the most familiar veterans. Even in his late nineties he was a compelling speaker and a willing interviewee. Any public appearance would result in a steady stream of people wanting to shake his hand and have a selfie taken.
He had always worked hard for charity, particularly campaigning for improved resources for mental health, and this was recognised on three separate occasions at the time of the 75th anniversary of the Dams Raid in 2018: a visit to Buckingham Palace to be invested with an MBE by the Queen, 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.
As a centenarian and ‘the last Dambuster’, Johnson occupied an important place in what sometimes seems an insatiable public interest in the Dams Raid. But, as his son Morgan points out in the last chapter of Johnson’s autobiography:
“[H]e 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.”
Like many of the generation which came of age during the war years, Johnny Johnson always said that he was simply doing his job. The fact that by doing this job he was risking his life, defending liberty against those who sought to bring tyranny to these shores, is immaterial. The qualities by which he lived his life were those of honesty, discipline, respect and loyalty.
Johnny Johnson is survived by his son Morgan, his two daughters Susan and Jenny, and his grandchildren.
Sqn Ldr George Leonard (‘Johnny’) Johnson MBE DFM, born 25 November 1921, died 7 December 2022.