Dambuster Johnson at Bomber Command memorial opening

There’s an interview in today’s Telegraph with both George (Johnny) Johnson and Les Munro about the unveiling of the new Bomber Command memorial today. Coverage on BBC2 at 5pm (and again at 11.20pm, which I suspect will be a repeat).
I will add further links to this story later today, as they come up.

Tonight at 8

Just a quick note to say that UK residents with access to Channel Five can see the documentary ‘Last of the Dambusters: Revealed’ again tonight at 8pm. It features one of the (now only four) surviving Dambusters, George ‘Johnny’ Johnson and his trip to France as a team of aircraft excavators dig up the Lancaster in which he flew on the Dams Raid. Later, he travels to the Sorpe Dam to see how the area has changed in the 65 years since the raid. He also meets people from the surrounding villages.
I’ve blogged about this programme before, when it was first shown in 2008 and when it was posted on Youtube.

‘Last of the Dambusters’ on Youtube

I posted about this interesting (although misleadingly titled) documentary last year, when it was shown on British terrestrial TV. It shows the journey made by Sqn Ldr George (Johnny) Johnson, bomb aimer in Joe McCarthy’s AJ-T, to visit the site in Germany at which his Dambuster Lancaster crashed six months after the Dams Raid. Here it is on Youtube, in five parts.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5


The glamour of the Dambusters

What is the connection between the Dambusters and the 1960 Michael Powell cult film, Peeping Tom (being shown in the UK on ITV in the early hours of Friday 27 February)? The answer is Pamela Green, the celebrated 1950s glamour model and actress, who made her ‘straight’ acting debut in this film. While Ms Green was still a student, her first nude photographs were taken by Dams Raid survivor Sgt Douglas Webb DFM, the front gunner in Bill Townsend’s aircraft, AJ-O.  After the war, Webb had returned to a job in Fleet Street as a photographer and then branched out into film stills and ‘glamour’ work. He is probably the only Dams Raid participant with an entry on IMDb. In the 1950s and 60s Ms Green made a career out of glamour work, culminating in the naturist picture Naked as Nature Intended. When Peeping Tom emerged, in those still-censorious times, the moderately explicit shots of her which were included got local watch committees in a fuss. Doug Webb and Pamela Green married in 1967, and later retired to the Isle of Wight. Sadly he died in 1996, but Ms Green is still flourishing, and can be seen from time to time on nostalgia TV shows.

David Shannon’s trousers…

… are in the Australian War Memorial collection in Canberra, as are his jacket, cap and medals. You can also read an entry about Shannon in the online exhibition, Fifty Australians: 

a cross-section of Australians – sometimes a leader, a hero, or even a rogue – who saw war and its effects. Some of these men and women gave their lives, others became renowned for their wartime courage or example, while others, affected for better or worse, emerged to face the peace where they would make their own particular mark. Each has a fascinating story.

Some of these people, such as the cricketer Keith Miller, may be familiar to non-Aussies. Many more are not, but their stories add to our wider knowledge of just how deeply the scars of war are etched on us all.

Last of the Dambusters, not

I managed to see a recording of the Channel Five documentary ‘Last of the Dambusters’ the other night. (As I live in Ireland, I can’t get Channel Five, even though we get all the other British channels on our cable service.) This has been quite extensively reviewed (see here and here) and discussed on various forums (see here and here) so I shan’t say too much more.

The programme featured George (Johnny) Johnson, who is fast becoming a national treasure. Although he is not the ‘last of the dambusters’ (I don’t know why the programme was given that confusing title when five or six men who took part in the Dams Raid are still alive) he is the only one based in the UK who regularly does media appearances. He treated the programme makers and everyone else in the film with his usual courtesy, and it was very interesting seeing his reactions to meeting people who lived near the Sorpe Dam which he had tried to destroy 65 years before.

The other inaccuracy in the programme concerned the Sorpe Dam itself. The impression was given that Joe McCarthy’s crew, in which Johnson was the bomb aimer, was the only crew to reach and attack the Sorpe. It is true to say that they were the only one of the five crews in the second wave to get that far (Munro and Rice had to turn back after their aircraft were damaged, Barlow and Byers crashed on the outward flight). But Ken Brown in AJ-F, from the reserve wave, made it all the way, dropped his mine successfully at 0314 and returned to Scampton safely.

Hindsight tells us that sufficient thought had not been given as to how to attack the Sorpe. With its earth core construction the dam could not be attacked head on like the concrete-built Möhne and Eder, so the ‘bouncing’ technique could not be used. Instead, both McCarthy and Brown flew along the length of the dam and dropped their mines in the centre, causing them to roll down into the water before the hydrostatic fuse exploded. Perhaps if five aircraft had got through the cumulative effect would have succeeded, but we will never know.

Looking over the interwebnet today for reviews of the programme, I came across this other oddity – a review by the romantic fiction writer Jessica Blair. It turns out that Ms Blair is not all she seems, being the nom de plume of a gentleman called Bill Spence, who flew 36 wartime operations as a Lancaster bomb aimer in 44 Squadron, and turned to writing in 1960. What an interesting life!

Dams Raid Lancaster crash site on TV

This is not the crash site of one of the eight Lancasters lost on Operation Chastise (those have all been excavated years ago) but is where Lancaster AJ-T (ED825/G) crashed on the night of 10 December 1943 near Doullens in France. It was still being used by 617 Squadron, and that night was being flown by a crew captained by Flt Lt Gordon Weeden. All seven of the crew were killed.

AJ-T had been designated the ‘spare’ aircraft for Operation Chastise, and was hurriedly pressed into service when Flt Lt Joe McCarthy found a fault in his favourite AJ-Q (Q for Queenie). There is a lot of detail about McCarthy’s habit of calling all his aircraft Queenie, and his predilection for ‘nose art’ here.

Channel Five is screening a documentary about the search for AJ-T next Tuesday, 17 June at 2000 BST. More than ten years after its launch, Channel Five is still not available to everyone in the UK, so I’m sure in due course that the film will be made available on DVD.

The documentary features one of Britain’s last ‘active’ Dambusters, George (Johnny) Johnson, who, of course, was the bomb aimer in McCarthy’s crew, and therefore dropped a bomb from the aircraft on the Sorpe Dam during the Dams Raid. The latter part of the film shows his trip back to the Dams, and his memories of that night.

Here’s what Channel Five say about the film:

Revealed (Documentary)

Last of The Dambusters.

Historical documentary focusing on the famous Second World War Dambusters raid. George Johnson – a bomb aimer in one of the raid’s Lancasters and one of only two British Dambusters alive today – sets off on a final mission to rediscover his past. He finds and digs up his old Dambuster bomber, before travelling back to the giant German dams that he once attacked.

Dambuster survivors

Somebody has recently asked me privately how many of the original Dambusters are still alive. The answer to that is six. I am not going to name all of them here, as I think that one of them no longer does any public events. Of the five who still appear in public there are two in the UK. At the time of the dams raid, George (Johnny) Johnson was Sgt G L Johnson, the bomb aimer in the crew of AJ-T, piloted by Joe McCarthy. The crew dropped their bomb on the Sorpe Dam. 

Ray Grayston also lives in England. As Sgt R E Grayston, he was the flight engineer in Les Knight’s crew, AJ-N. They were the crew which dropped the mine which finally breached the Eder Dam.

The only pilot still surviving is Les Munro, one of two New Zealanders on the Dams Raid. Flt Lt J L Munro flew AJ-W on the raid, and was also supposed to attack the Sorpe Dam. Unfortunately, crossing the Dutch coast near Vlieland, they were hit by flak, which put the intercom and the VHF radio out of action, as well as damaging the compass and the tail turret pipes. With no way of speaking either to each other on board, or to other aircraft, they had no option but to return to Scampton with their mine still intact.

The final two Dambusters who are still active returned to their native Canada after the war. Both were gunners: Fred Sutherland and Grant MacDonald. Sgt F E Sutherland was the front gunner in Les Knight’s crew, AJ-N. Flt Sgt G S MacDonald was the rear gunner in Ken Brown’s crew, AJ-F. Like AJ-T, they attacked the Sorpe Dam, but failed to breach it. 

In my dealings with these gentlemen, I have to say that they were all models of courtesy. They have all told their stories hundreds of times and yet their patience and willingness to provide information is outstanding. We owe them all a huge debt as they keep the story of the Dams Raid alive.