Johnson unveils Dambusters Reunited exhibition

Guest post: all text and photographs by Edwina Towson

Last Sunday the “Dambusters Reunited” exhibition of portraits painted by Dan Llewelyn Hall was formally opened.  It is made up of images of the 133 aircrew of 617 squadron who flew on the Dams Raid on the night of 16/17 May 1943. The exhibition is now on view at the RAF Club at 128 Piccadilly, London W1J 7PY and runs until 31 May.

The compact portraits populated the room in the way that they had only ever done in life together on three occasions, the last being the pre-raid briefing when, finally, their target was revealed. Dan Llywelyn Hall had worked to restore these men to their group status but as individuals, spending time looking at a photograph of each and absorbing any biographical details, anecdotes and family reminiscences that could be gleaned at 75 years distance to determine the character in the features of each face.

The 75 years distance was briefly closed for us in the gallery when a special guest, George “Johnny” Johnson, came back into the presence of the gathered portraits, bringing with him so many memories of his own of the dams raid and of the planning and training for it.

He took his seat at the end of the exhibition space, next to a larger portrait of his current self which Dan Llywelyn Hall had painted, in addition to the smaller one of young Sergeant Johnson, bomb-aimer of the crew of Lancaster AJ-T, taking its place in the sets on the long side walls, which were arranged in sevens, seven being a Lancaster’s crewsworth.

Johnny Johnson and Dan Llywelyn Hall

With some prompting questions from the artist, the 96 year old airman talked a bit about the raid in 1943 and described how the specialist bomb sight (which he holds in the large portrait) was something that had needed re-making to be useful. He also talked about the excitement of flying on 17 May this year in the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster over the Derwent Dam. He remarked that, this time, he had been given a chair to use in the bomb-aimer’s station, which was a lot more comfortable than lying flat in the blister, as he had needed to when directing the pilot into position over the target.

Later, the artist invited the poet Oliver James Lomax to read some of his poems, starting with one called “Dambuster” which appears in the commemorative book recording the exhibition.

Oliver James Lomax reads his poem

Representatives of associated charities had been invited to speak on their particular interest and, generously, Johnny Johnson encouraged us all to give for the charitable causes by signing copies of the large portrait and of the books connected with the exhibition.

Rewarded by Dan Llywelyn Hall with a bottle of Welsh whisky from the Penderyn distillery and holding a glass of red wine for immediate consumption, Johnny Johnson took to his feet and stood in front of the main portrait as the people gathered in the gallery applauded his spirit and his evident determination to keep the 617 narrative in the public eye.

Afterwards, he slowly walked round the portraits, looking hard into the other 132 faces and seeing there things which the rest of us, spared the searing of that Dambuster night, can only guess at.

 

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Johnson flies in BBMF Lancaster

Pic: BBMF

Twenty-four hours later than planned, George ‘Johnny’ Johnson was a passenger in the BBMF Lancaster this morning when it flew from Coningsby at about 0800. The Lancaster’s route took them over Scampton and the Derwent Dam before landing again at Scampton about an hour later. Johnny flew in the bomb aimer’s position, just as he did when he took off from Scampton 75 years ago yesterday on the Dams Raid.

The flight was postponed from yesterday by weather conditions. The fact that Johnny was always scheduled to be a passenger was a very well-kept secret, as it was feared that if it became known he was going to be on board the traffic problems would have been even worse.

More to follow

Johnny Johnson collects MBE from the Queen

One of the last two men alive who took part in the Dams Raid, George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, was decorated yesterday with the MBE by the Queen at a Buckingham Palace investiture. Johnson, who will be 96 in 17 days time, was the bomb aimer in Joe McCarthy’s crew in Lancaster AJ-T, which attacked the Sorpe Dam on the night of 16/17 May 1943. The other survivor is the 94-year-old Canadian Fred Sutherland, the front gunner in Les Knight’s crew in AJ-N, which dropped the final mine on the Eder Dam, causing its breach.

Johnny Johnson was decorated for his services to Second World War remembrance and to the community in Bristol, where he lives. He said afterwards that the Queen told him that she was ‘glad to see that the Dambusters are still here’.

Johnny Johnson has, of course, been to the palace for an investiture once before, on 22 June 1943, when he was one of the 33 men decorated by the current Queen’s mother after the Dams Raid. On that occasion he received the DFM. He must be one of the few who have an MBE to add to his collection.

BBC News Bristol report

Johnny meets mascot for the first time in 70 years

Johnson Bailey 5523 lores

Pic: Heather Allsworth

George “Johnny” Johnson came face to face again with the crew mascot who flew with him on the Dams Raid recently at East Kirkby. The small toy panda is now owned by Dorothy Bailey, the daughter of Johnny’s crew mate, Bill Radcliffe, and recently featured on an episode of the BBC Antiques Roadshow.
Radcliffe was the flight engineer and Johnson the bomb aimer in the Lancaster skippered by Joe McCarthy, one of the two Dams Raid aircraft to attack the Sorpe Dam in the early hours of 17 May 1943. Radcliffe would tuck the mascot inside his flying boot before every operation, and both it and he survived the war. Unfortunately in 1952 he was killed in a car crash, back in his native Canada so his widow and young children returned to England.
Dorothy and Johnny had never met before, so this was an opportunity for her to ask him about the father she scarcely knew and, of course, for Johnny to see again the little toy whose lucky life may have helped him survive the war.

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  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.

Dining with a Dambuster

j johnson panel
Pics: Edwina Towson

On Remembrance Day, Tuesday 11 November, Sqn Ldr George “Johnny” Johnson was the guest of honour at a Lord’s Taverners charity event at Langan’s Brasserie in London. Dambusters Blog reader Edwina Towson was one of the guests, and has written this report:

It’s a long way from a farm-labourer’s cottage in Lincolnshire to Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair – 93 years long in Johnny Johnson’s case.

But there he was, AJ-T’s bomb-aimer and lately author of an autobiography “The last British Dambuster” (Ebury Press), the guest of honour at a supper event at Langan’s hosted by the Lord’s Taverners charity, on Remembrance Day 2014.

After the supper plates were cleared away, Squadron Leader George “Johnny” Johnson was introduced by Con Coughlin, Defence Editor of the Daily Telegraph, in case any of the company was unaware of the distinguished credentials of the speaker.

The speaker greeted us first in his native dialect as, mindful of his own journey and the Lincolnshire theme, the dams story began. He gave the context for his return to Lincolnshire through his selection for 617 Squadron, which had been wholly due to his American pilot, Joe McCarthy. Johnny hadn’t thought much of American aircrew before meeting Joe (“just couldn’t stand them,” he said!), so it was good to hear that the pilot’s steady demeanour and skill had completely won the sceptical bomb-aimer’s confidence by the time that his crew was asked to move to Scampton.

And it was from Scampton that we really took off with Johnny. In spirit, he had left the room and was muffled in his flying kit, watching the fields that he had known as a child speed underneath him during the intense six week training for the dams raid.

He talked about having mixed feelings as their low flying flattened the tulips in the fields round Spalding: he felt sadness for the broken flowers, but also some amusement at knowing how the canniness of the farmers would result in very inflated claims for compensation!

Unprompted, and choosing quite detailed episodes from memory to give an impression of his experiences, he recounted the primitive and unreliable state of the equipment in those days and how the entirely novel and experimental nature of the mission meant that the crews had to fathom what it was that they needed as they went along. Having the combative, driven and demanding Gibson as commander clearly helped in getting what was required; we heard the story of Gibson being told that some key equipment couldn’t be supplied in time and how he pestered Group HQ, Bomber Command HQ, Air Ministry HQ and any other HQ with a telephone in an obstinate escalation of protest until the squadron indeed got what it needed. “That was Gibson to a T,” said the former 617 Sergeant with mixed wariness and appreciation.

How narrow the chances of survival were came over strongly in many of Johnny’s recollections, whether in spotting, themselves, by accident a ditched Beaufighter crew, just because the practice navigation over the North Sea had taken them over the frantically waving figures, or whether in the ground crew showing them on landing how the wing of the Lancaster had been holed by a shell which missed the petrol tank by a squeak and then lodged on the fuselage just above the navigator’s head.

The focus of the evening was inevitably the dams raid itself and it was a moving and slightly eerie experience for us to hear a first-hand participant recall, unscripted and with all the deep-felt immediacy of a participant, the arrival of the unrecognizable bomb (“just like a glorified dustbin”), the unfamiliarity for the pilots in following orders from the bomb-aimer on direction to target, orders from the flight engineer on speed and orders from the navigator on the convergence of spotlights for height accuracy and then the unfamiliarity for all of them as the special briefing took place with so many important people (even the Group AOC) present for the revelation of the targets.

AJ-T was given the Sorpe dam as a target which, as Johnny wryly explained, meant that the crew used little of the special training techniques in tackling the considerable difficulties of the awkward terrain, the parallel approach required and the eventual bomb drop from 30 feet. The bomb drop was made effectively but the impact was not adequate to breach the dam, even though the water spout was estimated by the rear-gunner to be 1,000 feet tall.

They found a little consolation in passing over the Möhne dam some half an hour after it had been attacked and witnessing the aftermath: “it was just like an inland sea – there was water everywhere”.

Despite a punctured starboard tyre, AJ-T landed well and, still at our supper tables, we all came to a standstill, slightly stunned by what we had heard as “passengers” in the dams adventure. We were immediately invited to put questions, which elicited answers on the range of ages of the various crews, the fortunes of 617 after the dams raid and the total focus required for crew members to feel confident in each other’s performance. Finally, there was the obligatory question about Guy Gibson as a personality on the squadron. From his sergeant’s perspective and as a lucky survivor of the unique, unprecedented and highly dangerous attack, Johnny gave his judgement on the raid commander’s contribution: “in attack, yes, he was absolutely first class. He was a bit difficult to get on with outside of that but, in doing the job, he really did it properly. ”

After that, Con Coughlin looked round at the hundred or so invited guests and gave a short speech of collective thanks for the speaker’s willingness to keep the awareness of the dams raid fresh in the medium of living speech. After signing copies of his autobiography and rising to leave, the Sqn Ldr (retired) walked steadily for the exit, congratulated along the way by a number of the table-waiting staff who had been standing spellbound round the edges of the function room.

Outside it was raining and dark. The guests dispersed into a Remembrance Day evening unlike any other and unlikely, by them at least, ever to be forgotten.

© Edwina Towson