Early birthday airborne tributes for Johnny’s century

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Pic: © Claire Hartley

Sqn Ldr George ‘Johnny’ Johnson MBE DFM will reach his 100th birthday in November, but in anticipation of this great event on Sunday 28 July a charity from Penarth organised an early summer birthday party for him at White Waltham airfield in Berkshire. Group 617 is a non-profit organisation set up by veterans which has the aim of supporting other veterans and civilians of all backgrounds with mental health issues caused by experiences during service.

It was founded in 2011 by Russ Kitely and Johnny Johnson is its honorary President. In their words, Group 617 provided the “brains and workforce” behind the event. Also present were members of Bristol University Air Squadron, the RAF and the RAF Air Cadets. With fantastic weather, the party were treated to air displays from Team Raven, an RAF Chinook from RAF Odiham and a Gloster Meteor from Martin-Baker. The Bristol University Air Squadron presided over the transport arrangements for the Johnson family.

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Guests admire the flypast by Team Raven. (Pic: Claire Hartley)

Amongst the other guests was Valerie Ashton, the daughter of Sgt Victor Hill, who was the front gunner in David Maltby’s AJ-J on the Dams Raid. He went missing in action on an aborted operation to attack the Dortmund Ems canal in September 1943. Johnny Johnson was pleased to meet Valerie, and share reminiscences about his time in 617 Squadron with her father.

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Left to right: BUAS Officer Cadet Josh Rowles, Johnny Johnson, Valerie Ashton. (Pic: Ashton family)

Thanks to Josh Rowles for help with this post.

RAFBF to hold Dambusters charity cycle challenge

RAFBF cycle

To celebrate the forthcoming 100th birthday of the last Dambuster, Sqn Ldr George ‘Johnny’ Johnson MBE DFM on 25 November 2021, the RAF Benevolent Fund charity is holding a sponsored 56 or 100-mile cycle ride at various venues around the country. Most of these will be held on 15-16 May, the weekend nearest the 78th anniversary of the Dams Raid. The 100 miles celebrates Johnny’s impending centenary, while the 56 miles commemorates those aircrew who did not return (53 lost in action, 3 taken prisoner). The planned event at the Petwood Hotel in Woodhall Spa has been delayed until 3 July due to the pandemic, but you can still sign up to the virtual challenge and cycle your 56 or 100 miles anywhere else in the world on 15-16 May. Full details are here on the RAFBF website.

Several ex-RAF 617 Squadron members are planning rides, including some who are taking on a particularly arduous route around Lossiemouth in Scotland. These include Clive Mitchell, Colin McGregor, Nige Tiddy, and Ben Dempster (100 miles) and Pete Beckett and Ronnie Lawson on the more modest 56 miles distance.

RAFBF Lossiemouth cycle

Their route is shown above. If you live in the area, please consider turning out to support them. And if you don’t feel up to the cycling challenge yourself, and you don’t have anyone particular to sponsor, then the 617 Squadron Association is asking you to back Clive Mitchell, whose sponsorship page you can find on this link.

This is the link to the Lossiemouth route.

Good luck to everyone!

Johnny Johnson: 99 and counting

Pic: IWM

Today is Johnny Johnson’s 99th birthday!
Sqn Ldr George Leonard Johnson MBE, DFM: we salute you.

Above: Six of the men who flew in the crew of AJ-T on the Dams Raid on 16/17 May 1943. From left to right: Johnny Johnson (bomb aimer), Don MacLean (navigator), Ron Batson (front gunner), Joe McCarthy (pilot), Bill Radcliffe (flight engineer), Len Eaton (wireless operator). Absent on day of photograph: Dave Rodger (rear gunner). Photograph taken in July 1943.

Johnny Johnson remembering old comrade Les Knight

Johnny Johnson’s tribute to fellow Dambuster Les Knight. [Pic: Melvin Chambers]

Guest post by Melvin Chambers

On Monday 4 May, the Dutch Remembrance Day, the last surviving Dambuster Johnny Johnson sent an RAF-themed Roundel wreath to the Netherlands to be placed on fellow Dambuster Les Knight’s grave in the village of Den Ham.

Johnny sent the wreath as honorary president of a veteran’s self-help group called Group 617, a self-help group in the UK. Set up and run by military veterans, its chairman Russ Taff Kitely said Johnny cares deeply about the comrades he lost during the war. He also cares deeply about today’s veterans who suffer traumas. The group currently helps more than 60 veterans in need.

As sunset approached four vintage aircraft from the Egmond Vintage Wings group (based at Hoogeveen Airport) paid a personal tribute to Les Knight with a fly-past and Missing Man tribute. The formation flew above Den Ham where Knight sacrificed his life to save the village from disaster and to save his crew, who all survived the war.

Lead pilot Tom Wilps said : “It was too good an opportunity not to bring out this personal tribute from us pilots to an extraordinary pilot. We know of Les Knight’s great sacrifice and took into account the position of his monument in our flight plan to honour him.”

The sky was absolutely clear and the four aircraft performed their tribute as villagers came out of their homes and watched in surprise.

Johnny Johnson’s handwritten inscription reads: “Sincere thanks for your contribution to 617 Squadron and particularly your care for your crew. ‘The Lucky One.’ Johnny Johnson MBE DFM”

The wreath being laid by Les Knight Charity committee member Hans Dekker on behalf of Johnny Johnson. [Pic: Melvin Chambers]


At the going down of the sun… four vintage warbirds make a personal fly-past salute to Les Knight [Pic: Egmond Vintage Wings]

Joe McCarthy and his wartime friends

Joe McCarthy’s son, Joe McCarthy Jr, has kindly sent me some more information about the well-known picture of members of his father’s crew fraternising with the crew of an American B-26, taken at the Earls Colne airfield in Essex in 1944. I have previously reproduced a similar picture in the Dambuster of the Day article on Ron Batson.

Joe’s picture is a better shot obviously taken at the same time, as it doesn’t cover Johnny Johnson’s face. He also sent me a clipping from a newspaper given to him by Dorothy Bailey (daughter of Bill Radcliffe, the flight engineer in the McCarthy crew) which reproduces the same picture and helpfully includes a caption listing all the personnel:

Two more interesting points from Joe. The return flight from Earls Colne to Woodhall Spa was probably the last time that Johnny Johnson flew with the crew, as he left the squadron shortly after. McCarthy’s new bomb aimer was ‘Danny’ Daniels who went on to fly with ‘Willie’ Tait, including on the Tirpitz raid.

Next to McCarthy is the American pilot Major John Bull Stirling, another US citizen who joined the RCAF before the USA entered the war. In fact Stirling had been in the same RCAF training class in Ontario as McCarthy but he chose to transfer into the US Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor. According to this entry on the American Air Museum in Britain website, he had an eventful time during the war and died in 1988.

Dambuster Double signed book

‘Unique’ is a pretty overworked adjective these days, but here is something that I am confident is exactly that. It is a copy of my book, The Complete Dambusters, and it has been signed on the title page by both of the last two men alive who took part in the Dams Raid, George ‘Johnny’ Johnson and Fred Sutherland.

I am very honoured that they both took the time to sign it, and I thank the members of both families who helped make this possible.

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.

 

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