Special badge for Johnny’s centenary to benefit RAFBF

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Guest post by Josh Rowles

Today is a very special day for my dear friend Johnny. He has turned 100 years old! He is living his best life and has insisted that for triple figures, he didn’t want a big gift. For his 98th birthday, I presented Johnny with a picture book full of events we had hosted together, which he treasures. For his 100th, I felt I couldn’t top that!

Whilst chatting to Johnny’s daughter Jenny, we established he had enough booze for another 100 years so an alternative idea would be to raise some money for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund (RAFBF) through the production of some special badges, designed for his birthday.

I have personally designed and, with the approval of Jenny and the RAFBF, I have had 100 limited edition large patches made but also a batch of smaller badges. All of the profits will go to the RAFBF.

For the large badge, it will come boxed with a ‘certificate’ I designed, signed by the RAFBF and myself stating the patch number. This is priced at £25 minimum donation (+P&P). The smaller standalone unboxed badge is £10 minimum donation (+P&P). Donations beyond these prices are of course welcomed.

I will be looking to put these badges on eBay soon, but wanted to offer these out to friends and readers of the Dambusters Blog beforehand in case anyone would like some. If you would, please drop me an email on johnny100years@gmail.com with what you’d like and I will send you payment details. (First come first served! These are limited editions.)

Pictured below: Johnny Johnson and Josh Rowles.

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Johnny hits one hundred!

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Pic: RAFBF

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.