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