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

Advertisements

Dambusters at the Albert Hall

BBC screengrab

The Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance takes place on Saturday 9 November at 9.15pm and will be broadcast live on BBC1 for UK viewers. This year it will feature a tribute to the 133 aircrew who took part in the Dams Raid, and use the pictureboard created in conjunction with this blog as part of the video sequence.
An iPlayer link will follow here on Sunday after transmission. (See here, about 5 minutes in:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03hwbvv/Royal_British_Legion_Festival_of_Remembrance_2013/ ).
If you know of any other Remembrance Day tributes to Dambusters, then please get in touch.

Remembrance Day, 2009

Poem by Ann Stevenson in The Guardian, Saturday 7 November, 2009. I can’t find it in the online version, so I am reproducing it in full here.

After the Funeral
by Anne Stevenson
For Sally Thorneloe, in memory of Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, killed in Afghanistan, 1 July 2009
Seeing you lost in that enormous hat,
Your face rigid with grief, I thought of how
In love with life you used to be, so much that
“Happy” seemed to be a word kept warm for you.
Seeing you stunned there in the camera’s eye,
Forbidding your chin to undermine your lip,
I knew the knife in you was asking why?
Oh, ceremony couldn’t answer it.
Though they were trying desperately to give
History’s unspoken underside a face,
A frame, words and reason to believe
The afterlife is ordered – like the place
In which, beside his flag-draped coffin, you
Acted, like him, the role you’d been assigned to.

National differences in Remembrance Day customs

Interesting article by a British academic in the New York Times about different attitudes to Remembrance Day in different countries. It goes under a number of different names: Armistice Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day. In the USA, the day is more about celebrating lives of those who survived. In Poland, it is a day of national rejoicing as it marks the day in which the nation was reborn. In both France and Britain, however, it is more about remembering those who died. 

Video of Lancaster in flight

I’ve only just caught up with this article in the Canadian Hamilton Spectator which appeared back in September. On the twentieth anniversary of its restoration, it tells the story of how one of the only two airworthy Lancasters in the world was saved from the scrapheap and brought back into flying condition.

Some splendid video footage and fascinating interviews. The newspaper’s main site also has video footage of the Remembrance Day service held at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Centre.

Remembering Remembrance Days

The Remembrance Day poppies I was given as a child were the old type, stiff red paper with a wire stalk. Adults wore them in their button holes, twisting the wire behind the lapel to keep it secure. Children pushed them through the wool of itchy school jumpers. When I was a teenager, boarding at St Edward’s School in Oxford in the 1960s, someone would come round selling them the week before during evening prep. Then on the actual Remembrance Day itself we would wear them while our Sunday chapel service was moved outside, clustered round the school’s war memorial. We would shuffle uncomfortably in our charcoal grey Sunday suits, trying to stay warm, minds drifting. Sundays meant a revolting roast lunch, straight after chapel, which I used to make a pretence of eating, but the latter part of the day did bring greater pleasures: a free afternoon, iced buns at teatime and, best of all, the cymbal signature tune which marked the Light Programme’s Pick of the Pops.

The war memorial was a tall stone cross outside the chapel. However, the names of the boys killed in the two world wars were inside, on a series of plaques on its side walls. There were hundreds of names, and I whiled away many a sermon reading and rereading those nearest my pew. Most meant little to me, but it was easy to spot those who were likely to have been brothers: L Q T T de O P T Tollemache and L S D O F T T de O P Tollemache being obvious examples. The school’s only VC, G P Gibson was also listed, of course, and was further honoured with a stained glass window.

As eleven o’clock chimed on those cold November Sundays I would dutifully try and think about the uncle I never knew, killed in the war. But I don’t think I ever really appreciated the hurt that my mother and her parents must have felt for the rest of their lives, that dull pain that never went away. And the pain of those unknown other parents and siblings, the Tollemaches, the Gibsons, the other names I have forgotten.

Was their pain ever assuaged by the national rituals of Remembrance Sunday? A day which, in the words of Professor Anthony Smith, has institutionalised our ‘collective identity through the rites of death and commemoration’? (Chosen Peoples, OUP 2003, p.246.)

The way in which these national rituals have developed was explored in a recent Guardian article by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, who is much the same age as me. After a meeting with one of the few British veterans remaining from the First World War, Harry Patch, he wrote:

… it’s already abundantly clear there’s no danger of the war being suddenly forgotten, or made to seem irrelevant to our sense of what Europe and the world has to avoid repeating. In fact, during the last generation or so, and for reasons that have to do with much more than the survival of Harry and a few other veterans, the first world war has been identified by common consent as one of the great turning points in our history.

In the immediate aftermath, people did what they could to put it behind them – as they did again after the second world war. (My own father, in a way that was typical of his generation, said almost nothing to me about his life in the army, no matter how much I prodded him.) But in the long western European peace since 1945, the first world war has loomed larger and larger in our imaginations. It was once described as the war to end all wars. Over time, it has become the war by which most others are measured – in spite of all the obvious differences in weaponry, motive, duration, everything. In the process, it has also become more and more clearly the event which made us “modern” – both in the sense that it accelerated the growth of our democratic structures, and loosened old class strictures, and because it made the whole population familiar with barbarity, suffering and loss on a scale never seen before. Ninety years on from the Armistice, we look at the events of 1914-18 and think we are examining our national psychic wound.

That’s why Remembrance Day parades and ceremonies are given so much press and other kinds of attention these days (perhaps even more attention than previously, but these things are hard to measure). They exist to commemorate the dead of all wars, but they invariably revolve around images associated with the trenches – the heart-jolting pictures of people like Harry Patch floundering in the mud, or scrabbling over the lip of a trench and almost immediately being shot down. And throughout the rest of the year they are fed by other elements of national life. By the pathos and ubiquity of the large-scale memorials in our cities, and the smaller monuments in our villages – often recording the deaths of several members of the same family. By the way poetry of the first world war is drip-fed from the national curriculum into almost all our children as they become teenagers. (To the extent that even the best poets of other wars, such as Keith Douglas, are not studied at all, or made to seem somehow less good, because they don’t conform to the criteria of war poetry established by Owen, Sassoon, et al.)

All these are reasons for thinking that when Harry Patch is no longer with us, the Great War will keep its eagle-grasp on our imaginations. Unlike the Hundred Years War, or the Napoleonic wars, it’s feeling of closeness is continually refreshed by the monuments that stand at the heart of our communities, and by the fact that very many families cherish the memories of ancestors who were involved. Unlike more recent and contemporary wars, shocking as these are, it still feels on our doorstep, recollected in landscapes we recognise, and involving our neighbours as well as ourselves.

This year, as I have done in most recent years, I will watch Sunday’s Cenotaph service on TV. It’s a ceremony that has its own rituals. Impeccable timing, which sees the last main celebrants arriving just a few seconds before Big Ben strikes 11. The view through the falling autumn leaves down Whitehall. The grey-coated Guards band, coaxing beautiful music from their silver instruments (the swelling sound of Nimrod almost too emotional to bear). The medley of camera shots during the two minutes silence, which always ends with the gun salute in Hyde Park. The Last Post played on bugles. The dignity of an eighty-something monarch and her spouse, who both lived through the last war, as they lay their wreaths.

Then, after the official service, come the massed ranks of old men and women. These must have been waiting for hours in the cold, marching, marching, many still in step. The bowler hats. The berets. The British Warm overcoats. The sensible V-neck sweaters worn under regimental blazers. The wreaths which pile slowly against the Cenotaph.

With this march past, as Smith notes, the mood changes:

This part of the ceremony is more personal. It focuses on families, regiments and small groups of friends, their contributions, experiences, and memories. Here love for friends and family is felt to be part of the loyalty to the community of the nation, and, conversely, national devotion and loyalty are seen as extensions of the solidarity felt by family and friends. Family and nation are also linked by the bitterness at the senseless waste of war and, perhaps, at the excesses of state patriotism; the sense of personal bereavement becomes an expression of a wider national grief. (Smith, p.249.)

The survivors of the first Great War, the war to end all wars as it was laughingly called, are nearly all gone. In a few years time those who took part in the Second may all be too frail to participate. The rest of us will then, as Andrew Motion says, echoing Wilfred Owen, need to work harder to remember why we have had the good fortune to have lived in a largely peaceful Europe, and find our memories ‘in the stones, and statues, and archives, and, on Remembrance Day, in the notes of bugles calling from sad shires.’

I’m not as certain as Andrew Motion that we will succeed. These national rituals come easier to people like me, born in the 1950s, because we remember the war even though we didn’t live through it. We know instinctively that it was not all cheery Cockney banter and make do and mend. Neither was it ‘Take that, Nazi schweinehund’ and ‘Jolly good show, chaps’. It was dirty, and brutish, and many people died. We know that our parents’ brothers and sisters were lost, and we can just about comprehend what this meant to those who lived. But will it mean as much to our grandchildren, yet unborn?