In an exclusive interview with Britain at War earlier this year, the last British Dambuster, Squadron Leader George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, MBE, DFM, spoke to us about his experiences to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation ‘Chastise’.
As he approached the Royal dais for his investiture as a Member of The British Empire (MBE) in September 2017, George ‘Johnny’ Johnson swelled with justifiable pride as Her Majesty The Queen beamed him her smile and remarked: ‘Ah, here comes the Dambuster!’
It was the ultimate accolade in a life spent serving country and community. Indeed, the award of MBE was specifically for his services to community – albeit the public impression, gained through UK news coverage, was that the honour was to recognise his part in Operation ‘Chastise’.
Almost 75 years earlier, King George VI had pinned the Distinguished Flying Medal to Johnson’s chest in recognition of his part in the Dams Raid. Now, his life had come full circle as his Monarch bestowed on him yet another richly deserved honour.
It was for his part as a Dambuster that Britain at War sought out ‘Johnny’ to get his remarkable story:
“I was anxious to fight. Hitler had started this all and he needed sorting out. We were under threat. Everything we stood for; our country, our families and our way of life was threatened. He couldn’t be allowed to win. There was no alternative.
“In March 1943 Wg Cdr Guy Gibson had been asked to form a special squadron. Gibson was arguably one of the best in Bomber Command, and this was to be for a vitally important raid which would have a major impact on the German’s ability to wage war. In fact, the squadron would just do one trip and to start with the outfit would be known as ‘Squadron X’. But once the squadron was properly formed it was allocated its number – 617 Squadron.
I was anxious to fight. Hitler had started this all and he needed sorting out. We were under threat. Everything we stood for; our country, our families and our way of life was threatened. He couldn’t be allowed to win. There was no alternative.
“Gibson had known my pilot, ‘Big Joe’ McCarthy, when they had served together on 106 Squadron and he wanted Joe and his experienced crew to join the mysterious squadron. Joe had a word with us as a crew, and we all agreed to volunteer – even although we were just finishing our tour. When we got to Scampton, I very soon realised there was something rather unusual about the squadron apart from being just Squadron ‘X’ – the very high level of experience of all the crews.
“Once we began our training in earnest on 9 April the activity was relentless. Normally, we’d be flying at 10, 12 or even 15,000ft – now, we were told we had to fly much lower. The training started off at 300ft, then at 200ft. Then 100ft. Incredibly, we were then told we had to go lower still. Now, 100ft is incredibly low – ridiculously low – we’d be bombing from 60ft, at night.
“Just outside Sutton Bridge there’s a bridge over the canal with cables strung across the water. The challenge was to fly under the cables and pull up over the bridge. It may sound reckless, but it was all part of honing our skills to fly accurately at low-level. Once, when at no more than 100ft, another Lancaster flew underneath us. Yes! Underneath!
“We knew we had a special weapon to deliver, but no idea what. What we did know is that we had a rather odd bombsight; a little wooden device with two little pins on a triangular frame and a sighting hole where you lined up the pins on the target. They set up a couple of poles on a range, and we had to line up the pins and let go practice bombs. If we got it wrong we had to do it again. And again. And again… until we perfected it.
“I didn’t know at the time, but as it turned out this bit of the training ended up being completely useless for our crew!
“We had no idea about the weapon we’d be carrying until the night before the raid when Barnes Wallis showed us a film of his ‘bouncing bomb’. At the briefing, the targets were revealed to us. After the raid details were given out, Gibson took over and told us we were divided into three groups; one group of nine was to fly with Gibson to the Mohne and Eder and the second group of five would go to the Sorpe – with a third group of five acting as reserves.
“We got allocated the Sorpe but were a disappointed because it wasn’t like the others. It didn’t have high walls and towers but was constructed as an embankment. It meant we couldn’t do a head-on approach. There were no towers for sighting, and as there wasn’t a proper dam wall, the bomb would have bounced right over. So, we were going to drop it not as Barnes Wallis intended. Instead, ours wouldn’t even be spun and we simply had to drop it, unrotated, and get it slap bang on the target.
The first time we’d do this, it would be for real. We’d had no practice.
“The plan was that we’d fly along the embankment at 30ft, line up the port-outer engine over the low wall, and then I had to judge the exact point of release. The first time we’d do this, it would be for real. We’d had no practice.”
After the traditional eggs and bacon, ‘Johnny’ and his crewmates settled into ‘Q-Queenie’, however, there was a problem – a hydraulic leak. Switching to the reserve aircraft, ‘T-Tommy’, the took off at 21:30 hours, into a full moon.
“We were low-level all the way to target, and when we got there Joe had to work out how to do the attack and used a church on a hill as a marker. There wasn’t any flak, and no fighters – the dam wasn’t defended. This was lucky, because Joe had to make nine passes before we got the positioning just right. We’d been going round and round and I thought somebody in the village would ‘phone the Luftwaffe to say we were there!
“From the rear turret, I heard Dave Rodger call: ‘Won’t somebody get that bloody bomb away so we can get out of here?’ I realised I was the most unpopular member of the crew. Then, on the tenth pass, everything was perfect. I pressed the button and called ‘Bomb gone!’ The rear gunner had a grandstand view, reporting a 1,000ft column of water – some of it coming into the turret with the gunner complaining he was being drowned! We circled round and saw the top of the dam had been crumbled, but it hadn’t gone. We’d done our job. Now home.
I pressed the button and called ‘Bomb gone!’
“We ended up over the Hamm rail yards. Not the safest place to be, even at this height. The flak opened up on us, and we heard a hit. Back at Scampton, the landing was more bumpy than usual. When we go out we found a round had gone through the engine nacelle, through the top of the fuselage above one of the crew and punctured the tyre – We’d been lucky.
“The de-briefing. That was the bitter bit. Three Lancs returned without fulfilling the operation for various reasons, but of all the aircraft which set out only eight came back. So, 53 were killed. That is, 53 of our friends. That was my Dams Raid. Of course, by any measure, the losses were devastating. You have to remember, we were all volunteers. And I refuse to believe that those who were lost gave their lives in vain. I was privileged to have taken part in the Dams Raid and to have served with such men.”
Britain at War Magazine feels honoured to salute Squadron Leader George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, MBE, DFM, and the heroic men of the Dams Raid.