How a Tough Childhood Shaped the Life of One of the Dambusters

History Hit Podcast with Jonny Johnson

5 mins

23 Nov 2018

This article is an edited transcript of “Johnny” Johnson: The Last British Dambuster on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 November 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

My mother died a fortnight before my third birthday. I never knew a mother’s love. I don’t know if my father blamed me for my mother’s death.

But the first thing I remember about him, we were at the hospital waiting to go see my mother, and he was talking to somebody else.

He explained to this character who I was, and that I was the youngest of six in the family. And this guy said, “What, another one?” My father said, “Yes, he’s a mistake.” Well, thank you very much.

As with most men who use a cutthroat razor for shaving, the strop was hung on the back of the kitchen door.

If that strop came down and he wasn’t shaving, I knew where it was headed, right across my back.

That was the sort of upbringing I had. My sister almost became my surrogate mother. She was seven years older than me.

My father treated her much the same way he treated me. He didn’t hit her, but he argued that a daughter was there to look after her father, in the way he wanted it done at the time that he wanted it done.

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School years

What is now Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire was Lord Wandsworth agricultural college in my day. It was bequeathed by Lord Wandsworth for the children of agricultural families, who had lost one or both parents and for those children everything was free.

The head teacher of our elementary school heard about this. She applied on my behalf and I was interviewed and offered a place.

My father said no. He said, “At 14, he leaves school, he goes out and gets a job and brings some money into the house.”

617 Squadron (Dambusters) at Scampton, Lincolnshire, 22 July 1943. The crew of a Lancaster sitting on the grass. Left to right: Sergeant George Leonard “Jonny” Johnson; Pilot Officer D A MacLean, navigator; Flight Lieutenant J C McCarthy, pilot; Sergeant L Eaton, gunner. In the rear are Sergeant R Batson, gunner; and Sergeant W G Ratcliffe, engineer. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

The teacher was furious about this. In our small village, we still had a squire, so she went to see the squire’s wife and told her this story.

The squire’s wife then went to see my father and told him in no uncertain terms the way that he was ruining my chances of a better education and a much better future life, and that he ought to be ashamed of himself.

My father just responded with, “Oh, I suppose I better let him go then.”

At 11, I went to Lord Wandsworth and that’s when life really started. It was so different from what I’d been used to. I never thought about the RAF when I was growing up.

In fact, at Lord Wandsworth my original ambition was to be a vet but my school results weren’t quite as good as they might have been. But I did pass.

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Joining the RAF

With this upcoming war, having seen the films of the First World War with the trench fighting, the army was out as far as I was concerned. I didn’t like seeing war up close anyway, so the navy was out.

Which just left me the air force. But I didn’t want to be a pilot. I didn’t feel I had the coordination or the aptitude.

At that age, I wanted to go bomber rather than fighter. I knew that bomber pilots were responsible for the safety of the crew as a whole.

I didn’t think I had the responsibility for that either. However, when it came to the selection committee, they made me change my mind and selected me for pilot training.

A No 57 Squadron mid-upper gunner, Sergeant ‘Dusty’ Miller, ‘scans the sky for enemy aircraft’ from a Lancaster’s Fraser Nash FN50 turret. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

I joined the RAF when war broke out because I felt so antagonistic towards Hitler, because of his bombing of our country and so on.

That was the basic reason behind it and I felt I wanted to get back to him as much as I could and the only way to do that was by joining one of the services.

I did train to be a pilot, out in America, but I wasn’t really cut out for it. I ended up back in England, no nearer to fighting the war than I had been when I enlisted.

So the question was: What was the shortest course? And it was gunnery. So I took the gunnery course, again, going through the acceptance process.

Someone said, “I think you’d be afraid to be a gunner, Johnson,” and I replied, “I don’t think so sir. If I were, I wouldn’t have volunteered.”

Flight Lieutenant R A Fletcher in the cockpit of Avro Manchester Mark IA, ‘OF-P’ “Sri Gajah” “Jill”, of No. 97 Squadron, at RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

I trained, I passed the gunner exam, but I wasn’t posted to an Operational Training Unit (OTU). That was the usual thing, you were posted to OTU when you finished your air crew training and you met the rest of the crew members, joined up a crew, and then moved up for further training.

But I was posted directly to 97 squadron at Woodhall as a spare gunner. Which meant I had to fly with anybody who hadn’t got a mid-upper or a rear gunner during night operations for various reasons.

Quite an inauguration into operational flying.

My first operational sortie was a failure. We were carrying the 8,000 pound bomb and nobody had successfully dropped one of these up to that stage and we were going to do it.

The bomb aimer in an Avro Lancaster, checking over the instruments in his position before take off from Scampton, Lincolnshire. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

We took off, but when we were flying across the North Sea I could see petrol streaming out from one of the engines and we had to go back. We didn’t drop the 8,000 pound, rather we just landed with it, still on.

By the time I went in, 97 Squadron had been re-equipped with Lancaster’s and they were looking for the seventh member of crew and they were training them locally.

I thought I’d have a go at that. So I retrained as a bomb aimer and came back to 97 Squadron as a spare bomb aimer.

Header image credit: Flight Lieutenant H S Wilson’s crew. All were killed when their Lancaster was shot down on the night of 15 – 16 September 1943 during the raid on Dortmund-Ems Canal. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.