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.
The area around the Möhne Dam after the breach was like an inland sea. There was water everywhere and it was still coming out of that Dam, 20 minutes, maybe half an hour since it had been breached.
It had been difficult to breach it, but they’d made it, and the Eder was even more difficult. The last one to attack it that night was an Australian.
His bomb aimer was also a Johnson, Ted Johnson. But he was a flight lieutenant. They managed to breach on their run. That was the last aircraft there.
If they hadn’t made it, the Eder would have been stayed up too. But it was breached.
At least we’d seen the success of parts of the raid, even though ours hadn’t been quite so successful. There were in fact six reserve aircraft that had taken off somewhat later than we did.
Three of those were breached and they were all headed for the Sorpe. They were breached once they were airborne and the first one was shot down almost as soon as he crossed the coast.
Ken Brown, a Canadian NCO made a similar attack to us and had the same sort of result. The third bomber arrived nearby but a mist was developing and they couldn’t find the Sorpe.
Since it was getting near to daylight, they thought they’d better go home.
They came home and landed with the bomb on, which we had been briefed we weren’t supposed to do because I think, and the only reason I think, is that the authorities weren’t sure exactly what would happen with an aircraft landing with the bomb on board.
Particularly at Scampton, which was a still grass airfield. The idea was that if you didn’t use it on the dams, you dropped the bomb over Germany somewhere and it would explode with this self-detonating fuse.
The Germans wouldn’t get a copy.
Les Munro had been shot up going home, crossing the coast. Apart from the damage to the aircraft, his communication system, internal and external, was destroyed.
Since it was a communications operation, there was no point in him going on.
He came back and he couldn’t discharge his bomb because his release system had been damaged as well.
He had to land with the bomb on board and they made a dash out as soon as they landed, to make sure that if it did go off, they were going to get out of the way first.
When Anderson came back, he also landed with a bomb on board. The next morning Gibson sent Anderson back to the squadron he came from for failing to carry out an operation that he’d been ordered to take. Sounds hard.
But when one considers the costs, the training, the aircraft, air crew, the losses, I think it was a justified decision.
We did hear subsequently, unfortunately, very shortly afterwards his crew was shot down on another raid.
T for Tommy returns
When we got back, we landed at Scampton. Grass landings tended to be a bit more lumpy than they were on the runway.
In our case, it was thumpy, thumpy, thump, and we were starboard wing low. The engineer looking out of the Perspex said, “We’ve got a burst tire, skipper.” So we taxied back carefully to dispersal and the chief engineer took the aircraft off for inspection.
When he came back, he gave us a severe telling off, although he put it rather more strongly than that, for getting his aircraft shot up so much.
The shot that we had heard and felt had passed through the starboard on the cabin itself, had burst a tire on route, and then passed through the wing and had landed in the roof just above the navigator’s head. How lucky can you get? But we got away with it.
We learned the rest of the story at the debriefing.
I don’t look forward to war, certainly. But at that time and at that age, I felt I had to do something. I had to join and try to do something about it.
I think that’s what makes my life so different from what it might have been. At my school, Lord Wandsworth, we had a motto which was in Latin, but in translation, it means perseverance conquers.
Looking back on my life, I found how true that has been. It’s pure guts going forward with what you want to do and making sure you do it to the best of your ability. Doing something that was worthwhile and doing it with a real purpose.
I have to say that I feel privileged and honoured for being able to take part in that raid. Having said that, I have to constantly remind people that I’m the lucky one. I’m still alive.
Anything that they say to me isn’t for me, it’s for the Squadron.
I am purely representing the Squadron. Of the 19 aircraft that took off, three had to come back early. Of the 16 that went on, only 8 came back.
We lost eight aircraft, three crew members had been able to escape from one of the aircraft. That means 53 air crew had been lost. For one squadron on one night’s operation, that was a devastating loss.
Everybody felt very strongly about it.
Although the bars were open in the messes and there was drinking going on, I’m quite sure it wasn’t because of the success of the operation; it was commiseration for all those who hadn’t come back. That was what the drinking was about.
That was the end of it all.
Header image credit: Photograph of the breached Möhne Dam taken by Flying Officer Jerry Fray of No. 542 Squadron from his Spitfire PR IX, six Barrage balloons are above the dam. Credit: Commons.