The Early Operational Career and the Closest Call of Britain’s Last Dambuster

History Hit Podcast with Jonny Johnson

6 mins

27 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.

While I was a bomb aimer, I also had to man a gun. I had to fly in on the front turret on the way out, come down to drop the bombs at the target, hop back into the front turret on the way back as part of the rest of the crew.

I’m sure a majority of the bomber command air crew were there to do the job that they had been briefed for to the best of their ability.

That meant not only the job, their individual job, but their responsibility for the safety of the rest of the crew.

I was told I was joining this crew with an American pilot. My immediate reaction was, “Oh my God, bloody Americans again.” Then I met Joe McCarthy, six foot three and the breadth to go with the height.

Big in size, big in personality, but from our point of view, big in pilot ability, which meant tremendous competence. I never once thought that Joe wouldn’t bring me back and he thought much the same way.

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.

My first memory of being above occupied Europe was a time that we were at night, for defensive reasons. It was dark on the way out. We flew at 10,000-15,000 feet, but you didn’t see anything until you got to the target area.

It was then you saw all the guns that you had to go through before you could get home. People say to me, were you frightened?

I think anyone who saw that for the first time, if they weren’t a bit apprehensive, they were either devoid of emotion or strangers to the truth.

If you looked up, you could see the flares that the pathfinders had dropped, and you could see anti-aircraft fire just swelling up all around you.

I found my concentration was purely on the bomb site and the target. Concentrating directing the pilot to get my bombs as close as I could to that particular target.

Whatever was going on around about me, I just didn’t see it. It didn’t concern me. I was doing my job, as I thought, to the best of my ability. That was what I thought I was there for.

Bombing of Lübeck in 1942. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

Honestly, strange as it may seem, I didn’t notice the flak all around.

I didn’t notice the other aircraft in the area until I dropped my bombs and we then had to fly straight and level for the camera to operate, so that when we got back the intelligence could see where we dropped our bombs, in spite of where we said we’d dropped them.

I didn’t see any of the Lancasters being hit and the crews bailing out, although I understand it happened. I know it happened. I know aircraft were shot down over the target area, either by anti-aircraft guns or by fighters, when they brought those in to face us in the target area.

My closest call

Basically, it was a pretty rough old journey. You didn’t have time to worry about it, or at least I didn’t. The only time I think I was more than a bit apprehensive, was before I joined Joe’s crew, I was flying with an entire NCO crew.

They were coming close to their last trip in the first tour and we’d been over the north of Germany. The weather was treacherous when we got there, so we were using aerial marking and you had no idea where your bombs were going.

You just bombed the target marker and that was it. As soon as you dropped below 10,000 feet, it was normally oxygen masks off and usually cigarettes on as well.

But on this occasion we just took our masks off and there was a God almighty flash, absolutely blind all around.

Watch the full interview with Johnny Johnson in The Last Dambuster on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

I couldn’t see a thing and I was in the front turret by that time and as the eyesight came back, it looked almost as though the Perspex had been burnt out.

It looked as though it was just the metal strips left, but as the eyesight came back, I could see the turret was completely intact.

The mid-level gunner was calling, “Are you alright, Colin?”

Colin was the pilot, obviously fighting like mad with the aircraft that was going down at some speed. The gunner kept asking and he said, “My God, they’ve all gone. I’m going to get out.”

The wireless operator got back to him and told him to stop being such a bloody idiot, and not quite as politely as that.

He went on, how could Colin possibly answer, since without his oxygen mask on, his microphone was away from his mouth and he was fighting like mad to save the aircraft, and us, and you, you stupid so-and-so.

When we got back and the gunner was in a rather pleasant mood, he said he’d seen the fire creeping up the aerial towards his turret. And then, woof, a lightning flash. We dropped from around 10,000 feet to 2,000 feet, just like that.

But Colin controlled it at 2000 feet. I didn’t bother to find out what had happened to the aircraft when we got back.

Camaraderie among the crew

We were really brought together by the experience of flying in those conditions, apart from the fact I was the odd one out in that I didn’t drink, believe it or not.

I’ve managed to change that habit now, but the reason for it then goes back to my childhood.

Members of Bomber Command, 2 October 1940. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

My father being farm foreman, during the lambing season, he stayed up most of the night nipping out to see that the lambs and the ewes were all right.

He’d had his beer, and fell asleep in his chair in between checking on the sheep. I tipped the dregs of the beer into the glass, and then, yuck. God, that is hell, it tasted horrible.

But the smell, that’s what really got me. It made me literally sick and that smell stayed with me.

I couldn’t stand the smell of beer from then onwards. So I didn’t get into the bar or pubs or even in the mess bar, except for a quick trip at lunchtime to get me cigarettes and that was it.

I enjoyed my war. I think I felt I was doing what I joined for and I was doing it to the best of my ability, and that was what I was there for and I enjoyed doing it. A lot of that rested on my confidence in my pilot and the rest of the crew that I flew with.

We had a crew comedian in Dave Roger in the rear turret. He could always make some crafty comment whenever those situations were a bit grim.

When we were coming back from the dams raid, we were still flying low, and we went off course and we ended up in a railway yard.

Aerial photograph of an attack by eleven Royal Air Force De Havilland Mosquito B.IV bombers on the railroad network in Trier, Germany, 1 April 1943. Credit: Imperial War Museum / Commons.

Of course, it wasn’t a normal railway yard. It was the main marshalling yard where all the ammunitions that were made in the rear were distributed to the various areas where the war was being fought.

Obviously, not the healthiest place to be in May 1943. At one point Joe flew even lower, and from the rear turret we hear, “Who needs guns? At this height all they need to do is change the points.”

That was the sort of stuff Dave would come up with.

I never really thought about what was going on below. I think the only respect in which I thought about it, was in retaliation for what Hitler was doing and had done to us. I think that was what it was.

I think maybe from that childhood upbringing, emotion was basically knocked out of me. I didn’t think I had any particular strong emotion at all. That’s why I didn’t ever feel frightened about the flying or the actual bombing.

I didn’t really appreciate what it meant to those at the receiving end. I didn’t know that or find that out until after the war when I went back and talked to some German people.

Header image credit: 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.