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 first we heard of it was when Gibson, oh, I beg his pardon, Wing Commander Gibson, rang Joe McCarthy, our pilot. Gibson asked if Joe would join this specialist squad that he was forming for one special trip.
We were just coming towards the end of our first tour then.
Joe said, well, I have to ask my crew, and he did and we agreed to go with him. After a first tour, normal practice was at least a weeks leave and then you went onto a ground tour or an operational flying tour until you were required back on ops.
Looking forward to that leave, my fiancée and I had arranged to get married on April 3rd. I wrote to her and said that I’d been recruited for this specialist squad, but don’t worry, it won’t make any difference to our wedding.
The letter I got back just said if you’re not there on April 3rd, don’t bother.
We moved over to Scampton and the first thing we heard was no leave.
Oh God. There goes my wedding.
But Joe took us out as a crew to Gibson’s office and he said, we’ve just finished our first tour. We’re entitled to a week’s leave.
My bomb aimer is supposed to be getting married on April 3rd and he’s going to get married on 3 April. We got our leave and I got my wedding, so that was that.
But that, again, was typical of Joe looking after his crew.
Gibson as leader
Guy Gibson’s personality was, well, my reaction has to be retrospective because we were in the same squadron.
All I can say about it is the basic problem was he was unable to bring himself down to mix and talk with lower ranks.
Even junior officers on the duty side, maybe the only time they’d be friendly to you was to avoid a bollocking if they’d done something that they shouldn’t have done.
I gather Guy Gibson was quite a boy in the mess with the games and fun that went on in there.
He was bombastic, he was autocratic. A strict disciplinarian, which didn’t go down very well with the air crew, of course.
On 106 squadron, which he’d commanded before he came over to 617, he was known as the Arch Bastard, and that summed him up pretty well.
Mind you, if he wasn’t the most experienced, he was one of the most experienced bomber pilots in the command.
He had done two tours of bomb operations and one tour of night operations, and at this stage, he was only 24 years of age. He had something to be arrogant about.
So I think when he came to 617, he realised you’ve got to get more out of that Squadron than out of any of the others. Even he didn’t know at that stage what the target was, apart from the fact it was just a special target.
But he got everything he could for the Squadron.
There was an instance where there was something he wanted.
He rang group, and they said, sorry, we can’t do that. He rang command, and they gave him the same answer. He said, right, I’ll ring the Air Ministry. And he did. And the Air Ministry gave him the same answer. So he said, right, I’ll sit in my office until you change your mind. And he did. And they did. And in the end, he got what he wanted.
That was typical of his reaction but he was obviously an action man.
A true indication of his leadership came with the Dambuster raid itself, where he and his crew made the first attack on the Möhne dam, which we knew was the only dam that was defended.
Apart from dropping his bomb, he wanted to assess those defences at the same time. As he called each aircraft in, he flew alongside them to attract some of that defence.
To me that says, you’re doing this, I’m doing this, we’re doing it together, and that to me is the essence of good leadership.
Header image credit: Wing Commander Guy Gibson, while Commanding Officer of No 617 Squadron RAF, wearing flying kit. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.