What It Was Like to Be a Part of the Dambusters Raid | History Hit

What It Was Like to Be a Part of the Dambusters Raid

History Hit Podcast with Jonny Johnson

26 Nov 2018

This article is an edited transcript of “Johnny” Johnson: The Last British Dambuster available on History Hit TV.

Of all the air raids carried out during World War Two, none are as famous as the attack by Lancaster Bombers against the dams of Germany’s industrial heartland. Commemorated in literature and film throughout the decades, the mission – which was codenamed Operation ‘Chastise’ – has come to epitomise British ingenuity and courage throughout the war.
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We wanted to go. We were excited. In his hurry to get there Joe, our pilot, pulled his parachute. It was billowing behind him as he went over to the reserve aircraft.

It felt different to other raids we had been on. We knew how special it was. The raid’s importance had been explained by the Intelligence officer because of the damage it would do to the German armament industry. That was the basic point behind it.

When we got to our spare aircraft the compass card, or the compass ring, wasn’t in the aircraft. He was so furious and Joe had a tremendous vocabulary. I don’t think he used the same word twice. He got into the truck and down to the flights.

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.

Fortunately the squadron adjutant was there on the helm and he said,

For Christ sake, Joe, calm down. If you don’t, you’ll make a complete pig’s ear of the whole thing.

That calmed him down a bit. However, we had a very good flight sergeant and he went over to the flights to collect the compass card.

We’d heard Joe say he wasn’t going to bother with the parachute, so he detoured to the parachute section and he picked up another parachute, went back to the truck, gave Joe the compass card in the front, put the parachute in the back and said, ‘your parachute, sir’.

Mat Mclachlan visits the now bustling tropical city of Darwin to learn more about the bombing this city endured on 19 February 1942. A bombing that is now dubbed as Australia's Pearl Harbor.
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Eventually we got back to the aircraft. We were about half an hour late taking off. When we got flying, some distance south of home, and there was a train travelling at right angles to our course.

We had no middle turret, so the mid-level gunner was flying in the front turret.

Fortunately they’d put in stirrups so he wasn’t kicking me up the backside all the time.

But then when we saw this train, he said, “Can I have a go, Joe?” I think somewhat reluctantly, Joe said “Oh yes, all right then.” Ron opened up with these little 303s. That’s all we had in the front turret.

What we didn’t know, of course, that it wasn’t just a goods train, but it was an armoured goods train. And it replied with rather more than 303s.

We knew we’d been hit, we heard it and we felt it. But it didn’t seem to impede the aircraft at all, so we carried on.

When we eventually found the Sorpe, the first thing we noticed, which if it was on the model we probably should have seen, was the church steeple on the side of the hill down which we were supposed to come.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson (in door of aircraft) and his crew board their Avro Lancaster bomber for No. 617 Squadron’s raid on the Ruhr Dams, 16 May 1943. Credit: Imperial War Museums / Commons.

Joe used that as a marker, and tried to align the aircraft as best he could on that position and then went down. Because we weren’t spinning the bomb, it was an inert drop, the actual position and the conditions for dropping it didn’t apply.

The height or the speed at which you dropped it didn’t matter. We hadn’t practiced that kind of attack at all and it wasn’t easy.

If I wasn’t satisfied, I called dummy run. If Joe wasn’t satisfied, he just pulled away and left me to call dummy run.

We heard Dave Roger from the rear turret after about the sixth or seventh of these dummy runs. Will somebody get that bum out of here?

I realised I was becoming the most unpopular member of crew in double quick time. But that was my job and that was what I was there for.

Nine times we went over the dam trying to get it right, and every time we had to go back up again. In retrospect I can understand to some degree Dave’s anxiety, because his job basically was the safety of the aircraft from enemy fighters.

Each time you went up, and came back over the village, there was nothing to stop somebody down there ringing up the authorities and tell them that we were bombing their dam at that moment.

That would have brought the fighters in, bye-bye McCarthy’s crew just like that. But then on the 10th run, neither Joe nor I had said anything to each other, about height.

We both realised that the lower we got, the less forward travel that bomb would have before it hit the water. Secondly, the lower we got, the easier it would be to estimate the dropping point. On that 10th run we were down to 30 feet.

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Bombs away

When I said bomb gone, from the rear turret we hear, “Thank Christ!” We were so low, so it was nose up straight away, so I didn’t see the explosion.

But Dave saw it from the rear turret, and he estimated that the tower of water went up to about a thousand feet.

If you imagine 6,500 pounds of explosive being detonated at the depth of 25 feet, it’s going to move a hell of a lot of water in all directions upwards as well as outwards. That was what he saw.

He also said that, in the down flow, some of it came into the turret, so “I thought I was going to be drowned by you buggers up there.” But that was typical of Dave.

We circled and we found that we’d crumbled the top of the dam, and that was all. Barnes-Wallis had told us at briefing that he estimated because of the structure of the Sorpe, it would need at least six bombs to crack it.

It had a concrete centre with a sort of pyramid building of broken rock packed inside and then concrete again on either side.

But if we could crack it, the water pressure would do the rest. On judging from the amount of water in that dam I’m sure he was right.

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.

However, we were surprised, because although we were a half hour late or thereabouts, when we arrived it didn’t seem that any of the other five crews had been, nor did they arrive while we were there.

We didn’t find out why until we got back. Eventually we just shrugged it off and the route home took us over what had been the Möhne.

And for me, that was probably the greatest satisfaction of the raid in that we were able to see the destructive result of one of those attacks and we knew that the Eder had been breached as well by radio broadcast.

Header image credit: The destruction of the Möhne dam. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons. .

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History Hit Podcast with Jonny Johnson