Vivid memories of daring Dam Buster raid told by last surviving member ‘Johnny’ Johnson
PUBLISHED: 13:30 31 October 2016
The Dam Busters raid of World War Two remains one of the most enduring stories from those six years of conflict. Weston-super-Mare has its own connection to the offensive, which was immortalised in the 1955 film The Dam Busters, with early testing of the bouncing bomb taking place on Birnbeck Pier.
On May 16-17, 1943, in darkness, 133 aircrew left Southampton to use the newly-invented ‘bouncing bomb’ to destroy a series of dams and flood Germany’s Ruhr Valley as part of Operation Chastise.
Of those 133 men, 53 were killed, and three were taken prisoner.
One of those who did make it home was George ‘Johnny’ Johnson. Now aged 94, he is the only surviving British pilot from the Dam Buster raids.
He visited Weston to this week speak to the town’s RAF Association and present an award to the Boro Sports and Social Club for its Wings Appeal fundraising.
Background to the raid
The British Air Ministry identified Germany’s Ruhr Valley as an important target even before the war.
The dams provided hydro-electric power for steel-making and the water supplied the canal system.
Barnes Wallis designed the bouncing bomb. His idea was for it to spin, so it would skip over the surface of the water in a series of bounces before hitting the dam wall.
Testing began in earnest in 1942.
Testing the bouncing bomb in Weston
In 1942, the Royal Navy took over Birnbeck Pier, and paid the owners £350 a year.
It housed the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development and was renamed HMS Birnbeck.
It became a base for scientists, including Barnes Wallis, to test their new weapons.
In September, a catapult track was installed on the pier, with another added to Brean Down two months later.
The first weapon to be tested on the new tracks was an offshoot of the bouncing bomb.
It would have been clear to people living nearby that Birnbeck was being used for something important.
Members of the Women’s Royal Navy Service carried out administrative tasks there, and it was guarded by the Home Guard, each member carrying a rifle, bayonet and ammunition. Every day, the officer in charge chose a new password.
Meanwhile, the scientists became known as Wheezers and Dodgers, a colloquial term for the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development.
Johnny Johnson’s memories of the raid
The passing of 73 years has done nothing to dull ‘Johnny’ Johnson’s memories of his time as a gunner during one of the war’s most well-known offensives.
He explained how crews were shown the bouncing bomb before the operation, but they had no idea what the targets would be when training began in May 1943.
Mr Johnson said: “When the bomb arrived, it was like a glorified dustbin.”
After weeks of training over reservoirs, they were ready to go, and only then did they learn the targets.
The first attacks would be on the Mohne and the Eder Dams, but Mr Johnson would attack the Sorpe, a different challenge to the first two.
He said: “There were no towers, and it was between hills. Direct attack was almost impossible.”
The crew were 30 minutes late taking off, and got into trouble soon after they reached Germany.
Mr Johnson said: “As we were flying along, a goods train came along.
“We opened up with .303s. What we didn’t know was it was not just a goods train, but an armoured goods train and it replied with more than .303s.
“We knew we had been hit but it didn’t seem to affect the aircraft, so we carried on.”
When they arrived at the Sorpe, they did six or seven dummy runs alongside the hills.
Eventually they dropped the bomb. Mr Johnson did not see the explosion, but the others reported a water spout going 1,000ft up into the air.
They returned over the Mohne, where they saw water everywhere. Mr Johnson said it was ‘like an inland sea’ with water still flowing out half an hour after it was breached.
Mr Johnson and his crew had got lucky. When they landed on home soil, they discovered a shot from the ‘goods train’ had struck the Lancaster aircraft, and burst through the wing and finished above the navigator’s head.
Mr Johnson continued: “And then came the shattering bit.
“Nineteen aircraft had taken off. Three returned for various reasons. Of the 16 that went on, eight didn’t come back.
“We lost 53 aircrew. It was a terrible loss from one squadron for one night operation.
“It upset everybody. Drinking went on in the messes but it was not a celebration for the operation. I am sure it was more a commiseration of those who hadn’t come back.
“People say to me ‘were you terrified?’
“I say when you consider we had been flying for some hours in the dark and for as far as we had to go, I think anyone who wasn’t a little apprehensive was void of emotion or a stranger to the truth.”