Obituary – Johnny Johnson – RAF Officer and was the last surviving dambuster
The last surviving member of the World War Two Dambusters, George Leonard “Johnny” Johnson, has died at the age of 101.
Mr Johnson was the last British member of 617 Squadron, which destroyed crucial dams in Germany during the war.
He died peacefully at his care home in Westbury on Trym, Bristol, on Wednesday night surrounded by his family.
- Died: December 7th, 2022
- Details of death: Died peacefully in his sleep.
George Johnson (known within the family as Leonard) was the sixth and last child born to Mary Ellen (née Henfrey) and Charles Johnson. He was born in the village of Hameringham in the East Lindsey district of Lincolnshire, England. His mother died when he was three, leaving his father, a farm foreman, to bring up the family in somewhat poor conditions. Johnson grew up to loathe his father, whom he described as someone who would inflict severe corporal punishment on him. When Johnson’s father died in 1957, he did not attend his funeral, a decision he stated he never regretted.
The family lived in a tied cottage, his oldest sister Lena largely being responsible for his early upbringing. Johnson attended school in the village of Winthorpe until the age of 11. Through a bursary scheme set up for the children of agricultural workers, he was sent as a boarder to the Lord Wandsworth Agricultural College in Long Sutton, Hampshire. He was active in sport, playing football, cricket and participating in athletics, winning several events. He passed his School Certificate, leaving school in December 1939.
Royal Air Force
Volunteering to join the Royal Air Force in 1940 as a navigator, Johnson was instead selected for pilot training. However, due to the difficulties in processing the vast numbers of recruits at the time, he was posted to various establishments around England and it was not until June 1941 that he was finally sent to Florida to begin his pilot training. As is common practice within the British armed forces, Johnson’s surname led to him being nicknamed “Johnny”.
Johnson did not make the required grade during his pilot training and as a consequence he opted to become an air gunner. In July 1942, Johnson was posted to No. 97 Squadron RAF at RAF Woodhall Spa where he was initially designated as a spare (reserve) gunner. This however gave him the opportunity to fly with numerous crews in the squadron, his first operational sortie being a raid on Gdynia in Poland on 27 August 1942, forming part of the crew under the command of Squadron Leader Elmer Cotton. En route to the target, the aircraft suffered an engine failure, forcing the pilot to abort the mission and return to Woodhall Spa. The following night, the crew were part of a successful raid on Nuremberg.
Johnson continued on squadron operations as an air gunner, until the opportunity came along for him to train as a specialist bomb aimer. Undergoing a course at RAF Fulbeck in November 1942, he returned to No. 97 Squadron filling the vacancy for a bomb aimer with the crew of Joe McCarthy. Initially, Johnson showed reticence in operating with an American skipper, however having met with McCarthy, he changed his mind.
Johnson’s first sortie as part of McCarthy’s crew was as part of a raid on Munich on 21 December 1942, conducted in bad weather. Attacked by night fighters on their way to and returning from the target, the Avro Lancaster lost all power on one engine and developed problems in another, forcing McCarthy to land at RAF Bottesford. Together with this crew, Johnson conducted a further 18 missions with No. 97 Squadron, bringing him to the end of a full operational tour, followed by a leave, after which he spent six months working in a non-combat training role.
Selected to be part of the specialist No. 617 Squadron RAF, Johnson arrived at RAF Scampton on 27 March 1943. It was at this time that he was due to marry; however, due to the requirements of the training for Operation Chastise, all leave had been cancelled. Johnson appealed to his new Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who eventually relented, giving Johnson four days’ leave.
McCarthy’s crew in Lancaster AJ-T (T-Tommy) were detailed to attack the Sorpe Dam, the structure of which differed considerably from the other main targets insofar as it being an earthen dam as opposed to the gravity construction of the Möhne and Eder dams, thus necessitating a completely different type of attack. Like the rest of No. 617 Squadron, Johnson had practised dropping his bomb as the aircraft flew straight towards the target at low level. However, on the afternoon prior to the raid, when the five crews detailed to attack the Sorpe Dam received their briefing, they were told that they had to fly along the dam wall and drop their mine at its centre. It would roll down the wall and explode when it reached the correct depth. The specialist bomb sight developed for the raid would also be of no use.
Due to various losses and technical issues en route to the target, AJ-T was the first Lancaster to reach the Sorpe, and McCarthy soon realised how difficult the attack would be. Although there were no flak batteries, the attack would require the aircraft to be flown low across the nearby town of Langscheid, with its prominent church steeple, followed by the aircraft having to drop even lower so the bomb could be released. It was not until the tenth attempt that the crew were satisfied, with Johnson finally releasing the bomb.
For his part in the raid, Johnson received the Distinguished Flying Medal. Along with other members of the squadron, he received his medal in an investiture at Buckingham Palace.
Personal Life and death
Johnson married Gwyneth Morgan in April 1943, having met her during a posting to Torquay in 1941. Together they had three children, the marriage lasting until Gwyneth’s death in August 2005.
For a short time following his wife’s death, Johnson decided to withdraw from public life. However, alongside Les Munro, he was at the forefront of the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Dams Raids in May 2013. He lived in Westbury on Trym, Bristol, and continued to give interviews on the various aspects of his active service and particularly concerning Operation Chastise. In 2015, he was awarded the Lord Mayor of Bristol’s Medal.
Johnson’s autobiography George “Johnny” Johnson, The Last British Dambuster was published in 2014.
Johnson was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2017 Birthday Honours for services to Second World War remembrance and the community in Bristol. The award followed shortly after an unsuccessful petition for Johnson to be knighted was initiated by Carol Vorderman, which garnered over 200,000 signatures within a few weeks. The 237,000 signature petition was handed in to 10 Downing Street on 26 January 2017 by Vorderman and former RAF officer John Nichol.
On 7 September 2017, Johnson received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lincoln for his contribution to British society, and two months later, on 7 November, was presented his MBE by Queen Elizabeth II in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
On 7 November 2017, Johnson was given an Honorary Life Membership to the Royal Air Force Club in Piccadilly, London.
On 22 June 2018, Johnson was honoured by having a train named after him. Following the death of his wartime colleague Fred Sutherland, on 21 January 2019, Johnson became the last survivor of the original flying members of 617 Squadron.
On 25 November 2021, Johnson celebrated his 100th birthday, an occasion that was widely covered by the UK regional and national media.
Johnson died on 7 December 2022, at the age of 101.
Date of birth: 25th November 1921
Date of Death: 7th December 2022 (aged 101)