Interview with Johnny Johnson. One


Interview with Johnny Johnson. One


George ‘Johnny’ Johnson was the bomb aimer in Lancaster AJ-T flown by Joe McCarthy during operation Chastise 16th of May 194. He discusses the attack on the dams and the events before and after the attack. He describes training over the Derwent Dam and Uppingham Lake. He describes the challenges of the Sorpe Dam in contrast to the Möhne and Eder dams. He describes the tensions of getting the bombing run correct and the nervous words of the rear gunner. Flying home they flew over the Möhne dam and they were able to witness the devastation of the aftermath of that raid. They also flew over the Hamm marshalling yards and again Johnny describes the nervous details of that event. Johnny refers to the realisation of the heavy losses of the raid and how Barnes Wallis actually wept when he heard how many crews had been lost.



IBCC Digital Archive




Julie Williams


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00:19:33 audio recording





Temporal Coverage


AP: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Andrew Panton. The interviewee is George Johnny Johnson. Mr Johnson was the bomb aimer on Lancaster AJ-T that took part in the Sorpe Dam raid on the night of May the 16th 1943. In this recording Mr Johnson recounts his memories of the events leading up to the attack, the attack itself and the events following the attack.
GJJ: As part of our training we used the Derwent Dam in Derbyshire and also the Uppingham Lake in what was then Rutland. But the Derwent had its towers and we could use those for sighting with our home-made bombsight so that our base pins were in line with the towers before we dropped our practice bombs. These were the twenty five pound smoke bombs. We also used Uppingham Lake but Uppingham Lake didn’t have any towers so they put up a couple of flagpoles for us, the authorities, and we used those as sighting devices along with our three pin, three prong bombsight. And it was that that created the similar action that we would have on the night of the operation which we didn’t know at the time of course. On the Uppingham we had to fly down the lake and sixty feet was the maximum. And we were going down there, along until we came to bomb dropping. Up and down and then up and back again. I came down again, again, right along the lake until you had the same dropping point and if you were lucky or, perhaps I should say if you were accurate your bomb dropping point would be good on all occasions. The night before the raid we were summoned into a meeting room and for the majority of the crew it was the first-time meeting Barnes Wallis and he showed us a film of his development of the bouncing bomb. And we saw this being bounced across the water as it was released, initially from Wellington aircraft but ultimately from a Lancaster aircraft. One shot that he did show in the film showed one bomb that went a bit haywire and chose its own route after it had hit the water and came straight back to the beach where they were all taking film and so on. So, that of course meant they had to get out of the way a bit sharpish before it got to them. They were, of course, inert bombs they were dropping but that sort of weight in concrete can do an awful lot of damage if it hits somebody. So, there we are. That was the film that he showed us and that explained how it was going to be necessary to drop this bomb so far away from whatever the target was going to be. We didn’t know what the target was going to be and he didn’t mention dam when he talked about the, hitting the target. He just said when it hits the target it would roll down and then explode. On the Sunday afternoon, about three o’clock, all crews were called into the operations room for briefing and man what a briefing that was. Up to that time we had no idea what the target was going to be. This was the first indication. There was a model there of the Möhne Dam, there was a model of the Sorpe but apparently the model of the Eder hadn’t been completed and so it wasn’t there. A big map on the wall showing two outward bound courses and one homeward bound course. And the people there — the AOC Sir Ralph Cochrane was there, the station commander Group Captain Whitworth. Gibson of course was there. Barnes Wallis was there, and the senior armament and engineering officers and the dear old Met man whose job was made so much easier by knowing it was going to be a brilliant moonlight night and that was going to extend not only from our take off but to our target and to our coming home. So, for once he was able to give us a correct forecast of what we could expect and when we got to the target. And Barnes Wallis explained what the targets were. And how wrong we could be in our estimations. He explained the three dams that we were going to attack. The Sorpe, the Möhne and the Eder. He also explained the difference between them. The Möhne and the Eder were very similar. They had towers and they were accessible for a head- on approach. The Sorpe of course was different. It had no towers and it was so placed in the hills that it was difficult, if not quite impossible, to make a head-on attack and the only one of those three that was defended was the Möhne. Gibson carried on with the briefing and he explained how the take-offs would be arranged and which, how many crews were taking each part. We were part of five that were scheduled to attack the Sorpe Dam. The Sorpe, of course, had to be different. No towers. Different mode of attack. And our attack had to be by flying down once, the hills on one side aiming to have port engines over the dam and flying along the length of the dam. And on that run, estimating to drop the bomb in the centre of the dam. Shortly after ten o’clock we took off from Scampton. We flew low over Lincolnshire, certainly, no more than a hundred feet, out into the moonlit North Sea. A beautiful sight. Lovely moon and a perfect, quite calm sea. And we headed for the Dutch coast. As we crossed the Dutch coast we were aware, or Joe was aware that the gunners there would be well aware that this single aircraft was coming. They’d recognise the noise and had all the other aircraft over it already, the other four, over already they’d be ready for us. And so he went down. He picked up two sand dunes and went down between those two so that we avoided the flak that they would have loved to have thrown at us. At this stage, Bill Ratcliffe, in fact he had been throughout the flight coasting the engines as much as possible so that we could make up speed and make up time having taken off so late. We, in fact, arrived there about nine minutes later than the scheduled time. We carried on across Germany into the Ruhr and eventually arrived at the Sorpe Dam. Mist was beginning to gather outside but over the target it was perfectly clear. Brilliant moonlight. And as we approached we noticed that on the side, on the hills from which we were supposed to be making the attack there was a church steeple and so Joe used this as a marker. From above that he could line the aircraft up as best he could, aiming to get the port outer engine along the dam itself and then go down to height. Because we weren’t spinning the bomb we were carrying, we were going to drop an inert bomb, we were not governed by the conditions on which that bomb had to be dropped. So, the height and speed equally didn’t matter and if I wasn’t satisfied I called dummy run. In which case we went up again and came down again. If Joe wasn’t satisfied he just pulled away and left me to call dummy run and after about the seventh — sixth or seventh of these dummy runs a voice from the rear turret said, ‘Won’t somebody get that bomb out of here?’ And I realised how easy it was to become the most unpopular member of crew in double quick time. However, we pressed on, trying to get the drop exactly right. There was no point in having gone through all that training and flown low level in bright moonlight over Germany and particularly into the Ruhr area in not getting, doing the job that you had gone to do and doing it to the best of your ability. So, we went on trying. And on the tenth run, in the meantime Joe and I hadn’t said anything to each other but I’m sure we both realised that the lower we got the less forward travel that bomb would have before it hit the water and the lower we got the easier it would be to estimate the dropping point. It was pure estimation. There was no bombsighting involved at all. So, on the tenth run we were down to thirty feet. And when I said, ‘bomb gone,’ — ‘Thank Christ,’ came from the rear turret. It was a question of nose up straight away otherwise we would have been into the hills on the other side. And so I didn’t see the explosion but Dave did in the rear turret and he estimated that the tower of water went up to about a thousand feet. Well, as you can imagine sixty five, six and a half thousand pounds explosive being exploded at a depth of twenty five feet is going to displace a hell of a lot of water and it’s going to go upwards as well as outwards. So that was quite understandable. But he also said that as it came down some of the downflow came into the turret so he thought he was going to be drowned as well as knocked about by us so and so’s at the front. But he managed to get back to normal. We circled and we discovered that we had crumbled the top of the dam for a distance of about ten yards. Barnes Wallis had told us at briefing that he estimated it would need at least six bombs to crack that dam because of its construction but if we could crack it the water pressure would do the rest and judging from the amount of water in that dam I’m quite sure he was right. However, that was only the one bomb and what we couldn’t understand was that because we were late nobody else was there when we got there and nobody else appeared whilst we were there. And this, the reason for this we didn’t find out until we got back. We circled, satisfied ourselves and set a course for home and then had perhaps the most satisfying part of the whole trip. Route out took us straight over what had been the Möhne Dam. It was just like an inland sea. There was water everywhere. We knew that it had been breached by radio broadcast but water was still coming out of the dam and this must have been twenty minutes, perhaps half an hour since the breach. We also knew that the Eder had been breached. Again, by broadcast. So we had at least the satisfaction of seeing some real results for the endeavours of that particular raid. After the excitement of seeing the result of the breach of the Möhne things calmed down but not for long. For some peculiar reason and I still have no idea why we found ourselves over a railway. Not only a railway but a marshalling yard and we were, in fact, over the Hamm marshalling yards, yard. And this, of course was the centre for the distribution of all the armaments that were made in the Ruhr to the various war areas throughout Europe. Not the healthiest of places to be in May of 1943. But once again Joe goes down and again a voice from the rear turret, ‘Who needs guns? At this height all they need to do is change the points.’ However, we eventually got out of the yard. After the marshalling yards incident we set course for home. We came back on the route that we came out on and as we were crossing the Zeider Zee, Bill Ratcliffe opened up the taps, paid in the speed so we could get out and away as soon as possible. So perhaps this is what he did and as we crossed the coast one of the gunners on the ground got a sight on us but Dave Rodger in the rear turret replied promptly with his guns and that was the last we heard of the attack. As we crossed the North Sea, eventually we could see the welcoming sight of the Lincolnshire coast and so we were able to head over for our home base at Scampton. I’m not quite sure that we went, that we went via the cathedral. I don’t recall actually having seen it but it wasn’t unusual to head for the cathedral when you crossed the coast so that you knew when you were actually almost home. We could always see the cathedral by the red light on the top and that was a welcoming light and told us we were close to home. And so we got back to Scampton. Now, Scampton was still a grass airfield and so all landings were a bit lumpy but ours was more than a bit lumpy it was really bumpy and we were starboard wing low. And the flight engineer, looking out of the Perspex said, ‘We’ve got a burst tyre skipper.’ And so we were, we taxied around to take off to the dispersal and the aircraft went off for inspection. And when the inspection team came back the leader said, ‘You guys ought to think yourselves very lucky.’ He didn’t use ‘very’ but never mind, that will describe it. He said, ‘That shot that you felt and heard went through the starboard undercarriage nacelle, burst a tyre enroute. It then went through the wing and ultimately landed in the roof just above the navigator’s head.’ How lucky. But once again we’d got away with it. Thank you, Lady Luck. That had been our night. After debriefing we began to realise that there seemed to be an awful lot of people that hadn’t come back. And it came, transpired that of the nineteen that took off, sixteen had taken part in the actual raiding since three had had to come back for various reasons. Of those sixteen, eight did not come back. Three of the crews escaped but were taken prisoner and the rest were killed. Fifty three aircrew of our squadron were killed on that one operation one night and we lost eight aircraft. That was a devastating reaction and we heard that in the operations room, when the final news was known, Barnes Wallis actually cried and said, ‘I have killed all those young men. I’ll never do anything like that again.’ But Wing Commander Gibson managed to say to him, ‘No Barnes. You didn’t kill those young men. Without you that raid could never have taken place anyway.’ He said, ‘But whenever we take off on any of these raids, we know there is a chance that we won’t be coming back and those people probably went off with that thought in mind.’ Of the nineteen aircraft that took off three had to return early, five were lost before the attacks and eleven made attacks on the dam. Of those eleven one was lost during the attack, two were lost after the attacks and eight aircraft returned from making attacks on the dams. In total fifty three aircrew were killed, three were taken prisoner and eight aircraft were lost.



Andrew Panton, “Interview with Johnny Johnson. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed September 17, 2019,

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