Interview with Johnny Johnson. Two


Interview with Johnny Johnson. Two


George ‘Johnny’ Johnson was born in rural Lincolnshire. As a child he won a scholarship to Lord Wandsworth’s Agricultural College in Hampshire. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of the Second World War and was selected for pilot training. He was sent to train in the United States. As he was so keen to get a posting, he trained instead as an air gunner. His first posting was as a spare gunner with 97 Squadron. Then he re-trained as a bomb aimer and was again posted as a spare bomb aimer until he was joined a crew in 617 Squadron to train for the Eder, Möhne and Sorpe operation, when it was still known as Squadron X. His pilot was Joe McCarthy. Their target was the Sorpe dam. That operation was the most memorable of his operational career. He also recounts his remaining years in the Royal Air Force, his second career as an educationist working with adults with severe learning needs and his subsequent role in local politics and as a public speaker.



Temporal Coverage




01:56:39 audio recording


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DE: Right. So, a little introduction and we’ll get cracking. So, this is an interview for the IBCC with Johnny Johnson. It’s the 1st of August 2017. We’re in Bristol. My name is Dan Ellin. Also in the room is Professor Heather Hughes, Alex Pesaro and John Sexton. Right.
HH: Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed today. What we’d like to do, if possible, is to start off talking about your earliest memories of a childhood on a farm in Lincolnshire from 1921.
JJ: Fine. As you say, a farm in Lincolnshire. I was born in a small village called Hameringham, near Horncastle and, as such became a Lincolnshire Yellowbelly which, I gather, was so called because of all the frogs in the fens area of the county. However, I had the misfortune for my mother to die before, a fortnight before my third birthday. And the only time I can remember seeing her was in her hospital bed when we were waiting at the bottom of the stairs to go up and to see her. And my father was talking to somebody else, a stranger to me at the bottom of the stairs so I went over and joined them. I was the youngest of six children and when my father told this other individual who I was his response was, ‘What another?’ To which my father said, ‘Yes. He was a mistake.’ I remember quite clearly my father saying that, even at that young age and I’m sure that is how he treated me from then on. He was, of course, a cut throat razor shaver and the razor sharpener, the strop, hung on the back of the kitchen door. If ever that strop came down and he wasn’t shaving I knew where it was headed. That was my shoulders, my back or wherever it landed. If I was out, on one occasion even, sorry, I had to go to the local elementary school in the next village, in Winthorpe. And had to walk down there and there came a time when we left Hameringham and moved over to the borders of Nottinghamshire to a small village of Langford just outside of Newark. And [pause] sorry, I’m thinking. The lady that we had as a housekeeper at Hameringham was a lovely lady, Mrs Smith. But she couldn’t move with us when we moved. And so my father advertised for a housekeeper in the local press and a, I’m going to say female, I wouldn’t describe her otherwise, that answered had two twin daughters. She came over with the daughters as a housekeeper and before long she became the second Mrs Johnson. They never [emphasis] agreed at any time and there came a time when I heard her say to him, ‘I’ll knife you one of these days.’ That really upset me. And why, I didn’t know why I did, I used to go and sleep with my father just in case she tried it sometime overnight. ‘Cause, when they had their rows she went in to the girls’ bedroom. My bed. My bed was on the landing. Living in the other half of the farmhouse. And so that was the way it went and it just went worse until eventually I was sent off to another farming uncle in Thorpe. Thorpe on the Hill and whilst I was away they separated. She went away and when I got back she was no longer there. That meant, amongst other things, that I came responsible, became responsible for looking after the house. So much so that all the cooking that I could do and so on.
HH: Were you the only child still living at home at that stage?
JJ: At that stage, yes but it went to the time when my sister, who was seven years older than me, had virtually been my surrogate mother to start with and she was in service with a family in the next, our next village, Winthorpe. They were moving and downloading at the same time so she came to look after her father and I have to say he treated her in much the same way as he treated me. Not by beatings of course but by the demands that he made. A daughter was to look after her father the way he wanted it done. When he wanted it done. And that was the way it had to go. So, yeah, I was at, as I say, to a local elementary school in Winthorpe and the head teacher heard about Lord Wandsworth’s Agricultural College in Hampshire, Long Sutton in Hampshire, bequeathed by Lord Wandsworth for the children of agricultural families that had lost one or both parents, and she applied on my behalf. And I had an interview and was accepted but my father said, ‘No. When he’s fourteen he goes out and gets a job and brings some money into the house.’ Head teacher wasn’t at all happy about that and in that village we still had a squire and she went to see the squire’s wife and told her the story. And the squire’s wife went to see my father and told him his fortune in no uncertain terms. How he was ruining my life, particularly of a better education and a much better chance of a decent living afterwards. And so, he said, ‘I suppose I’ll let him go then.’ Reluctantly. And it wasn’t because he felt he needed to but because he knew that if he refused and the squire’s wife went back and talked to the squire about it his job would be on the rocks without any trouble at all. And so, we got away with it and I went off to Lord Wandsworth’s College. What a place to go to. The first time I’d been away from home travelling from Newark to London. Met there by the secretary from the school and taken on to a train ride to Hampshire and then by coach to the college. In the junior school of course to start me I was eleven at that stage and the first time being means so many different boys from all parts of the world and not knowing really anything about anything.
HH: Did you speak strong Lincolnshire dialect at that time?
JJ: I did in those days, indeed I did. I did know and even though I also left so young when I left I still remember some of the dialect the local people used to use. And the one thing that sticks in mind is that when they met they didn’t say, ‘Hello. How are you? How are you doing?’ It was always, ‘How do my duck?’ and probably, ‘How do me duck? Are you alreet?’ That was the usual thing.
DE: It still is in some places.
JJ: At that stage the local people referred to our nearest town not as Horncastle but ‘Oncastle. I don’t know whether they still do. They may do. And it is the sort of thing which has stuck in my mind over the times and that I find too, useful these days in certain circumstances to introduce my talk, to whoever, particularly with school children which I do quite a lot of recently. But the sort of thing which I started there. Lord Wandsworth’s Agricultural College was a mix in that it was academic and it was also vocational. Those who could cope went through the academic side and the rest went through the — we had a large farm there and a good large garden. A big orchard. There was plenty of scope for vocational training. I managed to get through the school certificate. I say managed to get. In that you may remember you had to take eight subjects. You were allowed one failure but you had to get credits in at least one other subject for a pass. Then other things went on beyond that. I managed to scrape through and when we went back after the results had come out, back after the school holidays. Met by the headmaster who said, ‘Congratulations. How did you manage it?’ I said, ‘With difficulty sir.’ That was that. And I had, at that stage, ambition to be a vet but to do the vet’s course you had to have the, what was the word? Matriculation exam as well and you had to have a far better pass in the school certificate than I had got, in other words, to do that. So, I had to have a rethink. And I thought about being the park superintendent of a large London park. They’d got a very good garden section there. And I didn’t want anything to do with the farm. I’d had too much of that anyway. And so I went into the horticultural side and I learned quite a lot about horticulture in that time including, on one occasion, washing out the greenhouses with a nicotine solution. A very neat, tiny solution and my bottle, or my bucket, ran out and I went to get some more and as I mixed it I inhaled some of the nicotine. Oh, was I ever sick. Straight back to the hospital and in to the school hospital. And the orderly we had there -- next morning gave me a right telling off because he’d had to sit with me all night. He wasn’t sure whether I was going to live or not. So, I got my own back on him in that way but that was that. That was just a small incident in that. And so, I very much enjoyed the work in the gardens, the orchard and particularly in the greenhouses. And then as a job came up in the local park in Basingstoke and so I was interviewed for that and got it. And so I started my working life as a trainee assistant parks keeper and I was doing that. Whilst I was doing that I was billeted with a family in Basingstoke and one of the sons had his own Alsatian and my sister had always bred Alsatians. That was her real life and so I took Fred with me on holiday on one occasion and of course he took his dog. He and Lena, my sister, got to know each other and they got to know each other very well and it got to the stage where she said to my father they were thinking of getting married. And he said, ‘If you get married I shall kill myself.’ I said, ‘For goodness sake Lena he’s far too fond of life to do something like that.’ She said, ‘I know but if he did I would never be able to forgive myself.’ And that ruined her life completely. She never looked at another man after that.
HH: What happened to her? Did she stay at home with your dad?
JJ: Oh yes. Oh yes. Yes. And she had got a job of her own in that during the war she was part of the ARP system. I’m not quite sure what she did. But she also became the village post lady and she cycled around on her bike delivering the mail to various places. And she kept that job for the whole of her working life apart from looking after him in his misery as well. From Langford the farmer himself died and his wife and son took over and eventually, during that time, my father got Scarlet Fever and was off work for up to six weeks and by the end of that or just before the end of that the wife said she was very sorry they couldn’t wait any longer. They’d have to appoint somebody else. So he had to get out and find more accommodation elsewhere and we went just up the road to the village of Collingham and we lived in Collingham from then onwards. Believe it or not in a place called Chapel House. It was a converted chapel but that was where we went for a while. And shortly after that, I don’t know how, my father became associated but he did, with a lady and her mother in another street in the village of Collingham. And eventually the mother died but the daughter then from selling the bungalow that they lived in used that money to help purchase the new house my father and sister had got and joined them there. And then again for some reason which I never found out she suddenly wasn’t there anymore. She left and that was it. And so there we were. A nice house. It was a nice house. It was semi-detached but four bedrooms and had every convenience. No, it didn’t [laughs] it didn’t have any conveniences. Gas central, gas lighting. No electricity. No hot water apart from the boiler attached to the fire and that was it. And so that was where we lived for some time. And then I was, having been at Basingstoke for almost a year, the war had started before I joined there. I thought I ought to be getting in to this. And basically, I don’t know why, but it was a personal hatred of Hitler and the terrible damage that he had done to this country in that time and I needed to do something. I needed to do my share about it. So, I volunteered for the air force in the June. But I didn’t want to be a pilot. I didn’t think I had the aptitude or the coordination to be able to do it properly. And I wanted to go on the bomber side and I knew that the bomber pilot was responsible not only for flying the aircraft but for the safety of the crew as a whole and I thought maybe I was a bit young for that anyway. So I didn’t want to be a pilot but the selection committee thought differently and they recommended me for pilot training.
HH: Can I ask why you wanted to be on the bomber side?
JJ: I think — to get my own back on Hitler. That was the only way I could put it at that stage. Eighteen years old. That sort of thought was prominent in my mind and then I had to wait. This was in the November 1940 and I volunteered in June but got through the interviews but then the medical came. I had a hernia. So they said, ‘Go back and get that fixed and come back in six months’ time.’ So off I went. Had the operation. I thought maybe I could live out that six months but the letter came very shortly telling me to report back to Cardington in November of that year. And I thought I’d go through the same procedure again but no. ‘You’re in son. Go and get your uniform.’ That’s it. And so I was in. Went through the usual recruit training and I had no idea of getting any aircrew training coming up. My first appointment was Harlaxton in the Grantham area which was a flying school there. And they were flying [pause] oh dear [pause] battledresses? Battle? No. what did they call them? Anyway, pretty — the only, I suppose, modernish aircraft.
DE: Battles.
JJ: That’s it. That we had at that time and my job was to sit in the flight office and take hourly weather reports and phone it through to the Met Office so they could construct their forecast. Boring as hell. And then added to guard duties probably in the evening and night. And we had a satellite station across the way and I can’t remember the name of it but we used to have to go over there on guard duties. And one thing I remember about that place is that one night, sitting there after having done my two hours, sitting in the hut and one of the bed frames was propped up against the wall and I looked around and I saw a rat behind it. I quickly put, fixed my bayonet. End of rat and that was it. At least I made use of my bayonet on one occasion. But there we go. And then eventually down to Babbacombe for the Aircrew Receiving Centre and the start of the aircrew training. And that was where, in the first place if I can put it — I met my doom. We were billeted in hotels and my roommate and I were walking out on the street one evening and these two young ladies were walking towards us. I was the shy, retiring one but for some unknown reason said, ‘Are you going our way?’ And this voice said, ‘That depends on which your way is.’ That was Gwyn and that was our meeting and that was how it started. Quite an amazing sound that was. But then the aircrew training came along. I was posted down to Newquay to ITW and during that time Gwyn decided to join the WAAF and she became a telephone watcher in the — telephone operator in the WAAF. And we went from ITW to up north to wait for a ship to take us either to America or to Rhodesia for pilot training. I was going to America and there, there were two training systems. We had our own British flying training schools and the rest were organised by the American — American Army Air Corps. And of course at that stage America had no thought of being in the war at all. And I could not take the American Army Air Corps but I got one of their stations. Nice posting. Arcadia in Florida. But I could not stand their petty discipline. First thing. When you made your bed you had to fold the top blanket and the bottom at exactly forty five degrees and the inspecting officer would go around with a protractor and make sure it was forty five degrees and if it wasn’t — stripped off and you did it again. And their marching. That really got up my nose. So sloppy it didn’t mean a thing. However, we carried on. Fortunately, the instructors were civilians. Very pleasant people. And believe it or not I managed to solo but my landings weren’t what they might have been. And so he said, ‘I’m sorry,’ one day, ‘I’m sorry old son. I don’t think you’re going to make it.’ I said, ‘Don’t be sorry. Neither do I.’ So that was that. About ten of us washed out pilots were then posted, again on the American Army Air Corps to Maxwell Field in Montgomery. And we weren’t supposed to talk going to breakfast so we sang, “Colonel Bogey.” I don’t know if you know that but if you do you shouldn’t maybe but that was how we went into breakfast. On our last day — our senior bod was a flight sergeant gunner who’d been hoping to be accepted and made it He said, ‘Let’s show these so and so’s how to march.’ And so we fell in, RAF style, outside the dining room and we marched back to the billet a hundred and sixty paces a minute with arms swinging forward and backwards, waist high — and the looks we got as we went along. At least we felt we’d left our mark on Maxwell Field and that was that. Gave us that much satisfaction. It was, anyway, back to Canada and wait for a troop ship to bring us home. I joined in November of 1940. I landed back in this country in January 1942 no nearer to fighting that war that I’d joined for than I had been when I joined. So it was the shortest course and it was gunnery. So I did the gunnery course. I managed to get through that but instead of being posted to an OTU like other aircrew where you mixed up, formed your crews and then went off for further training I was posted straight out to 97 Squadron at Woodhall as a spare gunner. Which meant I had to fly with anyone who hadn’t got a mid-upper or a rear gunner for that night’s operation. Quite an inauguration in to operational flying but we managed to get by but at that stage 97 had just been re-equipped with Lancasters and they were looking for the seventh member of crew. The bomb aimer. And they were training them at a local station. And since it made a difference between seven and six and twelve and six a day I thought I’d have a go at that and so I re-trained as a bomb aimer. And then came back to the squadron as a spare bomber aimer and after I’d done about ten trips all around I was told I was joining this crew with an American pilot. My immediate thought was — Oh my God. Americans again. Then I met Joe McCarthy, at that stage a flight lieutenant. Six foot three and breadth to go with the height. Big in size, big in personality but one we discovered, to our great confidence, big in pilot ability. Absolute. I never thought that Joe wouldn’t bring me back from any trip. And my goodness, he didn’t. But that was, I think, maybe it might have been something to do with my barely five foot seven looking up at his six foot three we just seemed to gel and we became the best of friends. On duty he was the pilot. I was the bomb aimer. We had our jobs and that was it.
HH: You had quite an international crew, didn’t you?
JJ: We did indeed. We had the navigator and the rear gunner were both Canadians. The flight engineer was, although in the RAF at that stage had been to America as a child. His parents had emigrated and then his mother and his grandmother brought him back later in life but he had nationalised, nationalised Canadian business whilst with the family whilst he was out there. That left just three of us. The American pilot of course. English. The wireless operator was the daddy of the crew. He was thirty. And then the mid-upper gunner was just a year my senior. And that was the three of us. However, we got on very well as a crew. I think, I have to say the attitude of the majority of the Bomber Command crews who, most of which were volunteers anyway was they’d volunteered to do what they could about this war and to do the job, whichever their job was, to the best of their ability and I’m sure the majority of them did that all the time. From my point of view, on the normal bombing raids where initially you was in the dark, out of moon you saw nothing until you got to the target area and you saw all the guns that you’d got to go through before you came home. But once you started the bombing run my concentration was on the bomb sight and the marker or whatever the target was and it stayed just on that line. What was going on outside didn’t mean a thing to me. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t see it and I just got on with the job that I was supposed to do. And then when bombs gone we had to fly straight and level so that the camera could take a picture of where our bombs had dropped. So, there was no point in saying we dropped somewhere near the target if we’d lobbed the bombs off before we got there or somewhere near because they’d have been shown up on the camera. However, that was it. After that it was nose up and home as fast as —
HH: Did you ever have any idea how dangerous it all was for the aircrew?
JJ: No. I sometimes think. No, I’ll put it this way. I’m asked occasionally, ‘Were you ever frightened?’ And I said, well from that description I give of arriving at the target. Certainly for the first time anyone who wasn’t a bit apprehensive was either devoid of emotion or was a stranger to the truth. One of the early television programmes I did the director asked me that question and I gave him the same answer. He said, ‘In other words they were bloody liars.’ I said, ‘Well if that’s the way you want to put it.’ When they produced that television programme that’s the only part of that conversation that was put in and I rang him up and said, ‘Look, what are my ex-comrades going to think of that young whipper snapper referring to them all as bloody cowards.’ He said, ‘Johnny that’s television. There’s a sensational bit. Sorry but that’s the way it goes.’ And they also did the American version and that opened up with my picture and that statement straight away. I felt a bit hard about that but there we are. That’s television. You’re subject to whatever they want to produce in the end. However, we managed to get by and we got to the stage where we were very close to the end of our first tour. In those days you did — a first tour was thirty trips and at the end of that thirty trips you got a week’s leave and then you went on to either a ground tour or a non-operational flying tour. Well, having anticipated this, this leave, this week’s leave, my fiancé and I arranged to get married on the 3rd of April. In the meantime, Wing Commander Gibson rang Joe and asked him would he consider joining a special squadron that he was forming for one special trip. And Joe said, ‘I’ll have to ask the crew,’ which he did and we agreed to go with him. I wrote, or told Gwyn [down in Devon?] about this reorganisation and the answer I got was, ‘If you’re not there on the 3rd of April, don’t bother.’ I thought aye aye, the first mandate’s been issued. And there we go. So that was how we came to be part member of what was known then as Squadron X and we moved over to Scampton. Again, a date I will always remember – March the 27th – and the first thing we heard was — no leave. Oh God, there goes my wedding. Again, Joe in his inimitable style took us up to Gibson’s office as a crew and said, ‘We’ve just finished our first tour. We’re entitled to a week’s leave. My bomb aimer’s supposed to be getting married on the 3rd of April and he’s going to get married on the 3rd of April.’ Oh my God. A flight lieutenant talking to the wing commander like that. But what I didn’t know was that Joe had done some training with one of Gibson’s training units and so Gibson knew something about him and had, obviously, enough confidence to ask him would he join that crew. Incidentally, the fact that Gibson selected all the crews is not right. He selected his one or two people that he knew of, notably from 106 Squadron which he commanded before he moved over and the rest were appointed by the wing commanders on each squadron. 5 Group was the group. In that Group were asked to recommend on or two experienced pilots from crews for this exercise and that’s how the crews were selected basically. So we got our leave. I got my wedding. Just. Basically we got, on the morning of the wedding, a choir boy came around to the house on the morning of the wedding with a message from the vicar which said because Gwyn was only eighteen at that stage. A lady at that time under the age of twenty one had to have both parents’ permission to get married and her father was in North Africa with the army. Fortunately, nan was able to find a letter in which he had agreed to the wedding taking place so we got away with it again and that was it and we got our wedding eventually. And there we are. And I would add, at this stage, that lasted for sixty two and a half years. So, I have a lot to be thankful for in that. However, we got our leave and then we had the experience of joining 617 Squadron as it was now called. One thing that surprised us again was the experience of the majority of the crews. Many of them having completed their first tour. Some on their second tour and just a few who were not that experienced but recommended by their wing commanders. We were told by Gibson that we would not be told what the target was. He didn’t know and neither would we know until much later but it was a special operation and again was going to, it had been said that it would make a difference to the war effort and training would be low level. It was great. Having done bombing operations at ten, twelve, fifteen thousand feet in the dark and certainly above cloud and then being able to fly down. A hundred feet was the prescribed height but very seldom was that achieved. It was usually just a little bit below that and lying in the front I had the best, the best seat as it were. Lying down in the front of the aircraft just seeing the ground whizzing past was so exhilarating, it was quite tremendous. I don’t know — you may know Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire. I believe so-called because the road bridge crosses a canal on the way in to the town but as you fly up from the south the electric cables also cross the canal and the practice, not briefed, but undertaken each time we came across that town was to go underneath the cables and up over the bridge. Wonderful. It really was. Absolutely first class. One of the residents here could tell me that she had an aunt who lived in Sutton Bridge at that time and she said the whole of the population were scared stiff about all these low flying aircraft that were going about. That’s war dear. You know, that’s one of those things. Anyway, that was one of the things. Bomb aimers had to make their own bomb sights and it consisted of a triangle of plywood with a peg in each angle but the distance between the base pins had to be specific and the distance from the apex had to be specific. On the bombing range they arranged two poles. Again, specific distances apart and the idea on a bombing practice was that the bomb aimer would hold a single pin to his eye and direct the pilot until the two base pins were in line with the poles. Drop the bombs. Practice bombs I hasten to add. And that was that. If you got it right — fine. If you didn’t you did it again and again and again until you got it right. And then we also used some of the reservoirs in this country. Notably Derwent Water in Derbyshire and we used the towers there as the marking points and a marker in the reservoir itself showed roughly where the bombs should drop. And I sometimes wonder how the Sheffield people felt about what was happening to their drinking water being mutilated by practice bombs being dropped but we never heard any comments about it so that was that. In the meantime the special aircraft had arrived. Lancasters, yes. But no mid-upper turret. The bomb doors appeared to be absolutely sealed and these two legs sticking down either side, one either side of the fuselage just behind the nose and one of them had a bevelled wheel on the, at the end of it. And then the bomb arrived. Just like a large glorified dustbin but at least it gave us the indication as to what those legs were for. Quite obviously that is how the bomb was going to be carried. Latched in to those legs. We went on various cross countries and I never understood, oh, sorry — we had no navigation aids so navigation was done by map reading and dead reckoning. Navigator and bomb aimer each had a map. The navigator would tell me what he expected me to see. If I saw it that was fine. If I didn’t I could pick out something else conspicuous and he could, if necessary alter his course accordingly. And that was how we got around. What I could never understand was how you were supposed to map read over the North Sea because one of the turning points was over the North Sea. You had to guarantee that the point you left this coast was the right one. That your dead reckoning out to the point and back again was accurate and you hit our coast in the right place coming back. Fortunately, we seemed to make it fairly regularly and got away with it and that was that. And having gone through all that we then moved on to what was a twilight situation where the front of the aircraft — the cabin and the whole of the front were covered in blue sheeting and the pilot and the bomb aimer wore night given, sorry night vision glasses. So it created quite the twilight situation and we went through the same exercise again and it was on one of those, on our North Sea leg that I saw a dinghy in the water and two characters in it waving like mad. So, Joe told the wireless operator to wireless base with our position and the sighting of the dinghy. And a couple of days later we got a signal from the CO of, I think, a Beaufighter squadron or something similar thanking us for reporting that dinghy. The crew had had to ditch and as soon as their report was received the sea craft, safety craft went out and picked them up and got them back home so we had done something useful. And that was that. And then it was just night flying. Except it had to be night flying in brilliant moonlight and we went through the same procedures with the night flying as we had through the rest of the flying. And then Gibson thought we were ready to go but it didn’t really depend on him. And so I have to say at this stage we still didn’t know what the target was going to be. On the Saturday night we met in the ops room as a squadron. Met Barnes Wallis for the first time to really meet him and he explained to us through film how he’d developed what was referred to as the bouncing bomb. Told us something about the bomb as well. It weighed nine thousand pounds of which six and a half thousand was explosive contained inside it, fused with two depth fuses which were set to explode at a depth of twenty five feet of water but it rotated backwards at five hundred revs a minute. It had to be dropped from exactly sixty feet at a ground speed of two hundred knots. All these things were achieved. For instance, the sixty foot mark was achieved by the boffins at Farnborough calculating the angles at which two lights in the starboard side of the fuselage had to be set so that when they converged that was exactly sixty feet. So, it became more of a crew exercise where the navigator, through the Perspex was watching the lights indicating up or down. The flight engineer was watching the speed and adjusting or asking the pilot to adjust and the bomb aimer was giving corrections to get the bomb sight in line with the target. So, the pilot was being told by three other members of the crew how to fly the aircraft. He didn’t seem to object too much to that because it worked out. And there we go. And so that was on the, on the Saturday night and as I say Barnes Wallis had given us this indication and still couldn’t tell us what the target was but it did mean that with that bomb sight we were dropping the bomb some four hundred and twenty five yards away from the target and it would bounce along until it hit the target which immediately raised conjectures in our minds about the target being the German battleships. Particularly the Tirpitz. Because if you’re going to drop the bombs so far away you would get away before their heavy defence was going to do you much damage. However, on the Sunday all 617 Squadron aircrew in to the operations room and then we saw how wrong you could be. And there were just two models in the brief. The Möhne and the Sorpe. The Eder model hadn’t been completed so it wasn’t there. Big map on the wall showing two routes in and one route out. I think it was the highest powered briefing I ever attended. The AOC was there. The station commander, Gibson of course was there doing the briefing. Barnes Wallis was there. The senior armaments and engineering officers from the station were there. The intelligence officer was there. And the dear old Met man was there. And so Gibson did the briefing and explained that he would take off with two others in formation and they would head for the Möhne. Shortly after him six others in two threes would leave and also head for the Möhne. If, when they then got there, the Möhne hadn’t been breached, they would attack the Möhne under Gibson’s command until it was and then move over to the Eder. Five crews, of which we were one would breach the Sorpe. And of course, the Sorpe had to be different. It didn’t have any towers so there was nothing to sight on and it was so placed in the hills that a head on attack was almost impossible. And we were briefed that we had to fly down one side of the hills with the port outer engine over the dam itself. Fly along the dam until — and estimate to drop the bomb. Sorry the bomb wasn’t being rotated at all. It was an inert drop and the drop estimate to drop the bomb as nearly as possible to the centre of the dam. Pure estimation. No sighting involved. Right. Disappointment from our point of view. We weren’t going to be able to use the bombing practices particularly that we’d been practising and we had no idea of how to carry out that type of attack until we got there but that was the job we were given so that was it. We went to the messes for the pre-operational meal of the good old egg and bacon which came out regularly. Mind you the egg was in various forms, sometimes just the powered stuff or whatever. But it was always there. And there were times when one heard of the story of, in the Sergeants’ Mess one wag saying to another one, ‘Can I have your bacon if you don’t come back?’ And that was a standard phrase that was chatted around. But then out to the aircraft and then came our great shock. Q-Queen was our aircraft. Had behaved perfectly throughout training but when we started up it created a hydraulic leak on run up. Impossible to fix before take-off and there was only one reserve aircraft. It arrived at 3 o’clock that afternoon. It had been bombed up. It had been fuelled up and it had a compass swing with the bomb on board to offset the metal of the bomb against the aircraft compasses. In his anxiety to get out I won’t use the language that he did telling us to get out as quickly as possible before someone else got there and we didn’t get to go. In his anxiety he pulled his parachute and it billowed behind him as we waddled off to the reserve aircraft. And then the real next break — the compass card which had been done on that bombing up wasn’t in the aircraft. Joe had a tremendous vocabulary. I don’t think I heard him use the same word twice but he got in to the truck in a flaming temper. Back to the flights. Fortunately when you got down there the squadron adjutant was there, Humph, who said, ‘For God’s sake Joe calm down. If you don’t you’re going to make a complete pig’s ear of the whole thing.’ Right. Now that did calm him down and our flight sergeant discip, Chiefy Powell, a very efficient man had heard Joe say that he wasn’t going to bother with a parachute so chiefy went off to the flights and collected the compass card and then detoured to the parachute section and picked up another parachute. Gave Joe the compass card in the front of the truck, pushed the parachute in the back, ‘Your compass,’ sorry, ‘Your parachute sir.’ Flight sergeant to a flight lieutenant didn’t make much difference in those days but apart from that to me it illustrated the spirit of the squadron as a whole. The ground crew were right behind the aircrew all the way. It was a very solid squadron all the way through and I think that partially depicted that effort. And so, thirty minutes late we got off. Tell me if I’m talking too much here.
DE: No. You’re doing fine. It’s wonderful stuff.
JJ: Because there was no mid-upper turret the mid-upper gunner was flying in the front turret. Fortunately, they did it in stirrups so he wasn’t kicking me up the backside all the time. But as we were going along, some miles south of Hamm a goods train was chugging along at right angles to our track and Ron Batson in the front turret said, ‘Can I have a go, Joe?’ And I think almost reluctantly Joe said, ‘Well. Yes. Alright.’ So Ron opened up with his little 303s which was all we had in the front turret. What we didn’t know was that it wasn’t just a goods train, 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 just carried on. And then we arrived at the Sorpe. And the first thing we saw was on the hill, on the side of the hill from which we were supposed to make the approach there was a church steeple. So, Joe, because we weren’t spinning the bomb we’re not governed by any of the conditions of dropping that bomb. So we could go as low or as fast or as slow. Whatever we could. And Joe used the church as a marker. Tried to level up from that point and we started to go down. As I say we’d never practiced this type of attack before and it wasn’t easy. If I wasn’t satisfied I called, ‘dummy run,’ and we went back up again and started again. If Joe wasn’t satisfied he just pulled away and left me to call a dummy run. After about the sixth or seventh of these a voice from the rear turret said, ‘Won’t somebody get that bomb out of here.’ And I had to realise how to become the most unpopular member of the crew in double quick time but I know that both Joe and I were there to do a particular job and we were going to do that to the best of our ability. So we went down and although neither of us said anything to each other I’m sure we both realised that the lower we got the less forward travel that bomb was going to have before it hit the water. And secondly the lower we got the easier it was going to be to estimate the aiming point. On the tenth run we were down to thirty feet. When I said, ‘Bomb gone,’ ‘Thank Christ,’ came from the rear turret but in retrospect I had to see Dave’s point of view. He, as the rear gunner, was responsible for the safety of our aircraft from enemy aircraft and each time you went up you were going over the village and why not somebody there ringing the authorities and saying they’re bombing our, trying to bomb our dam at low level and they’d have had the fighters out there in no time flat and bye bye McCarthy’s crew in, equally, no time flat. So, I can understand to some degree Dave’s anxiety. Because we were so low it was nose up straight away to avoid the hills on the other side. I didn’t see the explosion but Dave did, again, in the rear turret and he estimated that the tower of water went up to about a thousand feet. Well if you’re going to explode six and a half thousand tonnes [sic] of explosive at a depth of twenty five feet it’s going to do an awful lot of damage one way, all ways, including upwards. And that of course was one thing that happened. ‘Not only that,’ said Dave from the rear turret, ‘But in the down flow some of it came in to the turret so I thought I was going to be drowned besides being knocked around by you lot up there.’ Anyway, we circled and we seemed to have cracked the surface of the dam. This was about ten yards. And that was that. Barnes Wallis had told us at briefing because of the structure of the Sorpe it was almost like a pyramid. Concrete centre and built all around with broken rock, earth, packed in tight and then concrete again on the outsides. Barnes Wallis had said, ‘If you can crack it the water pressure will do the rest.’ He thought you’d need at least six bombs to crack it. Obviously one wasn’t going to do it. And what we couldn’t understand was we had been so late taking off yet when we got there, there was no sign of anybody having been there. Nor did anyone arrive once we were there. Where they had gone we didn’t know until we got back. So then we set a course for home and I think, to me, that was the most inspiring part of the trip. Our journey home took us straight over what had been the Möhne dam and we knew from radio broadcast it had been breached and there was water everywhere. It was just like an inland sea and it was still coming out of that dam twenty minutes, half an hour, after it had been breached. It was a wonderful satisfaction for seeing, and we knew by radio broadcast the Eder had been breached too. So at least had the satisfaction of seeing some, real satisfaction of that operation and so off we went home. And then I suppose I have to take some responsibility for what happened next because we’d got off the track. We were supposed to be map, still at low level, map reading and we ended up over a railway and a railway yard but it wasn’t just a railway yard. It was the Hamm marshalling yard and that was where all the ammunitions that were made in the Ruhr were distributed to the various war areas by the transport. Sea or land and rail. Not the healthiest of places to be. Down goes Joe and then again from the rear turret, ‘Who needs guns? At this height all they need to do is change the points.’ Dave had that facility for brightening every particular situation. Joe said, ‘Right. We’re going out the way we came in. That’s it.’ So we did and we got back to Scampton and Scampton in those days was still a grass airfield and so landings were inclined to be a little more lumpy than now, than normal runway landings but ours was rather more than something lumpy and we were starboard wing low. And the flight engineer, looking out of the Perspex said, ‘We’ve got a burst tyre, skipper.’ So, he taxied around to dispersal and the chiefy engineer took the aircraft off to examine it and when he came back the first thing he did was to give us a sheer rollicking for getting his aircraft shot up in the way it was. But he explained that the shot had gone through the starboard undercarriage nacelle, burst the tyre en route, had then passed through the wing and landed in the roof, just above the navigator’s head. How lucky can you get? But we got away with it and that was that. Right. That was it. We then discovered why there seemed to be nobody else there. Les Munro, a New Zealand pilot, had been shot, shot up crossing the coast going in. Apart from other damage to the aircraft his communication system, systems, internal and external were completely destroyed and since it was obviously a communications exercise or operation there was no point him going on so he came back. We had been briefed that we were not to drop the — go back with the bomb on board and there was no explanation given but it also had, apart from the depth fuses it also had a self-destruct fuse so if we had to drop it away from the dams, if we dropped it it would explode and the Germans wouldn’t get a copy. Les landed. Couldn’t, couldn’t get rid of his bomb anyway so he had to land with it on. And they dashed out of the aircraft as soon as he was down, to get around in case. And I think the reason for that was that those in authority weren’t quite sure how that landing on the grass airfield with bumping — how the bomb would react to that. Would it drop off, explode and blow up the aircraft and crew there. So that was said. ‘Don’t bring the bomb back.’ And, as I say, Les and his crew got out pretty sharpish just in case. And then Geoff Rice had been flying low over the Zuiderzee. Again, to be drawing flak and he subsequently admitted he was foolish enough not to watch his altimeter and he got the bomb in the water. It whipped it off and the aircraft flew over the top of it. It didn’t do the aircraft any good of course. Apart from damage to the fuselage it ripped off the tail wheel but it also knocked over the Elsan inside the aircraft and the contents of the Elsan flowed in to the rear gunner’s turret. He wasn’t very happy about that either but there we go. Then he came back and landed. In fact, he was coming in to land and Les was at the same time. And since Les hadn’t been able to communicate to air traffic he had to go in as he was and the two of them were going in at the same time so Geoff had to fall off. Go around again. Eventually they both landed safely. Byers had been shot down and Barlow, I think it was Barlow, had hit the top of an electric pylon which fired the aircraft straightaway. It crashed into a field and killed the crew. But the bomb came off at the same time and it didn’t explode. And the only explanation I could think of was at that time the bomb aimer was waiting until they got nearer to the target to fuse it and that was the only thing I could think of. And there’s a picture, a German picture, I think of the mayor of the locality standing on top of the bomb [laughs] and it didn’t go off unfortunately. But there we are. But then, yes, the Germans had a copy and we know that they worked on it but fortunately, or unfortunately, Hitler decided the V1, V2 sites were much more important and they concentrated on that. So, they didn’t make a replica. But it did mean that in this country the reaction was felt that they would make a replica and attack our dams in the same way. So, all our major dams were much more heavily defended than they had been before.
DE: They wouldn’t have anything that would have carried that bomb at the time though either. Would they?
JJ: Sorry?
DE: They didn’t have any aircraft that would have carried that sort of bomb at the time either.
JJ: No. Knowing the Germans they would very quickly have modified something to do it. They were very efficient in those, that sort of thing. However, that accounted for the five. There had been six reserve aircraft who took off much later and they were briefed by radio as to which dam bombed, to head for and three of them were allocated to the Sorpe. The first one was shot down as he crossed the coast. Ken Brown, Canadian flight sergeant, was the only one who got through and as far as we know, difficult to make out but he had the same sort of attack as we did. But flight sergeant what’s his name. I can’t remember. But anyway, he was the third one and then mist was developing and he couldn’t find the Sorpe and so, getting close to daylight he thought, ‘We’d better go home.’ And so, they came home and he landed, again with his bomb on board. Fortunately, again, nothing happened. However, the next morning Gibson sent him back to the squadron that he came from for failing to carry out an operation for which he’d been briefed. It sounds hard but when you consider the money that had been spent on training, variation of the aircraft and all the equipment and so on and when the other thing you consider — the loss of crews. I think he was justified. But that was the devastating part of the whole night. Nineteen aircraft took off. Three returned for various reasons. Of the sixteen that went on only eight came back. We lost eight aircraft. Three aircrew managed to escape and were taken prisoner. The rest of the aircrews were killed. Eight aircraft. Fifty three aircraft [sic] had gone just like that. Quite a shattering end for one squadron. For one night’s operation. And although the bars were open at the messes when we got back, I didn’t drink in those days so I wasn’t concerned but I do know that those or at least I’m sure that those who were drinking was not on the success of the raid but on commiseration for all those that had gone and wouldn’t be coming back. I’m sure that feeling was far more uppermost in everybody’s minds that night. It took a lot to get over. And I suppose I went to bed and eventually I went to sleep but those hours. The Dams Raid, as far, as I was concerned had finished.
HH: Did you ever imagine then how that particular night would be possibly the most remembered night of the bombing war?
JJ: I remember and still do. It was the most remembered night of my operational career and will always be. Putting it in plain language it was the highlight of my operational career and I think those who survived would feel the same way about it. It was difficult to imagine it happening in the first place. It was equally difficult to see how much was going to be achieved. And I have an aversion for what I call retrospective historians. There are a number of them. Not a number of them a few of them after the war, claimed that the dams raid should never have taken place. It achieved nothing. It cost far too much money. It cost a lot of lives, loss of aircraft and it deviated aircraft from the general bomber offensive. I used to say as a young man if I ever met one of those people I’d hope my hands were tied behind my back because I’m not too sure what I would do with them. But I just and still would ask them two questions. ‘Were you there? Were you aware, were you personally aware of the circumstances and conditions of that time? The answer to both those questions is no so keep your bloody mouth shut.’ And that’s the way I really look at it now. Fortunately, I’ve found that the historians I have met subsequently have a much different view of the whole thing. Yes, they’ve researched it thoroughly and they’ve been as non-critical as possible in the whole thing. Rob Owen is our squadron historian. A great character, he really is. He too has recently passed his professorship and anyway he — that was the sort of thing that happened, there we are. However, after that we, yes, we had a week’s leave but beyond that we sat and waited. Re-equipped with standard aircraft. Re-equipped with a new bomb sight, the Stabilised Automatic Bomb Sight which was much more accurate than the Mark XIV that we had been using up to that time. And so we became a special target squadron rather than part of the main bombing force and so, we did attacks on ammunition factories, rail viaducts and all that sort of thing. Major structures and ammunition supplies. Firstly, in Germany and when they’d been bashed around, in to France. And during that time we had a new squadron commander. Leonard Cheshire. To my mind the finest squadron commander I served under during the whole of my operational career.
HH: Why was that?
JJ: He was a perfect gentleman to start with. I know it sounds stupid but that was part of it. I remember the first talk he had with us as a squadron. He said, ‘If you get,’ amongst other things, ‘If you get into trouble off duty I’ll do what I can to help you. If you get into trouble on duty I’ll make it a damn sight worse for you.’ So we always knew where we stood from the word go. But he was the type of man who knew exactly what he wanted to do and what it was all about. And he developed, amongst other things, his own marking technique which was ultimately adopted by 5 Group as the 5 Group marking technique. He and Micky Martin mostly did the marking. Initially using the Lancaster. And the thing that really makes Cheshire stick out — on the French targets particularly and on one French armament factory, again the name escapes me, but he, before he marked the target he made three low level flights over the factory and then marked the target and the factory was bombed and absolutely knocked around. And a short while afterwards we got a letter from what I must imagine was, we referred to as the foreman of the working party thanking him for giving, giving them the warning so that they could get out in time. Only one person was killed and that was by a piece of flying debris and that was all the others out of the way and he did this on several targets in that sort of way. The thing that really finished him operationally — he was an observer in the American aircraft that dropped the first atom bomb on Japan and he said, ‘If that’s what we’re aiming for I want nothing more to do with it.’ All that immediate devastation, life, everything anyway. ‘No. That’s not for me.’ So, he did no more operations and then ultimately when he retired he set up the Cheshire Homes in this country and overseas as well. And when I finally retired, that was a long time afterwards, I was [pause] we went back to Torquay. To Gwyn’s home. And I somehow found myself on the town council and we were opening a social services home for some of our residents and Leonard Cheshire was coming down to open it and he saw me in amongst the people there and he came over, shook hands, and mentioned me by name. I thought that must have been at least twenty years previously that we’d known each other. What a wonderful mind. What a wonderful memory. I have nothing but praise for that man in everything that he did. And he married Sue Ryder who was also a big charity worker. I think, I’m not sure but I think she was a Roman Catholic and I think he converted at that time. But yes, I’m waiting. There’s a function coming up. I’m not sure when but shortly, to celebrate, I think it’s the hundred and twenty fifth birthday of Leonard Cheshire and I’ve been invited to go along to that. I’m not sure quite where it is or when it is now but that’s up to Jenny when she, when she gets back. But it’s the sort of thing which yes, I really want to go to that because I really have so much respect for that man and that was it.
HH: But you went on, if I’m not mistaken, to complete two tours.
JJ: [unclear] I should have gone on more but in April of ‘44 Gwyn was expecting our first child and Joe knew her quite well and he pulled me aside one day and said, ‘Johnny. Gwyn must be worried stiff about whether this child is ever going to have a father or whether she’s ever going to have a husband. You’ve got to give her a break. Pack it up now.’ And he made me realise that yes, I had other responsibilities besides fighting the war. Operationally fighting a war. And with great reluctance I left the crew at that stage. They went on and did, I think, at least ten more trips but by this time Leonard Cheshire had done a hundred and the AOC Sir Ralph Cochrane called him into group headquarters and said, ‘Leonard. You’ve done more than your share. Pack it up. That’s not a request. It’s an order. And when you get back to the squadron tell McCarthy, Munro and Shannon to do the same thing.’ They were the only three original pilots that formed the squadron and that was when the crew broke up. But Joe, as an American, stayed in the Canadian air force and became a wing commander flying and went on to operational flying stations. The thing that still sticks very much in my mind. I mentioned how the friendship between us seemed to develop. After the war he and Alice, his wife, would come over for the reunions and Gwyn and I would go. We’d meet up and then we’d take ourselves off on a Friday night off to a pub or something like that and have a quiet meal on our own and talk about our families. What we had done with them, what we were doing with them, what we were expecting from them and that sort of thing. And that family chat went on right up until the time that Joe died in 1996. We had a wonderful relationship. And his son, also Joe, I still have that same sort of contact with him and his wife. And that, for me, was the outstanding part of my war. The established friendship between not only between the two of us but between our families and that was really great. It really was.
HH: It comes across very strongly in your book your dedication to your family and your commitment to your family. Where did, where did that come from?
JJ: From my childhood where I didn’t have any family relationship. When life was, to put it politely, pretty miserable until I met Gwyn’s family. A Welsh family. Her father, as I said, was in the army in North Africa but her mother was a lovely French lady. Chatter chatter chatter. Laugh. She had two brothers and a sister and their family, as such, were all the same. Always chattering with each other, chattering with each other and they got on so well together and I thought, my first reaction was, ‘My God. What have I let myself in for?’ But I soon discovered what family was all about and that’s where it established. And what it has done, in fact, has made me realise how poor my family relationship was in my younger days. My very young days. My sister and one of my sisters in law was also very friendly as far as I was concerned. They were the only two. Alena was my surrogate mother for quite some time. Only seven years older than me but she managed us both extremely well and it was the sort of thing that I find that the family I’ve got now — they’re just great. And the support I get from my immediate family, immediate family, is absolutely wonderful. I found, when Gwyn was in hospital the children came over. That’s Sue and Jenny used to come over and visit her in hospital and Morgan was over on this one occasion and we went back to the flat and I thanked him for coming down and the other two for coming to see mum, you know and I said, ‘It’s great for her and it’s certainly great for me as well.’ He said, ‘Well you know why that is don’t you dad?’ I didn’t know. He said, ‘It’s the way we were brought up.’ And my God — coming from my son. I was absolutely amazed because he and I hadn’t agreed awfully well in his teenage years. His idea of discipline and mine tended to differ a bit but we got over that and I think the real climax of our relationship has come with that book where he’s written the last bit. When I read that there were tears in my eyes. So sincere. So, so much to the point. And I loved his last sentence, ‘How a young, how a great life for a poor farming Lincolnshire lad whose only friend was a pig’ [laughs]. I thought that was a great way to finish it.
HH: Yeah. After the war you remained in the RAF.
JJ: Yeah.
HH: But you were moved around an awful lot.
JJ: Yes.
HH: And how did you cope with — how did your family and how did you cope with all of that moving?
JJ: Very well in actual fact except that it came to a point where we had to consider the children’s education. Particularly Morgan’s. Why we should be more concerned with the boy and not the girls I don’t know but there we are. And he had to go to boarding school but he went with our promise that if we ever went overseas we would take him out and take him with us. But as a family, from my point of view I’ve always got the family with me for as long, not all the time obviously but when we got an idea of a posting if we had time we would go down to the area of the posting and see if we could find accommodation down there. And when the posting came along went straight into that accommodation. If we didn’t we’d book a, book into the local hotel and Gwyn would look for accommodation whilst I was at work but we always managed to stay together as much as we could. And I used that on one occasion when I know I didn’t do myself any good at all career wise. But I’d been, I’d been on a course in Norfolk. I think they called it a senior officer’s administrative course. One of these courses where you’re taught when you’re writing official letters to leave so much margin on the left and so much on the right and the spacing of the paragraphs and so on and that is how it should be done. There was a little bit more about the course than that but that was the general gist of it and when the course was ended everybody got their postings except me. So, I said to the course commander, ‘Where am I going?’ ‘Well we’re still trying to find out.’ And eventually he came to me. He said, ‘You’re going to the twin engine bomber OTU to start with and then on to the V force OTU and then on to a V force squadron.’ I said, ‘I’m not.’ ‘What do you mean you’re not?’ I said, ‘I’ve had five moves in fifteen months. I think it’s time I spent more time with my family.’ He said, ‘Well. That’s what you’ve got. ’ Went back to my station, which was St Mawgan at that stage and had to go and see the AOC. And amongst other things he said, ‘You realise this won’t do your career any good Johnson.’ I was still a flight lieutenant at that stage. ‘I do sir. But what I do really want — to have more time with my family and I think I should have a chance to do that.’ ‘Alright. Be it on your own head.’ And I was posted then to recruit school at Bridgnorth. And people said, Good God. Tech Training Command. Recruit school. What a,’ so and so, ‘Awful posting.’ I found it didn’t work out that way at all because it was the first time I’d been associated with man management. It had always been aircrew stuff before that. I’d either been flying or an instruction point of view. And no two days were the same at recruit school. There was always something odd would happen. On one particular occasion, in the evening, a corporal came down to quarters and said, ‘Would you come back up to the squadron sir? A recruit up there is threatening to commit suicide with his bayonet.’ I went up and this laddie was sitting on the edge of his bed with his bayonet in his hand and I said, ‘Why? What’s this all about?’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t think I’m doing at all well on this course. I don’t think I should be doing it anyway. I don’t think I’m doing anybody else any good at all. I think there’s only one way to do it and that’s to end it.’ I said, ‘Just listen a minute. Why don’t you make your mind up to do this course properly? To do it to the best of your ability and then find how much better off you feel about it. Just try that and see how it goes.’ And he looked at me and he thought and I said, ‘Give me that bayonet,’ which he did and he went on to do one of the best recruits on the flight at that stage. That was the odd sort of thing that happened. Another character came in one day to ask if he could have a ‘48’ for his grandmother’s eighty third birthday party. I said, ‘For your cheek yes you can but by golly if you’re not back here on Monday sunshine you’re in dead lumber.’ But there we are. Odd sort of things that happened there.
HH: Was that instructor experience that made you consider teaching as a career post-RAF?
JJ: No. I don’t think that really came into it. Um, what made me? When I, sorry, my last tour was the worst of the whole of my career and it was back to Hemswell. In the operations room. And we were controlling the Thor guided missiles. We had four sites of Thor, the American Thor guided missiles and we were controlling those and it was a question of — I’d never been on a shift system before and this was a ghastly one. You did two days from four ‘til, sorry from eight in the morning ‘til four in the afternoon. Two days from four until midnight and then two days from midnight until eight the next morning. Your system just didn’t get used to anything and then you had what they claimed to be a sleeping day and a day off. Well, since I was living out at that stage at our home we had taken over. My sister’s home then. And we had a big garden there so my sleeping day was spent in the garden most of the time and that was it but I felt that — I know I’d got a letter then from the, I suppose it was the MOD by that time saying it was unlikely that I would get any further promotion and thank you very much. Goodbye. We’d discussed this for some time actually. Time we started to move and look for something else. But then the question was, what the hell can I do? I‘ve no qualifications for going outside but I’d done a lot of instruction in various ways in the service. That’s what made me think about the possibility of teaching and so I applied for junior teaching because I felt that if I went secondary, into a secondary modern school their idea of discipline and mine would be different. And my idea of dealing with that discipline would be different from the authorities. I’d probably be out of a job more often than I was in it. So I went for junior and that was — and I was accepted for that. On the course I did a three year course in two years as a mature student and the authorities found two teaching practices for us. We had to find our own third. When we came back from Singapore Jenny had just a year to do in her junior education and we’d heard of the [pause] private school, primary school, Highfields in Newark and we went to have a look at it, liked it and she got a place there so when I did the teacher’s course I went to see the head to see if I could do my third teaching practice there and he said, ‘Yes, surely.’ And that meant I got to know the school extremely well. I don’t think the authorities were very pleased I’d chosen a private school rather than a state school but that was just tough, that was the way it went. And when I finished the teaching practice they said, ‘If I get a vacancy would you like to come here?’ Too right I would. And so off we went and then I got my first posting to a state school. To a class of forty six C stream.
DE: Crikey.
JJ: Who didn’t want to know the first thing about anything. Except one lad I always remember. He said, ‘I don’t know nothing about reading and writing, sir. But I do know my money.’ He was a scrap merchant’s son so that was understandable. But that was the sort of thing that I — but during that year, that first year, the head from Highfields rang me and said, ‘I’ve got a vacancy coming up in September. Are you still interested?’ Was I interested? Too right I was interested [laughs] and so I had time to give notice to the LEA and moved in to the private school and that was where I learned to teach. To teach children who wanted to learn. Okay. The parents were paying for them to get that education but that was what it was all about and the teaching staff were dedicated to providing an education. It was a wonderful experience. And I went on with that for five years. But during that time I’d got a part time job on a Saturday morning at Rampton Hospital which, I don’t know if you know it, but the hospital for the bad boys. A special hospital for the bad boys and I decided to, with my previous private training, school training, to take on a horticultural class there.
HH: I’m just intrigued as to why you decided to that because it must have been quite challenging work.
JJ: I think it was another interest and it was a return to the work that I’d been doing before I joined the air force. I think that came into it as well. Mind you, yes. There were some shocks. You had to draw your keys in the morning. No. Sorry we’ll come back in a minute. But after a while the hospital decided they wanted an adult education section and they applied to the LEA. And the LEA agreed. So that was done and that was where I transferred from junior’s education to adult education. A different kind and very different in the level of the teaching.
HH: But much more difficult pupils.
JJ: No. Except that whenever they came in staff came in with them in case there was any problem. And no. They never had one as far as I was concerned but I still went on with the horticultural project as well and it was getting to the stage where they seemed to become much more interested in what they were doing. We had our own patch. We cultivated it, we grew the vegetables and passed them in to the hospital window for use and so on and I began to wonder would it be at all possible to take these people to a garden centre to see what goes on outside of a hospital garden and I discussed it with a senior nurse who told me in words of one syllable not to be so stupid. And we argued and we argued and we argued and, in the end, he said, ‘Alright. Be it on your own head,’ he said, ‘But you have to take staff with you.’ ‘I appreciate that but I hope they’ll come out of uniform,’ which they did thank God and we went off. Before we went I said to these characters, ‘Look this is a job on my head. If any of you do anything stupid on this outing I’ll have your guts for garters when you come back.’ But that was the sort of language they understood. We went off and I was amazed at how interested they were in the garden centre. In what they saw and how interested they were in the plants themselves too. We took them into a café for a cup of tea. They behaved themselves perfectly. So, we went back to Rampton and the head nurse was waiting for us when we got back there. He said, ‘Congratulations. How did, how did you manage it?’ I said, ‘With confidence.’ That was the end of that conversation and I felt that from my point of view that had been an achievement. And in the meantime my local hospital have the mental handicapped in Balderton. Not a term I’m supposed to use myself but they call them something like learning disabled or something like that. They’re still mentally handicapped as far as I’m concerned but there we are. That’s another story. But this was again a totally different type of education. It was a social education and we were taking the better of the patients and trying to build them up to be able to get them back in to the community. And we had our own classroom. I had a full time deputy and four part time teachers. Two mornings. Two for mornings. Two for afternoons. And we had a classroom, a kitchen, a bedroom all available there and we worked on through that and we had a group of, I suppose, a dozen of them and I was there for fourteen years. My last fourteen years was there and during that time after we’d carried on this social education for quite some years we managed to get three houses at various times. Two council and one private. And before me moved the patients in we went down to talk to the local people about the people that were coming to mix with them and then invited those people back up to the hospital to see them at work up there and see how they were going on. When we made the movement in so much easier for the patients and fortunately easier for the residents to accept them.
HH: What sort of mental disabilities did they have?
JJ: Good question [pause] I suppose one could only describe it as a very slowness in learning. An inability to learn in actual fact is probably the easiest way to describe it. There were variations of course. We had some Mongoloid patients there and I have to say although some of those could be very angry at times and very discouraging they were probably some of the lovingest people that were about. They seemed to love everybody. Great people then from that point of view.
HH: And you had quite a lot of success in rehousing people did you?
JJ: In those days and in that case yes we did and when I, by the time I left none of those people that we had moved into the houses had been returned to the hospital.
HH: Fantastic.
JJ: They’d all managed to stay out. Either with work — some of them got work. Others had picked up with other things looking after the house and sort of doing whatever they wanted to do.
HH: And what did you find especially satisfying about that kind of work?
JJ: The possibility of bringing some of those people back in to the community so they could learn to live in a community rather than in a hospital situation. That was the most satisfying thing about it I think.
HH: And then after that as far as I remember you retired and you moved back down to the West Country.
JJ: Torquay. Yes.
HH: But it wasn’t the end of retirement really because then you became a town councillor.
JJ: Yes [laughs]. That didn’t for last for long mind you. Three years. Then somebody else beat me to the next election. That was it but however yes, and again I don’t know if you know Torquay at all but it’s the sort of place, when I was first there was a lovely seaside place. It was much more modern when we I went to live there and when I was on the council I was on the planning. Got on to the planning committee and we used to go around to these various places where people had asked for planning permission to do something and as we went around I saw some of these buildings and I said to the people, ‘Who the hell gave permission for that to be built?’ The whole place was being destroyed by these ugly looking places that were being put up. However, they seemed to get on with it and that was it. And I was there, it was at that time that I met Leonard Cheshire again. But I’ve [pause] whilst I was at Balderton Hospital Gwyn was secretary of our village primary school and she retired in the summer and I retired at the Christmas and I said to her, ‘I’ve had twenty-two years in the service. I’ve had twenty-two years in various education. Now I want twenty-two years’ retirement.’ I rather overstepped that one unfortunately. She hasn’t. But life didn’t quite finish then. I thought it would when she died but there again the children stepped in and they said, ‘Dad, you haven’t talked about your wartime at all. Why don’t you start talking about it? It would at least give you something else to think about apart from grieving for mum all the time which we know you will be doing.’ And so, I thought about it and I tried it and it worked. Yes. It was something else to think about and I started occasional teaching talks to various groups. I didn’t volunteer but it started really when I came here to Bristol in that an individual who I just knew as an individual at that time, came to see me. Would I consider talking to their ‘41 Club? And that was Peter Wass that finally turned out to be. He then onwards introduced me to so many clubs and associations I’d never even heard of but that’s when the talking really started and the sort of thing which, on the seventieth anniversary of the dams raid, it just burst wide open and that’s when Jenny came in to her own and she took over as she said, secretary and she arranged all the meetings. The talks. The television programmes and either she put it on the calendar or told me to put it on the calendar. All I had to do was look on the calendar to see what I was supposed to be doing this week. But then came the time when I had begun to get movement, action, down further south and then Morgan, my son took over then. He lives in Surrey so he claimed to be secretary number two. Jenny said, ‘In that case I’m the PA,’ and that’s the way it stayed ever since.
DE: Why do you think you didn’t talk about it until that point?
JJ: I don’t think it was my wife’s objection anyway. I think maybe more [pause] that I didn’t think it was important at that stage to talk about it. It had happened. I’d seen all that I had to see during the war and that was it. I now had other things to think about and that was basically the only thing. I’d hate to say, I can’t see any real reason for it but that’s the only one what I can work out now that you’ve asked the question. And I think it’s more likely that having lost Gwyn I was — I had to have something else to do and that was the thing at that stage that I knew most about. My wartime experience. Why not start talking about it. Again it wasn’t my — it was the children who suggested it and by God, they were right.
HH: Well it has led to a lot of recognition for you and I would like, on behalf of the IBCC to congratulate you greatly for your MBE. On the award of your MBE. You seem, in your book, to have made a lot of mention of trying all of your life to get away from Lincolnshire and I’m very pleased that Lincolnshire beckons you back as it will be doing on the 7th of September when the university awards you an honorary doctorate. Well, well received and well deserved and I would just like to say thank you very much for talking to us this afternoon in this interview and I think we’ll stop the interview now.
DE: Okay. Right.
HH: And we will then go on to set up a short video.
DE: Okay.
HH: Thank you so much for speaking to us.
JJ: And may I say, may I say thank you to Lincoln University for making this wonderful offer. To me it means as much, if not more than the MBE in that it’s more concerned with my after-service life. The part which I live and live with and use quite often now. And I find that that has been another means of keeping me active. I spend quite a lot of time away from here but it’s time which I enjoy. I’ve come to enjoy talking to people. Meeting people and talking to them. And if I’m asked would I talk to a organisation, club or whatever — to me that means they’re interested and if they’re interested yes, I’ll talk to them. It’s a bit of a nostalgic trip for me anyway so it cuts both ways. But there’s another aspect recently, more recently and that is talking to junior schools. Now, the junior schools are teaching, outside, our junior schools are now teaching our World War Two history and I’ve been asked to talk to one or two of them and I found that the thing that amazes me is the look of interest in the children’s eyes when they come into the room. That makes it for me to start with. And when I finish talking and ask for questions the hands go up all over the place. Where the hell do I start? But to me that means they’re now learning something about why the country they’re living in is the country they’re living in and what it might have been had things gone the other way. And I think that’s a necessary part of their early education so they can complete it I think. And this is where I think the IBCC is a much more personal memorial than the Green Park one. Yes, the Green Park one is great. I take my hat off to the sculptor for the way he’s got the look in those crew people’s eyes as they’re waiting for their comrades to come back and so on but this — on operation if you’re coming back the Lincoln route when you got to the Cathedral you were home and the sighting of the IBCC in sight of Lincoln Cathedral is perfect for that and then with all those names written on the wall. Those names are there for perpetuity and all generations to come will be able to see those and think — why? How did they get here? And what did they do to get here? And their memory will still be cherished. As I say their home in name and their name will go on as long as it’s on that wall. I don’t know whether they completed it. I know they did all those of the aircrew from the Lincolnshire Bomber Command stations. I gather they were going to do the whole of the Bomber Command losses and I think that will take quite a lot of doing.
HH: The rest. You carry on.
DE: So, they’re in production at the moment. They’re making the steel walls.
JJ: Ah yeah.
DE: Yeah.
HH: They should be on site by the middle of October.
JJ: How wonderful, it really is. And I take my hat off to those people for the work they’ve done on that. It really is wonderful. And I get great pleasure in being able just to add a little bit towards whatever the construction is. That is, to me, as important a part of the charities I get as anything else.
HH: Well we do look forward to having you at the opening ceremony in April.
JJ: I hope to be there. I know I will have the April calendar blocked out [laughs].
DE: Marvellous.
HH: Thank you so much.
DE: Thank you for the interview and thank you for all the work you do for the IBCC.
JJ: And thank you again.
DE: Wonderful talking to you. Thank you.
JJ: Please give my thanks to whoever’s concerned at the university.
HH: Thank you. Well we’re going to meet again for the occasion because I am going to be introducing you in the Cathedral. So, what we will do, do you want to take a bit of a break? Have a cup of tea or something?



Dan Ellin and Heather Hughes, “Interview with Johnny Johnson. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 13, 2024,

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