Interview with Ken Johnson. One


Interview with Ken Johnson. One


Kenneth Alfred Johnson joined the Royal Air Force at the age of 19, after being in a reserved occupation making barrage balloon cables. He trained as an air gunner, serving as a mid-upper gunner.
He had a spell at the Operational Training Unit, flying Short Stirlings and Avro Lancasters before joining 61 Squadron at Skellingthorpe.
He tells of an incident on his 10th operation, when he was on a daylight trip near Versailles at the V1 bomb installations when his aircraft was directly below a Lancaster which opened it’s bomb doors. The Lancaster above dropped its bombs, which damaged Kenneth’s aircraft, including carrying away the rear gunner.
Kenneth completed 34 operations on his first tour, and then went straight onto another tour, being posted to 9 Squadron at Bardney.
After VE Day, Kenneth was posted to Egypt in charge of lorries returning from Cairo.







00:25:22 audio recording


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KJ: My name’s Kenneth Alfred Johnson. I joined the RAF at nineteen, I had a trouble getting into the RAF because I was on making barrage balloon cables, so they classed that as – to keep you back. Anyway, I finally joined in 1943, I did my air gunner training which was the, what I was going for, at Dalcross in Scotland. I finally got to OTU, where we crewed up. Mostly, all the different pe – er, people joined together and sorted themselves out, but I didn’t have that opportunity because there was at – further ahead than myself, they was short of air gunners, so they gave us an exam on aircraft recognition and the top six were sent and the crews was picked out for them, they, we had no choice. Anyway, I was very lucky, I got a wonderful crew, an amazing pilot, he’d fought for the Finns against the Russians, an incredible fellow, he was. Anyway, we finally got to operationals. We’d gone through all OTU, which was on Wellingtons, we had a short spell on Stirlings, and then finally, onto Lancasters.
We was sent to Skellingthorpe, which is outskirts of Lincoln, on 61 Squadron. The air, the airfield was joined by, was made up of two squadrons, there were Number 51 – 50 Squadron, and Number 61, and I was on 61. We did – our first raid was a bit of a – well, it was all wrong, really. We were told when we set off that we were gonna bomb very close to our lines, and this was seven, seven days after D-Day, so consequently, we were given a call sign to not to bomb. I remember that after all these years, it were “Billy Bunter”, and we’d got even to the point of opening the bomb doors and this call came over - ‘Billy Bunter, Billy Bunter’, so we closed our bomb doors and set off back for home. Even a long, long way back, we were still hearing the master bomber calling out ‘Billy Bunter, Billy Bunter’ ‘til he finally rush, lost his temper and used a bit stronger language [laughs].
Anyway, that was number one, we finished bombing the North Sea. We did a few operations then, and then it came to the tenth operation, and this was to be a daylight one near Versailles at the V1 bomb installations, so as we got near the target at – I was a mid upper gunner, and I saw this Lancaster above me open his bomb doors and all I could see was two rusty rows, rows of rusty bombs glaring at me. I warned the skipper, but he said ‘Nothing I can do about it, we’re hemmed in, he’ll probably not drop ‘em’. That were wishful thinking, as our bomb aimer said ‘Bombs gone’, so this lot came down on top of us, three bombs hit us - [clears throat] ‘scuse me - one hit the starboard fin and rudder and sliced that off, one hit the starboard wing, knocked about four – it, well, originally it was dangling like, like a bird with a broken wing, about four foot of our wing, and the third one, unfortunately, hit the rear turret and took the rear gunner away with it.
Well, at this point, the intercom went dead, we bounced about the sky for a while ‘til he got it steadied again, but I didn’t know what was happening, they might have been jumping out as far as I knew, but I thought ‘Well, stick to it’, and I sat there, still looking ‘round in case any fighters were around, and it, a little while afterwards, I thought ‘Oh, I haven’t seen the rear turret moving’, that’s when the mid upper turret had no back to it, so by going for’ard, I could see between me legs, where the turret should have been, just a gaping hole. And, anyway, the skipper took us home, and when we got to, into the Skellingthorpe outer circuit, they wouldn’t let us land - [coughs] ‘scuse me, - because a plane had already crashed on one of the runways and they didn’t want to have to close the station down, so we were sent to another place, which happened to be an OTU.
Now, normally, you never carried the ladder that you got into the aircraft with, because o’ it altering the compass. Now, normally, we’d have just jumped out, but that day, I could not have jumped out, I should have landed flat on me face [laughs], so I had to wait ‘til one of the ground crew came and just got hold of me shoulder and helped me out. And the CO, this OTU, came flying out and we were all to – well, he was talking to my skipper that – giving him his condolences, and he said ‘Well, not much I can do for you, but I will give you a slap-up meal in the officers’ mess’. He’d hardly got the words out when a, a rider came out to say we’ve got to go back to Skellingthorpe immediately for the debriefing, so we never did get our slap-up meal. Anyway, the very next night, we were on ops again, and it was down to Bordeaux, South of France. We got over France and ran into an electrical storm, I’d never seen anything like that in me life before - St Elmo’s Fire. Each of the props had two foot of orange flame round them, the, all the aerials, there were little blue, well, it were like fairy lights running up and down the cable. The – oh, by the way, we’d got a new gunner on, of course, and he suddenly started screaming, and it were that bad, the skipper had told the engineer to go and pull his intercom out so we wouldn’t hear it. And, on top of all this fire, there were flashes going off the guns, as though you were firing but you weren’t, and every so often, you’d just drop about five hundred feet as though someone were chopping your legs under you. Anyway, this went on all the way to the target. When we got to the target, amazingly, there was a big gap in the clouds so we could see the target. Only thing is, we couldn’t see each other, so the bomber, the master bomber, said ‘Put all your lights on, and then you’re not, you’ll not gonna collide with each other’, only time we ever bombed with all the, all the lights in the aircraft on.
Anyway, we got to, we came back through the same, with the same carry on, and, as we got near to home, well, first of all, as we got near the Channel, the skipper had asked for a crash dome, there was two big crash domes near Ramsgate - [clears throat] ‘scuse me - and they – anyway, as we passed over the white cliffs, he said ‘Change to that, give me a route for home, I’m taking her home, I’ve brought her this far and I’m taking her home,’ and when we got home, we couldn’t land ‘cause of somebody else crashing, so we finished up at this other place. The very next night, no, I’ve already said that, they did a perfect landing, and that was the end of that one, that was the tenth raid. We had, at, as we got near the thirtieth, they, they altered the number of ops you’d got to do for a tour, so instead of thirty, we were supposed to gonna do thirty-six, but we did another three and the skipper said, the toad had been altered from thirty to thirty-six, so the skip, skipper suggested we do three and go on a ten-day holiday sort of thing, and then come back and do another three and we get another ten days, but it didn’t work out, they’d dropped it back to thirty when we came back [laughs]. So, we were Tour Expired. Well, four of us, the skipper said he were gonna go on with another tour straight away, you could have a rest but we didn’t, so four of us (that was the skipper, flight engineer, wireless operator and myself) said we’d go on this next tour, and the skipper had got a choice of where he wanted to go. One was on Pathfinders, one was on to 617 and the other one was Number 9 Squadron, which at that time was joining 617 on all special raids, carrying the twelve thousand pound Tallboy bomb, so really there was no argument about it because he was rather sweet on a, a WAAF officer at Bardney, which was 9 Squadron, so it was 9 Squadron.
And, as I say, we were only allowed to go on special ops and [pause] the first one, I unfortunately didn’t go on, because they, they took the mid upper turrets out to go and bomb the Tirpitz, and they put a Llewellyn 10 wind tank inside the fuselage, so to make room for that, they had to take the mid upper turret out. Well they, you might be interested in this, they bombed the Tirpitz and sank it and, a couple o’ days later, all those that were on the raid had to go into the briefing room, and ‘cause I would not been on it, I didn’t go in, I can only say what I was told. This, the CO came in with a bucketful of medals, now he, there weren’t no names on them because it was a – Churchill had said ‘The squadron must have these medals’, so first of all, they chose all those that had been on three raids for the Tirpitz, they all got a medal, then they found there were enough for those that had been on two, but there wasn’t enough for those that been on the last raid, so when it came to the last raid, they pulled names out of the hat - [coughs] ‘scuse me - rather annoyed my skipper because he thought it were demeaning, the, the idea of the medal. He’d already got DFC for bringing that damaged aircraft back. Anyway, that’s the way that was done.
After that, we did such targets as viaducts, we went to Bergen for the submarine pens, and they were all them sort of chosen targets. On the Bergen one, we were always Number One Wind Finder, because I had in my crew, I’d got the squadron bomb aimer and the squadron navigator, so we were always Number One Wind Finder. There were six aircraft, two had to be wind finders, and what we did, you had to go over a chosen, chosen point, set this machine going, fly around for so long, then come back over the same heading and then stop the machine, and then all the, the other five radioed in their – what they’d got, and it was up to our navigator, then, to sort out the wind from the chat. And on this Bergen raid, we, bomb aimer had chosen to go over a, a supposedly deserted airfield, and it chose the, where the runways crossed to do. Anyway, as we’re coming back for the second time, he were counting fighters coming up against us [slight laugh], and he got to forty-one when we, we’d got out of range then, so we knew they were gonna be in trouble, and we bombed the – I could never understand why the fighters didn’t attack ‘em before they bombed, they waited while we bombed, and we came out over a strip of land and then to the sea again. There was five fighters to one bomber, and there was one behind us, it -crew from our squadron, they got [unclear] got onto him, he put up a good fight, he shot one of them down, but they finally forced him into t’sea and it just disintegrated.
Now, I can’t think for a minute there’d be any of the crew alive, but one came to us and I thought ‘Oh, it’s our turn now’, but he suddenly realised he was alone. The other three were strafing the wreckage in the sea, and so he went and joined ‘em, lucky for us, and gave us chance to get away. But, after the war, and we went to these different reunions and that, there was very often a German fighter pilot come to these. I’m afraid I could never be friendly to ‘em, what I saw that day were – I was absolutely disgusted. Anyway, we, we finally finished up doing forty-four ops, so I consider myself a lucky person. I always felt there was guardian angel on me shoulder, but after the VE Day, they asked for volunteers for the Tiger Force, but I was getting married in three weeks’ time, so I thought ‘Well, I’ve done me share, I’m not gonna volunteer for it’. So, first of all, we went to a, another squadron that, that they’d formed, calling them North West Strike Force; the idea was, they thought the hardened Nazis would go up into the mountains and start a guerrilla warfare, but it never came to that, so after about three months, that was finished. And then I was put on ground staff and I was sent out to Egypt, I’d only been married three weeks [slight laugh], they sent me out to Egypt, driving. Well, I was in charge of a [unclear], a, not them, what d’you call it? A number of lorries, I’d got thirty lorries, it was on Alexandria docks, and I’d thirty lorries taking stuff down to the canal zone ‘cause the Brits then were starting to pull out of it, ah, Egypt altogether. But, apart from those lorries, at weekends I could have as many as a hundred lorries come from Cairo all wanting a load to take back.
Well, I were closing down, not only RAF but Navy and Army places, and at first, I made the mistake of ringing up and saying ‘What size lorries do you want for your…?’ and they’d all said ‘Ten tonners’. When the lorry came back, he’d have little crate on the back, so I thought ‘That’s no good’, so I had a little thirteen-hundredweight Dodge, and I used to go out to these places and estimate how many lorries I wanted and what size lorries and so on, and that worked wonderfully well. It were, one day, I got a phone call from a matron of a big hospital in Alex, the nurses want, some of the nurses wanted to go to Cairo for a week’s leave, would I, could I get some o’ t’lorry drivers to take ‘em? Well, they’re a lot better to go hundred and sixty-five mile wi’ a female companion than be on your own, so there plenty of volunteers for that, and that was still running when I left, that shuttle service [laughs]. Everybody seemed happy about it, so yeah, wonderful. And had ten mon – ten months in [pause] in Egypt, and, just before I came home, they dropped us all down from, well, myself were a warrant officer, dropped us down to sergeants, I thought ‘That’s a nice thank-you [slight laugh] for what you’ve done!’ And anyway, that were it, I came, I came home and immediately joined the, a Observer corps, we had quite some nice times, go out to this spot and we were spotting aircraft, but eventually, they, all they were interested in was nuclear, and the, the idea was that if there was a nuclear war and you’ve got to go to this station (mine was out at, near Finningley Airport, where we were), but you had to stay there ‘til the all clear. I thought, ‘No, that’s not for me, if I, if my family’s out there, then I’m gonna be out there as well, I’m not leaving t’family’. Anyway, thank God, it never materialised. So, oh, on one thing on this, while we were on the obs – air observers, the, our CO for the whole northern area was Pegler, that had the Flying Scotsman, and he arranged it for us to go to air show at – the big air show, anyway, and he took us down in his, in the Scotsman, and the, he’d got the observation car in, and each carriage got half an hour in ‘t observation car [laughs], but it was quite a, quite nice, yeah. Then, well, finally, we got back to civvies and got back to working again, and you’d be amazed how hard that was, settling down in civvy street again, even though I’d only been in the RAF four and a half year.
MJ: Battery change on Ken Johnson. On behalf of the International Bomber Command Archive Unit, I’d like to thank Ken Johnson for his recording on the date was the 3rd of June, June? Yeah, June 2015 at his home. Thank you very much.



Mick Jeffery, “Interview with Ken Johnson. One,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 4, 2024,

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