Story 80

Kind of man he was

I first joined the RAF in 1941. I really felt I ought to be doing something about the war. I was as a bomb aimer in squadron 617, taking part in the Dambuster raid and later serving under Leonard Cheshire — he was the finest operational commander I ever worked with.

Johnny Johnson

19 planes with 153 men took part in the Dambuster raid in May 1943, aiming to drop the new ‘bouncing bomb’ on the German dams and weaken their infrastructure. It was a success, but there was a heavy price. We lost eight planes and 53 crew members that night.

When Leonard Cheshire took command of the squadron afterwards, we noticed big changes. He was so different to his predecessor, Wing Commander Gibson, who did not really talk to anyone outside his inner circle. Leonard Cheshire got in touch with everybody connected to the squadron — air crew and ground crew — to make himself known to them.

He introduced a precision marking system to make sure the bombs hit their targets more effectively. We had moved on to bombing armaments factories in occupied France. Leonard would often make two or three passes in his plane to warn the workers to get out of there. It was an indication of the kind of man that he was.

He did everything with such thought, as well as great energy and determination. I think it was his personality that made such a big impression – he was considerate and helpful whenever necessary, and always available if people needed him.

Many years later, when I was a councillor in Torquay, Leonard Cheshire came down to open Douglas House residential home. He came over, and after all these years, he recognised me by name. I was amazed!

I worked in education for 22 years. I started teaching in primary schools and moved on to work with people with learning difficulties, who were living in a hospital. There was a great deal of satisfaction in helping people to achieve the goal of living independently in the community — something that at the time many people didn’t think was possible. I have to say I felt as happy doing that job as I had during my time in the RAF.

My life today is centred on my family. I have three children, eight grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. All of them mean so much to me.

I often get asked to give talks about the war and I’m happy to do this. I enjoy talking to people. I particularly like giving talks to school children — it’s great to see the enthusiasm and interest on their faces.

I did not expect there to be so much interest in my autobiography. My son wrote a very moving closing chapter for the book, and I was in tears when I read it.

In 2017 I was thrilled to be awarded an MBE and, just recently, an honorary doctorate from Lincoln University. I am looking forward to attending the 75th anniversary of the Dambuster raid in May 2018. I always feel that recognition should be given to the whole squadron. I’m lucky to have made it to 95 years old but we must honour them as well.

I’m lucky to have made it to 95 years old but we must honour them as well.