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George “Johnny” Johnson

George When flight commander Guy Gibson formed Squadron 617, one of the pilots he turned to was Joe McCarthy, an American flying for the Canadian Air Force.

George “Johnny” Johnson flew forty missions under McCarthy as a bomb aimer. “Gibson thought a lot of [McCarthy] apparently,” says Johnson, “and asked him would he join this new squadron for one trip. And Joe asked us and we said, ‘yes, fine,’ we’d go with him and so we did.”

Although Squadron 617 was formed specifically to destroy the Nazis’ most important hydroelectric dams with Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb, the airmen were not informed about nature of their mission. “We were never given any indication of what the target was until the briefing on the afternoon of the attack. So, right up till that time, we really had no idea. The only possible indication that it was a water target was the night before, the Saturday night, we had films of Barnes Wallis and he talked to us about the bouncing ball that he’d produced and films of how it operated and so on. Even then, I don’t think dams were considered by anybody in particular. The popular conjecture, of course, was shipping of some sort; probably attacking shipping of some sort.”

Instead, Squadron 617 was merely told to practice low level flying, and they spent their days barreling across the English countryside in Lancaster bombers. At the end of their exercise, they practiced bomb attacks on a pair of poles that were erected to simulate the towers on either end of the German dams. Unaware of what they were practicing for, the airmen of Squadron 617 took a fair amount of delight in cruising among the treetops. “Flying low level in a Lancaster was, I felt, absolutely exhilarating,” says Johnson. “So different from the ten, twelve thousand feet stuff that we had been doing. The old Lanc really sped across the ground and it really felt as though you were actually moving.”

Reality set in on the evening of May 16, 1943, when the men of Squadron 617 were assembled and briefed for their mission. Johnson remembers: “There was quite an exclamation. [Everyone was] a bit aghast when we found out what the targets were going to be. Surprise, surprise, as it were. We were even more surprised on our crew because we were briefed for the Sorpe dam.”

Unlike the other dams, which were constructed of concrete masonry, the Sorpe was made of earth, and required a different sort of approach. Yet, before they could worry about their bomb run, the crew of McCarthy’s plane had to make it to Germany. Their problems began before they even took off, as their plane refused to start up and the crew was forced to fly in the squadron’s reserve Lancaster. “So we whipped over there and got into that aircraft. But, in doing, in Joe’s sort of anxiety of getting out, he caught his parachute handle on an extension in the aircraft. And so his parachute was floating all the way behind him, and so we had to get another parachute for him.”

When they eventually got into the air, McCarthy’s crew was a bit more fortunate than members of Squadron 617 who encountered heavy resistance as they flew through Germany on the way to their targets. In fact, several of the eight crews lost on the mission were shot down or crashed into cables before they reached any of the dams. Yet, as Johnson recalls, the skies were clear: “No fighters. Don’t ever remember seeing any fighters, let alone being attacked by them. I suppose we were just, excuse the language, bloody lucky.”

In terms of the bomb run itself, Johnson remembers that the geographical situation of the dam required them to fly lower than the other planes — they ended up dropping their bomb at a mere thirty feet! “You had to come down the hills on one side and then get up the other side quick before you hit those hills on that side. What we hadn’t been told on briefing was that, on the line of attack, there was a church steeple on the side of the hill. So Joe, in his wisdom, decided to use that as a marker and came just over the top of that and straight down. In actual fact, it took us ten runs to get it right. It was a question of getting the aircraft level, getting down to the height, and getting everything right before you needed to pull up and get to the other side. Dave [Rogers, the rear gunner] was a bit concerned that every time I said dummy run — you know, ‘oh, Christ, what next?’ He was getting the full pull of the G [force], being in the rear turret and it all going to that end. He said afterwards, ‘I was thinking of throwing that bastard out of here.’ I learned pretty quickly how to become the most unpopular member of the crew, because I was the one that was saying ‘dummy run.’ Nine times I said that, and on the tenth time we actually made the drop. And looking afterwards I couldn’t see … but Dave said the spout of water that came up was absolutely tremendous. In fact, some of it actually hit the rear turret. [Rogers] said he’d begun to think he was gonna get drowned as well as having been knocked about.”

The only real problem McCarthy’s crew encountered came after the mission, as they prepared to land: “With the modified aircraft, the mid-upper [gun] turret was taken out and the mid-upper gunner flew in the front turret. So we were toddling along, and we saw this goods train just going along very nicely thank you, and Ron Batson our front gunner said, ‘can I have a go, Joe?’ And Joe said, ‘yeah, ok, right.’ So Ron opened up with our little 303s. What we didn’t know was that it was an armored train and, of course, it gave us rather more than we were giving it. So we got out of that. We knew we’d been hit, but we had no idea where. It didn’t impede the aircraft anyway, so there was no problem as far as that was concerned. And it wasn’t until we got back that we discovered where we’d been hit. In actual fact, a piece of shrapnel had … burst the starboard tire. So that, when we landed, we were more than a little bit starboard wing down and had a bit of a jutter going on. But, again, Joe managed to control it extremely well. He really was an ace of a pilot; there’s no doubt about that. He was absolutely first class.”

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