THE LAST DAMBUSTER
Born in Hameringham, a small village in Lincolnshire, George was the sixth and final child of Charles Johnson and Mary Ellen Henfrey. He was always known by the family as ‘Leonard’.
His mother died when he was just three. His father brought them up on his own, moving them to a tied cottage in Langford, Nottinghamshire. His childhood was one of great poverty and his father was a brutal man, regularly beating the children. George grew up to hate his father. When his father died in 1957, George was 36 and refused to attend the funeral.
Most of the responsibility for bringing up the younger children was left to George’s oldest sister, Lena.
George was lucky enough to get a bursary granted to children of farm workers which enabled him to attend Lord Wandsworth’s Agricultural College in Hampshire. There, he was a popular scholar and excelled at all sports, particularly football, cricket and athletics. He gained his School Certificate in December 1939.
As soon as he left school, George applied to join the RAF as a navigator. He showed real potential, so he was selected for pilot training instead.
He was posted all around the UK, including once to Torquay, where he met his future wife, Gwyneth Morgan. Finally, he was sent to Florida.
It was there he picked up the nickname ‘Johnny’, that he was known by for the rest of his life.
He failed pilot training, so he moved to air gunner training.
In July 1942, George was posted to the 97th Squadron, based at RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire. He was made a ‘Spare Gunner’ i.e. a reserve, so he got to fly with various crews. Consequently, he quickly got to know everybody on the base.
His first mission was to Gydnia in Poland, flying with Squadron Leader Elmer Cotton. Unfortunately, the plane developed engine trouble mid-flight, so Cotton was forced to return to base. The following night the same crew (including George) bombed Nuremberg.
He flew many operations but was then chosen to be a specialist bomb aimer, based at RAF Fulbeck.
When George qualified, he was sent back to the 97th Squadron and was assigned to the crew of Joe McCarthy, flying an Avro Lancaster (AJ-T).
McCarthy was an American airman who had joined the RAF.
George complained he didn’t want to fly under an American – but on his first flight he realised how brilliant McCarthy was. The two men were to become very close friends.
On one bombing mission to Munich in December 1942, their plane was attacked by German fighters on the outward trip – and on the return as well. One engine was totally destroyed and the other badly damaged. George thought this was the end, but McCarthy managed to steer back to Britain and made an emergency landing at RAF Bottesford in Leicestershire.
George flew another 18 missions with the 97th Squadron and was then considered to have completed a full operational tour. He was sent on leave and then did 6 months of non-combat training.
Unexpectedly, having thought his war was over, George was selected for 617 Squadron based at RAF Scampton for a special mission. All leave was cancelled instantly. This squadron would eventually become known as ‘The Dambusters’.
George was due to marry Gwyneth at this time. He had to go to his new Squadron Leader, Guy Gibson, and ask for time off for his wedding. He was given four days.
Gwyneth and George would have 3 children.
The airmen of 617 Squadron had no idea what their targets were to be until the flight briefing. They assumed it was going to be German battleships such as the Tirpitz. In the briefing, they were told they were going to hit three dams.
They were to use specially designed bouncing bombs, created by Barnes Wallis.
On the Dambusters mission, George’s ‘crew’ , led by McCarthy who had also been assigned to the 617, were told to target the Sorpe Dam. This was much more difficult than the Mohne and Eder dams which other flyers had to hit.
The Sorpe was designed differently to the other targets so the pilot would need to fly parallel to the wall of the dam and George would have to release the bomb precisely when they were halfway across. A second too late or too early would mean it was not effective.
Once released, the bomb would slide down the wall of the dam and into the water where it would explode causing maximum damage. It was so precise that the existing bomb sights were useless and specific ones had to be designed for the mission.
Unlike at the other two dams the crew encountered no anti-aircraft fire, but to position his plane perfectly, the pilot would need to fly over the nearby town of Langscheid, missing the extremely high church steeple.
On the actual mission, McCarthy got the positioning wrong nine times. During the manoeuvres, the crew learned on their radios that the other two dams had been breached successfully, which added to the pressure. It was on the tenth attempt that George was able to release the bomb, with maximum success.
During the Dambusters raid, 1300 German civilians were killed as well as 53 of the airmen.
For this action, George was awarded the DFM (Distinguished Flying Medal), presented to him at Buckingham Palace.
George was also commissioned. He flew 10 more missions with McCarthy’s crew but then Gwyneth became pregnant. Despite his protests, George was ‘screened’ (i.e. stood down). He was told his tour had “expired”.
For him, there was no more operational flying. He became a bombing instructor at RAF Scampton.
After the war, George stayed in the RAF. He was assigned to ‘coastal command’ before going out to the Far East. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and then Squadron Leader.
When he eventually left the RAF, he became a primary school teacher and then moved into Adult Education. After that he worked with psychiatric patients in Rampton Hospital.
When he retired, George and Gwyneth moved back to her native Torquay. Both became active in local politics. He became a Conservative Councillor and ended up Chairman of the local constituency party.
Gwyneth died in 2005. George was devastated by this and removed himself from public life.
However in 2013, at the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, he was contacted by friend and former comrade Les Munro and was persuaded to join in with the commemorations. George’s children encouraged him to start talking about his war, “to stop you grieving about Mum.”
Henceforth he was interviewed in the media many times and instantly became a public figure.
The following year, 2014, George published his autobiography ‘The Last Living Dambuster’. It was a misleading title because at the time he wasn’t the last survivor – although he would go on to be.
George was once challenged about the morality of killing so many people. In response he said, “If you are threatened by war, you have to defend yourself. You have to defend your own country and you have to do it by whatever means you can. The example had been set by Hitler himself. The way he bombed our cities – London, Coventry, Liverpool and the rest of them, regardless of human life. That was the sort of thing that had to be fought against”.
In 2017, he was awarded an OBE. Television presenter, Carol Vorderman, led a campaign to have him knighted. A petition signed by 237,000 people was handed in at 10 Downing Street, but it was not successful.
Carol Vorderman and George became close friends.
However in 2018 George was upgraded to an MBE which was presented to him by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
George was given an honorary doctorate by Lincoln University, was made an Honorary Life Member of the RAF Club in Piccadilly, won the Lord Mayor of Bristol’s medal. – He also had a train named after him.
On the 21st January 2019, Fred Sutherland died, leaving George as the last survivor of the 617 Squadron.
He celebrated his 100th birthday on the 25th November 2021 and received masses of media coverage.
RIP – Recognised In Petition
Rewarded In Palace