FEATURE: Dambuster George ‘Johnny’ Johnson - a hero still attached to his Lincolnshire roots

George Johnny Johnson at RAF Coningsby today
George Johnny Johnson at RAF Coningsby today

George ‘Johnny’ Johnson reached for a white handkerchief he’d tucked away in the top pocket of his dinner jacket.

He looked up to the skies above a wind-blown car park in Woodhall Spa and briefly adjusted his bow-tie.

I was lucky. At least, I made it home. So many of the boys didn’t

George ‘Johnny’ Johnson

He might have been 91 at the time but he’d heard the roar of the Lancaster bomber engines long before people half his age.

Suddenly, the Lancaster swooped into view, dipping under the cotton-wool like clouds.

A tear appeared in his eye and rolled down his weather-beaten cheek.

“You know,” he said, “Seeing the Lancaster again...it always brings a tear to my eye.

“It brings it all back.”

Those were the first words Johnny spoke to me.

Just a few minutes earlier, he’d been ‘just another guest’ at the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters’ raid in the Second World War.

A small, slight man, he mingled with other guests.

Someone suggested I should speak to him.

“You’re the reporter from the paper, aren’t you?” he said, pointing in the general direction of Johnny.

“He’s got a story or two to tell you.”

I didn’t have a clue who Johnny was.

“He’s the last surviving British Dambuster,” the man said. “And he was born near Horncastle. Bravest man alive he is.”

I went across and introduced myself.

Johnny hardly heard my first question above the noise of the Lancaster’s engines.

A modest and instantly likeable man, he said he rarely spoke about that raid.

Perhaps it was the occasion. Perhaps I was lucky but Johnny was soon recalling the events of that epic night 70 years ago.

At later meetings, he was also happy to talk about his childhood which he also recalled in his autobiography.

He was born in 1921, the sixth child of a farm foreman in the village of Hameringham, just to the south east of Horncastle.

He described the death of his mother Ellen - when he was only two years old - as ‘earth-shattering’.

He explained: “My closest friend at the time was a pig that was kept in the field next to our cottage.

“He used to let me ride on his back. Not a bad friend for a young boy, I suppose...”

He confessed he was a ‘weakling child’ who never bonded with his father, Charles.

Johnny added: “I was another mouth to feed, a burden, a liability.

“One of my earliest memories is of my father in a foul temper telling someone that I had been a mistake.

“I don’t think he knew I could hear him but had he known, I don’t think he would have cared.”

The family left the Horncastle area to live in Newark but Johnny still visits his birthplace as often as he can.

He may live in Bristol but he regards Horncastle as ‘home’.

Now aged 94 - it was his birthday last November - he travels back as often as he can.

Along with his family, he was the guest of honour when the world’s two remaining airworthy Lancasters - ‘Thumper’ and ‘Vera’ - were re-united at RAF Coningsby.

As they taxied along the runway that day, there was no doubt a tear in his eye again.

Johnny was a bomb aimer whose mine hit the Sorpe dam during 617 Squadron’s raid on the night of May 16-17, 1943.

After weeks of training, his Lancaster very nearly didn’t get off the ground.

An oil leak was repaired at the very last minute

He finally dropped his bouncing bomb during a near perfect approach, flying at just 30ft.

German flak was flying all around.

Historians claim the mission was a success, delivering a crushing blow to German morale.

Johnny plays down his role.

“I was lucky,” he once told me. “At least, I made it home. So many of the boys didn’t.”

As soon as he could, Johnny visited the farm where he was born - and his mother’s grave.

After the war, he worked tirelessly to raise money for RAF charities.

He retrained as a teacher and served as a councillor in Torquay.

He never forgot his Lincolnshire roots.

More recently, Johnny’s fame has spread much further than Horncastle.

More than 300,000 people have signed a national petition calling for him to be knighted.

TV personalties like Carol Vorderman are backing the campaign, describing him as an ‘incredible man’.

Johnny always denied he was a hero. “I was just doing my job,” he once told me.

“Any honour won’t just be for me. It won’t be for me at all. It would be for the squadron and for those who gave their lives on the dams raid.

“I shall make it quite clear, if it comes off, I shall ask with due humility of Her Majesty, if I can dedicate it to the 55,573 bomber air crews that gave their lives during the war.”