The last surviving member of the original “Dambusters”, Squadron Leader George Leonard ‘Johnny’ Johnson, passed away on 7 December 2022 at the age of 101. Johnny was part of what is arguably the most daring and innovative air raid of World War II, earning him a Distinguished Flying Medal and Member of the Order of the British Empire, in 2017.
Born in Hameringham, Lincolnshire, Johnny volunteered to join the RAF in 1940 as a navigator but was selected as a pilot instead. After training in Florida, Johnny chose to become an Air Gunner and was posted with 97 Squadron, to Woodhall Spa. His first operational raid to Gdynia, Poland in 1942, had to be aborted due to an engine failure. But the following night saw the aircrew perform a successful raid on Nuremberg.
Johnny trained as a Specialist Bomb Aimer at RAF Fulbeck, before embarking on his first sortie the following month in Munich. However, his Avro Lancaster had to emergency land after it was attacked. Johnny went on to conduct a further 18 missions with 97 Squadron.
In March 1943, bomber crewmen from British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Air Forces secretly formed 617 Squadron. They deployed on Operation CHASTICE, to disable the Eder, Sorpe and Möhne Dams that supplied hydropower and water to the industrial Ruhr region of Germany. By destroying the Dams, 617 Squadron hoped to ruin Germany’s manufacturing capabilities and shorten the war.
Johnny was assigned under the command of US aviator Joe McCarthy from the Royal Canadian Air aircrew, to attack the Sorpe Dam with the Lancaster AJ-T (T-Tommy).
Johnny had practised dropping his bomb as the Lancaster flew low towards the target. However, only one day before the real raid, Johnny was told the bomb must be dropped over the centre instead – due to the Sorpe Dam's differing structure from the Eder and Möhne Dams.
Flying 60 feet over the Sorpe Dam, and after ten attempts, Johnny released the bomb…The Dam was damaged, contributing to thousands of Germans having to withdraw from their Atlantic defences to repair the Dams, and the 104 factories and 33 bridges were impacted. The feat earned 617 Squadron the name ‘Dambusters,’ after the complex planning, ingenuity, skill and bravery it took to carry out the raid.
Johnny went on a further 19 missions with 617 Squadron, before working as a bombing instructor until the end of the War. He then served as a Commissioned Officer navigator with both 100 and 120 Squadrons.
Retiring from the RAF in 1962, Johnny taught the education of psychiatric patients, at Rampton Hospital and became a local councillor and the Chairman of the Constituency Party.
Other impressive feats include an honorary doctorate at the University of Lincoln for Johnny’s contribution to British Society, and an Honorary Life Membership to the RAF Club in Piccadilly, London. Johnny even published an autobiography recounting his story, ‘George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, The Last British Dambuster.'
Fellow wartime colleague Fred Sutherland, died in January 2019, meaning Johnny was the last survivor of the original flying members of 617 Squadron. Now 'The Triumph of the Dams Raid' is recorded in RAF History.