Memory Lane: Dambusters hero

Edward Johnson and (right) the poster for the famous film.
Edward Johnson and (right) the poster for the famous film.
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THIS month marks the centenary of local man, a great hero of the Second World War, Edward “Johnny” Johnson.

While serving in the Royal Air Force with the elite 617 Dambusters Squadron, during the course of 1943, his incredible heroism on Operation Chastise, one of the most secret and daring operations of the entire war, did much to disrupt the German war effort.

Poster for The Dam Busters

Poster for The Dam Busters

Though born in Lincoln on May 3, 1912, Edward Cuthbert Johnson spent his formative years in Gainsborough. Educated at Lincoln Grammar School, he worked first as a Woolworth trainee before becoming a salesman with Joe Lyons. He married Mary Beckwith in 1936, and in the years leading up to the Second World War, the couple settled in Blackpool, running a boarding house.

Local historian Kenneth Shenton, who has been researching the hero’s life, says: “Having qualified as an observer and bomb aimer when enlisting in 1940, two years later, now a commissioned officer, Johnson served with 50 and 106 Lancaster Bomber Squadrons. In March, 1943, he was handpicked to join 617 Squadron. Specifically formed for special and dangerous missions, their leader was the 25 year old legendary flying ace, Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

“The squadron’s task in May, 1943, was to hit at the heart of German industry by taking out three large dams on the River Ruhr in one night.

“The valley would then flood, thus depriving the steelworks of their most vital commodity – water. Well protected by both anti-aircraft batteries and anti-submarine nets, the only way to breach the defences was by flying dangerously low and then dropping a new and specially designed bouncing bomb, created by one of the most ingenious scientists of his age, Barnes Wallis.”

Kenneth says: “Taking part in the raid on the night of May 16 were 133 men flying in 19 planes. Very much the old man of the raid at 31, Johnson took off at 9.55pm from RAF Scampton.

“Having initially attacked the Möhne Dam, he was then ordered on to the Eder. However, problems with thick fog forced him to improvise with an untried home made sighting device. Releasing his last bomb perfectly, its impact unleashed catastrophic flooding as 200m gallons of water poured down on an unsuspecting industrial landscape.”

Kenneth says: “Of the 133 men who took part in the raid, 56 failed to return, a devastatingly high casualty rate even for Bomber Command. Eight Lancaster bombers were also lost.

“For his distinctive contribution, Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. With their exploits first immortalised in author Paul Brickhill’s 1951 account of the operation, three years later came an award-winning film starring Richard Todd as Guy Gibson.

“Some months later in September, 1943, Johnson took part in a projected raid to bomb the Dortmund-Ems Canal. However with his plane badly damaged by enemy fire, the entire crew had to bail out over Holland. Having successfully parachuted into a Dutch field, he tunnelled into a haystack in a farmyard where he remained hidden for two days.”

When he came out he showed the farmer his ‘visiting card’ – a cigarette packet with a drawing of himself dangling from a parachute with the letters RAF written underneath!

Kenneth says: “It worked. He was given a pair of overalls, an old jacket and a razor. Then, travelling mostly at night, members of the local resistance successfully couriered him first to Belgium and then on to France. Sheltered for a time in a Paris flat, a succession of trains then took him towards the Pyrenees where he was smuggled into Spain and eventually home via Gibraltar.

“Having ended his war with ground postings, in 1947 he rejoined his wife and family in the resort, becoming sales manager of Sellers Fireplaces. Proving particularly successful amid the post war housing boom, he went on to become a director of the company. He died, aged 90, in October 2002.”