Dambusters 75th Anniversary – Simon Weston in Conversation with George ‘Johnny’ Johnson MBE, Britain’s Last Remaining Dambuster

There were many important raids carried out by Allied crews against the Axis powers during World War II but few have captured the imagination of the public like Operation Chastise. Carried out by the specially formed No.617 Squadron flying the Avro Lancaster and led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, the operation aimed to breach the Edersee, Möhne and Sorpe dams which would result in the catastrophic flooding of the strategically important Ruhr Valley.

In order to breach the dams, the Lancasters utilised the now famous “bouncing bomb” designed by the gifted engineer Barnes Wallis. As its name suggests, this weapon bounced on the surface of the water over the defensive torpedo nets the Germans had laid before hitting the dam wall. It then dropped down to the base of the dam where it exploded for maximum effectiveness. Deploying the weapon was extremely dangerous for the crews who had to fly at just 60ft above the water at the time of release or the weapon would fail. Afterwards, No.617 squadron would forever be remembered as “the dam busters”.

While historians continue to debate the success of the mission, few would deny the boost it gave to British and Allied morale in those dark days. May 16th 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of this incredible mission.

Filmed at the Royal Air Force Museum, Falklands War Veteran Simon Weston CBE talks with George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, the last remaining member of the dambusters about his experience during Operations Chastise.


The first V.C. of the Tank Corps

Born out of the blood and mud of the trench warfare that had cut Europe in half, the tanks and their crews became a key part of every major offensive after their surprise debut on September 15th 1916. As such, many tank crews found themselves thrown in to the thickest of the fighting and suffered for it. The Tank Corps would end the war with four Victoria Crosses awarded to men who had served within its ranks. All four VCs were awarded posthumously.

British Army WW1 World War One Mark I tank

The first man to receive the award was Captain Clement Robertson. Born in to a military family, Robertson’s father was serving in the Royal Artillery and stationed in South Africa when he was born on December 15th 1890. Having studied engineering in Dublin, he went to work in Egypt before joining the Army upon the outbreak of war in 1914. In February 1917, he joined the Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps which was the precursor to the Tank Corps.

In the beginning of October 1917, acting-Captain Robertson was tasked with helping capture the high ground over the Reutel Valley in western Belgium. September had seen extremely heavy fighting in the region under the blanket of the Third Battle of Ypres. The British had achieved success against the Germans on the Menin Ridge Road between September 20th-26th 1917 and again in Polygon Wood immediately after prompting the German 4th Army to launch a counter attack. Between September 30th and October 4th, the Germans made several calculated counterattacks often many hours after the British had attacked to gather as much intelligence on the enemy and organise effective artillery support.

It was during this campaign that Robertson would become the first soldier in the still-infant Tank Corps to receive the Victoria Cross but at the cost of his life.

His citation reads:

Captain Clement Robertson Victoria Cross VC Tank CorpsFrom 30 September to 4 October this officer worked without a break under heavy fire preparing a route for his tanks to go into action against Reutel. He finished late on the night of October 3rd, and at once led his tanks up to the starting point for the attack. He brought them safely up by 3 A.M. on 4 October, and at 6 A.M. led them into action.

The ground was very bad and heavily broken by shell fire and the road demolished for 500 yards. Captain Robertson, knowing the risk of the tanks missing the way, continued to lead them on foot. In addition to the heavy shell fire, intense machine-gun and rifle fire was directed at the tanks. Although knowing that his action would almost inevitably cost him his life, Captain Robertson deliberately continued to lead the tanks when well ahead of our own infantry, guiding them carefully and patiently towards their objective.

Just as they reached the road he was killed by a bullet through the head; but his objective had been reached, and the tanks in consequence were enabled to fight a very successful action. By his very gallant devotion Captain Robertson deliberately sacrificed his life to make certain the success of his tanks.

At the time of his death he was 26 years old and had not married. Consequently, his Victoria Cross was instead presented to his mother, Frances Robertson, in a ceremony held at the Royal Barracks, Dublin, on March 27th 1918. The exact location of his remains are unclear but he is believed to have been buried at the Oxford Road Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery located less than two miles from Ypres.

Group Captain Leonard Cheshire interview

In the third of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, inspirational wartime leader and world-renowned humanitarian, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire VC OM DSO** DFC is interviewed by Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Tony Mason CB CBE DL at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell, February 1978. During the interview Group Captain Cheshire discusses his now legendary record of achievements throughout his service during WWII.

Group Captain Cheshire received a commission as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on November 16th 1937. Although he demonstrated considerable prowess in training as a single seat pilot, by a vagary of the system he was destined to be posted to Bomber Command. During the War his command appointments included 76 Squadron, 617 Squadron, and RAF Marston Moor and he was, at one time, the youngest group captain in the RAF. By July 1944 he had completed a total of 102 missions, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation simply states: ‘Cheshire displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader’.

After the war, Cheshire founded the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability and devoted the remainder of his life to pursuing humanitarian ideals. His obituary in the Independent (1992) declares that ‘LEONARD CHESHIRE was one of the most remarkable men of his generation, perhaps the most remarkable’.

Lacking in Moral Fibre (LMF)

LMF Hampden

In August 1942 a new stage production was doing the rounds in London’s theatres. Entitled Flare Path the civilians who went to see it were surprised by how many RAF officers and airmen were present in the audience. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise really after all the play was about a bomber crew taking the fight to Germany but one scene in the course of the play affected civilian and military audiences alike albeit for different reasons. The pilot of the bomber confides in his wife that he is “…lacking in moral fibre.” The wife, and indeed the audience, seem dumbfounded by this expression but the RAF men knew full well what it meant. The pilot, noticing the confused look on his wife’s face, then explains, “No guts!” For the civilian population it was the first time many of them had heard this strange remark but for the RAF men it was something that hung over all their heads.

It’s not entirely clear when the term came in to official use but “Lacking in Moral Fibre” or “LMF” was the euphemistic title placed on airmen accused of cowardice. Despite the post-war revulsion at their job which often involved killing thousands of civilians, the men of Bomber Command were painted as heroes during the course of the war. Night after night they risked everything by climbing in to their aircraft and setting off in to the dark to take the war to Germany. In this air of heroism those who didn’t seem to be as committed or cared more about their own survival than anything else risked becoming tainted with the term of LMF. To be found guilty of LMF by an official inquiry or even a court martial would see the airman stripped of rank and sent to the most menial of tasks such as washing dishes and cleaning barracks all the while receiving the scorn of active airmen.

PathfinderThe severity of such a stigma left a lasting impression on all new aircrew when they joined their squadrons. They found themselves facing intense scrutiny from the veteran crews who seemed to be hunting for those who didn’t have what it takes to do the job. Those who were, quite understandably, nervous of their first missions actually found the fear of being labelled as LMF more frightening than the German nightfighters and flak which in turn coaxed them in to completing their missions. This highlights the power the stigma of cowardice had in time of war but nevertheless there remained a small group who could not overcome their nerves.

Post-war research, a difficult process indeed as the RAF actively tried to cover up as many cases as possible, estimates that around 200 cases of disciplinary actions for LMF occurred each year in Bomber Command between 1940 and 1945. Considering that there were thousands of aircrew involved in operations this is a surprisingly small figure; not even 1%. Just what qualified as an example of LMF primarily revolved around a refusal to fly on operations. This is where things get vague. There were numerous cases throughout the war where crews offered some kind of protest to fly for various reasons. Sometimes there were mechanical reasons with regards to their aircraft not working properly. Other reasons for not flying were medical; a member of the aircrew not being sufficiently well enough to fly be it from injury or illness. The problem under these circumstances was that the commanding officer would have final say on whether this was sufficient reason for excluding them from the night’s operation or not. Many commanding officers hailed from the First World War where there were bona fida witch hunts for cowards and conscientious objectors and this mentality remained. As such refusals to fly for even the most reasonable of excuses were dismissed with threats of being labelled as LMF. Consequently there were indeed cases where valuable aircrew were lost because of an aircraft malfunction or because altitude had worsened a medical condition. There were fortunately less reckless commanding officers as well who risked their own careers for refusing to send a crew that was in less than ideal shape on operations.

Those who still refused to fly regardless of the consequences had their own reasons and preferred the stigma of cowardice over death or capture. Many of those “convicted” of being LMF were family men who couldn’t bear the thought of their wives raising their children alone in the days before the welfare state. These men were often faced with the question; if everyone who had families refused to fight this war what would happen to you and your family when Hitler crossed the Channel? Perhaps the least understood reason for refusing to fly, at least in the 1940s, were those suffering from shell-shock known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There was a misguided belief that once a new aircrew got through its first two or three operations then the nerves and apprehension would be quashed. This was never true and most crews simply learned to either live with their fears or hide them altogether.

For some however the psychological trauma of flying through the night having German nightfighters lurking almost unseen in the sky until they suddenly attacked or having flak shells exploding around them would prove too much. For these unfortunate souls each operation slowly broke down the mental defences one puts in place in order to survive such ordeals. With Freudian psychology still widely regarded in professional circles there was no real way to treat or even diagnose such conditions and men were expected to simply buck-up and carry on. This had the inevitable consequence of a mental breakdown which could manifest itself in many ways such as alcoholism, self-harm, sabotage of machinery or even suicide. Many of these poor men then found themselves of being described as Lacking in Moral Fibre.

RAF 12It was one thing for individuals to be labelled as LMF but there were rare occasions where entire aircrews would find themselves punished for cowardice with one of the most dramatic examples occurring on the night of the 22nd/23rd of July 1941. Handley-Page Hampdens of No.144 squadron found themselves on a mission to attack Frankfurt. Flying through the night it was easy to lose sight of one’s compatriots and with navigation aids still primarily involving a stop watch, a map, a ruler and a pencil rarely did the bombers arrive over the target or return to base at the same time. In the early hours of the 23rd July the aircraft began returning to their base in Lincolnshire reporting a successful night’s work. One of the navigators seemed uneasy however and over the following days became quite withdrawn until finally he was sent to his commanding officer to find out what was wrong. It was then he confessed that his aircrew never reached Frankfurt or indeed never crossed the coast in to Europe. Instead they had flown up and down the North Sea and returned to base at around the time they were expected.

A court martial was called and the crew gave their testimonies. The pilot, realising that they risked being labelled as LMF, launched in to a frenzied attack on the navigator accusing him of incompetence. According to the pilot the navigator got them lost quite quickly and instead of returning to the UK with their bombs and the subsequent accusations of cowardice that they believed would follow the crew decided to cover up the whole thing. The officers holding the court martial found the men guilty and the pilot was sentenced to two years hard labour. To add insult to injury the court stated that had the pilot and his crew come clean the situation would have not progressed as far as a court martial as their records had been exemplary to that point. The court believed the pilot’s story but many of their comrades refused to accept it. Ironically, if it was true then their actions to cover up their mistake and not be labelled as cowards actually got them labelled as cowards. Either way this case dramatically highlights the power being branded LMF had on the crews of Bomber Command.

In the immediate post-war period Bomber Command saw its popularity with the British people smashed as video and picture footage of what they had done to Germany came back to the British people. The British people and indeed the world were appalled at the sheer scale of devastation that had been wrought on the civilian population which surpassed what German bombers had done to British cities many times over. In this period of hostility the RAF put an end to its policy of punishing men for Lacking in Moral Fibre and the term fell out of official use being replaced with the crime of insubordination which was a little more vague to a population that might start seeing those who refused to fly as moral heroes. A certain sense of irony falls over the matter at this point.

As the 20th century progressed the psychological effects of war began to be understood more clearly and methods of managing and treating such stresses have become more sophisticated although arguments rage even today if the British government is doing enough to support the psychological needs of its armed forces during and indeed after they have been in combat. While the RAF doesn’t legally prosecute its members for LMF anymore its stigma remains.

On the night of the 30th of April 1982 a pair of RAF Vulcan bombers took off from Ascension Island supported by a vast armada of tankers. Their goal was to bomb the runway at Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands in what was probably the most dangerous bombing mission the RAF had undertaken since the Dambusters and certainly the longest mission in history. One Vulcan would carry out the mission while the second was a spare however the lead Vulcan developed a pressurisation problem and had to abort just a short while after take-off leaving the spare Vulcan to carry out the mission. The problem was later traced to the relatively simple fact that a seal on one of the windows had been damaged when it was closed and when this was discovered to be the problem the Vulcan’s pilot, Squadron Leader John Reeve, said afterwards that he was afraid that he and his crew would be labelled as Lacking in Moral Fibre for not going through with the mission.