Last Of The Dambusters

Beginning this week is a brand new series of Five’s historical documentary strand. The opening instalment sees a surviving member of the RAF’s 617 Squadron – better known as the Dambusters – travel back to Germany to relive the most famous air raid of all time. This moving film follows one of Britain’s most remarkable war heroes on a journey back to his past.

At the age of just 21, bomb aimer George ‘Johnny’ Johnson was crouched in the nose of a Lancaster bomber sweeping into Germany at ultra low level. His plane was part of the Dams Raid of May 16th, 1943 – probably the most daring air raid ever flown.

The operation was so secret that Johnny was only told his target – the mighty Sorpe Dam which controlled the water supply to Hitler’s arms industry – hours earlier. He launched his bouncing bomb spot on target but, unlike the two other dams that were smashed by his comrades, the Sorpe held. If Johnny had succeeded, the Dams Raid would have been a total success, perhaps shortening the war by months. But it was a “dam too far” – something this unassuming English gentleman has regretted ever since, “Sadly, I only crumbled the top of the dam – I didn’t break it,” he recalls.

But that was 65 years ago. Now aged 86 and one of only two British Dambusters still alive, this sprightly great-grandfather from Torquay sets off on a last mission to rediscover his past and, ultimately, find out why his part of the Dams Raid failed.

Strangely, his quest starts in France. He is looking for his old Dambuster Lancaster bomber, codenamed ‘T for Tommy’ – one of only 23 planes that were specially modified to carry Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb. Johnny is amazed to find that not a single example of this unique type of aircraft was preserved. He learns that any left at the end of the war were “melted down for saucepans”, while his own beloved plane was lost on a later mission to supply arms to the French Resistance.

Recently discovered in a French field, the wreckage of T for Tommy is dug out of the ground as Johnny watches. He is astonished to find part of his old bomb aimer’s window. “The last time I looked through this,” he says, “I was attacking the Sorpe Dam.”

The next stop for Johnny is the dam itself. He is overwhelmed to be back for the first time since 1943, and meets villagers who remember his last visit only too well. He learns that the locals, not realising what Johnny was trying to do, took cover from the air raid in an inspection tunnel deep inside the dam itself.

Johnny’s attack on the Sorpe failed because not enough of the 19 planes that began the raid made it to their targets. Johnny discovers that one of his friends, pilot Bill Astell, hit a pylon during the mission and crashed. When Johnny was 21, racing across Germany at 100 feet was a thrilling adventure – but now he is confronted with the reality of the dangers he faced. “Imagine hitting that,” he says, as he stands beside the pylon.

Even harder for Johnny is the experience of learning about the death and devastation caused by the breaching of the Moehne Dam. It made the headlines in Britain as a body blow to the German war machine, but the victims on the ground were mostly civilians who were drowned by the floods.

The realisation of the extent of the collateral damage caused by the Dambusters has a shattering effect on Johnny and changes his view of his own part in history. Standing on the Sorpe Dam that he so bravely tried to destroy, he looks out at the valley below and says. “What would have happened to all these people round here?” he reflects. “I’m glad it didn’t work.”

At the final stop on Johnny’s life-changing journey, he visits the Reichswald Forest cemetery where 27 of the 53 Dambuster aircrew who died on the raid are buried. They too were ordinary men who displayed extraordinary courage but, sadly, were not as lucky as George Johnson.

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