70th anniversary of D-Day - Gunning for Hitler made me so proud

Wartime airman Ken Johnson, aged 90, of Balby, with a picture of a Lancaster.
Wartime airman Ken Johnson, aged 90, of Balby, with a picture of a Lancaster.
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My RAF years are something I shall never forget. It was exciting all right, and the camaraderie within the squadron was immense, all for one and one for all. It was wonderful.

“I’m proud to be making the journey back to France this week. I am very proud of my involvement in the war. We had to do something about Hitler, because God knows he was after ruling the world and he had to be stopped. It’s a terrible thing that people were lost, but it was the price we had to pay.

Wartime airman Ken Johnson, now aged 90, of Balby, is pictured in 1943, aged 19.

Wartime airman Ken Johnson, now aged 90, of Balby, is pictured in 1943, aged 19.

“I was 19 years old when I joined up in 1943. I’d tried to join up before that, when I was 17; on the day war was declared I’d been at my aunt’s house in Intake, Doncaster, it was a beautiful sunny day, and I was watching planes doing circuits at Doncaster airport. That’s when I decided to be in the RAF. But they sent me home, so in the meantime I did war work, making ropes for barrage balloons.

“I did my RAF training in Bridlington and Leicester. I was a warrant officer and gunner, and on the plane I was a ‘mid-upper’ – in the turret halfway along the top. It was a place for small people like me, I’m only 5ft 3ins, and there was very little headroom in the turret.

“We knew in the run-up to D-Day something important was going to happen. They were pushing us quickly through the last stages of our training to get us there as fast as possible.

“I was on Lancaster bombers, based at Skellingthorpe near Lincoln, and our first raid was on June 16, 1944, 10 days after D-Day, to aid the Army. They were getting bogged down just outside Caen. We were given a call sign – ‘Billy Bunter’ – and if we heard that it meant we were to stop bombing and come back.

Ken Johnson, now aged 90, in an illustration of him in his flying gear.

Ken Johnson, now aged 90, in an illustration of him in his flying gear.

“Well we’d barely got to our target when we heard it, so we turned and came back, dropping our bombs in the North Sea. So that first raid was a bit of an anti-climax.

“Sometimes we did five raids in a week. Our worst was our 11th, in July 1944. We were heading to a site near Versailles with lots of other bombers. I was in my turret, head and shoulders out of the aircraft with just the glass bubble above me, when I saw another Lancaster bomber directly above us, with its bomb doors open – presumably its pilot couldn’t see us. All I could see above my head were two rows of rusty bombs.

“I told the skipper on the intercom, but he said we were hemmed in, there was nothing we could do but hope.

“And then those bombs started to come down on top of us. Most went between our starboard fin and rudder and the wing, but one touched the fin and rudder and broke it off. Another hit the wing and knocked part of that off. Our aircraft was bucking all over the sky. The intercom went dead, and I didn’t know if the rest of the crew were bailing out or what. I could only sit tight.

Wartime airman Ken Johnson, now aged 90, is pictured front, centre, aged 20, with his fellow Lancaster aircrew and two members of the ground staff. The photograph was taken in 1944.

Wartime airman Ken Johnson, now aged 90, is pictured front, centre, aged 20, with his fellow Lancaster aircrew and two members of the ground staff. The photograph was taken in 1944.

“After a while I swivelled my turret to look about – and to my horror I saw where the rear turret should have been was a big gaping hole. There had been a lad in that turret, just like me in mine. His name was Carson Jack Foy, he was 26, and he was Canadian.

“It must have been a good hour before the intercom got working again. We were heading back to the English coast, and we were directed to a crash drome in the south of England where damaged aircraft could land more easily.

“But our pilot told us on the intercom, ‘I’ve brought us this far, I’m taking us home’ and we continued to Skellingthorpe. Unfortunately the runway there was blocked so we had to be sent to another airfield anyway, in Newark, where we had a perfect landing.

“As soon as we got out of the aircraft an officer came over and told us he was sorry for the loss of our rear gunner. He said the least he could do was treat us to a slap-up meal in the officers’ mess – but he’d barely got his words out before a motorbike zoomed up and we had to go immediately to Skellingthorpe to be debriefed.

“The next day we had to go back to Newark again, to have our photos taken with the aircraft. I think it was propaganda, to boost the morale of the men making the planes – ‘this is the aircraft you built, it held together, it got its crew home’.

“That very night we were on operations again, believe it or not – a raid on a railway yard in the south of France. I was getting my gear on in the locker room when the pilot came in with a young lad, our new rear gunner, and introduced him. He was so surly. I tried all I could, telling him he was with the best pilot in the RAF, but no matter what I couldn’t cheer him up.

“Later, during the flight, we hit an electrical storm above France – I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Each propellor had two feet of orange flames around it, the wireless aerial looked like it was covered in blue fairylights, there were great flashes going off at the ends of our guns although we weren’t firing them. My turret had orange flames chasing all around me. It was raining so hard water was coming in, and every so often we’d just drop 500ft. We’d get up to height, then drop down again.

“By this point the new rear gunner was screaming. His screaming went on so long the pilot ordered his intercom to be disconnected so we couldn’t hear him. He was just terrified, but he was potentially terrifying everybody else too.

“The raid went all right, we got home, and as we approached Skellingthorpe we were ordered on landing not to leave our positions. I saw a van behind us on the runway, with two special RAF police. They came in to the aircraft as soon as the engine stopped and took the young lad away. Later he was paraded in front of the whole squadron, had his stripes torn from his arm, and was demoted to the lowest of the low. His papers were stamped ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’. We found out afterwards that before joining us he had been shot up on a previous raid, and was just out of hospital. No wonder he was so scared. He’d never wanted to fly again.

“I did all my ops with the same pilot. His name was Harry Watkins, and after the war he worked for British Eagle Airways. One night in the 1960s I was eating my tea and the news came on and it was Harry being interviewed.

“He was fantastic – an amazing man. He had done so much even before the RAF. He had fought for the Finns in Russia, got trapped in Russia, and worked as a lumberjack before trying to get out by boat and being caught in a storm. He was almost drowned but was saved and recaptured, and was taken to a concentration camp in Siberia in 1939. When Dunkirk came along he managed to get out, six stone skin and bone, and he was sent to Rhodesia to build him back up, all before he could take a medical to join the RAF. He said he was 31 but I think he was older.

“I had absolute confidence in him. I never felt we were going to get killed. Some of the lads did – you heard them talking in the mess saying they knew they wouldn’t come back, and they didn’t. But I never had that premonition.

“After the war Joan and I got married, and later I was posted around the UK and then Egypt for 10 months.

“Eventually I got demobbed and came back to Doncaster. I found Civvy Street quite hard. But I got work as an engineer and the last 20 years of my career I spent at Mining Supplies in Doncaster.

“Funnily enough I’ve only ever flown twice in my life since the war. Once was when my firm sent me to Belgium to learn the workings of a new machine, and the other was when my dear late wife and I flew to Austria on holiday. Despite perfect conditions she was scared stiff. I had finger marks on my arm for days afterwards, and she was so worried about the flight home she never flew again. All holidays had to be via the ferry for the wife’s sake.

“I still write to Carson Jack Foy’s sister in Ontario, Canada, to this day. He’s buried near Versailles – I went back three years ago and found his grave. I was so pleased to see it is still kept in very good order.”’

- See The Star tomorrow for the stories of Sheffield infantrymen Gordon Drabble and Patrick Strafford, who both landed on Gold beach in the wake of D-Day – and read The Star throughout this week for more features from France for the 70th anniversary.

Last of 44 raids was on Nazi leader’s retreat:

D-Day may be symbolised by the images of ground troops struggling on foot up the beaches of Normandy.

But on the sands around them, in the seas behind them and in the skies above them, thousands more servicemen – in armoured tanks, Naval ships, floating control rooms and RAF planes – were playing their own vital roles in the invasion of occupied France.

The RAF played a key part in the success of D-Day but often goes unrecognised.

Flight crews suffered heavy losses in the months leading up to the operation as they sought to soften German defences – and even heavier losses in the air raids which took place throughout the Normandy campaign.

Ken Johnson, now 90, is the only one of the Normandy veterans returning to France this week – accompanied by The Star’s Deputy News Editor Sarah Crabtree – to have served in the RAF.

He was 20 when he started his D-Day operations, as a warrant officer and gunner aboard Lancaster bombers.

He flew 44 raids in total, his last on VE Day on Hitler’s mountain retreat in Austria.

Now widowed, he was married to Joan for 62 years, and has 15 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. He lives in Balby, Doncaster.