Pilot: F/Sgt Albert Andrew Johnson, RNZAF, 414635
Killed, buried at Heverlee War Cemetery
Flight Engineer: F/Sgt W Jackson
Navigator: F/L A.W. Pepper
Bomb Aimer: P/O F.T. Williams
W/Op: F/Sgt J.J. Sansam
M/U Gunner: F/Sgt T. Hesselden
Rear Gunner: F/Sgt C.J., known as “Tiger”, Billows
18/19 November 1943, hit by flak over Aachen. Abandoned in the vicinity of Bommershoven (Limburg), 7km W of Tongeren, Belgium.
Successful evaders was exceedingly rare. For 97 Squadron, for the whole of 1943, only nine men escaped capture after baling out or crash-landing in enemy territory, and eventually made their way back to England. Four of these were from this crew, shot down by flak on the Berlin operation. The Lancaster fell from 20,000 to 6,000 feet before Johnson regained sufficient control to allow the rest of the crew time to bail out. In doing so, he sacrificed his own life, as did so many of the bomber pilots. He had been a last-minute replacement for their usual skipper, an Australian pilot known as Snowy Jones, who had been barred from flying by the Medical Officer because of sinus trouble.
Johnson was 27 years old at the time of his death.
EMAIL FROM ANDREW SIMMS, 7 October 2012
My father was a WW2 Mosquito pilot and has told me many of his stories over the years. […] He was friendly with Albert Johnson in 1942. My father instructed Johnson in pilot navigation in that year and I believe they kept in contact after the course had finished. At the time my father was instructing on Ansons at RAF Leconfield in Yorkshire.
During Sunday 6th December 1942, Johnson landed a Lancaster at Leconfield. The aircraft had just been delivered to 97 Squadron and was either being air tested or spares for a bomber from 97 squadron which had diverted in there were being delivered. He came to see my father and asked if he fancied a flight in what was then a fairly new modern bomber type. Being Sunday and having no pressing engagements apart from Sunday lunch with a local family he was keen to try out the new bomber. Johnson asked him to grab a few charts of the lake district area and off they set.
The aircraft had 3 aircraft engineers on board apart from my father and Johnson. Unbeknown to my father, Johnson a New Zealander, had a girlfriend in Cockermouth and decided it would be a good idea to ‘buzz’ her house. Of course in those days, many young men who could die on the next mission, lived life to the full, and training accidents were very common. On the third pass of the house, Johnson got just a little too low and the aircraft clipped a tree. Now, when an aircraft doing around 300 mph hits a few of the tree’s smaller twigs/branches it does a lot of damage.
The aircraft lost its nose turret and glazing, two of the engines were damaged straight away, hydraulics were wrecked and a third engine was losing power. Johnson manfully struggled with the aircraft but they couldn’t get enough altitude to get over the hills to get back to either Johnson’s home base or Leconfield, so they wound their way through a few valleys and tried to get to RAF Kirkbride which was not too far away. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it and they crashed about 1 mile short of the runway. During the crash landing which Johnson carried out, my father and the engineers adopted the crash position either side of the fuselage. The wings were torn off and the top turret came loose and went straight through the aircraft and out the rear. My father was staring out the gaps in the side of the aircraft which were rapidly appearing during this. They slid across a road where upon a cyclist stopped suddenly by standing on his pedals and just cycled off as quickly as he could. They came to a halt in a field where a old horse was just standing there chewing grass looking in the side of the aircraft and hadn’t moved an inch!
My father always commented that Johnson was a fantastic pilot for getting the crippled aircraft so near the airfield which required great skill.
Naturally they were put into the sick quarters at Kirkbride for the night but not before they had removed as much incriminating evidence of their escapade [as they could]. Alas, they missed a few bits. Of course they all claimed that the aircraft had experienced mechanical difficulties causing the accident. Johnson escaped from sick quarters during the night and hitchhiked back to Cockermouth. He wanted to remove any bits of Lancaster that had dropped at the scene since they left quite a few remnants behind. Unfortunately for Johnson, a few narrow minded locals did not take to kindly to the fact that a non local was going out with one of their lovely young ladies and were quite happy for him to get in trouble for the event. It was reported that the very low-flying Lancaster created such a vortex that vegetables were sucked out of the ground and one of the more questionable events (according to my father) was that a horse miscarried.
The truth was outed by the authorities when bit of Cockermouth foliage was found on the Lancaster and bits of Lancaster was found in Cockermouth.
Although the crew all tried to cover the story up, Johnson was court-martialed and although he had already completed an number of missions, he was taken off flying duties and had to work in the kitchens at Woodall Spa and then latterly at Bourn.
My father always talked about the sad end to the story, that he was killed following his return to operations. What neither of us realised was the way that he heroically died, by saving his crew (keeping the aircraft steady) whilst they baled out.
Not only was he a terrific aviator, and a decent bloke but he was a true hero and deserves to be remembered.
This amazing story can be independently corroborated in the 97 Squadron ORB as follows:
7.12.41 Two aircraft to lay mines in “Furze” area. Both aircraft successfully completed task after a flight of nearly ten hours. Lancaster W4356, Captain Sgt Johnson reported to have crashed at Kirkbride near Carlisle. None of the crew were injured. Crash was apparently caused by two starboard engines cutting and when attempting to land port engine cut. Engineers report not yet to hand.
There is also the following entry in Chorley’s Bomber Command Losses – 6.12.42:
Lancaster I W4356 OF- Training. Crashed 1230 near Kirkbride airfield, Cumberland. Sgt A.A.Johnson RNZAF.
At the time of the incident, this is the crew with which Johnson was probably permanently crewed up:
28/29 November 1942 Turin – R5572F Sgts A.Johnson, J.Duffy, L.Clark, R.Rae, O.B.Peters, R.N.Daniels, M.T.O’Donaghue. 1 x 4000lb. Up 1841 Down 0306. Target not bombed. Port outer engine developed violent vibration for few minutes and then packed in. One 4000lb bomb jettisoned safe.
He did do more ops after ‘the incident’, so the court-martial must have been delayed. A quick flip through the ORB entries suggests that Johnson went on flying until at least February 1943:
Extract from “Bombers over Berlin” by Alan Cooper
Flight Sergeant Johnson of 97 Squadron was killed when his aircraft crashed in Belgium. Two of his crew baled out, however, and were taken prisoner, while the other four who baled out all evaded capture and reached England in March 1944. They had taken off from their base at Bourn at 5.30pm, and their H2S set seemed in order but after crossing the English coast the navigator decided it had gone u/s. He left his seat to see if, when it had warmed up a bit, the set would be working but it did not.
At the same time, the bomb aimer reported one of the front guns was out of action. The omens began to increase when over Hanover, the mid-upper reported that his turret had gone u/s, so Johnson ordered him to the front turret. The bomb aimer was throwing out WINDOW from the nose and Johnson ordered the W/Op into the astrodome to look out for fighters. The naivigator set a straight course for Berlin and on arrival they dropped their bombs, not on the TI’s, but on salvo, making use of the red markers. The navigator then worked out the wind speed and direction and they set off on the return route.
Near Aachen they were shot up by flak which hit one of the port engines although it did not catch fire. Johnson put the aircraft into a dive and went down to 10,000 feet, but it was still being hit by gunfire for perhaps four to five minutes, shrapnel clattering against the wings and fuselage. The rear gunner was injured in the head, being attended by the W/Op; in addition his oxygen supply was cut and he partially lost consciousness. As the W/Op was about to take his place in the rear turret, the Lancaster was hit again and another engine had to be shut down and feathered. With this Johnson ordered the crew to prepare to abandon the aircraft. He continued to fly it until they reached Liege when the flak opened up again and the mid-upper was wounded in the knee and the bomb aimer grazed by shell fragments.
Still losing height, Johnson finally ordered the crew out. All got away except Johnson who was last seen with his parachute clipped on but was later killed when baling out. The navigator, Flight Lieutenant Pepper, bomb aimer Pilot Officer Williams, mid-upper Flight Sergeant Hesselden, despite being wounded, and the rear gunner, Flight Sergeant Billows, who was also wounded, all evaded capture and returned to England via Spain and Gibralter. Pepper was on his 38th trip, Williams his 37th, Hesselden his 28th and Billows his 29th. Flight Sergeant Johnson was on his 23rd op but was not the crew’s regular pilot.
The W/Op, Flight Sergeant John Sansam, landed safely and was helped by some Belgium people until captured. During his captivity he made one escape attempt but was re-captured, being finally liberated by the Russians in April 1945. Flight Sergeant Jackson, the engineer, was also captured and in a camp with Sansam.