Obituary: Gp Capt Peter Johnson

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PETER JOHNSON was reputed to have led more bomber raids in the Second World War - and some of the most dangerous and successful ones - than any other commander. Yet after the war and until the day of his death (when he was at work on his fourth book, a novel) he made a detailed and prolonged study of the effects of this form of warfare. This made him unpopular in the Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence. Neither Bill Clinton nor Tony Blair would, it seems, agree with his views as they look towards Baghdad and Kosovo.

Bruce Kent, on the other hand, hailed his 1995 memoir The Withered Garland, which sets out his case (it is subtitled "Reflections and Doubts of a Bomber"), as the book of the century.

The son of Captain Robert Johnson RN, killed in September 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, when his ship, HMS Cressy, was torpedoed, Peter inherited his father's abhorrence of personal publicity. This endeared him to his friends but not to his publishers. This reticence, uncharacteristic of an RAF officer of his rank, denied him the recognition as a war hero that would otherwise have been his. Even his memoir was silent about most of his exploits, and such recognition as he received was due to the insistence of others.

The Johnson family emigrated to upstate New York in the reign of King George II, who in 1755 bestowed on the head of the family the intriguing title General Sir William Johnson Bt, of New York. (The title is now held by Peter's nephew, the seventh in succession, the yachting writer Sir Peter Johnson.) The second baronet raised a regiment in the War of Independence but, fighting on the losing side, the family had to become temporarily asylum seekers in Ontario.

They duly returned to Johnstown, named after them, as also is nearby Fort Johnson. When Peter Johnson visited Johnstown at the age of 88 his hosts persuaded him to be driven down Main Street to the equivalent of a ticker-tape reception before a cheering crowd.

His erudite later life was scarcely to be predicted. After a childhood to which only a ducal son might now aspire, and an unambitious school career, he had a spell at Dartmouth. The Navy, though, was not for him, and he turned to London and was articled to a firm of chartered accountants. Far too intelligent to become one of Bertie Wooster's companions, he none the less would have been one of his contemporaries as he went the round of debs' dances, night-clubs, weekend parties in country houses and the other delights on offer to a debonair young man with little work to do.

Despairing of a pointless life, he set off for Australia to take up sheep farming, and learnt how to castrate lambs with his teeth. But England called and in 1929 he came back to another desk job, for a grocery manufacturers, where he was particularly involved in a new product, a "singularly nasty breakfast cereal" called "Aviator Wheat Flakes". He decided to join the RAF and was commissioned in 1930, and trained as a fighter pilot. He was proficient at sports and played cricket, squash and real tennis for the RAF.

Then one day the "Peace Ballot" questionnaire from the League of Nations Union arrived; Johnson and his wife Joan, whom he had married in 1932, both signed it, as did some 25 per cent of the British population. Another world war was coming, he had decided, but here was some small hope that another mass slaughter might be avoided. When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia in 1936 and the League of Nations resolved to act against him, Johnson cheered; and he cheered again when his fighter squadron was ordered to Aden in readiness to support the Abyssinians. Then came the Hoare-Lavell Pact and a crestfallen fighter pilot had to return to England, disillusioned.

When war came he was told he was too old for operational duties and sent to Training Command as chief instructor. This was not to his liking; he felt it his duty to be up in the air with the others who were going to risk their lives. His charm and persistence eventually got him to Bomber Command and to Number 5 Group.

All the qualities for command of an operational unit were proved to be his. He had immense charisma, bravery and a gift for giving praise in the right measure and at the appropriate time. He also knew that a large fighting unit going into action several times a week with inevitable casualties could not succeed without discipline and a high standard of efficiency that he had to set himself.

After every raid he had the painful duty of writing to the families of aircrew who had failed to return. Despite the loss of so many from his station its morale never faltered, which owed much to his own qualities; he himself led all the raids under his command.

There were lighter moments, though. His much beribboned uniform had a magnetic effect on the girls. One claimed that having seen him at the station in Grantham she followed him into an empty compartment of the train and by the time they reached Peterborough - a mere 20 minutes away - matters had advanced as far as was practical.

Many years later, as a widower in his late eighties, the magnetism survived. Living in a stately home converted into flats, he never seemed to go downstairs without passing the come-hither of another resident happening to go up to her room. "My immediate family have had nine divorces," he announced, which served his purpose in more ways than one.

After the war, at the request of Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, he made a detailed report on the effect of the aerial bombardment of German cities. One of the most telling arguments against it, he said, was a personal one. Hitler ordered that any soldier, even on the Russian and North African fronts, whose home had been bombed should have a fortnight's compassionate leave. The consequence was that when he returned he redoubled his efforts against Allied forces, and persuaded his comrades that they were fighting a callous enemy who bombed their parents and grandparents in the middle of the night.

In 1946 Johnson was asked to attend the Nuremberg trials. Given a copy of the long indictment against the Nazi leaders, he took it away to read over a picnic lunch at the lakeside. Before reaching the final count he raised his glass of wine; about to take another sip, his eyes caught the first few words and as he read on he replaced the untouched wine on the ground. "I am a war criminal too," he said to himself.

War crimes the relevant Article defined as

Atrocities or offences against persons or property constituting violations of the laws or customs of war, including but not limited to, murder, ill- treatment or

deportation to slave labour or for another purpose, of civilian population from occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons in the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction [here Johnson was brought up short] of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.

Furthermore, liability was barely limited:

Any person, without regard to nationality or the capacity in which he acted, is deemed to have committed a crime . . . if he was (a) an accessory to the commission of any such crime or ordered or abetted the same, or (b) took a consenting part therein, or (c) was connected with plans or enterprises involving its commission.

After that there were many occasions when friends were told of Johnson's misgivings. It was not for some 25 years that one of them urged him to put these thoughts on paper. The result was two books which no other RAF officer could have or would have written. The first was Neutrality: a policy for Britain (1985) and the second, written when he was 87, The Withered Garland. (He also wrote The Hinge of Opportunity: a security system for Europe, 1992, and articles for The New European on defence and foreign policy issues.)

The Withered Garland contains a vivid account of life in Bomber Command; it cogently conveys the tensions and conflicts among those who decided the strategy, including Winston Churchill. Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, in a foreword, characterises Johnson's "gift for philosophical analysis" of this branch of modern warfare.

To the end Johnson remained fit and active, mentally as much as physically, and planning yet another adventure abroad - North Africa he had in mind this March. At the time of his death he was the oldest member of the MCC.

Peter Warren Johnson, air force officer: born 13 November 1908; DSO 1945; OBE 1954; married 1935 Joan Hare (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1961), 1962 Anne Bower (died 1987); died Albury, Surrey 12 February 1999.