Archive for May, 2014

Could this be Britain’s most patriotic man?

May 21st, 2014

“We will be a part of the Federal State of Europe ruled by Brussels, and we may retain Parliament but it will only be a token body of people, the laws they form are already depleting and Brussels is taking over.”

Mr Abbott started out as a Butcher’s boy before joining the RAF on his 17th birthday, the day before the Second World War was declared.

He fought the Nazi’s, surviving a torpedo attack in the Indian Ocean and typhus he caught in Egypt to carry on and battle the Soviets in East Germany during the Cold War.

Deciding upon his retirement in 1974 at the rank of Warrant Officer that 35 years’ service was not enough, Mr Abbott joined the Beefeaters, leading to his face appearing on postcards and the 1986 London Marathon runner’s medal.

He also doubled as the Queen’s bodyguard in his role as a Yeoman Guard Extraordinary serving Her Majesty at other events and palaces around London.

In his spare time he found the time to serve as a special constable for the Metropolitan Police, become an expert on historical execution techniques, and even earn a Blue Peter badge.

Mr Abbott, who has been decorated for his military service seven times, now lives in Kendal, in the Lake District where he was Mace Bearer for the Mayor of Kendal for 20 years, and says he is proud to be British.

“I’ve served the King and the Queen for 35 years and I’ve been sworn in at St James’s Palace as the Queen’s bodyguard so yes I’m patriotic,” he said.

“I’ve done so much in my life I’m not sure how I’ve fitted it all in.”

But life has also changed beyond recognition in the last 90 years, he said.

“I am not on the internet, I am not joining the Lemmings,” he said.

“Life has changed unbelievably since my days on the milk crate which had two lamps with a candle in each. Since then I have met a man who has walked on the moon. Thinking about how much it has changed terrifies me.”

But he said that there had been advances for the better, especially in the fields of medicine and transport.

His book about his life From Butcher’s Boy to Beefeater – with a foreword from General the Lord Dannatt – was released on Tuesday.

Mr Abbott, who has written 24 books, said that although he has experienced more than most he continues to live by his motto “never allow yourself to be dictated to by your birth certificate”.

“I learnt to fly a helicopter when I was 77. I walked into a place in Morecambe where they train pilots for carrying people out to oil rigs,” he said.

“They asked if I had ever flown a helicopter before and I said ‘no, but I’d been in the RAF for 35 years’ so they said ‘ok then’.

“Planes only go in one direction, they’re bloody boring. My motto is if you don’t go on accepting challenges, you’re old.”

His book also chronicles his time living in the Tower of London with his wife Shelagh, who passed away 20 years ago.

He said: “It was a good address, my wife used to go shopping to Selfridges or Harrods or whatever and they would say ‘where did you want it delivered?’

“You should have seen the shop assistant’s face when she gave them the address.

“Our apartment was against the inner wall of the tower and the walls were eight-feet thick except for an arrow slit where I used to keep my beer cold.”

He continues to be invited by Her Majesty to attend occasions in her honour attending Buckingham Palace garden parties.

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Sir Nicholas Winton at 105: the man who gave 669 Czech children the ‘greatest gift’

May 21st, 2014

Sir Nicholas Winton on his 105th birthday (HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY FOR THE TELEGRAPH)

The Czech president, Milos Zeman, wrote to Sir Nicholas: “Your life is an example of humanity, selflessness, personal courage and modesty.”

In 1939, Sir Nicholas masterminded the transportation of children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Britain, saving them from the concentration camps.

He rarely spoke of his achievements in the decades that followed, believing his actions to be unremarkable.

He came to public attention only in 1988, when he was reunited with some of those who call themselves “Nicky’s Children” on an emotional episode of the BBC programme That’s Life!

He was knighted by the Queen in 2003.

Sir Nicholas has outlived many of those he saved, and looked positively sprightly at the Czech Embassy on Monday night as he was presented with a cake bearing 105 candles.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s only anno domini that I’m fighting. I’m not ill, I’m just old and doddery – more doddery than old, actually,” he said. Sir Nicholas insisted on standing to deliver his speech.

He attributes his longevity to good genes and staying active. When undergoing a hip replacement at the age of 103, doctors asked him if he would want to be resuscitated in the event that his heart stopped on the operating table. He was incredulous.

Sir Nicholas Winton with his daughter Barbara (HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY FOR THE TELEGRAPH)

“Resuscitate me, of course! I want to live!” he said.

His daughter, Barbara Winton, recalled: “Last year when I half-heartedly suggested that perhaps having a party every year was a bit too much, his reply was that, as he didn’t know when the last one would be, he intended to keep having them.”

Sir Nicholas was a 29-year-old stockbroker about to set off on a skiing holiday in December 1938 when a friend urged him to change his plans and visit Prague. A politically-minded young man, he agreed to go in order to witness what was happening in the country.

The Nazis had invaded the Sudetenland two months earlier and the situation in Prague was becoming increasingly dangerous for Jews.

While agencies were organising the mass evacuation of children from Austria and Germany, there was no such provision in Czechoslovakia.

Sir Nicholas began meeting parents who were desperate for their children to be taken to a place of safety, and began compiling a list of names.

Sir Nicholas Winton with some of those he saved as children from the Nazis in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport (HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY )

The first train left Prague on March 14, the day before German troops marched into Czechoslovakia. Two fellow volunteers, Trevor Chadwick and Doreen Warriner, organised the Prague end of the operation.

Sir Nicholas returned to Britain and masterminded the rescue mission, finding adoptive homes for the children, pleading for funds and navigating the complex bureaucracy – ensuring each child had the £50 guarantee (£2,500 in today’s money) to pay for their eventual return, and securing exit and entry permits.

On some occasions, he forged Home Office documents which had been too slow to arrive, and without which the children would not have been allowed to leave Czechoslovakia.

Name tags around their necks, the bewildered children arrived at Liverpool Street Station where Sir Nicholas and his mother would greet them. Some had relatives in the UK, but most went to live with strangers.

Sir Nicholas Winton photographed in 1942 with his brother and sister in Hampstead

Eight trains reached London. The ninth did not. It had been set to leave on September 1, carrying 250 children – the largest number yet. But that day Germany invaded Poland, and all borders were closed.

Those who arrived at the station were turned away by German soldiers. It is thought that nearly all the children due to leave that day ended up in the concentration camps. Some were siblings of children who had made it out on earlier trains.

An estimated 6,000 people across the world are descendants of ‘Nicky’s Children’.

Guests at the birthday celebration included Lord Dubs, the Labour peer who was six when his mother put him on one of the Kindertransport trains. He was also one of the lucky ones – his parents both survived the war, although other family members perished in Auschwitz.

“Most of the children never saw their parents again so I was exceptional. Don’t put me down as typical,” Lord Dubs said.

“I can still see Prague station – the children, the parents, the soldiers with swastikas. We set off and when the next evening we got to Holland, all the older ones cheered because we were out of reach of the Nazis. I didn’t fully understand.

“It wasn’t until many years later that I understood what had happened and discovered all about Nicholas. When you meet somebody who almost certainly saved your life, it’s very emotional. I didn’t quite know how to handle it.

“I owe my life to him.”

Alf Dubs, a Labour Peer, was one of the children saved by Sir Nicholas Winton (HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY FOR THE TELEGRAPH)

Others rescued by the Czech Kindertransport include Karel Reisz, director of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Joe Schlesinger, the Canadian television journalist.

Sir Nicholas has always maintained that anyone in his position would have done the same. He dislikes being termed ‘The British Schindler’, pointing out that those who ran the mission from the Prague end took far greater risks with their own safety.

His achievements would have gone unheralded were it not for a scrapbook which he had kept. It contained pictures, documents, letters and photos from the mission, and a list of the children saved.

A family friend passed the scrapbook to a newspaper in 1988 and the story was taken up by That’s Life!, the consumer programme hosted by Esther Rantzen.

Sir Nicholas, then 78, was invited on to the show and, in a moving sequence, found himself seated in an audience made up of those who owed their lives to him.

His involvement with the victims of the Nazis did not end with the Kindertransport.

In 1947, he began work for the International Refugee Organisation, part of the United Nations. His role was to supervise the disposal of items looted by the Nazis and recovered by the Allies.

An undated handout of Nicholas Winton with one of the children he rescued: Nicholas Winton (PA)

Amongst the jewellery, furs, china and artworks were horrific reminders of the fate that had befallen so many Jews: crates of false teeth and reading glasses; gold fillings removed from corpses in the gas chambers.

Sir Nicholas’s job involved photographing and sorting these items into those that could be sold at auction – with the money going to help people displaced by the war – and those which were deemed financially worthless.

The latter were disposed of at sea, in a ceremony overseen by Sir Nicholas. He was keenly aware that each “worthless” item was a part of someone’s history, but had no way of tracing ownership.

His last undertaking was to see the gold jewellery melted down into bars, which he brought to London.

A matter-of-fact telegram sent by Sir Nicholas to his boss in February 1948 notes the solemn nature of the task.

“Many months work… culminated today my arrival London with kilograms 650 gold formerly gold teeth etcetera sold for approx. sevenhundred thousand dollars stop This ends one chapter concentration camps and opens new one for resettlement survivors nazi terror stop”

Sir Nicholas has said of the disposal: “I think not only of all those innocent lives, senselessly and horrifically cut off, most of them in their prime, but of the depraved minds obsessed with the material gains to be obtained from pitiable items so small and so personal as gold fillings.”

He devoted his later years to working for charity, including the Abbeyfield organisation which provides care for the elderly. Some years ago a chance conversation uncovered the fact that one of his fellow trustees was the son of a child Sir Nicholas had saved.

His extraordinary life has been chronicled in a biography, written by his daughter, Barbara. If It’s Not Impossible… The Life of Nicholas Winton takes its title from his motto: “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.”

Czech Kindertransport founder Sir Nicholas Winton speaks to media at his home in Maidenhead (PA)

She said of her father: “What he did in 1939 wasn’t out-of-character. It was typical of the kind of impulses he has when he sees a situation and thinks it should be rectified.”

In the book, Barbara writes: “My father’s wish for his biography, having agreed to me writing it, is that it should not promote hero worship or the urge for a continual revisiting of history, but if anything, that it might inspire people to recognise that they too can act ethically in the world and make a positive difference to the lives of others in whatever area they feel strongly about, whether it be international crises or nearer to home, in their own community.

“If reading his story about the rescue of the children causes people to think, ‘What a hero. I could never do anything like that. It’s much too difficult and anyway, heroes like that were on needed in remote history when we were at war. Now let me get on with my life,’ he is not that interested.

“But if reading it inspires people to think, ‘Well, things are not right in the world now. I can make a difference in my own way and I am going to do it,’ then he will be a happy man.”

Sir Nicholas’s parents were Jewish but not religious, and had him baptised as a Christian as a way of integrating into British life. He now describes himself as agnostic.

Asked what message he would like the biography to carry, Sir Nicholas told his daughter: “I came to believe through my life that what is important is that we live by the common ethics of all religions – kindness, decency, love, respect and honour for others – and not worry about the aspects within religion that divide us.”

If It’s Not Impossible: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton, by Barbara Winton (published by Troubador) is on sale for £12.99 at

Barbara Winton will be speaking to Simon Schama and Philippe Sands at the Hay Festival on May 27 at 10am. For tickets, visit

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Britain’s Schindler saved my life

May 20th, 2014

One of the children evactuated, Lord Dubs, said he was in no doubt that Sir Nicholas had saved his life.

Lord Dubs said the founder of the Czech Kindertransport was “one of the most incredibly wonderful human beings of the present age. I owe my life to him, so do many others owe our lives to him.”

“I can remember some of it extremely vividly. It’s quite astonishing – people are surprised. I can still see my mother standing in Prague station. A German soldiers with a swastika nearby. Mother looking very anxious to say goodbye. All the mothers and parents looking very anxious to say goodbye to their children, in some cases for the last time,” he said.

Barbara Winton, Sir Nicholas’ daughter, said her father, who turned 105 on 19 May, “doesn’t like looking back into history.”

“People say to him ‘you’ve done a wonderful thing, you’re a hero. What you did was fantastic, you’re a superman. And he says no, I was an ordinary human being. I understood what was going on in the world, and I acted in an ethical way based on my knowledge and my compassion,’” she said.

To honour Sir Nicholas’ achievement, the government of the Czech Republic has informed him he is to be bestowed with the Order of the White Lion, its highest state honour.

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Prince Harry remembers New Zealand’s war dead at Monte Cassino

May 19th, 2014

During the memorial, Maori service personnel from the New Zealand armed forces performed a ceremonial chant, marching together with Prince Harry and other participants.

The battle, one of the bloodiest of World War II, over the ancient monastery was waged for four months. Victory was decided on the May 18, 1944 when Allied bombers reduced Monte Cassino to rubble.

The Allies are thought to have sustained 55,000 casualties during the struggle to push German troops from the crest of the towering hill some 130 km (85 miles) south of Rome.

An estimated 20,000 Germans were killed or wounded in the battle.

Source: RTV

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D-Day anniversary: US veterans accuse France of withdrawing flight offer

May 18th, 2014

“Now they’re telling us they have nothing to do with it … It’s really frustrating.”

Felice John Tulli, who was 18 when he landed at Omaha Beach with his US army unit, is one of the veterans left in the lurch.

Congressman Grimm’s office reportedly called his daughter in April to tell her that the French government wanted to fly him and a guest across the Atlantic to receive a medal from President Francois Hollande, who will be joined at the ceremony by Barack Obama, the US president and David Cameron, the Prime Minister.

But now that the offer has allegedly been withdrawn, his daughter is hoping to pay for the trip by organising a baseball betting pool.

A spokeswoman for the French Embassy in Washington denied that France had ever offered to fly the men to the beaches where they fought 70 years ago in the largest the lar such attack ever mounted.

But US Army Master Sergeant Manuel Perez, who the New York Post said is one of the coordinators of the event and was liaising between veterans’ families and the French government, said that he had as late as Friday been seeking clarification from the French.

Mr Perez said that “it was common knowledge” that France was paying for flights to Europe for the event, and noted that the country had sponsored the trips of American veterans a decade ago for the 60th anniversary.

No one at the French foreign ministry, which is organising the D-Day commemorations, was immediately available for comment on the accusations that the offer to pay for flights had been made or withdrawn.

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Lessons from the Thirties show us why we can’t appease Vladimir Putin

May 16th, 2014

Dictators are not like you, me, Norman Tebbit or Geoffrey Dawson. They are liars. They do not believe in the rule of law inside their own country or internationally. They hate the honest expression of opinion. They never trust the leaders of other countries. All they care about is their power, which they see in a binary way: they can only win by others losing. “I know my enemies,” said one particularly famous dictator, “I met them at Munich. They are little worms.” They seemed wormlike to him because they refused to recognise his true nature. The worms crawled to him, and he despised them for it. Let us resist any temptation to crawl to Mr Putin.

Here are a few tricks that dictators play:

1. Sudden plebiscites. In November 1933, Germany called a referendum on its own foreign policy. Lo and behold, it won 90 per cent support. In March this year, with Russian backing, a referendum was rushed through in Crimea. Ninety-six per cent of those voting said they wanted Crimea to join Russia, although in the Nineties, they had voted to be part of an independent Ukraine. Comically, in 2003, rebellious Chechnya was reintegrated into Russia with an alleged 95.5 per cent vote in favour.

2. Inspire local militias that can be disowned when necessary. This was a favourite of the Serb dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, made a mistake recently when he said that Putin was losing control of extremist trouble-makers in eastern Ukraine. It is no problem for the dictator if his local supporters “go too far”. It just gives him a stronger role when outsiders beg him to help calm things down.

3. The sudden change of tack. Rage is unexpectedly replaced by pacific noises, and vice versa. After regaining the Saar in 1935, Germany said that it was “prepared absolutely to renounce war” and was happy with its treaty with Poland. Milosevic used, from time to time, to offer to raise “peace-keeping forces” in the Balkans. Just now, the Russians have been saying that there is “civil war” in eastern Ukraine, thus justifying violence. But at the same time, as the Ukrainian presidential election tomorrow week approaches, Putin turns conciliatory. As I was watching its mouthpiece TV station, Russia Today, yesterday, a bar ran along the bottom saying: “PUTIN: establishing dialogue is more important than recognising republics in Ukraine.” This was classic of the genre – saying how nice and gentle he was while at the same time claiming the existence of pro-Russian republics within a sovereign country.

4. The propaganda of the deed. Do something utterly outrageous (invade Abyssinia: Mussolini; take over the Crimea: Putin), and then watch the world flounder. This does not always work (see Galtieri: Falklands, Saddam Hussein: Kuwait), but the able dictator understands the weakness of his opponents. Although what happened in Crimea is wholly illegal, the West protested limply and the Ukrainian government allowed its military presence there to collapse. Having achieved so much so easily, Putin knows he can now toy with the next mouse before killing it.

5. Never stopping. Power hunger cannot be satisfied. As the world gloomily contemplates Ukraine, Putin is starting to coerce the neighbours in his Eurasian union – Belarus, Kazakhstan – towards his military will. He is ignoring his obligation to inform the government of Lithuania what he is doing in the Russian naval enclave of Kaliningrad. He is on the march.

6. An obsessive dislike of homosexuals combined with a curious taste for being photographed in manly and warlike poses, sometimes stripped to the waist. Often linked to an emotional ethno-political endorsement of religion but a conspicuous contempt for that religion’s morality and love of peace.

Modern Russia is less totalitarian than its Communist predecessor, but, unlike the Soviet Union, it has a great deal of our money and is paying us with it. Its TV stations are fronted by Westerners. Its oligarchs are the toast of London estate agents and Riviera yacht salesmen. Our banks have lent to its billionaires and enterprises on terms that were not duly diligent. The West buys its gas. The former chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder, is closely linked with Russian gas and oil business and recently celebrated his 70th birthday in St Petersburg with V Putin as his honoured guest (can we not apply sanctions to the Schroeder bank account?). Preposterous think tanks pump out Putinolatry. (Do look up the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris, whose symbol is the bridge there named after the reactionary Tsar Alexander III.) And I doubt whether Lord Mandelson’s Global Counsel consultancy is urging measures against Russian associates of Mr Putin with large piles of loot.

The essential appeaser’s error is to say, “Let’s be reasonable”, to a person to whom reason is anathema and so ends up, by mistake, endorsing tyranny. In January 1939, The Times’s leading article declared that, “Certain grievances in Europe which threatened war have now been adjusted without war, even though…the adjustment has been hasty and crude, and bears the marks of force.” War came less than nine months later. Putin seems to be sorting out “certain grievances” in this spirit.

It is not easy to see what the West can do about this, since it plainly lacks the will.

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Adolf Hitler’s house could become immigrants’ centre

May 14th, 2014

According to local press reports, she has rejected suggestions the house be made into an anti-Nazi memorial, and even refused the town authorities permission to put a plaque on the building, for fear it could provoke attacks from neo-Nazis or anti-fascists.

Instead, a small memorial stone on the street outside records the fact that this was Hitler’s birthplace.

Until two years ago, the building was used as a day centre for people with learning difficulties. The interior ministry carefully vets all prospective tenants to ensure it doesn’t become a neo-Nazi shrine, and the possibility of residential use was rejected in case it attracted Hitler admirers.

Now, after talks in Vienna dubbed the “Birthplace Summit” by Austrian newspapers, the interior ministry is optimistic it has found a solution acceptable to all parties – and one that seems a fitting response to Hitler’s racist policies.

Under the plan, after extensive renovation, the building would be used as a language school and integration centre for migrants.

Hitler spent the first three years of his life in the house. At the time, it was a modest guest-house where his parents rented rooms while his father was working as a minor customs official at the nearby border with Germany.

After his father was posted to Passau in Bavaria, the family moved away.

In 1938, after the Anschluss with Austria, huge crowds watched as Hitler returned to Braunau in triumph.

His private secretary, Martin Bormann, bought the house at 15 Salzburger Vorstadt for four times its market value, with the intention of turning it into a shrine.

In 1954, the former owner bought it back for a fraction of the price.

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The last British Dambuster: ‘Don’t call me a hero’

May 10th, 2014

Mr Johnson was the bomb-aimer on one of the Lancasters which damaged the Sorpe Dam. Other crews in the 617 Squadron destroyed the Möhne and Edersee Dams, leading to catastrophic flooding in the valley.

“It was misty on the way out, but we did find the Sorpe,” Mr Johnson remembers in The Last British Dambuster, a book telling the story of the operation told from his own perspective, which is published this week.

“In the totally clear moonlight, it was an incredibly sight…after nine dummy runs, we were satisfied we were on the right track. I pushed the button and called, ‘Bomb gone!’ From the rear of the plane was heard ‘Thank Christ for that!’ The explosion threw up a fountain of water up to about 1,000 feet.”

Bouncing bombs, specially designed for the task by the English engineer Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, were able to breach nets which protected the German constructions from attack.

But, as Mr Johnson recalls, “In the final event, of the eight aircraft in total designated to attack the Sorpe, only two got through. Three were shot down and three returned unsuccessfully.” It would have taken five more bomb blasts to completely destroy that dam.

Despite 53 of Mr Johnson’s 132 comrades losing their lives in the attempt, the mission’s overall success was seized upon by the British propaganda machine and the feat cemented in the public consciousness with Michael Anderson’s 1955 film The Dam Busters.

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has expressed an interest in remaking the film, employing Mr Johnson as an advisor, though the project is currently on hold.

Following the 70th anniversary of the raids last year, and realising the interest the younger generation still had in the mission, Mr Johnson decided to act on his three children’s suggestions that he write an autobiography, telling of his role in the raid.

“I think there are a few reasons why it’s so well remembered,” says Mr Johnson, who also has eight grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. “It proved to Hitler and the German high command that what they thought was impregnable the RAF could get to and destroy.

As a new recruit, aged 19

“It delayed production in the Ruhr quite considerably, though perhaps not as much as we would have liked, and it meant men who were being used to build a defence wall along the Atlantic coast had to be brought back to repair the damage.

“But probably the most important reason is the morale affect it had on the people of this country. It seemed like a turning point in the war; whether it was or not is debatable, but it seemed to give that impression.”

The book also recounts his life before and after the war, including the story of how he came to be involved in the 617 Squadron at the age of 21.

On joining the Air Force he was originally sent to America to train as a pilot but failed to complete the course because of problems with his solo landings. On his return to England he trained as a spare gunner, but soon switched to become a bomb aimer, “since it made a difference between starting at 7am and starting at midday”.

It was in this position that he was asked to join a special squadron to be sent on what was then a top-secret mission. He married his teenage sweetheart Gwyn just weeks before the Dambusters raid, and the pair were together for over 60 years, until Gwyn’s death from cancer eight years ago.

Now Mr Johnson lives in Bristol with his family and is “too lazy to do anything” apart from speak at the memorial events he is invited to.

“I won’t volunteer but if people are interested I’ll always tell them what happened,” he says. “I get a lot of recognition, but it shouldn’t be just for me, because I’m still around. It should be for the whole squadron.” Across the world, only three men who were involved in the mission are still alive: a former pilot in New Zealand and a gunner in Canada.

And Mr Johnson – who worked as a primary school teacher following his retirement from the Air Force in 1962 – is sure that if the need arose today, young people would be able to match the achievements of the Dambusters.

“I think by and large younger people are a good group; the thugs amongst them are few and far between. People say to me, ‘If the same thing happened now as in 1939, what do you think the reaction would be from young people?’

“It sometimes surprises them but I always say: ‘The majority would do what we did. They would want to defend themselves, their country and the lives they wanted to live.’”

The Last British Dambuster by George ‘Johnny’ Johnson (Ebury Press, RRP £17.99) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £15.99 + £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit

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George ‘Johnny’ Johnson remembers the Dambusters mission, 1943

May 9th, 2014

My crew and I were with the 97 Squadron before we moved over to the new 617 Squadron for a special mission in March 1943. In the front row are me, the bomb aimer; Len Eaton, wireless operator; Joe McCarthy, pilot; Ron Batson, front gunner; and behind us are Dave Rodger, rear gunner; Don MacLean, navigator; and Bill Ratcliffe, flight engineer. Joe was the big man and I thought of him as an older brother. We had a friendship that was beyond that of pilot and bomb aimer, and when we first met we just seemed to gel.

We had no idea what we were training for until the day of the briefing. I was young enough and stupid enough to not think too much about it. The general conjecture had been that it would be against the German battleship Tirpitz, but the next day, May 16 1943, we discovered how wrong we were when we went to the briefing with Wg Cdr Guy Gibson and the inventor of the bouncing bomb, Barnes Wallis. That was the first indication we had of what the target was going to be – three dams within Germany’s Ruhr Valley.

It is difficult to say what the mood was when we found out. At that stage, most people were concerned with their own crew, because the crew were a family, always. But I do know there were one or two who had a nasty feeling they weren’t going to come back.

Gibson was a strict disciplinarian and his big problem was that he could not bring himself down to lower ranks. He had no verbal connection with the air crew except to tell them off when something went wrong. But the true essence of the man as a leader was portrayed in the actual raid, where he made the first attack on the Möhne. We knew it was the only dam that was defended. As he called each aircraft in, he flew alongside them to attract some of the defence. He said, ‘You’re doing this, I’m doing this, we’re doing this together.’ That to me is the essence of good leadership.

The scale of the raid didn’t hit most of us until we saw the outcome and the number of crews we’d lost – we lost eight of our 16 attacking planes that night and only three of the aircrew from the downed Lancasters survived. We lost 53 crew in total. It was pretty devastating.

I’ve talked to school children about the raid and I can see the interest in their eyes. That makes it for me. It’s a relief to know that they’re teaching Second World War history in junior schools. There’s been an increase in the interest over the last three or four years, and I enjoy it.

The Last British Dambuster by George ‘Johnny’ Johnson (Ebury Press, £17.99) is out now

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Clive James: spare me TV's climate change experts

May 8th, 2014

No, he asked a climate change expert. In Australia, climate change experts are not hard to find. Indeed it is very hard to keep them out of your car: unless you wind the window all the way up, one of them will climb in. This climate change expert was called Tim. Armed with his ability to read the future, Tim predicted that any dry area of the Murray-Darling system was “an indication of what’s coming”, and that “what Australia is experiencing here now” would eventually be experienced by “hundreds of millions of people around the world”.

Simon nodded his moustache sagely but didn’t once ask whether the flourishing wine industry was not part of what Australia is experiencing here now. Nor did he ask whether, in view of climate change, the wine industry was doomed. It was then that the big idea hit me. Why hadn’t he asked the wine grower? It would have been easy to frame the question, perhaps along the lines of: “In view of what is happening to the planet, have you any plans for selling all this colossal acreage of silver metal for scrap?”

NEWS: Tony Abbott appoints climate change sceptic to review energy target

It would have been worth asking the wine grower because his whole way of life depends on what he thinks about the water supply, whereas, with Tim, nothing depends on what he thinks about the water supply except his next research grant and his prospects of getting on screen with the visiting TV presenter so that they can shoot off their mouths together. And at that point I started thinking about all those BBC environment and nature programmes from the immediate past that might just turn out, in retrospect, to have been souping up their science with science fiction.

But you can see the attraction. Sensationalism makes for a splash of danger, and sometimes, when the danger isn’t there, you miss it. In a re-run of the classic little wildlife programme of 2006 Rabbits of Skomer (BBC Four) you could see the danger, or lack of danger, that some animal shows faced before the global warming theme got going.

On the island of Skomer the rabbits, like the puffins, face no mammal predators. In the air, the odd short-eared owl or greater black-backed gull lurks hungrily, but on the whole the rabbits have got it made. They stick their heads up out of their holes and sniff, but all they find is a camera crew looking at them. There is not a single whiff of oncoming planetary doom. If the show were being made now, there would have to be a climate change expert called Tim to say that the whole island will soon be a hundred feet under water with sharks cruising through waves dotted with the corpses of rabbits and puffin chicks.

READ: The bird-land of Skomer isle

Or perhaps not. Perhaps the Beeb, in view of the current shifting of the emphasis in climate science from mitigation to adaptation, is now, at last, dialling down the alarmism. Perhaps they put the Skomer rabbits back on air as a portent of the nature programmes they will make next, with the future restored to its erstwhile position as the long stretch of time about which not even science can know everything.

Greta (Katharina Schüttler) in Generation War Photo: ZDF

At a time when there looks to be a shortage of substantial locally made drama, one had hopes for the German series Generation War (BBC Two). Alas, though well made, it was hopeless. As the Second World War raged, five young friends gradually realised that there was something wrong with the Nazi regime. But you couldn’t help wondering why they had not caught at least an inkling a lot earlier: before, for example, the German army had begun to lose. The civilian clothes and furnishings were exact, and every uniform was correct in all details, but there was something childish about the whole thing: it could have been called “The Clueless Five Catch Up”.

Meanwhile, here in the peaceful Euro present, the sex industry, we are assured, is still an enigma begging to be probed. But which explorer shall we send? A droll fellow, Rupert Everett must have guessed that his viewers would soon be collecting their favourite lines from his dire series Love for Sale (Channel 4). I liked the Brazilian hooker, supposedly upmarket but looking a bit whacked out even through the heavy pixelation, who said: “Half of me don’t want and half of me need.”

In Dylan Thomas: A Poet at War (BBC Wales) the unexciting commentary by Ifor ap Glyn was alleviated by some quoted poems from Thomas himself, including Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines. When the poem was first published, T S Eliot wrote him a letter of congratulations, and one can easily imagine today’s new readers being thrilled to bits at the sound of genius.


For what genius looks like, there was Ronnie O’Sullivan, unfalteringly brilliant all the way through the BBC’s transmissions of the World Snooker Championship until almost the end of the final. But Mark Selby came back to beat him. I was yelling on my couch. Half of me don’t want and half of me need.


World War Two

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