Richard Johnson, known as Le Major Johnny

 

Johnson was born on 21 July 1898 in the village of Gouvieux near Chantilly in France of British parents, Arthur Johnson and Emily Carter. Arthur was a horse racing trainer (his brother the second best jockey in France for a long time) and Emily was herself born in France in the family that founded the English colony in Chantilly. Young Richard was brought up into the horse racing world of Chantilly which was very grand and very British at that time, so much so that the prices in the shops in Chantilly were in English as well as French, the butchers cut beef joints the English way, and people very much inter-married (some of the notable families were the Carters, Johnsons, Watsons, Webbs, Cunningtons and Pratts).

Educated at the Collège de Compiègne between 1905 and 1910, young Richard, then known as Dick, proved to be extremely academic and his family felt he would be wasted as a trainer so when he was 12 he was sent to boarding school in Bedford (1910-13). Aged 15, he spent 1914 at the Handelsschule in Harburg to master German. Whilst he was there WWI started. One day he stood up and sang the Marseillaise in the playground, consequently got into a fight and broke his leg! After a spell in hospital, he was put into a prison camp for being a foreigner. His grandfather in Chantilly, Richard Carter, had a friend called Mr Bright, a banker, who agreed to help get Dick out of Germany on an American passport, providing he brought some gold out for him. He got in touch with a German contact of his, who knew the boy, liked him and helped him to get away.

The passport, shown below, which in reality is an A3 size, states that he was only 4’6” tall and the photo shows him aged 16 looking very young indeed. Note the inscription “British subject” printed in red ink under his name. A special waistcoat with extra pockets was made for all the gold and thus Dick came to England.

German passport

Dick joined the army in August 1916, stationed at High Wycombe, and was posted to Warwickshire Battery RHA TA that November.  

In 1917-18 he was at Officer Cadet school moving to Gunnery School and it was at this point, he became a commissioned officer. He was deployed to France in July 1918 as part of the BEF (D Battery, 160th Brigade RFA 34th Division). In November he took part in heavy fighting in Belgium which earned him the Military Cross. The citation for his MC reads:

“On October 14th, 1918, near Gheluwe [Allied attack in this village of West Flanders on the way to Menin], he was acting as forward observation officer. He went forward through a heavy barrage, got in touch with the advancing infantry, and succeeded in sending back important information. During the day he got gassed, but, notwithstanding, he carried on till the evening. Throughout the day he gave the infantry valuable assistance. He gave a very fine example of courage, endurance and skill.”

At the end of the hostilities he served in the army of occupation in Cologne for about a year until September 1919.

Military Cross

On leaving the army he joined a bank in Paris and on 10 September 1923 he married Mabel Janet Cunnington in France (an arranged marriage from years before within the racing world). He hated the bank job so much that he came back to England and worked in North London for Butler & Co (cutlers), working with Mr Gossling who was a family friend and a director of the company.

In 1924 Mabel’s father, Elijah Cunnington, the famous British racehorse owner and trainer, won the Ascot Gold Cup with ‘Massine’. He had a large number of horses and at that point needed help so he offered Dick a position - Mabel was delighted as she longed to get back to France. Dick also helped at Mieuxcé with the breeding programme. That is how he settled back in Chantilly, as assistant to Elijah Cunnington, finding his place in the huge English community training horses there.

Wedding Photo

Between the two wars, Dick and his father-in-law won many races, including the prestigious Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe. Just before WWII Dick started training jumping horses and was being very successful. Meanwhile he and Mabel had four children.

In February and March 1940 Dick helped two British captains recruit among the British lads in Chantilly and was proud that over 30 of them joined up.

He applied for registration on the Officer's Emergency Reserve in May 1938 (from France) and then applied again on 27 July 1940: by then, the family had escaped to England (and that is another whole story), and he answered to a War Office announcement in the paper.

 

His family settled near relatives in York and he, after passing the medical and interview board and by then aged 42, rejoined the Royal Artillery. He was appointed Gun Operation Room Officer in an akak battery in Hamilton, Scotland (96th Heavy R.A regiment). In May 1941, then based at the Leeds GOR, he asked to be transferred to another corps where he might be “more suitably or usefully employed.”

“[...] as I have an expert knowledge of French, I was born in France, have lived there all my life and as I did not opt in 1918 have a dual nationality and also a fairly good knowledge of German, [...] I feel my services could at the present be more satisfactorily utilized in another Branch of the Service, preferably the Intelligence Service. [...] I may say that this application is prompted purely by the motive that I am highly desirous of serving my country in such a sphere where my knowledge of languages would be useful. I am willing to serve abroad.” 

The request for a transfer was recommended by the officer in charge and Dick was selected to a course of instruction at the Intelligence Training Centre, which he did between 26 October and 8 November 1941 at Matlock. The following anecdote may be apocryphal, maybe he was already earmarked for SOE: One day he was in a pub with another trainer, and cousin by marriage, Jeff Watson, also from France, and he was overheard by the Military police who stopped him to ask how he spoke such good French. He explained and they asked whether he would be interested in being interviewed for a new organisation, i.e. SOE. It is the case that the Matlock course was a good spotting place for SOE recruits. His army records show that he was “posted to ISRB for special duties” on 26 December 1941.

Having lived all his life in France, he was “very familiar with Chantilly” and with “special knowledge of horse racing” as his SOE file states. The fact that he was bilingual in French and English and with a military background made him well-suited to carry out the duties of SOE Liaison Officer with the Free French agents undergoing training at the Inchmery school and in Scotland prior to their missions in France.

Despite being middle-aged, he took part in the training with his charges and as his service report attests: “This training was of a very strenuous character and Lt. Johnson participated fully in it alongside the trainees. This necessitated considerable physical effort in all weathers and at all times of the day and night.”

in uniform

Johnny, as he became known in Dorset Square, wrote a critical report on the Inchmery school, revealing a lack of discipline and order, and it was closed down several months later, with Free French training integrated into SOE. At that point, at the end of 1942, Johnny was based at RF’s HQ.

In January 1943 Johnny (who had been promoted Acting Captain on 6 November 1942 then Temporary Captain on 6 February 1943) was given the symbol D/RF.5 (5th in the hierarchy). It was changed in May to RF/O, later to RF/Ops.

This symbol allocation seems to indicate that at some point in Spring 1943 O’Bryan-Tear, who was until then wearing many hats indeed within RF Section, relinquished some of his duties as the section expanded and Johnny became the Operations Officer.

All was not well with Johnny’s health: In early June 1943 he spent four days in Mill End Hospital with gangrene of the foot. At the end of September 1943, the Queen Alexandra Military Hospital on Millbank graded him Category C for three months and instructed him to remain at duty.

The following quote from a recapitulatory document of his service indicates he became Operations officer at the end of September 1943, whereas he was given the symbol “O” in May - hopefully ongoing research will solve this slight contradiction!

Following the medical board categorisation above, “he was accordingly transferred from the physically arduous duties referred to above [while agents were doing their training] and appointed head of the operations [of RF].”

Being in charge of sea and air operations of RF Section at Dorset Square is a post Johnny occupied for the rest of the war but was not necessarily a restful job.

Indeed what could be taken for a desk job was far from being a sinecure: his role became more and more vital as the numbers of agents dropped and of French people exfiltrated grew. A report on his work says:

“The work of Major Johnson’s Section increased enormously, necessitating very long and irregular hours of work under considerable mental strain, both in his office in London and on airfields during the night hours.”

Johnny (promoted to Major in December 1943), as well as other colleagues would have been part-time conducting officers as well.

Not only did they have to accompany and collect agents from the airfield, which entailed more or less long journeys and long rather than short waiting times, but they also shadowed groups of recruits as they went through their training. Acting like guardians and keeping track of the trainees’ progress, they would thus have first-hand impressions of the recruits, independent of the course's training staff. His daughter later remembered him saying that “he had to stand and wait at a headland for some very senior dignitaries to arrive or depart and how stressful it all was for him”.

Johnny worked closely with his opposite number at the BCRA, Lt Henri Drouilh, arranging supply drops and operations involving agents to or back from France.

One mission stuck in Johnny’s mind that he liked to recount to his friends as its success was very close to his heart: It was the bold escape from France of Raymond and Lucie Aubrac on 8/9 February 1944. The message which was read aloud on the BBC to arrange the rendezvous was like a promise: “De Carnaval à Mardi gras : ils partiront dans l’ivresse !". Certainly the pick-up operation had given all concerned a lot of strong emotions, notably as the aircraft was stuck in the mud and the help of the villagers and their oxen was required. It must have been memorable indeed for Johnny to welcome them on the English airfield. Moreover Lucie was very pregnant and gave birth a few days later to their second child at London Queen Charlotte's hospital.

On 22 March 1944 the same Medical Board graded his Category C permanent and instructed him to remain at duty.

On 17 April 1944, he flew to Algiers for a liaison visit at a time of reorganisation of the SOE base there, returning on 5 May 1944.

He was due to go to France around 25 September 1944, but it seems this was delayed for health reasons: on 13 November, his file reads: “Again boarded at QA Military Hospital and placed in Category B (permanent).”

Two days later however, on 15 November he flew to Paris to join Harry Thackthwaite who was setting up and leading the Paris RF Mission.

Initially Johnson proceeded to Lyon as an advance party: he was to obtain contact quickly with the various southern resistance circuits so as to be able to retrieve wireless sets and certain stores before they disbanded. The Lyon area was the region where the most important RF W/T and Eureka installations were situated. From the contacts made in R1 the material of circuits in other parts of the Zone Sud (R4, R5 and R6) was to be traced.

He returned to the UK on 23 February 1945 and was placed on the Pool. The German section wanted to interview him with a view to possible employment as he spoke German but this does not seem to have happened. In fact he was absent from duty from the very next day after his return. He was suffering badly with obliterative arteritis and after a month in the Military Hospital in York, he was sent to Harewood House to convalesce. He was subsequently discharged on 10 May 1945, by then Category E, and signed off on 22nd. His health had taken a turn for the worse after his 3 and a half years with SOE.

The Johnson family was repatriated to France on 18 September 1945, intent on rebuilding their business (and their house) in Chantilly. Major Johnny became Dick the trainer again, but unfortunately not for long: he died of a heart attack on 23 February 1946, shortly after saying what should have been a temporary “goodbye and have a wonderful time” to his middle daughter who was going to a ball.

 

Let’s leave Col Dismore, his boss at RF, to have the last word on Johnny, from a letter of condolences to his widow. The quote below gives a glimpse into the way the RF officers worked together and how close they were, as well as into Johnny’s contribution to the work of RF section:

“I suppose it will never be known to the many the great work which Johnny did during the war for the liberation of France, but I know perhaps better than anybody what a tower of strength he was to us all, and what an inspiration we all found in his cheerful, irrepressible personality.
I took over the command of the section in which he worked as chief operations officer from Colonel Hutchison in August 1943. I quickly realised that he and S/Ldr Yeo-Thomas had such a profound knowledge of the work that without their ungrudging aid my task would have been impossible.
That aid was from the very start most loyally given and I found in Johnny not only a most shrewd and capable colleague, but a sincere and true friend.
I know your grief must be great. Believe me it is shared by all Johnny’s comrades - in fact it is so hard to realise that we shan’t crack jokes with him anymore. But he has left his mark upon events and perhaps one day the worth of his achievements will be more widely known.
[…] May I join with you in mourning Johnny as a true comrade, a fine soldier and a thoroughly good friend.”

 

Johnny was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance Française on 15 October 1945, at the same time as Piquet-Wicks. He never knew; a letter sent by the Association de la Croix de Lorraine dated 22 November 1946 found its way to his widow but she never heard anything further.

It was very exciting for us to request and obtain in August 2014 the diploma of his award (below) and the text of the citation.

 

The accompanying recommendation reads:

« Le major Johnson était chargé à Londres de préparer le départ vers la France des agents qui étaient envoyés, en mission par les Services Français d’Action. Son activité inlassable et sa connaissance parfaite de l’esprit français lui ont conquis l’amitié de tous ceux qui l’ont approché.
Son action a grandement facilité la réussite d’un nombre considérable d’opérations aériennes, dont la réalisation était extrêmement délicate. »

Le Major Johnny, a Frenchman by adoption, a patriot with equal allegiances to France and Britain, gave his all to his Free French comrades during four of his last five years on earth. From a Military Cross awarded for bravery aged 20 to leaving his mark on so many operations mounted to achieve the liberation of France, Johnny demonstrated during his too short life how he put honour and duty first and thus earned the eternal respect and admiration of his colleagues and friends, both at Dorset Square and in the field. And ours.

 

Note: This is an edited extract of the forthcoming RF is for Real Friends, research enlivened with testimonies and unpublished documents. If you quote from this page please acknowledge and link to this source. Thank you. Any additional information gratefully received.

© CH, 2021. With thanks to Major Johnny’s grand-daughter, CMC, for information and photos.