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Story of a humble hero

Modesty is without doubt one of Cyril Johnson's defining and enduring qualities. Yet for a man who says he's lived “just an ordinary life,” his story has been one of extraordinary adventure, bravery and achievements across many of the world's most forbidding frontiers.
Cyril Johnson, with his granddaughter, Kate, flick through his novel Wings of the Dawn.
Cyril Johnson, with his granddaughter, Kate, flick through his novel Wings of the Dawn.

He is, by any definition, a hero of the Royal Air Force. His World War ll service record includes ferrying military aircraft over thousands of kilometres of unmapped territory in North Africa and Egypt; surviving a crash landing in which he sustained a broken back in an area now known as Pakistan, then persisting in flying in Africa until he was declared medically unfit. Rather than be invalided out, he volunteered to work his way back to England by sea.

Mr Johnson escorted 500 German prisoners of war from the Suez Canal to San Francisco, and then defied furious Atlantic storms and deadly U-boats.

He went on to pilot Lancaster bombers in night raids over Germany. When doctors could no longer overlook his injuries, he trained as an Intelligence Officer, and in 1945 he helped to recover allied POWs in Burma after the Japanese surrender.

After the war, Mr Johnson's expertise as a civil engineer brought him to Australia, eventually settling here in 1959 with his wife, Elizabeth, and three children.

Over the years, Mr Johnson has rarely spoken about his amazing experiences or elevated his service record above any other individual. But he did keep a journal recording in detail his personal experiences and many events that shaped the world in the middle of last century.

After many years, he finally agreed to allow his granddaughter, Kate Johnson, to harness those memoirs to write a book of compelling excitement and profound life lessons, yet reflecting the optimism, humour and humility of its central character.

The book, Wings of the Dawn, was launched at the Naval, Military and Air Force Club of South Australia in February, and it is now on sale at selected bookstores and online.

Mr Johnson is now 94, and living independently with regular support from Life Care at Home.

“Embarrassed,” the great grandfather declared when asked about the launch of the book. But his pride in Kate’s dedication and achievement with the book shines through his modesty.

Kate, a medical student, spent several years researching and compiling her grandfather’s journal entries, diaries, logbooks, service records, letters and photographs while regularly interviewing him to allow his heroic story to emerge.

“Having nearly died from several childhood illnesses, in 1939 my grandfather’s application to the Royal Air Force was rejected on the grounds that he was ‘permanently unfit for all flying categories’,” Kate explained.

“But through an unstoppable determination to become a pilot, he found a way through the red tape that was hindering his dreams and went on to graduate as one of the top students in his initial pilot training.

“After crashing and breaking his back, grandfather went on to train as a Lancaster pilot braving the night skies over Germany for Bomber Command, in which there was a 44 percent death rate.”

Kate’s objective was initially to make a record for her seven cousins and the next generation. But with such rich subject matter to work, she quickly realised the importance of writing his story in a way to help others understand life between 1920 and 1950.

She also wanted to make the story accessible, inspiring and enjoyable to all young adults – those with or without military or aviation backgrounds.

“In doing so, I hope it will encourage other young people to become increasingly interested in the lives of their parents and grandparents who may have all experienced their own amazing journeys,” she said.

“Even if you don’t have time to write a book, try to record the stories for a few hours each week or month. These days, most people have access to a voice recorder, and it makes it so much easier if in later years if you wish to type up the stories.”

About her own literary journey, Kate explained: “The more we progressed with the story line, the more I was astonished. I couldn’t wait to come back and listen to his captivating memories over more cups of tea.

“Although I must admit, as with most treasures, the jewels were often hidden, and he would happily let us pass them by. I soon cottoned onto his humble style and learnt to keep revisiting old stories, having to really dig for the gold.”

For more information on Wings of the Dawn, or to buy a copy of the book visit: www.wingsofthedawn.com.au

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