Gibson’s final flight: James Cutler replies

James Cutler has sent me a long response to the earlier posts about the final flight of Guy Gibson on 19 September 1944. He rebuts some of the other explanations for Gibson’s crash, and explains why he believes that the archive documents show how Gibson was shot down by so called friendly fire.

Three RAF crews independently reported a shooting down (one is a combat report by QR-V of 61 Sqn, the other two are reports of aircraft seen shot down, of which one by 106/H is 4.5 miles from the combat report’s location and the other by 97/J  is Steenbergen town centre) at locations  within 16 miles or 3.8 minutes flying time of each other and at times within 6 minutes of each other.

If people have seen these in the past and thought that they refer to more than one plane shot down they are mistaken. The recently discovered full Luftwaffe records for the night show in the words of Theo Boiten that “the 3 JD report clearly states ‘no own losses’; there is no Namentliche Verlustmeldung (Loss Card) of any German NJG loss for this night; and there is not a single piece of evidence  that a German night fighter was lost in the SW part of The Netherlands. All crash locations on land in The Netherlands have been carefully documented  over the last decades, and I have found nothing about an unidentified crash  or even a German night fighter crash in the Provinces of Brabant/Zeeland on 19/20 September 1944.”   Clearly if anyone can prove that another aircraft fell in the QR/V / 106/H area on that night  this would be the only evidence that could  cast real doubt on the friendly fire by QR-V explanation (though it would still leave 97/J’s report that Gibson was definitely shot down at Steenbergen and would not rule out friendly fire from another Lancaster whose crew did not report the fact). However there is absolutely no evidence of that and suggesting that some unidentified, unrecorded aircraft – maybe one of Hitler’s secret flying discs?- crashed without trace in the area on that night is really flying in the face of all the facts.

Simon Parry who has over the last 30 years studied hundreds of such reports of air combats and analysed very many crashes and shootings down and Theo  Boiten who is the world’s greatest authority on the Luftwaffe’s night fighter war, both agree that, in the absence of any other plane shot down in the area, the three RAF reports are typical multiple sightings of the same event despite the discrepancies in times and locations noted down in the heat of battle. Indeed there is an example of a typical  non controversial multiple sighting of a Lancaster being shot down on the same night from the same Z report . The map shown below, drawn by Simon Parry, shows all the crash sites of RAF planes on Sept 19th 1944 with the “Aircraft seen shot down ” reports’ times and locations plotted against them.

If you look at the crash site of  Lancaster PB299  of 467 Sqn you can see that reports X1, 2, 4, 5, 10, and 14 refer to this loss with times from 21.56 to 22.11. So there’s a time variance of 15 minutes and although there isn’t a scale given on Simon’s map as supplied, simple measurements show that sightings x 10 (106 H again) and x 4 are in fact almost as far away from the crash site as 61/V’s combat report and 106/H’s ‘seen shot down’ report are from Steenbergen where Guy Gibson crashed.

The three RAF crews’ reports, made independently of each other and submitted within hours of the event from almost contemporaneous notes are much better evidence than the recollections of the Dutch civilians on the ground who were not interviewed until some seven weeks later after the Allies took Steenbergen. The Dutch witnesses are contradictory and in some aspects implausible – one says he could see the pilot and navigator in the cockpit at 3000 ft – over half a mile away.

The ground at the time was “solid clay” . The crash site excavation of Gibson’s aircraft in 1985 found engine parts and other parts at a depth of 3 metres suggesting the plane fell straight down from a considerable height and certainly did not crash at low level.

In reply to Alan Wells: The details of the sighting of the supposed “Ju88” in the QR-V  combat report could well refer to the “JU88 ” crossing below the Lanc on a diagonal then getting shot at and possibly hit by the mid-upper gunner as it appeared “on the starboard beam down” and because of damage  “dropped back” behind the Lanc. Simon Parry says that “a German night fighter would not get right behind a bomber at the same height. He would drop below, then pull up the nose to rake the bomber from end to end hitting it in the wing tanks in plan form. He would not fire at the small ‘end on’ profile, which would also expose him to return fire. The pilot would also get away immediately he was fired upon, because he knew the crew was alerted to him.”

I accept that the report of the “Ju 88” firing is, on the face of it, problematical.  However, Simon Parry suggests  from his research in documents and at crash sites  and from talking to hundreds of aircrew that it could be a typical confusion . Alex Bateman has a good example of fog of war stuff from 617 Sqn which  has been posted on the Dambusters weblog. Given that the Luftwaffe pilots over-claimed about combats and downings at the target that night ( 7 Luftwaffe claims at the target Rheydt /Munchengladbach  – 4 Lancs lost) and given that fired ammunition would have to be accounted for, one would think that if a Ju 88 had actually fired at and been damaged by QR-V, a combat report would be there in the very complete Luftwaffe records that Theo Boiten has for that night.  As for Mosquitoes,  they were a prized claim above all others and were extremely over-claimed by Luftwaffe pilots accordingly.

The QR-V combat report also records that the supposed Ju 88 had its navigation lights on . Theo Boiten says:
“During my research of the Nachtjagd, I have never come across any reference in German records, nor in interviews/diaries etc of German Nachtjagd veterans that the above tactics (using lights as decoys to entrap RAF bombers) were in fact used – I agree that Bomber Comand crews often returned home with eye witness stories of German night fighters ‘burning (amber) lights’ but I have never found any piece of evidence that this was indeed a tactic used by the German night fighters,  neither in controlled GCI night fighting, nor in the freelance night fighting.”

However, I have seen a 106 Sqn ORB entry that describes RAF bombers putting their navigation lights on to cross the channel as there was no moon (as on 19th Sept 1944) – presumably to avoid collisions . There are reports of the same practice by RAF aircraft on D Day.  Gibson would have been about to cross the sea. Or he might have put his lights on to try to identify himself to a plane whose path he had just inadvertently crossed. Certainly I am not suggesting  that he put the lights on as a prank (as he describes doing to a fellow RAF night fighter crew in Enemy Coast Ahead.)

Sadly, friendly fire was commonplace. Gibson describes several occasions in Enemy Coast Ahead where he was shot at by FF.  Indeed one of the Lancaster crews from 44 Sqn on the Munchengladbach raid reports that, 20 minutes before Gibson was shot down, another Lancaster attacked them:  ” Lanc. — about 300yds above  — moved to starboard beam and opened fire from mid upper turret about 3 second burst. Own aircraft corkscrewed. Attacking Lanc. disappeared.”

Another point is to reply to the theory expressed by some people  who have suggested that Gibson didn’t use the outer wing fuel tanks at all, taking off on the main tanks and using them throughout. However these tanks would have held  enough fuel to fly to the target, hang around there for the time that he did and then return to Lincolnshire.

Finally I should say that I would never rely on anecdotal evidence such as the tape of Bernard McCormack alone – it simply alerted me to an intriguing possibility which resulted in me contacting Simon Parry and then Theo Boiten and other experts. One thing that I was always keen to know was whether any surviving members of 61 Squadron had ever heard such a story circulating at the time. Since the article that evidence does seem to have now come to light. I will keep you posted.

News Chronicle report on Dams raid

Dom Howard has kindly sent me another contemporary newspaper report of the Dams Raid, this time from the News Chronicle of 20 May 1943. It’s interesting to read the amount of detail the Air Ministry revealed on the days after the raid – there was a tremendous public appetite to find out how this one operation had dealt such a blow to the heart of the Nazi war machine.

You can see all the reports on Dom’s Photobucket pages here .


Steady on chaps, ladies present

Fun and games at the latest production from English Touring Opera, Handel’s Xerxes. This has been reimagined as a Second World War drama, apparently inspired by The Dam Busters. Some confusion about the aircraft they flew, however, with a Spitfire on stage, rather than a Lancaster. But no matter – Xerxes sings the famous aria “Ombra mai fu” to the Spitfire before sending it off to fight in his continental campaign. According to the Guardian, his brother and rival Arsamenes is based on Guy Gibson, Ariodates is Barnes Wallis and the Hellespont becomes the Ruhr Dams. The Independent’s critic swooned over the performance of Julia Riley (that’s her above) in the title role – “no praise can be too high” for her – and said that Covent Garden “would count itself lucky to host a Baroque show of this calibre”.

The show is touring in London, Buxton, Cambridge, Lincoln (how apt!), Harrogate, Aldeburgh, Exeter and Malvern from now until 25 November, so if you get a chance to see it, go along!

Gibson: the documents are “compelling”

Well known Dambuster researcher Alex Bateman has had some thoughts about the recent Gibson furore. Here is part of his long post on the RAF Commands forum:

Many fighter pilots and bomber gunners invented and exagerrated combat claims, some intentional, some confused in the heat of battle. It is possible that the gunners exagerrated the episode, and that it didnt happen as reported. I’ll give an example.

When researching my first book, I included the story of a 617 Squadron rear gunner, who in a history of the Squadron written 20 years or so ago, had apparently downed two Me110s which were following the Lancaster, then a third before the mid upper fired upon a fourth which was later confirmed as having crashed. However, a contemporary report, compiled the day of the action noted that they were ‘…attacked by enemy fighters. Two were claimed shot down by the mid-upper gunner…’, with no mention of the rear gunner at all. You could put this down to post war bravado, or the passage of time. However, the Squadron Commander, Leonard Cheshire kept personal journals, and in that he wrote (the same day) that the rear gunner shot down two JU88s and a possible Fw190. Now, putting the post war recollection aside, we have two reports compiled within 24 hours, one by the IO and the other perhaps after a personal interview with the CO, but the results changing from the MuG getting two, to the RG getting two and possibly three, with the actual aircraft changing from Ju88s, to a pair of Ju88s and a single engined Fw190, to later on, four Me110s. A clear indication of how details are changed or badly compiled.

Gibson that night was flying a Canadian built Mosquito BXX, KB267, which was unarmed. As such, no return fire could have been seen by the Lancaster if the aircraft they fired upon was Gibson, but do remember the above. It would also explain how Gibson could have been attacked and downed, as he had no way of defending himself, and could have been mortally wounded in the first action. To me, the combat report is puzzling, as it seems the Bomb Aimer saw the ‘enemy’ aircraft in front and below. For the Mid Upper to have seen him at the same time, he would have had to be quite far ahead, because the wings would have otherwise obscured his view, but apparently the rear gunner then opened up almost at the same time. It would indicate the enemy aircraft was almost standing still to have appeared in front and then very quickly, far enough back for the rear gunner to draw a bead and open fire himself. Perhaps the aircraft in question was severly damaged, and the pilot otherwise occupied?

Paul61 makes a good point when he says that no fighter encounters were reported by our aircraft. That night, 227 Lancasters and 10 Mosquitos were flying, with 4 Lancs lost and the one Mosquito. NO enemy aircraft were lost, and as far as I am aware, no Luftwaffe pilot made a combat claim. Although the gunners of EE176 reported an attack by a JU88, was there any physical damage to the aircraft to substantiate this?

The recorded conversation where McCormack tells the story, was apparently made by his wife without his knowledge, during a reunion, recording his recollections and capturing the story at the same time. Considering my previous knowledge of Mccormack, I was doubtful. For one thing, would you go to such great lengths to name yourself as the killer, albeit accidental, of one of the RAFs greatest heroes? The Squadron ORB says nothing, the crew logs could have been added to later on. But the intelligence report for the night notes an aircraft shot down, with the incident recorded with co-ordinates which are pretty much over the centre of Steenbergen, where Gibson crashed. So we have an aircraft at relatively low level, shot down and seen to crash, but not claimed by any German crew.

It is known that Gibson was the only aircraft carrying red TIs that night, and when the aircraft crashed, it was reported as bursting on the ground in red. The excavation of the Mosquito a few years ago unearthed a burnt TI, confirming that at least one was still abaord when he went in, and seemingly being the aircraft that crashed, as witnessed ‘shot down’ by another Lancaster crew.

We can now, as then, only suppose what may or may not have happened, but if only one twin engined aircraft was lost, with details converging, its highly possible that IOs speculated as to the identity of the aircraft in question. “Was it a JU88, or do you think it might have been a Mosquito?”, they might ask, in an effort to try and establish what aircraft was downed. If any gunners admitted they saw or might actually have downed a Mosquito it would quickly help to establish that Gibson was not coming back, regardless who who did the shooting.

We can never be certain, but for me the new material is rather compelling. Not the taped interview or bragging, but the period documents recently unearthed. As for the sabotage theories and the lack of fuel, these can immediately be dismissed for a number of reasons.

Having read Alex’s explanation, I must admit that I am coming round to his view. I still can hardly believe that Gibson, with all his experience as a night fighter pilot before he went onto bombers, would put himself in such a stupid position, within range of a Lancaster’s guns. But we all make mistakes. It could be that Gibson made a fatal one that night, and paid the price.

Pathe News coverage of Dam Busters premiere

The British Pathe archive site now has an eight minute film clip about the Dam Busters. The first section shows 1943  newsreel of the King and Queen’s visit to Scampton after the Dams Raid and the later investiture at Buckingham Palace. This has been around for a while and can be found on Youtube and other sites. Less well known is the second part of the film, a long sequence showing scenes from the premiere of The Dam Busters in 1955. Princess Margaret, “a radiant figure in the bright lights of Leicester Square”, is seen meeting a long queue of dignitaries amongst whom, most poignantly, are some mothers of aircrew who were killed on the Dams Raid. One of these is shown above. If anyone can identify her or any of the others, I would be glad to know.

I don’t seem to be able to embed the clip, but you can follow the link above.

It’s true, yes it is, it’s true*

When I noted, three posts ago, that a Second World War petrol bowser had recently been imported into New Zealand as a prop for the forthcoming Dambusters remake, I didn’t make the connection with the vehicle which had been sold at an auction in England earlier this year. But, as has been pointed out to me by both Graeme Stevenson and Colin Barron, they are one and the same. This bowser was at RAF Scampton in 1943, and therefore was most likely to have been used to carry fuel for the Dams Raid Lancasters. A great way to add background authenticity!

Which begs the question: how, between June and September, did it get so filthy that it required complete fumigation on its arrival in New Zealand?

* Headline courtesy J Lennon – I’ve been rereading Ian Macdonald’s magisterial Revolution in the Head

Who really killed the Dambuster?

The article featured on the cover of this month’s Britain at War magazine has stirred up a certain amount of controversy.

(Coverage here in the Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and on the BBC website.)

Provocatively entitled “Who Killed the Dambuster?” it claims to have unearthed definitive proof that on 19 September 1944 Guy Gibson’s Mosquito was shot down by “friendly fire” from a Lancaster of 61 Squadron, one of the aircraft in the strike force which he had just led on an attack on Rheydt and Mönchengladbach.
After the Dams Raid, Gibson had been removed from operational duties by senior RAF officers, worried about the propaganda consequences if he was shot down or taken prisoner. After 16 months away from the frontline, and with the invasion of Europe successfully negotiated, he managed to persuade the authorities to let him back on “Master Bomber” duties, supervising the marking of targets for other aircraft to attack. He was returning from the first of these operations, flying a unarmed Mosquito, when he crashed near Steenbergen in Holland. Both he and his navigator, Sqn Ldr James Warwick, were killed, their bodies so mangled that at first the remains found were assumed to be that of only one person.
A number of theories have been proposed as to the cause of the crash. Was the aircraft damaged by flak? Or shot down by a night fighter? Did the engines fail? Did a hung-up marker flare explode? Or was it an error, possibly caused by the pilot’s unfamiliarity with the controls of the Mosquito? In his 1995 biography, Richard Morris concluded that it was probably the latter, concluding that Gibson may not have known, or may have forgotten, about the necessity of switching fuel tanks, a duty usually undertaken by the navigator as the cock was positioned behind the pilot’s seat.
James Cutler, the author of the Britain at War article, claims that this last theory is wrong. He has come across a tape recording made in the 1980s by a 61 Squadron gunner, Bernard McCormack, who has since died. McCormack was the mid-upper gunner on Lancaster QR-V on the raid on Rheydt and his colleague, Sgt Maudersley, was in the rear turret. They had claimed that they had shot down a German JU88 at a debriefing after the raid, but the next day the intelligence officer had told them that it was in fact a Mosquito.
According to James Cutler, some of the material in the National Archives about the raid has been overlooked, but this may not be the case. Researcher Alan Wells has looked at the combat report compiled at McCormack’s and Maudersley’s debriefing, and also the one from another 61 Squadron aircraft QR-M, which opened fire on a JU88 some 20 minutes before. In a posting on the Stirling Forum, he concludes:

The combat report states that it was the A/B that saw the JU88 first, at a position given as “ahead and down”. It then moved to the “starboard down” position, where it was fired on by the M/U gunner, the R/G fired on it almost immediately after. On being fired on, the aircraft then moved to “dead astern” and attacked the Lanc, which went into a corkscrew, as it did this, the two A/G’s opened fire again, and the aircraft broke off the attack.
If this was Gibson, surely, after being fired on whilst in the starboard down position, why would he have been stupid enough to go dead astern and put himself in the firing line, instead of breaking away to safety, it does not make sense. 20 minutes earlier, another 61sqdn Lanc, was also attacked by a JU88, which started its attack from the starboard down position.

Alan Wells also points out that the gunners reported that the JU88 fired at them. Gibson’s Mosquito was not armed.

In the same forum, an actual Lancaster rear gunner veteran, Dennis Overs, suggested that if Gibson had really flown up behind a Lancaster it was tantamount to suicide:

It had been suggested that Gibson used to creep up on his crews in the stream to see if they were alert. My view at the time being that he would have been very aware that any such action on his part would have been potentially suicidal.
If the conditions on the night were quite dark, the gunner would have seen a faint outline of a twin engined a/c. creeping up on him. His reaction I believe was the correct one at that time. I certainly would have opened fire & called out corkscrew, seconds counted. The rear gunner had the advantage of his clear vision panel.
I suggest that the head on view of a Mosquito & JU 88 would have been difficult to confirm in the given time.
Even if conditions were clear, only a foolish mosquito pilot would have closed in on the rear of the a/c. in night fighter conditions.

Sgt McCormack’s tape recording, and the various documents, do make a plausible case for saying that Gibson was killed by “friendly fire,” something which is far too common in all sorts of wartime situations. However, all we can say at the moment is that the case is not yet proven.

George Baker, 1931-2011

Photo: BBC

The actor George Baker, who died on Friday, had a long and distinguished career on the stage, in TV and films, most recently as Inspector Wexford in the long running series based on Ruth Rendell’s detective stories. Dambuster aficionados will, however, recall that one of his first important film roles was that of Flt Lt David Maltby in Michael Anderson’s 1955 film.

The new Daily Telegraph film critic, Robbie Collin, has written a long and perceptive obituary for the paper, which you can read online. He cites the story I told on this blog a couple of years ago, about how George Baker wrote to me when I was researching my book about David Maltby, saying that one of the reasons he was chosen for the part was his strong resemblance to his real life character.

The real David Maltby, photographed in 1942

George Baker as David Maltby, in The Dam Busters (1955), standing at the back of the group.

In truth, the part of David Maltby in the film is quite small, and much of the time he appears his face is hidden by a flying helmet and oxygen mask. But he does get a few memorable lines, one in the ‘rag’ in the mess when the 617 squadron aircrew are teased once too often by their 57 squadron colleagues about their endless training and lack of operational flying.

This results in a giant ‘debagging’ fight with both crews trying to remove each others’ trousers. Guy Gibson, played by Richard Todd, hears the row from his office, and then has to pick his way through the scrum outside on his way to a meeting with station CO Charles Whitworth. He pauses to rescue David Maltby from the melee and receives heartfelt thanks: ‘Thank you sir. Saved my life. Never forget it.’

It was always a source of pride to my family when we were growing up that the part of our uncle in such a great film had been played by so distinguished an actor, and we used to follow George Baker’s career with proprietoral interest. He was a modest, self deprecatory man, who will be much missed.

Keep on trucking

Pic: Dominion Post

It may not look much, but the arrival of a filthy Second World War truck into a New Zealand port is the first bit of news about the Dambusters remake that we have had for months. Apparently it was covered with live spiders and other creepy crawlies, and had to be thoroughly cleansed and fumigated to comply with the country’s strict Biosecurity laws.

Quite why the Jackson outfit need a genuine truck, which will probably cost thousands to repair, rather than a life size replica is difficult to say. Perhaps it is to given a yet-to-be-disclosed leading role.

[Hat tip: Graeme Stevenson]