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.

One thought on “Gibson’s final flight: James Cutler replies

  1. richard hickmott November 6, 2011 / 11:58 pm

    As I’ve done enormous amounts of research on Wallis, 617 and the war in general, certainly friendly fire seems the most likely – obvious – conclusion to the sad demise of Gibson.

    When one considers that it was dark, flying at low-level to avoid enemy fighters, any aircraft seen would be nothing more than a sillouette. Now that a pilot has little more than a few seconds to decide whether a plane is friendly or hostile – a decision needs to be made within a click of a finger. So, yes I agree – friendly fire seems most likely.

    That said, it is, and only will be, a theory unless categorically proved. Perhaps it’ll one of those (many) wartime “did he, didn’t he” “was he, wasn’t he” type scenarios. That’s probably intrinsic to our continued fascination in the war. Certainly, that’s my excuse.
    Best wishes, Richard.

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