Dambuster of the Day No. 1: Guy Gibson


Wing Cdr G P Gibson DSO & Bar DFC & Bar
Lancaster serial number: ED932/G
Call sign: AJ-G
First wave: First aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Mine exploded short of the dam.

Guy Gibson was born on 12 August 1918 in Simla, India, where his father worked for the Imperial Indian Forest Service. He didn’t set foot in England until he was brought on a holiday to his grandparents’ house in Cornwall at the age of four. At six, his mother and her three children made a permanent move back and he was sent off to boarding school, first to schools in Cornwall and Kent and then, aged 14, to St Edward’s School in Oxford.
Gibson’s time at St Edward’s was not particularly distinguished, but it was there that he first became interested in flying. He wrote to Captain ‘Mutt’ Summers at Vickers (who later flew the Wellington which dropped the first test ‘bouncing bomb’) for advice on how to become a pilot. Summers told him that he should join the RAF. Gibson’s first application was refused but he tried again and was accepted onto the No 6 Flying Training Course at Yatesbury in Wiltshire in November 1936. This was a civilian course, run under the RAF expansion scheme. Pilots who qualified from it were then recruited directly into the RAF and given a short service commission. Gibson became an acting Pilot Officer in early 1937, and then went off on further training until he was sent to his first posting, 83 (Bomber) Squadron at Turnhouse in Scotland, in September 1937.
In March 1938, 83 Squadron was transferred a couple of hundred miles south, to the newly built RAF station at Scampton, Lincolnshire. On the day the war started, 3 September 1939, Gibson piloted one of the first nine RAF aircraft to see action, in a raid on German shipping. Apart from one short break, he was to stay at Scampton, flying Hampdens, until he completed his first tour of operations in September 1940.
Although he was supposed to go on a rest period, instructing at a training unit, this only lasted a few weeks as he was drafted over to night fighters due to a chronic shortage of experienced pilots. He joined 29 Squadron and flew some 90 operations in Beaufighters, leaving in March 1942. Without much more than a few days break, he was then given his first post as a squadron commanding officer, 106 Squadron based at RAF Coningsby. After a few months, the squadron received its first Lancaster bombers – an aircraft widely regarded as a cut above anything else that had been used before. By early March 1943, he had completed another full tour.
He was expecting a rest from operations, but instead he was summoned to a meeting with the Commanding Officer of 5 Group, Sir Ralph Cochrane. ‘How would you like the idea of doing one more trip?’ Cochrane asked, and Gibson, who hated the idea of being away from the action, readily agreed.
Thus was 617 Squadron born, and the legend began to grow. Based at Scampton again, Gibson, with the support of two excellent flight commanders, Melvin Young and Henry Maudslay, took only two months to mould almost 150 aircrew into a force which would successfully deliver an innovative weapon against a series of targets using astonishing airmanship. On the evening of 16 May 1943, nineteen aircraft carrying the ‘bouncing bomb’ designed by Barnes Wallis took off to attack the great dams of the Ruhr valley. He was the first to attack the Möhne Dam, but his mine exploded short of its wall. When the next pilot, John Hopgood, also failed Gibson took it on himself to fly alongside each aircraft to divert the enemy flak as Mick Martin, Melvin Young and David Maltby each made their bombing runs. For this, and his leadership of the raid as a whole, he was awarded the VC.
After the raid, Gibson was taken off operations and was employed almost as a full time publicist for Bomber Command and the RAF. He made public appearances all over the country, and was then sent on a speaking tour of Canada and the USA where he met politicians and film stars, but also found time to see ordinary people like the mother of Harlo Taerum, his navigator on the raid. He signed her scrapbook a few days before Harlo was killed, in a costly raid on the Dortmund Ems canal.
By January 1944 he was employed in a desk job in Whitehall, but his real task was to write a draft of his book, Enemy Coast Ahead. Much of the text about 617 Squadron was pulled together from material ghostwritten for him, but the earlier sections are probably Gibson’s own work. He also found time both to be interviewed for the Desert Island Discs radio programme and to be selected as a Conservative candidate for the next General Election.
He changed his mind about going into politics within a few months, but he was still frustrated about being kept off operations. By the late summer he had persuaded the authorities to let him fly on active service again, and he was assigned to an operation on 19 September 1944, to Mönchengladbach and Rheydt. Gibson was to be the controller in a Mosquito, in charge of other Mosquitoes who were marking the target for the main bomber force.
What happened that night is the subject of much speculation. His aircraft crashed near Steenbergen in Holland, killing both Gibson and his navigator James Warwick. It may have been the Mosquito just ran out of fuel because Gibson didn’t know how to switch fuel tanks, or he could have been shot down by flak or even, in a ‘friendly fire’ episode, by one of his own main force bombers.
Gibson was admired by many of his peers and associates, but not by all of them. ‘Those who liked or loved him did so intensely’ writes his biographer, Richard Morris. ‘More looked upon him with a wary respect. Many thought him unpleasantly rebarbative. A few found him unsufferable.’ But he was a wartime warrior with a formidable record: few matched his two tours of bomber operations in Hampdens and Lancasters and 90 patrols in a Beaufighter. To quote Morris again: ‘He achieved greatness because his combat experience was backed by a practical application of rules of leadership which he had learned: the need to unify his squadrons behind clear aims, to communicate his aims with confidence and to balance discipline with the enlistment of hearts.’

More about Gibson online:
Medals at RAF Museum
Commonwealth War Graves Commission listing

Decoration awarded for Operation Chastise: VC
KIA 20 September 1944
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.

Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
The information above has been taken from the books listed and a number of online sources. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further material in the comments section below.


2 thoughts on “Dambuster of the Day No. 1: Guy Gibson

  1. Lucas August 18, 2015 / 7:57 pm

    Does anybody knows anything about first Guy Gibson’s crew? In “Enemy coast ahead” Gibson told pretty much about his fellow pilots form “A” Flight in 83 sqn, but not a word about men with whom he first time flew operational sortie on 3rd september 1939.

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