A telegram confirming the 1944 death of Guy Gibson, described as being from Sir Arthur Harris, has now been withdrawn from auction after doubts about its authenticity. It was due to be sold by Fieldings Auctioneers in Stourbridge on Saturday 16 May, with an estimated price of £600.
The sale was trumpeted in articles in the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror and other newspapers, with typical over-excitement. None of these publications thought to contact any historian or serious collector who might be able to throw some light on the telegram. “Dambusters hero’s death kept secret for MONTHS to protect morale during WW2,” said the Express. The Mirror also went along with the morale idea, saying: “RAF hushed up death of Dambusters hero Guy Gibson to preserve morale, wartime telegram reveals”.
The telegram, we were told in both papers, had been found by a dealer inside a book during a house clearance sale, apparently being used as a bookmark.
Having seen the newspapers, I contacted the auctioneers. I pointed out some of the reasons I had to doubt the telegram’s authenticity, and they decided to seek the opinion of professional curators. I am glad to say that they agreed with me, and the item was then removed from the sale.
I am now quite convinced that the telegram is a fake. I have commented in this blog before how Fleet Street editorial standards have slipped over the years. In this case, the newspapers seem to have stoked up the hype and not questioned the item’s provenance. Anyone with any knowledge of the RAF’s wartime communication systems would surely have smelt a rat. And there are several other features, visible even in the small photograph on the auctioneers’ website, which were very suspicious indeed.
Use of a telegram
In November 1944, Sir Arthur Harris held the rank of Air Chief Marshal and the job title of Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command. The job was normally abbreviated to AOC-in-C HQBC in official communications. Messages, instructions and orders between him and other sections of the RAF were normally communicated via official message forms or by telex. On both of these, his official job title or its recognised abbreviation would be used. The use of a normal Post Office telegram for any important service purpose seems most unlikely, as would the signature being abbreviated to “Harris Air Marsh”. And finally, if by any chance a normal telegram form was used, the sender’s address would be shown as “HQ Bomber Command”, not “Air Ministry”.
Many examples of wartime telegrams survive, and some general observations can be made when they are compared with the “Gibson” telegram. Here is a genuine wartime telegram, found on the 206 Squadron website:
Let us start with the form itself. Even though it is possible to get genuine blank wartime forms, the “Gibson” telegram would appear to be composed on a fake form. There are several different designs of wartime Post Office telegram forms, but they all have one thing in common – the font used is Gill Sans, as seen above. The form had been redesigned in Gill Sans by the famous typographer Stanley Morison in 1935. The “Gibson” telegram uses a different font, another sans serif, but not Gill Sans.
Furthermore, in “real” telegrams, the message itself was cut from the output of a telegraph machine and then pasted onto the form. The message would have been printed with a fabric ribbon, which led to a rather grey colour. The individual words themselves are usually spaced well apart, the gap between each word being almost two characters wide. And the individual characters which make up each word are themselves spaced quite widely.
In the “Gibson” telegram, the lettering looks as though it was produced by modern computerised typesetting. The letters and the words are more closely spaced than their wartime equivalent.
Harris had been promoted from Air Marshal to (Temporary) Air Chief Marshal [(T) ACM] on 16 August 1944. He would have signed any communication after this date as either (T) ACM or ACM.
Below the official print is a handwritten note: “Read out to the Mess but did not inform men. J B Tait GC”. However, in November 1944, the Officer Commanding 617 Squadron, J B (“Willie”) Tait was still a Wing Commander. He was not promoted to Group Captain until after he left 617 Squadron at the end of 1944. Any note written by him at this time would therefore would have been signed as “J B Tait WC”.
Address and rubber stamps
It seems most unlikely that a telegram would be sent to the Officers Mess of any squadron. In any case, in November 1944 the arrangements for officers stationed at Woodhall Spa was quite complicated and there was no single Officers Mess as such. 617 Squadron’s officers were billeted at the Petwood Hotel in the town of Woodhall Spa, as were some other officers serving on the station, such as some intelligence officers and the station commander, Gp Capt “Monty” Philpott. The actual RAF station was a few miles away in Tattersall Thorpe, and other officers on the station, such as those in 627 Squadron, were housed there in a series of temporary concrete or brick huts.
The correct mode of address for a communication to the squadron would be to its officer commanding. Any rubber stamp used would say “617 Squadron/RAF Station Woodhall Spa/Received/date”, without mention of the Officers Mess.
The wording of the text does not sound as though it was composed by a wartime writer, used to writing succinct messages where excess words and pronouns are removed. A genuine text would be more likely to read “Prime Minister and NOK informed”, not “I have informed the Prime Minister and NOK”.
The estimated price of £600 for this item was very conservative, given the huge sums reached recently for genuine Dambuster memorabilia. According to the auctioneers there had already been “substantial interest” in it. My guess is that it would have reached at least £5000, and possibly nearer £10,000.
The amount of profit available means that there may well be other attempts to deceive the market with further fake material. One collector recently went public after a bad experience with a well-known unscrupulous trader. My advice to anyone who sees anything offered for sale is to get good advice from a reputable independent source.
Thanks to the various researchers who have helped with this article.