Guy Gibson’s Ghost and the Sunday Express

Sunday Express extracts from the Enemy Coast Ahead manuscript, published on 3 December, 10 December, 17 December, 24 December and 31 December 1944.

In the early spring of 1944 Wg Cdr Guy Gibson VC DSO & Bar DFC & Bar was working in an office at the Air Ministry in London, ostensibly in a job in the Directorate for the Prevention of Accidents. But his real work was to write a book about Bomber Command, told through his own experiences as a pilot who had been actively involved from the first day of the war up to the Dams Raid.

Gibson worked on the book, given the title Enemy Coast Ahead, for most of the next few months, finishing a draft some time in the summer of 1944. Some of the text was copied almost word for word from a couple of long articles published in December 1943 in the American magazine Atlantic Monthly and the Sunday Express. These were almost certainly written by ghost writers – the American text by a certain Flt Lt Roald Dahl, who was then based in the British Embassy in Washington DC, and the UK text by an unknown PR officer in the Air Ministry in London.

All the time he was writing, Gibson chafed at being confined to a ground job, and pushed his superiors to allow him back in the air. Eventually they relented and he flew his first operation for over a year on 19 July 1944, in a Lancaster from 630 Squadron, based at East Kirkby, on an operation attacking the V1 flying bomb site near Criel in France. Three more operations would follow in August and September, before he took off from Woodhall Spa on what would be his final trip on 19 September.

A few weeks previously, he had finished work on the final typescript of Enemy Coast Ahead going through the corrections and amendments proposed by various people in the Air Ministry and writing a series of handwritten notes which were pinned to the final version.

After his death, the manuscript was sent to the publishers, Michael Joseph, where it went through a further editorial process. But while this was going on, in December 1944, a series of six articles based on the draft appeared in the Sunday Express, all credited to Gibson. Even though many people now knew of his death, it had not been officially announced. Nowhere in the text is his status as ‘missing’ mentioned,  so the general public must have thought that there was nothing amiss.

Five of the six articles can be seen by anyone with a subscription to the UK Press Online site (also available in some libraries). They are shown above in thumbnail version. The final one – which appeared on Sunday 7 January 1944 – appears to be missing from the archive.

The following day, Monday 8 January, Gibson’s death was officially announced, and many tributes and obituaries would follow. But it is ironic that over the previous six weeks the Sunday Express articles had carried on being published, almost as though they were genuinely ghost-written.
[Source: Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin, 1995.]

9 thoughts on “Guy Gibson’s Ghost and the Sunday Express

  1. richard hickmott January 24, 2018 / 1:46 pm

    Interesting. I have Richard Morris’s book and – somewhere in the my archive – ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’.

    Thanks for that, Charles.

  2. Mike Farrier January 24, 2018 / 2:33 pm

    What a fascinating article regarding the authoring of Guy Gibson’s ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’, Charles.
    I’ve had a copy in my collection -as well as the recent ‘unclassified’ version- for many years. In fact, my mother bought me a paperback copy in 1977 whilst I was undergoing lengthy hospitalisation as a teenager after a road accident, and I have continued to read its yellowing pages periodically ever since.
    I always thought that Guy Gibson came across as a very friendly, likeable character in the book. He even talks of non-commissioned officers and ‘ordinary airman’ as ‘salt of the earth’, decent types -quite unlike how fellow airmen and some historians have since portrayed him (whether rightly or wrongly)!
    So a ghostwriter was used. Maybe that’s the reason he sounds so friendly and caring….or maybe we’re all just doing him a great injustice (in which case poor old Johnny Johnson’s views would need to be ignored -and that doesn’t sound right either?!).
    All I know is that it’s a damn fine, very readable book and gives a great insight into life in the forefront of fighting for one’s country in terrifying conditions. Good on yer Guy and Johnny!! I’m off upstairs to retrieve my copy….

    • richard hickmott January 24, 2018 / 7:22 pm

      TBH though, Mike, it doesn’t surprise me a ghost writer was used in completing ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’. Not only did Churchill have Gibson carted off to the US, but he dabbled in politics – if Richard Morris’s version is to be believed – and also had a desk job before pestering his betters to get back flying. That’s a lot to cram in in such a relative short space of time before succumbing to his sad demise in 1944. To write a whole book as well? Very unlikely without outside help.

      • Mike Farrier January 24, 2018 / 9:07 pm

        Yes you’re right of course Richard!
        I had always rather naively thought that he had written the whole book over a matter of time while on that rest trip of America etc (I think he does refer to that in Enemy Coast Ahead). I’d also always thought that perhaps he was one of those supermen who could make things happen and had the drive to do any task, no matter how superhuman it might seem to us mortals! (I think most of us have come across such people in our lives).
        No, you’re right Richard, he could never have done all that in such a short space of time. Thank God then for the ghost writer/s who made such a wonderfully thought-provoking story come to fruition. It has certainly inspired many of us. (And Paul Brickhill’s book did a similar job too, not to mention numerous others since).

  3. charlesfoster January 24, 2018 / 10:00 pm

    Richard and Mike —
    Thanks for your comments above. I fear that I may have given the impression in my post that most of Enemy Coast Ahead was ghostwritten for Gibson. This is not the case — I do think that he wrote the bulk of the text himself. However, he certainly incorporated the two ghostwritten articles I referred to, those published in Atlantic Monthly in December 1943 and in the Sunday Express on 5 December 1943. Even added together, these pieces only come to four or five thousand words and the book itself is more than 100,000 words long so a lot of the rest of the text is genuine Gibson.
    It is likely that he dictated much of the text. Some of the errors that survived the typing, proof reading and correcting stages are obvious transcription errors. Later, some of his phrasing was improved by anonymous editors at the Ministry of Information and Michael Joseph. But the bulk of it is pure, unvarnished Gibson, with all his faults on show. It displays, as Richard Morris notes in his biography (p228):
    “… a single idea of great force: the need to wrest political power from old men who periodically sacrificed the younger generation in order to retain it. The book itself is virtually a metaphor for that, for most of it is about the lives, deeds, endurances and sacrifices of men in their late teens and early twenties.”

    • Mike Farrier January 24, 2018 / 11:57 pm

      Many thanks for the clarification on that subject Charles. I’m so pleased to hear that, as I was beginning to think that my world was about to implode after all the years of reading and rereading a classic! I can see that I overlooked/forgot about your comment regarding the two ghostwritten articles and simply got carried away. Thank goodness that we do have the experts such as yourself and the likes of John Sweetman, James Holland et all to keep us on the straight and narrow!

  4. Vinney January 25, 2018 / 7:53 pm

    In 1984 while I was a student at the USAF Air Command and Staff College, I spoke with Joseph McCarthy as part of the project I was working on. In the course of our discussion that dealt with Gibson, he told me that Shannon, Martin, and he finished the book. The reason they did was Gibson was dead and its publication would give his widow some additional money since an RAF spouse’s death benefits were not very much. It surprised me when he mentioned it, since I didn’t bring it up. I didn’t know at the time the authorship was in question. Maybe someone could ask McCarty’s son, since he’s still alive.

  5. Mike Farrier January 26, 2018 / 5:28 pm

    Very interesting Vinney, and certainly puts a twist on things. And what an honour to have worked with the likes of Joe Mccarthy too. I bet he had a few tales to tell!

  6. Vinney January 30, 2018 / 5:02 pm

    The ACSC honored McCarthy I believe in 1987 at their Gathering of Eagles gala. I left in ’84. At these galas they used to do living history interviews that were video recorded. If you’re interested you might check with them to see if they have an interview with him. When I was there I had the opportunity to meet with some of the greatest aviators in history. Sadly, most are gone now. Let me know if you’re interested and I can come up with a source for any research. Also, for all you Dam Buster fans, don’t know if anyone every noticed it but Gibson’s aircraft identifier AJ-G is his father’s initials. – Alexander James Gibson. Is that why the 617 sqd letters were later changed. Cheers, Vinney

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