Guy Gibson with four of his Dams Raid crew. Left to right: Gibson; Fred Spafford, bomb aimer; Bob Hutchison, wireless operator; George Deering, front gunner; Harlo Taerum, navigator. The Dams Raid was the only occasion on which all seven men who made up his Dams Raid crew ever flew together operationally. Pic: IWM TR1127.
Today is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Guy Gibson.
The following text is taken from my recently published book, The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.
Wg Cdr G.P. Gibson VC, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar
Guy Penrose Gibson was born on 12 August 1918 in Simla, India, where his father Alexander James (A.J.) Gibson worked for the Imperial Indian Forest Service. He didn’t set foot in England until he was 4 years old, when he was brought on a holiday to his grandparents’ house in Cornwall. At 6, his mother, Nora, and her three children made a permanent move back and he was sent off to boarding school: first to preparatory 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. Before he left, he wrote to Captain ‘Mutt’ Summers at Vickers-Armstrongs (who would later fly the Wellington which dropped the first test ‘bouncing bomb’ and then collect him at Weybridge station for his first meeting with Barnes Wallis) 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 refurbished 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 in December 1940 and flew some ninety operations in Beaufighters, the last in December 1941, and was credited with several night fighter kills.
Having then been sent on instructional duties, he lobbied hard to get back to Bomber Command, where Sir Arthur Harris had just taken over as AOC. Harris knew Gibson and sent him to 5 Group, recommending that he be sent to command one of its new Lancaster squadrons. In the event, he was sent to 106 Squadron based at RAF Coningsby, who were still flying Manchesters but whose Lancasters were expected shortly.
Promoted to Wing Commander, Gibson flew his first operation in a Manchester on 22 April 1942, a ‘gardening’ trip. By July, he was flying a Lancaster, an aircraft widely regarded as a cut above anything else that had been used before. 106 Squadron moved on to Syerston on 1 October 1942, and Gibson completed his second tour in Bomber Command with an attack on Stuttgart on 11 March 1943.
He was expecting a rest from operations, but instead he was called to a meeting with the Commanding Officer of 5 Group, Air Vice Marshal 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 Dams Raid, he was the first to attack the Möhne Dam, but his mine exploded short of its wall. When the next pilot, John Hopgood, was shot down in the process of dropping his mine, 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 what was in effect 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 Taerum 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, although 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 627 Squadron 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 Sqn Ldr James Warwick. There are thought to be three possible causes. The first (and most likely) is that the Mosquito just ran out of fuel because neither Gibson nor Warwick were very familiar with the aircraft and didn’t know how to switch to the reserve fuel tank. The second scenario is that they were shot down, either by ground-based anti-aircraft fire or a German night fighter. A third possible account, that they were shot down in a ‘friendly fire’ episode by a main force bomber, has been put forward by some but there is some doubt about the veracity of the ‘confession’ of the rear gunner involved.
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 insufferable.’ But he was a wartime warrior with a formidable record: few matched his two tours of bomber operations in Hampdens and Lancasters and ninety 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.’
Gibson is buried in the Catholic Cemetery, Steenbergen.