First edition of Enemy Coast Ahead, published 1946. Pic: Stella Books
At 19.51 on 19 September 1944, the most decorated pilot then serving in the RAF’s Bomber Command, Wg Cdr Guy Gibson VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, took off from Woodhall Spa in Mosquito KB267 of 627 Squadron. His mission was to be the controller, in charge of other Mosquitoes marking the target for the main bomber force, who were attacking Mönchengladbach and Rheydt.
What happened that night is the subject of much speculation. The aircraft crashed near Steenbergen in Holland at about 22.30, killing both Gibson and his navigator Sqn Ldr James Warwick. The most likely cause is that the Mosquito ran out of fuel because neither Gibson nor Warwick were very familiar with it, and didn’t know how to switch to the reserve fuel tank. It is also possible that they were shot down, either by ground-based anti-aircraft fire or a German night fighter. The aircraft disintegrated and caught fire on impact, leaving just body parts and a few clues as to the identity of the two men on board. They were buried together in a joint grave the following day in Steenbergen’s Catholic cemetery in a brief ceremony conducted jointly by a Catholic priest and a Lutheran pastor.
Earlier in the year, Gibson had been employed in an RAF desk job in Whitehall, but his real task was to write a draft of a book about his RAF service. It would be called Enemy Coast Ahead. It is difficult to be certain how much of the text about 617 Squadron was pulled together by Gibson from material ghostwritten for him, although the earlier sections are probably Gibson’s own work. He had finished the final draft shortly before he went back on operational flying, but it wasn’t actually published until 1946. The book was an immediate success, and was reprinted several times in the next few years.
Enemy Coast Ahead has been in print ever since. However, despite going through the hands of several editors before hitting the shops, the original book has many flaws. Names are misspelt, events are wrongly dated, wartime censorship means many details are omitted. Sadly, this has not prevented many people citing it as an accurate account of events and this in its turn has helped to perpetuate many of the incorrect myths which surround the Dams Raid.
So it is with great pleasure that I now bring the important news that a new edition of Enemy Coast Ahead is to be published shortly by Greenhill Books in association with the RAF Museum (where the final manuscript is lodged). It contains a new foreword by James Holland, which gives an overview of Gibson’s brief life. But, most importantly, at the end of the book there is an extended section, nearly 50 pages long, which contains more than 200 notes on the text. These have been compiled by Dr Robert Owen, the 617 Squadron Association official historian, and can only be described as a tour de force. His knowledge and scholarship are evident throughout as he corrects and explains Gibson’s errors and omissions. With the addition of these extras, Gibson’s text can at last be relied on as an important contemporary account.
As a salute to Gibson on the 75th anniversary of his death, which is tomorrow, the publishers have decided to offer the Kindle/ebook version as a free download on the Amazon.co.uk site for 24 hours only from midnight tonight. You can access the download from this link. For north American readers, there will be a similar download available on the Amazon.com site from midnight US EDT.
The paperback edition of the book will be published next month, and is available for pre-order on the Greenhill Books/Pen and Sword website here.