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.
Regarding Gibson’s death: This is an article printed by The Daily Telegraph in October 2011, stating that he was brought down by friendly fire:
Wing Commander Gibson, who led the famous 617 Squadron in a daring raid over Germany, died in mysterious circumstances after his plane came down in the Netherlands in September 1944. Various explanations have been put forward for his death, including pilot error, sabotage and running out of fuel. Now, nearly 70 years later, a British airman has confessed that he was the one who shot down Wing Commander Gibson’s plane, after mistaking it for a German aircraft. Bernard McCormack, a gunner in a Lancaster bomber, mistook the twin-engined Mosquito for a Junkers 88 plane during a night-time sortie over Germany in 1944. He instinctively opened fire and sent it crashing to the ground, killing Gibson and his navigator instantly. The realisation that the plane was an Allied aircraft piloted by the hero only dawned on Sgt McCormack the following day when he and his crew were debriefed. Racked with guilt, Sgt McCormack told nobody about what happened that night – but left a taped confession of the incident, which he gave to his wife before he died in 1992. The tape has been uncovered by World War Two researcher James Cutler, who says he is “100 per cent satisfied that Guy Gibson was killed by friendly fire.” Mr Cutler has also unearthed two previously-classified reports in the National Archives that contradict official RAF records stating that no planes were encountered on the night Wing Commander Gibson was killed. One of them is the combat report from the crew of Sgt McCormack’s Lancaster, which describes the attack on what they thought was the Junkers 88. The second report is from the crew of another Lancaster, who noted ‘plane shot down – as aircraft burst on ground a red light resembling Target Indicator seen.’ The location given was over Steenbergen. Gibson’s plane had been carrying red Target Indicator flares which he was unable to drop over Germany due to a fault. Mr Cutler said: “It could only have been Guy Gibson’s plane because the co-ordinates in both these new documents were right over the spot where his plane came down. “I am satisfied 100 per cent that Guy Gibson was killed by friendly fire and 99.9 per cent sure that he was shot down by Bernard McCormack’s plane.
“For Guy Gibson to be killed by friendly fire was a huge blunder.” Wing Commander Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1943 for successfully leading 617 Squadron on the daring raids on a series of damns in the industrial Rhur valley in Germany. On the night of September 19, 1944, Gibson led 227 Lancaster bombers and 10 Mosquitos on an attack of Rheydt and Muchengladbach in Germany They faced little opposition from enemy planes and were returning over the Netherlands when Gibson’s plane came down. In his confession tape, Sgt McCormack can be heard saying: “We were on the way back over Holland and then all of a sudden this kite comes right behind us twin engines and a single rudder – and it comes bouncing in towards us so we opened fire and we blew him up. “When we got back we claimed a Ju 88 show down. The following day we were called in to the office and we were quizzed again. “(RAF Intelligence Office) ‘What made you think it was a Ju 88?’ We said ‘it had twin engines and a single rudder.’ He said: ‘So has a Mosquito.’ “Well supposing – he put it very nicely – he said, ‘supposing a Mosquito – his radio and his radar was knocked out an he was lost and he spotted a Lancaster – he would only want to follow it home wouldn’t he? And it turned out it was ‘Gibbo’ we shot down.”
Sgt McCormack, who went on to become the mayor of Holyhead in north Wales, died in 1992.
Thanks very much for making this available, a fitting memorial after all these years. The story above by Bill is also fascinating, I look forward to Charles’ thoughts on the matter. Thanks again, Tim
Thanks for the heads up about the free download Charles. It looks good with the new information added by Robert Owen. James Holland’s Foreword could have done with some proof reading though – Gibson ‘took over his first squadron, 106, as the newly promoted wing commander in April 1943 – of course should be 1942.
Thanks for the tip. I’ve never read it!
There has been this mystery surrounding who wrote ECA. Let me offer this. I spoke with Joe McCarthy in 1984 and in the course of our discussion he mentioned that Martin, Shannon, and he finished the manuscript. Supposedly, it was in bad shape when they tackled it- a lot of notes. They “ghosted” it so that it could be published and Gibson’s widow could get the royalties. Evidently, the RAF didn’t pay very much insurance to next of kin and the book sales would help her out. Maybe McCarthy’s son can verify my story.
I don’t think there is any real mystery about who wrote ECA, or at least the bulk of it. It was Gibson himself. I have myself examined the typescript in the RAF Museum. This is what you might call a revised draft, in that it evidently a clean retyping of an earlier typescript (which unfortunately doesn’t exist). There are various hand-written and typed corrections to this, some on the typescript itself and some on slips pinned to various pages. Most of the handwriting (but not all) is clearly identifiable as Gibson’s. The others are probably the work of the official censor and an editor at Michael Joseph, the publisher.
I haven’t done a page-by-page comparison (this would be a mammoth task!) but it was pretty clear to me that the typescript, with its corrections, is substantially the same as the final printed edition. There will inevitably be some discrepancies (probably changes which were made at proof stage) but I didn’t see any evidence that there was wholesale work done to the typescript between it being finished in August 1944 and publication in January 1946.
It is possible, however, that McCarthy, Martin and Shannon might have been asked for some help by Gibson (or some other person) at an earlier stage, before Gibson’s death.