A week ago today, the hammer dropped on a bid of $2167 for a lot on sale at an internet auction held in New York by the prestigious auction house of Bonhams. The item sold was a single sheet of paper, an RAF Pilot’s Combat Report which documented a night fighter operation carried out on 14 March 1941 by a crew from 29 Squadron – the successful shooting down of a German Heinkel 111 bomber.
What separated out this Combat Report from the many thousands filed by pilots throughout the Second World War was that it was completed and signed by a certain Flt Lt Guy Gibson DFC. Just over two years later, he would go on to fame and glory as the first commanding officer of 617 Squadron but, at the time he wrote the report, he was on a tour of duty flying Beaufighter night fighters against incoming German bombers.
Gibson’s report was filed at his base at RAF Wellingore. An intelligence officer read it and added a bit more information of his own, before having it typed up and filed as his own report. The two items eventually passed into the filing system of the Air Ministry, one in a bundle of reports compiled by pilots, the other in a similar bundle of reports from intelligence officers. In due course they were then passed to the Public Record Office (now the National Archives).
Pilot’s combat report dated 14 March 1941, completed and signed by Flt Lt G P Gibson. [pic: Bonhams]
The Gibson report has not been seen for many years, but emerged in the last month for sale at Bonhams auction house in New York. The Air Ministry file number can be seen in the top right corner, seen below in close up:
For confirmation, I sent the image above to a former military specialist in the National Archives. He agreed that this appeared to be a genuine document, and that it was likely to have been amongst the items stolen from the PRO in the late 1980s. The perpetrator in this case was Timothy Graves, a collector specialising in First World War material, but who was also found to have stolen Second World War items, including reports filed by Douglas Bader, Paddy Finucane and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
The Times, 23 February 1991
Also included in the Bonhams sale on 7 August were two further sets of Pilot Combat reports. One set of nine documents sold for $2295 and a second group of sixteen went for $3187. It is not known whether they were put up for sale by the same vendor.
It is clear that Graves stole a staggering amount of material. In 2013 Frank Olynk, a contributor to the Aerodrome Forum, described how seven white plastic tubs of documents had been found in his possession, and that a large stack more had been recovered from the USA.
But the experts always suspected that there were many unrecovered documents, probably sold quietly to private individuals. This could be up to ten per cent of the stolen material. As the retired military specialist says, ‘even after 30 years, the legacy of the Graves thefts still causes a ripple in the aviation history world.’
Bonhams were approached for a statement, and commented: ‘As soon as this matter was brought to our attention, we contacted the Public Record Office which is now investigating.’
[Thanks to Carol Davies Foster for help with this article]