Gibson in command: rare magazine pictures show his 106 Squadron days

Plt Off James ‘Jimmy’ Cooper at the controls of Lancaster W4118, the famous ‘Admiral Prune’ of 106 Squadron, shown on the front cover of Illustrated magazine, 12 December 1942. [Pic: Clive Smith]

Clive Smith has kindly sent me a three page article from the 12 December 1942 edition of Illustrated magazine which tells the story of a minelaying operation in the autumn of 1942. It was carried out by aircraft from 106 Squadron, then under the command of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson.

The article doesn’t mention Gibson in the text, but he is shown in a photograph on page 5, alongside Gp Capt ‘Gus’ Walker, the commanding officer of the RAF Syerston base. After the article was written, but four days before it appeared in print, Walker was badly injured in an accident on the airfield and lost his arm. (See this post from May 2019.)

Pics: Clive Smith

The magazine notes that the squadron used a number of jokey ‘Admiral’ names and corresponding nose art on its aircraft. This practice had started in 1940 in one of Gibson’s earlier postings, 83 Squadron, invented by a member of this squadron’s ground crew, Douglas Garton (Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995, p61). Gibson liked the nicknames and flew a number of aircraft with nautical names in his later career.

Clive Smith has also provided the evidence that Admiral Prune (W4118) was not, as some people have claimed, Gibson’s personal Lancaster. Although he liked flying it there are several examples of operations where it was flown by other pilots while he flew a different Lancaster. Altogether, Gibson only flew it on six operations – a similar number of times to the occasions when it was captained by Sqn Ldr John Wooldridge and Sqn Ldr John Searby (six and seven respectively). Future Dams Raid pilots Flt Lt John Hopgood and Flt Lt David Shannon also each flew it once on a 106 Squadron operation. It was finally lost on 5 February 1943 when it crashed near Lyon in France on an operation targeting Turin. Both port engines had failed. The pilot, Sgt D L Thompson survived and became a PoW, as did one of the two bomb aimers on board, Sgt Peter Ward, and the mid-upper and rear gunners, respectively Sgt Richard Sutton and Sgt J Picken. The rest of the crew, flight engineer Sgt Norman Johnstone, navigator Sgt Frank Darlington, bomb aimer Plt Off George Powell and wireless operator Sgt Wilfred Baker were all killed.

Rare Gibson picture from RAF Syerston

Pic: Valerie Davies Arends

To mark tomorrow’s 76th anniversary of the Dams Raid, here is a rarely seen photograph of Guy Gibson, taken while he was Commanding Officer of 106 Squadron at RAF Syerston. It is undated, but must have been taken before 8 December 1942 as the central figure is Gp Capt Augustus Walker, CO of RAF Syerston, who lost his right arm that day on his own airfield, trying to rake burning incendiaries from an aircraft which had somehow ignited. The man on the right is Wg Cdr Richard Coad, the CO of 61 Squadron, which was also based at Syerston.

Gibson was one of those who accompanied Walker to hospital after his accident, and it was while Walker was being treated that Gibson first met Cpl Margaret North, a WAAF nurse, with whom he later had an intense but platonic liaison.

[Thanks to Valerie Davies Arends for the use of this picture.]