Bonhams sell ‘stolen’ Gibson document in New York for $2167

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]

Replacement of Scampton plaque should be welcomed

RAF Scampton from the air. [Pic: Harvey Milligan/Wikipedia Commons]

The RAF has made the correct decision to replace the plaque at RAF Scampton which marks the grave of Guy Gibson’s dog with a new one: one which does not use the dog’s name. It did this quietly, without any fanfare, but of course as soon as the news leaked out a furore ensued. As I write this, at lunchtime on Friday 17 July, the number of comments on the Daily Mail’s online report has exceeded 700, mostly disagreeing with the decision. And a poll on the Lincolnshire Live website asking “Were the RAF right to remove the name of Guy Gibson’s dog from its gravestone?” is running at 91% voting No.

The point that those suffering such apoplexy don’t seem to have noticed, however, is that things have changed. The changes may seem to have happened very quickly, in response to the killing of George Floyd by police in far-away Minnesota, but in reality the issue of racism has been under the surface but ignored for too long. We may have had different attitudes in the past, covering everything from the erection of city centre statues of philanthropists without questioning where their fortunes came from to the use of racial stereotypes in TV comedy programmes, but that doesn’t mean these attitudes are acceptable now.

So, suddenly, we have started to rethink. Four years ago, the influential US National Football League refused to allow players to “take a knee” at the beginning of a game to protest against racism and police violence. It changed its policy – just like that – with the league’s commissioner admitting that they were wrong “for not listening to NFL players earlier”. And now, on this side of the Atlantic at every professional football match since the end of lockdown, there is a moving moment at kick off when all the players and officials take a knee.

It is in this context, I believe, that the decision to change the Scampton plaque was taken. The authorities have started listening. The name which was always offensive to black people is now recognised as such by the majority of the UK’s population. In the 1940s or 50s it was probably regarded by most people as being merely descriptive of the colour of a dog’s coat or a tin of shoe polish. That is not a justification for its continued use in the 2020s.

The decision may have been sudden, it may still be too quickly taken for some, but to my mind it is absolutely the right thing to do. We need to rethink how things are memorialised. We need to reappraise our historical narrative. I’m not saying that every statue should be pulled down or every plaque removed. However, there needs to be an evaluation of what each item represents and whether the item would be more appropriately consigned to a museum where the full story can be told.

There are signs that our institutions, from universities to the armed forces, have now begun this process and are now engaged in both listening and learning. And this is to be welcomed.

The change should start in the nation’s schools. One of the key writers pushing for an updated curriculum is the historian David Olusoga, presenter of the Black and British: A Forgotten History series on BBC TV. Since these programmes were aired, he says that his life has “become a constant impromptu focus group. I am stopped in the street by people who want to talk about the histories those documentaries explore. Most of those people are young, and a great many, but not all, are black or mixed race. This is the generation who have led the Black Lives Matter protests and they, quite rightly, expect more from their schools than I did from mine.” See this Guardian article.

Olusoga hopes that change is coming. I also like to believe that this is so. The small matter of the modification of a memorial plaque in Lincolnshire is a necessary step along the road.

Comments on this piece are welcome, but will be moderated.

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.

Martin and Leggo at the Palace

Jack Leggo and Mick Martin pose for a picture outside Buckingham Palace in February 1943. [Pic: AWM UK2008]

Blog reader Cliff Harding has kindly sent me the text of a letter which turned up in the papers of his late mother-in-law, Marjorie Roberts, a cousin of the Leggo family. The original is a carbon copy of a letter which was sent by Flt Lt ‘Mick’ Martin to his parents. It describes the Buckingham Palace investiture at which Martin and Jack Leggo received DFCs, having both completed a tour of operations on the RAAF’s 455 Squadron.

The investiture took place on either Tuesday 16 or Tuesday 23 February. It would seem that Guy Gibson was also at the palace for this occasion, receiving the DSO for a number of operations in 106 Squadron. It is likely that this is where Gibson and Martin made each other’s acquaintance and discussed low-flying techniques.

The letter reads:

25th February, 1943
My dear Mum, Dad and kids,

Your letter posted just after Xmas arrived yesterday. At that, there appears in your letter a certain degree of panic as to the safety of Leggo and myself. You may rest assured that both he and I are still very much alive and free. However the root of the evil may lie in the fact that three members of my crew are now missing – they are Jimmy O’Neill, Harry Smith, and my Flight-engineer, Frankie Martin.

Unfortunately when I went on rest with Leggo, Foxlee and Simpson who have been with me on Hampdens and Manchesters, the other three lads were posted to another pilot to finish their tour of operations before they, too, went on rest. But as for being shot down at Milan – is rubbish. I would be furious if I fell to the Italians. It’s only good luck, and not ability, if they get anybody down, apart from the odd one or two, who fall to the German gunners.

Recently Jack Leggo and myself, went up to town to collect our “Gongs”. The next page or so I will more or less copy from my diary.

We arrived in London on a Monday afternoon and took up residence at the Strand Palace Hotel. I detest the place really but it was so central, and furthermore the tariff is quite reasonable. I met John in the lounge at 6 o’clock, with a friend of his, Frankie, and I had Beverley and Bill Sellars with me. Sellars was a solicitor in the Canadian Pacific Railway before the war, and is now a control officer. He has been extremely good to John and me during the whole of our tour. For that matter he still is. You know the type – a big lumbering Cannuck, with a fatherly air.

We dined at Shepards, determined to keep the evening quiet, knowing full well the party that would naturally follow the investiture the next day would be unparalleled. But the chance presence of one or two friends altered the course of the evening, and it was past the hour of midnight before we went to sleep.

Next morning we rose early and bathed, and set course for the Palace, at 10 o’clock. But there was pandemonium first – because I had lost my stud. And do you think I could beg, borrow or steal one. Eventually I wired my collar to my shirt with a hair-pin.

All was set, so we called for a taxi, and with studied nonchalance and thumping heart I said “Buckingham Palace, please.” We drove down the Strand, down Whitehall, past the Cenotaph, to the Palace.

The old cabby would accept no money. We passed through the gates into the Precincts, and joined a line of people up there, apparently, for the same business. Soon we found ourselves in a large room, with people of many types, from many places. We were briefed by an Admiral on the ceremony, and what we were to do. He was Rear Admiral Evans of “Evans of the Broke” fame.

Soon afterwards we filed into a large room, hall or court, and stood in line along a slightly raised platform. Looking up from seated portions were hundreds of upturned faces, belonging to friends and relatives of the men to be decorated. There was silence more poignant then any I have ever known, broken only by the music created from down the hall by an extremely good orchestra. Everyone was a master musician, and everyone playing as he would be expected to play for the ears of the King.

On a platform imperceptibly higher than the one on which we were standing, was the King. He was wearing the uniform of an admiral of the Fleet, and in consequence, was addressed as “Sir.”

A line of people were in front of us, and they were gradually called up and then in a booming sort of a voice I heard “Flight Lieutenant Harold Brownlow Martin DFC. Bomber Command.” I don’t know what stopped my legs from giving way beneath me. I do not remember when I have felt so nervous as I felt during those seconds. Momentarily one pauses, then walks forward, and halts in front of the tiny mark on the carpet; turns left, and bows and then looks into the eyes of the King. He pins your medal on, shakes your hand, and congratulates you on your efforts. You step back, bow, turn right, and march down a gangway, and down a hall through all those faces. Your gong swings and hits a button, and you wonder if it is going to fall off. And so, in a daze, you walk through an archway, when all of a sudden a hand shoots out and grabs your gong. By the time you recover from this assault and the blow on the chest, a figure in uniform is proffering it to you stowed prettily in a little black box, with a silken lining, and you smother your desire to strike this arch sadist, who takes fiendish delight in provoking nervous people, whose systems, if they are anything akin to mine, are near to breaking point. You accept it, smile, and walk on, seeking somewhere seclusive to stand where people won’t see you, and you can allow your face to resume its normal hue. Others are decorated, time passes, and as the last man leaves the dais, the band strikes up “God Save Our King.”

As the last bars die away, he seems to look at everyone momentarily, and then, in the company of Lord Louis Mountbatten, he stops forward into a large doorway, leading to the next room. One then resumes possession of cap, coat and gloves, and makes an effort to join one’s friends. Eventually you find them and make your way across the Palace yard, move again through a multitude of people, and press photographers who want to take your photographs, and the only thing you want in the world is a drink. You look for a taxi – but there isn’t one to be had, and then a kind red-faced cop notices your pallid look and beckons you over. Soon you are in the lounge of the Piccadilly and the Carlton.

Later you turn up to a matinee, the tickets for which you have bought the previous day. The show is half over before you got there, but that doesn’t matter. After the show, back you go to the hotel, a bath, a clean collar and a shave – and then the party – a thousand faces -and you know them all – so it seems. If you don’t you dance and talk just the same. There was fun and laughter, drink and tears, and the night battles of the sky over the province of Europe are remote and far away. Your consolation lies in the fact that this was a wizard party – really a wizard party. You spend the day in the dives of London, meeting this one and that one, and so you call a taxi – your train leaves at ten – “King’s Cross, please, but drive there by St. Paul’s.” And the party is over.

One would gather from the foregoing lines that the whole business was a long Nero debauch, but, believe me, it was far from it – its more or less traditional that one should have a party after an investiture and we sincerely did our best to follow this time-honoured custom. I promise you dear mater, that my D.T.’s of today are not as shattering as those suffered during adolescence; and the occasions are rare indeed when I drink more than I can hold – so let us have peace in the house of Martin.

Remember me kindly to Dr. Marsh and, Dr. Bullock – they are both great guys, and I have a lot to thank them for.

An abundance of love to all at Tamworth – Sophia, Jack, Tom and everyone that asks after me. Lots for you, Mum
Mick

New generation at Gibson anniversary tribute

Ivan de Groot, Guy Gibson’s great-great nephew, at the graveside of his ancestor on the 75th anniversary of his death. [Pic: Melvin Chambers]

Wg Cdr Guy Gibson and his navigator Sqn Ldr James Warwick both died on 19 September 1944 when the Mosquito in which they were flying crashed on the outskirts of the small Dutch town of Steenbergen, after taking part in an operation attacking the German towns of Rheydt and Mönchengladbach. They are buried in a joint grave in the Catholic cemetery in Steenbergen, where a ceremony marking the 75th anniversaries of their deaths took place on 19 September 2019.

Pic: Sander van der Hall

About 150 people were present and there were two flypasts: the first by the Wings to Victory organisation and the second by the Royal Netherlands Air Force Historic Flight. The ceremony was led by Mr Martien van Dijk.

Wreaths were laid by the following:

  • Mrs Baartmans, Deputy Mayor of Steenbergen
  • Sub Lt Pannell RN, UK Embassy
  • Mr Ivan Tamborero de Groot, great-great nephew of Guy Gibson, on behalf of the Gibson family
  • Mr Aart Walraven, Wings to Victory
  • Mr Glyn Hepworth, 617 Squadron Association
  • Mr Russ Kitely, Group 617 UK
  • Dr R Heinrichs, Royal Netherlands Air Force
  • Representative of RAF Aircrew Association

Ivan de Groot is the great-great nephew of Guy Gibson, and this was his first ever visit to his great-great uncle’s grave. He is 23 and a student at Eindhoven University.

Pic: Sander van der Hall

Thanks to Sander van der Hall and Melvin Chambers.

Free for a day: Enemy Coast Ahead download to mark Gibson 75th anniversary

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.

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.]

 

Guy Gibson’s 100th birthday

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.

Dambusters and beyond: Oxford exhibition marks school’s RAF connections

Report and pictures by Edwina Towson.

The school in Oxford attended by Guy Gibson is currently joint hosting an exhibition called “The Dambusters and beyond” at the North Wall Gallery. The school, St Edward’s, is set in the leafy suburb of North Oxford and has a solid but progressive look to it in the Victorian manner:

The exhibition collects together a thoughtful selection of photographic, documentary and other material relating to key figures in the school’s history who were also significant contributors to the first 100 years of the RAF (Douglas Bader, Guy Gibson, Geoffrey de Havilland, Adrian Warburton, to pick on perhaps the most famous names). The coverage of those 100 years is supported by material from the Imperial War Museum and other national collections and prints are available of many items.

The exhibition covers all the walls of the North Wall foyer and café area:

The Dambusters section is along one of the larger sections of wall. It includes logbook material (private papers from Flt Lt W C Townsend) describing the raid as “successful”, replicas of Gibson’s medals and, to the left of them, a portrait of him by Cuthbert Orde (a pilot in WWI).

These are in the setting of numerous photographs and documents giving something of the atmosphere of the secrecy and unique nature of the operation, of the extreme risks for the bomber crews (there is a telling photo – just above the medal case – of a captured RAF crewman with his German interrogators after his Halifax was shot down over Bremen) and of the morale-lifting effect of the success of the special bomb.

One of the most personal items is a letter written by Gibson to his headmaster and which has the memorable postscript “Was Awarded V.C. yesterday”.

Another pointed reminder of the operational cost is the May 1943 photo of the surviving captains of the raid – there are not many of them:

The rest of the exhibition contains a wealth of interest covering the origins and development of the RAF and of military flying. The spread is wide, through WWI, the Battle of Britain, the Pathfinders, SOE, the jet age and onward. Allow at least an hour and a half if you want to look at each item. I have given only a tiny taste of what is on offer.

As you leave, you see some posters:

Beside the posters is a tower of mugs, in case the brochure is not sufficient as a souvenir.

The exhibition runs until 17th July (entry is free of charge) and there is more information here:
https://www.thenorthwall.com/whats-on/the-dambusters-and-beyond/

 

Starring Guy Gibson as himself: IWM releases wartime films

The Imperial War Museum has recently announced that it is converting more of its film collection into MP4 format, more suitable for viewing online across various platforms. One of the items which has recently been released is this eight minute compilation, which you can see in full here.

The sequence combines four short pieces of silent film:

  • Off-duty scenes of Gibson, his colleagues and his dog in 106 Squadron at RAF Syerston (probably shot in late 1942)
  • Film taken from Gibson’s aircraft on a 106 Squadron night bomber raid against Turin on 28 November 1942
  • Gibson addressing Boy Scouts at Maidstone about the Dams Raid, 19 June 1943
  • The pièce de résistance: A colour sequence with Gibson talking about the Dams Raid to a few teenage boys, showing them the silver model Lancaster he was given after the raid, close-ups of his gallantry awards and posing in a garden, with his wife Eve and three others. This sequence was probably shot in the house of Thomas Gladstone Bincham, head of a paper manufacturer in Maidstone, and an important figure in the scouting movement. It is likely that he is the other man in the film.

What is striking about the last sequence is how young the colour film makes Gibson look, when we are used to seeing him in black and white. He was in fact only about 24 years and 10 months when it was shot.

Hat tip: Bomber Command History Forum