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/

 

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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

Guy Gibson’s Ghost and the Sunday Express

Sunday Express extracts from the Enemy Coast Ahead manuscript, published on 3 December, 10 December, 17 December, 24 December and 31 December 1944.

In the early spring of 1944 Wg Cdr Guy Gibson VC DSO & Bar DFC & Bar was working in an office at the Air Ministry in London, ostensibly in a job in the Directorate for the Prevention of Accidents. But his real work was to write a book about Bomber Command, told through his own experiences as a pilot who had been actively involved from the first day of the war up to the Dams Raid.

Gibson worked on the book, given the title Enemy Coast Ahead, for most of the next few months, finishing a draft some time in the summer of 1944. Some of the text was copied almost word for word from a couple of long articles published in December 1943 in the American magazine Atlantic Monthly and the Sunday Express. These were almost certainly written by ghost writers – the American text by a certain Flt Lt Roald Dahl, who was then based in the British Embassy in Washington DC, and the UK text by an unknown PR officer in the Air Ministry in London.

All the time he was writing, Gibson chafed at being confined to a ground job, and pushed his superiors to allow him back in the air. Eventually they relented and he flew his first operation for over a year on 19 July 1944, in a Lancaster from 630 Squadron, based at East Kirkby, on an operation attacking the V1 flying bomb site near Criel in France. Three more operations would follow in August and September, before he took off from Woodhall Spa on what would be his final trip on 19 September.

A few weeks previously, he had finished work on the final typescript of Enemy Coast Ahead going through the corrections and amendments proposed by various people in the Air Ministry and writing a series of handwritten notes which were pinned to the final version.

After his death, the manuscript was sent to the publishers, Michael Joseph, where it went through a further editorial process. But while this was going on, in December 1944, a series of six articles based on the draft appeared in the Sunday Express, all credited to Gibson. Even though many people now knew of his death, it had not been officially announced. Nowhere in the text is his status as ‘missing’ mentioned,  so the general public must have thought that there was nothing amiss.

Five of the six articles can be seen by anyone with a subscription to the UK Press Online site (also available in some libraries). They are shown above in thumbnail version. The final one – which appeared on Sunday 7 January 1944 – appears to be missing from the archive.

The following day, Monday 8 January, Gibson’s death was officially announced, and many tributes and obituaries would follow. But it is ironic that over the previous six weeks the Sunday Express articles had carried on being published, almost as though they were genuinely ghost-written.
[Source: Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin, 1995.]

The ‘Doc’ and the key

Key used before the Dams Raid to prevent the Upkeep mines from being detonated prematurely. [Pic: Watson family]

Irene Thornton, the daughter of Flt Lt Henry (‘Doc’) Watson, 617 Squadron’s Armaments Officer at the time of the Dams Raid, has been in touch. She has one of the ‘keys’ which were used before the raid to stop the Upkeep mines being prematurely detonated. Her father retained one as a souvenir. Another one was sold in 2010 and a third was given by the family of Group Captain Ivan Whittaker (the engineer in AJ-P) to the museum at RAF Halton.

Henry Watson was born on 16 September 1914 in the mining village of Fishburn, Co. Durham. He did not want to follow his brother down the local mine; he wanted to be an RAF pilot. But when he found that his vision was not up to the standard required, he chose to apply to the Technical Training School at RAF Halton. He entered in January 1930, and became an armament fitter.

He passed out from Halton in December 1932, and was posted to both Iraq and Malta before the war. In early 1939 he returned to the UK and was posted to 106 Squadron. A further posting sent him to 83 Squadron.

Plt Off Henry Watson MBE. [Pic: Watson family]

He was Mentioned in Dispatches twice before receiving an MBE in June 1942. Part of the citation read:

“This Warrant Officer has been in charge of the Armament Section since February 1941. It has been due to his untiring efforts that operations have never been delayed despite short notice of bombing up or last minute changes of bomb load.…. On a recent occasion when an aircraft crashed on the aerodrome, he was immediately on the spot and rendered great assistance to the Station Armament Officer by rendering the bombs safe without regard to his personal safety.”

Watson was commissioned in early 1943, and then posted to the new 617 Squadron being established at Scampton. He soon found that he had a completely new weapon to deal with: Barnes Wallis’s ‘bouncing bomb’, which was being tested under very strict security.

Or so it was thought. But on 2 May 1943 when Watson returned from a three week attachment at RAF Manston testing out the weapon he was called into Guy Gibson’s office to report on progress. Gibson was very perturbed by some of what Watson told him, and sat down to send a handwritten report to 5 Group Headquarters. He had himself been told to maintain the utmost secrecy, and so obviously didn’t even want the details communicated to a typist.

Gibson wrote:

(1) Within three days of arriving at Manston, P/O Watson was shown a file which I think you have seen. This contained:

a. Sectional drawings of certain objectives
b. A map of the Ruhr showing these objectives
c. Various secret details in connection with Upkeep.

(2) That P/O Watson, an armament officer in this squadron, thus knows more about this operation than either of my Flight Commanders and at the time, more than I did myself.

I have had a long talk with this officer and am satisfied that he understands the vital need for security, and the disregard of security will lead to most distressing results. But I consider that there is no need for a squadron armaments officer to be given such information.

P/O Watson, tells me moreover, that he read this file in company with a F/O Rose, who belongs to 618 Squadron, Coastal Command. This officer is engaged in the same type of work as ourselves, but has no connection with any matter concerning Upkeep.

P/O Watson informs me that he was shown this file by W/C Garner of M.A.E.E. In fairness to W/C Garner I should like to point out that he has been doing excellent work whilst he has been in charge of the trials at Manston. However, I do feel that the more people who know, the looser the security will be. [AIR 14-595. Punctuation and spelling as in original.]

At the bottom of the page there appears in Gibson’s writing the phrase ‘Seen by me’. Underneath that is Watson’s signature. So it would seem that Gibson wanted to make sure that Watson knew the importance of keeping the secret by getting him to sign the memorandum.

After the raid, Watson took part in the official celebrations. He and the other technical officers were presented to the King on the royal visit to Scampton on 27 May 1943. He also travelled to London for the investiture, and was at the dinner in the Hungaria restaurant which followed.

617 Squadron’s technical officers being presented to the King, 27 May 1943. L-R: Flt Lt Cliff Caple (engineering officer), Plt Off Henry Watson (armaments officer), Plt Off James Hodgson (electrical officer). [Pic: Watson family]

Watson remained with 617 Squadron until December 1943, but was then posted to India to serve in 355 and 356 Squadrons, flying American-built Liberator bomber. After the war he went back to working in engineering. He started again as a fitter and turner at a factory in Stockton-on-Tees but rose within 10 years to become its manager. He went on to be the MD of a larger company and established its Apprentice Training School in Ipswich.

Henry Watson died on 22 February 1995.

[Thanks to Irene Thornton and the Watson family]

Snaps from behind the scenes at Scampton in Gillon photo album

debriefing-crewsFay Gillon debriefing an unknown bomber crew. Another copy of this print has the date 1944 on its reverse, and this ties in with the map on the table which is of Northern France. It may be of a 44 Squadron crew, and taken at RAF Dunholme Lodge.  [Pic: Gillon collection; thanks to Robert Owen for further information.]

In March 1943 Fay Gillon, seen in the picture above at work debriefing an unknown bomber crew, was a WAAF officer based at Scampton when 617 Squadron moved in to start training for the Dams Raid. Within a few days, Guy Gibson asked to meet her:

‘Sit down,’ said Gibson as she entered his spartan office. ‘The first thing is: can you keep a secret?’ Gibson’s misgivings about the general inferiority of the opposite sex were made even plainer when he added: ‘I don’t often ask women this.’
The Intelligence Officer assured Gibson that she was well able to keep secrets. Gibson probed further, checking his understanding that Gillon was married and that her husband was overseas. Gillon surmised that the reason for these questions was that as a married woman she would be unlikely to have boy-friends with whom she might talk about squadron matters.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995, p146.

Gibson went on to give her the important task of liaising with 5 Group headquarters over the routes for the training programme, and installed her in an office next to the squadron Navigation Officer, Jack Leggo. Gillon became good friends with Leggo, his skipper Mick Martin, and the rest of his crew, and she flew with them on the final dress rehearsal on the Friday before the raid. Her full account of this trip was published in Morris’s book, as mentioned above, pp160-2. The next day, Saturday 15 May 1943, she was again looking over Martin’s aircraft after its Upkeep mine had been loaded. She may have inadvertently pressed a cockpit lever which dropped it from the aircraft onto the hard standing below. Everyone scattered as quickly as possible, but fortunately the mine didn’t explode.
Fay Gillon died on 5 November 2009 and her wartime photograph album now belongs to her granddaughter, Carissa Howard. Last year, she allowed Australian writer Ian Andrew to publish some of the pictures it contains on his blog. The images provide a further insight into life at Scampton in the spring and summer of 1943.
One of the most interesting informal shots shows a group of officers and some civilians, probably taken outside the officers mess.

617-sqn004[Pic: Gillon collection]

Left to right, this shows: in civilian clothes, the two Vickers test pilots most associated with Operation Chastise, Mutt Summers and Robert Handasyde, an RAF officer with face obscured, Guy Gibson (in sunglasses), Les Munro, Richard Trevor-Roper, Les Knight, unknown RAF officer (holding glass and turned towards camera), David Maltby, Fred Spafford and another unknown RAF officer with face obscured. (Thanks to Robert Owen for identifying Summers and Handasyde.)
Gillon was one of the WAAF officers who accompanied the 617 Squadron contingent by train to London for the investiture at Buckingham Palace. Although she is not named in adjutant Harry Humphries’s account of the riotous railway journey, she is likely to have been a witness to the incident when a drunk and trouserless Brian Goodale was pushed into the compartment in which she was travelling. Humphries had to remove Goodale hurriedly as there were “ladies present” whose modesty had to be protected at all costs. She attended the investiture and the album includes some photographs taken there, including one of the Australians who were in attendance.

617-australians-and-wc-gibsonLeft to right: Tom Simpson, Lance Howard, David Shannon, Bob Hay, Jack Leggo, Mick Martin, Fred Spafford. [Pic: Gillon collection]

By September 1943, 617 Squadron had moved out of Scampton to Coningsby. However, by then her WAAF colleague Ann Fowler had become engaged to David Shannon and Gillon attended their wedding.

dave-shannon-and-ann-fowler

[Pic: Gillon collection]

After the war, Fay Gillon and her husband Peter moved to France and started their family of four children. They later lived in London and then moved to Perth, Australia, in 1980. She returned to the UK on a number of occasions, and was very helpful to a number of people researching the history of 617 Squadron, including myself.
Thanks to Carissa Howard for help with this article.

Fake “Gibson” telegram withdrawn from auction

721

A telegram confirming the 1944 death of Guy Gibson, described as being from Sir Arthur Harris, has now been withdrawn from auction after doubts about its authenticity. It was due to be sold by Fieldings Auctioneers in Stourbridge on Saturday 16 May, with an estimated price of £600.
The sale was trumpeted in articles in the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror and other newspapers, with typical over-excitement. None of these publications thought to contact any historian or serious collector who might be able to throw some light on the telegram. “Dambusters hero’s death kept secret for MONTHS to protect morale during WW2,” said the Express. The Mirror also went along with the morale idea, saying: “RAF hushed up death of Dambusters hero Guy Gibson to preserve morale, wartime telegram reveals”.
The telegram, we were told in both papers, had been found by a dealer inside a book during a house clearance sale, apparently being used as a bookmark.
Having seen the newspapers, I contacted the auctioneers. I pointed out some of the reasons I had to doubt the telegram’s authenticity, and they decided to seek the opinion of professional curators. I am glad to say that they agreed with me, and the item was then removed from the sale.

I am now quite convinced that the telegram is a fake. I have commented in this blog before how Fleet Street editorial standards have slipped over the years. In this case, the newspapers seem to have stoked up the hype and not questioned the item’s provenance. Anyone with any knowledge of the RAF’s wartime communication systems would surely have smelt a rat. And there are several other features, visible even in the small photograph on the auctioneers’ website, which were very suspicious indeed.

Use of a telegram
In November 1944, Sir Arthur Harris held the rank of Air Chief Marshal and the job title of Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command. The job was normally abbreviated to AOC-in-C HQBC in official communications. Messages, instructions and orders between him and other sections of the RAF were normally communicated via official message forms or by telex. On both of these, his official job title or its recognised abbreviation would be used. The use of a normal Post Office telegram for any important service purpose seems most unlikely, as would the signature being abbreviated to “Harris Air Marsh”. And finally, if by any chance a normal telegram form was used, the sender’s address would be shown as “HQ Bomber Command”, not “Air Ministry”.

Overall look
Many examples of wartime telegrams survive, and some general observations can be made when they are compared with the “Gibson” telegram. Here is a genuine wartime telegram, found on the 206 Squadron website:

Bendix - MIA TelegramLet us start with the form itself. Even though it is possible to get genuine blank wartime forms, the “Gibson” telegram would appear to be composed on a fake form. There are several different designs of wartime Post Office telegram forms, but they all have one thing in common – the font used is Gill Sans, as seen above. The form had been redesigned in Gill Sans by the famous typographer Stanley Morison in 1935. The “Gibson” telegram uses a different font, another sans serif, but not Gill Sans.
Furthermore, in “real” telegrams, the message itself was cut from the output of a telegraph machine and then pasted onto the form. The message would have been printed with a fabric ribbon, which led to a rather grey colour. The individual words themselves are usually spaced well apart, the gap between each word being almost two characters wide. And the individual characters which make up each word are themselves spaced quite widely.
In the “Gibson” telegram, the lettering looks as though it was produced by modern computerised typesetting. The letters and the words are more closely spaced than their wartime equivalent.

Wrong ranks
Harris had been promoted from Air Marshal to (Temporary) Air Chief Marshal [(T) ACM] on 16 August 1944. He would have signed any communication after this date as either (T) ACM or ACM.
Below the official print is a handwritten note: “Read out to the Mess but did not inform men. J B Tait GC”. However, in November 1944, the Officer Commanding 617 Squadron, J B (“Willie”) Tait was still a Wing Commander. He was not promoted to Group Captain until after he left 617 Squadron at the end of 1944. Any note written by him at this time would therefore would have been signed as “J B Tait WC”.

Address and rubber stamps
It seems most unlikely that a telegram would be sent to the Officers Mess of any squadron. In any case, in November 1944 the arrangements for officers stationed at Woodhall Spa was quite complicated and there was no single Officers Mess as such. 617 Squadron’s officers were billeted at the Petwood Hotel in the town of Woodhall Spa, as were some other officers serving on the station, such as some intelligence officers and the station commander, Gp Capt “Monty” Philpott. The actual RAF station was a few miles away in Tattersall Thorpe, and other officers on the station, such as those in 627 Squadron, were housed there in a series of temporary concrete or brick huts.
The correct mode of address for a communication to the squadron would be to its officer commanding. Any rubber stamp used would say “617 Squadron/RAF Station Woodhall Spa/Received/date”, without mention of the Officers Mess.

Unlikely wording
The wording of the text does not sound as though it was composed by a wartime writer, used to writing succinct messages where excess words and pronouns are removed. A genuine text would be more likely to read “Prime Minister and NOK informed”, not “I have informed the Prime Minister and NOK”.

Caveat Emptor
The estimated price of £600 for this item was very conservative, given the huge sums reached recently for genuine Dambuster memorabilia. According to the auctioneers there had already been “substantial interest” in it. My guess is that it would have reached at least £5000, and possibly nearer £10,000.
The amount of profit available means that there may well be other attempts to deceive the market with further fake material. One collector recently went public after a bad experience with a well-known unscrupulous trader. My advice to anyone who sees anything offered for sale is to get good advice from a reputable independent source.

Thanks to the various researchers who have helped with this article.

Gibson last letter on show in Coventry

Exhibn Gibson portrait
Copy of portrait of Gibson by William Rothenstein, with a personal inscription for Michael Gibson.

Last Friday was the 70th anniversary of the death of Guy Gibson, killed on active service near Steenbergen in Holland. Edwina Towson has kindly sent me some pictures taken at a small exhibition of Gibson family material which is running for another few days in the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry. If you are in the area, you might want to look in and see it. The items have been in the possession of Gibson’s brother Alick, his wife Ruth and their son Michael.
Exhibn Gibson cufflinks
Gibson’s cufflinks, given to him by his parents when he joined the RAF.

The most interesting items are three letters all of which would appear to have been written in late 1944. The final one is dated 18 September, the day before he died, and could have been the last personal letter he wrote.
Exhibn Gibson letter2

The letter reads:

54 Base
RAF
Coningsby
Lincs

18/9 [18.09.1944]

My Dear Old Alick
I haven’t heard from you for ages now and think it is about time we knocked back a can of beer together.
if you could give me the name of your nearest airfield I would try to get down.
I’m pretty busy at the moment doing the odd op – and planning others but wish to hell I were in France.
Are you a Lt. Col. yet?
Drop me a line old timer.
Yours Aye
Guy

The knowledge that this might be the last personal letter he ever wrote adds a degree of poignancy to the somewhat banal words. The old timer and his young brother would never meet again.
The exhibition runs until Wednesday 1 October.
[All photos © Edwina Towson]