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

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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]

Gibson hands out the prizes

gibson ball lores

Guy Gibson striding out purposefully. The gentleman in the bowler hat is Sir Albert Ball. [Pic: 49 Sqn Association]

After the Dams Raid, many 617 Squadron personnel, and particularly its Commanding Officer, were prevailed on to attend various functions. This photo was taken on one such occasion, a visit to Nottingham on Saturday 10 July 1943 to present the ‘Albert Ball VC’ Memorial Sword to the best ATC cadet plus other prizes of merit. Sir Albert Ball had presented the Sword of Honour to the ATC in memory of his late son, the First World War RFC pilot who won the VC after his fatal last flight in 1917, when he was shot down, possibly by the younger brother of the Red Baron, Lothar von Richthofen. Guy Gibson also presented an Efficiency Cup to an ATC Officer.  The location is Trent Lane ATC HQ.

“Though swirling floods are raging”

Last Saturday, I went to a reunion at my old school, St Edward’s in Oxford. It was a very pleasant occasion, helped along by the warm June weather traditional at such events. However, I was somewhat surprised during the chapel service when the chaplain announced that the tune to the next hymn might be a familiar one. The organ then sounded with a well known refrain, while I leafed hurriedly through the hymnal to the relevant page, and found this:
SES1
SES2

The words are new to me, perhaps, as I’m not a regular churchgoer, but they have apparently been around for some time. In fact they were written by the Rev Richard Bewes, sometime Rector of All Souls, Langham Place, and are based on Psalm 46.
I spent five years at St Edward’s in the 1960s, and spent many hours in services in this chapel, which is lined with hundreds of individual hand-painted plaques commemorating boys who died in the Great War. I whiled away endless dull sermons reading their details – a Lieutenant in the Staffordshires, a Captain in the Ox and Bucks, a Private in the 1st Canadian Battalion – without really contemplating what the stories behind these names might reveal. And I would also flick through the hymnal, noting the great names – Wesley, Vaughan Williams, Milton, Alexander – whose fine music was thundered out each week by 500 adolescent voices. “Lift up your hearts”, “Jerusalem the Golden”, “Guide me O thou great Jehovah”. Even today, as I type out the titles, the words and tunes still ring through my brain. Will “God our strength and refuge” ever be added to the list? I’m not certain it will. It is such a famous piece of orchestral music in its own right that I have to say I wonder if it really needs a vocal line. Does Beethoven’s 5th? Or the Blue Danube?
The awful toll from the First World War meant that there was no room in the nave of St Edward’s chapel for individual plaques for those who fell two decades later in its successor conflict. So it is in a side ‘Memorial Chapel’ that we find the only reference to one of the school’s most famous Second World War casualties. Their names are listed undifferentiated by service or rank, so G P Gibson appears here between R George and H T Gilbert.
SES5
After this war, the school’s particular contribution to the RAF was noted with a special memorial window, depicting a flier:
SES4
A series of portraits were later commissioned, noting also the service of several RAF war heroes such as Arthur Banks, Adrian Warburton and Douglas Bader (who of course survived the war, and in my time was frequently to be seen making his jerky way around the school as one of its Governors). I am not sure that the Gibson portrait is an exact likeness, but the subject’s maroon VC ribbon makes it recognisable as him, since he received the only one ever awarded to a St Edward’s old boy:
SES6
St Edward’s has one further connection to the Dams Raid. Between 1899 and 1901, my grandfather Ettrick Maltby was a pupil at the school. He went on to own and run a prep school outside Hastings called Hydneye House. Many Hydneye boys went on to St Edward’s to complete their education but, curiously, they did not include Ettrick’s only son, David Maltby, who went instead to Marlborough.
However, in 1943, Ettrick was delighted to read that his own Alma Mater had produced 617 Squadron’s commanding officer, and wrote to his old friend, its Warden [Headmaster] Henry Kendall.
maltbycardfront lores
maltbycardreverse lores
Pic: St Edward’s School archive
Floreat St Edward’s, indeed. It can’t have been that unusual that two young men with connections to the same institution would end up serving together in the same Second World War RAF squadron. For example, John Hopgood, another Marlborough old boy, was also a pilot on the Dams Raid and had been a close friend of Gibson’s in 106 Squadron. The fact that both Guy Gibson and David Maltby took part in the RAF’s most famous bombing operation, and are together immortalised in a famous photograph taken in July 1943 doesn’t, as I’m sure they would both have said, make them any different from the 55,000 of their colleagues from Bomber Command who paid the ultimate sacrifice. May they all rest in peace.
IWM TR1122

Dambuster of the Day No. 1: Guy Gibson

443px-Guy_Penrose_Gibson,_VC

Wing Cdr G P Gibson DSO & Bar DFC & Bar
Pilot
Lancaster serial number: ED932/G
Call sign: AJ-G
First wave: First aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Mine exploded short of the dam.

Guy Gibson was born on 12 August 1918 in Simla, India, where his father worked for the Imperial Indian Forest Service. He didn’t set foot in England until he was brought on a holiday to his grandparents’ house in Cornwall at the age of four. At six, his mother and her three children made a permanent move back and he was sent off to boarding school, first to 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. He wrote to Captain ‘Mutt’ Summers at Vickers (who later flew the Wellington which dropped the first test ‘bouncing bomb’) 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 built 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 and flew some 90 operations in Beaufighters, leaving in March 1942. Without much more than a few days break, he was then given his first post as a squadron commanding officer, 106 Squadron based at RAF Coningsby. After a few months, the squadron received its first Lancaster bombers – an aircraft widely regarded as a cut above anything else that had been used before. By early March 1943, he had completed another full tour.
He was expecting a rest from operations, but instead he was summoned to a meeting with the Commanding Officer of 5 Group, Sir 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 evening of 16 May 1943, nineteen aircraft carrying the ‘bouncing bomb’ designed by Barnes Wallis took off to attack the great dams of the Ruhr valley. He was the first to attack the Möhne Dam, but his mine exploded short of its wall. When the next pilot, John Hopgood, also failed 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 almost as 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 Harlo 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, but 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 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 James Warwick. It may have been the Mosquito just ran out of fuel because Gibson didn’t know how to switch fuel tanks, or he could have been shot down by flak or even, in a ‘friendly fire’ episode, by one of his own main force bombers.
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 unsufferable.’ But he was a wartime warrior with a formidable record: few matched his two tours of bomber operations in Hampdens and Lancasters and 90 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.’

More about Gibson online:
Wikipedia
Medals at RAF Museum
Commonwealth War Graves Commission listing

Decoration awarded for Operation Chastise: VC
KIA 20 September 1944
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.

Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
The information above has been taken from the books listed and a number of online sources. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further material in the comments section below.

Inside Gibson’s office at Scampton

Guy-Gibson-Office-3

History buff Ross Corbett has set up an fascinating new website called World War II Discovery, and has written several posts of interest to Dambuster enthusiasts. He recently visited RAF Scampton, and had a tour of the some of the areas which are open as a Heritage Centre. Tours are available. but only by appointment as Scampton is a working RAF base and the home of the Red Arrows.
The first floor room which was once Guy Gibson’s office is now restored, and looks much as it did on the day in July 1943 when the photograph shown below, of Gibson and his new Flight Commander Sqn Ldr David Maltby, was taken.

IWM TR1122

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Ross has also been to the Derwent Dam and the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre at East Kirkby where he saw original Lancaster ‘Just Jane’.