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.

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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

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]