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About Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson, VC, DSO
Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, RAF (12 August 1918 – 19 September 1944), was the first CO of the Royal Air Force's 617 Squadron, which he led in the "Dam Busters" raid (Operation Chastise) in 1943, resulting in the destruction of two large dams in the Ruhr area. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and died later in the war.
Early life and career
Gibson was born in Simla, India, during the British Raj, the son of Alexander James Gibson and Norah Gibson. He moved with his family to Porthleven, Cornwall, England in 1924 aged six. At the age of eight, he attended St Georges's Prep School in Folkestone, Kent. His education continued at St Edward's School, Oxford.
In 1936 he joined the RAF, becoming an Acting Pilot Officer with effect from and with seniority of 31 January 1937  and a Pilot Officer on 16 November 1937, learning to fly at No.2 Flying Training School at RAF Scopwick in Lincolnshire. By the outbreak of the Second World War he was a bomber pilot with 83 Squadron, flying the Handley Page Hampden. In July 1940 he won the Distinguished Flying Cross. On the night of 24/25 August 1940 his gunners claimed the probable destruction of a Dornier Do 17 over Lorient docks. After completing his first tour of duty of 27 operational sorties, Gibson volunteered for RAF Fighter Command, avoiding the normal six-month rest from operations at a flying training establishment. He was posted to 29 Squadron flying Bristol Blenheims in a day fighter and bomber escort role.
As a night fighter pilot flying the Bristol Beaufighter with 29 Squadron he claimed four kills in 99 sorties. On 12 March 1941 he claimed a bomber of KG 26 over Skegness, and another two nights later. On 8 April he was about to land at Wellingore air base when his fighter was strafed by a Junkers Ju 88 'intruder' flown by Feldwebel Hans Hahn of I./NJG 2, wounding his radar operator Sgt. Bell. Another bomber (a Ju 88 of KG 77) was claimed in flames on 3/4 May, and on 6 July downed a Heinkel He 111 of KG 4 near Sheerness. His final night fighter operations were in December. and he won a bar to his DFC. His radar operator on all his successful claims was Sgt. R.H.James, who was awarded a DFM.
In November 1942 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Whilst with 29 Squadron, based at RAF West Malling, Gibson said "Of all the airfields in Great Britain. Here many say, including myself, we have the most pleasant".
At the start of 1942 Gibson was transferred to 51 OTU as Chief Flying Instructor. A General Aircraft Cygnet which he flew twice whilst at the OTU is preserved at the National Museum of Flight in Scotland. In April 1942 he was promoted to Wing Commander and at 23 he was posted back to command 106 Squadron RAF Bomber Command. During the next 11 months he led 106, flying the Avro Manchester and then the Avro Lancaster, personally completing 46 sorties. He was remembered by subordinates as tough, brash and often aloof, a disciplinarian who bore a professionalism and arrogance derived from his position as one of the most experienced bomber pilots in the RAF.
After several operational sorties with 106 Squadron he considered two members of his crew sub-standard and had them replaced. However, when a visiting Air Ministry team considered his 5' 11" tall rear-gunner (Pilot Officer John Wickens) too tall to be a Lancaster gunner, Gibson told them to forget the rules, as his gunner was staying.
Main article: Operation Chastise
In 1943 he was selected to command the new 617 Squadron asked to destroy dams in the Ruhr area. To accomplish this they were provided with the bouncing bomb designed and developed by Barnes Wallis. The bombs had to be dropped from 60 feet (18 m) from a predefined distance to skip across the water into the dam face and then roll down it to explode at predefined depth. To stand any chance of success Operation Chastise had to be flown at night.
Flying at such a low level at night was deemed difficult by even the most experienced pilots. Altimeters (using air pressure) were unreliable in the mountainous terrain so close to the ground. To achieve the correct height they fixed two spotlights to the nose and tail of the Lancaster and directed their beams downwards so that they crossed 60 feet (18 m) under the craft. The navigator would direct the pilot up or down until the spots touched, forming a figure 8. The bomb aimer found the correct distance from the dam by looking through a simple hand-held wooden triangle with dowel markers. When the dowels lined up with the towers on the dam he released the bomb.
On the night of 16 May 1943, despite the full moon, both Bomber Command and Fighter Command flew a number of sorties which were spread widely over Germany and the Low Countries. As 617 Squadron needed a full moon to carry out their mission, it was thought that the only way they could penetrate German anti-aircraft defences was to fly the whole mission as close to the ground as possible. The 19 Lancasters carried one bomb each. It took five attempts to breach the Moehne Dam. Gibson then led the three remaining Lancasters to attack and breach the Eder Dam. Two other dams were attacked but not breached. 11 of the bombers survived the mission; 53 crew members died in the raid.
The devastation caused by the raids was extensive but the Germans managed to rebuild and recover much more quickly than was expected. However they were forced to use assets to protect key installations like dams to a greater extent than they had before. These assets would have been useful on other fronts.
The propaganda boost given to the allied war effort was considerable.
After the Dams raid, Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross in recognition not just of the raid, but his leadership and valour demonstrated as master bomber on many previous sorties. The announcement and accompanying citation for the decoration was published in supplement to the London Gazette on 28 May 1943, reading:
Air Ministry, 28th May, 1943. ROYAL AIR FORCE.
The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —
Acting Wing Commander Guy Penrose GIBSON, D.S.O., D.F.C. (39438), Reserve of Air Force Officers, No. 617 Squadron: —
This officer served as a night bomber pilot at the beginning of the war and quickly established a reputation as an outstanding operational pilot. In addition to taking the fullest possible share in all normal operations, he made single-handed attacks during his "rest" nights on such highly defended objectives as the German battleship Tirpitz, then completing in Wilhelmshaven.
When his tour of operational duty was concluded, he asked for a further operational posting and went to a night-fighter unit instead of being posted for instructional duties. In the course of his second operational tour, he destroyed at least three enemy bombers and contributed much to the raising and development of new night-fighter formations.
After a short period in a training unit, he again volunteered for operational duties and returned to night bombers. Both as an operational pilot and as leader of his squadron, he achieved outstandingly successful results and his personal courage knew no bounds. Berlin, Cologne, Danzig, Gdynia, Genoa, Le Creusot, Milan, Nuremberg and Stuttgart were among the targets he attacked by day and by night.
On the conclusion of his third operational tour, Wing Commander Gibson pressed strongly to be allowed to remain on operations and he was selected to command a squadron then forming for special tasks. Under his inspiring leadership, this squadron has now executed one of the most devastating attacks of the war—the breaching of the Moehne and Eder dams.
The task was fraught with danger and difficulty. Wing Commander Gibson personally made the initial attack on the Moehne dam. Descending to within a few feet of the water and taking the full brunt of the antiaircraft defences, he delivered his attack with great accuracy. Afterwards he circled very low for 30 minutes, drawing the enemy fire on himself in order to leave as free a run as possible to the following aircraft which were attacking the dam in turn.
Wing Commander Gibson then led the remainder of his force to the Eder dam where, with complete disregard for his own safety, he repeated his tactics and once more drew on himself the enemy fire so that the attack could be successfully developed.
Wing Commander Gibson has completed over 170 sorties, involving more than 600 hours operational flying. Throughout his operational career, prolonged exceptionally at his own request, he has shown leadership, determination and valour of the highest order.
His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, England.
After the dams raid
After receiving his VC, Gibson wrote an account of his wartime career, Enemy Coast Ahead, and was sent on a lecture tour of the United States by the government, partly to keep the new hero safe. The tour was "at a time when the first American airmen were coming home 'tour expired' after 25 operations. During questions one young lady asked
Wing Commander Gibson, how many operations have you been on over Germany?' 'One hundred and seventy-four.' There was a stunned silence."
In December 1943 he was awarded the Legion of Merit (Commander) by the President of the United States of America.
Return to operations
Gibson returned to operational duties in 1944 after pestering Bomber Command. After attending Staff College, he was first posted to understudy the Base Air Staff Office (BASO) at 55 Base, RAF East Kirkby before taking up his posting as BASO at 54 Base, RAF Coningsby. On 19 September 1944 he appointed himself as a Master Bomber on that night's raid on Rheydt (nowadays a borough of Mönchengladbach). He did not have a regular navigator and Sqn Ldr Jim Warwick DFC flew with him as his navigator on this raid. They flew from RAF Woodhall Spa, a satellite airfield of RAF Coningsby, in a de Havilland Mosquito XX, KB267, of 627 Squadron. Gibson helped to control the raid, but on their return, they crashed near Steenbergen, the Netherlands. He was 26 years old. On the morning of Gibson's fatal crash, he had been allocated a plane with the serial numbers ending in
13. He was unhappy believing it to be unlucky, so he commandeered another Squadron aircraft. The aircraft's normal Navigator was Brian Harris.
It had been assumed for many years that he had been shot down, but following the discovery of the wreckage of his plane, it was suggested that a fault with the fuel tank selector had meant that the aircraft had simply run out of fuel. An eye-witness account detailed how his aircraft circled Steenbergen in the Netherlands, and then heard its engines 'splutter and stop'.
In October 2011 however, the Daily Mail featured an article stating that the possible cause of Gibson's death was a friendly fire incident: Sergeant Bernard McCormack (a rear air gunner in a Lancaster bomber) was in the vicinity of Steenbergen when he mistook Gibson's Mosquito for a similarly profiled Ju 88 and fired 600 rounds, shooting it down. McCormack died in 1992 but, racked with guilt, had given his wife a taped confession before he died, which was passed to James Cutler, a WWII researcher. Cutler had previously unearthed a report in the National Archives by the crew of the Lancaster describing the incident. He declared himself "satisfied 100 percent" that Guy Gibson was killed by friendly fire and 99.9 percent sure that he was shot down by McCormack's Lancaster. In later life McCormack became the mayor of Holyhead in north Wales. See: Mosquito KB267
The town of Steenbergen has since honoured Gibson and Warwick by naming a street after each of them (Gibsonstraat and Warwickstraat); as well as after the Lancaster and the Mosquito. The Gibsonstraat and Warwickstraat meet on the exact location of the fatal crash; the location of which is marked by a brick mosaic of the British flag. Gibson's grave is located in Steenbergen en Kruisland R.C. Churchyard, the Netherlands.
The station Headquarters building at RAF Hemswell still stands, on what is now a commercial trading estate and is named Gibson House. Gibson's office is latterly being used as a computer software business.]
Barnes Wallis said of Gibson:
For some men of great courage and adventure, inactivity was a slow death. Would a man like Gibson ever have adjusted back to peacetime life? One can imagine it would have been a somewhat empty existence after all he had been through. Facing death had become his drug. He had seen countless friends and comrades perish in the great crusade. Perhaps something in him even welcomed the inevitability he had always felt that before the war ended he would join them in their Bomber Command Valhalla. He had pushed his luck beyond all limits and he knew it. But that was the kind of man he was…a man of great courage, inspiration and leadership. A man born for war…but born to fall in war.
"Bomber" Harris described him as "As great a warrior as this island ever bred".
Porthleven has a Street called Gibson Way named after Gibson, and also in the village cemetery is a memorial bearing his name, which also appears on the village War Memorial overlooking the harbour.
Gibson met the actress and show dancer Eve Moore at a party in Coventry during early December 1939 while he was on three days rest leave at his brother’s house. The following year Guy and Eve were married at All Saints Church in Eve's home town of Penarth near Cardiff in Wales. Guy Gibson was based at RAF Digby at the time and for the wedding flew his Blenheim bomber from RAF Wellingore satellite field in Lincolnshire to RAF Pengam Moors in Cardiff docks.
Eve's parents, Mr and Mrs Ernest Moore, lived in Archer Road, Penarth, and the couple moved in with them while they considered buying a home of their own. Ernest Moore was a keen golfer and invited his new son-in-law to join the Glamorganshire Golf Club as an honorary member.
Gibson spent his post-raid leave in Penarth, playing golf most days. While on leave he had a call from the Air Ministry telling him that he had been awarded the VC. His father-in-law Ernest Moore immediately telephoned the steward at the Glamorganshire and asked to him lay on as many drinks as he could find and the whole family went down to celebrate in style at the clubhouse.
Gibson continued to live unaccompanied in the officers' messes at his various stations and Eve remained at home with her parents, or lodged in local hotels. Gibson died in action shortly after they found a family home in London during 1943, before which they only managed a few weekends together while on leave in Penarth or at various hotels. Eve Gibson died on 3 November 1988 on the same day as Sir Harold "Micky" Martin, also a pilot on the Dambusters Raid.
A 1955 film, The Dam Busters, was made of the exploits of 617 Sqn; Gibson was played by Richard Todd in the film.
Paintings of Gibson feature on the wall of the bar of the Olde Crown pub in Lincoln, a pub that Gibson frequented regularly when he was based at RAF Scampton.
Gibson had a black Labrador called 'Nigger' - killed in a car accident the morning before the air raid and buried on the base just outside Gibson's office. 'Nigger' was the codeword Gibson used to confirm the breach of the Möhne Dam.
There is a Blue plaque outside a house on Aberdeen Place, off Edgware Road in London commemorating his occupancy there for a short time in 1943.
There is a Blue plaque outside a house on Archer Road, Penarth, South Wales commemorating his residency there between 1940 and 1943.
Guy Gibson's RAF flight log is on display at the Windsor Castle public house on Crawford Street, London.
Guy Gibson appears in Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships as an alternative history version of himself who leads the "Chronic Expeditionary Force" back in time from 1944 to the Paleocene Era.