GIBSON, Guy (1918-1944)
Plaque erected in 2006 by English Heritage at 32 Aberdeen Place, St John's Wood, London, NW8 8JR, City of Westminster
GUY GIBSON V.C. 1918-1944 Pilot Leader of the Dambusters Raid lived here
Guy Gibson, an RAF pilot who led the ‘Dambusters’ raid, is commemorated on a plaque at 32 Aberdeen Place, St John's Wood, City of Westminster, London NW8 8JR, where he spent periods of leave during the Second World War.
Gibson was born in Simla, India, of English parents but moved to England with his mother when he was six. He was educated in Cornwall, Kent and finally in Oxford, where he attended the same school (St Edward’s) as Douglas Bader.
JOINING RAF BOMBER COMMAND
At first rejected by the RAF for his relative lack of height, Gibson was subsequently accepted in 1936. On 5 September 1939, he took part in the first air attack on Germany of the Second World War – on warships at the mouth of the Kiel canal – but the raid was abandoned due to bad weather.
Thereafter he took part in many operations, mainly minelaying at first, and from April 1940 against German forces invading Norway and Denmark, and in May and June in France and Belgium to support the retreating Allied armies. In the summer his squadron made sustained attacks on troop barges being assembled as a precursor to invasion in occupied ports across the Channel.
In July 1940, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for gallantry and devotion to duty, and by September had flown on 37 raids.
Promoted to Flight Lieutenant, Gibson transferred to Fighter Command, developing equipment and techniques for intercepting German night bombing raids. Initially it was a frustrating business, but he eventually shot down four German bombers. He was promoted to squadron leader in July 1941 and awarded a bar to his DFC in September of the same year.
BACK TO BOMBERS
In April 1942, shortly after the appointment of Arthur Harris as commanding officer of Bomber Command, Gibson was promoted to Wing Commander and given charge of 106 Squadron, overseeing its transition to the new Lancaster bombers. At this time, the British government began the ‘area bombing’ policy, and Gibson’s squadron hit multiple targets in France, Germany and Italy, including docks, factories, railyards, ships and towns. In November, Gibson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), and a bar in April of 1944.
Gibson next commanded 617 Squadron, from March 1943, and quickly went into specialist training for a daring low-level raid, Operation Chastise, against six vital dams on reservoirs in the German industrial heartland, the Ruhr. Canister-shaped bouncing bombs, named ‘Upkeep’, designed by Barnes Wallis, were dropped from 60 feet (18m) above the water, which called for great piloting skill and precise bomb aiming.
Strategically and tactically, the raid was a partial success, and a brilliant technical and operational achievement. Of the six dams, the Möhne and Eder were badly damaged, enough to cause temporary economic and industrial disruption, flooding of coal mines, loss of hydro-electric power, and the diversion of vital resources for the dams’ repair. The cost was eight Lancaster aircraft, the lives of 53 air crew (40% of the total) and about 1,600 civilians, about two-thirds of whom were French, Belgian, Polish and Soviet prisoners of war or forced labourers, most of them women.
However, the success of the raid also lay in its huge propaganda value and the boost it gave to Allied morale. Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross and hailed by Winston Churchill as ‘the dam-buster’ and ‘one of the most splendid of our fighting men’.
CELEBRITY AND DEATH
After Operation Chastise, Gibson was too high-profile to risk on bombing operations. However, his celebrity was such that he accompanied Winston Churchill to North America and undertook a lecture tour. On returning to England in December 1943, a political career was in prospect, and in March 1944 he was selected as Conservative parliamentary candidate for Macclesfield.
However, politics was not for Gibson, who itched to return to action. He returned to service, supposedly in a staff role in Bomber Command. He persuaded Air Vice Marshal Arthur Harris to allow him to fly operationally. After a successful raid on a ‘soft’ target on the German towns of Rheydt and Mönchengladbach on the night of 19/20 September 1944, Gibson crashed his plane in the Netherlands. The circumstances of the crash are not known but he was flying a De Havilland Mosquito, an aircraft he was not familiar with, with Jim Warwick, a navigator he didn’t know. Both men died.
CHARACTER AND LEGACY
By some accounts Gibson was always eager to fly on operation, trying to prove himself. His conduct sometimes verged on the arrogant, attracting nicknames of ‘Bumptious Bastard’ and ‘The Boy Emperor’. By others he was said to be hard-working, efficient, straightforward and sociable.
Gibson’s significance lies in his deeds. He was a brave and skilled pilot, and a man of action who flew in at least 174 missions against the enemy, a phenomenal record which is marked by his awards for bravery, including the highest one, the VC. In 1943, as one of the most experienced bomber officers in the RAF, he was an obvious choice to lead Operation Chastise, a seemingly impossible mission to drop experimental bombs while flying a heavy Lancaster at treetop height. In this endeavour, 106 Squadron’s achievement is astonishing. Gibson’s role is summed up by ‘Johnny’ Johnson, who flew on the raid as a sergeant:
He [Gibson] made the first attack and assessed the strength of the defences. As he called in each subsequent crew to attack, he flew alongside them to attract some of the defences. To me that says ‘You are doing this, I am doing it, we are doing it together’. To me that is the essence of good leadership, always from the front.
In the early part of 1943, Gibson wrote his account of Operation Chastise as Enemy Coast Ahead, published posthumously in 1946. The legendary status of the raid and his role in it achieved a further boost following the 1955 film Dambusters, directed by Richard Anderson and starring Richard Todd, and its iconic theme tune, composed by Eric Coates.
Gibson’s plaque is on the St John’s Wood house where he shared a flat with his wife, Eve, from the summer of 1942. It was his only London address, where he wrote much of Enemy Coast Ahead. It is also the place where a telegram arrived to inform Eve of his death.