Guy Gibson was born in Simla, India, on 12 August 1918. Though not particularly gifted academically or physically he impressed as hard-working and determined, and this paid off when, after first being rejected as too short (at 5 feet 6 inches), he was in the summer of 1936 accepted for the RAF.
Gibson joined 83 squadron and stayed with them until September 1940 before being posted to instruct at 14 operational training unit, Cottesmore, Rutland. After just two weeks, a serious shortage of night fighter pilots led to him being posted to 29 squadron, Digby, Lincolnshire, with a rank of flight lieutenant acting as a flight commander. Promoted squadron leader in June 1941, he was awarded a bar to his DFC in September, but in December was appointed chief flying instructor at 51 operational training unit, Cranfield.
Totally unsuited to instructing, and thoroughly disliking the job, Gibson was once more lucky to be earmarked for promotion by Air Marshal “Bomber” Harris, commander-in-chief, Bomber Command, and in April 1942 he took command of 106 squadron at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, holding the rank of wing commander. With the introduction of the Lancaster bomber, 106 squadron was recognised as the top-performing 5 group squadron, on the evidence of target photographs. Gibson’s achievement was acknowledged by a DSO in November 1942 and a bar in March 1943, on the completion of his tour, which brought his total number of sorties to at least 72.
Normally, after such prolonged operational service Gibson would have been rested but instead he was asked to form a new squadron to undertake a very special project, the ‘Dambusters’ raid of 16 May 1943 with 617 Squadron. The task facing Gibson when he arrived at Scampton on 21 March was huge. The attempt to breach the Ruhr dams had to be made at the coincidence of a full moon and full dams—in mid May. In two months a squadron was formed and crews trained for an operation that required new and specialist skills. Of the raid itself, which was intended to disrupt industry in the Ruhr by destroying six key dams, much has been written, first by Gibson in his book “Enemy Coast Ahead”, the raid, the squadron, and Gibson himself have become legendary.
The propaganda success was huge although only two of the dams (the Möhne and the Eder) were breached, insufficient seriously to disrupt production, and, since no other squadron had been trained, there was no possibility of a further raid. The fear that there might be another raid, however, led to the deployment of a large anti-aircraft defence force around German dams for the remainder of the war. For the attackers, too, the dams raid was costly: eight of the nineteen aircraft were lost, and of their fifty-six crew only three survived, to be taken prisoner.
Thirty-four aircrew were decorated for their part in the dams raid, Gibson himself, who, after dropping his mine, flew alongside other attacking aircraft to draw anti-aircraft fire, being awarded the Victoria Cross. By becoming a celebrity overnight he was too valuable to be risked further on operations and he relinquished command of 617 squadron. Gibson travelled with Winston Churchill’s party across the Atlantic, for talks with the Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King, and President Roosevelt, but was released to carry out a continent-wide speaking tour, addressing air force and civic audiences in Canada and the United States.
Returning to Britain in December 1943 Gibson began working at the directorate of accidents in the Air Ministry but spent most of his time working on a book, probably at the instigation of the Ministry of Information. The result was the best-selling Enemy Coast Ahead, published posthumously in 1946. There has been much debate over how much of the book was actually written by Gibson but all the evidence suggests that although it was professionally edited, Enemy Coast Ahead is essentially as Gibson wrote it.
After a course at the RAF Staff College Gibson was posted in quick succession as a staff officer at two Lincolnshire bomber bases. From there he flew, semi-unofficially, three operations before wringing out of Air Marshal Harris permission to fly again, though only to a carefully selected soft target. That, on the night of 19/20 September, was the twin towns of Rheydt and Mönchengladbach, a few miles inside Germany’s border with the Netherlands. Gibson appointed himself controller and directed the attack. He and his navigator, replacing one who reported sick at the last minute, had never flown together, and neither had flown a De Havilland Mosquito, a fast twin-engined aircraft that Gibson had never previously flown operationally. The attack went well, with little opposition, and Gibson turned for home, flying at low level (against advice given at briefing) across the Netherlands. At 22.30 the Mosquito crashed on farmland near Steenbergen and exploded. The meagre remains of the two crew were buried the following day in the cemetery at Steenbergen.
Why Gibson’s aircraft crashed cannot be ascertained but one view is that the Mosquito, perhaps damaged by enemy fire, suffered fuel starvation, which the crew, unused to the procedure for switching tanks, was unable to correct in time. This would account for eyewitness statements that the engines cut out. Whatever the explanation there can be no doubt that the inexperience of the crew and the fact that they had never flown together before contributed to their destruction.
The circumstances of Gibson’s death in some respects typify the man. Scarred by his childhood, with a cold and remote father and a self-absorbed and alcoholic mother, he was emotionally insecure and seems to have felt a compulsion to assert or prove himself. When he had a role to play—as a commanding officer or, indeed, as a war hero on tour—he could be attractively modest but when he felt sidelined, as in desk jobs, he tended to act in ways that were ill judged and earned him a reputation as cocksure. Of aircrew he was warmly supportive, unless they failed his own high standards. With ground crew he never established as good a relationship, as the nickname Bumptious Bastard, which his 83 squadron ground crew gave him, indicates.
The war gave Guy Gibson the chance to prove himself and to win fame. He did both, and though the dams raid seems, in retrospect, a greater success in propaganda terms than any other, through Enemy Coast Ahead—which, for all its inaccuracies, remains vivid and readable—and (in a memorable portrayal by Richard Todd that has largely replaced the actuality of Gibson himself) through the highly successful 1955 film The Dam Busters, he achieved near-legendary status..