Wing Commander Guy Gibson

On September 19, 1994 two Tornados from the RAF's 617 squadron flew over a Dutch cemetery in a 50th anniversary tribute to Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC. It was the date of his death in a Mosquito crash and six of the 19 surviving members of the Dam Busters raid, Dutch Resistance veterans, members of Gibson's old 29, 83,106 and 617 squadrons, were at the crash site memorial and at his grave at Steenbergen.

The graves of Gibson and his navigator, Flt Lt Jim Warwick, have been tended for many years by a Dutch couple, Jan and Connie van-den Driesschen, who planned the tribute.

Gibson's name will always be associated with the epic raid on the Ruhr dams, but the book he wrote about life as a bomber pilot and included details of the attack will probably still be read a hundred years from now. When it came out in 1946 the critics were ecstatic."Enemy Coast Ahead" was hailed as a great, heroic narrative.

Writing in the Tatler, Elizabeth Bowen said it was a work of genius. The particular chapters on the Moene-Eder attack, she said, were like nothing else in writing. "Only Gibson could have given us this account, We must feel profoundly thankful that he did so. A book to keep for our sons' sons."

Punch said it was a remarkable piece of descriptive writing, recording the night-to-night life of a bomber pilot. It was modest, full of rich understanding, and extraordinarily adult. "Such a young man and so gay... Everyone should read this unforgettable book."

Nigel Tangy in the Spectator called it "A magnificent story well and simply told by as great a warrior as these islands ever bred." There were many other reviews in similar vein.

It seems quite remarkable how the language has changed over the years. The reference to Gibson as being "gay" would have been normal enough 50 years ago. Today it means something entirely different, more is the pity.

"Enemy Coast Ahead" quickly became a best seller, but Gibson , alas, did not enjoy the profits.

What kind of man was he really like? A biography about him - "Guy Gibson" by Richard Morris - was published on the 50th anniversary of his death. Far from painting a golden image, the book detailed a sad and troubled background and claimed that the Dam Buster flew to forget.

Gibson had joined the RAF without the intention of making it his career. His interest was in flying as such and he had hoped to become a civil aviation pilot. John Keegan, who reviewed the book for the Daily Telegraph said what it amounted to was that Gibson was not the golden boy of legend but an ugly duckling who achieved fame only by unrelenting effort. His chief characteristics were doggedness and a fierce, aggressive urge. The book tells the story of an often unhappy young man who found release from the experience of an isolated childhood and a troubled marriage in relentless action.

Same school as Bader

He went to school at St Edwards, Oxford, where Douglas Bader had preceded him. Though recognised as a trier, Gibson did not shine as a schoolboy. He even had difficulty in getting a short-service commission in 1937 and proved a merely average pilot.

"Superficially extrovert and bumptious, he made a poor impression on his fellow officers. On the outbreak of the war, however, he came to the attention of No 5 Group Commander, Arthur Harris, the future chief of Bomber Command, who fostered his career".

Gibson went on to commend 617 Squadron for the raids on the German dams, for which he was awarded a Victoria Cross. He had already received the DSO and Bar and DSC. Only Leonard Cheshire was as highly decorated.

John Keegan noted that Gibson was taken up by Churchill, and became a successful publicist of the British war effort in the United States, where he made a four-month publicity tour in 1943. He was also adopted as prospective Conservative candidate for Macclesfield.

Still in print, "Enemy Coast Ahead" has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in many languages. Gibson, described by Morris as a self-confessed Philistine, had shown no previous talent for writing and appeared to lack the concentration necessary to create a full-length book. Had it been ghosted? Morris, after much research, concluded that the best sel1er, was essentially the pilot's own work.

It was his last achievement. By late 1944, according to the book, he was an unhappy and frustrated man. His marriage to a showgirl six years older than himself had ended in their drifting apart. He had had a succession of affairs. A romantic friendship with a noncommissioned aircraftswoman might have brought him true love but convention prevented their marriage

Air Marshal Harris had withdrawn Gibson from operations, but in September, 1944, Gibson begged him to allow him to fly one more time and he was killed on a pathfinding mission. He was 26.

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