Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson, VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, was the first commanding officer of the Royal Air Force’s No. 617 Squadron; he led the Dam Busters‘ raid (Operation Chastise) in 1943. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, and in June 1943, became the most highly decorated serviceman in the country. By the age of 26, he had completed over 170 operations.
From an early age, Gibson wanted to fly; he kept a picture of his boyhood hero, Albert Ball, VC, the First World War flying ace, on his bedroom wall. His ambition was to become a civilian test pilot so he wrote to Vickers asking for advice. He received a reply from their chief test pilot, who told Gibson he should first learn to fly by joining the RAF on a short service commission. Gibson applied to the RAF but was rejected after he failed the Medical Board (the probable reason is that his legs were too short). However, he applied again and this time it was successful; his personal file included the remark ‘satisfactory leg length test carried out’. And so he began a short service commission in November of 1936.
Gibson began his flying training at the Bristol Flying School with No. 6 Flying Training Course. After some leave, he moved to No. 24 (Training) Group at RAF Uxbridge for his RAF basic training. He was commissioned with the rank of acting pilot officer effective January 31, 1937. He underwent further training as a member of the junior section of No. 5 Flying Training course at 6 Flying Training School, RAF Netheravon, and was awarded his pilot’s wings on May 24, 1937. As part of the Advanced Training Squadron in summer 1937, he participated in further training at No. 3 Armament Training Station in Sutton Bridge. He chose bombers as these gave experience in multi-engine planes, this being typical for individuals planning on a civilian flying career. Following his return to Netheravon, he graduated in August of 1937; he passed all his ground exams the first time with a 77.29% and a flying rating of ‘average’. However, his rating as a companion was below average; he was known for his sometimes rude and condescending behaviour toward junior ranks and ground crews.
Gibson’s first posting was to No. 83 (Bomber) Squadron at RAF Turnhouse. The period of time from April to September of 1940 was perhaps one of the most operationally intense periods of Gibson’s career; he completed 34 operations in 5 months, with 10 of those in June. The type of operation varied – from ‘gardening’ (laying mines in various seaways and harbour entrances) to attacks on capital ships, as well as attacks on ground-based military and economic targets. He acquired a reputation for being seemingly fearless, especially since he was willing to fly in marginal weather. He was awarded the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) in July of 1940. He was trained for a low-level attack on the Dortmund-Ems canal, but he missed the actual raid. In September of 1940, he was promoted to flight lieutenant. Later that month, his last operation with the squadron was to Berlin; his commanding officer described him as the ‘most full-out fighting pilot’ under his command at the time.
Gibson’s second operational tour was with the No. 29 Squadron, Fighter Command. He reported on November 13th as commander of ‘A’ Flight. He left in December with above average flying and gunnery ratings and was awarded a Bar to his DFC. Gibson wanted to return to bombers. In March of 1942, Gibson was appointed CO of No. 106 Squadron, Bomber Command. Gibson made his first flight in a Lancaster in early May. It appears that Gibson’s main concern was to be seen sharing the risk; he continued to select harder targets rather than easier ones. He expected the same determination from everyone in his squadron, and was “ruthless in screening crews for reliability”. He was responsible for the emergence of a close circle of officers who shared Gibson’s intensity for operations. Gibson continued to build his experience with the Lancaster; he flew with his friend, pilot John Hopgood. In November of 1942, Gibson was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) following attacks in France and Italy.
In March, 1943, Gibson was told he was to command a new squadron, one that would be required to fly low at night with an objective that had to be met by May 19th. He met with Group Captain John Whitworth, the commander of RAF Scrampton where the new squadron was to be stationed. With the help of Group Captain Satterly, the Senior Air Staff Officer of No. 5 Group, Gibson selected his crews. When Gibson arrived in Scrampton, his first task was to get the general administration organized. F/L Humphreys was key in rapidly establishing the squadron; the ground staff started to muster from the 21st of March and were fully present by March 27th. The aircrews began to arrive on March 24th.
On March 24th, Gibson met Barnes Wallis; Wallis was able to explain the design and operation of the new weapon (Upkeep). Three days later, Gibson was presented with his “most secret” written orders, including a description of the attack and the general plan for the squadron’s preliminary training. The orders included a list of nine lakes and reservoirs in the Midlands and North Wales for training flights and target practice. On March 28th, Gibson took Hopgood and Young with him to explore the low-flying requirement; during the day it was satisfactory, but during an attempt at dusk, they nearly ditched. He was shown scale models of the dams to be bombed and following that met again with Wallis; he rejected Wallis’ proposal of a daylight raid. A month later, on April 24th, Wallis made a request for the altitude to be reduced to 60 feet and Gibson reported three days later that it was possible and that the training had been adapted to the new altitude.
Briefings were held on May 16th. Gibson explained how they were going to “attack the great dams of Germany” and introduced Wallis to explain how the Upkeep would be used against the dams. It was clear that the crews were not to return with their mines.
A photo was taken of the crew entering the aircraft on the day of the raid. Gibson took off with Hopgood and Martin.
Formation No. 1’s mission was to attack the Mohne and then the Eder. Following a successful attack on the Mohne, the group continued to the Eder. The valley was covered by heavy fog but wasn’t defended. After several runs, the final bomb breached the dam. The Mohne and Edersee Dams were breached, causing catastrophic flooding of the Ruhr valley as well as the villages in the Eder valley. The Sorpe Dam sustained minor damage. Two hydroelectric power stations were destroyed, several more were damaged. As well, factories and mines were damaged or destroyed.
Gibson returned home with just three small holes in his aircraft’s tail. He later received a call to inform him that he had been awarded the VC (Victoria Cross). “He was subdued as he felt responsible for those he had recruited and who had not returned, particularly Hopgood. He was reported as saying, ‘It all seems so unfair.'”
Our Museum is fortunate to have a copy of Gibson’s Logbook. Have a look at his notations:
If you’re interested in Gibson’s story, you might want to read this book: