It was seventy eight years ago this week on the 16th May 1943 that the legendary bouncing bombs of Operation Chastise were released against the Ruhr dams in Germany by a newly formed No 617 Squadron of the RAF In charge was a young pilot named Guy Gibson a hugely experienced bomber pilot despite his age of just 24.
Wing Commander Gibson DSO, DFC and Bar had already flown 172 sorties by this time and was not expecting to be asked in a meeting with Air Vice Marshal Ralph Cochrane on 18 March 1943 if he was willing to fly on “one more trip”.
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Guy Gibson was a born leader, if also seen as arrogant and bombastic which had earned him the uncomplimentary nickname of The Boy Emperor and for being a strict disciplinarian some of his aircrew called him the Arch Bastard.
It had been in March 1943 when he was first told that he had been selected to command a new squadron of Lancaster Bombers, which would be based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. His squadron’s secret operation had an objective that was required to be achieved by 19 May of that year and would involve a mission to fly at low level at night but he was not told at this stage what the target would be.
Gibson was born in Simla, India, on the 12th August 1918 the son of Alexander Gibson, an officer in the Imperial Indian Forestry Service and Leonora “Nora” Gibson. He was six years old when his mother brought him back with her to live in England after his parents had separated. Returning to near Penzance, Cornwall, as Nora Gibson’s family came from Porthleven, Guy Gibson’s education began in a Cornish school until his mother made the move to live up in London. The young Guy Gibson was then sent to a boarding school in Folkestone, Kent until, in 1932, he was enrolled at St Edward’s school in Oxford, where he attended the same school as the legendary RAF fighter pilot Douglas Bader.
Short of stature
Flying planes became an aim of the young Gibson who set his sights on becoming a civilian test pilot and so he sought the advice of the Chief test pilot at Vickers, Captain Summers. Summers’ advice was that Gibson should learn to fly by taking a short-service commission (SSC) in the Royal Air Force.
In 1937, the RAF had begun to offer SSC’s to people who met their academic standards, with no regard to what their social background was. The RAF provided the candidate with a four-year term as a junior rank on squadron service to include flying lessons followed by a period of six years on the air force reserve list an excellent proposition for a seventeen year old man who just wanted to fly! Ironically, Gibson failed the medical requirements for being too short at five foot six inches. Then in 1936 he was able to have his application accepted when the air force acknowledged that his legs were an acceptable length and so began his RAF career.
From a search for Gibson in the Military Records on TheGenealogist he can be found firstly in the 1939 Air Force List which shows him as being a commissioned officer with seniority as a Pilot Officer from 4 September 1937. He is recorded as being part of No 83 (Bomber) Squadron which by that time was stationed at an airbase in Lincolnshire that was destined to play a significant part in his career, RAF Scampton. In 1943 this was the location chosen by the air force as the base for the squadron that Gibson would lead to attack the dams.
His first air attack on the enemy took place in 1940 when he was involved in bombing the Kiel canal in Germany with No 83 Squadron. In July 1940 after 37 operations Gibson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (D.F.C.) as was recorded in his squadron’s Operations Record Book for the 9th of July.
He would be made a Squadron Leader, have a bar added to his DFC and then be promoted to Wing Commander and put in charge of No 106 Squadron in April of 1942. November 1942 then saw him awarded a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and in March 1943, as he left 106 Squadron, he was recommended for a Bar to his DSO. At the headquarters of No 5 Group, however, it was suggested that this should be reduced to a second bar to his DFC, as they thought that it was too close to the award of the DSO for him to be given a bar to that medal. When Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, who was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief RAF Bomber Command and sometimes known as Bomber Harris, saw the suggestion he overruled it. The bar was changed back up to the DSO. In the book by Richard Morris Guy Gibson. London: Viking, Penguin Group and published 1994, it recounts that Harris commented that “any Captain who completes 172 sorties in outstanding manner is worth two DSOs if not a VC. Bar to DSO approved”. Of course Gibson would, in time, also receive the highest British honour for valor just after the Dambusters raid when he was awarded a Victoria Cross.
Operation Chastise – The Dam Busters Raid
TheGenealogist website has a program of releases for the RAF AIR 27 records. These official unit diaries are the Operations Record Books (ORBs) for a number of squadrons including some from the Commonwealth and Allied air forces under British control. As we mark the anniversary on the 16th May of the famous Dambusters raid in 1943 (Operation Chastise) this includes those ORBs for No 617 Squadron as they targeted the Möhne, Edersee and the Sorpe Dam in the industrialised Ruhr Valley.
A search for Guy Gibson in the Military Records in May, the month that the unit was training hard for the operation that would see the dropping of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bombs finds that on the 1st May the Wing commander was away on temporary duty for the day.
Glancing down the page we then note that 617 Squadron was having more than its share of big wigs on morale-raising visits with the 5th of May receiving Marshal of the Royal Air Force the Lord Trenchard. Hugh Trenchard was, of course, instrumental in setting up the RAF in 1918 and was a champion of strategic bombing. The very next day, the 6th May, saw Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris who was Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) RAF Bomber Command and became known as Bomber Harris.
Searching for the 16th May and the night of Operation Chastise we read in the daily journal that:
A special operation for which this squadron has been training so hard was carried out.
It goes on to mention the three great German dams targeted and that 19 aircraft took off and 8 failed to return.
The attack was an outstanding success in spite of those losses…
Then we can see on the same ORB page the entry a few lines down for the 18th May which tells us that all the aircrew were given 7 days leave. While the record for the 24th May reveals that the King approved the immediate awards of VCs for Wing Commander Gibson, Fl/Sgt Brown and Fl/Sgt Townsend while a host of others were honoured and received DSOs, DFCs and Bars to their medals.
The King and Queen visit Scampton
The 27th May then saw a visit to the base by the King and Queen themselves to congratulate the Squadron on their successful operation.
Operation Chastise being of historical significance means that the compiler of the ORB saw fit to write a summary on a form 541. This document is modestly titled by the Royal Air Force as: Details of Work Carried Out. It is a great precis of the Dam Busters raid written by the Squadron that actually flew the mission.
These detailed journal-like records uniquely released online by TheGenealogist are a goldmine of information for finding out what aircrew’s daily life was like.
Taking the research further
But TheGenealogist also has a host of other Military records on its site and if we search for Guy Gibson we will also find him in the Air Force Lists, including that of 1943 where his V.C. is obvious by its inclusion before his listing.
This website also has a dedicated Dam Buster Record set in which you can find the aircrew in Guy Gibson’s case we see details of the duty he carried out: Captain. Type of aircraft Lancaster III its call sign. Time up and time of return and all sorts of other details including the name of the crew.
If we follow Wing Commander Gibson in other records to be found on TheGenealogist we will see that he sadly lost his life later the next year when flying a Mosquito with another bomber unit, No 627 Squadron. Gibson’s aircraft crashed at Steenbergen in the Netherlands and it is here that he is buried along with his navigator, Squadron Leader Jim Warwick.
TheGenealogist’s military records have been invaluable in revealing the actual official documents that enable researchers of ancestors who served in the Royal Air Force to discover the day to day operations within the squadrons of this branch of the British armed forces. In this case we have been able to mark the anniversary of Operation Chastise and the raid on the Ruhr dams led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson by referring to the actual Operations Record Books for No 617 Squadron, a unit that will always be remembered as the Dambusters.