GUY GIBSON: DAMBUSTER – Review by Mark Barnes

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GUY GIBSON: DAMBUSTER
By Geoff Thompson
Published by Pen & Sword Aviation
ISBN: 978 1 78159 055 3

Is it really seventy years since the Dams Raid? It cannot be that long, surely? Those men they are in the pantheon, they live forever, like all their comrades. I remember the elegy for a rear gunner:

My brief sweet life is over, I can no longer see,
No summer walks, no Christmas trees, no pretty girls for me.
I’ve got the chop, I’ve had it.
My nightly ops are done.
But in a hundred years from now I’ll still be twenty-one.

A few lines of poetry for all the men of Bomber Command, so many of whom disappear into history without a trace; but some stand out forever and one above all. Guy Penrose Gibson was just twenty-six when he died on the 19th of September, 1944. He had earned the Victoria Cross, two Distinguished Service Orders and two Distinguished Flying Crosses. He had flown a hundred and seventy four combat sorties; probably more. He was a complex, difficult man to know and like. He had short man syndrome as we might call it today.  He was a snob who had little time for the “lower orders”, so I am quite sure he would have had little time for a bus conductor’s son like me. Although given the things I have known in my life I like to see myself as a “press on type” – which he admired.  He had endured a a rotten loveless childhood and was something of an attention seeker. So how did this inadequate little bloke become such a legend?

Well, obviously there is the small matter of the Dams Raid which sets him in stone. But if you try and leave that aside how much more is there? This is the second biography of Gibson I’ve read and it has a serious go at finding the man but there is only so much to go on. Geoff Thompson seems to make a conscious effort to leave some of the well covered ground behind and look at things of interest to new readers while knowing he has little choice but to concentrate on Operation Chastise.  All roads lead to the Dams. It is inevitable that some paths will also take us up byways to Gibson’s dog, who like Lord Voldemort is he who cannot be named and in to areas surrounding the making of the famous film. I am also interested in how Enemy Coast Ahead came to bewritten and there is a bit more about that here and the involvement of Roald Dahl.

Ultimately you find yourself wondering how much you can get from a man who died, aged twenty-six, in 1944. He left little or no papers. He wasn’t academic. He wasn’t greatly liked, there were plenty who loathed him. He was a bit of a prick. But he was an absolute god. He had guts and he would do stuff. He actually wrote one of the great autobiographies of World War II, and it was him, with a bit of help here or there just for guidance. He was a copper plated hero, nothing more nothing less. He has been my number one since I was knee high to a grasshopper for all his many faults. Guy Penrose Gibson VC, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar. Rest in peace, mate.

I don’t think it’s invidious to compare him with the multi-millionaire soccer players who trot out new ghost written autobiographies every time England qualify for the World Cup Finals and describe their trials and tribulations in ponderous detail and sell the rights to the red tops for telephone number fees and then don’t even have the good grace to get the quarter finals.  Gibson achieved something for his country and gave all he had – life itself. And I know I don’t like the vision of what he might have been in the post war world. If he been a member of parliament and on the telly in some sort of boorish pose – a sneering Tory telling us all what to do doesn’t appeal. But maybe he’d have stayed as a professional air force officer and served out his days and perhaps still other fates would have found him in the uncertainties of the jet age. It’s all conjecture.  Because Gibson, the man he was, wouldn’t take advice and flew an unfamiliar Mossie to Rheydt and came down over Steenbergen on that fateful night and took Jim Warwick with him. Alas poor Jim.

When we think of Gibson we see Richard Todd the former para, a man somewhat older, who had jumped into Normandy the year Guy died. The real man looks much more boyish in his photos; but his lack of stature doesn’t help. Peter Jackson’s obsession with Hobbits has an end, and in New Zealand a remake of the Dambusters will one day appear for a new audience and we will have a modern cinematic vision of this little big man. It will seem strange.  Until then Geoff Thompson does a great job to fill in so many of the gaps. As said, he avoids many of the sacred cows and tries to keep things straight. This is an enjoyable read about a man everyone does and doesn’t know. I can’t see how that will change. Guy remains an enigma. But he is ours. Arthur Harris said he and his comrades would be “above the salt” in their particular Valhalla. They are still there. Drink up lads, time for another!

by Mark Barns, be sure to check his facebook page “For Your Tomorrow