Stuck miles away in the depths of the countryside staying with my aged father this weekend, for a good part of yesterday we sat in the drawing room reading the newspapers and, after those had been consumed, he then looked through a pair of old family photograph albums whilst I picked up a hardback book from the sideboard entitled World War II in Photographs (published by Sevenoaks, 2005) as edited by historian Richard Holmes from the archive of the Imperial War Museum.
It so happens I had the pleasure of meeting Holmes twice in my life, on the latter occasion only a few months before he died in April 2011. I found my excursion through the pages of this particular Holmes offering a most rewarding experience.
One rather poignant colour photograph in the book attracted my keen attention. It was an image that I had never previously seen of Wing Commander Guy Gibson of ‘Dam Busters’ fame, relaxing in a meadow [right].
By March 1943, at the point he was chosen to lead the embryo 617 Squadron being formed for the purpose, Gibson had already flown 172 sorties and been awarded DSO and Bar plus a DFC and Bar and two months previously had flown Major Richard Dimbleby – broadcasting for the BBC – on one of his sorties to Berlin.
He was awarded the VC for his outstanding leadership and bravery during the night of 16th/17th May 1943 on the Dam Busters raid of movie – among much else – fame.
Nineteen bombers and 133 men took part in the raid and eight bombers and 53 men were lost. Afterwards Barnes Wallis, designer of the famous bouncing bomb that was used on the raid, was distraught at the number of casualties (40% of entire party dead) but Gibson did his best to assure him that all the men who took part had done so willingly and would have flown even if they had known their chances and fate.
Gibson flew for the last time with 617 Squadron on 2nd August 1943 and then undertook an official propaganda tour of North America for three months. He later wrote a book Enemy Coast Ahead and appeared on Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Discs radio show on 19th February 1944. He later returned to operations and took part, flying a Mosquito, in a bombing raid to Bremen on 19th September 1944 in which his plane crashed and he was killed at the age of just 26.
You cannot help but be impressed by a chap who had done quite so much in his short, eventful life. Compared to him, by the time I was 26, I had done little or nothing of note – and indeed, when it comes to it, I never managed much after that either!