In this image, Wing Commander Guy Gibson can be seen sitting in field of poppies at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire in July 1943.
It was from this airbase that Gibson led 617 Squadron to carry out Operation Chastise, more commonly known as the ‘Dambusters Raid’, just a few months before, on the night of 16-17 May 1943.
Nineteen Lancaster bombers attacked the Sorpe, Eder, and Möhne dams in Germany. The last two were breached, which – as was intended – led to severe flooding, and the destruction of factories, transport, and other infrastructure vital to the Nazi war effort.
In the months beforehand, 617 Squadron had trained intensively for the bombing raid, which would utilise ‘Upkeep’, a new weapon designed by the scientist and inventor Barnes Wallis.
Despite the success of Wallis’s ‘bouncing bomb’ and the raid itself, there was an inevitable human cost. Of the 133 RAF servicemen who participated, 53 failed to return – and another three were taken prisoner.
Gibson made it back alive, and for his efforts received the Victoria Cross, becoming Scampton’s third recipient of the award.
He is reading in this picture. In the months after the raid, Gibson wrote a book of his own, recounting the daring Dambusters Raid. Enemy Coast Ahead is a classic first-hand account of the mission, as good – if not better – than some of the second-hand histories that have followed.In his book, Gibson revealed his awareness of the human suffering the air war inflicted on civilians, enemy or otherwise, as well as the anxiety the work caused himself and his colleagues.
‘Your stomach feels as though it wants to hit your backbone,’ Gibson wrote of pre-mission nerves. ‘You can’t stand still. You laugh at small jokes, loudly, stupidly. You smoke too many cigarettes, usually only halfway through, then throw them away.’The following year, Gibson was tragically killed during a bombing raid over the Netherlands. The plane he was piloting suffered an engine failure, and it fell out of the sky, killing himself and his navigator. Gibson was 26.
Enemy Coast Ahead was published just after the war. It became a bestseller and has never been out of print.
Text: Calum Henderson. Image: Wikimedia Commons.