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Wing Commander Guy Gibson

Guy Gibson was just 24 years old when he formed 617 Squadron and led them on the Dambusters raid, Operation Chastise, yet he was already a vastly experienced and well-decorated pilot.

Guy Gibson. Image: Ministry of Defence, Air Historical Branch.

He won the Victoria Cross on the raid and came to represent an archetype of the brave, swashbuckling pilot hero. Yet he was far from universally popular even - perhaps especially - among his own men.

Gibson was born in Shimla, India, in 1918 but grew up in Britain from the age of six and harboured an early ambition to become a pilot. He began his pilot training in 1936 at the age of 18 and by the time war broke out in 1939 he was a Flying Officer, albeit with a slightly rocky disciplinary record and reputation.

In the first years of the war he flew in both bombers and night fighters and had his first command - of 106 Squadron – under his belt, along with three completed tours, more than 172 sorties, a Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and bars for both (effectively given both decorations twice).

It was not just his ability as a pilot and a commander that were tested by his appointment to put together the new squadron in March 1943 – the tight timeframes also tested his logistical and administrative capacities.

‘"went to the stationery department and got a little book and wrote down everything to be done in a long column," he later recalled. "Every time anything got fixed up, I would tick it off, but by the end of the day there weren’t too many ticks to be seen."

Gibson had a reputation for communicating well with his fellow pilots and officers and of leading by example, but he often caused friction with his attitude towards the NCOs and ground crew that has been characterised as snobbish, officious and arrogant.

According to Johnny Johnson, "Guy Gibson was a little man – with quite a big opinion of himself – but after all he'd done an awful lot more than the rest of us. I'd say he probably had the right to be a bit self-important."

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Flying Officer Jack Barrett, a navigator in 617 Squadron on the Dambusters raid, who died age 22.

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