Personal Effects of Guy Gibson on show
The personal effects of Dambusters hero Wg Cdr Guy Gibson have gone on public display for the first time since his death on a combat mission in World War Two.
His personal flying log, dress hat and letters he signed are on show throughout September at the Lords Cricket Museum in St John’s Wood in North London – a stone’s throw from his home in the last year before his death.
The artefacts – from the private collections of 617 Sqn (now based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland) and the Bomber Command Association - are being displayed at Lords on the 65th anniversary of the month after the RAF closed its temporary use of the cricket ground as an Aircrew Receiving Centre. Also requisitioned for the ARC were nearby flats and the restaurant at London Zoo which served as its canteen.
Few are aware that Lord’s Cricket Ground was once a constituent part of the wartime RAF. After the Battle of Britain the Nation turned its attention to taking the war to Germany, but it was realised that existing RAF selection establishments were unable to cope with the sudden demand for thousands more aircrew.
It was decided to create an ARC at Lords in London because of its central position in the rail transport network.
Civilian volunteers for air crew training were recruited and given a basic medical and attested at centres near their home. Later they would receive a letter telling them to report to Lord’s. On arrival, they were assembled into flights, each under the command of a Corporal, kitted out
and accommodated in a number of requisitioned blocks of flats nearby. Collectively, the assets were known as RAF Regents Park. The ARC opened on 14 Jun 1941 with the first intake of cadets on 30 June 1941.
The recruits would be marched to the canteen of the nearby London Zoo for their meals. During a two to three week period, they received basic instruction on service life; underwent a rigorous medical and a series of tests designed to weed out unsuitable candidates and identify the most suitable aircrew role for those remaining. From Lord’s they were posted to appropriate Initial Training Wings around the country to continue further training in their selected roles.
With the decreasing need for aircrew in the latter stages of WW2, ARC Lords was closed on the 31st Aug 1944. During the period from 1941 more than 115,000 civilians and 44,000 in-service volunteers for air crew passed through its doors. Many thousands of these young men were later to lose their lives on operations.
In 1943 Wg Cdr Gibson was selected to command the new 617 Squadron and ordered to destroy dams in the Ruhr area. To accomplish this they were provided with the bouncing bomb designed and developed by Barnes Wallis. The bombs had to be dropped from 60 feet (18 m) from a predefined distance to skip across the water into the dam face and then roll down it to explode at a predefined depth. To stand any chance of success Operation Chastise had to be flown at night at extremely low level.
To achieve the correct height they fixed two spotlights to the nose and tail of the Lancaster and directed their beams downwards so that they crossed 60 feet (18 m) under the craft. The navigator would direct the pilot up or down until the spots touched, forming a figure 8. The bomb aimer found the correct distance from the dam by looking through a simple hand-held wooden triangle with dowel markers. When the dowels lined up with the towers on the dam he released the bomb.
On the night of 16 May 1943 19 Lancasters set off carrying one bomb each. It took five attempts to breach the Moehne. Gibson then led the three remaining Lancasters to attack and breach the Eder Dam. Two other dams were attacked but not breached. Only 11 of the bombers survived the mission; 53 crew members died in the raid.
The devastation caused by the raids was extensive but the Germans managed to rebuild and recover much more quickly than was expected. However they were forced to use assets to protect key installations like dams to a greater extent than they had before. These assets would have been useful on other fronts. The propaganda boost given to the allied war effort was considerable.
Gibson returned to operational duties in 1944 after a spell at the Air Ministry in London, during which time he lived at Aberdeen Terrace, around the corner from Lords. He was killed along with his navigator on a bombing raid over Germany when his de Havilland Mosquito crashed near Steenbergen in September 1944. He was 26 years old.
It was assumed for many years that he had been shot down, but following the discovery of the wreckage of his plane, it was found that a fault with the fuel tank selector had meant that the aircraft had simply run out of fuel. An eye-witness account detailed how his aircraft circled Steenbergen in Holland, and then heard its engines 'splutter and stop'.
Actor Michael Bentine passed through the ARC. In his autobiography he wrote: ”We brand-new aircrew cadets wore a distinguishing white ‘flash’ in the front of our caps and were billeted in the numerous luxury flats that fronted the top half of Regent’s Park. These blocks of smart modern apartments had been left empty practically overnight when the air raids hit London in 1940 and had since been taken over by RAF Training Command to house the thousands of young cadets who were passing through this reception centre.
“Although we didn’t complain at the comfortable billets, it did seem to be a strange place to concentrate the Royal Air Force’s most valuable long-term assets. I can’t imagine the Germans doing the same thing in Berlin.”
After the war he became a comedian and co-founded The ‘Goon Show’ radio show with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe.
The public are welcome to visit the Lords Cricket Museum, pay a small charge and see the ARC artefacts and memorabilia belonging to Wg Cdr Gibson which is on display until the end of the month.
Editor: Steve Willmot
Photographs: RAF/MOD Crown Copyright 2009.