John Gibson

227 Squadron did not have an authrised badge, so instead an image of one of their Lancasters from
the time John Gibson was serving with them in the last few months of WW2

John served on the branch committee for many years, latterly as 'speaker-seeker'. He died before the editor was able to record his recollections of his service with the RAF and later with the MoD. The following is based on what appears to be the text of a talk found among his papers. We are grateful to his son John for that and several photos, so that his father can be remembered among our members.

I will mention what created my enthusiasm for flying. I suppose it began when I was aged about twelve and had a flight with Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus. Then in 1937 I accompanied my father who was a member of the Observer Corps on a visit to nearby RAF Leeming where I was invited to fly in the rear gunner position of a Whitley bomber.

The following year having passed (just!) the Civil Service entrance exam it was my good fortune to be sent to London to the Air Ministry. I initially worked for a number of mid-career RAF officers. One was Wing Commander Boothman who in 1931 had won the Schneider Trophy outright for Britain. Another was Wing Commander George Mills who after retirement became Black Rod, who figured prominently as the door knocker at the Annual Opening of Parliament. I was flown twice by a Squadron Leader Adnams (a member of the well-known Southwold brewers) from Hendon to the South coast.

Shortly afterwards war broke out and I became Personal Assistant to Data Base Operations which elevated me to the 2nd floor of the Air Ministry in King Charles Street, Whitehall on which dwelt the Air Ministry politicians and RAF members of the Air Council. I happened to share an office with the Personal Assistant to the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, who at that time was a little known Air Vice Marshal Harris. He occupied the next office to me so I saw a great deal of him. Little did I know that I would eventually serve under him in his position as Commander in Chief Bomber Command.

Two years later I was called up. I should mention that I had fallen for a lady leaving the office of Wing Commander, later Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Basil Embry and some six years later we married! Sadly Grace died a few months before our diamond wedding anniversary which would have been in 2005.

After call up I went through all the usual protracted preliminaries. A few weeks at Lords Cricket ground, drills, some studying. Then my proper introduction to the RAF – 3 months at Initial Training Wing at the Grand Hotel Scarborough where we did lots more drilling and learned about the principles of flight which formed a good basis for the days when I would put it into practise in real aeroplanes. After Scarborough I went to Brough, near Hull for my grading course which was to see if I was likely to survive pilot training. Then to Manchester where we waited for a ship to take us either to Canada/United States or South Africa where weather conditions favoured uninterrupted training.

Eventually, we joined the Banflora in Liverpool and off we went to Canada. Looking back on my days in the RAF the weeks spent waiting for the next stage in our training must have added up to at least a year, probably a good deal more. My cousin unexpectedly turned up on the ship I was on and so I spent my 21st birthday celebrations with him whilst we waited for our onward posting to our flying training course, me to the high discipline of a USAAF Unit.

The week’s train journey from Moncton New Brunswick to Los Angeles via Toronto, Montreal, Chicago and over the Rockies was a wonderful experience. We had several hours to wander around all the cities that we passed through.

I was fortunate enough to worm my way into the contingent going to No. 2 British Flying Training School (BFTS) in California, at Lancaster, in the Mojave desert near what is now Edwards Air Force Base where much of the work connected with NASA has been carried out. The instructors were all American civilian pilots so it was the luck of the draw whether or not your chap could instruct as well as he could fly!! My instructor took me to a large dried out lake for my first solo – good thinking on his part. I got through it successfully but the size of the landing area gave me great confidence!

At No. 2 BFTS (Polaris Flight Academy), Lancaster, California. John on right above and second right below

Having caught a persistent athlete’s foot I had to visit a hospital in Los Angeles each weekend for many weeks. The ease of hitch hiking into Los Angeles was so attractive that I subsequently continued to spend all my weekends off with friends I made. Hospitality was wonderful and two separate week holidays were spent as guests in San Francisco.

But it had to come to an end. As we were the last but one course prior to USAAF taking over, in November 1942 we were able to attend a farewell ball held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where President Kennedy’s brother was later assassinated. Dozens of Hollywood stars attended and we danced to Ray Noble’s orchestra. I successfully completed qualifying 200 flying hours and was presented with my wings.

We returned to the United Kingdom on the Queen Elizabeth – 14,000 passengers! I then waited for 3 months in Harrogate to find out what was going to happen to me. Eventually I was told I was to instruct in a grading course for would be pilots, mostly recent school leavers it seemed, to check if they should proceed for flying training. After my own training course I spent an enjoyable year at Scone in Perthshire, where a year later I was commissioned and shortly afterwards I began my operational training on Oxfords, 2 Wellingtons, 3 Stirlings and finally Lancasters at OTU.

John as Sgt

John as an officer

Despite completing training in 1942 I didn’t join my bomber squadron (No. 227) until March 1945, 2 months before war in Europe ended. Here again my luck held out and with a feeling of guilt, whilst I had enjoyed a cushy period as an instructor my cousin and my two close friends from my Californian course were all killed in Lancaster Squadrons.

I did my second dickie trip in March [1945] and was told by the Commanding Officer to go out the next night with the same crew. I had a painful cyst on the lower lid of my left eye and saw the Medical Officer who said that he would remove it while I waited. He told me to wear an eye patch – no flying for a few days. I had to withdraw from the trip that night – the crew were believed to have been shot down over the North Sea with no survivors.

John Gibson, centre, and crew in front of a very experienced Lancaster

On two successive nights in April we did trips, first to Pilsen (where the Squadron mistakenly hit a large brewery instead of railway marshalling yards!) and Charn (an oil depot). Then war in Europe ended and I flew Lancasters just for fun, in safety!

The Squadron was transferred to 'Tiger Force' which was destined for Okinawa to co-operate with USAAF to take part in what sounded pretty suicidal low level attacks on Japanese cities. Again my luck held, the Japanese surrendered, the Squadron was broken up and I went to Transport Command with a new crew, to fly the American B24 Liberator. Thereafter I had an enjoyable seven and a half months flying troops to Karachi and returning with a load who were returning to the UK. So ended my flying career.

I said that I would talk about the Lancaster. It was designed by Roy Chadwick, Chief Engineer at Avro to succeed the Manchester which with two Vulture engines was a flop. From its first sorties early in 1942, the Lancaster with 4 Merlin engines was a tremendous success and throughout the rest of the war bore the brunt of our night attacks. Sadly Chadwick was killed in a crash of the Avro Tudor, a development of the Lancaster for civilian use prior to the better known Lancastrian airliner.

Another famous name connected with the Lancaster was Barnes Wallace who designed the bouncing bomb used by the 617 squadron on the Dam Buster raid. Barnes Wallace also designed the Tall Boy, an 11,000lb bomb for attack on U Boat pens at Le Havre. It also sank the Tirpitz battleship skulking in a Norwegian fjord. He also designed the 22,000lb Grand Slam bomb which was too big to fit in the bomb bay. As you may know Barnes Wallace lived in Effingham.

Statistics can be boring but you may be interested in a few facts and figures. More than 7,000 Lancasters were built of which nearly half were lost in action. Only 35 completed more than 100 operations. Surprisingly, only 22 Victoria Crosses went to Bomber Command, one of whom, Bill Reid was a friend of mine. We trained at the same time in California and he became Chairman of our post war 2 BFTS Association. After Bill Reid died within a few days of our secretary’s death I had to implement what Bill had made clear to me was his wish. I had the sad task of closing down the Association since the membership had dwindled to make it invisible.

Post war developments of the Lancaster were the Lincoln, the Tudor and the Shackleton for the RAF and the Tudor and Lancastrian for civilian airlines. The Shackleton was in constant service until the mid 1990s. The role of the Lancaster was of course taken over by the V bombers which really completes the story.

John died on 21 October 2012 aged 91. At his service at Chichester Crematorium, his son John gave a tribute to his father's life, from which the following extracts are taken:

John Harold Gibson

John was born in Bedale in the North Riding of Yorkshire in April 1921. He moved to London in 1938 at the age of 17, to work for the Air Ministry. John met his future wife Grace, also working at the Air Ministry, in 1939. He was called up in 1941 and joined the RAF.

After the war he continued flying with RAF Transport Command. John married Grace on Valentine's Day 1945 and their two sons John Charles and James were born in 1949 and 1953. Later in 1953 John and family moved to Cyprus where John was stationed with the Air Ministry, returning to England in 1957, to their house in Ashtead. He then worked in Africa in the sixties based in Dar es Salaam, running the Britavia Air Lift, air lifting oil and supplies to the copper mines in Zambia.

John and Grace moved to Leatherhead in 1976. Sadly Grace passed away in 2004 shortly before their diamond wedding anniversary, after a battle with Alzheimer's during which time John nursed and cared for her.

John lived with his faithful greyhound Russell and they both moved to Ashcroft Place, Leatherhead early in 2008. John was very happy in his flat and was a cheery sight with walking stick and Russell, going for walks up Forty Foot Road to the park. He made many friends in the flats.

John kept himself occupied with listening to classical music and watching cricket both of which he adored. He also continued going on cruises to various parts of the world, the love of which he had shared with Grace over many years. He was also a member of the local Food and Wine association and the Air Crew Association and attended meetings and lunches with both groups.

His son James, who lived close by, sadly passed away in 2010 which left John lonely. John Charles and his wife Sue lived some distance away on the South coast but visited often.

John celebrated his 90th birthday at Ashcroft Place attended by relatives, friends and other residents, a great success and a memorable day for all. John now had three grandsons and four great grandchildren whom he always looked forward to seeing. He was still driving at this time but was persuaded to surrender his licence after colliding with and writing off several parked cars. He was never one to do things by halves!

John grew increasingly frail but still loved travel. John Charles and Sue took him on holiday to Cyprus in 2011 and then Spain earlier this year both of which he enjoyed immensely and which leave us with many happy memories. John had a serious fall from his bed in February this year suffering a suspected heart attack and it was mutually decided that he could no longer safely care for himself.

He moved to Church Farm Residential Home in East Wittering where he soon became popular with both the staff and other residents. This was close to all his family and friends who lived in this part of the country.

John became very frustrated with dementia, unable to remember words and names of simple everyday things and was very aware of this tragic illness. John was taken ill suddenly in the early hours of the 20th October and passed away peacefully on the evening of the following day, Sunday 21st October.

John will be remembered by those who knew him as kind, courteous, charming and loyal. Cards and messages kindly sent speak of John as "a bright flame in the memory of my soul"; "a perfect... true... lovely... English gentleman who was much loved and respected".

I know he will be remembered in this way and sadly missed by all.

On 12th November 2012 John's ashes were buried at Leatherhead Crematorium, alongside those of Grace and James.

last updated 20 Dec 2012: ACA Surrey Branch 2012