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LIBYA. 1942-01-02. FLYING OFFICER ROBERT HENRY MAXWELL (BOBBY) GIBBES OF
NO. 3 SQUADRON RAAF CLIMBING OUT OF THE COCKPIT. [AWM 022954]
Transcript of Australian War Memorial recording.
This historically-important interview has been placed here so that its content is searchable for 3SQN Website readers.
[WORKING VERSION - Currently being edited by 3SQN Assn for readability and spelling of technical terms.]
INFORMANT: R. H. (BOBBY) GIBBES
SUBJECT OF INTERVIEW: 3 SQUADRON, RAAF
DATE OF INTERVIEW: 28 APRIL 1990
INTERVIEWER: EDWARD STOKES
TRANSCRIBER: LYNNE LOSIK
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: 2 JULY 1990
NUMBER OF TAPES: 3
Identification: This is Edward Stokes talking with Bobby Gibbes, 3 Squadron, Tape one, Side one. End of identification.
Bobby, we've already had a very full time discussing, you know, the general story. Could you just begin by telling us when and where you were born please?
I was born at Young in New South Wales on the 6th of May 1916.
Right. And I understand that due to the depression your schooling was partly in Sydney and partly in Bathurst?
Yes, I was sent to All Saints College in 1929-1930, but when the depression became quite severe, my family couldn't afford to keep me there any longer and I went back to a public school at Manly and ultimately Manly High. When things improved, I then went to Manly Presbyterian Grammar School to complete my education.
Right. One other issue that is interesting to follow up with people is recollections of the first war. In your boyhood and your early adult life, do you think you had particularly strong recollections or a knowledge of the general tradition of ANZACS and so on in the first war?
Yes I think I do. My father owned a property out near Goulburn called `Leewood', and I remember when I was quite a young kid - four or five or six - two of our station hands came back from overseas and they used to often talk about the war. They used to talk about the filth and the slime and the killing and the mud in the trenches and the rats, and I built up a healthy hatred of the very thought of war.
Mm. That's most interesting. Just a moment. I know that before the war, Bobby, you were involved jackarooing and, I think, droving. You were saying though before the war, or before was in fact declared, you yourself had seen the signs and I think had decided to learn to fly. Tell us about that.
Well I, I think everyone knew that war was coming and I decided to get down to Sydney, and I left my job as a jackaroo - and I had been droving. I came to Sydney and I took a job briefly as a commercial traveller, and I wasn't much of a success at that, but it did help me pay for my first flying lessons. I only had four hours altogether, cut into half-hour periods, out at Mascot, and that went on for a couple of months. When war was declared, I thought I'd wait for King George to pay for the rest of my flying.
Right. And I understand you did in fact enlist very shortly after war was declared, but it took some time to be called up?
Immediately after the war was declared, I wrote to Canberra, to Fairbairn, to ask how his training scheme was going, which I had heard about. I also tried to join the navy. I went to Rushcutters Bay and applied to join the navy. I still don't know if they need me or not.
Right. (Laughing) You mean there's been no reply?
(Laughing) Oh, we'll have to get on to navy office about that one. Anyway, I think it was February '40 that you finally were taken in and you did your initial training, I think, at Mascot. We might skate over that. But you went on from there to Richmond where you did your intermediate training, I think with Wirraways. What's your general recollection of that training?
Well at the time when we went up to Richmond and started learning to fly, converting to Wirraways, the newspapers got hold of it and they predicted that we'd all be killed as it was considered a fairly gigantic step to go from Cirrus Moths, Gipsy Moths, and Tigers, straight onto this high-speed complicated trainer. Even the instructors, I think, were quite nervous about the aeroplanes and we, of course, were doubly so, but after a while we found that they were quite a reasonable aircraft to fly. They had all the vices that any good trainer should have.
(5.00) I think you were actually saying before that when you were first there some of the instructors themselves were learning to handle the planes?
Well the first three or four, oh two or three hours, I suppose, my instructor seemed to do the bulk of the flying and I think he was trying to settle down to the aircraft himself.
Hm. That's most interesting. What about other general recollections of that period at Richmond? For example, how did you accept and was it easy or not, the general regimentation and routine of service life?
I think I didn't mind that. We lived as cadets, just near the officers' mess. We had a portion of the mess allocated to us, to we cadets. The discipline and so on was not hard to take. In fact, I think we quite enjoyed it. At night, trying to sleep was something because the boys were converting onto Hudson aircraft, and they seemed ... the flight path took them right over our barracks. They'd go over with a mighty roar. After a while we did grow rather used to that, and no longer leaped out of our stretchers.
If you had to rate the quality of your training, excepting perhaps this point about the instructors themselves getting to learn, getting to know Wirraways, but if you had to rate your general training in aspects such as navigation and all the other branches of, or the theory of flying and so on, how would you rate it? Was it adequate, good, very good?
I think the Australian training was way above average. I am very grateful, have been very grateful, for the last fifty years for that initial training. It was terrifically good, I think.
Could you explain why?
Well it was very thorough. We learned to, learned about engines, airframes, theory of flight, navigation, gunnery, dropping bombs, aerobatics of all sorts, and we even learned how to fold parachutes. I might say that I was never taught how to jump with, or use a parachute, and when I did bail out - when I was on fire one day - I landed with my legs wide apart and broke my left ankle and the fibula. So it would have been nice if they had remembered to tell us how to jump as well as fold the parachute.
Yes, that sounds a fairly key point. Just following on that for a moment, was that some oversight or were you pushed through courses quickly and there wasn't time, or was that a general thing, that men never did practise jumps?
Well we certainly didn't practise any jumps, and I think I probably just missed out in getting the instruction as to how to land - knees bent, face .... I knew to face downwind, but I didn't know that I should land knees bent and relaxed. I landed with legs wide apart, crossways to the wind, and in a fairly high wind. And it was disaster.
Yes, well we'll come to that later. Well, moving on a little bit with that training, Bobby, I think it was at Point Cook that you did your advanced training, and this was with Ansons twin-engine planes. I understand you always wanted to be a fighter, but you were concerned you might be headed towards bombers?
I had made up my mind that I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I lost an uncle - Fred Gibbes - who was killed flying a Camel in world war one, and when they put me onto Ansons, I thought this was the end. I flew an Anson as I would a fighter. I did `split-arse' turns, ah, side-slip landings and if anyone came near me, I'd immediately try and dogfight them. This resulted one day when an instructor came out to bring me back because a storm was gathering, and I got into a violent dogfight with him, and when I eventually had beaten him and got on his tail, I flew up alongside, and suddenly saw it was one of my instructors. I've never seen a man more angry. I spent the whole month underneath the Ansons - dirty old Ansons - in the middle of winter, after the training was over, cleaning the bellies of these dashed things. So I learned the hard way.
Yes, I can imagine that was a retribution. In fact, the decision was for you to go to fighters. I think you'd hinted to the authorities that if you didn't become a fighter pilot you might in fact leave the air force. Is that correct?
Well I tried that and only two of us actually got, went on to fighters, from that course. Most of us became, most of the boys became either instructors or went onto bombers. So that little bit of a try-out actually worked. I was very fortunate.
Was that a general attitude that men wished to go to fighters or not?
No I don't think so. My thought was it'd be so much better to be on your own, to suffer from your own mistakes if you made any, without taking other people with you.
(10.00) Could we just talk for a moment about the qualities that you'd see, not so much then but in retrospect, the qualities that made for good fighter pilots and also for good bomber pilots. Were they different sorts of men or not?
I think in many ways they were different. The fighter pilot needed to be probably more of a scatterbrain - I shouldn't say that - but the fighter pilot had to be much faster moving; he didn't have to be as methodical as a bomber pilot with his take-off, pre-take-off drill and all that sort of thing. With a fighter it was so much more simple and I think, yes, there were different temperaments. Sometimes we had people posted onto fighters who never should have been posted onto fighters. They should have gone into another form of aircraft, another type of aircraft. One of my pilots, I had to send him home after he collided one day with a chap called Freddy Eggleston. And another time he flew up on an interception, left his wheels down till we got to about twenty thousand feet. I couldn't break RT silence by warning him to get his wheels up. But after that I decided, well, he should go onto ... back home. I recommended flying boats for him. He got flying boats, onto flying boats and won the DFC. So ....
That's an interesting example of that. Was there much movement generally of men from bombers to fighters and vice versa when it was realised they'd been incorrectly assessed in the first place, or not?
No I don't think ... not really. No, sometimes it would happen of course.
Right. Well moving on a little bit. I don't think we'll spend more time on training, because there's so much to talk about later. You left Point Cook a pilot officer. September '40 this is, you went to 23 Squadron at Archerfield, I think getting advance operational training, Wirraways. What's your recollection of that period?
Well, I found it very enjoyable. We were living in the air force which was, in itself, quite a challenge. We did a lot of flying, a lot of aerobatics, air gunnery, bombing and really we tuned up our flying ability to a great extent, so that when we did ultimately get into action, we were very much better fitted to - tuned to - it.
And I think you were saying that during this period you commanded a flight?
Yes, ultimately I was made the, given a flight. I became flight commander of one of the flights. It was a 23 Squadron, had two flights of fighters and one bomber flight. I got one of the fighter flights.
Mm, right. Um, do you have any other particular recollections of the Archerfield period? Anything that you think significant?
Well the only thing really of great interest possibly was that one day I beat up a friend of mine down at Southport, and one of our very senior officers happened to be on the beach and I ... eventually I was put up for court-martial. I accepted the CO's ruling and got out of the court-martial. I was very fortunate.
When you said `beat up', you mean in a physical ...?
Oh no, no, no. I just did a few very low aerobatics and very stupidly. I think I thought I was much better than I probably really was.
Ah, this is the Gibbes/Maru story is it? Tell us.
That Gibbes/Maru story came at a later time. We used to ... we knew we were going into operations. We knew it was very important to keep your eyes open when you're in the air because a pilot who didn't see an attack coming in was liable not to be with us much longer. So when we were flying we'd always, if we saw a lone aircraft, we'd try and get up-sun, carry out a mock attack on it and if we got away with it, whoever ... the pilot who was flying it would have to pay drinks for the bar. This particular occasion, I dived on a chap ... one of the ... a Wirraway from up-sun, got in behind him and after theoretically shooting him down, I flew up alongside to see who it was, to get his registration. The character who looked at me in horror - he had a, he was obviously a trainee from Amberley - he looked at me in horror and rolled on his back and dived away at high speed. And I thought, `My goodness, what did he do that for?'. However, when I landed back there was great excitement on the station. This pilot got back to Amberley, had reported that he'd been attacked by a little yellow Japanese pilot who'd flown up alongside him and had leered evilly at him. (Laughing) He, incidentally went out of the air force as a result. He wasn't temperamentally suited. Following morning I went out to my aeroplane and it had a little flag on it with Gibbes/Maru, and that became my nickname - still is with some of my old friends.
Yes, and that's the actual pennant on the wall there.
That is the pennant.
(15.00) Oh, it's a pennant with a sort of an imaginary rising-sun general design, generally. Now that's a very interesting story. But your commanding officer got you out of it?
Oh yes. Well I wasn't in trouble over that. The trainee was, but I wasn't.
Oh, the court-martial was to do with another episode?
When I beat up Southport, yes, and the senior officer happened to be sunbaking. He should have told me he was there, I wouldn't have done it.
(Laughing). Right, well we'll pass over that. Well, you left there I think, to go to Williamtown as adjutant to establish 450 Squadron, and I think it was actually in fact in that capacity that you went to the Middle East?
Yes, I helped form 450 Squadron. When I went to the Middle East on the Queen Elizabeth - we sailed in convoy - it was one of the biggest convoys to ever leave Australia, I was still the adjutant of 450 Squadron.
Could you tell us just briefly about that? The kinds of tasks involved in setting up a fighter squadron?
Well it was quite interesting really. We had all these people being posted into us. We had people who were fitters - 2E and 2A - that's engine and airframe fitters. We had instrument makers, radio operators, armourers and we had to sort of assess them and fit them into the slots. We built up our establishment to have the right, correct number of people that we needed. When the time came to go overseas, before embarking, we had two extra people came along just in case someone got sick at the last minute and couldn't go. I remember one poor character so upset he was actually crying when he was left on the station.
Well it must have been a very emotional and striking moment, I'd imagine, for these people who were mostly fairly young, leaving Australia. Did you know you were going to the Middle East or not, and how did you feel on leaving Australia?
I don't think I had any clue where we were going, not real clue. There was a rumour that we were going to the Middle East but no-one really knew. I think I was interested and having completed my training and done a lot of flying, I think I wanted to see if I, you know, could get stuck into operations and I thought `This is something that I trained for', and I was looking forward to trying. With a certain amount of apprehension, I might say, too.
Mm, yes. Of course this was, I think, after the Battle of Britain period?
Well yes it was.
So you, obviously you had the knowledge of what British pilots had been through during that general period?
Yes, we had a pretty good knowledge of what we were going to. We knew that the Messerschmitts were pretty jolly good, and the Italians weren't too bad either.
How did your family, incidentally, feel about your leaving Australia?
I think they were philosophical about it. They thought, you know, I had to go, should go. They were, you know, loyal to the old mother country.
Well the actual voyage in the Queen Elizabeth, and I think you went on board her the whole way. There was no trans-shipping as often happened. Did you have any particular recollections of the journey and during the voyage, was there any on going training or not?
No, only ... no further training. We did a certain amount of exercise - PT work. The one comment I might make though is that the disparity between the troops and the officers was absolutely vast, and terrifically unfair. The officers lived as they would in peace time in a first-class ship. We had terrific meals, terrific service, everything was wonderful. The troops were very poorly treated. Their food was absolutely dreadful, so much so that they had a riot on board at one stage which had to be settled, settled ultimately by the captain. After that, the food did improve, but it was always pretty lousy.
Was the fault though, do you think, the controllers of the ship, the Queen Elizabeth's captain and I suppose his administrative people in Australia and Britain, or the fault of the services?
I don't think it was the fault of the Australian services, but I think the Brits probably looked down on us a little bit, and especially the crew members.
Right, you don't want to elaborate?
No, I don't think there is any point, except that, you know, I took on the job myself of supervising all meal parades to make sure that they were looked after as well as possible. And at one stage, I got, was involved in the riot, and I had plates and bread rolls and things whirling around my ears, but I wasn't even hit once.
Right, well that's an interesting comment. Well, arrived in the Middle East, a very very different world to the Australia that you'd known and people had generally. What was your first recollection of it, or your early impressions of the place, the people?
Well I had never seen Egyptians before. We embarked on a train to go to Abu Sueir, and I thought I'd like to buy a newspaper, so I pulled out a pound - an Egyptian pound, we had change - and the little character gave me my change, a great handful of change and when I counted it all out, I discovered that I had paid about eighteen shillings for the newspaper. And he went off in great form.
Yes. There must often have been those sorts of cases. What are the other recollections?
Well, on arriving at Abu Sueir, at the rest camp, we went straight into tents. I shared the tent with the doctor - squadron doctor - and there were no washing facilities. We had canvas buckets, little washstands made of canvas, a very small amount of water and this doctor was absolutely appalled. Now, I had been droving for some months before, so I knew how to have a full bath out of a very meagre amount of water by sponging myself down, soaping and then washing it off. So I taught the doctor how to do it, and after that he didn't mind nearly as much.
Yes, that must have been quite an advantage, that inland experience. Of course, you spent most of the war living in tents, I assume largely?
All the time practically, yes.
We might just talk briefly about it now. What's your overall recollection of tent life? Did people manage to make themselves fairly comfortable or not?
Oh no, they were never comfortable. We had nothing on the floor, of course, just sand or dirt. If it was blowing and it got very very dusty .... No, they were very unpleasant things really.
Which was worse, summer or winter?
Oh, the winter wasn't that bad. Got quite cold at night. The days were quite pleasant.
And I assume the latrines and so on were open pits?
Yes they were. They were well away from the .... When we got out in the desert they were well away from the main mess. Open pits, nothing round them at all. No security and you all sat up in a line. We worked .... One rather interesting little thing: we had urinals made of a four-gallon square drum, with holes punched in the bottom and sunk into the ground, with another drum with holes in the bottom put in at an angle, and that was your point of aim. One of the engineers got a brainwave and we wired up a magneto to this pit - and of course water is a great conductor of electricity - and when someone would line up, we'd wind the handle like mad back in the mess and their convulsions were really worth watching.
(Laughing) Oh, that's a lovely one. Well, going back to the more serious business of flying. You joined 3 Squadron May '41, soon after arriving, and they were at this time re-equipping with Tomahawks. Um, I think you were saying that particularly for the pilots who were used to Gauntlets, this was rather a testing period?
Yes, I think the Tomahawk was a high-wing loaded aeroplane - had high-wing loading - and it was a nice thing to fly, but quite difficult on the ground until you got to know it. The answer was you, we were trying, all trying to three-point them, and that didn't go. Later we learned to touch down with the wheel - the tail wheel - down in almost a three-point attitude, and the moment the main wheels touch the ground, let the nose - the tail - rise so that you were almost in a flying position until you lost all flying speed. From then on we didn't have too many unfortunate prangs.
I think you were saying that there was a very large number of prangs, twenty-three or twenty-four?
Yes that's correct. It was an unfortunate period because we just couldn't afford the aeroplanes.
How many of those planes would have been damaged beyond repair?
I think most of them would have been repairable. They all would have been repairable, except one or two that spun in and they, of course, were written off.
Mm. I think you were saying that in your own case, having come from Wirraways, there was a rather easier conversion?
Yes, I do think the Wirraway pilots found it much easier. We had sergeant pilots who'd just joined the squadron, and they had been on Wirraways and not too many of us had too much trouble with the Tomahawk.
I understand there was some, well if not resentment, joking to do with your overconfidence compared to some of these pilots who'd been there in the Middle East for some time?
(25.00) Yes, well I only learned this later of course. But I was very critical of everyone who pranged. When they went off on their first solo we'd go out of the mess to watch the landing, and if they happened to prang I was evidently making quite caustic remarks about their flying ability. When the time came for me to do my first solo, most of the pilots who I had been criticising, came out saying, `We hope the little bastard prangs'. I was told this later. I didn't.
Right. At a more general level, do you think there was ever any resentment on the part of permanent air force officers and men who'd been in the Middle East for some time towards men such as yourself who, for a start, had only just arrived and, secondly, were wartime, not permanent air force officers?
Not in 3 Squadron, no. They, we, they accepted the new boys pretty well; accepted the sergeant pilots. Well, we were glad to get people in to build up our strength. And not only that, we started .... John Laver - our doctor - and Peter Jeffrey started a pilots' mess. Instead of the officers having one mess and the sergeant pilots another mess, we all dossed in the same mess and it became known as a pilots' mess. This was ultimately adopted by the RAF, but not as willingly as we did it. We did it very happily.
And this was a new idea?
Absolutely a new idea, yes.
Was that adopted generally early on by Australian squadrons, or only by No. 3?
No. 3 started it, and I think ultimately all squadrons were ordered to abide by the ruling. The idea .... You'd go to an RAF squadron into the mess and you'd find the sergeant pilots up one corner of the mess at the bar, and the other - that's if we had any booze - and the officers down the other side. They didn't mix the way we did. We were all buddy-buddies once we were inside. We were all doing the same job in the air and we saw no reason why we shouldn't all live together.
Yes, well that certainly makes some complete sense. Just a small sideline here. I thought I'd pop this in at some point. I do know during the war you kept quite detailed diaries, and we've listened to some excerpts on the tapes from your diaries. Why did you start keeping such detailed records and when did you find the time to write them up?
Well, that was difficult. There are times when I would miss for two or three days if things were fairly active. Later .... But at night there was plenty of time to write things up, if you felt the urge to do it. It was actually illegal to keep diaries, so of course I did (laughing).
What was your urge?
What was your motivation in writing them?
Well I just thought I'd like to have a record of all that happened and when I finished my first diary, I sent it home with one of my pals - Johnny Jackson - who was coming back to Australia, to give to my family. I thought that if I was killed, at least they'd have some record of what I had been doing.
Mm, sure. Well they're certainly very valuable documents now, too. Bobby, perhaps could we just turn briefly to talk for a little while about different aircraft and in as much technical detail as you think appropriate. I'd like to talk in particular about the Tomahawks and the Kittyhawks, and also perhaps to compare them with some of the planes you were flying against. Perhaps beginning with the Tomahawks and Kittyhawks, how would you rate things such as their ability to climb, their speed of climbing, those ... and their airspeed generally, those generally technical things?
Well, against the Italians we probably had a superior aeroplane. But when the Germans brought the 109s in they were in many ways, almost every way, a very much better aeroplane. They could out-climb us, they were faster, they had a much better ceiling - in other words, they could get much higher - and they'd look down on us. We could never look down on them. The only .... Our ability, though, was we were able to out-turn a Messerschmitt and we could in actual fact, being a very heavy aeroplane, we could out-dive them. But when the Germans woke up to the fact that we could out-turn them, very seldom would they stay in and try and dogfight. They'd just generally dive - what they call `pick and zoom' - dive down, pick off a straggler, and then they'd climb up again and you'd probably only get a very fleeting shot at them because they'd be travelling at very high speed. Or else they'd dive straight past their target aircraft, keep on going down and with an initial speed there was no way you could catch them. We all, always tried to fly together as a team and not to work as individuals.
That's most interesting. Let's just talk about Kittyhawks for a moment. You, I think, have got a very clear recall of the aeroplanes. Could you actually go through perhaps the routine from when you scrambled to actually clambering in the cockpit and getting a plane up into the air - a Kittyhawk?
Well we had .... Normally we'd be on immediate stand-by. We'd be sitting in the cockpit, which was very unpleasant on a hot day. You'd touch the side of the aeroplane and you would actually almost blister your arm it was so hot. Then we'd warm the motors up every now and again to make sure they were ready for an immediate take-off. When we got the order to scramble we'd start the motors. The leader would raise his right hand, and when he'd look round, he'd see that - when the others had done their final check and ready to take off - their hands would come up. When he saw their hands all up, he'd lower his hand. That was the signal for them to all start opening their throttles so you'd take off in formation or else in twos or fours or even twenty-fours sometimes.
Those final checks would be done when you were lined up on the runway were they?
Well not necessarily. You'd do, mainly do your check when you'd be warming the motor. You'd give it a bit of a run, just check your magnetos, and make sure everything was okay so you wouldn't waste time on a scramble.
But before you scrambled, would you always check all the basic controls like flaps, ailerons and so on, or not?
No, only when you first got into your aeroplane.
I understand that when Kittyhawks were being taxied out, because of the high angle of the nose, you generally had observers on the wing tips. How did that work?
Well there were lots of slit trenches and things built round and odd petrol drums and so on, so ... and you couldn't see straight ahead. We used to zigzag quite a lot, but having the man on the wing was an added precaution.
Right, and they would stay there until you got to the point for your final line-up?
When we were lined up they would get out of the way. One of them insisted I nearly took off with him on the wing. Well I think he had to get off in an awful hurry because there were some Ju-88s coming down in a long dive about to drop their bombs. I had just leapt into the aircraft. I didn't have time to do up my harness, put my helmet on, and all I did was open the throttle, and this poor character went under the wing. But Id, on take-off, I had bombs falling round me. Luckily I wasn't hit.
I'd imagine on those desert airstrips, particularly at take-off, dust must have been a great problem, especially if you'd had other people taking off ahead of you?
Yes, well normally dust was a terrible problem. We'd generally try and take off with the dust out to a bit, blowing out a bit to one side if we could, and we'd echelon into it, so that you'd .... That way, the dust would tend to blow away from the other aeroplanes. Ah, if you had to take off more than one squadron, sometimes you would have to wait a little bit for the dust to settle before you got off.
And I'd imagine the dust could have played havoc with engines and getting into the working parts?
Dust was murder. There is no greater compound than dust and oil. Great grinding paste. At night we used to put - the troops, the airmen - used to put old socks tied into a string into our exhaust pipes. We'd put a pillow into the air intake and in the morning - that would stop any dust getting into, under the valves and so on - and in the morning that'd be pulled out just before you started up.
(5.00) Right. Well, the Kittyhawks up in the air, if we can perhaps just go back to the plane. Could you describe in your mind, or picture in your mind's eye getting up and climbing? Tell us what you were doing as you were going up.
Well it depends on .... If you were really in a hurry to get up, you would generally be turning things on as you went up. Otherwise, if it was a normal take-off - if you're out on patrol - after you got up you'd tuck your undercart up.
We wouldn't use flap. Just get your undercart up, probably leave your gills open while you climbed. Once you've levelled out you'd close your gills so that they were ... to let the air come through your, past your radiator. You'd probably, if you're going a long patrol, you might even fire a burst out of your guns to make sure that they were working properly.
Was that ever done on the ground, firing of guns as a check?
Not, not on the ground. I had it done to me once when I landed and pulled off the side of an airstrip to watch my pilots all landing. Normally you landed with your guns - you turned your guns off the last thing. This character hadn't, and he swung a bit and I was on the side of the strip and he started coming straight at me, and he panicked and pulled back on his stick. Of course he fired a burst of rounds - .5 rounds - over my head. I was sore in the tummy for days afterwards. I got such a fright that I don't think I even abused him properly. (laughing).
Well going back to the actual operations, it was fairly soon after you joined and you'd been kitted up with Tomahawks that the Syrian campaign I think began against the Vichy French. Bobby, can I ask you your recollection of that first actual operation you flew on? How did you feel?
Well I .... We knew we were taking off at daylight for an attack on the Vichy French aerodrome at Rayak. We were informed about that. I don't think I slept at all that night. I was in a state of abject terror wondering how I'd be able to take it. It wasn't till we got in the air next morning that, you know, things started settling down.
On the way up there, there were a couple of Blenheims up ahead and Peter Jeffrey then decided to turn on his guns. The guns ran away. Jock Perrin who was flying alongside him thought they must be Ju-88s, so he also had a pot at them. You've never seen Blenheims dive to the deck as fast. We got over Rayak, we went into echelon - I think there were only six of us - to dive down. The Vichy French didn't know the war was on even, and as we came in at high speed, strafing anything we possibly could, I managed to get myself underneath Jock Perrin's aircraft, his Tomahawk. Jock kept going down and down and I was trying to get, slide out to one side. Eventually .... But I was so close to the ground, that I was frightened of putting a wing in, so I was trying to sideslip out to one side. Jock was shooting at a square block house effect on the far side of the drome and a shell from his .5s were coming - and .303s were coming - .3s - were coming past me. Eventually I managed to get clear. Luckily Jock didn't hit the building he was shooting at because later we discovered it was full of ammunition and high explosives.
Hm, that would have been the end of him if he'd hit it.
It was nearly the end of Jock anyway. If he had come down any lower we probably both would have piled up. Would have been my fault entirely too.
Right. Well those sorts of learning things must have been, I guess, quite hard to get over. When you returned from that operation, how did you feel then?
Ah, I think on top of the world. Even during the operation, the moment it was over .... Oh yes, I do remember, I saw an Arab on a camel and I nearly let him have a burst, and then I decided that (laughing) that wasn't the thing to do, so I desisted. I was relieved. It would have been on my conscience forever if I had fired.
Mm. That was just in the excitement of the moment?
Just complete reaction.
Could I perhaps ask you a general question about fear that obviously was a real part of this life? Did pilots generally - perhaps yourself - if you want to talk about yourself particularly - was the greatest level of fear in the lead-up to an operation, or during it?
(10.00) Sometimes in the lead-up. Sometimes there would be relief when the thing started. Generally speaking though, once you started into serious combat, you'd get past fear. Your mouth would dry up, you'd .... I used to find personally that I'd be in an absolute state of terror, but when you started shooting you would sort of become mechanical. Your fear would abate, sometimes the other way. You'd be absolutely elated if you were doing alright. But on the way home, you'd probably be analysing what you did. Invariably, I found that under circumstances like that my thinking was fast. I never could find out whether I had done anything stupid. I think if improved my thinking, my planning, quite a lot in actual combat.
Hm, that's very interesting Bobby. And a more general question about the general - not only fear - but the general stress of the kind of life you were all leading. As time went on, as you know, weeks turned to months, months to years and so on, did the stress ease off in that you became so used to this round of obviously very dangerous flying and so on, or did it gradually build up to a point where people did often crack, or could crack?
Well I found it used to build up, sometimes up to a stage where I'd, you know, I would be absolutely frightened to go to sleep at night 'cause I'd wake up being shot down. I'd deliberately try and stay awake. But then you get up to a stage where you thought, `Oh God, I can't go any further' and you would hide away from the mob and you wouldn't want them to see that you were a bit near to turning it in. Invariably, after a while, you got passed this stage, and I found this cycle happened on two or three occasions during my operational career. I was fortunate in that I could overcome it. Some pilots didn't, after they had done a reasonable amount of flying and had to give it away.
That's very clear. Did pilots ever talk about these things amongst themselves, and did you have people - father confessor figures, padres, people like that - you could unburden yourself with?
Not really. I think you used to bulldust quite a bit and carry on a certain amount of bravado. The way you could tell a pilot who was getting near the crack-up stage. He would suddenly become uncommunicative; he'd sit in the corner of the mess away from the mob reading or, instead of joining in the general fun of which used to go on in the mess, horse play and so on. And that ... the air .... Normally the medico would also, he would see that fairly quickly and he would, you know, do something about it.
Right. The padres didn't have much of a role to play here. Is that right?
Well padres did a wonderful job, yes. We had three Australian padres - a Catholic, an Anglican and a Presbyterian. The Anglican and the Presbyterian padres are still with us. We see a lot of them still. They were wonderful men and the other one - Johnny MacNamara, the Catholic - has since died which is terribly unfortunate. So the trio of three reduced to two now which is sad.
Well I've heard about Fred McKay. He was the fellow who was with Flynn in the inland prior to the war. He obviously seems quite an outstanding person.
He was a wonderful chap, and the other one ended as the Bishop of Tasmania. Incidentally, Bob Davies christened my two daughters at St John's Church in Canberra where he was the Archdeacon, and the little church had been .... My grandfather and great grandfather used to go to the church there.
Hm. That's a very interesting family story. I know the church quite well.
They were all married there by the way.
Right. Going back to the campaign against the Vichy French in Syria. We talked about that first operation. What's your general recollection of that period in terms of the kinds of uses the squadron was most put to?
Well we did a lot of ground strafing of aerodromes. We had quite a bit of aerial combat. I didn't see too much of that but a little bit. I remember following some Dewoitines down after they had shot down a couple of Blenheims we were supposed to be escorting - dived down a ravine, wing tips almost touching. Peter Turnbull - he later was killed at Milne Bay - after them, and I was also chasing them like mad. One of the Dewoitines was hit and he turned hard to the starboard, went straight into the side of the mountain, mass of flame, and I didn't see Peter get the second one. I chased the third one, but it was very hairy flying, right to the bottom of these deep ravines and very little space. I remember tearing out over a village when we came out of it and the rooftop .... I don't know what the citizen thought of this machine-gun fire right over their heads.
(15.00) Yes, that's very vivid. The general living at this time, the airstrips where you were flying from and the mess conditions, do you have any particular recollection of that or not?
In Syria, yes we lived in tents most of the time. Before we started we were at Rayak. We lived in the control building and it was quite comfortable. Then we moved into tents up in northern Palestine, Galilee - near the Sea of Galilee - and Rosh Pinna and that wasn't bad living at all. We didn't mind that. Climate wasn't bad. Sleeping amongst Australian gum trees, strange enough, some of the time. Then when we got to Rayak we moved into the French barracks there and they were quite comfortable.
Just going on to talk - this is fairly generally - about the whole period, Bobby, in the Middle East. Um, how good were, or bad for that matter, were most of the airstrips you had to fly in and out of?
Oh the airstrips in the desert were quite good really. They were just flat desert country, you know, just flat approaches, no problems at all. Sometimes we'd have to clear a few camel thorns off the strip - off the landing area - and huge stones, but normally they were basically pretty good. Very dusty of course.
And was the actual surface you landed on just rolled over ground? Or was there something laid on it?
Nothing laid on it. It was just straight desert. Sometimes they had probably run a grader over it just to knock off a few little tussocks, but other than being very very dusty, the landing grounds were excellent.
I'd imagine it very rarely rained, though when it did rain what was the story then?
Ah, well, when it rained it got very very muddy and boggy. At one stage when we were retreating from near - I forget the name of the aerodrome - near Benghazi, we .... It rained like blazes and they put a corduroy down for us to take off - to get our aeroplanes off - and my motor cut twice when I started my roll, and the third time I didn't manage to stop in time and ended up off the corduroy, went straight on my nose. I was mean enough to grab one of my squadron pilot's aircraft and flew it and made him go by truck. The Germans were right on our hammer and we had to burn that aeroplane, which was rather a shame. We didn't have time to do anything else about it.
Hm. That's interesting. Um, the facilities that were provided for both men and aircraft in terms of messing facilities and servicing facilities, and obviously this is in the context often of moving quite rapidly, how easy was it for those facilities to be kept up?
Well we had big mess tents called EPIPs - I forget what it stand ... Indian Pattern Indian Personnel or something. European Pattern Indian Personnel. Generally a couple of those joined together to form a mess. We had planks, our trestle tables, seats were just trestles but at least we did have that. Sometimes, of course, we wouldn't. We'd be out in the open without any chance of putting a tent or anything up. Then the cooking would be done in open fires dug into the desert with petrol poured in. But the conditions were not that bad, but they .... Sometimes when the dust storm would be there and it would last for a day or two, it'd be absolutely foul. Everything you ate was full of sand, the flies were in absolute ... terrific hoards of flies. To eat, you would - we had fairly simple food - but you'd be brushing the flies off every inch of the way up to your mouth, and they were .... Those conditions were absolutely foul.
Was disease much of a problem? Things such as various stomach disorders, malaria, or not?
I think I was the only one that I know of in the desert to get malaria, but I think I caught it up in Palestine, up in Syria. There, the desert was a very healthy place to live really, and we used to watch our hygiene pretty thoroughly, pretty carefully. And no, I think you could get .... I got `gyppie tummy' - that's, you know, the trots - that could happen sometimes but that was because of the flies I think.
Yes. Well turning to the more technical side of it in terms of servicing aircraft, how good were those facilities?
(20.00) Well back .... We used to have two flights plus a base camp, and if any major damage was done the aircraft would be serviced by the base camp. But basically, out in the field, out in the desert, we'd ... each flight would do its own maintenance. They couldn't do anything really major but they kept things flying. Motors used to chop out after sixty or seventy hours. They were finished. We had an engineer called Buck Abou Kir - Shirley Abou Kir's father - and he designed an air filter, and I did the test flying for his air filter. Later that air filter was adopted by Curtiss Wright and fitted into all the Kittyhawks. I think it was from Buck's filter - probably got a few mods - but that .... Our engine hours went up to about 120 then. I was talking to a German pilot who was commanding officer of JG 27 in North Africa. He said the Messerschmitt engines didn't .... They got no more than twenty or thirty hours before they would cut out.
So if planes were only getting that number of hours, they must ... changing engines must have been a quite standard practice.
Well I think the boys got pretty good at it. They were very fast at doing it. But it was major work all the time.
Mm. The actual physical working conditions for ground crews, given the dust and the heat and all the rest of it, I mean, must have been, one assumes, very very taxing?
It was dreadful for them. As pilots, you know, we did, we were very grateful for what they did. We felt sorry for the poor characters because they had the nasty part, I think, of this major servicing. In the early hours of the morning they'd be up before any of us getting the covers off the aeroplane, getting the, pulling the exhaust pads, plugs out and getting the engine warmed up before we'd even got there.
As a general rule, was there a fairly strong bond or not between individual pilots and their ground crew?
Yes, that bond became, used to get very very strong and the pilot, he was always very interested in talking as much as possible and getting on with his ground crew, which I never found hard. They were jolly good blokes and I think they used to worry more about the flying than we did as pilots. They were always so relieved if you came home.
Yes, well I suppose being away from it, in a way it's always easier to worry in those situations rather than being actively involved. Turning to the desert now and just thinking about general flying for a moment. Was the desert landscape - in other words, just great open space where you had endless visibility and so on, but very few features - was that an aid or a hindrance to flying compared with a more typical landscape where you'd have many more features but perhaps less visibility?
No, I think you grew used to it in time. Navigation wasn't all that difficult, but a lot of it was featureless, and you'd be trusting your compass quite a bit, and hoping to pick odd tracks and so on. The army boys used to leave fairly distinct tracks when they had moved their tanks and things forward, and that was always a help.
The navigation. Was that generally by .... Was navigation generally through keeping a little map plot on your lap, or was it basically dead reckoning on visual sightings?
Well we did carry maps, of course, always. But generally this was on, on visual.
Could you describe how that would operate?
Well normally, before take-off you'd be given the bomb line. If you were going out to strafe or to dive bomb, you'd know to get to the other side of the bomb line before you did that, because otherwise your own people got a bit cranky about that. And invariably by the time you got there, you'd picked the movement on the ground. You'd see .... Well, when you got over German territory, I suppose if army were there, they'd let you know you were over it alright. They'd, you know, all hell would let loose.
Right. Um, weather. How stable or otherwise was the weather and what facilities did you, for example in your role as squadron leader later on, have to be fairly accurately predicting weather?
Oh that was not hard to predict. It was good all the time, basically. We did get rain sometimes. The other thing is, if you got a big wind, then you'd get a dust storm would come with it. And at times to find your way from the mess to your own tent was a very very major problem, even if you might only be fifty or sixty yards away.
Yes, well I could imagine that, knowing what dust storms here can be like. What happened in a case which I would imagine might have happened sometimes, where you would get your planes up in the air, you'd then have a dust storm come on virtually obliterating the ground. How did they get back?
(25.00) Well generally you'd be flying above the dust. You'd try and stay up above it. I have had to land away from - out in the desert - away from the aerodrome and you'd invariably .... If it was that bad you'd generally find a little patch with a tiny bit of open away from the dust, and you'd whip down and land, and probably stay there overnight if you had to. Then everyone would worry about you of course if you had been in action. If you hadn't been in action, they'd probably have a good idea what had happened.
Yeah sure. Um, well let's go back to the sort of general drift of the story again Bobby. [Short pause]. Going back to the period in the desert Bobby - this is, we're looking at the period September 1941 - I think you were based at Amiriya, yes at Amiriya. What's your general recollection of the period and in particular what activities was the squadron involved in?
Well we were doing patrol work, you know, the German areas. And then before the Alamein show - while they were building up for it - they started doing eighteen bomber raids, constant raids, with the Americans and the South Africans, the Brits, and the Australian crews flying eighteen at a time. We used to give them close escort and top cover and that was very very constant, and it was really drawing the crabs. The Messerschmitts really fought hard. One day coming back, we got into a combat with some and I lost eight of my people. They got mixed up, you know, with this combat and I ended with three others - just four of us - giving top cover to the other squadron. And we ran into sixty-plus aeroplanes, including thirty-plus 109s, and the thirty-plus 109s were at our level. The other squadron below were able to get stuck into the Stukas, but we had thirty 109s all to ourselves, and they were dropping down like ruddy hail on us, and that was an exciting time. We survived.
Without any great losses?
No loss. One chap was hit. I think .... I managed to get one and shot up others, but everything was happening so fast and furiously, you certainly couldn't watch anything go down after you fired at it.
Were the Germans in your estimation better pilots than the Italians, or was it simply that they had better aircraft?
No, I think possibly, if anything, the Italian might have been a better pilot than the German. He is certainly a very very good aerobatic pilot. The Germans probably were stauncher, they'd push on a bit more than the Italian. The Germans had better aeroplanes than the Italians, although the Macchi 202 was probably a better plane than the Messerschmitt. It was really a fine aeroplane, and if they had been flown by Germans, we probably would have even been worse off. As it was, we handled them all right. But they would turn with us - the Messerschmitt wouldn't - and it put a rather different complex on our combat methods.
Bobby with a crash-landed Macchi C202. [Gibbes family album]
Right. One thing I did want to ask you about at some point - perhaps now's
appropriate - is formation flying. I understand as the war or the period in
north Africa progressed, there were different styles of formation flying. What
do you recall of that, and what would you regard as the best formation?
Well things did change. When we first went into operations, our formation was pretty much that of world war one. We flew in Vic. formations, with the .... If it happened to be a Vic. of three, the one on the left would be looking to the sky onto the right and tried to look behind. The one on the other side would cover and the poor old leader would sort of only be able to look ahead. That didn't work out too well.
We used to then have what we call a swinger, or a couple of swingers. They'd fly above the formations. At one stage they used to fly just above, swinging backwards and forwards and they were responsible for looking behind. They used to get picked off occasionally by the 109s. So then we evolved a method - and I always had the unfortunate job of being one of the swingers - we used to get in front of the formation and swing out ahead, so if we didn't .... Well when you're seeing an attack, they would probably warn us, although the radio was so bad that you couldn't rely on it in any way. That was one formation.
Then we got to the stage we were flying in pairs. We were .... Each pair would be weaving across the sky across the formation at different levels and when we'd be attacked, the leader would sing out `Duck' - or whoever saw the attack would sing out `Duck' - and we'd all do a 180 degree turn and be coming back in the opposite direction.
When we'd be attacked from behind, whoever would see it would sing out `Duck'. Of course, being Australians we added to that a little bit (laughing) `like so-and-so'. But we'd all come back at 180 degrees. Now the theory was you were all different heights. You could, if you happened to be on a left weave, you'd come back as a pair, and if you turned to the left, to the right, come back on the right weave. Theory would be that you'd all be facing the attack coming in. But the Germans got hold of this and they would sing out `Duck' from on top, and just as we were to carry out one attack they'd sing out `Duck' again. We'd get into a terrible shemozzle. We'd have aeroplanes going everywhere and then they'd start attacking. So that didn't work too well.
We then evolved what we call `weaving pairs'. The Germans used to call us the `Waltzing Matildas'. Each pair - we generally flew in sixes in pairs - everyone weaving except the leader of the six. And when we came to do a turn, the ones on the outside would dive under the leader and the ones on the inside would go to the other side. And it worked out beautifully that you'd maintain position without having to change your throttle setting, once you got used to it. And that was pretty good.
They then had another thing called a `turnabout'. And if an attack came in, you would sing out `Turn about left', or `Turn about right', `Go', so you'd all come back facing the enemy. And this worked out very well indeed. I used to, even when I was leading, I also would weave and I didn't trust anyone else to warn me. Our radios were so poor. They were HF radios instead of VHF, and half the time we'd lose people. You would have seen the attack, you would have been trying to warn the pilot, you'd be trying to get over to him to save him, and he would be fiddling with his radio trying to hear what was said. The radio killed a lot of our people.
That's an interesting point. Was there no way the radios could be improved at the time, or was it just that there wasn't the money to do it?
Oh I think they were just obsolete type of radio. The Brits eventually got onto a VHF with their Spitfires and Hurricanes, and it was a very very different radio indeed. If we had had that type of radio, our casualties would have been way down.
And there was nothing, but at the time there was nothing one could do about it?
No, because you had to tune the jolly things in. VHF is already tuned in, you just press a button and you've got it. These you had to tune in, and probably put a trailing aerial out so you get proper results.
That's interesting. There are two things I'd like to ask about strategy and tactics, and this incidentally is looking generally over this whole period, not any particular period. Ah, it was very common talking to 75 Squadron people to hear them bemoaning the general lack of organisation in the air. Basically it was just every man for himself. I understand with 3 Squadron that was not the case at all. When you arrived, how organised did all that, did that aspect of things seem to you?
Well, 3 Squadron always had it pretty well organised. Er, that's from Peter Jeffrey, say, right down. We always did fly as a team. We tried not to break away chasing something. There were times when you did, but you shouldn't have done it. The answer was to stick together. And if I got cut off, for instance, in an attack, I'd hand over the lead by radio to someone else and tell them to keep going, or else to come back and rescue me.
(5.00) Perhaps a point I can just ask about, one incident that I know did occur with you. This, incidentally, is referring to the tapes we played through, and for the War Memorial transcriber, these are tapes to be forwarded to the War Memorial. Bobby, this is the incident when you were describing the lead-in to the rescue of your friend ...
That's right. And you'd attacked this airstrip twice and strafed some planes on the ground. Twice was enough. You were leading the planes off, but another officer decided to go back in again and that lead to the, you know, two planes being shot down. Was that rare or not for that kind of thing to happen, and were there sanctions to be held against people who did disobey those kinds of instructions?
Yes, well this is one of the only occasions ever that I can recall that I carried out a second attack. We went through looking for this aerodrome Hun which was 180 miles from Marble Arch, which is in Tripolitania, something old Mussolini built.
When I got there, well I was only supposed to carry out a reconnaissance of the aerodrome because the long-range desert group were intending to take it. And as I came under, I saw there were a lot of aeroplanes on the airstrip and I decided to carry out a quick attack, because we had a terrific element of surprise. There were six of us all told, so we went whirling down. We left our .... We didn't dump our long-range tanks, we kept them on. We dived down and we created quite a bit of carnage amongst the aircraft on the ground. We didn't have a single shot fired at us, so I saw my opportunity, so I did a quick turnaround with the boys and we went through a second time, which is almost something I had never done, or I never did afterwards. But we got away with it. But as we pulled out the second time, we started getting a little bit of spasmodic fire from the ground, so that was it. We then kept going.
Now Edward, I don't think we were ever terribly pleased having a non-permanent officer commanding 3 Squadron, and they kept posting people over to take over from me and invariably they didn't last long enough anyway. But this case we had this chap came in - I won't mention names - he came in and he lead back with his number two. Two of my ....
Just to interpolate, he was a permanent officer?
He was a permanent officer who'd been sent over to take over from me. He lead in a third time because he just didn't know, and his number two followed him. And unfortunately, two of my other pilots followed also. Now the flight lieutenant who had been my replacement guy, went through with his number two - they got away with it - but the next two were shot down. One was killed instantly, all rolled up in a ball of flame. The other one force landed. And I was absolutely furious with this guy for ... (inaudible) he killed that one and could have easily killed the second.
Well, were there official sanctions or not?
No. There wasn't much I could do about it except tell him what I thought about it. He was a rather headstrong sort of a character. Later he, he left the squadron chasing these 109s, and quite obviously he caught them. Never came back.
Hm, that's most interesting, but what you are suggesting, I think, is that that kind of incident was extremely rare?
Absolutely rare. We .... If the radio was working okay, normally people took complete notice.
Right. Well going on to ask two other things relating to tactics. There was obviously during the period of 3 Squadron's involvement in the war - beginning before you arrived - this incredible technological transformation from relatively sedate biplanes to planes such as the Kittyhawk. How did that technological change affect tactics, if it did?
I don't think it did affect tactics at all. We just carried on in pretty much the same way. They were just other aeroplanes.
Right, and the other thing I wanted to ask was: as the Americans became involved in the war later on, did the general strategy and perhaps tactics too, change or not?
No. We had evolved tactics. We had been at it for a long time. We were given an American squadron, given to our wing, 66 Squadron - Kittyhawk pilots - and they were all pretty highly experienced pilots. And they were three-pointing the aeroplanes and successfully. They had enough experience to be able to do it and get away with it. When the time came for me to - I happened to be leading the wing - to go out one day, I happened to be talking to the Americans and I said, `Now, you are flying our formation?' and the answer came back, `Hell no, we've got our own formation'. So I refused point blank to let them come with us. I said, `Okay, you're staying back here', and this almost created an international incident. However, it went up to wing, and I just refused to go, fly with people who were flying different formation. It could have been highly dangerous to us. Later then, they practised our formation, and later we were all flying it.
(10.00) That's very interesting. This is going back to the general chronology of the story, Bobby, but picking up a point that I think's rather interesting. We're now at October '41. I think this is beyond the period of when you were based at Sidi Haneish I think, at airstrip 07.
Right, and it's the day or the incident with Dudley Parker, which we have dated at 12 October 1941. Could you tell us about that story?
Yes. This was the first time we'd ever seen Messerschmitt 109s, and I was quite a new boy in the squadron. I saw four aircraft coming in from about four o'clock to five o'clock from the starboard side at our level, and they seemed to be coming in very very gently. And I thought they must be Hurricanes, because we were the only squadron at that stage, or one of the only squadrons, with Tomahawks. When they got in closer, I suddenly realised that they were 109s, so I warned the squadron and we turned in towards them. As we turned in, having read a bit about it, I looked up into the sun and I could see another team coming in from down sun. The four coming in from behind had been a decoy, so I was able to give a warning. Well the thing got quite fast and furious after that. One of our pilots - Derek Scott - got thoroughly shot up. He ended with 365 bullet holes - I think they count the holes going out as well as ones coming in - in his aeroplane. Indeed, he got back and crash landed on an aerodrome.
Dudley Parker .... I saw this 109 shooting hell out of one of the Tomahawks. I went in and I managed to drive it off his tail, but meantime he was in trouble. He was bailing out. I watched him go over the side. I didn't watch his parachute open. When we got back home, Dudley Parker was missing, and we weren't worried about him because someone saw his parachute going down, and I had seen him bail out. That was fine. But he didn't come home. Two or three days later, a South African padre came in, and this combat had taken place right over the South African lines. And he came and reported that four Messerschmitt 109s went down below the main combat and picked Dudley Parker, shot him out of his parachute. He went from about 4,000 feet down without a 'chute, and the South Africans buried him. Now, this came as a great shock to us. We always thought up till now that this type of aerial warfare was basically a gentleman's war, but from then on we didn't consider it that way.
And are you saying, implying that Australians also started shooting men in parachutes?
I didn't shoot at anyone in a parachute ever. The only reason I didn't was because I wasn't absolutely sure that it mightn't be one of my own people. If I had known it would be a German, yes I would have shot him out of his parachute.
Because of this particular incident, or because you were, you know, effectively depleting their fighter force?
Because of this particular incident. The theory was that if you were behind your own lines, that you'd be up flying again against them, and that made sense. If you're behind their lines, they shouldn't shoot you out of your 'chute. I even did consider having a blade put on the leading edge of one of my wings so I could cut parachutes, then someone suggested that if I did that and was shot down, that I wouldn't have much future if I happened to be behind enemy lines, so I gave that idea away very rapidly.
And what about shooting men who had crash-landed aircraft but managed to survive themselves? Was that common on either side or not?
No. The time I shot up a Vichy Frenchman down in Syria, for instance, he had a white flying helmet on and he ran like hell and hid. There was no way in the world I was going to hurt him. But yes, the Germans sometimes would shoot up our people after they crash-landed, especially if they were behind our own lines, and that makes logical sense. The last time I was shot down, I had two Messerschmitts fly low over me and buzz me, and I think they either waved or saluted as I went passed, but in the meantime I was still grinding to a halt with the wheels up, out on the wing hiding behind the engine. But they were decent people. I think they thought that I would be in the bag anyway, because I was behind their lines, and later they sent out a Fiesler Storch to pick me up. They didn't get me.
(15.00) No, well that's a great story. I might, just to mention here, that that was one of the stories on other tapes of Bobby's that we plan to copy for the library, er, for the War Memorial. Just going on from this, it's I think perhaps an interesting related point. I do know that recently you've had some contact with a German officer who was a desert flying officer. Was there during the war itself, Bobby, a feeling of real enmity on your part or the part of Australian pilots you knew, towards enemy pilots or was it a very impersonal thing where you were really just conscious of or planning to shoot down their aircraft?
Well that's a fairly hard one to answer. I think we started off - at least I started off - without any great feeling about it. I wanted to shoot down the aeroplanes. Later I definitely wanted to kill them. I think I built up a hatred. I think, if you're going to be successful and be able to kill people, you have to learn to hate. I, you know, managed to get it out of my system fairly soon after the war, but I just wonder at myself now that I did feel that way.
Was that related much, do you think, to seeing your own mates, men you knew well, being killed?
Oh yes I think that happened, and especially when Dudley Parker was shot down because - out of his 'chute - that really upset me and it was then I thought, `Well there's nothing, no gallantry about this at all. It's all out war. Kill or be killed.'
Right. Well, going on with the story a little bit. I think the period, or rather that incident with Dudley Parker, did also mark a fairly intense phase in the activities of the squadron. What's your recollection of the months after his death?
Well, things became very fast and furious for quite a while. Before that we had been flying over enemy territory, trying to draw them up, get them to take off and come in and have a go at us. We were very naive, I think. We didn't realise how damn good the Messerschmitt 109 was. Later we'd much preferred them to stay on the ruddy ground.
And during this ... this is the period, I think, after the ... now just a sec. (Short interruption). Just clarifying some chronology here. Anyway, we're looking at the period in late '41. What were the main tasks of the squadron during that period?
Well our main tasks, I think, were doing fighter patrols, ground strafing when possible, but mainly fighter patrols, and getting quite a few combats too out of it.
I think we worked out, Bobby, it was December '41 that No. 3 Squadron re-equipped with Kittyhawks. I think you were saying you were based at aerodrome 122 near the defensive wire between Libya and Egypt?
That's right, yes.
Right. That conversion to Kittyhawks, I think went a lot more easily because of their similarity to the Tomahawks. Is that right?
Well it was basically the same aeroplane. We were a little disappointed when we first got the Kitty, we thought it'd be way ahead of the Tomahawk. In actual fact, it was a little bit better. One thing I personally didn't like about it was the Tomahawk had fairly high sides and you'd be sitting behind a thin sheet of metal but you felt safer. The Kittyhawk had perspex coming way down and you felt as if you were sitting up, very vulnerable, because you could see out so much. That was one feature I do remember. However, later when we got our Kittyhawks running properly - were getting better performance - they were a better aeroplane.
The Kittyhawks, of course, did have fairly significant armour plating behind the seat, I think. Was that more so than the Tomahawks or not?
No, the Toma... they had the same armour plating. The Tomahawks had two .5 machine-guns firing through the propeller and four .3s on each wing, and you could actually reload, sometimes if you were lucky, the .5s if they stopped.
[We're just pausing].
The Kittyhawk guns you couldn't reload them. Theoretically you could, but never happened. We used to have a terrific amount of gun trouble. The armourers did a wonderful job but again sand used to get into the mechanism and there were times when you'd end without any guns shooting - firing - and in the middle of combat that wasn't much fun. Also, it was very frustrating if you had an opportunity of shooting some gent down and your guns would pack up one after the other until you had nothing to shoot with at him.
Right. Are there any other key differences that you would point to between the two planes?
(20.00) No. Some of our pilots preferred the Tomahawk, but I, mainly because those two .5s fired straight out ahead. The Kittyhawk guns came in from each side to a point, an aiming point about 150 to 200 yards ahead, and I felt the Tomahawk guns, the .5 through the prop were a better proposition.
Hm. That's interesting. Just while we're talking about the guns, Bobby, it's an interesting thing perhaps just to consider the distance at which you would regard it as very likely that you could shoot another plane down. How close did you really have to be?
Well, I wasn't very successful at shooting other planes down. And my deflection shooting was absolutely awful. Um, I think invariably a lot of us used to shoot out of range, and we'd probably get a bull's drop before the bullets actually hit the aircraft you were shooting at. There were some pilots like Clive Caldwell who was a wonderful shot. One day when Clive was leading his squadron and I was leading 3, Clive was out ahead above us with his squadron. Some 109s went across in line astern, prior to coming down and starting an attack. Clive pulled his aircraft up fairly steeply. I was about to say, you know, `Cut out that bulldust Caldwell', and suddenly the aircraft he shot at - to me, it was way out of range - went down in flames. So I just don't know any more, but he certainly proves that he was an excellent shot, magnificent shot.
Right, but by and large, you know, if you looked at the average cases where planes were shot down, as against, you know, obviously there was a lot of shooting that didn't produce results. How close do you think people were?
Well up to two or three hundred yards, sometimes up to five or six hundred yards. The Messerschmitts had exploding ammunition at about a thousand yards. Their 20mm cannon shells would be self-detonating, and often you'd see the little black puffs behind you when they - the Germans - were shooting out of range.
Hm, that's interesting, so they'd be shooting at more than a kilometre?
Mm, right. Well going on to something else, and thinking about the morale of the squadron. When you joined it, of course, there was, I gather, this real feeling of esprit, but by late in November, or late in '41 November, there was some very fairly heavy losses suffered by the squadron and in fact this is to quote from yourself. Just to save time on the tape, I'm quoting from page five to six of Hank Nelson's notes. Right, well I was just reading that ....
I think that came from my diaries.
Oh right, that's from your diaries.
Yeah I think so.
How would you see that period now looking back on it? Was your low morale common for men in the squadron generally or not?
Well I think yes. I think we were honest with each other. Yes, there were times when you went through that bleak period. This particular time we, I'd had two combats. One in the morning - we lost four of our, no, three of our pilots all killed. In the afternoon we had a further combat with heavy losses, and the combat in the afternoon went on for one hour and five minutes. It was quite a horrific deal. We were lucky that any of us got home. We were flying just near a German aerodrome. They were able to go back and refuel and come and have another crack at us. We were forced down so low that - above the desert - that the people on the ground were shooting back at us. So we had fire power coming from above and below, and it wasn't much fun.
Hm, and that was the particular combat that precipitated those feelings?
That's right, yes. Well that was nearly my undoing. I had a job to make myself keep going.
And did you have any help in doing that? Or was that just a battle you fought yourself?
Well I fought it mainly myself, but we had an old air liaison officer - an army liaison officer - called Allan Binnie. And Allan had been a world war one fighter pilot, had been shot down. The Germans didn't like him very much for what he had been doing evidently, and they chopped off his left arm without anaesthetic. So that left a bit of an impression. But Allan came to me - he was virtually a father figure having been through an earlier war - and he had a quiet chat, and that was greatly helpful to me. He picked me, but none of the others did.
(25.00) That's interesting. Well we won't go into the details of that. Um, I think an important thing to put on the record of this tape, Bobby, are the two occasions on which you were shot down. One was 26 May '42 during the retreat beyond El Alamein I think, and the other was your rescue attempt that we discussed just a while ago. But if you're happy we won't talk about those in detail because they're in such detail on your tapes. Except, would you like to add anything now, here, do you think?
No, I think they cover it fairly well. The only probably thing I could add is that the Ju-88 which I was shooting at - and I had a box of four of them, and they were almost as fast as a Kittyhawk - and I .... Even though I had one of the aircraft - I had obviously killed its rear gunners - the other ones on the other side that I wasn't shooting at, obviously one of them set me on fire, so .... But the aircraft was later credited half to 3 Squadron and half to another - 450 Squadron - I wasn't given any of it. I, oh it doesn't matter a damn now, but it's just, you know, I feel I could have got a bit of it.
Right, well that's understandable. In fact, I was going to come on to ask you about that. How important were accepted kills in keeping the morale both of individual pilots and the squadron going?
Well it was very very hard to get a kill confirmed. I think most of us who saw real action knew of other aeroplanes we knew we had really got, but you didn't see them go down. If you waited to watch an aeroplane go in you were liable to be shot down and killed yourself. Unless you had someone observing it, someone else in the squadron seeing it, it was almost impossible to get them confirmed. I know I shot down a Ju-52 at one stage. Last seen it was just holding off and later we found the Junker - the Ju-87 sorry - in exactly the spot I had said it would be. But this was three or four weeks later. The RAF considered that there was so much action in the area someone else might have got it quite easily, and that's very true. I wasn't that distressed about it, but I know I got it.
Sure. Well of course No. 3 Squadron did have a very great name for its successes - general successes - and I think you were in fact the person to be credited with shooting down the 200th enemy aircraft. What's your recollection of that incident, and also your return to the base?
(Laughing). Yes, well this is rather a funny story. I had managed to purloin a Kitty Mk 3, which was slightly more powerful than the Kitty 2s the rest squadron were flying. Incidentally, the Brits took it off me later. But I saw three 109s climbing up ahead. If I had waited to take the whole squadron there, which would be the normal practice, they would have got away. So I decided, I'd use my little bit of added power to catch them, had a look at the three aeroplanes climbing up line astern. I thought, `If I shoot at number one - the leader - the one in the tail - the third one - could probably pull a deflection shot on me'. So I decided to shoot down number two, then I'd shoot down number three, then I'd hopefully get number one. So I had a fire - I was way out from the squadron - I fired a short burst at the second aircraft and, watching number three out of the corner of my eye, and then suddenly it flicked and went down pouring black smoke. So I thought, `Now what's he playing?'. I hadn't even shot at him, so I looked round to see who else was round, and there was not another soul. So I watched him go down a bit, thinking, `Well he's pulling a bit of a swifty'. However, he kept going down. In the meantime, the other two didn't wait for me and I couldn't catch them.
That night, the Americans came over, we celebrated our 200th. Had quite a party. And I'd .... The armourers had culled the rounds I fired, which were very very few, and everyone thought I was a magnificent shot. When I got a bit shickered that night, I thought, `Well I may as well come out with the truth'. So I confessed that I hadn't aimed at that one, I had aimed at the one ahead of it. And of course, no-one would believe me. They thought I was just being silly. But that's what happened.
Mm, that's very interesting. Well anyway, there was a great party.
Yes, a good party, but it's no wonder I got such a lousy score. I, you know, shot at probably more aeroplanes than almost anyone else in the war, but I didn't hit very many.
Those 200 planes shot down. Do you have any recollection of the general number of losses No. 3 Squadron had entailed to gain those 200?
Not really. I used to tell our pilots - my pilots when I was commanding officer - that we used to get two to every one we lost. I think that ratio actually worked out to be fairly right. We had quite a number of pilots killed. We had nothing like 200 of course. We had others taken prisoner and some came home. When you're amongst the eldest in the squadron ... you start as a new boy and then you gradually become the eldest in the squadron - happened three or four times - you start wondering a little bit.
Something else I just wanted both to put on record and ask related to this Bobby. Your decorations - I think DFC, DSO ...?
You've got them in the wrong order. Firstly I won the DFC, then I got a DSO - which was more or less a squadron thing - then I was given a DFC. But the DSO rates higher than the DFC, so it's DSO, DFC and Bar to the DFC.
Right, thanks for correcting that. How important were decorations such as those to individuals to keep - generally boost their morale - and keep them plugging along?
Well I don't think very much of decorations frankly, in that they weren't consistent. I think the decorations .... Well for instance, we had to shoot down five or six enemy aeroplanes for every ... before we could possibly get a DFC. Later, people who never fired their guns at enemy aeroplanes and they got the same decorations as I got.
Right, so there's a feeling that there wasn't much objective basing of them?
Well I feel that ultimately it went .... Now I had one of my pilots, a chap Dave Ritchie, shot down I think five. If I had put him up for Mention In Despatches, that would have knocked him back for a DFC. So he only had to do a little bit more in the way of operational flying - probably prang one more aeroplane - and he would get it. Maybe he had four, and five was the number, I forget now. He came back, he saw people going up to the islands without shooting anything down, and coming back with the DFC. He always felt fairly bitter about that. He was a bit inclined to blame me, but it was the system over in the Middle East.
Well I think you're saying despite these reflections now, at the time they were fairly important things?
At the time it was quite nice to be given them, yes, quite nice. It did help your morale a bit. I think our morale was pretty good anyway.
Sure. Just on a related thing perhaps. I have read that there was, or there were periods when there was some resentment felt on the part of Australian airmen because the overseas command was in Britain, and they were rather removed. Things such as promotions, changes in pay, all those sort of administrative things happened rather slowly, or could. Was that a recollection of yours or not?
No not really, but I think when some of us did come home, there seemed to be a resentment among some of the permanent people and, you know, this was very noticeable with many of the people like Tim Goldsmith and Clive and, you know, John Waddy and so on. There was that resentment. Now, not with all of the permanent .... Some of the permanent people, like Johnny Lerew and others were, you know, anything other than that. But I suppose it could be natural to be rather resentful that you didn't have the opportunity of getting into this sort of combat yourself.
Sure. Well moving on a little bit, I did just want to talk about your taking over as squadron leader. But first of all, of course, there was Squadron Leader Jeffrey, I think, and then Rawlinson and a Squadron Leader Chapman. I think you were suggesting that in the case of Jeffrey and Rawlinson, they were really burnt out through excessive combat and it was simply time to go.
Well they had done .... I don't think they were burnt out exactly. I think they could have kept going, but they had done enough. They had done more than their share, and it was only fair that they would come back. They both were on further operations when they came home of course.
But I think you were suggesting that in the case of Squadron Leader Chapman, there was, ah well ... I'll leave it to you.
(5.00) Well he arrived the day that Pete and Al left. I feel that it would have helped him if they had stayed on for a bit longer, because the general idea over in the desert with fighter pilots was that the leader - the squadron commander - did as much flying, if not more - I always made a point of doing more - than anyone else. And so did Pete and Al Rawlinson. Now, no-one told Dixie that he should do this, and he flew, but he didn't fly as much as he could have which wasn't good for the squadron morale, quite frankly. And Dixie didn't really get on with the Brits too well, and they eventually got rid of Dixie and gave me the job. But they promoted him. He went up to a wing commander and they gave him an army co-op. squadron.
You were saying that because he wasn't flying a lot morale was down. Was that kind of thing openly discussed amongst men or was it a more intuitive thing?
No, I don't think it was discussed. Not really. Maybe one or two of the older, better (inaudible) might have something to say. But no, I don't think so. I think it was rather a pity though. He .... See, I was too junior. I was flying officer. I couldn't tell him that he should hop into the air more. In defence of Dixie though, at one stage when it looked like being a horrible job - I didn't think any of us would come back - Dixie, who had been going to do the morning in orderly room, he came out and asked if he could fly as my number two which, you know, he did and then it turned out to be a piece of cake. But when he did come out and flew, he really, and I thought, that we were going to have a horrific time. One of these operations where none of us might come back.
Right. I think that's an important point to add there.
Well let's go on to your actually taking over as squadron leader. We worked out, I think, you must have been about twenty-six. Very young really. You've only been flying in the Middle East for, I suppose, a couple of years. What's your first recollection of the news that you were to be squadron leader?
Well one of absolute astonishment, frankly. They rang me, 'phoned me from wing headquarters and they said, `Squadron Leader Gibbes', and I said, `No, Flight Lieutenant, Acting Flight Lieutenant Gibbes'. Then they got me to come over to wing and informed me that I was now the CO of the squadron. I think the RAF did something rather which upset me a bit. Dixie had been promoted to wing commander, and I didn't have any stripes, so - I used to share a tent with Dixie - so I grabbed his squadron leader stripes. I thought, `Well he won't need those anymore'. When he came back from Cairo, here I was dressed with squadron leader stripes and Dixie wanted to know what it was about. He hadn't been told, and I think the RAF were very remiss not telling him what was happening and leaving it for me. I thought that was a bit miserable of them.
Especially as Dixie was a good friend of mine.
Sure. The actual duties of a squadron leader. How would you rank them from your most important to your least important duties?
Well I think the least important duty was signing reams and reams of bumf. That was the least important. I think the adjutant - and we had a very good adjutant; at all times we had a good adjutant - I think he did all the hard office work and routine and he just passed things for you to sign. With movements and so on, well okay you came into that a bit, getting ground parties moving and packed up and so on, but you left the basic work to the adjutant, and if you had a good adjutant - and I had - I could keep on flying.
And what about the operations you were flying on and the general tasks of the squadron? As squadron leader, did you have much input to the wing and to higher up the chain, or were orders still just handed down to you?
(10.00) Oh no. They used to listen to a squadron commander, very definitely, and I think we all had an input. I think I had one very important input with the operation when the New Zealanders came in. They were knocked back when they were trying to break out the back of Gabes in Tunisia. Flying over the squadron, I noticed the New Zealanders had been knocked back a couple of times with 88s - 88mm guns, field guns - in the hills each side, and the New Zealanders had to go through this narrow gorge, and they suffered fairly heavy casualties. I noticed that whenever we went over, the guns would stop because, if we could see a gun shooting, we'd go down and strafe it. So I got a brainwave and I went back and I passed it up to the wing headquarters, and it went up to the AOC, that I thought that if we kept a sufficient supply of aeroplanes overhead for - in daylight hours - while the New Zealanders went through, we'd keep their heads down. And this actually happened. The New Zealanders went through with minor casualties. Anything that looked like opening up was clobbered immediately. So that's one case when they did listen to a squadron commander.
Right. That's most interesting. The actual briefing before operations. Was that given by the squadron commander?
The intelligence officer to a great extent. The squadron commander would probably have his say too.
Generally have something to say about it.
Right, and was that both at the level of organisation and specific actions, or was it more at the level of general morale boosting and so on?
Oh no, I think specific actions to a great extent. I don't think you were necessarily out to improve morale. You were trying to look as brave as blazes, which you weren't. That was to help morale, and I think all the other pilots were trying to do the same, so we were all probably pretty wary and nervous, but it was natural.
Yeah sure. Well let's move on a little bit Bobby. We worked out from your log book before, I think it was May 26 when you had to parachute down and damaged your ankle. Could you just tell us about that action and about the subsequent hospitalisation?
That day we were sent off on what they call a scramble, to climb up for some Ju-88s which were coming across, and we were vectored onto the 88s. There were four Ju-88s, and a flock of Messerschmitts sitting over them. I had .... I ordered my one flight to attack the bombers and I swept across the top with the other flight to drive the Messerschmitts off, and things were pretty fast and willing for a little while. The Ju-88s had bombed, they were diving for home, and they were nearly as fast as a Tomahawk, er a Kittyhawk - yes, we were flying Kittyhawks at that stage - nearly as fast as a Kittyhawk. And I first sang out to the boys to `Forget the fighters' - that's what I was told I said later by wing - `Get the bombers'. And I lead in after the bombers. Now I carried out one or two virtually frontal attacks, but then I couldn't catch them anymore, so I started attacking from the rear, which was highly dangerous and probably stupid of me. I knocked out the gunners in the aircraft in the diamond and in the meantime one of the carriages in either the port or starboard of the - this one - set my aircraft on fire. I glided down, hoping the fire would go out, and it didn't go out so about 4,000 feet I went over the side. I ....
Can I just pause there Bobby, just to ask you in a little more detail what was going through your mind after you caught fire, because I'd imagine for most pilots that was the greatest fear?
Well, fire in the air was not much fun. I've had three fires in the air now, but that was my first. Er, the bailing out - to be able to stay alive, having an avenue of escape - I think there was no fear in bailing out. That made it a piece of cake really, to get the hell out of it, because no-one wanted to be burnt to death.
I had worked out an idea of getting out. One of our pilots, when he was bailing out, his parachute .... He bunted, and his parachute caught in the, behind the seat. No, he whirled upside down and dropped out and his parachute caught behind the seat. So I had worked this out, so I turned in the cockpit, held the stick on my right hand, wound the trip forward, put my hands on the canopy which I had wound back in the meantime, and when I let the seat go, I shot out like a cork out of a bottle.
Unfortunately, I hadn't allowed for the tail fin, and it got me quite a nice clout above the knee and I nowadays have two tin knees. This was probably the direct result. As I went down I was tangled with the - in the - radio aerial and I was trying to get free of that, and then I pulled the ripcord and it .... Incidentally I was in a .... It wasn't my own parachute. I had .... Someone else had flown my aeroplane. He evidently was about ten feet tall because the parachute only fitted me where it touched me, and very loose in the straps. And when I went over the side I thought, you know, I was quite frightened that the parachute might ... I might fall out of the parachute. But when the parachute canopy opened, the straps tightened up nicely and I went down.
(15.00) Can I just pause for a moment. When you are sitting in the aircraft normally, is the parachute strapped on, or do you have to strap on before you get out?
Oh no, in the flight area, it is strapped on before you take off. However, when I was on the way down I was frightened of being strafed. I was 4,000 feet above, and suddenly heard .... I watched my aeroplane go down. I watched it hit the ground in a burst of fire, and then I heard an aircraft coming towards me. The roaring got louder and louder and I started pulling on the shrouds to try and collapse my 'chute, because I thought I was going to be shot up. The 'chute didn't collapse and suddenly there was a mighty bang and dead silence. Then I realised that I had listened to my own aeroplane going down and the sound, by the time it got to me, it was a, you know, I misinterpreted it entirely.
When I got down, I landed pretty heavily and without knowing much about parachuting, ended by breaking my left ankle and fibula. I didn't know if I was in enemy territory or not. As it turned out I was in no man's land, between the two lines. A nondescript looking team of people came out in a blitz wagon - could have been anyone - and I thought, `They're Germans'. So I was sitting on the ground with my hands up in surrender. I couldn't stand. And then one of them said, `Git up chum', and I said, `Oh, you bloody Pommies' (laughing) and I was so terribly relieved.
Before that, while I was sitting looking at my bent ankle and trying to get my shoe off, I was in terrific pain but I also had a feeling, `At least I'm going to be out of action for a while. I'm going to be alive for a little bit longer now', but I was relieved when they turned out to be Brits and not Germans. They took me to a field hospital in a little four wheel thing, and they put my ankle in plaster, drove me back to the squadron. From there I ... well it's a long story. I got up to Haifa, went into 7th AGH. After a while the desert boys were retreating like blazes and I was listening to the radio. I became quite agitated. I felt I should be there, and I said to the .... I got an idea. They gave me a, they made a mistake of giving me a walking iron onto my plaster. I spoke to, I went to see the Doctor Money - he was a doctor in charge of the AGH ....
Could I just pause for a moment? This is Colonel Money?
Right, well just to cross-reference with the records of the 2/6th Hospital, which is one of the other units we've been speaking with.
Oh well okay, right. Is he still alive?
No, Colonel Money died, I'm not sure - some time ago.
Aha. Anyway ....
But very very highly regarded by everybody.
Oh he was a wonderful guy. However, I went up to Colonel Money. I worked out a plot. I had my driver up there with me and a staff car and I went to see Colonel Money, and I said, `Sir, I would like a posting to the 1st British AGH, er, British General Hospital in Jerusalem'. And he said, `Why?'. I said, `Because I don't like it here'. And he was quite furious with me and he arranged a posting on the spot. Wanted me to go up by ambulance. I said, `Sir, I have my own staff car and driver, I'll drive myself up. I'll get my driver, he'll take me up.' I got out of the hospital, I went to Gaza Signals Office. I sent a telegram to the British Hospital saying, `Delete all reference Squadron Leader Gibbes. Gibbes now proceeding Heliopolis for medical board.' And I set off with my driver back to the desert.
I got to Cairo. I had a fitting made for my broken foot which had a ... fitted onto my walking iron, and with this I was able to put the - use the - toe breaks in aircraft by sliding my backside forward. My ankle of course was rigid, but I proved I could fly. I got one of my pilots to take me for a circuit or two in a Harvard. I then flew a Kittyhawk up to the desert, wanting to get back into operations. Tommy Elmhurst who was an air commodore at that stage, asked me: he said, `Do you know, what do you want to do this for?'. And I said .... He said, `What if you're shot down?'. I said, `Sir, if I'm shot down it's going to be pretty difficult getting out but I'll be able to'. He said, `That's not what I was thinking ...' - they called me Gibbo - `Gibbo'. He said, `Look, if you're shot down and captured and you have your leg in plaster, you're going to kill an awful lot of our people because it'll raise the German morale terrifically if they think we're flying cripples'. I said, `Oh God Sir, I hadn't thought about that one. Yes Sir.' (Laughing) So that ... I was stuck on the ground then.
(20.00) Right, that's a very interesting story. Right, and just for the record, it was the 25th June that we had the date there that your leg was checked out by your pilot you mentioned. Just for the record too, I think Nicky Barr was the temporary CO while you were away, and he was himself shot down and taken prisoner shortly after you returned?
Yes, well Nicky might have even remained CO when I got back because I had done quite a lot of operations and I might have been posted to fly with a wing leader or something. However, Nicky went. The Brits wanted me to take over the squadron again. I didn't want to because I didn't think a non-flying commanding officer was a good idea. But they said if I didn't take it over they'd put a - thing they called it themselves - a `Pommy' in. Being an all-Australian I couldn't have that. I think it's one of the unhappiest times I had in the squadron sending people out, without being able to be part of the team. That was a very dreadful part of my operational career. However, I eventually got back to flying, well before I should have. I kidded the doctor that I had, went .... I told him I was going to Cairo to do a board. I didn't go to Cairo, I went to Alex and had a party. Came back. I said, `I've cleared the board Sir, Doctor, I'm ready to fly again'. He never did find out that I wasn't.
Hm. That's very very interesting Bobby. Well just going on with some general issues again Bobby. After the Japanese had entered the war, was there much feeling on the part of Australian flyers in the Middle East that they wanted to get back to Australia or not?
Ah, not only amongst the pilots, but the whole of the ground crew all wanted to come back. We were dead keen to get back, and I wanted to take the squadron back as a unit. However, Lord Casey came to see me and he briefed me, and I in turn had to brief the squadron. The point was that if we came back they didn't have aeroplanes for us, and Casey said that we were doing a magnificent job where we were, and he hoped we would be able to continue doing this job, instead of going back and being at a dead end without any aeroplanes to fly. So I got .... I went out and I briefed my crew - ground staff and pilots. I think we had 350 in the squadron, and they all got the message. They all stopped agitating and from then on we had peace again.
Right. Another thing just relating to the different air forces involved in the Middle East. Do you think it's true that Australians had less chance for promotion than, for example, English pilots or American, in that you were further removed from your senior officers?
No I don't think so. I think we probably had more chance for promotion over there, because people were killed off so much faster and they made way at the top.
Mm, right. And what about the issue of nationality in terms of rivalry between different units? Was that an issue or not?
Oh there was always rivalry, but it was always very friendly rivalry. We had one squadron - Clive's old squadron, 112. We got to our 100th confirmed victory and a week or two later we said, `Oh well, being Australians, we're a bit better than that mob'. But a week or two later they were there too. Then we got our 200th first. I don't think anyone else got 200 confirmed.
Right. And another issue that I think is just interesting to talk about for a moment. It would seem that in many situations there was always the leeway for pilots to press and attack right home, to get right in there, or to just pull out a little bit where you could still be seen to have done the job, but perhaps not to have exposed yourself to such great risk. Was that sort of thing talked about amongst pilots much or not?
Not really. I don't think so. Generally speaking - well 3 Squadron anyway - we did the job as we saw fit. Now, Harry Broadhurst came over - became our chief marshal - who's a mate of mine on a buddy-buddy basis now, but he wasn't then. He was higher than JC. And he .... While I was doing a short week staff course on the river houseboat on the River Nile, and 'Broady' briefed my pilots and rather said that they weren't pushing on hard enough and he didn't care if they were all killed and so on. Now that frightened the blazes out of them. I came back. There was a bit morale drop. So I had to point out that we would carry on doing exactly what we were doing. We'd press the attack as hard as we could, but we would try, at the same time, to keep ourselves alive. And this, I think, helped the morale. It went back again, knowing that we weren't going to do anything silly. We carried out .... We had a lot of casualties, but we tried to minimise them as much as possible, but we never ran away.
(25.00) Right. And another thing that I think I might have touched on briefly before, but perhaps not quite in this context. As the period that you were flying dragged on and on, did the tension and difficulty of, especially of tough missions, increase or decrease with time?
It used to come and go. I think that one of the toughest time was when Peter and Al Jeffrey were with us, and that was a very tough time. Alamein was a very, another tough time. I think if I looked at my log book now, you'd see that almost every operation we went we had air opposition, and we had losses, and we got a few too.
Right. Well let's just get back into the actual swing of the story again. We've previously been discussing the episode when you were hospitalised, after the parachute incident. And then leading on to late in '42 - September '42 - I think this was just before you made your advance beyond El Alamein. I think you were saying you were fairly heavily involved in escorting bombers in general softening up operations?
That's right. We did a lot of bomber escort, a lot of bomber escort. In the morning of Alamein, 3 Squadron was in the air before daylight, flying over Alamein, and looking down you'd wonder how anyone on either side could remain alive. The whole ground area was lit up with gunfire. It was fantastic.
And did that general escorting of bombers continue as the allies advanced westwards through Africa or not?
Oh yes it kept going, but that was a tough time. Once the Germans started a definite retreat, their air force became disorganised, more disorganised. They were still pretty tough. The next bad period we had was Bir Hacheim. Ah, Bir Dufan, sorry, Bir Dufan, when we got there. That was a very torrid period. The day before we - we didn't - other squadrons lost aeroplanes and the day I was shot down I think we lost six that day.
Mm. This was the second time you were shot down?
What are your other general recollections of this closing period both in the advance across Africa and also your time as squadron leader?
Well I think when we were chasing the Germans, I think that was a very very satisfying period. It was when they - the Germans - would come to a halt and fight back, then there'd be a certain worry in case we couldn't keep up the momentum. Having seen that happen in the push in '41, there was always a feeling that this might happen again. But it didn't; they kept going.
And what about your own feelings as the time you were spending with the squadron came to a close? How did it all seem to you, looking back on it?
Well I .... When I was sent off, finally grounded by Air Board in Melbourne, Harry Broadhurst had two or three tries, and so did 'Maori' Conningham, of getting me, keeping me in operations. 'Maori' Conningham told me that if I liked, he'd call me back from England, but I thought my first loyalty was to Australia. So when they called me back, I .... Instead of coming straight home of course, I darted off to England and I was eventually grabbed and sent home.
Bob near the end of his time with 3SQN in Tunisia, with his personal Kittyhawk II FL265 "CV_V" in early 1943. [Gibbes family album]
Could you just tell us the actual, I mean the actual departure from the
squadron? What were they doing at the time, and what was your farewell from the
Well when I left the squadron, I went down to organise the posting to England, and then I got back to the squadron, and I was back there when the final North African show folded. I met a cousin of mine who had done three tours of operations on Wellingtons, and was just starting a fourth tour, and between us, the two of us went and we grabbed a couple of cars which the Germans were driving and the Italians were driving themselves in the prison camp in. And then we drove back to the squadron. We had a most fantastic party. I had met up with one of 3 Squadron trucks and gone into the American sector and the first army sector, where they hadn't done all that fighting, we felt. And I went to a (inaudible) canteen, and I drew rations for our wing, which I said were moving to an aerodrome next door. Of course, there was no intention of doing that, so we loaded up with a great deal of grog, which we paid for of course, drove back to the squadron and we had a terrific celebration. Eventually they put the adjutant and me into a little Italian Ghibli which we had captured - a little twin-engine aircraft - and I flew it back next day, with a pilot to take the aircraft back to the desert. The staff car I had grabbed was a beautiful Alpha, really good Alpha, and I gave it to one of the squadron people who got it back to Cairo, had the desert camouflage taken off and given a spray of paint, and he was going to ....
He was going to send the car back to Australia after the war, but the car had belonged to a general, an Italian general, and after the Italians changed sides, he became interested in the fate of his car and questions were asked. The question suddenly became red hot, so this friend of mine gave the car to another squadron in the desert and it probably assumed desert camouflage again and continued over there. I don't know what happened ultimately.
That's a lovely story. There must have been quite a lot of that sort of changing hands of property was there?
There was quite a lot. 3 Squadron were known as the `clifty' squadron. `Clifty' means pinch - you know, stealing. We had double the amount of transport that we were entitled to. We had German trucks, Italian trucks and invariably when they were going to have an inspection, we'd get a warning - we'd have friends in high places - we'd be warned that our transport was going to be looked at. And you'd see little dust trails going off in all directions out into the desert till the inspection was over, and the official vehicles would stay put. We had a Lincoln Zephyr which Peter Jeffrey acquired in Syria. It had belonged to General Dentz. It had one of the official car's number plate on. We had another little Volkswagen which we had captured with the same number plate on. I went to a drive-in in Alexandria and we left our cars there while we went into the town - an army sort of barrack. I came back to collect the staff, my ... the Lincoln Zephyr. Alongside it was a staff car parked, and the other side of it had a Volkswagen parked, the three of them with exactly the same number and how the Brits didn't wake up to that I'll never know. I sneaked out very quickly.
Hm. That's a lovely story. Well, just before we go on to the end of your war Bobby, is there anything else that you feel you would like to put on record about No. 3 Squadron and your time with it?
No. But I was fortunate to be posted to a squadron which had already proved itself to be a magnificent squadron. It remained that way. I don't think it got any better, just remained a top squadron, and I still am very proud to have served for a total of about fourteen months as the commanding officer of the squadron. During the time I was with it, I flew 470 operational hours, 270 sorties, and people like to say I had two or three tours. I didn't have two or three tours - I had one tour. I was away at one stage with a broken leg, or ankle. Another stage I had malaria, but otherwise I was there the whole time, just one tour.
Mm, and just for that record too, to finish the picture off, Bobby, I think was it ten and a half planes you were credited with?
No, it was ten and a quarter. That's all. I went through thirty-six different combats. In some cases I fired my guns many times in the one combat and if I had been able to shoot like old Clive Caldwell, I would have got a really good score. In fact, I could have been ahead of him. But my shooting, as I've already pointed out, was pretty marginal. If I aimed at one and hit the wrong one, well you couldn't do better than that.
True, still they were certainly hits. Well just to go on to complete the story. I might just put a resume in here. After leaving No. 3 you went to Britain I know, and you were to be involved in forming I think the first tactical air force?
For getting information on it, yeah.
Right. Then there was night flying of Blenheims posted to Commander, Mosquito Squadron, but I think at the same time you were posted back to Australia?
I did an abridged Mosquito OTU and the day I was to go to the squadron - 464 Squadron, Wrigley had posted me relieved that I could take it over - I was then called back to Australia and I came back via Canada. I did a lecture tour there for some of our EATS squadrons before returning to Australia.
(5.00) Just on that lecture tour, Bobby, was that a kind of a chest-thumping, morale boosting exercise, or were you passing on specific combat information?
Well it was meant to be a morale-building thing. I think probably that was the intention, but a chap who'd come back to Canada - a chap called 'Screwball' Beuring who'd .... He was a wonderful fighter man. However, when he got back to Canada he went round the OTUs and the training schools, and told the pilots that they didn't need any navigation, that navigation was a waste of time, they didn't need it. He had flown from Malta. Also, that the Messerschmitts were deadly ruddy things, and their chance of survival were very very poor. The morale of some of our air crew slumped. By then we were away from the willing volunteers. We were probably getting down a bit and the lesser people amongst them, some of the lesser people. And when these people were at long last firing their guns with real ammo and dropping real bombs, that didn't help. So I was sent to give the other effect. So I, you know, went round and lied like hell. I said that it was all a piece of cake. (Laughing.) I think I probably helped a bit.
Right. And then when you came back to Australia, I think there was a period chief flying instructor at Mildura, and after that you went up to Darwin?
I became CFI - Chief Flying Instructor, Mildura - then Chief Instructor and made a Wing Commander. Then I went up to Darwin. Clive Caldwell was CO of 80 Wing and I became his Wing Commander Flying. From there the wing moved up to Morotai and I waited back at Oakey and I escorted one of the Spitfire squadrons up there to Morotai.
Right. Well just to finish the story, let's talk briefly about the Morotai period. Of course, this was when the Americans really were way beyond where you were and, I think, there was this feeling that the Australian Air Force was rather being squandered?
The whole thing up there, I think, was quite pathetic. Wilf Arthur worked out a balance sheet, our losses - a profit and loss account - and the loss account. We had very little profit and a great deal of loss. But I think the thing that affected us mainly and made us very angry was that Air Board was giving the newspapers all sorts of stories on what we were doing. I personally was hit with my aeroplane in one month of aviation doing useless work six different times and each one of it could have been fatal. I was achieving nothing. I got some barges. I at one stage even shot up thirty or forty cows to save the Japanese eating them.
Could we just read out that list of hits from your log book? This is reading from Bobby's log book of somewhat tongue-in-cheek list of credits.
My credits: eight trucks, five of them burnt - one probable and two were damaged; four barges, two, one of them exploded, all the four sank; one steamroller damaged - probably was damaged before anyway; a medium tank; three petrol drums - about 4,000-plus gallons; six gun pits strafed; five huts strafed; and at one stage I found thirty or forty cattle in a corral. I thought, `Well if we can make, get the Japanese to cease enjoying their fresh meat supply ...', that I had to kill them. So I went and strafed them. I went away and came back half an hour later thinking I'd find the Japs cutting them up. I got back, meaning to kill a few Japanese and when I got there the cattle had disappeared into the jungle. I assumed that they weren't far into the jungle, so I strafed all the surrounding jungle very thoroughly. I just hope I got a few of them.
No doubt a few coconuts too. Um, well more seriously, there was then this very general feeling that the whole thing was a waste of time?
The whole thing was a criminal waste of time. We were losing pilots, being killed for no good reason. We weren't .... None of us wanted to get killed, but if we were achieving things we were prepared to take that risk. But to do things purely for Air Board and the senior people in Australia, to think, to be able to try and convince the Australian people that we were doing a magnificent job when it was all hooey, really went against the grain, especially for people like Waddy, Doug Vanderfield, Wilf Arthur, Clive and myself and others. We felt very badly about it.
(10.00) At one stage, General Kenney flew down from the Philippines to interview us. That's after eight of us offered our resignations. Ah, Kenney came down and I think our Chief of Air Staff - I assume our Chief of Air Staff - had told him that it was a case of lack of morale. Of course, Kenney came and questioned us and we all assured him that we weren't frightened. All we wanted to do was get into serious operations. We'd like him to take us back with him. And I think we convinced him that, you know, we were just wasting time. Now all we achieved there was absolutely useless. The Americans had passed on, they were way past. The Japanese there could have done no harm. They had just been left till the end of the war. They, with that, the war caved in anyway, without us losing pilots and people and giving a lot of false propaganda back to Australia. I wouldn't even call my hours of flying up there, in which I was hit six different times by ground fire, I wouldn't even call them operations.
This is just stepping back in time for a moment. This is from Bobby's log book. It's a sheet of paper titled `Completion of Operational Tour, Middle East', Squadron Leader R. H. Gibbes, DSO, DFC, No. 3 Squadron. Operational hours, Western Desert - 471.55; operational sorties - 274; total flying hours - 1159; enemy aircraft destroyed - 10¼; probably destroyed - 5; damaged - 9. Then there are notes about the three incidents which are referred to on the other tapes which we will be copying: 26 May '42 - shot down, bailed out and broken ankle; 21 December '42 - during a strafing raid on the enemy landing ground at Hun ... and it goes on to refer to the rescue of Pilot Officer Bailey referred to on the other tapes provided here; and 14 January '43 - shot down by enemy aircraft seventy miles behind the enemy lines; and that's the account of his - Bobby's - trudge back to safety, which is referred to fully on one of the other tapes of his to be copied.
That's great. Well just going back to the Morotai period, that's obviously the general background. The precise events: there does appear to have been this confusion over sort of trumping up minor issues over selling a few bottles of beer and this issue of your great upset over this waste of lives and planes. How do you recall that?
Well, I think if we hadn't all decided to resign to try and change the command, I don't think Clive Caldwell or I would ever have been court-martialled. I feel it was all tied up to the one thing. When they had the Barry investigation in Melbourne, I feel Air Board rather was behind pushing the grog aspect, rather than the real reason we had all resigned. You know, I think .... I have since seen a copy of the Barry report and a fact that I pleaded guilty to one charge and I wasn't even up in the islands, showed how little I thought of the grog deal.
Mm, right. That's interesting. Well do you have any other things to say about that final, well, the Morotai incident?
No, but I think from what I can gather, they .... When they did land in Borneo, they had been badly misinformed by the Dutch as to the condition of the aerodromes, and I, you know, I feel the whole operation was not necessary anyway.
Right. Well just finally, Bobby. It's been a very interesting session, and there's some really great material, and on those other tapes too from your diaries, do you feel there's anything else that you would like to add for the record that hasn't been covered?
Yes I would. For some time I have wondered why a chap like Caldwell who shot down 28½ enemy aircraft confirmed - I shot down 10¼ confirmed - he won a DSO, DFC and Bar plus a Polish gong - which I don't think really counts now in the scheme of things. I have exactly the same awards, decorations. So I suggested to Clive, asked him why it was that we both had the same decs and yet he got three times the number I shot down practically. He gave me an extract which he had written down during the Barry investigation in Melbourne, and this is an extract.
(15.00) It reads, `This is an extract from the confidential file of C.R. Caldwell and produced at Barry hearing, EATS, 402017 RAAF, 1945 on the advice of Air Vice Marshal Walters, AFC, former OC No. 1 Fighter Wing. Entry dated June 1943, following his recommendation for an award of DSO.' This reads, `This officer is an Empire Air trainee and as such is considered already sufficiently decorated and is to receive none more regardless of further service. Signed CAS' - which is Chief of Air Staff - 'George Jones.'
Now this is a terrible indictment on empire air scheme people that they were not allowed - they were allowed to die, but they weren't allowed win any higher decorations. I think it's a most dreadful indictment on the Chief of Air Staff.
Mm. Right, well it certainly is, as I would understand it. Is that it?
Yes, I think it's a pity that this couldn't have come out in this recent fiftieth anniversary of the Empire Scheme people in Perth.
Okay, well that's it Bobby?
That's it, yeah.
Well on behalf of the War Memorial, many thanks for a great session.
Okay. (Laughing). Good.
END OF INTERVIEW.
R.H. (BOBBY) GIBBES
[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on https://www.awm.gov.au. ]
ORAL HISTORY RECORDING
ACCESSION NUMBER: S01646
INTERVIEWEE: WING COMMANDER BOBBY GIBBES
INTERVIEWER: KEN LLEWELYN, RAAF PR.
RECORDING DATE: 12 FEBRUARY 1993
RECORDING LOCATION: COLLAROY, NSW
Wing Commander Gibbes, you'd decided to join the forces and you applied to the RAAF and to the Navy and some fifty years later you're still waiting to hear from the Navy, I believe?
Yes, that's correct. Monday after war was declared I sent a telegram to Fairbairn in Canberra asking when the Fairbairn air training scheme was starting and received a telegram back saying it's still in the plans. I also, on the Monday morning, went out to Rushcutters Bay and applied for the Navy because I had no particular choice, either would have suited. I still haven't heard from the Navy. Those steps probably all came out.
Where did you first learn to fly when you were accepted by the RAAF?
I started to learn to fly in 1939. I had been jackarooing and droving out in the bush and when I thought the war was imminent I came down and took a job as a commercial traveller, which I was not very successful at I might add, and I started learning to fly out at Mascot with Air Flight, flying an Aeronca. I had four hours flight, half an hour each time was as much as I could afford. Then when war broke out I thought, well, I'll let King George pay for the rest of it, if I get into the Air Force.
How did you take to flying? Did you find it a very enjoyable experience or did you find it hard work?
I was a very nervous pilot and I thought I was the only one who knew that. Later I saw my own record when I became Commanding Officer of 3 Squadron and I saw that my instructor, Alan Clancy, had recorded that I was a very timid pilot, and he was quite right.
That's really extraordinary considering the ensuing events, isn't it?
I don't know. I still think I'm quite a nervous pilot. I've done a fair bit of flying. I flew for twenty-seven years in New Guinea after the war and I still fly but I'm always very, very careful; I don't treat flying lightly.
What do you think makes up a good fighter pilot? - and you're in a very good position to make that comment.
Well, I think a good fighter pilot has to be .... His reactions for a start have to be very fast and invariably in combat you make instant decisions, and afterwards when I've been in fairly hectic combat I've thought about it later and wondered if I did the right thing and I've always assessed myself as having been absolutely right in the decision I made on the spur of the moment. I think you have to be frightened. If you're not frightened, you're going to get yourself knocked down by becoming over-confident and I always very nervous but I think I hid that pretty well from my fellow pilots.
It must be essential, to have great courage too, because no fighter pilot can be a good operator without having enormous physical and mental courage?
I think courage and cowardice are pretty well one thing in many ways. A pilot shows courage by doing things rather than be seen by his friends for what he really is, probably half a coward underneath, and I certainly come into that category.
Do you believe after a period of time as a fighter pilot you developed a sixth sense about what your opposition was going to do?
I think I knew exactly what my opposition, which was mainly the Germans, that's who I was frightened of, were going to do. The Italians didn't worry us much. But I came to the decision that no German pilot could shoot me down in a Messerschmitt. I knew their tactics completely and I was ultimately shot .... The last time I was shot down was by a Messerschmitt 109.
Was that a lapse of concentration?
It was not a lapse of concentration. I went down to rescue one of my people. I think I got the lead 109 that was beating him up. Incidentally, his aircraft went in. When I was catching up with the formation again, two 109s, the remaining two, were picking at me and I was avoiding their attacks, evading them and climbing back up to the bomb formation and somebody up above suddenly screamed out: 'Look out down below look out!' and I had lost sight of one of these 109s and I panicked and I pulled a full circle, a 360 degree circle, and of course I ran right into a twenty millimetre cannon shell and went down. But I always felt that the guy who screamed out to me to look out down below actually was the one responsible for shooting me down.
Did you bail out of that particular ...?
No, this time I landed at high speed with the two 109s still on my hammer. I was frightened they might shoot me up on the ground but they didn't. I suppose I touched down. The last time I looked at it, -the air speed- I was doing over 300 when I pushed it onto the deck. I wanted to let them see that I'd had the 'Richard' and I'd started climbing out before I had come to a stop, thinking they might strafe but they were gentlemen and they flew past me and gave me either a salute or a wave. Later, of course, a Fieseler Storch came looking for me but didn't manage to pick me up. I had gone the wrong way, back towards the aerodrome which we'd been bombing and they thought I'd be making back towards home.
You landed wheels up obviously.
Wing Commander, if I just go back just a year or so. What were your feelings about entering combat when you were sent across to the desert to fly Tomahawks with 3 Squadron?
I remember on my first operation which was in Syria, I don't think I slept a wink that night. I was frightened of being frightened, I think and wondered just how I would take it. Next day we went and strafed Rayak and it was really a piece of cake. We had no real flak and no air opposition and from then on I viewed combat flying with a little less fear. I had made my first effort.
Bobby as a young Tomahawk pilot. [Gibbes family album].
How did you find flying the Tomahawk?
They were a good aeroplane. They were not as good as the Messerschmitts which we came up against but they were a better aeroplane than the Italians had, with the exception of the Macchi 202 which was quite a comparable aeroplane.
So, how did you regard the Italians and the German air crew?
The Italians were very, very nice pilots. They flew well but they were very inclined to be aerobatic pilots rather than combat pilots, whereas the German was a very much more aggressive pilot than the Italian. We always felt rather relieved when we heard Italian voices over the RT rather than the Germans. But I don't want to take away from the Italians. They shot down a lot of our people in the early stages and we always treated them with a fair bit of respect but we respected the Germans more.
Other pilots have always said the Italians flew with great flair.
They did, they were basically good aerobatic pilots. They were a bit inclined to pull off aerobatics rather than just straight combat flying. But they did fly ... they were beautiful pilots but not aggressive.
Wing Commander, can you remember your first contact with the enemy?
Yes, I can. In Syria. In that show we found some JU88s over the fleet off Haifa and we went in and attacked. The Navy put up a terrific amount of flack which we had to fly through to get at the JU88s. We managed to get the four 88s, which incidentally had Italian markings.
Can you describe how you felt on your first combat contact?
Well, I suppose I felt apprehensive and I think I made a bit of a goat of myself really because I had never been to an OTU and I knew very little about combat flying, and I didn't know much about the enemy aeroplanes which we were attacking. The JU88 was almost as fast as a Tomahawk and to get at the one I went after, as I closed on it, I wondered what all these little wispy things going by were - little smoke trails going past me - and I suddenly realised that they were bullets. I was being fired at and I thought, my God, and I eventually managed to stop that and in the attack I was covered with oil eventually but I had attacked from behind and Pete Jeffrey who was the CO (Commanding Officer) was a bit critical about that because I didn't know that they had a huge gun underneath the plane firing backwards as well. In fact I didn't know that I shouldn't attack from behind; I had never been told. The normal attack, of course, was front quarter or head on if you could but never from behind. Later I was shot down by a rear gunner on a JU88 flying over the desert, when I was a fairly experienced pilot by then. I was CO of the squadron and to catch four JU88s we carried out one or two frontal attacks but they were as fast as a Kittyhawk which I was flying at that juncture and the only way I could get at them was to go in from behind and I think the one I was shooting at ultimately went down. In the meantime, the guy on the starboard side set me on fire. I parachuted.
In that first combat did you shoot down that JU88?
I was given a probable but I wasn't credited with it.
Can you remember how many hours you had in your log book on that first combat mission?
I would have had about 400 which is a lot more than the poor old Empire Air Scheme pilots had when they went into action.
So you must have felt you had a better grounding to cope. I believe Clive Caldwell had about 150 hours on his first combat mission.
Oh yes, I had done quite a lot of flying and didn't have to concentrate on flying the aeroplane, as the Empire Air Scheme guy had to do. He had to worry about flying and also about shooting. To me it was only ... the flying didn't come into it. It was just the ability to shoot.
Wing Commander, you were in combat for quite some time. How did you cope with the stresses that obviously built up, even subconsciously, during that period?
I went through two or three periods when I thought I just couldn't keep going. We had a combat one day which lasted .... In the morning we lost three of our pilots and I was on that show. In the afternoon I foolishly volunteered again to go out, I wasn't supposed to but I became the extra man, the thirteenth man, and when someone turned back I took his place.
We went through a combat that day which lasted one hour and five minutes against the Germans. We were over their territory and near their aerodrome. They could go back and refuel and re-arm and come back. We had got into some extraordinary defensive circle where we basically weren't able to go anywhere. But to cut that short we eventually landed back at a forward aerodrome coming on dusk with our tanks almost empty and mainly out of ammunition. The next day I felt that I couldn't go on, I couldn't face it again but I managed to hide that and I went out in the next show which turned out to be a piece of cake and then my morale improved again. But I went through several, well, two or three, of these stages. I got to the stage once where I couldn't get to sleep, I was deliberately trying to stay awake so that I wouldn't have nightmares. That was a horrible stage but I got over that and kept going.
Did you have nightmares of combat situations?
Yes, very much so, very much so. I still do sometimes.
Is this getting shot down or repeating situations that you had in the air?
Repeating situations to an extent, not necessarily when I got shot down. Another thing, of course, I remember is walking back at one stage and I do have dreams of being behind enemy lines in situations that looked pretty grim.
You still get them.
Just occasionally, yes. But in the combat side ....
Wing Commander, how old were you when you first went into combat in June '41?
I think I was about twenty-four - about that, I think.
We mentioned previously about the stresses you personally suffered during that period of time. How did other pilots cope and how did COs cope with pilots who simply couldn't fly again?
That could be quite difficult. When you found a pilot who just couldn't take it invariably he had to be sent out LMF which is Lacking in Moral Fibre. I had only two or three in my time when I was Commanding Officer and it was to me quite distressing. One was a beaut little bloke - I won't mention names - who just didn't have it but I felt sorry for him because he was such a nice little person. There was another one, he was just plain 'yellow' and he was stripped in front of the squadron - had his wings stripped from him in front of the squadron.
Another one, a flying officer, whom I sent home when I tried to make him fly. He had had a couple of bullet holes through his aeroplanes. When I tried to make him fly he refused. When I tried to force the issue he burst out and cried. Later when I came back I found he was equal rank to me. He was made RTO of a certain station and I had to go to him cap in hand to get a train pass to go down to Sydney. To me that was quite distressing but still fortunately there were very few. Most of the 3 Squadron pilots, almost a hundred per cent of them, were good value with lots of guts and stuck with it.
What happened to the pilot that was stripped of his wings? Was he sent back to Australia, was he?
I think they put him into the army but I'm not quite sure. I lost interest in him.
Have you ever met any of these individuals since you've returned to Australia?
Yes, I was flying with Ansett at one stage and I found my first officer on the DC3 was a pilot whom I sent back Lacking in Moral Fibre. I must say I did alert the company that in an emergency, not to let him get in the left-hand seat as in an emergency he might do the wrong thing. Probably nasty of me but I felt that this was only being sensible.
How do you feel about those individuals in retrospect?
Well, I feel sorry for them in many ways except for one case where the character came back to his home town and presented himself as being a famous air ace. I happened to hear about this; I did put his weights up.
That must have been very embarrassing.
Well, I hope it was (laughs). I probably shouldn't have done it but a pilot who lets his comrades down in combat and refuses to fly and comes home as a result of that should, I would think, tread fairly gently, certainly not pretend that he was a famous fighter pilot.
But the fighter world is very black and white, isn't it? It's a very stressful, very cutthroat, lethal game?
It could be quite lethal. We lost a lot of our people but we took a lot of people with us, too - a lot of enemy.
How did you feel when you lost pilots?
It was always .... We never had specific places in the mess for a start. We'd hold a bit of a wake for them but there was always a chance that they might be taken prisoner. There was always a chance - sometimes, of course, you knew they couldn't possibly survive. I think you became a bit hardened to it in many ways. Towards the end I had seen about three different complete lots of pilots go through while I was in 3 Squadron; in the two years I served with 3.
I don't think you ever become anything other than distressed and sad when you see or hear of one of your pilots not coming back from an operation.
Wing Commander, you were obviously earmarked for leadership early on in 3 Squadron because your first combat mission was 8 June '41 and by February '42 you were made a squadron leader and you became CO of the squadron.
Well, I don't think so. I think I just survived a bit longer. Some of the older pilots - incidentally, people like Peter Jeffrey and Al Rawlinson and 'Woof' Arthur and so on who made the squadron very, very famous over in the desert, they had finished their tours and they were sent home to carry out further combat flying later against the Japanese, of course. But then we had quite a number of casualties and I found in a very short time that I was the most senior pilot in the squadron and I was promoted to Commanding Officer at that juncture.
Did you take that position on with a great deal of pride or trepidation?
Well, I think I was quite proud to be suddenly wearing squadron leader stripes instead of flying officer stripes or flight lieutenant stripes. But I had been leading the squadron for quite a while in various operations and it didn't come as too much of a shock to me, and I wasn't nervous about leading the squadron as Commanding Officer. I had done it quite a bit before.
Now, 3 Squadron became the most decorated squadron in the RAAF and had an incredible heritage. How do you attribute this history of the squadron?
Well I don't know. We are in fierce competition, of course, with some of the RAF squadrons who incidentally were probably just as good as we were. There was 112 Squadron, for instance, which Clive Caldwell commanded at one stage for quite a period. They had shot down almost the same number of aeroplanes as 3 Squadron. They were mainly composed of Australian pilots, I might say, but it was an RAF squadron.
Was there a bit of competition between you and Clive Caldwell?
Yes, I suppose there was. We were both commanding officers of two squadrons - two of the highest scoring squadrons, I might say, in the Middle East. I was always a bit suspicious of Clive's score. I couldn't see that anyone could shoot down so many when I was firing at just as many aeroplanes and shooting down so few. But, however, one day Clive was leading his squadron and I was leading No. 3 and I saw Caldwell pull up to have a crack at three 109s which were stooging overhead - flying overhead - passing us overhead - obviously trying to get behind us for an attack. I saw the lead aircraft which was Clive's pull up and start to shoot.
I got on my radio, I was about to say, 'You line shooting bastard, Caldwell' but the thing went on fire so I didn't continue. Later after the war I have discussed this with Clive - he would never have known about it if I hadn't told him, of course.
How do you regard Clive Caldwell as a leader and as a combat pilot?
As a leader, I wasn't all that impressed with Clive in the desert. He was certainly a brilliant combat pilot. He proved that the day I saw him shoot down that 109 which was, in my books, right out of range. I think he .... My criticism of Clive was that he was a bit out to win a score and he led too fast. I don't think he was quite as sympathetic to his pilots if they couldn't keep up as I was; I would probably tend to wait for them more. But however, he proved himself to be a very capable leader. Very much so up in Darwin afterwards where he wasn't contending with one Robert Henry.
He was regarded as probably an average pilot but a brilliant shot.
Well, he was a brilliant shot. I never thought he was an average pilot. I thought he might be even a little bit below average pilot. I was sitting in the back of a Wirraway with him one day when he almost stalled it coming into land and I kept out of his aeroplane from then on. But obviously, he was quite a reasonable pilot.
He developed this method of shooting by following shadows, didn't he? - shooting shadows.
Well, Clive claims to have developed it. I'm not sure that he did. I have an idea that it was done before Clive did. I think probably people were shooting at shadows before that, but I don't know. He did, however, did practise a lot on shadow shooting. We did a lot of shadow shooting. Clive probably improved his marksmanship because of it. I certainly didn't improve mine. I probably shot at more aeroplanes than Clive ever saw over there but I didn't get many.
How did you regard your own abilities as a shot in the air? I mean, you were obviously very successful; you shot down more than ten aircraft.
Well I was a poor shot. Air to ground I think I was a very good shot. I could group my bullets and make sure they didn't run through. I could hold them on target while I went in and strafed. But air to air I certainly missed an awful lot of aeroplanes I fired at. I think the classic example was one day when I had a Kitty Mark III - I had acquired it illegally, I might say - and I had to give it back to the RAF later - but I had a little bit more horsepower than the rest of the squadron and when three 109s passed overhead or ahead of us, if I had waited to take the squadron with me, which normally I would have done, they would have got away.
But seeing them and knowing I had that bit more power I opened the taps and went after them.
I had a look at the three of them and I thought, if I pull a lead on the number one, number three could probably get a deflection shot at me, so I thought, well, I'll get number two first.
So I fired at number two. I must have misjudged their speed completely because the one behind, probably fifty yards behind, flicked over and went down smoking like hell. I looked round to see who else had shot at it but I was the only one in the sky. I then decided, well, I'll go after the number one and number two but, of course, they didn't wait for me. The one, incidentally, number three, did go in.
A successful mission?
Yes, it was a successful mission. We had a big celebration that night in the squadron and a few of the 'Yanks' came over and they thought the shooting was quite brilliant and I had only fired very few rounds. However, during the night I managed to get quite a few grogs on board and I decided that I'd confess that I hadn't even aimed at that one, I'd aimed at the one ahead of it. And, of course, when I did tell them of course no one believed me, but it was true.
Can you describe the mess environment in those days and what sort of alcohol did you drink in the mess?
Well, I think the messes were generally composed of two huge EPIP tents; that's "European Pattern Indian Personnel" tents. They were quite big. Dirt floors or sand floors, of course. They were fairly crude. We had benches to sit on and benches on trestles - tables on trestles. They were pretty crude. And as for the drinks, we very rarely had alcohol. It was a rare commodity but sometimes we'd get a shipment in or a truckload in and we'd ration it out fairly carefully; but we didn't have a great deal of alcohol.
But you managed to have enough to celebrate that night.
Oh, we had enough to celebrate that night.
How did you regard the Americans and how did you get on with the American air crew?
Well, the Yanks put in a squadron when they first came into the war. They attached a squadron to our wing, 239 Wing, named 66 Squadron, commanded by an American major called 'Buck' Bilby. I happened to be leading the wing on this occasion and before taking off I had a chat to Buck and I said, 'Now, you are flying the same formation as we are, aren't you, Buck?'. And when he told me the formation he was flying I said, 'Well, that formation has gone out with the blades. If you're not flying our Formation, you're not coming'. And that caused a bit of a furore when the Yankee squadron was forced to remain on the ground and I led off with the wing. Later, of course, I was backed up by my seniors and the Americans had to practise our formation. At that juncture we had very bad radio communication. We had HF, we didn't have VHF in those days. And a lot of our pilots would be shot down because of radio breakdown. You'd see an attack coming in, you'd try and warn them but with the radio being ineffective they often were shot down. If they'd heard on the radio, of course, they wouldn't have been. We evolved a formation of every pilot in the squadron, even including the leader of the squadron, all weaving. We flew in pairs but weaving backwards and forwards behind each other so that this way you were able to cover the whole sky ahead, above, below and behind. And each one was keeping a pretty strict look out. The Americans.... The Germans, by the way, called us the 'Waltzing Matildas'. It was a very effective formation. If an attack came in from behind, we'd scream out - the lead would - 'Duck!'. We'd all do 180 degree turn and when the German attack would come in, or the Italian attack would come in, we'd all be facing them, and this was very effective. The Americans eventually did adopt our formation while they flew with us....
Wing Commander, how did you find the difference between flying the Kittyhawk and the Messerschmitt 109 which you eventually did fly?
The first 109 I flew was a 109F and I carried out comparative tests with it with a Spitfire Mark V and the Kittyhawk. We all started in line abreast. The Messerschmitt ran away. The Spit V came fairly well after in climb and speed and they both left the Kittyhawk quite badly. And later when we captured the 109G at Gambut, it had been slightly damaged and it was repaired by my squadron engineering officer, Ken McRae. I then flew it forward to the base at Mersa Matruh - no, from Gambut up to the Martuba aerodromes, escorted by two Kittyhawks. While I had it there I carried out some simulated attacks on my squadron. By then the German Air Force had retreated out of range so I was able to do this with safety. My people knew I was up there. But I found after two or three attacks I could have shot down one of my pilots each time, so I desisted it, I gave that away; I didn't want to spoil their morale. The purpose had been basically to let them see - some of the new boys see - what a 109 looked like. But its performance was quite terrific. Kittyhawk could out turn it quite comfortably and if the Messerschmitt boys came in and tried to dog fight, they were gone. We could dive away from them. If we started with same speed and they dived away, we could catch them in the dive.
But with climb, they could out-climb us to blazes. Our best fighting ceiling was twelve to fifteen thousand feet, above that the Kittyhawk went off badly. The 109 was good up to thirty-odd thousand feet and so always we had them sitting up above us. Almost never would we find them on our level.
Bobby in the cockpit of the 109F.
How did you find flying the 109 when it was all German instrumentation?
Well, I don't think I had a great deal of trouble with it. The first 109F I flew on take-off they had thermostatically controlled gills on the oil cooler and on take-off the gills snapped closed and I thought to myself, well goodness, that's extraordinary because I'm still under full power - on take-off power - and of course my head temperature started going up like blazes and the oil pressure started to drop and I did a very split-arsed circuit and came in and I couldn't remember how to get the undercart down, and eventually I managed to get down. The second flight, the boys wired the thermostatic gills up so that they couldn't do that to me again and that was my second flight. I think even though the instruments were in kilometres and we used to not even knots in those days - we were used to flying our fighters in miles per hour - but they had markings so that you could see what the maximum boost was and things of that nature. I think we had to guess at what speed we could put the flaps down or the undercart down, but we treated them as fairly normal aeroplanes and they were quite a pleasant thing to fly.
You gave a demonstration to your squadron pilots which nearly ended up in you crashing the aeroplane?
Well, that was the first 109F that I flew on the first take-off, as I've just said, I had trouble with the thermostatically controlled gills. On the next flight I came in at high speed - I don't know what I would have been doing, probably 400-odd - and carried out a normal round-out as I would have done with a Kittyhawk. I hadn't allowed for the higher wing loading on the Messerschmitt and I splurged almost onto the aerodrome. I think it was purely ground effect that held me off. The boys on the side said the propeller looked as if it was hitting the desert and the tail was almost on the desert also, and I went past with a great cloud of dust coming up. So it was a very close call and frightened the hell out of me.
So you came back to the flight line a bit ashen-faced?
I treated it much more cautiously from then on. And from the time I flew the 109G, it was a similar aeroplane but better performance, but I had no trouble with that. When I flew the aircraft up to the Martuba aerodromes with a Kittyhawk on each side of me just in case I was attacked by our own fighters, I saw a Messerschmitt, a 109F, an early model, in the circuit area being flown obviously by one of the squadron from one of the units. Very foolishly I thought, well, I'll frighten the hell out of this guy, so I dived on him. Looking back at it now it was a ridiculous thing to do; but I have never seen an aeroplane get down on the ground as fast as this character went. He went down almost vertically and the next thing he was on the ground. I landed in and I sort of felt very worried about having frightened the guy. It's a wonder he didn't kill himself. When I taxied in I found out that he had me outranked, he was a colonel from a South African squadron, so I kept away from South African squadrons for a while after that because I don't think I pleased him very much.
He didn't try to front you about it?
No. Well, I went to South Africa some years later, or seven or eight years ago, and I thought, well, the time has come to apologise to this poor character but he had died just before I got there. I don't know whether I frightened him to death or not but I never was able to apologise.
Hopefully you didn't cause his premature death, anyway.
Wing Commander, you also flew an Italian fighter called the CR42. Can you describe that particular experience?
I didn't do very much in the CR42. We captured it and it was serviceable so I flew it. Now, the throttles on the Italian aeroplanes worked the opposite way to ours. With our throttles you push the throttle forward to increase your engine power. With the Italians, you pulled it towards you to increase the engine power. With the CR42, we painted the Italian markings out but no one thought of looking under the wings which had Italian markings. I did a circuit and I saw all the Bofors Boys who were aerodrome defence racing for their guns and their guns starting to train them onto me. I panicked. I didn't know what was happening but I knew that they thought I was an Italian, so I did a very brief circuit and came in to land. I was holding off a little bit high and I started to sink down with a bit of engine power on so I gave it a burst of power and, of course, the bit of power I had on, by pushing the throttle the wrong way I cut out all power. I came down with a terrific thud and I bounced into the air and luckily I remembered and I managed to pick the aircraft ... save it from absolutely smashing itself and me, too, by giving it some power and got away with it, but it was a great fright; otherwise it was a pleasant little thing to fly. I did an aerobatic. I didn't fly it that much but I enjoyed flying it.
It was a radial engined bi-plane. Does it compare with anything on the Allied inventory.
Well, it was pretty similar, I think, to the aircraft which 3 Squadron were flying against the Italians, the Gladiator. I think they were probably both very comparable aeroplanes.
Who made the CR42?
Well, that's an interesting question. I just don't remember now, I don't remember. [Fiat]
Just one we'll just put in for the record. How did the Merlin compare with the Daimler-Benz engine?
I think .... One thing I've discovered since the war - I'm now 'buddy-buddies' with some of these German pilots that I was fighting against - the Merlin engine .... Well, I wasn't flying Merlins over there but I was flying behind the Allison and we were having great trouble with sand and dust because there's no greater thing that will damage an engine more than an oil and sand combination. We were getting twenty to twenty-five hours out of our Allisons. We had an Engineer Officer called Buck Aboukir who invented an air filter. I carried out the flying for him while we tested the air filter and it was hugely successful. Allison adopted it in the subsequent models with some modifications of course and our engine hours went up to over 100 before they were due for complete engine overhaul. I was talking to one of these Germans who was in command of JG27 in the desert, flying Messerschmitts, and he told me that they were getting eighteen to twenty hours between overhaul, so they were really up against it.
How did you find your meeting with your adversaries after the war?
Well, I met Galland when he came to Australia at one stage. He was rubbished by our newspapers. They called him a Nazi and so on. Some of we Air Force people got together and we took him to the Imperial Service Club which was in Barrack Street in those days. And talking to Galland I told him that I was going over to Europe and he invited to go and have a drink with him, so I did this and I've been to his house on two or three occasions now. And also, I have met him elsewhere. I met him in America three or four years ago and we have become quite good friends. The other chap I mentioned, who told me about the sand problem with the Messerschmitts, he came out when the tall ships came in. He was a 'Cape Horner'.
He pronounced it 'Keporner' but Cape Horner. He had sailed from Adelaide, round the Horn in sailing ships before the war, in 1932-33, carrying wool and wheat to Germany. The Americans wrote to me and asked me if we would entertain him, he and his wife, when they came for the tall ships. We did and we put them up here in the house and they were very charming people and the two of us had great old chats about tactics and so on, and subsequently we went to stay with them both in Germany. While there we visited a current German mess and met quite a few of the pilots who had flown during World War II, and I found it a very, very interesting .... We are all good buddy-buddies now.
Did you find it very revealing that in fact you had similar attitudes and probably even similar senses of humour?
Well, yes, I did, I think. I think during war years you have to learn to hate, otherwise how the blazes do you kill? But I think it's rather nice when it's all over to get together and become friends. Their attitudes were pretty much like ours. One thing I did .... Talking to Galland in his little cocktail bar one day on my first visit to Germany, he made a statement to the effect that the German pilots have never shot anyone out of their parachutes. There was an American character there who brought up the subject. I listened to this for quite a while and I then said to Adolf, 'The very first action I saw against Messerschmitt 109s was near the wire in Egypt and Libya and one of our pilots was shot down by a Messerschmitt. I actually drove the Messerschmitt off his tail but I watched him bail out and he was over our land, we'd thought he'd be back. He didn't arrive back but a few days later a South African padre came and told us that four Messerschmitt 109s had detached themselves from the main combat and had gone down and cut this character's 'chute - his name was Dudley Parker - cut his parachute at about 4,000 feet and he went down the rest of the way without a parachute and the South Africans buried him. Now, I told Adof Galland about this and he was genuinely, I believe absolutely genuinely, horrified and I don't know if he believed me but, however, that's the way it was.
Adolf Galland was the leading Luftwaffe pilot during World War II, wasn't he? - leading scoring ace.
Well, I don't think he was the leading pilot. There were people who claimed more than Galland but Galland did claim 104 confirmed victories. He sent me a book recently which he had signed and in the foreword it said something about seventy-four victories but further on in the book it came back to the 104, so I'm not quite sure. Some of the German pilots claimed an awful lot more. This Ehardt Brauner, this friend of mine, said, when 'bearded' on this, he said that sometimes to restore morale back in Germany they used to make some fictitious claims and I think that happened quite a bit with some of the German pilots, but a lot of them were quite accurate. They got most of their score, I think, in that - against the Russians. I've heard it described that this was like shooting down clay pigeons; I always found shooting clay pigeons difficult.
Wing Commander, you were involved in a very unusual incident on December 21, 1942 when you picked up one of your pilots, Rex Bayly, after his aircraft was downed. Can you describe that incident?
Well, I can but I'd say I'm not the only one who picked up pilots who had been shot down. Peter Jeffrey, our CO, at one stage picked up one of the pilots, 'Tiny' Cameron. I think mine was a bit different in that I was pretty near the aerodrome which we'd been strafing. However, we took off from Marble Arch, six aircraft took off. We went to carry out a survey of the aerodrome called Hun. I notice nowadays it's pronounced 'hon' but it was 'hun' in those days. And we were then to go out further, near to the desert, because the long range desert group wanted to take Hun and also they wanted to know what the strength and so on was. So we took off with belly tanks on and after Hun we were meant to go further inland to carry out this reconnaissance. When we came over Hun which was about 180 miles from Marble Arch we - I forget our height, probably seven or eight thousand feet - on looking down I could see quite a number of aeroplanes there. Now, we hadn't been briefed to strafe but it was a target of opportunity so I led in and we strafed. We got a few flamers and it was a quite successful strafe but not a shot was fired at us, not a single shot. So contrary to normal practice I decided we'd have another quick run through which we did and we got a little bit of very light flack as we went past the second time. I called the boys up and I said, 'Well, okay, let's form up again and we'll keep going'. In the meantime we had a new pilot who was just out from Australia, he was quite senior, and he led in again. I screamed on my radio, 'For goodness sake, don't do that, come and join up'. But he went in followed by his number two and the other two of my pilots - my number two stayed with me, thank goodness - the other two went in after him and, of course, I knew it was going to be lethal, and they were both shot down. One of them was hit as he went in and he became a flamer and obviously he was going to try and land at high speed in the desert. I called out to him to pull up and bail out but he might have been dead at that juncture and, of course, he went in and the obvious happened, he just rolled up. The other pilot called up, named Rex Bayly, he was a pilot officer. He said he'd been hit and it was a forced landing. After he forced landed - I watched this happen - and he was a mile probably from the edge of the aerodrome. After he forced landed he came up in the air and I called him up and I said, 'What's it like for a landing?'. He said, 'It's impossible here, you'd never get down, just leave me'. I left my other pilots up there and passed my number two and I went down and had a look and I found an area that looked quite suitable.
So I called Bayly and I said, 'Well, I'm landing'. I gave him a position. I was about three miles away. 'I'm going to taxi as far as I can towards you, so you make over towards me'. On landing - I was quite nervous about the landing - not because of just landing but on one attack I had hit a Savoia 79 as I approached it at low altitude across the aerodrome and it must have been loaded with ammunition because it blew up and I went straight through the blast at high speed. As I went through, I came out the other side, I was heading straight for the ground, I pulled the stick back and the blast must have got under the tailplane and, I thought my tail had been shot off. However, I recovered, I had lots of bits of shrapnel through the wings - nothing through the cockpit - and so on landing I was ready if necessary - if I found my tyres had been punctured to take off again and keep going but they were okay. On landing I then started taxiing towards Bayly. Now, I got part way, I suppose within a mile of Bayly, which put me two or three miles, I suppose, from the perimeter of the aerodrome, and I couldn't get any further. So I stopped and stopped the motor. I then stepped out a possible take-off run. I had 300 yards and I tied a handkerchief on a camel-thorn. A camel-thorn is a bit like a baby saltbush to act as an aiming point and take-off. I then .... We hadn't taken our slipper tanks off because we intended to carry out a further survey. So I had to get this belly tank off and it was still half full of petrol and it was round but it took a lot of .... I jettisoned it but then I had to roll it from underneath the aeroplane and that took a lot of strength and effort. I threw my parachute away because I had to make room for Bayly. He eventually arrived, puffing and panting like blazes but looking very cheerful about it all. He climbed in and I sat in on top of him. I must say I was as nervous as hell in case the engine wouldn't start but it did. It was a big relief when it did, I can tell you. However, I then stood on my brakes, gave it full power, in fact much more than normal power, and when I released the brakes we went surging forward towards this handkerchief 300 yards away. I put down a little bit of flap and as we went past the handkerchief I wasn't flying and I was thrown into the air and we staggered virtually into the air and there was a ridge probably a couple of hundred yards further on and I hit it with a hell of a bang and as I was thrown back into the air I saw my port wheel or tyre bowling along in the dust behind and the next ridge loomed up and it looked as if I wasn't going to clear it and I automatically put my right wing down, thinking if I hit maybe I could bounce it off on the one wheel. I didn't touch and I got my undercart up and kept going back towards base. We'd been there a long time, probably an hour or more, and I thought by now every Luftwaffe aircraft will have been alerted and will be looking for us, so I was very, very nervous going back towards the Marble Arch aerodrome, but we weren't picked up. On the way. I called the flight lieutenant or squadron leader up who'd led the third attack in, asked him to check my undercart to see if I had lost my port wheel. So I put my undercart down and he confirmed that I had lost it. As I getting near Marble Arch - we were very, very short of aeroplanes at the time - I thought I possibly might be able to do a one-wheel landing. It was a big square aerodrome with a lot of room. I couldn't talk to Bayly because of the noise factor, it was very, very noisy, so I wrote on my map, 'Do you mind if I try a one-wheel landing?' and I passed this back to Bayly. And I looked at him and he nodded, so I called up Wing and I said, 'Have an ambulance standing by and a bartender because I'm going to try and come in on one wheel'. They didn't argue about it. I came in with the wind on my port side, I had lost my port wheel, and I touched down, kept it running on the starboard wheel, and when the wing started to drop I carried out a gentle turn to the right which threw the weight out and I had almost stopped before the stump of the undercart hit and I did quite a vicious ground loop and did very little damage. The prop wasn't damaged, the flap was damaged and the wing tip was damaged and the aircraft was flying again within a week of being patched up - all the little holes in it. Now, it was a complete fluke on my part. I got away with it and I shouldn't have.
That was really quite remarkable.
It was. It was quite strange. The nice part about it was: a) I saved Bayly from becoming a prisoner; and also I had my old aeroplane back again. I was shot down in it shortly afterwards and the Germans when they went looking for me eventually burnt the thing.
Why didn't the Germans ...? I mean, you weren't very far away from the perimeter of the airfield. Were they taken so by surprise or they were just dealing with their own issues on the airfield?
I think one thing that impressed me with the Italians. They were Italians by the way, it's been written up as being Germans but they were mainly Italians, I think; it was an Italian 'drome.
One thing that did impress me, when we were still overhead an ambulance went racing out towards the crashed Kittyhawk which was burning like blazes. There was no chance of them rescuing him, I could see that, but I thought it showed a great deal of guts to do that in case we went in and strafed it. I think the other thing was, I told my other pilots, the three remaining, if anything started coming out towards us, to beat it up. I also said - and they still had ammunition - I also said to keep me covered till I got there. But I think the thing that saved me being shot at from the aerodrome perimeter, I think probably the anti-aircraft guns were put in a position where they could fire upwards and defend the aerodrome but not away from the aerodrome. I think that was the saving grace. But I don't think I have ever been as frightened in my life continually for nearly an hour or more.
How did you fly the aeroplane? Did you have the cockpit open and you were sitting on his lap?
Well, generally in the desert you got so much dust on the cockpit canopy that we generally did fly with the canopy wound back. When we got very high, of course, then we probably needed to close it a bit. To see enemy aeroplanes through a dirty canopy, looking into the sun especially, was pretty hard, so we preferred to put up with the cold and fly with it open.
So you flew the aeroplane, Bayly didn't fly the aeroplane, at all?
No, Bayly couldn't do a thing. I was pretty heavy at that stage and he was probably finding it hard to breathe even. No, he couldn't touch any of the controls; he was taking the place of my parachute basically.
He must have been incredibly uncomfortable and traumatic?
Well, it was uncomfortable and I was sitting pretty well forward and I was very, very worried in case we had combat in those conditions. But as I said, we weren't picked up by enemy aeroplanes, thank goodness.
When you got back and actually thought about it, would you have done it in retrospect as the CO of the squadron?
Yes, I think I would have. I would have done it again but I didn't know just how frightened I was going to be.
What sort of celebration did you have in the mess that night?
I don't think any great celebration. It was coming on, I think from memory it wasn't far from Christmas. No, I don't think we celebrated. I think just - we were both very pleased to be back.
So your aircraft that you ground-looped flew within a very short period of time.
I think a week or so later; it had been patched up and it became my aircraft again for a short time until I got shot down.
You said you were shot down in fact fairly shortly after that incident.
I was leading a show on Bir Dufan. It was a Wing show escorting bombers. The Americans had been briefed to go in an hour before us with another bombing raid and the theory was that they would have all their fighters on the ground after that operation and we would hit them and probably knock out - the bombers would knock out a lot of their fighters while they were being refuelled and re-armed. The Yanks were half an hour late in taking off so by the time we were going in .... By the way, the leader of the whole gaggle happened to be Gibbes, sitting in tightly on the left-hand side of the lead bomber. It was my job really to turn the whole show back if I thought it prudent. Two 109s .... We were going in at low level so we wouldn't be picked up by radar, going in over the sea, and as we were halfway there we were picked up by a couple of Messerschmitt 109s who flew over at high altitude. Knowing that we had been seen I gave instructions to climb, so we started climbing before we got to the coast. Before we really crossed the coast we found every Messerschmitt there, instead of being back on the ground refuelling, they were all in the air, and I've now discovered that we had some high level pilots that day fighting against us. We had about ten aces, all of which we round the 100 or more mark; one had 220 and Goebbels had given them a backs-to-the-wall lecture. Being in close cover we had to stay with the bombers. We suffered most of the casualties, trying to keep the fighters away. The Messerschmitts were diving, ignoring the Spitfires which were up out of sight somewhere; we never did see them. They were diving straight through the formations, trying to get at the bombers. Four fifty were on top of us.
They suffered casualties and we suffered casualties.
Four fifty were on top of us. They suffered casualties and we suffered casualties. I don't think anyone else did. We shot down a few but we lost quite a few, including old Gibbes shot down.
You parachuted out of that one, did you?
No, that time I put it down. We were successful in warding off the fighters as not one of them got through to the bombers that day, so all the bombers got home safely.
Wing Commander, on 26 May 1942 you were shot down by a rear gun of JU88 and you broke your leg on landing. Can you describe that particular engagement?
Well, yes, I can. I remember it quite vividly, actually. We were sent up to intercept four bombers coming over, escorted by a flock of 109s. We saw the bombers, the JU88’s, and I led the squadron into attack. We got stuck into the fighters to start with and obviously the bombers were going to get away so I called up and - this was on official records of the time - saying, 'forget the fighters, get the bombers' and I led in on the bombers. I carried out one or two frontal attacks but the JU88 was jolly nearly as fast as a Kittyhawk and after the first couple of attacks, I couldn't get back in position, so I started carrying out attack from the rear which I knew was going to be very, very dicey but I thought, we must stop these bombers. On one such attack my motor was set on fire by an aircraft on the starboard side. The bomber which I'd been shooting at I had no one shooting back at me from that one and ultimately, I believe, it went down. Well, I know it went down; I don't think I was ever credited with it.
However, I was burning and I stayed with the aircraft for a little while hoping the fire would go out but it didn't and when I got to about 4,000 feet I decided I'd have to leave the aircraft up there, which I did. Some of the pilots had been caught by ejecting, by rolling onto their back and bailing out that way, but their parachutes had caught and they did have trouble. I decided that I would turn and wind the trim forward, get up and turn my back to the instrument panel and let the stick go, and that's what I did and I was catapulted out like from a shanghai.
Unfortunately I hadn't allowed for the aerial, a trailing aerial, and that wrapped round me and also I hit the rear fin on my left with my left knee which gave me a fairly bad graze. However, going down I pulled the rip cord and I struggled to get rid of the aerial which was wrapped round me and as I was going down I was frightened of being strafed in the parachute and I suddenly heard and aircraft coming towards me. The roar increased and increased and increased and I started climbing up the shroud, trying to collapse the 'chute so I could get free of this attack which I believed was coming in. However, then there was a sudden 'woof' and dead silence. What I had heard was the noise of my aircraft going down which had come back to me and it was an amazing sensation, an amazing thing to happen but it frightened the blazes out of me. On landing I landed in a fairly heavy wind. Now, I had been taught to fold parachutes at Richmond; I knew how to fold a parachute but I had never been taught how to jump. I knew you should land facing down wind, if possible, but I hadn't been told about bending your knees and all that sort of jazz, so when I hit I think my legs were wide apart and I was side on. I got a swing up trying to turn, to go down wind. I obviously suffered a little bit of pain and I looked down my left leg and it had quite a kink in it. After a while I managed to get my shoe off that side and I didn't know if I was in enemy territory or in our territory or no man's land. As it turned out, I was between the lines. A vehicle came out looking for me.
I had lost all orientation. I didn't know whether they were facing north, east, west or south and in it were some scruffy looking individuals without any type of uniform that I could recognise and they got me and one of them pointed a Tommy gun at me. I was sitting on the ground really in a little bit of pain and with my hands up; I had surrendered. I thought they were German and I thought this was the end of the war for Gibbes. However, one of them said, 'Get up, John'. I was so delighted, I said, 'You're a lot of pommie bastards'. They then came to my assistance. They thought I was a German. They thought they had captured a German pilot. They thought my aircraft going in was a Messerschmitt, not a Kittyhawk. I had my leg set in a forward field ambulance and got back to the squadron. I was flown back to Cairo.
The Brits tried to put me into hospital there but I said, 'No, I'm going to a hospital at Gaza, an AIF hospital'. My driver had come through from the desert in a Lincoln Zephyr and picked me up - in a staff car - picked me up - and took me up to the Gaza hospital. After I had been there for a while the war was going very, very badly. Our people were retreating like one thing and I was very, very unhappy being there, listening to the news and I decided I'd try and get away from this hospital. They gave me a walking iron which made me a bit mobile. It fitted under the plaster of my left leg. I went to see Colonel Money who was in charge of the hospital, 6th AGH, and I said, 'I don't like it here, I'd like to be posted up to the No. 1 British hospital in Jerusalem'. He was very offended, he said, 'right, Gibbes', and he posted me immediately. He was going to turn an ambulance on for me but I said, 'Sir, my staff car is here and my driver will drive me up'. I left 6th AGH, went into Gaza, went to an AIF telegraph station, sent a telegram to the 1st British AGH - British hospital in Jerusalem - said, 'Delete all reference Squadron Leader Gibbes, Gibbes now proceeding Heliopolis for Medical Board', and of course that was it. I got back to Cairo. I had a friend there who was running Anglo-Egyptian Motors and he got his mechanics to make me a fitting to fit onto my walking iron with three butterfly screws with a bump under the sole of the foot. I went back to my base camp where we had a Harvard for checking pilots out. One of my pilots, Gordon White, did a circuit with me, or a circuit or two with me, and I proved that I could handle the toe brakes by sliding by backside forward, even though my ankle was locked I got movement on the pedal that way, so I got into a new Kittyhawk and ferried it back to the scene of operations. In the meantime, while I was away Nicky Barr had taken over the squadron and I went to see Tommy Elmhirst because I wanted to get back into flying, and Tommy was an air commodore, I think, at that stage - he later became much more senior - and he said to me, 'Well, you can't be doing this. We can't do this because what happens if you're shot down?'.
And I thought he was being sympathetic to me and I said, 'Well look, Sir, if I am shot down with a leg in plaster I might find it pretty difficult getting out of the aeroplane but I'm prepared to take that chance.' He said, 'Oh no, 'Gibbo'', 'I don't mean that. I mean that if you're shot down and captured by the Germans and they find you flying with a leg in plaster, the German morale will be boosted to blazes and you'll probably be instrumental in killing quite a few of our own people.' I said, 'Sir, I hadn't thought of that', so I asked for a Wing job on the ground. When I got back to the squadron Nicky Barr had been shot down and captured. The Brits said, 'Well okay, Gibbes, you take over the squadron again'. I said, 'No Sir', to the CO of the Wing, Clive Miles, I think. I said, 'No, I won't do that. I can't lead a squadron without flying.' He said, 'If you don't, we're going to put a pommie in'. He was a pommie who addressed me by the way. Eventually I was persuaded to take it over as a non-flying CO and I think it's about the unhappiest time I ever had with the squadron - not being able to fly. After a while my plaster was taken off and while I was waiting to do a Medical Board, my ankle was very weak and the squadron medical officer wouldn't let me fly, so I overcame that one by having one of the aircraft parked near my tent, one of the pilots would be on the Operations Board but I'd quietly sneak out to the aeroplane and fly while he would stay in my tent. When I'd come back - I wasn't leading I was flying as one of the mob - ultimately I said to the 'doc', Tim Stone, I said, 'My ankle is ready now for Medical Board', so he posted me to Cairo to do a Medical Board. I didn't go to Cairo, I went to Alex and had a ball and two or three days later I arrived back and I said, 'Well, I've passed the Board, I'm back in flying', and 'Where are your papers, Sir?', . I said, 'Well, they're being posted to you, Tim'. Of course, they never did arrive.
Your leave in Alexandria, you said you had a ball. Can you describe in greater detail exactly what you got up to?
Well, there are some things I'd prefer not to talk about. I was single then, had been away from female company for quite a long time and there were some very nice little French females around, mainly wives of the free French who were up further in the desert fighting, I suppose; but they were very nice people.
They were equally desperate for male company, were they?
Oh, I think they needed to see us occasionally, yes.
Did you do any more flying before you got posted to England?
Oh yes, I did a lot more flying. I was shot down a second time. This was after I'd picked Bayly up I was shot down again. At that juncture walking back I was quite worried about my ankle because it was pretty weak and I found when I got back, the strange part about it was my right ankle was the crook one, my left ankle was good.
I think it's interesting to just bring up some of this letter here that was sent to Mrs Gibbes, in fact, on 15 January 1943 from the Secretary of the Department of Air, a Mr Langslow, and he says here, 'Dear Madam, with reference to my telegram dated 14 January 1943 concerning the award of a Distinguished Service Order to your son, Squadron Leader R.H. Gibbes, DFC, I desire to inform you that the following citation in respect of this award has been received from the Air Ministry.' And it says, 'This officer has completed many operational sorties in which he has destroyed at least nine enemy aircraft and damaged several others. On one occasion he led a small force on a long range expedition to reconnoitre and attack an enemy airfield. As a result of his excellent leadership, seven enemy aircraft were destroyed on the ground. During this engagement one of the pilots was forced to land his aircraft and Squadron Leader Gibbes immediately landed as near as possible to him and after waiting some time for his comrade flew off with him. During the take-off a wheel was knocked off the aircraft but on reaching his base he effected a masterly landing causing only slight further damage to his aircraft. Squadron Leader Gibbes has displayed outstanding qualities of leadership and enthusiasm throughout his long career of flying duties.'
Now, Wing Commander, this was supposed to alleviate your mother's worries, I should imagine it would have exacerbated them.
Yes, I only discovered this letter in the last two or three years in some of my late mother's effects, and for some extraordinary reason people who have written about this episode, picking up Bayly, have maintained that I had a blow out in one wheel, one tyre, now any silly character can land an aircraft with a flat tyre but it takes a complete ruddy idiot to land without a wheel.
Wing Commander, before we continue to your posting to England there is one incident in January 1943 when you failed to return from a bomber escort mission and was posted 'missing believed killed'. Can you describe how you actually managed to get back?
Well, yes, I can. After I was shot down I had quite a long walk which took me three days and a couple of nights. When I tried to get my water bottle and rations out of the aircraft I wasn't able to open the hatch because it had a Dzus fastener which you needed a screwdriver or a coin and I didn't have one. I tried to kick the door in but I couldn't, so I got away from the aircraft before they came looking for me with a Fieseler Storch. Fortunately, I'd gone back towards the aerodrome which we'd been bombing and the Germans obviously thought I'd be making towards home, so I got away with that one. However, to cut a long story short, when I got back to the squadron I found Squadron Leader Watt had been given the job as Commanding Officer during my absence but I was a bit cranky about this and I managed to get Harry Broadhurst who was our AOC at that time to scrub that posting and I became Commanding Officer again for a while.
Wing Commander, you managed to get yourself posted to UK on the pretext of completing a staff course and you reached England, Hendon in fact, on 23 May 1943 and then you had discussions with Air Vice-Marshal Wrigley who was in charge of Australian air crew in London.
Well, I told 'Wrig' that I wasn't really keen on doing a staff course, that I'd prefer to get back into operations and I would like a squadron. I knew that 456 was just forming with Mosquitoes and I thought, well, that would suit me pretty well. Wrig agreed that I could have 456 and I was to be posted to do some night flying on Blenheims and later to do an abridged OTU on Mosquitoes at High Ercall. We then discovered, unfortunately, that a permanent officer, Wing Commander Keith Hennock had been posted from Australia to take over 456, so this was scrubbed. Wrig then gave me a job chasing up, getting information for Air Board on the formation of the First Tactical Air Force for the invasion of Europe. I did this for a period and was not terribly happy having this sort of an assignment; however, I discovered that 464 which had been completely written off over France when they failed to meet up with their fighter air squad were being re-equipped with Mosquitoes. So I said to Wrig, 'Can I have the next squadron to form with Mosquitoes - an Australian squadron formed with Mosquitoes?'.
He agreed so then I broke the news, 'Well, 464 are getting Mosquitoes now, Sir'. Now, Wrig had agreed so I was sent up to High Ercall. I did my training on Blenheims - night flying. I must say that flying at night in England frightened the blazes out of me; I never knew any sky could get as dark, also flying in war-time there were no lights shown anywhere and once you took off you had no horizon, you had to settle straight onto instruments. This was all quite new to me. However, I finished that Blenheim course. I went and did an abridged Mosquito course. When I was pronounced fit for operations I packed my little car and I was ready to go to command to 464 and I received word that I had to contact London. I did and found out that Air Board had sent a signal to the effect that: 'What the hell is Gibbes doing in England? He is to come home immediately.' I drove down to London, I pleaded with Wrig to get me out of that but he wouldn't do that, so there I was, having to come home very much against my will.
Now, ‘Mary’ Coningham, Air Marshal Coningham had told me that he would call me back to the desert after I'd had a holiday in England. He knew I wasn't really going to do a staff course and I did toy with the idea of that but thinking that I must be important if the Air Board really want me that badly, I'll go home. I was given .... I was sent by sea to Canada, to talk to the Australian air crew over there and to try and boost morale. I tried to talk my way into flying a flying boat back to Australia and I met Bill Taylor over there, P.G. Taylor, and he was very enthusiastic that I should do that and he arranged for me to do a conversion onto mariners and arranged for a crew for me. But Group Captain Alexander in Washington sent back a message that Squadron Leader Gibbes is a single engine pilot and is not qualified to fly twin engines and he is to go home by boat. Now, that annoyed me because I had done quite a bit of twin engine flying, so I came back by boat and that was it.
Wing Commander, you were posted to the Fighter OTU at Mildura where you stayed from Jan. '44 till October '44, during which time you were the chief flying instructor and finally you were the acting CO. But you also flew up to New Guinea to get some practical experience of operations. Would you like to comment on that?
When I arrived at Mildura I realised that if I'm training pilots to fight against the Japanese I'd better learn a little about it, so I took myself up to New Guinea, I flew an aircraft, a Kittyhawk, up to New Guinea and I visited some of the fighter squadrons and I met up with Gordon Steege's wing. I went for a sortie - the Yanks call them 'missions' - went for a sortie across to New Britain with a mob of Kittyhawks. One thing that impressed me about that was the amount of nattering that was going on on the radio. In North Africa you just didn't make a sound on the radio because the Germans would be waiting for you. This day when we got to our destination I thought every Japanese aircraft in the world would be there but we didn't see any 'Japs', nor did we get any flack, so it was a piece of cake really. But I did learn a little bit about tactics and I knew that the tactics we were using in North Africa in the desert would not work against the Japanese. In New Guinea against the Japanese we had to use tactics more like the Germans were using against us. In other words, attack and dive away or attack and zoom with a lot of speed but not staying and try and dog fight them.
After your posting at the OTU at Mildura you were posted as Wing Leader up to Darwin flying Spitfire Mark VIIIs and by this time, of course, you were a Wing Commander.
Yes, that's correct. From Darwin - I was married in Darwin, by the way. I met my wife ....
You met your wife in Darwin?
Met my wife in Darwin in the AOC's boat and three weeks later we were married. We've been married now for forty-eight years or something.
You married in three weeks?
Yes, in three weeks.
That was a fighter pilot snap decision, was it?
My old friend, 'Black Jack' Walker, said, 'It can never last'. In the meantime he has been divorced a couple of times but I haven't. However, from Darwin I had a Spitfire blow up on me and I was pretty badly burnt at one stage. Later, when I recovered, I went down to Oakey, picked up 79 Squadron and escorted them up to Morotai. We were given a job .... To take the squadron up we had three Beaufighters to navigate us. This was nearly disaster. The Beaufighters were probably sprog pilots navigating mainly experienced fighter pilots. They got up near Rockhampton, the weather was bad and they turned back towards Oakey. When they were part way back - we were watching our petrol in our Spitfires because we had limited range - wondering why the devil they didn't go back to the coast on an aerodrome there and one of them dived down to have a look at the name on the railway station. At that juncture I realised we were lost so I took the lead and went straight in and landed at Maryborough and most of the pilots were almost completely out of petrol. I abused the leader of - the Beaufighters followed us - I abused the leader and I told him that I wouldn't dob him in; he nearly lost a squadron of Spitfires, plus what would have probably been many casualties. I said, 'From now on, I lead, you can tag along if you like and I'll say nothing about it but if you don't like it, we'll take it up further'. He was quite happy just to tag along. We got to Iron Range, one of the Beaufighters pranged - ground looped - so we only had two to follow us up.
That was the trip up there. When I got to Morotai I was taken for a whirl around by Bruce Watson[?} who'd been up there for a little while. And Bruce tried to get me shot down, I think quite deliberately - he was a great mate of mine, by the way, still is. He flew over a Japanese aerodrome at dot feet with me following as number two. A Jap shell went off under one wing, rolling me onto my back, and I was pretty jolly low, and I got away with it. It was about the only time I had ever heard a shell burst in all the time I'd been flying but this one went off with a hell of a bang. When I got back I abused Bruce quite soundly for endangering both himself and me. Morotai was quite a disastrous thing for me. When I got there I found that I had been superseded by a chap, Glen Cooper. He was a hundred paces on the Air Force list junior to me and had served under me at Mildura, and I took a poor view of this. So I put in - made redress of grievance and applied for a posting. I kept on flying for the month and during that month I was hit on six occasions in a very limited number of about sixty-three hours which I refused to call operational hours. I achieved nothing. Had my aeroplane damaged. We were losing pilots and not doing anything of strategic importance to the war effort. The Japanese had been by-passed. They were of no danger to anyone and they could have just been left sitting there. But I think at the time the command up there were trying to build up hours and we were having a lot of false publicity in the media in Australia. It wasn't their fault, they were being fed with this information. No one said what we were achieving or what we were losing. ‘Woof’ Arthur brought out a balance sheet. It became quite a famous balance sheet showing that the loses and the results achieved were not compatible at all and we were just wasting aeroplanes, ammunition and pilots. However, to cut a long story short, I was court martialled for attempted sale of grog. I was on three charges amounting I think to four bottles of whisky - of liquor, I don't think it was all whisky. I discovered since, of course, that one of the charges which I pleaded guilty to I wasn't even in Morotai, I hadn't arrived there, and I thought so little of it that in my court martial I told them that I had actually sold two or three bottles but I wondered why I hadn't been charged with that rather than just attempted sale. I was later told by John Davoron who defended Clive Caldwell up there that they wanted me to get the impression that I was being leniently treated, that's why they didn't charge me in a more substantial way. I wasn't terribly pleased about being court martialled but I also thought that it was a bit of a joke because many people were selling a bit of grog. I had been superseded and I had about two or three cases of various types of liquor and I had intended probably to sell a bottle or two to help outlay the cost of it but once I was superseded I was loathe to donate it to the mess, so I thought, well, I'll sell what I can. Unfortunately it didn't work out, I ended by donating the remainder to the mess which was the bulk of it, of course. I was posted out. I was one of the eight people who resigned our commissions. We knew we were not able to resign our commission in war-time. We knew that the landing in Borneo was coming off in the very, very near future. The Air Force people up there were not being honest. The AIF had asked us to limit our equipment and transport so that they could carry a maximum of fighting power with them, guns and so on. We were asked to work out a schedule of what we could operate for a month on at a bare minimum. We put in our detail that we thought we could cope with. This was knocked back by our command who insisted on taking all the added trucks and all the stuff that would deny the AIF the added fire power and equipment. As it turned out, it turned out to be a piece of cake anyway, but we did manage to change the command up there completely. One or two of them I felt sad about: Harry Cobby who was a wonderful man, he was posted. But some of the others I wasn't distressed about. But we did change the command and that's what we set out to do.
It was a bitter period for both you and Clive Caldwell, wasn't it?
Well, for me, in my [inaudible], I can't see how it was bitter to me. I was disappointed, having gone to the top virtually as a fighter pilot. When I came back from overseas I was the highest decorated man in the Australian Air Force which, of course, didn't last; but I felt that I'd been wasted. If I had been allowed to remain in Europe I would have been able to do a much better job. As it happened, not getting 464 Squadron, the Mosquito squadron, was possibly a good thing because 464 was the squadron that led the raid on the prison in France - I think it was France - and it would have been a very dicey operation, so I was very, very glad to know that I was out of that, anyway.
Bobby Gibbes, you've had a most distinguished career. You've quite rightly won the DSO, DFC and bar. It's been an absolutely marvellous Air Force career, apart from a slight glitch at the end. Any regrets?
No, no regrets, no regrets at all. I was demoted to squadron leader but in peace time you take the highest rank so I'm now a wing commander again so what the hell.
END OF INTERVIEW
[3SQN Assn repaired version of original transcript on https://www.awm.gov.au. ]
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