Enemy Coast Ahead

Enemy Coast Ahead

Guy Gibson
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
2019 Foreword by James Holland. Notes and extended picture captions by Dr Robert Owen. Published by Greenhill/ Pen and Sword books in association with the RAF Museum.

This is a pilot’s story written by a pilot, for the consumption of the general public during war. While patriotic it is not jingoistic and is written with intelligence, some humour and the feeling of young men who learned to fly for a ‘lark’; lived fast when war was declared as they all felt they were about to die, then became serious middle aged men well before their age; planning how to take the offensive to the enemy and giving themselves the best chance of coming home.

Gibson opens the memoir fairly seriously with him in his Lancaster on the outward leg of the Dams Raid. The remainder of that story is left to the latter part of the book. Instead he tells of being on leave on 31 August 1939 and being recalled to 83 Squadron equipped with Hampdens. The first few chapters deal with the live fast die young mentality; hoping to get to grips with the enemy but convinced they are going to die. Alcohol fuelled parties and driving to and from them. Training, the frustration of pamphlet raids and attempts at attacking the Kreigsmarine under strict rules of engagement which meant no civilian establishments were to be bombed – oh the irony. This part is written in the “Good show – wizard prang” style. During the Battle of Britain, he mentions the ‘Battle of the Barges’, and no, I haven’t heard of it either. This is the bombing campaign against the concentration of invasion barges along the French coast for Operation Sealion, and the author of the notes at the end of the book agrees with Gibson’s assessment that although a sideshow, it was an important though lesser part of air operations of the time.

After his first operational tour Gibson was rested with a posting to 14 Operational Training Unit in October 1940 – at which he never settled. When a request was made for volunteers with night flying experience for night fighter units he was quick to volunteer. Posted to 29 Sqn, after a long period of training first on Blenheims, then Beaufighters, Gibson got to grips with the team work required for night fighting. Being first being vectored by ground control into the vicinity of an enemy aircraft, then being further guided by the Air Intercept operator of the radar in his own aircraft. He has some success despite technical problems, and appears to have five confirmed kills, so can be considered an ‘ace.’ He also has the closest shave in the book when on a night landing he is attacked by a German intruder. He was promoted to acting Squadron Leader and started deputising for his CO. More importantly it was at this posting he was adopted by a certain black Labrador puppy, who I will call Nikger, as an obvious attempt to get round the auto-censorship of XenForo. As Gibson writes, “A great flyer was Nikger; he used to go up on nearly every patrol. I think it made him thirsty and he loved beer.” Thus Nikger probably has more operational and service time than a few on this site. As the night air campaign against Britain lessened, he became bored with inactivity and routine patrols and even paid a visit to his old squadron. At the end of 1941 he was again rested and posted to 51 OTU. However, he looked for a way to return to bombers and Air Chief Marshall Harris came to his rescue.

Gibson was promoted to Wing Commander and posted to 106 Sqn flying Manchesters as Squadron Commander. There he first met John Hopgood and Dave Shannon, who converted Gibson to the Lancaster. While with 106 Sqn he carries out both day and night raids and relates much about the development of tactics, accuracy of bombing, and the formation of the Path Finder Force. He describes well the tension and procedures during operations. March 1943 has Gibson at the end of his tour and actually looking for a rest. That gets cancelled and he is told that he being posted to Headquarters 5 Group to write a book, (But not this book.) and leads to the question by Air Vice Marshall Cochrane, “How would you like the idea of doing one more trip?” … “What kind of a trip, Sir?” “A pretty important one…” And so, Gibson forms Squadron X which eventually becomes 617 Sqn.

There is plenty written about Operation Chastise and the Dams Raid, so I shall not repeat it here; but it strikes me that ‘The Dam Busters’ film is very close to the chapters in Gibson’s book.

The “Good show – wizard prang” style of writing never totally evaporates in the book, even when Gibson is being serious and commenting on the war. This is probably a reflection of the time; after four years of war being upbeat and perhaps stiff upper lip was important. It is also a memoir by Gibson, about Gibson and his peers, other flying staff a fairly distant third and support staff an even more distant fourth. It is written by a man of the time for an audience of the time and this ‘boys own’ style does not make it a bad book. In my opinion the RAF requested Gibson to write it to show the public the war time career of a typical successful bomber pilot. (Remembering how atypical Gibson was, three operational tours and a successful special mission.) At no time does Gibson say that bombing will win the war by itself, and does make clear he sees it as part of the overall big picture. It is still very much worth reading as a witness view of his part of the war, and can be a written memorial to all bomber pilots and the crews who served.

James Holland’s foreword adds some early life and post dams depth as well as being the author of the 2013 book Dam Busters. There are comprehensive and well written notes at the end of the book which adds much needed depth along with two sets of black and white photographs. As a modern touch there is a centre set of glossy paper photographs, some of which are colourised versions of the monochromes. While not a subject matter expert I have the suspicion there has been some editing of this edition of the book. I am certain the part of it with the raving Army officer just after Dunkirk had an anti-semetic slant to it and is now removed. Therefore, I am sure there may well have been other minor revisions. 'Enemy Coast Ahead - Uncensored' would be a good alternative and is also available.

It is still a good eyewitness book – four out of five Mr MushroomHeads.

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