By Lawrence Holmes
Guy Gibson was probably the most famous RAF bomber pilot of all time. He won undying fame leading the attack on the Rhur Dams in May 1943 and was awarded the VC. He flew some 177 operational sorties throughout almost the whole of the war, but did not live to see the end of the war.
Sunday September 19th 2004 marked the 60th anniversary of 'Dambuster' Guy Gibson's death in the latter days of WWII. Guy and his then navigator, Jim Warwick, died when their Mosquito crashed near the village of Steenbergen in Holland on 19th September 1944. There every year, local residents and others commemorate their loss at a very special memorial, which was first dedicated to Guy and his Navigator on the 7th May 1990. In 2004, this well known commemoration service again took place to mark Guy and Jim's sad loss.
However, another, equally meaningful service, took place on the same day and at the same time as the Dutch one and this one was held in the small fishing village of Porthleven. This service, like the Dutch service, has taken place for many years and was first introduced by the former leader of Porthleven Council, Michael Gale. Now elderly and frail Michael has handed over the organisation of the Service to the Helston Branch of the Royal Air Force Association whose current Chairman is none other than former 10 Group ROC Commandant, ex Wing Commander Mike Richards.
This service also took place beside a memorial to Guy Gibson, but this one is in the Cemetery at Porthleven, Cornwall. Some fifty people of all ages gathered in beautiful weather by the granite memorial to Guy Gibson as Standards were marched on. The service was led by Reverend Colin Short of Porthleven and a moving poem to Gibson was read out by former Town Clerk, Elsie Balme. The Last Post was perfectly played by a 10 year old girl trumpeter from Porthleven Band, and wreaths and flowers were placed by the memorial in recognition of the supreme sacrifice paid by Wing Commander Guy Gibson and his Squadron comrades over 60 years ago. Afterwards there seemed to be much aviation and ROC style chat before all attendees dispersed.
Just a few people then went to see Guy Gibson's name on the impressive Porthleven War memorial overlooking the beautiful harbour. But why, you may ask, is Guy Gibson remembered in this remote Cornish fishing village? Why is he fondly called 'One of the Sons of Cornwall', and why is he included in books listing Cornwall's famous people?
Edward Carter Strike, whose father commanded tea clippers, was from a prosperous seafaring family from Porthleven. Edward had several daughters, one of whom was called Leonora (Nora) and they lived in a new house poised on the cliffs on the north side of Porthleven. The attractive Nora met 37 year old Alexander James Gibson, an official in the Imperial Indian Forest Service, whilst he was on furlough in England. Alexander Gibson liked the piano and was staying at a guest house in Porthleven. He found out that Nora Strike also liked the piano and invited her to his lodgings. A friendship grew and they married on 2nd December 1913 in the Porthleven Weslyan Chapel, in what was described as the wedding of the decade. The men wore morning dress and top hats and the bride was in a silk gown. After the wedding the Gibson family went out to India again where Edward resumed work with the Forest Service. There they had three children in quick succession and the middle child born in Simla on 12th August 1918 was named Guy Penrose Gibson. The child's middle name of 'Penrose' was prompted by the large well known estate near Helston.
In 1922 when Guy was only four years old, Nora took the family from India to Porthleven for a holiday and Guy with his brother and sister, took picnics along the beach and undoubtedly Guy began his love affair with the harbour at Porthleven. At the age of six years Guy, along with his elder sister Joan, were back in Cornwall again attending St Erbyn's Preparatory School at Penzance. For many years in his youth Guy would return to Porthleven to spend summer holidays with his grandparents. The Gibson children and their Nanny also stayed with Mr Bert Cowls and his family on many occasions. Bert Cowls says in his book 'Looking Back to Yesterday' that Guy spent many hours picnicing, swimming and fishing in rock pools. It was not aeroplanes which fascinated Guy, but the sea and ships. One of his young playmates at that time was Alfred Richards who recalls 'Guy was a shy, quiet boy. He used to come down on holiday for four or five weeks at a time during the summer and I played with him for hours in his grandparents' back garden. We used to play ships and we went fishing. Though he was quiet he was quite an adventurer'.
At the age of eight years Guy was then sent to Folkestone in Kent and attended St George's Prep School. He was only average at school but always good at sports. In his later teens he was educated at Oxford University but by then aviation was in his blood and he wanted to be a test pilot for Vickers. However, Guy decided to join the RAF to gain experience and was commissioned in the Service in 1937. At this stage Guy was a handsome young man and cut a glamorous, film star like figure, who enjoyed excitement.
His first posting was to No 83 Squadron as a bomber pilot. Guy Gibson was undistinguished at first ; he completed his first tour of duty in August 1940 and transferred to Fighter Command, flying Beaufighters. On 23rd November 1940 he married Eve at Penarth in Wales, but the marriage was to prove a tempestuous one. Although now married and very much at war, Guy visited Porthleven whenever he could and regarded the fishing village as his spiritual home where he could relax and enjoy the sheer tranquillity of the harbour.
He flew a further 99 sorties and claimed 3 enemy aircraft destroyed, and completed his second tour in December 1941. By this time he was a Squadron Leader and had been awarded the DFC. He completed his second bomber tour in March 1943 and at 24 years old was a Wing Commander with DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar. His 'Dams Raid' on May 16/17 1943 is legendary and needs no further explanation here. However, a note in his flying log for April 1943 states 'We just got back after a 5 hour trip close to Barry, round coast, round Cornwall and back to Bridgwater'. No doubt even whilst training for the Dams Raid, Guy made sure he overflew his beloved Porthleven !
After the Dams raid he became a celebrity figure at home and in the USA. He even became the prospective Conservative candidate for Macclesfield and was the author of 'Enemy Coast Ahead' published in 1946 after his death. In mid August 1944 Guy was back in Cornwall on holiday with Eve at Porthleven. However, he was desperate to get back to operational flying and finally his superiors relented and granted him one final sortie. Guy piloted a 627 Squadron Mosquito with Navigator Squadron Leader Jim Warwick, as a master bomber in a raid on Rheydt and Monchengladbach on the 19th September 1944. At 2200hrs his last words over the radio were "Nice work chaps, now beat it home" and at 2245hrs his Mosquito was seen curving over the Dutch town of Steenbergen its engines spluttering. It then became an arc of flames and exploded into the ground throwing its occupants out of the wreckage.
Guy Gibson and Jim Warwick were both killed. The owner of the farmland on which Guy crashed discovered 'a wallet' and secreted it away from the Germans. Another Dutchman heard the explosion and cycled to the crash scene where he found the two bodies had been recovered. The only identification of the pilot was a sock on one of his feet marked 'Guy Gibson' but this was kept secret.
The remains of both men were buried in the local cemetery at Steenbergen and a simple wooden cross was placed on each grave. It was only after the war that local people learned of the true identities of the two airmen. Some people felt that Guy was unfamiliar with the Mosquito and this may have led to his downfall.
After the war there were plans to bring Gibson's remains back to Britain but his father preferred his body to remain where he had fallen in action. He was one of the most decorated officers in the RAF and was only 26 years old. After the war the Imperial War Graves Commission put up stone headstones to the fallen men. In 1974 a special memorial, in the form of a propeller from a Lancaster bomber, was unveiled to Gibson and Warwick in the cemetery at Steenbergen.
In the fishing village of Porthleven Gibson is well remembered. As one enters the village there is a road on the right called 'Gibson Way' in honour of Porthleven's famous 'son'. Nearby is the main cemetery where the Guy Gibson Memorial is located. The granite stone states "Dedicated to W/Cdr Guy Gibson VC, DSO, DFC, RAF 617 Sq 'Dambusters' on the 45th anniversary of his death. Tues 19th September 1989".
In the Mayor's Parlour at the Guildhall, Helston, hangs a large portrait of Guy Gibson, a Squadron plaque and a photograph of the breached Mohne Dam. Guy Gibson VC is also recorded on the Porthleven War Memorial overlooking the harbour, which he loved so much. To mark the 60th anniversary of the death of Guy Gibson, local film maker Vic Strike (a distant relation in the Strike family) has made a composite film called "Guy Gibson VC and the Porthleven he loved". The film includes excerpts from the 'Dambusters' film and many archival photos and film clips of Guy Gibson in Porthleven. The film is one and a half hours long and was shown in Porthleven on 29th September 2004.
|Porthleven's son: born under foreign skies,
But ours by family, by blood and bone.
Ours was the backdrop to the summer days
Of your remembered childhood: you were our own.
You loved this place: the view across Mounts Bay,
You were a legend: bravest of the brave.
|You were a hero, and because of it
Your name is history; and those who mind
About such things still hold that name in awe
For what your courage did for humankind.
The nation claimed you, and you walked with kings,
Porthleven's son; killed in a foreign sky,
'Born Leader' by Alan Cooper. 'Guy Gibson' by Richard Morris. 'Looking back
to Yesterday' by Bert Cowls.
Newspaper publications 'Step back in time in Porthleven' and 'Fifty Famous Cornish Folk'.
'War in the West' by Eddie Walford. The people of Porthleven.