|Robert Henry Maxwell (Bobby) Gibbes|
Bobby Gibbes, North Africa, 1942
|Born||6 May 1916
Young, New South Wales
|Died||11 April 2007
Sydney, New South Wales
|Service/branch||Royal Australian Air Force|
|Years of service||1940–1946
|Unit||No. 2 OTU (1944)
No. 80 Wing (1945)
|Commands held||No. 3 Squadron (1942–43)|
World War II
|Awards||Distinguished Service Order
Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar
Medal of the Order of Australia
Robert Henry Maxwell (Bobby) Gibbes DSO, DFC & Bar, OAM (6 May 1916 – 11 April 2007) was a leading Australian fighter ace of World War II. He was officially credited with shooting down 10¼ enemy aircraft, although his score is often reported as 12 destroyed. Born in rural New South Wales, Gibbes worked as a jackaroo and salesman before joining the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in February 1940. Posted to the Middle East in May 1941, he became commanding officer of No. 3 Squadron RAAF during the North African campaign, where his leadership and fighting skills earned him the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar. Subsequently posted to the South West Pacific Theatre, he served with the Australian First Tactical Air Force, and took part in the "Morotai Mutiny" of April 1945. After the war he spent many years in New Guinea, developing local industry, for which he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2004. He died in April 2007, at the age of 90.
Born in Young, a rural community in New South Wales, Gibbes came from an old colonial family. His great-grandfather, Colonel John George Nathaniel Gibbes, built his residence "Wotonga" at Kirribilli; the property was later refurbished to become Sydney's Admiralty House. Gibbes' grandfather, Augustus Onslow Manby Gibbes, owned Yarralumla station, now the official residence of Australia's Governor-General. His father, Henry Edmund Gibbes, was a grazier. Gibbes attended All Saints College in Bathurst and became a jackaroo after leaving school.
Gibbes was working as a salesman when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in February 1940, having exaggerated his height, which was below the minimum requirement, to gain entrance. He was commissioned a pilot officer in June, following flying training at RAAF Station Point Cook, Victoria. Rated an "above average" fighter pilot, he served initially with No. 23 Squadron in Australia. He was promoted to flying officer in December 1940.
North Africa and the Middle East
Upon posting to the Middle East, Gibbes served for a short time with No. 450 Squadron RAAF. In May 1941, he transferred to No. 3 Squadron, which was flying Hawker Hurricanes. Two months later, after it converted to the P-40 Tomahawk, the squadron took part in the Syria-Lebanon Campaign. Gibbes claimed his first victory, a Dewoitine D.520 fighter of the Vichy French air force, on 11 July. He shared in its destruction with John Francis Jackson, after which the pair tossed a coin to take full credit for it, and Gibbes won. No. 3 Squadron then saw action against German and Italian aircraft during the North African Campaign. Gibbes had a particularly successful day on 25 November, when he shot down two Fiat G.50s and damaged three more. He destroyed a Junkers Ju 87 and damaged two G.50s on 22 January 1942. The following month, after its Tomahawks were replaced by Kittyhawks, Gibbes took charge of No. 3 Squadron and eventually became the unit's longest-serving wartime commanding officer (CO).
While leading an attack on a heavily escorted force of Luftwaffe bombers near El Adem, on 26 May, Gibbes was shot down. He had fired at and probably destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf 109 when he was hit by fire from a Junkers Ju 88 and had to bail out. Part of Gibbes' parachute became entangled with the tailplane of stricken aircraft and he was fortunate to escape. He broke his ankle in the landing but within six weeks was flying again, his leg still in a cast. Due to his enforced absence, fellow ace Nicky Barr was appointed CO of No. 3 Squadron until he himself was shot down and taken prisoner on 26 June, at which point Gibbes was promoted to temporary squadron leader and again took command of the unit. Barr noted that although Gibbes was not a perfect shot, he had the keenest eyesight of any pilot he knew when it came to locating enemy aircraft and alerting his fellows for the attack. Another 3 Squadron pilot, Tom Russell, recalled that Gibbes was particularly adept at locating targets, and that "if we got scattered in a dogfight he had the uncanny ability to get us back into formation in a very short space of time".
Gibbes was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on 28 July 1942 for his actions on 26 May, the citation noting his "exceptional skill and gallantry". He claimed No. 3 Squadron's 200th victim on 6 November. Around this time he also managed to fly Bf 109F and G fighters captured from the Germans. On 21 December, Gibbes landed his Kittyhawk in rugged terrain to rescue a fellow pilot who had been forced down, throwing out his own parachute to make room in the cockpit for his passenger. He lost part of his undercarriage taking off and had to make a one-wheeled landing back at base. Recommended for the Victoria Cross for this action, he was instead awarded the Distinguished Service Order, which was promulgated on 15 January 1943 and cited his "outstanding qualities of leadership and enthusiasm". Gibbes himself crash landed behind enemy lines on 14 January 1943, walking 50 miles (80 km) in the desert before being picked up by a British Army patrol. He was awarded a bar to his DFC for this feat, and for his "exceptional leadership, skill and courage, contributing in a large measure to the success of the squadron he commands". No. 3 Squadron member Bob Smith recalled him as lacking somewhat in administrative ability but an "Errol Flynn" in the air. Gibbes himself later described his feelings during and after air combat thus:
|“||Man becomes animal when he thinks he is about to die. As you fly back to your base, now safe at last, a feeling of light-hearted exuberance comes over you. It is wonderful to still be alive and it is, I think, merely the after-effect of violent, terrible fear.||”|
South West Pacific
Gibbes handed over command of No. 3 Squadron to Squadron Leader Brian Eaton on 21 April 1943. With his temporary rank of squadron leader made permanent the same month, Gibbes departed North Africa to serve at RAAF Overseas Headquarters in London until October. Returning to Australia, he became chief flying instructor at No. 2 Operational Training Unit, Mildura, in January 1944. That July he was posted to Darwin, in the Northern Territory, flying Spitfires, and later suffered burns in a crash landing following engine failure. In December he married, in his own words, "a little dark-haired popsy" named Jeannine Ince, a volunteer with the Red Cross who had nursed him in hospital.
In April 1945, now a temporary wing commander and stationed at No. 80 Wing Headquarters of the Australian First Tactical Air Force (No. 1 TAF) in the Dutch East Indies, Gibbes took part in the "Morotai Mutiny". He was one of eight senior pilots, including Australia's top-scoring ace, Group Captain Clive Caldwell, who tendered their resignations in protest at the relegation of RAAF fighter squadrons to apparently worthless ground-attack missions. Gibbes later declared that "... after I myself had been operating for a week or so and had a really good look around and seen the futility of the operations which had been given, I could not see any point in carrying on. I certainly lost all keenness for remaining in the service." As a former jackaroo, one sortie that involved attacking cattle especially upset him: "I felt horrible about it, being an ex bushy ... at about lunch time I went out and darned if I didn't have to turn butcher. And Heavens, it was butchering too, in every sense of the word. No--not the Japs. Cattle ... If we are to get the Japs out of this area without loss of human lives, starvation will be our main weapon ... God, I hated doing it but could do nothing else. Felt as sick as hell." No action was taken against the "mutineers" for their attempted resignations; a government inquiry found that their actions were justified. However, Gibbes and Caldwell were later court martialled for their involvement in alcohol trafficking on Morotai. Both were reduced to the rank of flight lieutenant; the Air Officer Commanding No. 1 TAF, Air Commodore Harry Cobby, himself shortly to be dismissed over the incident, subsequently restored Gibbes to squadron leader.
Post-war career and later life
Following his discharge from the RAAF in January 1946, Gibbes was initially employed as a stock and station agent in Coonamble, New South Wales. He then spent most of the next 30 years in New Guinea, pioneering the island's transport, coffee and hospitality industries. In January 1948, he formed Gibbes Sepik Airways using German Junkers Ju 52 aircraft, one of which had allegedly been the personal transport of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring. He also served as a member of the RAAF Active Reserve, based in Townsville, Queensland, from 1952 until 1957. In 1958, he sold his share in Gibbes Sepik Airways to Mandated Airlines, which was later bought out by Ansett Australia. Gibbes then developed a number of coffee plantations in New Guinea, and built a large chain of hotels beginning with the Bird of Paradise in Goroka. In his 60s, he single-handedly sailed a catamaran from England to Australia, braving heavy seas and Malaysian pirates along the way. He sold his interests in New Guinea in 1972.
Gibbes spent most of the 1970s in the Mediterranean, sailing his catamaran Billabong. He returned to Sydney in 1979, and began building his own twin-engined plane, eventually taking it to the air in 1990. In 1994, Gibbes published his autobiography, You Live But Once. He continued to fly until forced to give up his civil aviation licence at the age of 85. In 2002, he appeared in an episode of Australian Story dedicated to fellow No. 3 Squadron ace Nicky Barr. Gibbes was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2004 for his work in New Guinea. He died of a stroke at Mona Vale Hospital in Sydney on 11 April 2007. Aged 90, he was survived by his wife and two daughters. His funeral service at St Thomas' Church, North Sydney was attended by 350 mourners, including the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Geoff Shepherd, and 40 members of No. 3 Squadron, including the commanding officer. A Spitfire in the "Grey Nurse" livery of one of Gibbes' World War II aircraft, and four F/A-18 Hornet jet fighters from No. 3 Squadron, overflew the church.
- Odgers, The Royal Australian Air Force, p. 125
- Garrisson, Australian Fighter Aces, p. 133
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