Bobby Gibbes was born on the 6th May 1916 in Young, New South Wales. He worked as a jackaroo and salesman before he enlisted in the RAAF as an Air Cadet on the 5th December 1940 in Mascot, again in New South Wales. It is well known that he exaggerated his height, which was below the minimum requirement, to gain entrance.
Even after training, he was described as an “above average fighter pilot”. Just how far above average is attested to by his Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar and Distinguished Service Order, though those who knew Bobby Gibbes well, know that he didn’t see himself cast in the heroic mould.
In early 1941, Bobby was posted to 450 Squadron and then on to 3 Squadron in Egypt flying the P-40 Tomahawk. In the North Africa campaign over the next two years, he certainly saw and felt the heat of battle. He shot down or destroyed more than 12 aircraft, had up to another 14 probables and damaged 16. In return, he was shot down twice. Bobby was appointed Commanding Officer of 3 Squadron on the 26th February 1942 until April 1943 except for a brief period when he was injured. The Squadrons Tomahawks had by this time been replaced by Kittyhawks, and Bobby emblazoned his with a cartoon depicting a kangaroo kicking a dachshund in the rear. It was with 3 Squadron that his leadership and fighting skills earned him the DSO and DFC and Bar.
One of Bobby’s famous exploits with 3 Squadron was when he rescued one of his pilots, Rex Bayly, on the 21st December 1942. Bobby Gibbes had been leading six Kittyhawks to attack the Italian desert aerodrome at Hun in Central Libya, 150 miles south of Sirte (modern-day Surt). The following passages are just one of many marvellous stories and adventures written about Bobby and oher personnel in 3 Squadron in “You Live but Once”, his classic autobiography.
(The photo is of 3 Squadron P-40 Tomahawk pilots, from left to right: Wilf Arthur, Bobby Gibbes, Awally Jewell and Tiny Cameron standing. The smaller photo below is of Bobby in his Spitfire when he was in the Northern Territpory.)
After another of his pilots, Sergeant “Stuka” Bee’s aircraft had been set on fire by the aerodrome defence gunfire and crashed…
At the same time, Pilot Officer Rex Bayly called up to say that his motor had been hit and that he was carrying out a forced landing. Rex crash-landed his aircraft nearly a mile from the aerodrome, and on coming to a stop, called up on his radio to say that he was O.K. His aircraft did not burn. I asked him what the area was like for a landing to pick him up, and ordered the other three aircraft to keep me covered and to stop any ground forces coming out after him. He told me that the area was impossible, and asked me to leave him, but I flew down to look for myself. I found a suitable area about 3 miles further out and advised Bayly that I was landing, and to get weaving (moving as quickly as possible) out to me.
I was nervous about this landing, in case shrapnel might have damaged my tyres, as on my first run through the aerodrome, my initial burst set an aircraft on fire. I had then flown across the aerodrome and fired from low level and at close range at a Savoia 79. It must have been loaded with ammunition, as it blew up, hurling debris 500 feet into the air. I was too close to it to do anything about avoiding the blast and flew straight through the centre of the explosion at nought feet. On passing through, my aircraft dropped its nose, despite pulling my stick back, and for a terrifying moment, I thought that my tail plane had been blown off. On clearing the concussion area, I regained control, missing the ground by a matter of only a few feet. Quite a number of small holes had been punched right through my wings from below, but my aircraft appeared to be quite serviceable.
I touched down rather carefully in order to check that my tyres had not been punctured, and then taxied by a devious route for about a mile or more until I was stopped from getting closer to Rex Bayly by a deep wadi. Realizing that I would have a long wait, and being in a state of sheer funk, I proceeded to take off my belly tank to lighten the aircraft. The weight of the partially full tank created great difficulty, and I needed all my strength in pulling it from below the aircraft and dragging it clear. I was not sure that I would be able to find my way back to the area where I had landed, so I stepped out the maximum run into wind from my present position. In all, I had just 300 yards before the ground dipped away into a wadi. I tied my handkerchief onto a small camel’s thorn bush to mark the point of aim, and the limit of my available take off-run, and then returned to my aircraft, CV-V, and waited.
My Squadron’s aircraft continued to circle overhead, carrying out an occasional dive towards the town in order to discourage any Italian attempt to pick us up. After what seemed like an age, sitting within gun range of Hun, Bayly at last appeared, puffing, and sweating profusely. He still managed a smile and a greeting.
I tossed away my parachute and Bayly climbed into the cockpit. I climbed in after him and using him as my seat, I proceeded to start my motor. It was with great relief that we heard the engine fire, and opening my throttle beyond all normal limits, I stood on the brakes until I had obtained full power, and then released them, and, as we surged forward, I extended a little flap. My handkerchief rushed up at an alarming rate, and we had not reached flying speed as we passed over it and down the slope of the wadi. Hauling the stick back a small fraction, I managed to ease the aircraft into the air, but we hit the other side of the wadi with a terrific thud. We were flung back into the air, still not really flying, and to my horror, I saw my port wheel rolling back below the trailing edge of the wing, in the dust stream. The next ridge loomed up and it looked as if it was to be curtains for us, as I could never clear it. I deliberately dropped my starboard wing to take the bounce on my remaining wheel, and eased the stick back just enough to avoid flicking. To my great relief we cleared the ridge and were flying.
Retracting my undercart and the small amount of take-off flap, we climbed up. I was shaking like a leaf and tried to talk to Bayly but noise would not permit. The remaining three aircraft formed up alongside me and we hared off for home, praying all the while that we would not be intercepted by enemy fighters, who should by now have been alerted. Luck remained with us, and we didn’t see any enemy aircraft.
On nearing Marble Arch, I asked Squadron Leader Watt to fly beneath my aircraft to confirm that I had really lost a wheel and had not imagined it. He confirmed that my wheel had gone, but that the starboard wheel and undercart appeared to be intact. I then had to make up my mind as to whether to carry out a belly landing, thus damaging my aircraft further, or to try to attempt a one-wheel landing, which I thought I could do. We were at the time very short of aircraft and every machine counted.
The latter, of course, could be dangerous, so before making a final decision, I wrote a message on my map asking Bayly if he minded if I carried out a one-wheel landing. He read my message and nodded his agreement. Calling up our ground control, I asked them to have an ambulance standing by, and told them that I intended coming in cross-wind with my port wing up-wind. Control queried my decision but accepted it.
I made a landing on my starboard wheel, keeping my wing up with aileron and, as I lost speed, I turned the aircraft slowly to the left, throwing the weight out. When I neared a complete wing stall, I kicked on hard port rudder and the aircraft turned further to port. Luck was with me and the aircraft remained balanced until it lost almost all speed. The port oleo leg suddenly touched the ground, and the machine completed a ground loop. The port flap was slightly damaged as was the wingtip. The propeller and the rest of the aircraft sustained no further damage. The port undercart was changed, the flap repaired, the holes patched up and the aircraft was flying again on the 27th of the month, only six days after Hun.
Every enemy aircraft on Hun was either destroyed or damaged. Six aircraft and one glider were burnt, and five other aircraft were badly damaged. The bag included two JU52s, two Savoia 79s, one JU88, one Messerschmitt 110, one CR42, one HS126 and two gliders. I was later to be awarded the DSO and this operation was mentioned as having a bearing on the award.
Of interest, the editor’s of 3squadronstories wrote: Australia’s first and only Air Force Victoria Cross in World War One was awarded for a similar desert rescue. Rumour has it that Bobby Gibbes was also considered for a VC recommendation, but in the end was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
In July 1944, Bobby was posted as Wing Commander to 80 Wing in Darwin flying Spitfire Mk VIIIs. While there, his aircraft suffered an engine failure and he was burned in the crash-landing. However, he was soon back flying, and in January 1945, he moved with the Wing to Morotai, PNG, for mainly ground attack operations against the Japanese. Between then and his return to Australia in May 1945, Bobby flew 44 missions.
Bobby was discharged in 1946 before joining the Active Reserve in 1952 and serving at Townsville until April, 1957. During that time, he then spent many years in Papua New Guinea where he started his own airline, Gibbes Sepik Airways, in 1950. He also to develop the local industry, for which he was awarded the Medal of The Order of Australia in 2004. He continued to fly until the age of 85.
Wing Commander Bobby Gibbes died on the 11th April 2007. At his funeral, mourners arriving at the church heard the throaty roar of the famous Rolls Royce Merlin engine before they saw the heart-stopping sight of a Spitfire in the burning blue sky above the church. It was a stunning sight, as rare as the man who is one of Australia’s most decorated World War II ace fighter pilots.
Air Marshal Geoff Shepherd (Chief of Airforce 2005 to 2008), CO 3 Squadron, Wing Commander Vinny Iervarsi, a 3 Squadron bearer and honour party and some 40 other members of 3 Squadron joined Bobby’s local member, Bronwyn Bishop, and hundreds of other mourners in a fitting farewell to him. Four 2 Squadron F/A 18s flew a “Missing Man” formation and the Temora Aviation Museum’s Mk VIII Spitfire in the famous “Grey Nurse” markings of Bobby’s own Mk VIII, flew a fly-past over the church.
In speaking of Bobby, Air Marshall Shepherd said, “Among the pantheon of the heroic generation from WWII, certain heroes stand out. Bobby Gibbes was one of those.” he also said, “It is an honour to have had him as member of the Services” and “Sadly, this generation is quickly passing and we must engage and honour those who are left.”
Ted Sly, who spoke at Bobby’s funeral, told of how Bobby once made a landing in the heat of action and rescued another pilot who’d been shot down. On takeoff, Bobby lost a wheel but executed a flawless landing back at his home airfield. Though Bobby received recognition for this valiant effort, Ted expressed his disappointment that Bobby was overlooked for greater decoration because he was a “colonial.” Ted also told of another occasion where, after being shot down, Bobby walked 50 miles back towards base, all the while dodging enemy forces until he was picked up by a British ground patrol.
Bobby is survived by his wife, Jeannie, his daughters Julie and Robyn, and five grandchildren.
The last photo of Bobby is the real Bobby Gibbes, larger than life, a leader of men and the quintessential fighter pilot. The Spitfire Association salutes an inspirational life.