Joe was born on the 15th June 1918 in the NSW country town of Junee. He was a relieving railway porter when he enlisted on the 14th October 1940. After finishing training in Montreal, Canada, he made his way to Britain for some serious flying. Some of the aircraft he flew whilst in training were the DH82, Tiger Moth, Harvard, Yale, Miles Master, Magister and finally the magnificent Spitfire.
Peter Gordon Napier, Joe’s Godson (and named after him) contacted the Spitfire Association and provided us with the following bits of his letters and other information:
“Joe wrote to Peter’s mother, Flo, and said, “I am having a great time here, as far as the flying is concerned. I can now fly across England in half an hour and then I am not flat out.”
While he was in England, he participated in 35 raids, scoring three probable victories and damaging three other enemy aircraft. The photo, taken in Redhill, Surrey in 1942, is of Joe with Sergeant S. Tom Clarke. Note the warm gloves that Joe is wearing. They were used for protection against the cold at high altitudes.
It is recorded that Joe wrote an unsolicited letter to the Secretary, Railway Women’s Officers Comforts and Welfare Fund, who had sent him a parcel. He wrote, “I thank you for the parcel of comforts, which I received today after it had followed me around the world. I received it with open arms as the contents of tobacco, sugar and chocolates are very scarce here. It is great to receive parcels from you people back home…Ten months ago, I was a relief porter in the Goulburn district and now I am flying in a Spitfire squadron with the best fighter planes in the world.”
He wrote to Flo just before he returned to Australia, “I guess we will not be having holidays now that Japan has started a general mess in the Pacific. If only we could take our Spitfires out there, it would be a pleasure to shoot those greasy, slimy, dirty, yellow little b……. out of the sky. We would be in our element. Two of my best friends were killed last week, and I can tell you I am pretty burnt up. It’s just horrible what happened to enemy aircraft that crosses our sights. Tell Sandy I am flying the best fighter in the World. The cannon Spitfires. I had a crack up last week, it was a beauty. All I got was a scratch on my forehead and right as rain now. I am sure I have a guardian angel looking after me now, after I walked away from the wreck.”
When he returned to Australia in August 1942, he had 400 hours of operational flying in his log book.
He said in one of his letters that he was enjoying the warmth and only having to wear the merest of clothes, not like back in England. There was plenty of shade where he was up in Darwin and so he was comfortable.
He continued, “I am living in a tent out in the bush,” and he seemed to be thriving on the life back in Australia.
On the 2nd May 1943, Joe was posted missing after a Spitfire battle with Jap planes over the Timor Sea on the 2nd of May 1943. The action happened about 70 miles west of Darwin. Although there were other pilots posted missing in this action, all returned except Joe. Eight months after he was posted missing, his mother, Lena Gifford of Meljoy, Goulburn, said, “I feel he will come home because he was always such a courageous young man.”
To his many mates in the Wing, he was Joe, but to the RAAF he was 402740 F/O G.L.C. Gifford. Joe was born with the mouthful of first names, which he obviously avoided using.”
The official Aircraft Log for Joe’s aircraft records when Joe went missing:
Operational Loss 1135 hrs 2nd May 1943, as White 1, some 60 miles west of Darwin whilst intercepting enemy formation of bombers and escorts. Pilot made one diving attack and was not seen after. Position was assumed into the sea, some 70 miles west of Darwin. Pilot Flying Officer Gordon Lindsay Charles Gifford Serv#402740 missing, believed killed.
An extract from Spitfires over Darwin by Jim Grants is as follows:
“Flying Officer Joe Gifford led 457’s White Section down in a spiral dive, descending at 300 knots 1AS for a run through the bombers.”
Ian Mackenzie, a pilot in 457 Squadron, said that when they realised Joes was missing, someone noticed his special survival kit – fishing lines and the like – was still hanging up in the pilot’s dispersal hut.
Joe is remembered at the Adelaide River War Cemetery in the Northern Territory. God Bless you Joe.
Updated by Vince Conant
The Spitfire Association