Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson VC DSO DFC

Guy Gibson was my childhood hero.

I don’t know how I heard of him and his involvement in the “Dam Busters” raid, or why I came to idolise him; but as a pre-teen I developed a brief obsession with the man and the “Dam Busters”.

I don’t recall seeing the 1955 film of the raid before my interest began, so that doesn’t seem to have been the spark, but I did read Paul Brickhill’s book on which the film was based; borrowing it from the local library on several occasions.

A few months ago I found a hard cover copy of the Brickhill book in a Canberra second hand book shop and couldn’t resist spending a few dollars to get it. As I was paying for it, the shop assistant told me he had a copy of Guy Gibson’s own account of the raid, Enemy Coast Ahead, somewhere at the back of the shop. It was a book I vaguely knew about, but had never seen before.

I happily added it to the Brickhill book purchase.

This week was Anzac Day, one of the most significant Australian commemorative holidays, when the war service of Australian and New Zealand military men and women is remembered. Around this time TV channels dust off their war movies and documentaries so they can broadcast relevant programs.

A day or two before Anzac Day, the Dam Busters film was screened, and for the first time in many years I was able to see it, and was surprised to find how good it was for a war film of its the time.

Straight away I picked up Gibson’s book and started reading. Again I was surprised. For a book written so long ago by someone not primarily a writer, it presents a very readable, uncompromising insight into the day to day life of a bomber pilot, from the first days after his call-up, through weeks of tense inactivity, to his early experiences as a bomber pilot and on to the famed dam raids a few years later.

Gibson doesn’t hold back the more “human” aspects of a bomber crew’s life, and its off-duty hours of drinking, partying and womanising. But as he makes clear, they were men who were not expecting to live long. They didn’t know when they’d be called upon to fly out on what could be their last mission, and their last day of life.

In the early days of September [1939] I had an appointment with the dentist but didn’t turn up. He had seen me in the Mess afterwards. “I did not come along” I explained, ” because I didn’t see any point in having my teeth fixed and going through agony in the process, when I was likely to die within the next few days”

Although this incident preceded any of Gibson’s serious missions, for evidence [in hindsight] that there was no flippancy in his remarks to the dentist, the reader only needs to look through the list of 100 former crew members to whom Gibson dedicates his book, all of whom were killed, or missing presumed killed, at the time of the book’s writing. Gibson himself could later be added to that list after not returning from a mission over Germany in September 1944.