High-scoring Australian fighter ace who showed exemplary leadership qualities in the difficult conditions of North Africa
An aviator of skill and resolve, and a character of great independence of
spirit, Bobby Gibbes was a fighter pilot who, with his fellow Australians,
made a great contribution to the conduct of air operations in the Western
Desert. As commanding officer of 3 Squadron RAAF, which he had joined in
June 1941, he led it in North Africa for 15 months from February 1942, and
his inspiring influence on his men was directly responsible for its fine
record in combat and in the ground attack role.
His conduct when one of his pilots was compelled to force land in the desert
after a strafing mission which had wrecked an enemy airfield and destroyed
seven aircraft, was entirely characteristic. Gibbes did not hesitate to put
down as near to the damaged aircraft as he could. While his pilot made his
way towards him over the rugged terrain, he detached his belly fuel tank to
reduce weight and threw out his parachute to make room for his passenger in
the single seat Kittyhawk fighter.
As the aircraft struggled to take off on the rugged terrain one of its
undercarriage wheels was ripped off. Gibbes nevertheless got the Kittyhawk
airborne, and on reaching base made a classic one-wheel landing, causing
hardly any further damage to the fighter.
In a virtually unbroken spell of 22 months in the front line in Syria and
North Africa Gibbes flew a total of 274 sorties, had a dozen combat
victories and was awarded the DSO and two DFCs.
Robert Henry Maxwell Gibbes was born in 1916 in Young, New South Wales. His
father owned grazing in the outback and he worked as a jackaroo (farmhand)
before the war.
He joined the RAAF in 1939 and by June 1940 had been commissioned. After
service at home he went with 450 Squadron to the Middle East where he was
transferred to 3 Squadron RAAF, which was receiving its first Curtiss
Tomahawks. These had their teething troubles, but No 3’s pilots were soon to
get a chance to show their mettle when they were sent to take on the Armée
de l’Air during the campaign against Vichy Syria.
The French Dewoitine D250, had given the RAF’s Hurricanes a hard time, but the
Tomahawks of No 3 turned the tables, playing an important part in the air
campaign. Gibbes’s first combat victory was a D250 shot down near Aleppo on
July 11, 1941.
With the defeat of Vichy in Syria, the squadron went back to North Africa,
where Gibbes proved himself a most determined air fighter. In the autumn and
winter battles over the Western Desert he added to his score in combat,
shooting down Messerschmitts – 109s and 110s – and Fiat G50s. His skill and
leadership gained him rapid promotion and on February 26, 1942, he was
appointed the squadron’s commanding officer. By that time it had been
reequipped with the superior Kittyhawk.
He now led his men in the months of hard air fighting that accompanied the
to-and-fro battles on the ground in the period before victory at Alamein.
The Kittyhawks were engaged both in the air superiority role and escort
work, and in attacks on Axis airfields, fuel dumps and armoured fighting
vehicles. Although the Kittyhawk was some way inferior to the Me109, Gibbes
nevertheless shot down a number of these formidable opponents (an aircraft
for which he had an abiding respect, having had the opportunity to fly and
He was twice brought down himself, on one occasion by the gunner of a Ju88.
Despite breaking his ankle he was back in action, leg in plaster, within the
month. On another occasion, a Messerschmitt collided with his Kittyhawk, and
he came down behind enemy lines. He doggedly set himself to walk back to
friendly territory and, after evading Axis units, was picked up by a British
patrol after a trek lasting 72 hours. After he had led his squadron during
the pursuit of Axis forces into Tunisia, Gibbes’s exceptionally long and
gruelling tour of operations finally came to an end in April 1943. He
returned to Australia, and in October 1944 was appointed to lead 80 Wing
RAAF for operations in the South West Pacific.
By then this was not an active theatre of operations, since Japanese air power
had been virtually eliminated. The wing was relegated to attacks on enemy
bases bypassed as US forces advanced via the Philippines towards the
Japanese homeland. The Australian pilots felt that all the combat glory was
being reaped by the USAAF, and in April 1945 Gibbes was among eight senior
RAAF officers who took part in what became known as the “Morotai Mutiny”,
when they resigned their commissions in protest. They were persuaded to
withdraw these resignations, and no further action was taken. Gibbes was
subsequently disciplined, along with other RAAF pilots, for smuggling
alcohol by air to Morotai.
After the war Gibbes founded an airline, Gibbes Sepik Airways, in New Guinea.
Among its aircraft were three Junkers Ju52 three-engined transports,
purchased in Sweden. One of these, flown out of Berlin as the city fell, had
been Kesselring’s personal aircraft.
In 1958 he sold Sepik, but established coffee plantations in the New Guinea
Western Highlands, and built the Paradise Hotel, the first of a chain he
established in Papua New Guinea.
Gibbes, who continued to fly into his eighties, was awarded the Medal of the
Order of Australia (OAM) for services to aviation in 2004.
He is survived by his wife, Jeannie, and by two daughters.
Wing Commander Bobby Gibbes, DSO, DFC and Bar, OAM, wartime fighter ace,
was born on May 6, 1916. He died on April 11, 2007, aged 90