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- The Life and Legacy of the Royal Air Force’s Most Distinguished Bomber Pilot during World War II
- Narrated by: Steve Knupp
- Length: 1 hr and 43 mins
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At the end of August 2012, the BBC ran a report about the commemoration of a young man who had been killed over 70 years earlier. “A Battle of Britain pilot who was killed when his Spitfire crashed following a dogfight in the skies above Kent has been honored. Flying Officer Oswald St John ‘Ossie’ Pigg lost his life in the crash at Elvey Farm on 1 September 1940. The 22-year-old had been involved in an aerial fight with a Messerschmitt. A plaque was unveiled near the site by his niece Stephanie Haigh and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight carried out a flypast on Thursday.” Just 12 days before Pigg’s death, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already immortalized the men of the Royal Air Force with one of the West’s most famous war-time quotes. But the sentiment and gratitude Churchill expressed back in 1940 is very much alive today. The sacrifice made by “The Few”, the British and Allied fighter pilots who won the Battle of Britain in 1940, remains close to the hearts of the British public, and the piece by the BBC is typical of the national sentiment manifested in air shows, museums, TV programs and books. Even as the last of “The Few” pass on, it seems unlikely that the legend they helped to create will be forgotten anytime soon.
Given the RAF’s importance, it should come as no surprise that some of the pilots ranked among Britain’s most recognized war heroes, and Guy Gibson remains one of the most famous and highly decorated British soldiers in World War II. His exploits in the RAF as the leader of the audacious raid to blow up German dams in May 1943 remain renowned, and for generations of British boys after the war, he served as the benchmark of a legendary hero. His tragic death at the young age of 26 only served to deepen his mythology, but his war record was impressive even before his most famous missions, with three operational tours of duty under his belt.
The mythmaking aside, Gibson was a complex and controversial character, probably caused, in part, by a turbulent and disrupted upbringing. Although his bravery, self-sacrifice, and leadership in battle were undeniable and highly impressive, he could be demanding and difficult to get along with. It is probably fair to say he was not universally loved by the crews and service personnel who served alongside him, and he after the Dam Busters raid, he embarked on a months-long tour of the United States and Canada that many (including Air Officer Commanding Bomber Commander Arthur “Bomber” Harris) felt had gone to his head slightly. After the raid and the fame, he drifted somewhat, having been forbidden from flying in further operations (which he bypassed in the end). He wrote a book about his exploits as a bomber pilot, Enemy Coast Ahead, and was interviewed on radio programs. He flirted with politics, applying for and succeeding in becoming the Conservative Party’s prospective candidate for Macclesfield in 1944 before withdrawing, claiming the war still required his attention. After D-Day on June 6, 1944, Gibson seemed to feel an urgent need to get back into operations for fear of missing out.
The manner of his death in operations over Germany in September 1944 was controversial but seemed to be a case of bad luck, poor planning, and several factors going wrong at the same time. There is certainly a case to be made for attaching some blame to him, but the reasons for his plane going down (he and his navigator are buried in the Dutch town of Steenburgen) are still debated to this day. That said, his death should not overshadow his phenomenal achievements between August 1939 and May 1943. He prepared, trained, and led a scratch squadron at very short notice to implement one of the most daring raids of the Second World War, and in the process, he justifiably received Britain’s highest milit"