First published in 1944, Enemy Coast Ahead quickly became regarded as the classic Bomber Command story, following Gibson's RAF career from flying the Hampden and Manchester at the beginning of World War II to the triumphant return home of the Lancasters from the famous 1943 Dambuster raid, which Gibson led and for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Enemy Coast Ahead is also the inside story of life in Bomber Command throughout the first five years of World War II, culminating in intense drama as the RAF planned, practiced, and strove towards breaching the dams on that famous night in May 1943.
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Published in 1946, this is a riveting account of the lead up to and execution of the wartime mission dubbed the ‘dam busters’. Given the date of publication it was no doubt part of national healing, describing the immense heroism of the Bomber Command, and the enormous loss of life (nearly 50% of pilots were killed flying Lancaster planes during the war, the planes used in the Dams mission -- the book is peppered with respectful eulogies).
Vance’s calm, sedate, unpretentious reading perfectly matches the stoic tone of the narrative. Judgmental phrases that may grate today, are smoothly absorbed into the historical context.
Gibson carefully leads the reader into some sense of the mechanics of the risks – an idea of how the various planes (earlier he flew Hampdens) operated, the team work required, what it felt like to be part of this situation. There is some quite lyrical writing as Gibson flies over the Britain he is fighting for.
This is a description of young people at war: but they sound much older: Gibson himself was only 24 when he led the dam buster’s operation: a massive responsibility in terms of strategy, the safety of 133 men, and liaising effectively with the extraordinary scientists preparing the ‘bouncing bombs’. But the honors and glory bestowed these men was nothing in the face of the constant deaths.
I commented earlier that I took some of the narrative as part of the stoic, the ‘stiff upper lip’ image of the UK fighting forces. But now I question that. My uncle, an Australian, was a navigator in a Lancaster, flying with the RAF. He was highly decorated, and survived multiple missions.
He never spoke of these years, never married. Was a wonderful uncle, but I never asked him about the war – too shy. Remarkably he was with the same crew for nearly 50 missions. This book by Gibson gives me some insight into his experiences – though how could anyone really understand – and of the depth of the relationships between the small team flying through the night. How did these men manage the return to the relatively mundane civilian life.
And so I wonder if the restraint and understatement (‘jolly good show, chaps’) presented in this book was indeed the reality. For Gibson, and, I suppose, for my uncle, it was a terrible but clear-cut duty. The issues were clear and no need to discuss and relive the enormity of the tragedies.
Gibson also reveals the everyday life of the pilots: their fears, how they dealt with the whole business of constantly facing death (quite apart from the comradeship, lots of beer, smoking, parties, girls -- women played very much a support and peripheral role in this account – and Gibson had his dog and his romantically portrayed wife, Eve).
Apparently this was not ghost written – he had a real talent. Though Simon Vance could make anything sound well written, but I think this really was the case.
The book does not glorify war at all: it ends with a fervent plea to stop all wars.
I found it worthwhile researching more about this book and viewing related documentaries presented by the BBC: it was very moving to see the Lancaster bomber actually flying.