Vice-Admiral Sir Donald Gibson,
CB KCB DSC JP (1917-2001), painted by Ralph Gillies-Cole, 1979.
The original hangs in the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton.
Sub Lieutenat (A) Donald
Gibson was on No.3 Air Course at 20 ERFTS, Gravesend and started his ab
initio flying training there on 6th March 1939.
After a busy war, he rose in the Fleet Air Arm to the rank of Vice-Admiral. By the time he retired in 1968, Gibson had held the three most senior
Fleet Air Arm appointments: Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers, Flag Officer Naval Flying Training, and Flag Officer Naval Air Command.
From the Telegraph, 29th November 2000:
Vice-Admiral Sir Donald Gibson, who has died aged 84, was one of the best, and the luckiest, Fleet Air Arm pilots of the Second World War.
During the Norwegian campaign
in the spring of 1940, he flew Gloster Sea Gladiator biplane fighters from
the carrier Glorious with 802 Naval Air Squadron.
Although hopelessly outclassed by the Luftwaffe, 802's Sea Gladiators achieved considerable success in defence of the fleet.
Gibson was one of 802's pilots
who flew ashore to Hatston in the Orkneys before Glorious sailed on her
last voyage. She and her two attendant destroyers
were sunk by the German battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau off northern Norway on June 8.
Of the 1,500 men in the three ships, there were some 40 survivors, none from 802.
Gibson then joined 803 squadron,
flying Blackburn Skua fighter-divebombers from Ark Royal. On June 13, both
Ark Royal's Skua squadrons, 800 and 803,
took part in a rash, ill-conceived bombing attack on Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Trondheim harbour.
This was nothing more than
an attempted revenge for the sinking of Glorious. Everything went wrong.
The attack, carried out in daylight and against fierce flak defence,
was an abject failure. Of 15 Skuas, eight were shot down and their crews killed or captured.
Gibson compared it to the Charge of the Light Brigade and said later: "In future all admirals should ideally be shot at in an aeroplane while they are still young."
In July 1940, 803 took part
in the operations against Vichy France at Oran, and then at Dakar in September.
Gibson was credited with sharing three "kills".
When Ark Royal went home for refit later that year, 803 joined the Mediterranean Fleet, flying Fairey Fulmar fighters from the new carrier Formidable.
In March 1941, the squadron
took part in the battle of Matapan. Gibson, having strafed the upper deck
of the Italian flagship, the battleship Vittorio Veneto,
returned and fell sound asleep. Three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers were sunk that night -
"Thus I can claim," said Gibson, "to have slept through the most important phase of the battle."
On April 18, when 803 were
flying air defence for the fleet on its way to Tripoli, Gibson led his
section to attack Italian bombers. His Fulmar was hit,
the dashboard disintegrated, the windscreen was covered with oil and he was wounded in the arm and thigh.
Trying to land on Formidable
with only one wheel down, he caught an arrester wire, pulled out his hook,
struck the island, skidded up the deck
into the starboard forward gun, and somersaulted over the bows into the sea - hearing the ship's screws as they passed overhead. He was picked up
by the destroyer Hereward, but his observer, Sub Lt Ashbrooke, was lost.
After 802's commanding officer
had gone down in Glorious, and his replacement had been shot down and killed,
in late 1941 Gibson became 802's CO.
As the Sunderland flying boat took him out to Gibraltar to take command, cannon shells went through the cabin where he was sitting.
But he survived to lead 802's Grumman Martlet fighters from Audacity.
He was again a survivor on
December 21 when Audacity was torpedoed and sunk by U.741 some 200 miles
west of Cape Finisterre
while escorting convoy HG 76, homeward bound from Gibraltar.
Gibson was to have joined
the escort carrier Avenger with 802 but was appointed Senior British Naval
Officer, Naval Air Station, Miami, instead.
He was on his way to America when Avenger was torpedoed by U.155 west of Gibraltar on November 15 1942. There were 12 survivors, none from 802.
Gibson's charmed life continued
after the war. In March 1949, when he commanded the 17th Carrier
Air Group, he was flying a Hawker Sea Fury fighter over the Channel,
leading some 60 aircraft from Theseus, Vengeance and Implacable on an exercise strike, when his engine stopped. He decided to ditch, hit the sea,
struggled to get out of the cockpit, felt a violent wrench on his left shoulder and then "peace, perfect peace". Apparently, his parachute had opened
underwater and plucked him out of the sinking aircraft.
Donald Cameron Ernest Forbes
Gibson was born on March 17 1916 and went to Woodbridge School, Suffolk.
He joined the RNR as a midshipman
in 1933 and served in the battleship Nelson and the destroyer Wanderer. He volunteered for flying and got his wings in 1939. He spent the last year
of the war on the staff of the Naval Assistant to the Second Sea Lord.
When he had transferred to
the regular RN in 1937, he was warned that he could never rise above Lieutenant
Commander, in which rank he commanded 780,
the training squadron at Hinstock, Shropshire, and served in the carrier Illustrious. Despite the warning, he was promoted to Commander out of Theseus in December 1949
and was Commander (Air) at HMS Seahawk, the RN air station at Culdrose, and in the carriers Indomitable and Glory.
Promoted to Captain in 1954,
he had a series of appointments which showed his ability: command of HMS
Goldcrest, the RN air station at Brawdy,
command of the destroyer Dainty in the Mediterranean Fleet, Deputy Director of the Air Warfare Division in the Admiralty and, in 1961, command of Ark Royal.
It was during Ark's hard-working
commission, at home, in the Mediterranean and in the Far East, that Gibson's
luck finally deserted him. In January 1962,
Ark Royal grounded in the buoyed channel while going up the Hamoaze to Devonport Dockyard. Gibson and his navigating officer were court-martialled
and reprimanded; but the findings and sentence were later rightly quashed, because a crucial buoy had been out of position.
As Rear-Admiral and then
Vice-Admiral, from 1963 until he retired in 1968, Gibson was one of the
last admirals who never flew his flag on shore, always at sea.
He held the three most senior Fleet Air Arm appointments: Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers, Flag Officer Naval Flying Training, and Flag Officer Naval Air Command.
It was a time of great stress
for naval air, with the cancellation of the giant carrier CVA01, seemingly
everlasting Defence Reviews, and a real danger
at one point that the Fleet Air Arm might become no more than a helicopter-equipped anti-submarine force.
In all the turmoil, the resignations
and the stress-related illnesses, Gibson provided a steadying influence,
ready to take on a new job at short notice.
Backed by a staff he trusted and supported, he fought the Fleet Air Arm's corner with admirable sense and steadfastness, and some success.
Although lacking the usual naval background of Dartmouth and Whale Island, he moved among other senior naval officers with the utmost confidence, as to the quarterdeck born.
He was appointed CB in 1965 and KCB in 1968.
In retirement, Gibson was
the first Director of the HMS Belfast Trust, and set up the organisation
which turned a "dead ship" into an invaluable gift to naval historians
and a successful tourist attraction. He was a JP in Barnstaple and for many years a member of the general committee of Devon Community Housing Society.
He published his memoirs, Haul Taut and Belay, in 1992.
Gibson married, in 1939, Marjorie Alice Harding, who died in 1996. They had a son.
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