Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration: Antonis Karydis
Cat. No. 84154
Squadron Leader Henry Maxwell Gibbes DSO, DFC & BAR and OAM was one of Australia's top fighter pilots. Due to his stout build, Bobby Gibbes was known as “the barrel that walks”. As commander of No. 3 Sq RAAF he achieved 10.25 victories in MTO. His opponents included not only German and Italian pilots, but a Vichy France’s pilot. who fought for Vichy France. He left his command post in April 1943 after completing 274 combat sorties. Gibbes was eager to pilot the Mosquito and flew 25 hours, because he was to become commander of the RAAF's night fighter No. 464 Sq. Instead, however, he was transferred to Australia as Chief Flying Instructor to No. 2 OTU. He returned to combat service in October 1944 as deputy of legendary Clive Caldwell, commander of No. 80 Wing RAAF. At that time the Wing consisted of No. 452 and 457 Sq RAAF both armed with Spitfires Mk.VIII. In December 1944, parts of the Wing were gradually moved to the island of Morotai in the northern part of present-day Indonesia. Gibbes did not take part in this transfer, having suffered burns in an emergency landing at Sattler airfield on 5 December. But every cloud has its silver lining, at the hospital he met a nurse he courted for two weeks, and their wedding took place at the end of January 1945
Morotai Island was important to the Allied advance into the Philippines. Therefore, in mid-September 1944, American and Australian troops had made a landing there. The small Japanese garrison, outnumbered 1:100, was pushed into the less important parts of the island. Work began immediately on the two main airfields, which were completed in October. The Japanese, however, would not surrender and the fighting didn’t stop before the end of the war. In the months following the landings, Japanese airmen conducted a series of night raids on the island, for which Allied fighter units found virtually no effective defence. Japanese bombers destroyed or damaged over 70 aircraft.
Caldwell's Spitfires at Morotai encountered enemy aircraft only once. The pilots had to attack insignificant ground targets on the surrounding islands. As a result, in the attack on the Philippines, the Australian airmen remained aside from the main war zone, and it led to their growing frustration. They were not happy with the deployment of their high-altitude Spitfires in the role of strafer. Nevertheless, they tried to suggest modifications that would make this role easier. However, some of these were rejected.
Work to prepare facilities for Australian troops on Morotai Island was not going ideally either. American engineer units were in charge, but the pace was very slow. So, Caldwell and Gibbes decided to speed up the work with illegal supplies of alcohol. However, they were denounced and both officers were court-martialed and reduced in rank.
Gibbes rejoined the unit in March 1945 after recovering and flew 44 combat sorties against isolated Japanese positions. During one of these, on 4 April, he was wounded in an attack on Ternate Island. Anti-aircraft gun fire hit the Spitfire's starboard radiator, machine-gun hits damaged the port wing and several splinters struck Gibbs' right thigh.
Gibbes later recalled that he saw no purpose in these combat operations. He even stopped seeing the point of continuing to serve in the Air Force. He especially disliked shooting at cattle. He had previously worked on a farm and shooting at animals with a Spitfire literally made him sick.
He was not alone with these feelings on Morotai and so he joined Caldwell and six other officers in an unprecedented move in RAAF history. Together they submitted their resignations with a postponement until after the fighting was over. The command tried to sweep the matter under the carpet, not willing to address the issues, and wanted to persuade the officers to withdraw their resignations. This motivated the mutineers to change the validity of the resignations to immediate. Eventually, this led to an inspection from Australia. This resulted in the replacement of part of the 1st Tactical Air Force command, the correction of problems, and a gradual improvement in morale. Bobby Gibbes was later reinstated to the rank of Squadron Leader and left RAAF in 1946. His civilian air life was no less colourful than his wartime service. In 1994, he published a biographical book, You Live But Once.