3 Squadron LIFETIMES

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Tributes for Wing Commander Robert Henry Maxwell "Bobby" GIBBES,
DSO, DFC and Bar.  OAM.

6 May 1916 - 11 April 2007

Bronze bust of Squadron Leader Bobby Gibbes in the Australian War Memorial. (AWM ART27625)


 Tom Russell often flew as Bobby's wing-man.  Tom's tribute below was read at Bobby's funeral at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church,
North Sydney, on the 17th of April 2007.

It's impossible to tell, in a few pages, the story of a man who flew on operations from June 1941 to May 1943.  - A man who flew two tours, consecutively, for a total of 247 sorties and 472 flying hours.

But here are a few stories of my time with him…

At Alamein on the 23rd of October 1942, the 8th Army, including our own 9th Australian Division, put up a barrage of 1000 guns, which was the beginning of the last push westward.  Early the next morning, I did my first operational flight as No.2 to the leader, Squadron Leader R. H. Gibbes.

Bob had given us a good briefing, he told me, "follow me, don’t do anything stupid, and drop your bomb when I do."

After the war I would tell Bobby that he survived because of the calibre of his No. 2s.  - And that I was the best of them all!

- He didn’t agree with that, and neither did Alan Righetti, who maintains that he was the best!  The thing that Alan and I do agree on, and believe, is: Bobby Gibbes was the best leader of a fighter-bomber squadron in the Western Desert; there was none better.  His service to 3 Squadron was extraordinary; never to be equalled.  It covered an unbroken period of 23 months.  An incredible effort.

Alan and I are the last surviving pilots who flew with Bob when we moved to El Daba airfield on the 9th of November 1942.  Alan was with Bob up until Alan was shot down (on the 22nd of January, 1943) and I'm the only one left who was with Bob until he handed over the Squadron to Brian Eaton in Tunisia, on the 14th of June, 1943.

Tom Recalls: "On the 26th May 1942, Bob’s aircraft was hit, he bailed out, hit the tail plane,
and broke an ankle when he hit the ground.  He was shot down another time, and walked back over FOUR DAYS. 
We had quite a party that night to celebrate!" 

[Dave Ritchie is looking over Bob’s shoulder.  AWM SUK10409.]

Bob always found the targets, he could read the Desert like a road map, and I still marvel at the skill he displayed.  On one operation I flew with him, we were at Amariya, just behind the Alamein line, and the job was to strafe aircraft on a BF109 landing ground.  We took off under strict radio silence, and flew out over the Mediterranean at nought feet to keep under their radar, until we had lost sight of the coastline.

After a while, Bob waggled his wings for us to turn left, and then, after some more time, waggled them for us to turn left again. As we approached the coast, Bob signalled for us to form 12 abreast, and climb.  - The drome was right in front of us!!

How did he do it?
For him it was easy. - He was that good!

Bob was very strict, he was “
The Boss”, but I always found him fair.  If he was displeased, he could tear a strip off you, and the next day you might get, “good show” for something you had done.

(L-R:) Tom Russell, Bob Gibbes, David Ritchie (obscured), Bob Ulrich,
 Rex Bayly (cap), Rod Mackenzie, Alan Righetti (in leather 'Irving Jacket'). 
[Alan Righetti Collection]

(L–R Rear:) Ron Matthews, David Ritchie, “Huck” Finlason, Andy Taylor, Doctor Stone, Garth Clabburn, Alex Richardson, Joe Holder, Rod MacKenzie,
Ken Bee, Reg Stevens, Rex Bayly, Norm Caldwell (dark shirt), Gordon Jones (with cigarette), and Pat Henwood (ground crew).
Front: Lloyd “Danny” Boardman - Keith Kildey - Bobby Gibbes - John “Donk” Bray.  [AWM SUK10410]

One night we knew there was going to be a very dicey job on the following morning, and I asked him, “Do you ever get frightened boss?”

He said, “All the time, Tommy…”

After the war, Sailor Malan (one of the top fighter pilots of all time) wrote,
“Once a fighter pilot loses his fear, he is of no use to the Squadron.”
  I later realised that what Bob had meant was that when a pilot is feeling fear, he's feeling aware, which makes him more able to do the job ahead, despite that fear.

When Tunisia fell, Bobby persuaded an Italian General that he, Bob, needed the General's Alfa Romeo more than the General did.

I can’t remember how it happened, but he gave me a lift to Tunis in the Alfa, where I was fortunate enough to “acquire” a very nice 1939 Chevrolet that had been in the temporary care of an American Colonel.  - Bob’s influence, I’m sure.

I was very proud to serve on 3 Squadron under Bob’s command, and to be part of a team in which every man, of whatever mustering, under Bob’s leadership, gave of his best for the good of the squadron.

There's no doubt that Bob’s contribution to 3 Squadron further enhanced its reputation, as the best fighter-bomber squadron of the Desert War.

Bob is flying a new type of aircraft now, a funny shape, white and fluffy, a little unstable, but it will get him there.

Happy landings, Boss.



June 3, 2004.  Legislative Assembly, Parliament of New South Wales.
Private Member's Statement by Andrew Humpherson MP,
NSW Shadow Minister for Justice and Shadow Minister for Emergency Services.

...I take this opportunity to speak about a significant contributor, pilot Bobby Gibbes, who is in the gallery with his wife, Jean, and daughter, Julie.

Last week, Bobby, who was a Second World War fighter ace, was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia ("OAM" - in the General Division for service to Aviation and to Tourism, particularly in Papua New Guinea), which was much deserved. 

...Bobby Gibbes' family has a long history in Australian politics and war-time events.  In 1842 the Gibbes family moved to Kirribilli Point to reside in "Wotonga", the house constructed by Colonel Gibbes on the site where Admiralty House [the Sydney residence of the Governor General of Australia] now stands.  Later, Colonel Gibbes lived at "Yarralumla", the property of his son Augustus.  "Yarralumla" was later converted and adapted to be used as the principal residence of the Governor-General , a high duty that it still performs. 

Bobby's friends, relatives and supporters last week celebrated the awarding of his Order of Australia.  But of all the remarkable achievements Bobby Gibbes has racked up in his illustrious career, his marriage to Jean, his "commanding officer and managing director", is probably the greatest.  On 23 January next year [2005] Bobby and Jean notch up 60 years of marriage, and I congratulate them.  I also congratulate Bobby on his contribution as a significant aviator in Australian history.

David Lowy shows Bobby's daughter Julie his Temora Museum Spitfire,
which reproduces Bobby's personal markings "RG". 
This aircraft was kindly made available for an evocative flypast over
Bobby's funeral in North Sydney on  17-4-2007.

Bobby's Australian War Memorial interview transcript, recorded in 1990, can be found here.

See also Bobby's "Australians at War Film Archive" video (2007)
(Many other references to Bobby in the AAWFA archive can be seen by searching the keyword "Gibbes"
- or the mis-transcribed "Bobby Gibbs".)

Bobby in June 1941, when he was a relatively inexperienced Flying Officer at Rosh Pinna, Palestine.  (AWM SUK14927)


The death in 2007 of 3 Squadron's most famous Commanding Officer from the Desert days of World War II attracted headlines right around the world. 
London Telegraph carried a concise and uplifting obituary - quoted below:

Wing Commander Bobby Gibbes, who has died aged 90, was one of Australia's greatest and most colourful fighter pilots.

Gibbes displayed outstanding courage in battle, and was never afraid to buck authority.  His exploits made him a household name, and on one occasion he was recommended for the Victoria Cross.

[...The Telegraph then relates the spectacular story of Bobby's rescue of Rex Bayly during the battle around Hun airfield, Libya, as told on our website
Adding the note that:
"During the First World War such exploits had been recognised with a VC, and Gibbes was recommended for the supreme award.  In the event he received an immediate DSO." ...]

Robert Henry Maxwell Gibbes, always known as Bobby, was born on May 6, 1916, at Young, New South Wales, and educated at Manly Public School (where one of his childhood friends was Roe Cutler, later to become Sir Roden Cutler, VC) and All Saints College, Bathurst. 

Fascinated by flying, he joined the air cadets; having lied about his height, which was just below the stipulated minimum, he began pilot training in 1940.  Since his ambition was to fly fighters, he deliberately failed his bomber training - and was fortunate to be transferred to fighters.

By June 1941 Gibbes was flying Tomahawk fighters with No.3 (RAAF) Squadron during the Syrian campaign.  He achieved the first of his successes a few days after joining when he shot down a Vichy French fighter over Aleppo.  In the Western Desert he proved to be a most aggressive pilot, attacking aircraft on the ground and in the air. He was promoted rapidly, and in February 1942 was appointed the squadron's commanding officer, a post he held longer than any other.

Once the squadron had re-equipped with the more capable Kittyhawk, Gibbes achieved more successes; but on May 26 he was shot down by return fire from a Junkers bomber and forced to bale out.  He broke his leg on landing but six weeks later, with his leg still in plaster, he was back in action.  Shortly afterwards he was awarded the DFC.

Three weeks after the daring rescue of his colleague, Gibbes was shot down for a second time after he had destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf 109. He crash-landed 180 miles behind enemy lines and, to fool the Germans, initially headed west.  Three days later, after he had walked 50 miles, he was picked up by an advance Allied patrol, greeting them with the words: "G'day mate, got any water?"

Gibbes led his squadron throughout the Battle of Alamein and the advance to Tunisia.  Finally he was rested in April 1943, having undertaken 274 operations.  He was awarded a Bar to his DFC.  Gibbes was credited with destroying 10 enemy aircraft and sharing in the destruction of two others, probably destroying a further five and damaging at least 16 more.  In addition he destroyed at least two on the ground.

Gibbes was also instrumental in recovering the first German Bf109G to be captured in WWII.  This proved invaluable for flight-comparisons with contemporary Allied fighters at the time.  Decades after the war, the 109 was restored to flying condition in the UK and Bobby Gibbes was invited from Australia in 1991 for the unveiling of the restored "Black 6".  Flown in displays by the Imperial War Museum at Duxford up until 1995, this irreplaceable piece of aviation heritage is now preserved permanently in the RAF Museum at Hendon.

Having returned to Australia to fly Spitfires in the defence of Darwin, he suffered severe injuries and burns to his hands when his aircraft crashed on a training flight.  He was nursed by "a little dark-haired popsy", Jeannine Ince, whom he married a year later.

In spring 1945, Gibbes led No 80 Wing during the South-West Pacific campaign.  But he and eight other senior fighter pilots became involved in the "Morotai Mutiny", when they resigned their commissions in protest at what they considered a move to sideline them from the main fighting theatre against the Japanese.

They were persuaded to withdraw their resignations, but Gibbes and two others were court-martialled for smuggling three bottles of whisky into their quarters; many considered this a trumped-up charge during a period of turmoil and split loyalties amongst the RAAF hierarchy.

After the war Gibbes established his own airline in Papua New Guinea, using war surplus aircraft, including three former Luftwaffe Junkers 52 transports, to develop links across the inaccessible highlands.  After selling the business in 1958 he went into the coffee and tourist industries.  By the time he returned to Australia in 1975 he had established in the region vast coffee plantations and the biggest hotel chain in the Western Highlands.  He was later awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his services in New Guinea.

Gibbes was in his sixties when he single-handedly sailed his 12.8-metre catamaran Billabong from England to Australia; on one occasion he escaped the attentions of pirates near Malaya by firing homemade petrol bombs from a modified signals pistol and faking a series of radio calls for assistance.

He was still flying in his eighties, when he built a miniature Cri-Cri aerobatic aircraft in his living room - although he had to demolish a wall after miscalculating the wingspan.  Gibbes flew the aircraft until the Civil Aviation authorities - much to his annoyance - grounded him when he was 85.

In 1994 he published his memoirs, You Live But Once.

[This London Telegraph  text has been slightly enhanced with some further information from Temora Aviation Museum]

Bobby with Squadron Engineering Officer Ken McRae. 
The nose-art depicts a kangaroo kicking a German-helmeted sausage-dog.

Jeannie Gibbes, Bobby Gibbes and Col Pay in front of the distinctive nose art applied to Col's vintage Kittyhawk, restored as Bobby's "CV-V".


One final tribute, from Bobby's dear friends in PNG ['The National', Port Moresby, 27th April 2007]: 

Farewell Masta Bobby


The news of Australian World War Two hero Bobby Gibbes' passing on April 11 saddens the people of Dei Valley, Western Highlands province, especially the tribes living around what it is now called the Mamgol (Treamone) Coffee Plantation, which he established during the 1950s.

History has that, Mr Gibbes was with a patrol team to Mala Patrol Post, not far from a naturally cone-shaped hill, he later named it "Treamone Hill" and built his residence there.

He negotiated and acquired the land from the Wallei and Kinjibl Tribes and established his first coffee plantation with a milling factory later and a cattle paddock on the valley including an airstrip (in used till early 1980's).

The oldies described Mr Gibbes (popularly known as Masta Bobby) as a very talented and an intelligent air pilot, who could swing his plane from side to side or upside down while in the air.  Stories of Mr Gibbes' shooting down many enemy war planes and making his own escape after having been shot down were well-told stories among the oldies, who considered Master Bobby their hero.

Mr Gibbes being the pilot and owner of a plane, was able to fly into the valley with cargoes-a large quantity of pearl shell (a very highly treasured and priced item those days by the locals) from the coast every month to pay his plantation labourers. Money was of no value then to the workers.  Mr Gibbes was seen by the locals as a source of their wealth, so they treasured and accorded him with great respect. Young men from all around came to work for "Master Bobby" in order to get paid a pearl shell a month's pay.

According to the oldies, Treamone Plantation was the hub of the shell trading economic activity in the valley. The pearl shell was used for bride price and Moka making activities along with pigs, so the shell was highly regarded and priced during those days in most parts of the Highlands.

Bobby Gibbes was described as a man who had a big heart for the local people whom he worked and associated with and resided among, without discrimination or grievances.  Stories had been told that he took village locals aboard his plane to various places, making them experience their first trip in a plane.  He would ask them to sing or make traditional message- sending shouts from inside the plane when about to take off or land.

After he sold his property and left, he was always remembered.  Many children born to his associates were either named after him or one of his family members.  Thus the names such as Bobby, Julie, Jeanie and Robyn are common names in the valley.

In the year 2000, an old, pale and wrinkled Mr Gibbes returned (this time as a tourist) to see the remains of his Treamone Plantation.  Despite some extensions, including a new factory built on his once popular aerodrome, the plantation was at the point of collapsing due to mismanagement.  The paddock, which once produced cattle with high quality meat and also won Mr Gibbes awards in the Highlands Agricultural Show Competitions, were nowhere to be seen.  The cattle paddock was overrun with bush after the last cattle were killed during a tribal fight in 1992.

The old coffee factory located at the foot of a small hill was covered under a landslide soon after Mr Gibbes "went finish".  The covering of a large coffee factory by a small landslide was believed to be done by magicians hired to do the job over compensation claims for a local man who was electrocuted by the fallen power lines of the coffee factory's generator.  The compensation paid by the plantation owners to the victim's Kinijibl Kamunga tribe was thought to be insufficient.

Looking at the sorry state of the plantation and the run-down coffee factory, Mr Gibbes told the onlookers (most of them were the younger generation) that if he still had the strength and energy, he would buy and revive the whole coffee plantation back to its former glory days.  Standing near to his once big workshop and road junction leading to his lovely Treamone Hill Residential Area, Mr Gibbes shed tears to show his respect for the establishment he laboured tirelessly for during his hey days.

He asked around for his collegues - the oldies - namely Kouru, Pena and Mel of the Wellei tribe and Rain, Mel and Worukl of the Kinjibi tribe.

He was saddened to hear that they had passed on.  However, Mr Gibbes had the privilege of meeting some of their children, who were small boys during his time there. 

Mr Gibbes' other business establishments in Papua New Guinea, including his own airline - "Gibbes Sepik Airways", were unheard of by the people in the valley.  Certainly, lack of education and language barrier could have limited and confined the people to their own physical world, rather than understanding the status of their hero in the outside business world. 

Stories were told that Mr Gibbes had requested his local colleagues to adopt their children and take them to the coast or Australia to school. He would bring them back during the holidays at his own expenses.  His suggestion was neither supported nor agreed to, because they feared sending their kids to the outside world, could mean giving them away forever.

Those kids, now grown-ups, deeply regret missing that golden opportunity of getting educated.

The people of the valley pay tribute to the great man, who was once their hero, an intelligent pilot, a brave fighter and a developer, who modelled and groomed them to be what they are now, from what was feared and considered to be a very swampy, mosquito infected valley, where no European would have liked to live in during those early days.  Master Bobby, we salute you.  Chief, we salute you.  May your soul remain in peace.

We send our belated sincere condolences to wife, Jeanie, daughters Julie and Robyn for a wonderful and a caring husband and father, the one who pioneered coffee growing in the valley, that brought a lot of changes to the lives of our people.

[The journalist WINGSTON WAN-RUIN is a grandson of one of Mr Gibbes' local associates.  He welcomes contact from anyone having old photographs and information on the local people of the Treamone Plantation, Papua New Guinea.]

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