Wing Cdr Patrick Gibbs: Air ace and journalist

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The Independent Online

"Dammit, man, we usually do this sort of thing on the grass," said the Wing Commander to Patrick Gibbs when he crash-landed his Beaufort torpedo bomber, heavily damaged after attacking the Italian battleship Littorio, and temporarily blocked the much-needed runway at Malta. It was June 1942 and the island was the key to the Mediterranean war theatre, controlling the flow of supplies to both sides. The heroic defence of Malta was dependent on the fighters who warded off the Axis bombers, and the Beauforts that attacked their supply ships. Patrick Gibbs was an outstandingly brave commander of the latter, with a shrewd grasp of both their tactical deployment and strategic importance.

Gibbs had grown up in Cardiff, where his father, Reggie Gibbs, was a ship-owner, but more famous as a hero of Welsh rugby. His son also excelled at rugby, squash and tennis, both at school at Oundle and at Cranwell, the RAF College, to which he won a prize cadetship in 1934. In between he went to France, from the still-new Hendon airport; it was there that he fell in love with flying. He went into the RAF in 1936, and was soon seconded to the Fleet Air Arm, flying Swordfish planes from aircraft carriers, and gaining his first experience of launching torpedoes from the air. At the start of the Second World War he was based at Gosport, training others in this hazardous task, but in 1940 he was posted as Flight Commander to 22 Squadron, flying the new Beauforts.

Gibbs spent the next year on sorties against enemy shipping off the coasts of Holland and Norway, and bombing the Biscay ports. It was dangerous work; weighed down, the Beauforts were slower than the German Messerschmidts, and cloud was their only protection. But Gibbs's courage and skill paid off; he was awarded the DFC and promoted to Squadron Leader. After another six-month stint as an instructor, he volunteered for service in the Middle East. At the headquarters of the Air Staff in Cairo, he argued that torpedo bombers could play a vital part in starving Rommel's army of its oil supplies. Eventually he got his way and was posted to 39 Squadron at Sidi Barrani. On his first sortie on 4 June 1942 against an Italian convoy, he launched his torpedo from 50 feet and sank one of the ships.

His next sortie brought about his crash-landing on Malta. He soon realised the island's potential as a base and, on a swift visit to Cairo, convinced his superiors to let him fly Beauforts from there. He returned on 22 June, and between then and 4 July he led four more sorties, twice damaging and turning back convoys of crucial oil. Gibbs drove his crews hard, himself harder; on his last sortie his Beaufort was so damaged that he only just made it back, crash-landing again. His exploits earned him a bar to his DFC. Operation after operation followed throughout August; a convoy was destroyed, a vital tanker blown up.

By now the enemy was thoroughly on the defensive, on land and sea as well as in the air. Gibbs was exhausted and returned home in September, when his DSO for "exceptional skill and courage" was gazetted. While working at the Air Ministry the following year, he wrote an account of his life and career up to his posting to Cairo. Not Peace but a Sword was published by Cassell's, and was an immediate success, quickly selling 25,000 copies. But the strain of the previous year told on him, and he was invalided out as a Wing Commander in 1944. He embarked on a sequel to his book, but Malta was no longer news and Cassell's were not interested. He had had enough of flying, and the end of the war found him looking for something to do.

Already, he had invested with friends in a chain of launderettes. Another friend, an actor, introduced him to the actress Muriel Pavlow. She became a lifelong friend, and through her he met W.A. Darlington, the Daily Telegraph dramatic critic. Thanks to him, Gibbs began to write short notices of plays, novels and films as a stringer for the Telegraph. As the regular film critic Campbell Dixon was often ill, he took on an increasing amount of his work, and in 1960 succeeded him, writing reviews for the paper until his retirement in 1986. Gibbs admired good production and good acting, but had little interest in the industry as such, although he enjoyed film festivals abroad, especially in France and Italy, partly because they might throw up new and unknown talent, but also for their climate and restaurants.

Gibbs loved France; he spoke French well, and later owned a flat at Annecy whence he could ski. He was always on the lookout for good wine, buying it with a syndicate in bulk at auction. He combed the antique stalls in the Portobello Road market, and few Saturdays passed without a bargain being found. Most of all, however, he loved opera. He knew every opera house in Europe, and would travel to the most out-of-the-way Italian theatre if there was a chance of hearing some little-known piece.

He almost never talked about his war-time experiences, but he was surprised and delighted when a new publisher, Grub Street, expressed interest in his war-time writing, not only in Not Peace but a Sword but also its almost forgotten sequel. Few authors publish a second book almost 50 years after the first, but Torpedo Leader came out in 1992, followed by a reissue of its predecessor. Both had great success, and went through several editions. Torpedo Leader is to be specially reprinted in Malta later this year.

Nicolas Barker

Reginald Patrick Mahoney Gibbs, pilot and journalist: born Penarth, Glamorgan 2 April 1915; married 1947 Nina Dorothy Thruston (marriage dissolved 1959), 1960 Jane Eyre (one son, one daughter); died London 8 March 2008.