The Collection of Second World War and Modern Gallantry Awards formed by the late William Oakley
Date of Auction: 12th December 2012
Sold for £78,000
Estimate: £60,000 - £80,000
George Cross (No. 4445289 Sgt. Michael Gibson, R.E., 22nd January 1941), in its Royal Mint case of issue; Defence Medal and War Medals 1939-45, together with original embroidered Bomb Disposal UXB sleeve flash, and Durham Light Infantry and R.E. cap badges, extremely fine (6) £60000-80000
FootnoteG.C. London Gazette 21 January 1941:
‘For most conspicuous gallantry in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner.’
The original recommendation states:
‘On 14 September 1940 a large unexploded bomb fell in an important factory. Excavation supervised by Sergeant Gibson was begun, during which time another bomb which had dropped nearby exploded. Despite the knowledge that the bomb on which he was engaged was of a similar type the N.C.O persevered and eventually the bomb was uncovered. On uncovering it an unusual hissing noise was heard coming from the bomb, whereupon Sergeant Gibson sent his men away and immediately set to work on the fuse. This he extracted safely and the bomb was eventually removed. His prompt and courageous action saved a very dangerous situation.’
Michael Gibson was born at Chopwell, near Gateshead, in June 1906, the son of a miner. Himself employed at Chopwell Collery, and a pre-war member of the Durham Light Infantry (Territorials), he was in fact seconded to the Royal Engineers soon after the the outbreak of hostilities, and, in July 1940, was posted to the newly formed No. 9 Bomb Disposal Company. Originally based in Birmingham, the Company comprised seven officers and 160 other ranks, and was charged with rendering safe UXBs and mines in areas way beyond Warwickshire’s borders, including Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire.
Such was the shortage of qualified officers in those early days of bomb disposal work, that N.C.Os were often left to deal with UXBs, and, as cited above, Michael Gibson found himself leading just such an enterprise on 14 September 1940 - his prompt and extremely gallant work saving an important factory in Coventry.
The recommendation for Gibson’s decoration was submitted to Brigade H.Q. on 6 October 1940, just 12 days after the George Cross came into being, the King having signed the relevant Royal Warrant on 24 September. No surprises then that he was originally recommended for the Empire Gallantry Medal, though not before the well-meaning - but patently misinformed - C.O. Birmingham and South Staffordshire District had proposed the Military Medal: in short, Gibson’s G.C. must be one of the very first to have been approved.
Contemporary sources suggest that Gibson was a member of No. 68 Bomb Disposal Section, a component of No. 9 Company,commanded by 2nd Lieutenant A. F. Campbell, R.E., and future events certainly confirm that contention. Thus, as an experienced N.C.O., he was most probably present on the occasion of Campbell’s G.C.-winning exploits at Coventry on 17 October 1940. The recommendation for the latter’s award states:
‘2nd Lieutenant Campbell was engaged with his section [No. 68 Bomb Disposal Section] on the removal of a 250-kilo unexploded bomb at the Triumph Engineering Co’s Works, Coventry, situated in the centre of the city. This bomb had caused cessation of war production in two factories involving some 1,000 workers, and the evacuation of a number of residents. For this reason, 2nd Lieutenant Campbell worked practically without rest for nearly 48 hours until the bomb was removed.
On Thursday 17 October, the bomb was finally exposed and examined by 2nd Lieutenant Campbell - it was fitted with a delayed action fuse which it was impossible to remove. He decided to remove it to a safe place for destruction. Recognising the extreme danger involved, he removed the bomb by lorry for a distance of approximately a mile, himself lying along side the bomb listening for action by the clockwork mechanism. The bomb was disposed of.
He was thoroughly experienced in the work of bomb disposal, and knew exactly what risks he was taking. In view of all the circumstances, his instant decision to act as described and complete lack of consideration for his personal safety constitute an act of gallantry of the highest degree and I strongly recommend an immediate award fitting to the act.
It is with deep regret that I have to report that this officer was killed the following day (18 October) while dealing with another bomb.’
In fact Campbell’s section was annihilated on the 18th, when a UXB detonated on being unloaded from a truck on Whitley Heath, an incident to which Major A. B. Hartley refers in his famous history, Unexploded Bomb:
‘The condenser of the Type-50, anti-handling fuse can hardly have remained charged so long after the bomb’s descent, though comfortable theories about the maximum active life of German E.C.R. fuses were early challenged by a disaster at Coventry where an unexploded 250-kg. bomb which had fallen in Chapel Street was uncovered eighty-one and a half hours after it had fallen. The fuse was of - apparently - the simpler electric variety but was so battered that the officer called on to deal with the incident, 2nd Lieutenant Campbell, could not remove it. However, after using the Crabtree discharger he judged that the condensers might reasonably be believed empty, and since the bomb could not be exploded in situ loaded it into his truck and departed to the stretch of open country earmarked as a bomb cemetery. The journey was successfully accomplished but on unloading the bomb exploded, killing Campbell and all six soldiers of his squad [Gibson among them].
Like that of the three at Bexley, the death of these seven men is typical of the sort of casualties sustained by bomb disposers up and down the country, and although in such instances there was often little practical evidence left of the cause of the detonation which had wiped them out of existence, they were far from dying in vain. It was only the resolution shown in the face of repeated. long-drawn-out hazards that made an advance of knowledge and eventual success possible. Unless both men and officers had been ready to accept such risks as a matter of course there would have been no salvaged specimens available for research.’
Gibson’s widow, Elizabeth, was informed of her husband’s death while with her two children in an air raid shelter.
A memorial plaque, set in stone, and erected by the Whitley Local History Group in 2008, today marks the spot where the bomb detonated, the inscription stating:
‘In Memory of the Seven Men of the Royal Engineers 9th Bomb Disposal Company Who Lost Their Lives When an Unexploded German Bomb Removed from the City Centre Exploded Whilst Being Unloaded Near This Spot for De-Fusing on Whitley Common on 18 October 1940:
2nd Lieutenant A. F. Campbell, G.C., Age 42
Sgt. M. Gibson, G.C., Age 34
Sapper W. Gibson, Age 22
Sapper R. Gilchrist, Age 23
Sapper J. Plumb, Age 25
Sapper R. W. Skelton, Age 20
Driver E. F. Taylor, R.A.S.C., Age 32’
Following a funeral service at Coventry Cathedral on 25 October 1940, they were buried in a collective grave in Coventry (London Road) Cemetery.