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Bernard McCormack: RAF Gunner

Shot Down W/C Guy Gibson VC

One of the greatest Allied heroes of the Second World War was killed by friendly fire, according to a posthumous confession by the man who pulled the trigger, uncovered 67 years later.

Guy Gibson, who won a VC for leading the Dambusters' 'bouncing bomb' raids, died when his plane crashed mysteriously while returning from a mission 16 months later.

Guy Gibson VC

It was thought at the time, and for decades following the war, that Wing Commander Gibson crashed after running out of fuel or flying too low. He was 26 when he died, his only identifiable remains a laundry mark from a sock.

But now a researcher for a new film of the RAF raids on the Ruhr Valley in 1943 has unearthed a taped confession made by a Lancaster gunner who says he shot down Wing Cdr Gibson's Mosquito fighter-bomber.

Sergeant Bernard McCormack was in a formation of 227 Lancaster bombers and 10 Mosquitoes in an attack on Germany in September 1944. Mosquitoes were sent on major bombing raids to act as Pathfinders for the bombing force, pinpointing the target with distinctive flares so the following bombers could aim their bombs correctly. They also acted as protectors for the bombing force against the nightfighters sent up by the Germans to protect their cities.

Gibson was in a Mosquito that night strictly against RAF practice which was to rest bomber crews after their tour of 30 operations. Gibson had completed his tour in Lancasters but had badgered his superiors into allowing him to continue his personal fight against the enemy by joining a Mosquito squadron.

As his bomber stream was returning to RAF Woodall in Lincolnshire, Sgt McCormack saw what he thought was a Junkers 88 nightfighter closing in on his aircraft and loosed off 600 rounds of machine gun fire, bringing it down over the Dutch town of Steenbergen.

When he was debriefed by RAF intelligence officers, he realised he had killed Wing Cdr Gibson and his navigator Jim Warwick. It is not known if this was conveyed to the Intelligence Officers and a cover-up ensued, or whether McCormack kept his secret to himself.

In any event, in the years that followed McCormack was wracked with guilt and he taped a confession, which he entrusted to his wife Eunice when he died in 1992. The cassette has now been found by TV documentary maker James Cutler, 62, after he contacted Mrs McCormack during research for the new film.

Referring to Wing Cdr Gibson's plane – or 'kite' in RAF slang – Sgt McCormack said on tape: 'All of a sudden this kite comes right behind us, twin engines and a single rudder, and it comes bouncing in towards us... so we opened fire and we blew him up.'

'When we got back we claimed a Ju 88 shot down. The following day we were quizzed again.' An officer asked him: 'What made you think it was a Ju 88?'

Sgt McCormack went on: 'We said it had twin engines and a single rudder. He said, 'So has a Mosquito. Supposing his radio and his radar was knocked out and he was lost and he spotted a Lancaster – he would only want to follow it home wouldn't he?'

'And it turned out it was Gibbo we shot down.'

Mr Cutler has also discovered classified documents in the Bomber Command records at the National Archives that back up Sgt McCormack's account.

One is the combat report from the crew of Sgt McCormack's Lancaster and the second is from the crew of another Lancaster on the raid which noted the 'kill'.

Mr Cutler, of St Ives, Cambridgeshire, has published his research into the incident in Britain At War magazine. He said: 'It could only have been Gibson's plane because the coordinates in these documents were right where his plane came down. I am satisfied 100 per cent that Guy Gibson was killed by friendly fire and 99.9 per cent sure that he was shot down by Bernard McCormack's plane. For Guy Gibson to be killed by friendly fire was a huge blunder.'

Guy Gibson VC Jim Warwick DFC, buried at Steenbergen, Holland

Recent Research Raises New Questions

25 July 2022

Respected author of the upcoming book Mosquito Men - the Elite Pathfinders of 627 Sqn, David Price, has been giving much thought to the currently accepted account and doubts have entered his mind. Though these are early days, we think he raises questions which merit further study and to this end, we invite readers to contribute their thoughts, analysis or information via our Helpdesk. David writes:

Although I concurred with the McCormack account in my previous book, The Crew- the Story of a Lancaster Bomber Crew, in research for my latest, Mosquito Men – the Elite Pathfinders of 627 Sqn (October 2022), I now have serious doubts as to some of the account. There are reasons to question the assumption that McCormack was involved with the loss of Guy Gibson’s Mosquito. There has been much debate on Gibson’s loss and three distinct theories remain.

The first is Gibson was shot down by McCormack and his crew. The second is that he ran out of fuel due to his unfamiliarity with fuel transfer cocks, and the third was that he was damaged by ground fire during his diving marking attack and subsequently crashed. It is possible a mix of these factors created a perfect storm.

Looking at the McCormack incident in more detail, it is worth examining the background and intention of Gibson’s flight. Gibson argued with his friend Charles Owen minutes before taking off from RAF Woodhall Spa about the route he would take. Gibson was under orders to fly the shortest route over enemy territory (due to his celebrity) which would involve a return through liberated France - a longer flight in all. Gibson maintained to Owen that he would fly back over Holland and normally this would mean a rapid mid to low-level departure and flight home from the target area.

The aircraft Gibson was operating was part of 627 Squadron and on altitude, 627 Sqn markers operated at 5,000 feet and dived to +/-500 to drop their markers. Gibson would be at this level. It was not common practice to climb back up to the bomber stream altitude, in this case 11,000 feet, the Mosquitos preferred to come back in 'clear air' - Gibson already implied he would fly back at low level. Some have suggested Gibson became lost and climbed, supposedly with navigation lights on. It seems unlikely that Gibson would be lost so quickly after departing the target area. He was a good navigator and Warwick was Squadron Navigation officer. He would also know how dangerous it was to approach a Lancaster from the rear in the dark.

Witnesses at Steenbergen say the Mosquito circled the town before crashing with a visible light in the cockpit area - possibly a fire or light in the cockpit. The crash site was compacted with an intense fire and not spread out as a mid-air explosion would create.

James Cutler who investigated the McCormack incident in 2011 says that there was a combat report from another Lancaster, identified as QR-V of 61 Sqn to corroborate McCormack’s account. However, the ORB for 61 Sqn shows no entries of air attack for the night – indeed others note no aircraft seen and one other that aircraft were seen but no attack took place. The Summary for that night – a different document, also says that no enemy aircraft were seen but flares from them were. Cutler also maintains that as part of the Mosquito were found at 12 feet depth, suggesting a high-altitude crash. However, the author has observed ground penetration to this depth at far lower altitudes and ground conditions are a key factor.

I have not seen any combat reports that tie in with this night – although they may not have been digitized yet. However, if combat reports exist, it would disprove a conspiracy theory that suggests the ORBs had been tampered with later. As the ORBs were submitted at month end and typed on site, alteration would have to be done and it would seem incongruous to go to that effort and then still allow the combat report to be submitted. Even if suspicions existed that the Ju88 report was in fact Gibson’s Mosquito, the idea that it could be proven later to the embarrassment of the Air Ministry seems far-fetched. It should be remembered too that ORBs were marked ’secret’, so there would be no need to alter them – they were not for mass-viewing.

Gibson's loss was obviously known to 54 Base, RAF Coningsby, but as the news was supressed, it is unlikely to have reached 61 Sqn by the next morning. Indeed, it took weeks for German authorities to realize that the Gibson they buried was the famous one. However, news of Gibson failing to return would circulate, but I doubt in this timescale. With missing aircraft, conclusions were reached slowly particularly as Gibson might have flown into France (as would have been assumed in orders) and landed at some remote location. There would be an assumption too that he might have been lost over the sea. There is the possibility of questions later – perhaps McCormack recalled these.

Other balancing information

Gibson had communications problems that night and there was a delay over dropping a red marker – the 627 Sqn Mosquito due to drop it was late due to an engine problem. Gibson had set up a triple colour system of bombing in different zones which was a new strategy, but proved confusing and led to delays. Gibson eventually lost patience and said he would drop the red marker himself. Ken Oatley (interviewed by the author recently) recalls Gibson saying he was going in, but no more was heard from Gibson. The red marker did not appear. Gibson had cleared the other Mosquitos to return, so his radio was working on this frequency despite other communications problems with the main force.

When Gibson’s aircraft crashed, reports suggest that a red marker was seen in that location. Although hang-ups were not uncommon, it may suggest Gibson was hit in the marking attack which also rendered his radio inoperable. It seems no further communications were heard from him after his dive. There are reports that one crew heard Gibson say he had engine problems – but this is vague.

Gibson’s crash at Steenbergen has been calculated as around 20 minutes after expectations given the likely time of departure of Gibson’s Mosquito from the target area. This might suggest a technical problem, like single-engine flight. This timing is in itself, vague, but ground witnesses said the Mosquito circled the town before crashing. This does not tie in with McCormack’s account of the attacking aircraft exploding. It should also be noted that engine failures on Mosquitos caused a large number of crashes. Some are convinced that this was a fuel starvation problem – but we shall never know.

Further research is necessary into McCormack’s confession in 1992. Questions remain and require clarification. Was he under the influence of end-of-life medication for example? Was McCormack’s memory confused? Was the shooting down another night? The author intends to pursue this line of enquiry in the coming months.

Readers with knowledge of the matter, or possessing other relevant information or analysis - be it document-based, informed opinion, conjecture or just a theory - are invited to contact the author. The more minds applied to this issue, the more likely we are to move the discussion forward. In the first instance, raise a ticket on the Helpdesk and we can proceed from there. All contributions will be acknowledged.

David Price is the author of :

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SY 2021-10-22
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Last Modified: 29 July 2022, 08:56

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