Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Wing Commander Robert Henry Maxwell Gibbes
I rise tonight in this adjournment debate to pay tribute to arguably one of the most distinguished fighter pilots this country has ever seen: Wing Commander Robert Henry Maxwell Gibbes DSO, DFC and bar, OAM. Sadly, on 11 April this year, Australia lost another veteran from that very special generation of veterans of the Second World War in Commander Gibbes, but his military aviation legacy will live on forever. Bobby, as he was known, did not live in my electorate of Maranoa but did visit it regularly. However, tonight I want to outline for the permanent record of Hansard his extraordinary life and the lasting and indelible impact that he leaves behind in both Australia’s history and the history of Papua New Guinea.
In early 1940, Bobby enlisted in the air cadets where he learnt to fly and, during his short military career, he went on to become one of Australia’s most highly decorated aviators. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 28 July 1942 and a bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross on 25 May 1943. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 15 January 1943. Then, in mid-2004, Bobby’s service to Australia was recognised with an Order of Australia medal.
After Bobby completed his pilot training, he was posted to the 3rd Squadron in North Africa where, in his two years of service, he flew some 274 operational sorties and was credited with shooting down some 12 enemy aircraft. There were two events during this time which distinguished Bobby Gibbes as a courageous and dedicated pilot. On 21 December 1942, in a sheer act of heroism, Bobby landed his aircraft in very rough terrain behind enemy lines to rescue a downed fellow pilot. Bobby discarded the belly tank of the aircraft to lighten the load for takeoff and then his parachute to make room for his rescued mate in the cockpit. On takeoff, the aircraft wheels clipped the wadi trees and one wheel was subsequently lost. Despite the loss of the wheel, Bobby successfully landed the aircraft on one wheel. Less than one month later, Bobby was shot down in enemy territory. Two hundred and twenty kilometres from safety, he walked west, away from his airbase, for three days to outwit Rommel’s Africa Corps patrols. He was finally found by a British patrol and brought back to safety.
From North Africa Bobby returned to Australia and was posted to the 2nd Operational Training Unit. Here he flew operational training on P40s, Spitfires, Boomerangs and Wirraways. During a training flight his Spitfire crashed and Bobby received severe injuries and burns to his hands. The brighter side of this accident was his Red Cross volunteer, Jeannie, who helped care for Bobby in hospital. Jeannie later became his wife.
After World War II, Bobby went back to the land for a short period of time before heading to New Guinea in 1946, where he remained for many years. Bobby made a big impression on the people of New Guinea at that time, helping them to develop their country. He started by establishing an airline called Speik Airways, which he later sold in 1958 to an airline company which was eventually acquired by Ansett. It was time for another major change in Bobby’s life, so he decided to build a coffee plantation business followed by a hotel business in the Western Highlands of New Guinea. The people of New Guinea are forever grateful for Bobby’s pioneering efforts in the development of their country and the prosperity that flowed from his work.
On returning to Australia in his 60s, Bobby continued to fly planes until, at the age of 85, the civil aviation authority revoked his licence. He also built a licensed aerobatic Cri Cri aeroplane and sailed a 12.8-metre catamaran called Billabong from Southampton to Sydney. It was on that long journey home in that catamaran that Bobby was forced to make his first mayday call when he began to take on water.
Bobby is survived by his wife of 62 years, Jeannie, his two daughters, Julie and Robyn, and five grandchildren. On behalf of the Australian government and the people of Australia, I would like to offer my condolences, albeit belatedly, for their loss. Australia too has lost one of its finest fighter pilots, a passionate leader and above all a true blue Australian larrikin. Bobby Gibbes, you certainly lived once, but to the absolute fullest, and we salute you. (Time expired)