RCAF Pilot’s D-Day Letter to Young Wife: A Timeless Love Story

From our June 2024 issue

Submitted by Kendall Gibson – Lethbridge, Alta.

The letter below was written to our mother, Marjorie, June 8, 1944, two days after the D-Day invasion at Normandy. We found it 70 years later, in 2014, among many other old letters written by our parents to one another.

Our dad, Gordon Gibson, was a reconnaissance pilot flying a Mustang. His job on D-Day was to fly up and down the coast of Normandy, over enemy lines, and parallel to the shore.

He was to radio back the ships to help instruct battleship guns where to aim. In 1944, technology didn’t exist for precision aiming. He would watch for tracer shells, see the shot land, then radio something like “…two degrees west, 300 yards further,” so the gunners could adjust their guns.

Dad was 24 years old and mom was just 19. They married just 4-1/2 months earlier and mom was four months pregnant with their first child. Every word below is exactly as he wrote it:

Marjorie and Gordon Gibson during WWII

‘We knew nothing until the evening before’

My Darling!
I suppose you are wondering what I saw the morning of the invasion. Well I can’t tell you what I was doing there but I think you can guess that. But I can tell that on the success of our efforts depended the lives of thousands of those boys down there in the landing craft. And I think we succeeded O.K. too.

It’s a good job you didn’t know what was happening to your hubby that morning or you would have died in your bed. Never! – if I live to be 300 will I ever forget that 5 hours on Tuesday morning! Never have I seen! and never again will I see! such a magnificent achievement – such a show! – such a hell on earth! as I saw between 5 o’clock & 10 o’clock that morning. Never again will I be so scared!!

We knew nothing about it until the evening before – when we were told the whole plan & our part in the actual landing operations. We were briefed that evening. I went to bed about 12 but I never slept a wink – I just lay there & thought & prayed & shook. I think everyone did. We were called at 3 a.m. Had breakfast & we were in the air at 5 am.

It was dark as pitch when we took off & low cloud about 1000 feet & raining like a son-of-a-gun. I was leading green section. We climbed up through the first layer of muck & set course for the E. Coast where we had to set course for our target areas. The moon was shining here & there through huge mountains of cloud. I couldn’t see the ground at all. I steered my course as best I could to a degree & to a few seconds of time. I left in cloudy England & headed south for France.

North American Aviation’s P-51 Mustang (above), similar to one flown by Gordon Gibson on June 6, 1944

It was still raining – we lit down to 2000 & came out into a clearer area & we could see the sea below. You’ve never seen ships until you’ve seen an invasion! I saw a thousand in 2 minutes! – hundred & hundreds! like little toys in a vast sea of dirty grey – all heading one way. The sky was filled with aircraft – literally thousands.

We kept on – in a few minutes I could discern the gun flashes 50 miles ahead. Like little fireflies flickering in the twilight. In a matter of minutes we were right in the thick of it. It was soul shaking. The battle was just beginning.

Hundreds of ship were shelling the shore batteries with all they’d got! – and more! Their gun flashes lit up the sky over the sea! – their shells rocked the coast like a tree in a hurricane. Pill boxes, shore guns, block houses went up in the air in dust like shovel fulls of sand.

In 30 minutes all hell broke loose on the coast. Thousands of bombers poured down a devastating rain of bombs in patterns – carpeting whole towns – roads – bridges – german emplacements! Villages & towns went up to 500 feet in dust – the bomb flashes rose to 1000 feet – a vivid yellowish – red flame of death! Everything was on fire! Towns, woods! – the whole coast line in 20 minutes was covered in the smoke of battle to 4000 feet! Petrol & ammo dumps blew sky high – sporting geysers of flame & billows of smoke like huge thunder clouds!

Troops of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade (Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry Highlanders) going ashore from LCI (L) 299 [Landing Craft Infantry], Bernières-sur-mer, Normandy, France, 6 June 1944 © Archives Canada Item number 3408540

The thousands of men came up in the landing barges their machine guns blazing low crimson arcs towards the shore – ! shells fell in the water all around – the german gunners on shore were trying desperately to stem the terrific over-whelm-ing flood that was overtaking them! The sky was absolutely filled with flack. Five minutes after I was in it – I felt sure that before another 5 minutes went by I’d be dead. I was sure of it!

For the first few minutes I was absolutely overcome. I was stiff in the cockpit – I couldn’t speak a word over the radio! To me there was only one place where there wasn’t any flack & that’s where my aircraft was. But somehow when we’d finished our task for that trip we were all still intact.

I don’t know how on earth Roy ever stayed with me! I could hardly see my targets at times! The whole area was covered in a pall of yellow-black smoke. The sky was aglow with fire & death. We got out & we flew back to our advanced base – refueled & 45 minutes later we were off again and again we were in that awful hail of lead. But if it was bad for us – it must have been terrific for the Jerries & for the boys down there in the barges.

And now my little gal – during the next 30 minutes is where you almost “had” your husband! At 6000 feet among all the confusion my engine stopped – of all places! I called up my #2 & told him to take over & finish the job – that I was going to have to crash-land in France. I picked a field & prepared myself for the bang! Why the Jerries never shot me to smithereens I dunno – I was a sitting target! By a stroke of luck or by the hand of God or something; on my last approach to the field at 500 feet I got the engine running – roughly – but running!

Somehow! – I can’t remember- I got back to England!! Never have I seen such a wonderful sight as the coast looked then! I got back to home base about noon & I wrote a short note to you & I went to bed. I was dead – tired – my eyes ached like fire – I was played right out!

Personnel of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade landing from LCI(L) 125 [Landing Craft Infantry],of the 3rd Canadian (264th RN) Flotilla on ‘Nan White’ Beach on D-Day © Archives Canada Item number 3191670

I have seen a bit of fightin’ – but never have I seen such a sight as Tuesday morning! – such an achievement – such a success! – against such odds! It was absolutely magnificent.

Someday – the people of the world will find out what has taken place really in that invasion & what will be taking place during the next few weeks. It is absolutely astounding! – I doubt if even when they know – if they’ll believe it!

It was a wonderful show – I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I am proud I was able to do my little wee bit to help it start on it’s way. If you wamta know the future honey – just put me to sleep & I’ll tell yuh – huh?!
They tell me this evening that they are making arrangements for 2 of us to have a day off per day – so that’ll give me a chance one of these nights to get me some sleep – perhaps. It’s a very wet night out to-nite – I forget whether you said you’d be calling or not to-nite.

Anyway I’ll be in if you do.

Gotta sign off now – my Darling – I love you – always & always – don’t ever forget that!
Always — Your Gibby XXXXXXX

P.S. My love to Mum!

Last page of letter written by Gordon to Marjorie

He was scared, forgot about reserve

Dad rarely talked about the war. One time, when we were alone in the car for a five-hour drive, he opened up a little about his experience during D-Day. He never mentioned this letter and had probably forgotten all about it.

He did tell me he was so scared that he couldn’t get any saliva to talk, spit, or whistle. He also told me exactly what had happened when his engine quit. He had actually run out of fuel.

He said he was so scared, he had forgotten the plane had a reserve tank. It wasn’t until he was about to land behind enemy lines, in German-occupied French territory, he remembered about the reserve tank. He simply reached down, turned the switch, and the engine started again.

I’m guessing he didn’t want to tell mom what happened in case she’d worry about him. Dad died Feb. 18, 2006. Mom died Jan. 1, 2015.

Dad rejoined the RCAF in 1953 and retired from it in 1964. He then opened Gibson’s Fish & Chips in Saskatoon, Sask. It’s still in the family and operating 60 years later. Mom always used to say: “Dad went from high flying to deep frying.”

Gordon Gibson at the Fish & Chips shop

Publisher’s note: Several of the publishing rules and style guidelines used to screen submissions have been set aside so we could publish this story. We do not typically accept third-party submissions, nor submissions over 700 words in length. We also do not accept stories submitted posthumously, nor do we publish anything unedited. These longstanding policies are in place to help ensure quality and consistency for all who submit articles for publishing. After careful consideration, we have decided a rare exception would be made in this instance, because of the historical significance of this letter. It is published unedited and may contain era-specific slang, spelling, and grammatical errors.

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