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Humphrey Gilbert

Updated: Mar 18, 2022


Humphrey Trench Gilbert of Revesby, Lincolnshire, was born on November 3rd 1919. He was educated at Cheltenham College from January 1934 to July 1937.

He joined the RAF on a short service commission in early December 1937. After completing his ab-initio course at 7 E&RFTS, Desford on February 18th 1938, Gilbert went to No 1 RAF Depot, Uxbridge for a short induction course. He was posted to 9 FTS Hullavington on March 5th.

Gilbert was awarded his pilot's wings on 1st June 1938, completed his training and joined 73 Squadron at Digby on 17th September. He was sent to CFS Upavon on 23rd October and qualified as an instructor on 22nd December 1938. In January 1939 Gilbert was posted to 504 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force as Flying Instructor. On 3rd August 1940 he was posted from 9 FTS to 6 OTU Sutton Bridge.


After converting to Hurricanes, he joined 601 Squadron at Debden. Gilbert shared in the destruction of a Ju87 on 15th August, shared a He111 on the 30th, destroyed a Me110 on the 31st and was himself shot down over the Thames Estuary in Hurricane V7260. He baled out unhurt.

Gilbert destroyed a Me110 on 4th September. Two days later he was shot down by a Me109 over Mayfield. Again he baled out but this time he was wounded. He landed at Pembury and his Hurricane, V6647, crashed at Kippings Cross, near Pembury.


In late April 1941 Gilbert was appointed 'B' Flight Commander. A month later he was temporarily attached to 1422 Flight at Heston. He flew night sorties in a Hurricane, accompanying a Havoc in what were early tests on Turbinlite aircraft.


Gilbert was posted to 71 (Eagle) Squadron at Martlesham Heath on 3rd September 1941 as a Flight Commander. He was given command of 222 Squadron at North Weald on 1st November and on 23rd December 1941 he moved to Debden to take over 65 Squadron. When the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made their Channel Dash on 12th February 1942, the squadron was involved in combat with the German fighter cover. Gilbert destroyed a Me109 and damaged another. He shot down a Fw190 on a Boston escort to Hazebrouck on April 12th.


Gilbert crashed on 2nd May 1942 when attempting to take off from Debden in a Spitfire with the Controller on his lap. They were said to have been going to a party. Both men were killed (see Tony Bartley 'Smoke trails in the sky' and Geoffrey Wellum's description of the effect of exhaustion on pilots' behaviour).


Gilbert is buried in Saffron Walden Cemetery, Essex. The award of the DFC was gazetted after his death (29th May 1942).



Photo and text courtesy of Battle of Britain Monument website


(see Geoff Wellum on utter exhaustion:

“This fight started at 15,000 feet and those Krauts have forced me down a good 10,000. Well, at least I gave them a fight for their money all the way down, but where on earth has everyone gone? Over the sea now and going like a bat in the direction of Dover. I begin to feel not too good. I keep swallowing into my mask and my legs are trembling on the rudder bar. Everything feels heavy and, in addition, I have a splitting headache pain across the top of my eyes. Jesus, I feel dreadful. I slide open my hood and take off my mask and feel a little better. We are low over the sea and not wasting any time. Pulling up over the white cliffs I am home over friendly countryside. Gaining height, I set course for Great Sampford where I thump the Spitfire onto the ground. The silence when I switch off at dispersal is deafening. My God, it's good to be back in rural Essex.


We lost four during this show and Tony has crashed landed at Biggin, so a phone call tells us. Humphrey is waiting for me. He looks as knackered as I feel. It would appear that the squadron has been given a 48 hour stand down for replacement aeroplanes and pilots to arrive. My Spit has to go away for a monocoque to be fitted. Feeling totally drained, I don't want to talk to anybody so I go to my room. I am not what I used to be. Never have I experienced such a reaction. Haslett, Grantham, Davis and a new chap who only landed two days are no longer with us. Haslett my number two shot out of the sky and I feel a terrible sense of responsibility. Is it my fault Freddie has gone? Should I have seen those Huns a fraction earlier? Questions pumped through my head. I've just got to snap out of this so I go to the Mess while I managed to scrounge a very stiff Scotch.

The following day Humphrey Gilbert kills himself and the Controller. He died trying to take the controller to a party at White Waltham sitting on his knees in a Spitfire. How truly bloody stupid. What is happening to us? Tony is devastated at the loss of his close friend. He goes away for 24 hours and, whilst he is recuperating, replacement men and machines arrive….


Geoff Wellum ('First Light') on pilots experiencing utter exhaustion:


This fight started at 15,000 feet and those Krauts have forced me down a good 10,000. Well, at least I gave them a fight for their money all the way down, but where on earth has everyone gone? Over the sea now and going like a bat in the direction of Dover. I begin to feel not too good. I keep swallowing into my mask and my legs are trembling on the rudder bar. Everything feels heavy and, in addition, I have a splitting headache pain across the top of my eyes. Jesus, I feel dreadful. I slide open my hood and take off my mask and feel a little better. We are low over the sea and not wasting any time. Pulling up over the white cliffs I am home over friendly countryside. Gaining height, I set course for Great Sampford where I thump the Spitfire onto the ground. The silence when I switch off at dispersal is deafening. My God, it's good to be back in rural Essex.


We lost four during this show and Tony has crashed landed at Biggin, so a phone call tells us. Humphrey is waiting for me. He looks as knackered as I feel. It would appear that the squadron has been given a 48 hour stand down for replacement aeroplanes and pilots to arrive. My Spit has to go away for a monocoque to be fitted. Feeling totally drained, I don't want to talk to anybody so I go to my room. I am not what I used to be. Never have I experienced such a reaction. Haslett, Grantham, Davis and a new chap who only landed two days are no longer with us. Haslett my number two shot out of the sky and I feel a terrible sense of responsibility. Is it my fault Freddie has gone? Should I have seen those Huns a fraction earlier? Questions pumped through my head. I've just got to snap out of this so I go to the Mess while I managed to scrounge a very stiff Scotch.


The following day Humphrey Gilbert kills himself and the Controller. He died trying to take the controller to a party at White Waltham sitting on his knees in a Spitfire. How truly bloody stupid. What is happening to us? Tony [Bartley] is devastated at the loss of his close friend. He goes away for 24 hours and, whilst he is recuperating, replacement men and machines arrive…."

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