Robert Henry Maxwell “Bobby” Gibbes is one of Australia’s leading World War II aces and the pioneer of one of the first airlines to open up inland areas of Papua New Guinea. Born in 1916 in New South Wales, he joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in February 1940 as an air cadet and completed flight training that August. In early 1941, he sailed for the Middle East and was posted to No. 3 Squadron after reaching Egypt; he was to remain with this unit throughout his 2-year combat tour in North Africa. His squadron moved to Syria by July 1941 and began flying P-40B Tomahawks against the Vichy French.
Within a week, Gibbes shot down a French-built Dewoitine 520 fighter, to achieve his first victory in aerial combat. When the Syrian campaign ended in September, he returned to the Western Desert to take part in the Libyan campaign and achieved three additional victories before the year’s end. After converting to P-40C Kittyhawks, Gibbes became commander of No. 3 Squadron in February 1942 and soon shot down two more aircraft. In May, he had to bail out after being shot down by a Ju-88 rear gunner and broke his ankle and fractured his leg upon hitting the ground. With his leg still in a cast, he discharged himself from the hospital and returned to command the squadron 1 month later.
On 21 December 1942, he performed an “extraordinary deed of heroism” when he landed his aircraft in rough terrain deep within enemy territory to pick up a downed pilot. Discarding his parachute to make room in the single-seat cockpit, he lost a wheel on take-off, flew the 190 miles to his home base, and successfully landed. Less than 1 month later, Gibbes was shot down some 70 miles behind the lines and evaded capture for 3 days while walking through the desert to reach Allied patrols. Before his African tour ended in April 1943, he flew 274 operational sorties throughout the Middle East, achieved 10 1/4 confirmed and 5 probable victories, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Squadron Leader Gibbes eventually returned to Australia and flew Spitfire Mk. VIIIs in the Southwest Pacific until the end of the war. After flying for various private concerns after the war, he established Gibbes Sepik Airways in January 1948 and began operations out of New Guinea with surplus war aircraft. For the next 10 years, his airline played an important role in the exploration and development of the Sepik River and central highlands of this area.