Obituary: Captain David Tibbs, doctor awarded military cross after parachuting into occupied France on D-Day

D-Day veteran Capt. David Tibbs (Picture: Jon Lewis/Newsquest)D-Day veteran Capt. David Tibbs (Picture: Jon Lewis/Newsquest)
D-Day veteran Capt. David Tibbs (Picture: Jon Lewis/Newsquest)
Obituary: Captain David John Tibbs, MC, RAMC, soldier, surgeon, author. Born: 10 March 1920, Croydon, London. Died: 16 August 2017, Oxford, aged 97.

Captain David Tibbs was among the first British paratroopers to be dropped into occupied France on D-Day, June 1944 and was later awarded the Military Cross for his work clearing the parachute drop zone while under heavy fire. He subsequently enjoyed a distinguished career as a vascular surgeon.

Tibbs may not have lived, or even seen any part of the war, had it not been for the quick thinking of the pilot flying their Douglas C-47 Dakota transporter. Having taken off from England, in the early hours of 6 June, serving with 225th Parachute Field Ambulance (225 PFA), part of 5th Parachute Brigade of the famous 6th Airborne Division, in command of a section of 20 men to be parachuted into Normandy, Tibbs, as number one jumper, was by the open door surveilling the advancing coastline.

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He recalled, “oddly seeing nothing, then seeing the breaking surf as they crossed over Normandy”. Realising “the jump” was imminent the paratroopers began to ready themselves when suddenly their Dakota banked steeply, taking evasive action to avoid an RAF Stirling bomber that was veering into their flight path. Everyone was sent sprawling across the floor.

Consequently, the paratroopers were slow to leave the aircraft and landed outside the designated drop zone. Only five men reached the pre-arranged rendezvous at Ranville, northeast of Caen, and wheat fields made the task of finding injured parachutists and glider-borne troops more difficult.

In charge of a dozen stretcher-bearers, Tibbs’ brief was to systematically sweep the Divisional Landing Zone and a Brigade Defence Zone and pick-up injured paratroopers, of which there were many. Despite the lack of cover and initially subjected to light machine gun fire and heavy sniping, during the first eight hours of daylight he and his men successfully collected all the casualties in the area, but two of his men were killed and four wounded in the process. During the subsequent intense battle to defend the airborne perimeter, with bullets whistling by and grenades detonating, he showed complete disregard for his own safety and the citation for his MC paid tribute to “his courage and leadership”.

A couple of days after D-Day the regimental medical officer of 13th Parachute Battalion (13 Para) was severely wounded. Tibbs replaced him and remained with the battalion for the duration of his Army service.

In August 1944, his luck ran out, however, when he was shot by a sniper while rescuing a wounded soldier from an exposed position. Fortunately, the bullet passed through his right shoulder, but it caused a severe haemorrhage; slowly, he managed to crawl to safety and was evacuated to England.

Born in 1920 in Croydon, south London, David Tibbs was the youngest son of Evan, a city trader and Mildred, a housewife. He had two brothers, who also passed away within the last past 12 months – Christopher, aged 100, and Ian, aged 98.

David attended Wallington County School in the London borough of Sutton, where he became school captain in 1937-38.

After university he trained at Guy’s Hospital, taking advantage of a wartime measure that allowed doctors to qualify six months earlier than the normal five-year requirement, an initiative intended to help the war effort.

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Upon qualifying he joined the newly formed parachute section of the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to 225 PFA.

After recuperating from his shoulder injury, Tibbs rejoined 13 Para in England before returning to the frontline in December to fight alongside the Americans to help defeat the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, eastern Belgium. This was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during the Second World War; it was a bloody affair, with both sides suffering heavy losses.

In March 1945, during the forced crossing of the Rhine, the massive Allied airborne drop came under intense anti-aircraft fire. Tibbs was dropped in a clearing, though many of his fellow parachutists, who had been dropped prematurely, landed in trees and were shot as they tried to free themselves, or were shot as they descended.

During the rapid advance eastwards to the Baltic Sea, to prevent the Soviets moving into Denmark, 13 Para passed close to the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The CO ordered Tibbs to take all the Conscientious Objectors serving with the battalion to the camp to witness the barbaric treatment and degrading conditions that had been endured by its inmates, particularly the Jews and Soviets where almost 20,000 Soviet PoWs and a further 50,000 inmates had perished, while under Nazi control.

With Germany’s capitulation in May 1945, 13 Para was posted to Singapore, Malaya and Indonesia, where it was involved in internal security duties.

Demobbed in 1946, Tibbs returned to Guy’s. In 1951, following appointments as a surgeon there and at Putney Hospital, for the next 10 years he practised at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and lectured in medicine at Durham University. He became very interested in vascular surgery and specialised in it, playing a notable part in its development.

In 1961 he moved to the United Oxford Hospitals as consultant surgeon in vascular and general surgery. He became a member of the Board of Governors and was a hugely influential member of the planning team for the new John Radcliffe Hospital.

During his time in Oxford, he was president of the Oxford Medical Society in 1979 and a clinical lecturer at Oxford University. He retired in 1985.

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In 2012, he received the Medaille d’honneur for being among the first parachutists to land in Normandy. Four years later, he was appointed Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, the highest decoration awarded by France. Last year, he was an adviser on a film being made about the heroic actions of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry on D-Day at Pegasus Bridge.

Tibbs released his memoirs, Parachute Doctor (2012), which also included the true but rarely reported fact that British Paras fought alongside the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. He also wrote two books on surgery.

In later life, Tibbs reflected on why the war had not affected him as it had others explaining, “I wanted to put it behind me and channel my efforts into a worthwhile career… but I became a workaholic, perhaps at the expense of my wife and children… I know the war, however terrible, hasn’t solved the problem of nations going to war though…”

Tibbs died at the John Radcliffe Hospital and is survived by his second wife Marie Ames, whom he married in 1968, after divorce from Patricia O’Meara, a nurse at Guy’s whom he had married in 1943; they had three daughters and three sons, ten grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, all of whom survive him.


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