30 July 2014

And now more than 4,000 for the month!

Thank you!  The website has ticked over 4,200 pageviews for the month.  Indeed, it has romped past the previous record month which, incidentally, was last month!

I still reckon half of the visits are mine - ha ha - but I still hope more and more people (or bots) are looking into these books.

I'm currently enjoying Anthony Cooper's Kokoda Air Strikes which looks at the 1942 Allied air operations in the Pacific theatre as one campaign and their effect on the Japanese advance along, and the Australian defence of, the Kokoda Track.  The book contains a surprising amount of personal details despite being very much a big picture work.  What really stands out is the insistence of the USAAF to persevere with largely ineffectual high altitude bombing against pinpoint targets, the inability of the stretched Japanese bomber and fighter force to maintain pressure on the Moresby airfields complex when they it was at its most disorganised (or any time for that matter) and, regarding that disorganisation, the sheer determination of the air and ground crews of both sides to persevere when supply lines were poor, equipment struggling and the weather frustrating.  It is certainly a study of men and machines up against it (with a bit of unrealistic expectation from headquarters thrown in for good measure).  As always, the author's style of writing, that which served him so well in Darwin Spitfires, means you make a lot of progress through this large paperback in short order ... and it's an education despite the familiarity.

New South have certainly done well with this genre as one of their latest signings, Kristen Alexander, has released photos of an advance copy of her new book Australia's Few And The Battle Of Britain.  The design from cover to cover is the best I have seen for some time and certainly looks like it was put together by someone who completely understands the subject matter.  This will be a special addition to any collection.

On top of all of this Steve Darlow's Fighting High has fired out three books in quick succession.  Mosquito Down, D-Day: Failed To Return and Henry Maudslay Dam Buster (check out the cover of the latter ... can you see the Lanc over the breached dam ... very clever!) are all hardbacks of typical quality from the publisher that sets the standard on the international market.  There's more to come from Fighting High in the next couple of months too.

Edit (Aug 26): sadly, I've since discovered the site is being spammed by two other blogger-based blogs.  Somewhat deflated as I have yet to work out how to block them but, for the time being, I'll keep plugging away.  What is a bit diconcerting is that these 'false' stats can cause the site to slow down and, consequently, be ignored by the search engines.  Again, thank you for your support.  It means even more to me now!

24 July 2014

30,000 up!

I noticed earlier this week that the visitor counter on the website's front page was above 29,900. For some reason July has seen it move incredibly quickly. June was the site's best month for pageviews but all of July, so far, has produced 100+ pageviews a day. This is wonderful but I am somewhat mystified as to why as, despite my best intentions, I have, as usual, posted nowhere near as much as I would have liked in the past few months.

One thing I am sure of, however, is my immense gratitude to you all for visiting the site as you research particular World War 2 RAF and Commonwealth aircrew books. Thank you for your support and shared enthusiasm for wanting more people to learn about what these amazing men did.

I visited Hyland's Bookstore in Melbourne, Victoria (Australia) today and was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of several new titles that I have yet to hunt down. There is still a good number of new books (and some new editions - The Bomber Command War Diaries and They Gave Me A Seafire to name a couple) arriving on the shelves regularly. This is a great sign of a continuing, perhaps growing, interest and awareness in the genre. Admittedly, it has always been relatively popular due to the prevalence of restored aircraft from the era and the enduring legacy of the Battle of Britain, Bomber Command, the Dams raid and many other operations. It is now, however, in the twilight years of many veterans that, as their numbers dwindle, we run the risk of the greater population 'moving on' to something else. This will ne particularly so when the people who were alive to meet the veterans take their turn to be elderly.

Happily, while the people may come and go, the written word, in some form or the other, will continue. Books are wonderful and sharing the love for them even more so. As I have said before, this site is but a mere minnow on the net but look what it has done and keeps doing. Yes, I put the content there but it is you who reads it and spreads the word. Without its readers, Aircrew Book Review would just be some bloke dribbling about events from 70 years ago as written by others (well it is anyway!).

Thank you again. Here's to 100,000.

04 July 2014

Pathfinder Cranswick - Michael Cumming

I came to the story of Alec Cranswick quite by accident.  As I’ve mentioned before on ABR, I was reading Chris Ward’s 6 Group Bomber Command and came upon reference to Cranswick, the number of ops he’d flown and his dog, Kluva.  At the time I was heavily involved in an excellent, but now defunct, Commonwealth forces-focussed internet forum so I asked the question there.  Numerous responses ensued, it became apparent a book had been written in the ‘60s and, although he didn’t make his identity immediately known, author Michael Cumming posted about the ongoing history of the book.  In short, it had been reprinted twice, become a well-regarded classic, updated with new information and was about to be released as an e-book.

I could not justify the exorbitant prices being asked for the first edition nor could I, try as I might, get hold of the more affordable self-published 2005 (??) edition.  In the meantime I had been chatting with the author and became fascinated with, and a keen supporter of, his mission to keep the Cranswick story alive for future generations.  The e-book was his latest effort and was certainly a cheaper way of producing a new book.  Resigned to having to read an electronic copy, I bought and downloaded the e-book to the iPad and got stuck in.  This is where the journey really began as I was drawn into a remarkable world of dedication and phenomenal determination.

Coming out the other end, my head swam with the sheer feat of flying 107 bombing operations.  I found I recalled small details easily because the writing was honest and straight-forward yet managed to breathe life into things from deep within Cranswick’s soul.  However, the e-book was too clinical a medium.  There was passion and warmth here that needed to be in print in the most beautiful format there is – the hardback.  The end result is the 50th anniversary edition – released in May 2012.  There are few aircrew-related hardbacks that surpass this beautifully-produced book.

Alec Cranswick was born in 1919 in Oxford but this is not when we first meet him.  Instead the reader’s introduction to this gentle but determined man is at the controls of a Lancaster as he waits, somewhat impatiently, for the green Very light that will send him and his crew on their way for the night’s op – this time to the Villeneuve-St.-Georges marshalling yards near Paris.  He is on his second tour with No. 35 Squadron of the Path Finder Force.  This opening chapter is the perfect study of an experienced Pathfinder crew and paints a picture of professionalism, efficiency and effectiveness.  For all that, though, for all the experience, for all the punctuality almost to the second over the target, this was to be their last operation as a crew and, for six of them, their last night alive.  They were a remarkable crew but, really, their loss was anything but.  Like so many before them, and so many after, they fell victim to a night fighter.  Experience could only count for so much.  Luck always played a large part.  This crew had the experience covered – both gunners had flown more than 30 ops, the bomb aimer had earned the DFC and Cranswick, DSO DFC, the quiet journeyman who just wanted to get on with the job, was flying his 107th operation.  His luck, for so long a companion in the cockpit, abandoned him that night.

Cranswick grew up a happy child with a surprising grasp of the world around him from early on.  The inclusion of a poem, written at the age of six, is proof of this and is of a quality you will never find here (!).  Aviation was prevalent as Alec’s father, a WW1 veteran, realised his dream in the early 1920s and joined the RAF.  This, sadly, did not end happily as he was killed in a mid-air collision in 1928.  It was, of course, a turning point for the young Cranswick.  He was now the man of the house but he also knuckled down at school to ensure he and his mother and sister had a future.  This, combined with the equally determined saving of his mother, allowed him to eventually attend St. Edward’s in Oxford.  The school has a close association with the RAF and, when Alec graduated to become an Old Boy, he joined a group that included Douglas Bader, Guy Gibson, Adrian Warburton and other remarkable men.

Cranswick, somewhat enamoured by the Mounties of Canada, joined the Metropolitan Police in 1937 but found the work depressing.  It was clear war was coming and he saw this an opportunity to finally realise his dream of flying for a living.  When war finally came, and Bomber Command was making its first leaflet raids and attacks on strictly military installations, Cranswick was building hours on the Tiger Moth as a newly-minted RAF recruit.  With barely 50 hours in his logbook he opted for multi-engine training as he saw the bomber as the most effective way to take the fight to the enemy.

Wellingtons were the ‘big’ bomber of the RAF at the time and Cranswick was fortunate, after training on them, to be posted to No. 214 Squadron in Suffolk as a second pilot.  This was mid-1940 and before the four-engined heavies flown by one pilot with assistance from a flight engineer.  Our man was expected to fly operations with a more experienced pilot until deemed fit to lead a crew, and a new second pilot, himself.  At the age of 20, after just eight ops, Cranswick was given this opportunity after proving himself a competent pilot and, most importantly, incredibly reliable and cool under pressure.  Twenty years old, 300 hours in his logbook and flying over Occupied Europe in the dark.

His tour with 214 was by no means an easy one.  Cranswick’s determination to find and hit the target was often tempered by hitting an alternate but more than once he pressed on and on to get the job done.  It was his duty.  He was certain that what he did would help shorten the war even in the dark days of late 1940.  RAF Bomber Command was by no means the ruthlessly efficient machine it was to become in the near future.  Small forces of bombers were sent out and, affected by the defences, performance, weather and experience, many crews often found themselves bombing alone over what they thought to be the target.  Everything was, for want of a better word, rudimentary.  Everything, that is, except for the men in the bombers.  They pressed on and crews like Cranswick’s survived flak damage, forced-landings on decoy airfields, icing and even accidentally switching on the landing lights while over the target!

Cranswick dreaded the thought of being taken off ops at the end of his tour and, as an indication of his leadership, his crew did not want to be broken up.  Volunteering for a posting to the Mediterranean seemed the thing to do.  After some false starts, and a long flight to Malta, the crew joined No. 148 Squadron and flew on ops attacking mainly enemy airfields and shipping with particular success against Italian warships.  Cranswick found Malta’s history fascinating and immersed himself in the culture and was inspired to write a poetic tribute to the island’s stoic population.  What he saw in their courage and determination to keep on was a reflection of himself.

A move to North Africa proper saw a number of ops in support of the land campaign before Cranswick was unable to escape the inevitable and was posted for a rest.  Happily, he was to keep flying by ferrying aircraft along the Takoradi route.  Starting on Africa’s Gold Coast, the aircraft, having been delivered by ship and assembled, would be delivered to operational units on the other side of the continent.  Shortly after arriving at the coast, however, Cranswick was struck down by malaria.  Several bouts of this debilitating disease, and then scarlet fever, would not see him active, flying or otherwise, for more than a fortnight at a time and this went on for almost six months.  If anything, it was an enforced rest but the effects of the malaria in particular would continue to plague him.

Cranswick gratefully returned to ops with his old 148 Squadron in October 1941 and passed his half-century in terms of bombing sorties flown.  He was to experience another enforced rest when he was posted home.  He returned to a Bomber Command that was very different to when he had left.  Technology, navigational aids and greater co-ordination were making their presence felt.  This only served to increase Cranswick’s desire to return to operations.  He was not, however, in good health.  Until he was fully fit he was, despite his protestations, charged with instructing on the Liberator and also delivering motivational speeches to factory workers.  He missed flying on operations though.  Although he had had some close calls and seen things that still haunted him, ops seemed to be the solution to, and cause of, his problem.  It was not that he needed a ‘fix’.  He felt he had not done his job and there was much, much more work to be done.

Finally, he was posted to a Halifax conversion unit, where he met his rear gunner and navigator (men who would be with him almost to the end), and then to No. 419 Squadron RCAF as the all-Canadian No. 6 Group formed.  Cranswick’s experience and illness had changed him.  The determination was still there, of course, but he was now more reserved preferring the quietness of his room and classical music instead of the general melee that was the mess or local pub.  It was a measure of his strength of character, and his leadership in the air, that his desire to keep to himself was not questioned or criticised by his crew and peers.  His was an existence of contemplation and intense focus on the job at hand.  He was not without a sense of humour or compassion, however, as evidenced by his German Shepherd puppy, Kluva, who, in early January 1943, had his own logbook and a good dose of flying experience.  Kluva was soon to become well-known with another squadron when Cranswick, having volunteered himself and his crew, joined No. 35 Squadron and the Path Finder Force.

To be continued … my eyes are falling out of my head but I HAD to post this on the 70th anniversary of Cranswick’s death.