21 November 2014

Australia's Few and the Battle Of Britain - Kristen Alexander

For as long as books are written about aviation there will always be books about the Battle of Britain.  It is perhaps the one enduring ‘household name’ from the war.  Indeed, even its ‘stars’ – The Few, Churchill, Dowding, Bader, Spitfire, Hurricane – still roll off the tongue.  It must be considerably difficult, given so much has been written about this period of the war already, for an author to come up with a new angle that will be of sufficient interest to publishers and, of course, the target audience.  The key, however, is “The Few”.  The aircrew.  Every single one deserves to have his story told.  Many have.  Many haven’t.

Such was the impact of the RAF’s victory against the odds that the campaign still resonates with astounding clarity.  It is a popularity that has seen myths and tales repeated until they are accepted as fact before, thankfully, being debunked through good old-fashioned historical research.  This research, and the continuing interest in the subject matter, has ensured documents are re-discovered, or re-interpreted, and crash sites continue to be found.

The household names are such because, for the most part, they endured.  They added to their achievements beyond that summer of 1940 and provided future biographers and researchers with enough material to generate countless volumes of work.  Those who survived had a life after the Battle.  They had a voice with which to tell their own story.  What, then, of those who did not make it?  How can their voice be heard when, perhaps, it is hidden safely away in a shoebox in the cupboard of a still grieving widow or relative?  For many they are simply a name on a plaque or on a headstone.  A pilot of the Battle of Britain.

What was he like?  Why did he fly?  Was he married?  Who and what did he love?  Where did he come from?  Someone always remembers and that is how the lost are heard.  In the case of this book, realisation came before remembrance.  The author became inquisitive about the Australian involvement in the Battle after reading one of H.E. Bates’ classic works.  There followed a journey of discovery that produced astounding access to the personal papers and records of eight men who flew in the Battle of Britain and who are certainly not household names.  The result is a perfect blend of military and personal biography.  Now these young men have a voice again.

Crossman, Glyde, Holland, Hughes, Kennedy, Millington, Sheen and Walch.  All were Australians in the RAF.  Some learned to fly at Point Cook.  Others in England.  Some became aces.  Some earned the DFC.  One survived.

As expected, there is a lot of combat but these sequences are, as much as possible, told in the pilot’s words through snippets from logbooks and combat reports and judiciously selected comments from diaries and other musings.  This is, of course, what we expect of a book about the Battle of Britain.  What is expertly woven into the narrative, however, is exquisite detail of the personal lives of the men – their thoughts when on station, the evident tension experienced as time passed and fatigue grew and, most importantly, their experiences when not on duty.  Here we really learn who these men were. 

The most valuable material is, however, in the pre-war/pre-Battle narrative.  Logbooks and diaries are expected sources when writing about pilots in combat.  Discovering their lives before their greatest achievements requires a much more personal approach and a desire to tell the whole story and not just the exciting stuff.  The result of such in-depth research and analysis, lovingly so in each respect, is an understanding beyond anything official records will ever provide.  There is a reason why Kennedy never smiled in photographs, for example.  Yes, there is some reading between the lines but, given the extent of the source material at hand, it is very much an educated, informed and perceptive interpretation.

All eight men come to life as their lives are laid bare. The reader develops an affinity with each to the point where the losses are keenly felt.  Hughes, a phenomenally aggressive (Point Cook might still bear the scars!) and successful pilot and flight leader, particularly got under my skin as he built the foundation of a loving relationship and potential future family (he was, of course, not the only one to find love while overseas). The progressive losses set-up the final chapters as the stories do not end as seven men are shot down.  They leave behind families and friends who struggle to accept their shining light has gone.  This is where the writing really benefits from the author’s unsurpassed ‘eye for the personal’, as I like to call it, developed in her earlier works (Clive Caldwell Air Ace and Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader).  While the entire book is written with emotion and caring, the closing chapters are almost heartbreaking as each family unit comes to terms, more or less, with their loss over the decades that followed the war.  The immediate reaction by colleagues and loved ones to each death is recorded in the main ‘action’ chapters but the Battle moves on and, of course, so must the narrative.  The last few chapters, however, are a delicately and expertly assembled section of the book that serves to remind us that these men left so much behind.

Such sublime content deserves an equally well-crafted package to be presented in. As much as this is the author’s coming of age as an aviation history writer, the publisher has gone above and beyond in ensuring this book is well presented. Indeed, the sheer presence of this beautiful hardback demands attention on the shelf.  The hardcovers replicate the dust cover artwork and prove there is more to life than dark cloth and gold-embossed text.  The pages are clean and crisp, the text is (justified!) the perfect size for easy reading and the photo section, cut down from a large number of images the author had collected, happily focuses on personal and intimate images of the men rather than stock photos of Spitfires and Hurricanes etc.  The effort put in to the design and layout is evident.  Someone at NewSouth really understood what the book is all about.  Add the professional notes and index and we have an example from the very pinnacle of book design.

If I’m honest, and that’s what ABR is all about, I tend to steer away from books on the Battle and prefer to hunt down those from lesser known campaigns, battles, squadrons and theatres.  That summer of 1940, however, is what I cut my teeth on when I first ‘discovered’ the world of Second World War aviation.  It’s always there, in various forms, on my shelves, online or, most of the time, at a local bookshop.  Why then, in this world of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Battle of Britain books, and with the 75th anniversary just around the corner, would you buy this book over the others?  The question really should be “why wouldn’t you?”  From cover to cover it is the perfect tribute to eight Australian pilots and, hands down, the best-presented ‘package’ I have seen in a while.  It can be tricky, as the narrative changes to another ‘character’, to keep abreast with who’s who but this is really only experienced early on before the reader gets to ‘know’ each budding pilot.  The timelines of all eight are well managed and I hate to think of the headaches weaving them all together must have caused.  At a little over 400 pages of narrative, notes, bibliography and index, you’d think this would be a longish read but it flows so nicely, and there is always something to discover on the next page, that progress is swift.

Eight men have finally had their stories told.  It couldn’t have been done better.  I am bloody glad to have read Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain.  I am bloody glad to have it on my shelf.

NewSouth Publishing 2014
ISBN 9-781742-234151

April 30, 2015 - Now available through Pen & Sword in the UK!

07 November 2014

Chocks away, release brakes

Hi everyone, it's been a while!

For those of you who don't know, since my last post we've moved back to Melbourne and I am in my third week of Daddy day care! We're still unpacking and the modem took five days to find hence why things have taken some time to get back to something resembling normality.  The books are unpacked and on the shelves!

There's lots of books to talk about, and I'll get there, but, in the meantime, if you read Flightpath magazine there will be, at most, six of my short reviews in the next issue that is due out in time for Christmas.  With luck the reviews might help in the Christmas present decision-making process ... or just add more titles to wish lists.

Self-publishers have been a bit of a focus on ABR of late. I have a lot of respect for all authors but those who self-publish really strike a chord with me so I'll take this opportunity to give another tip of the hat to new friends Chris Keltie (Riding In The Shadow Of Death), Andrew Porrelli and Simon Hepworth (Striking Through Clouds, the No. 514 Sqn war diary available in the UK and Australia, ask me about Australian sales) and John Hooton (One Life Left). It is always exciting when a new book arrives but these guys have gone above and beyond to get these stories out there.  The books themselves are very attractive items too.

Speaking of new books, the kids and I visited the RAAF Museum at Point Cook a couple of weeks ago. The museum shop sells some good titles and I managed to pick up three (and then another four five days later...). I had been after two of the first three (Air-To-Air by Chris Rudge and Kittyhawk Pilots by Cyril Ayris) for close to a decade and, happily, they were priced affordably (and realistically). It's a good reminder that your local museum can have some gems for sale ... and your money certainly goes to a good cause (I had a similar experience when Paul Sortehaug's The Wild Winds jumped in to my hands at the RNZAF Museum in 2010!). That said, I still regret not buying Kittyhawk Pilots from Cyril Ayris (and not to mention his cohort's, Stan Watt, Wing Over And Dive) in 2006!

Some of our favourite publishers are already announcing new books for 2015. Fighting High is leading the way with the covers of Into The Dark and Thunder Bird In Bomber Command (the new Sean Feast title) already released (check out the new charity book too - Coming Home, One Hundred Years of Housing Heroes) and Pen & Sword will be releasing the UK edition of Kristen Alexander's latest, and very welcome, Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain. I'll be surprised if they produce as good a book as New South did for the Australian edition. It is a superb work from cover to cover.  Norwegian Tor Idar Larsen will also have his new solo effort, Mosquito Attack!, published by Fonthill early next year. Norwegian Mossie pilot anyone?

Still to come in 2014 is Steve Brew's second volume of his No. 41 Sqdn history (Blood, Sweat And Courage) that will also come out through Fonthill. Work on strength building now as it'll be a massive book as Steve covers the squadron's history from the start of the war through to July 1942.  Go to your local hardware store, or remove some cross-members from your bed, as you will need something to shore up your bookshelf when this one arrives!

I recently 'discovered' a new book in the latest Allen & Unwin military newsletter.  While the expected WW1 titles ruled the roost I was surprised to see several WW2 PoW-based books due for release shortly.  Already available in the UK, Peter Tunstall's The Last Escaper has only just been released in Australia.  I fear it may get lost in the Christmas rush, and the general focus on WW1, but this must surely be one of the last books to be penned by an aircrew veteran and that lifts it above the accolades it is already receiving for being a quality read.

Stepping forward in time again to 2015 and we have the re-release of a giant.  The third edition of Kenneth Wynn's legendary Men of the Battle of Britain will issue forth to a grateful world on June 30 and will be one of the aircrew book highlights of the year as the 75th anniversary of the Battle is commemorated.  What other books shall we see on this important anniversary? 

I've probably forgotten some other news but keep an eye on ABR and be sure to let me know of anything I have missed so we can get news of these stories and books out to as many people as possible.


26 August 2014

They Gave Me A Seafire - new edition

Every book I read stays with me in one way or the other.  Some, of course, really strike a chord and give more than just a good reading experience.  These are the books that just keep giving and even the mere sight of them on the shelf makes me smile (and cause me to wax lyrical...).  Regular readers will know how special 'Mike' Crosley's They Gave Me A Seafire is to me so it is with great pleasure that I can report on Pen & Sword's new edition of this marvellous book.

'Mike' Crosley signed up for the Fleet Air Arm at the height of the Battle of Britain because the 'wait list' for the RAF was too long.  Joining a service that was struggling with its own identity, a lack of modern aircraft and components of the leadership team who vehemently questioned the very existence of the aviation branch, he makes it through intensive - albeit occasionally archaic and amusing - training before flying operationally.  He survives the sinking of HMS Eagle, the North African landings, Arctic convoys and so much more before taking command of a Seafire squadron prior to its deployment to the war against Japan as part of the British Pacific Fleet.  He is frank about the service's failings, particularly the mis-use of the Seafire and fighter force in general, but highlights the phenomenal job everyone did despite them.  The Fleet Air Arm, by the end of the war, was a very effective fighting force and was perfectly placed to take advantage of the massive advances in naval aviation, many developed by the service itself, that were to come in the years immediately following the war.  Crosley was there for all of it. 

As I've said before, the review for TGMAS generated a wonderful response from the author's wife who, pleasingly, has written a beautiful postscript, using excerpts from letters, about her husband.  While the main body of the book, because it is so well written, allows the reader to build the perfect picture of Crosley the man, this postscript looks at him through the eyes of his wife of more than 40 years.  She is an absolute saint of a woman, having nursed 'Mike' in his final years as he struggled with an aggressive form of dementia, and writes, understandably, with heart and passion remembering a committed family man, a talented woodworker who built many a boat and a fine pilot who contributed so much to naval aviation.

The book itself is a typically well put-together hardback from this publisher.  A first look through the text didn't reveal any particular changes from the edition I first read other than the postscript mentioned above of course.  Indeed, the text is a perfect copy of the 2001 Wrens Park edition to the point of page count and word placement.  The only difference, due to the slightly larger dimensions of the Pen & Sword edition, is a slightly larger font (great considering it was originally bloody small).  The author's wife did ask me about the 'Nat' Gould timeline error I mentioned in the original review and it is pleasing to see this has been corrected.

What really adds to what I guarantee to be a brilliant read is the two sections of now glossy photographs.  The collection of photos used, with some exceptions, are the same as the earlier edition.  The additional images do add to what has already been published but they are placed at the end of the second section and, in some cases, are out of order chronologically.  It's a bit odd to see photos from 1945 and then see the author as a trainee naval aviator in 1940.  It's in these 'new' photos that a clanger is encountered and something, given the plethora of Seafire photos in the book to this point, that even the lay reader will notice.  A photo captioned as Seafires in 1945 is actually of Hawker Sea Hawks (jets!) and Westland Wyverns!  Both types entered operational service in the early 1950s so this is obviously a photo more suited to Crosley's second book, Up In Harm's Way.  It is a surprising error that should have been picked up but, I hasten to add, takes nothing away from the book as a whole.  It is only mentioned here to hopefully lessen the blow when new readers to TGMAS discover it (and hopefully prevents any potential angst!).

If you have not already read this superb book, this is the perfect opportunity to right a wrong.  If you've read it, introduce a friend or younger type who has not yet had the pleasure!  It remains one of the most honest, candid and truly delightful memoirs I have read.  This new edition, with the postscript, is the perfect memorial to one of the Fleet Air Arm's greats.

20 August 2014

Win something different ... in hardback!

There are a lot of aircrew stories out there these days and they all have their merits.  Every now and then one really surprises me.  With One Life Left this was partly due to discovering it had been around for a few years before I stumbled upon it recently.  I'm certainly not going to claim to knowing about everything that is published but sometimes I wonder just what I have missed and have still to discover.  It's rather an exciting thought!
Discovering something like One Life Left, Hugh Garlick DFC's memoir of his 10 years' flying in the RAF and FAA, is why I love doing what I do.  It just asks to be read.  While there's nothing unfamiliar about a pre-war RAF pilot seconded to the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm (it was a common occurrence in the mishmash of Fleet Air Arm management between the wars), the images reproduced in the book, and on the book's photo website, conjure up all that is wonderful about British wartime flying in the 1930s.  Gloster Gauntlets compete with Hawker Nimrods and Fairey Swordfish.  It doesn't get much better.  Anyone interested in the aviation of World War 2 holds a distinct soft spot in his or her heart for the aircraft of the 1930s.  Some of these aircraft did what they were designed to do albeit in a war that their designers, working with the technology of their time, may have struggled to imagine.

What has me particularly excited about this book is reading the few pages available on Google Books.  I don't often do this but while trying to find what I could on the book (after speaking with Garlick's nephew, John Hooton), I started reading the first chapter.  Long story short - Malta, 1938, recovering in the sun after some heavy drinking ... enough said! The writing is nothing short of delightful and the author has a wonderful ability to capture the atmosphere of the time.  His honesty and self-deprecating humour instantly reminded me of 'Mike' Crosley and They Gave Me A Seafire and Charles Lamb doing his thing in War In A Stringbag (funnily enough, these chaps were Fleet Air Arm types too of course).  This first chapter, while I was already interested in the book, has me hooked.  Skimming through the remaining pages online only reinforced this.

I first found One Life Left on Facebook.  John Hooton runs this page and has a small competition running for those who 'like' it.  The prize?  A hardback copy of the book.  While there are many e-book formats available for One Life Left (I am particularly keen to try the new 'fully loaded with extras' iPad version), it's fair to say the hardback is certainly going to be the prettiest!  A 'like' on Facebook doesn't take much, and sometimes doesn't mean a hell of a lot, but perhaps helping a relatively little-known book get 'out there' a bit more, in whatever format, will help a good man's incredible tale be remembered by many ... as it should be.

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.