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Portrait Photo

Cranswick at the Controls

Kille and Horner

Howard and Wood

Plaque Unveiling at Cranswick House

Cranswick's Wedding

BookCover

Cranswick's Halifax

Kulva

 
Squadron Leader Alec Cranswick, D.S.O., D.F.C.
 

Serial Number: 42696
RAF Trade: Pilot, Four Year Short Service Commission, General Duties Branch
Date of Enlistment: July 24, 1939
Operational Sorties: 29 with 214 Squadron at Stradishall, 32 with 148 Squadron in the Middle East, 5 with 419 Squadron at Middleton St George and 40 with 35 Squadron at Graveley, losing his life on his 107th operation, over France on the night of July 4/5, 1944.

Personal Details:
  Born 7 September 1919, only son of Philip and Maia Cranswick; father, a pilot, lost his life when two single-seater aircraft collided mid-air on June 5, 1928, while practising for the annual RAF Display at Hendon . Educated at New College Preparatory School, Oxford, and St Edward’s School, Oxford (where Douglas Bader and Guy Gibson were among its pupils), Married, 14 April 1944, to Valerie Parr, who was serving in the WAAF as a teleprinter operator at Path Finder Force HQ; one son, born after father’s death.


Service Record:  Number 7 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School, Desford. Number 10 Flying Training School, Tern Hill. Number 11 Operational Training Unit, Bassingbourn. Number 214 Squadron, Stradishall. Number 148 Squadron, Luqa and elsewhere in the Middle East. Back in the UK, secondment to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, followed by Number 1659 Conversion Unit, Leeming. Number 419 Squadron, Middleton St George. Number 35 Squadron, Graveley, with non-operational service at Path Finder Force HQ, Wyton.

Surprisingly, unlike many others with a particularly distinguished war record, Alec Cranswick’s name was totally overlooked for public recognition in his lifetime. This came only in the late 1950’s, albeit in a modest manner, when – again surprisingly – Air Vice- Marshal Don Bennett chose to dedicate his autobiography, Pathfinder, to… Alec Cranswick.

Though the DFC awarded in April 1942 praised “sixty-one sorties over Germany and enemy- occupied territory” and “exceptional” determination to complete his task, and the DSO in July 1943 applauded the “excellent and sustained efforts” that were “worthy of the highest praise”, the world at large was unaware of Alec Cranswick’s astonishing contribution to the war effort.

Posted missing on 5 July 1944 on what was by then his one hundred and seventh operation as a bomber pilot on Wellingtons, Halifaxes and Lancasters,  no-one appears to have picked up this remarkable achievement against ever-mounting odds, so his death went unrecorded other than in official documentation. No surprise, therefore, when press interest focused upon him immediately as a result of ‘Pathfinder’ Bennett’s action, that Alec Cranswick became ‘the unknown hero’.

Bomber Command is full of statistics, for example that 55,573 of its members lost their lives in the Second World War and that 3,345 out of the 7,373 Lancaster bombers built were lost on ops. But nowhere – so it seems, even to this day – do we find confirmation that so-and-so flew the most ops, whether as a pilot or as a crew member.

What is known is that when heavy-bomber pilot Leonard Cheshire was awarded the Victoria Cross in July 1944, the citation noted that he had then completed one hundred missions (the final figure was 102); and that the relevant squadron records show John Burt, a pilot with an Oboe-carrying Mosquito squadron (109), completing an unequalled 104 ops on Oboe target- marking ops (as did his navigator, Ron Curtis) – on top of previous ops in heavy bombers. Greater still is the tally quoted for Guy Gibson, whose VC for his work in the epic flight of the Dambusters included, in the citation, the fact that he had “completed over a hundred and seventy sorties, involving more than 600 hours operational flying”.

Splitting hairs, some may say, but Don Bennett, apparently, argued that those in the faster, higher-flying Mosquitoes faced less risk than those in heavy bombers; and it is unarguable that the ops flown by Guy Gibson were not solely as a bomber pilot, whether or not flying heavies, because ninety-nine of his sorties were as a fighter pilot.

Nonetheless, confirmation in Alec Cranswick’s log book that the op on which he lost his life was his one hundred and seventh was sufficient for his biographer (a feature writer on a London evening newspaper at the time), having talked to Don Bennett, to credit Cranswick as the RAF bomber pilot who flew the largest number of operations in the Second World War. Bennett wrote the Foreword to that biography, calling Cranswick “simply a quiet honest Englishman”.

It is timely to note that, though the original hardback and the subsequent updated and extended paperback are no longer in print, Michael Cumming’s biography, Pathfinder Cranswick, earned a welcome come-back in worldwide availability with its appearance as an
Amazon ebook* on 12 January 2011 – thanks to what the author has described as “not just a burning desire, more a belief that history demands successive generations have continuing access to the Cranswick story”. Quoting Bennett’s Foreword, Cranswick was “so simply courageous”… and to look back at this “boy-man” is a “rare and elevating inspiration”.

Some 50 years have elapsed since Cranswick’s biographer parachuted this name into the public domain yet no-one seems to have queried the claim that he flew the most ops, let alone challenged it.

If Cranswick were to have survived that one hundred and seventh op as a bomber pilot, perhaps staying with 35 Squadron’s Lancasters towards the one hundred and twenty ops he envisaged as being his career total or, even, to the one hundred and ten that, seemingly, his senior officers had set as his limit without his knowledge, would others have exceeded it? And how different from Alec Cranswick would he (or they) have been?

School work “not below the average” and done “fairly well” in sports. In initial training, as a pilot, assessed as being “of average proficiency”; but “outstanding” for keenness and enthusiasm, when second-pilot on his first bomber squadron. A second tour, operating from bases in the Middle East, saw him having to cope with a nine-week spell in hospital and an aftermath no worse than “slight rheumatics and a morbid feeling of illness in general”.

With Path Finder Force, Cranswick completed a third tour during which he pushed aside accusations of being a medal-hunter, reasoning that he was “only doing his job” and that the more hours he could show in his log book, the better would be his prospects with an airline after the war. ”My nerve is perfectly all right,” he would say, “it is not getting me down”.

He preferred spending evenings alone in his room or out with his dog than partying; he was “reserved and withdrawn, restrained almost to timidity”. Crew members saw him as “a quiet, rather shy, non-smoker and non-drinker, lover of poetry and classical music”. Indeed, among those who knew him, he was the quiet hero… as he remains known to this day.

 

Text kindly supplied by Michael Cumming, as were the photographs, gathered while researching and publishing his biography of Squadron Leader Alec Cranswick, DSO, DFC, in its successive hardback, paperback and ebook editions that span some 50 years.

 * Pathfinder Cranswick, by Michael Cumming, ASIN (Amazon Standard Item Number) B004IPPK4O. Details and ordering facilities are on amazon.co.uk