Pathfinder: Squadron Leader Alec Panton Cranswick DFC DSO
Serial Number: 42696
RAF Trade: Pilot, 4 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 2 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 Pathfinder Force HQ, Wyton; one son, Alex born after Alec’s death.
Service Record: No.7 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School, Desford. No.10 Flying Training School, Tern Hill. No.11 Operational Training Unit, Bassingbourn. No.214 Squadron, Stradishall. No.148 Squadron, Luqa and elsewhere in the Middle East. Back in the UK, secondment to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, followed by No.1659 Heavy Conversion Unit, Leeming. No.419 Squadron, Middleton St George. No. 35 Squadron, Graveley, with non-operational service at Pathfinder 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 Air Vice- Marshal Don Bennett chose to dedicate his autobiography, ‘Pathfinder’, to Alec Cranswick. (Better be not at all than not be noble). Though the DFC awarded in April 1942 praised 61 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. 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’.
A slight man who spent some of his wartime service suffering from the effects of malaria, Cranswick flew his first tour with 214 Squadron in 1940. Not wanting to be rested, he volunteered to head to the Middle East. This was successful as he ‘book-ended’ a role as a ferry pilot in West Africa with a significant number of ops on Wellingtons. He returned to the UK in early 1942 but could not fly due to ill health. It was not until the end of the year that he converted at RAF Topcliffe 1659 HCU to Halifax’s prior to a short stay with 419 Squadron (a Canadian 6 Group unit). By October 1943, he had been a Pathfinder with 35 Squadron for 6 months and was due another rest. Taking this reluctantly, his goal to return to operations was achieved in April 1944 when he returned to the PFF squadron. He was killed 3 months later.
Bomber Command is full of statistics, for example that 55,573 of its members lost their lives in the 2nd 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 100 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 170 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 99 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 107th 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 2nd 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 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 107th op as a bomber pilot, perhaps staying with 35 Squadron’s Lancasters towards the 120 ops he envisaged as being his career total or, even, to the 110 that, seemingly, his senior officers had set as his limit without his knowledge, would others have exceeded it? 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 2nd-pilot on his first bomber squadron. A 2nd tour, operating from bases in the Middle East, saw him having to cope with a 9-week spell in hospital and an aftermath no worse than “slight rheumatics and a morbid feeling of illness in general”.
With Pathfinder Force, Cranswick completed a 3rd 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.
S/L Cranswick flew Lancaster HR926 TL-L for Lucky of 35 Squadron Graveley in the summer of 1943. The Cranswick family coat-of-arms decorates the nose just below the cockpit.
Lost in Lancaster TL-J (ND-846)
Squadron Leader Alec Panton Cranswick was piloting Lancaster Mk. II ND-846 coded TL-J during an operation to bomb the railway yards at Villeneuve on July 4/5, 1944. The aircraft took off from Graveley at 23.16 hrs and was dropping target markers for the main force when it was attacked and exploded. F/Sgt Wilf Horner was thrown clear in the explosion and parachuted safely to the ground but suffered serious burns, the rest of the 7 crew were killed in the explosion and are buried in the Clichy New Communal Cemetery.
Comment received from Michael Cumming:- I write as biographer of S/L A P Cranswick, DSO, DFC, to offer new material regarding the circumstances in which he and all but one crew member lost their lives on 5 July 1944. Between publication of the original Pathfinder Cranswick (1962) and the extended and updated 50th Anniversary Edition (2012) my continuing research showed that their Lancaster was shot down by a Luftwaffe night fighter, the wreckage falling on open ground at Villecresnes.’
F/Sgt Wilf Horner’s account of the flight:-
S/Ldr. A.P.Cranswick. DSO, DFC. Pilot
F/O R.H.Kille. Navigator
F/L P.R.Burt DFC. Bomb Aimer
F/L A.C.M.Taylor. Bomb Aimer
Sgt C.Erickson. Flight Engineer
F/Sgt Wilfurd R Horner Wireless Operator
F/Sgt E.M.Davies. Mid-Upper Gunner
F/Sgt A.H.Wood. Rear Gunner
His original rear gunner Ivor Howard from 419 Sqdn days had fallen ill and was not with Cranswick this operation.
We took off at 23.20 hours and crossed the English Coast at Beachy Head and flew around Paris, we had to descend to 7000 feet to clear clouds. At briefing it was estimated to be 12000 feet. As soon as the aiming point was sighted the pilot was directed on to it by F/L Taylor (Bomb Aimer) and markers and bombs were dropped, almost immediately there were explosions below us and the aircraft began burning, the pilot gave the order to bale out-
I attached my parachute to clips on my chest-the rear of the plane was on fire so I waited my turn to use the front escape hatch. My next memory was being dragged along the ground by my parachute (unbeknown to me the plane had broken its back exactly where I was standing and I was the sole survivor). There was lots of shouting in German! They released me from my harness and took me into a building. I was questioned by an Officer – giving him my rank, name and service number – I next remember being taken to a medical centre and being treated by a doctor and 2 nurses. My legs and hands were burnt and I had inhaled a lot of smoke. The next morning I was picked up by a lorry (the driver stopped to show me the wreckage of our plane) and taken to the American Hospital of Paris at St. Denis, where I received good treatment. The first week in August I was moved to a hospital at Hohenmark – attached to the interrogation centre at Oberusal, near Frankfurt. Then on August 15th I was transferred to Obermassfeld,where I had a skin graft to my right hand-this hospital was staffed by British personnel with a German doctor in overall control.
My next move was to a convalescent centre at Meiningen, this was in an old theartre. I left there on October 20th for the prison camp, Luft 7, at Bankau, near Kreuzberg, in Lower Silesia. In the new year (1945) we could hear the approach of the Russian Army. On the 19th January we left camp and began the long walk westwards. It was snowing and very cold and frosty. We slept at state farms and once in a disused brick factory. There was very little food and it was difficult to keep going in the severe weather. We eventually arrived in Luckenwalde (Stalag 3A) south of Potsdam.
On 22nd April Russian troops arrived and took control of the camp. American lorries came to collect us but were refused access. We were eventually allowed to leave about the 22/23rd May and go to Halle – the Americans flew us to Brussels. After baths and fresh uniforms, we felt more civilised and were flown home to England in Lancasters. We were taken to RAF Cosford for medical examinations. I arrived home on 29th May- My Birthday.
My wife’s father, Reginald Herbert Kille was the Navigator for Alan Cranswick on that fateful day, 5 July 1944. We have been to the town where their plane was shot down, Villecresnes, France several times and we met the Mayor who was a young boy when he saw the plane come down and landed near him and others from the village. He said as the plane came down it was sputtering before the crash. Only 1 crew member, Wilfurd (a gunner) survived and we took him back to the annual ceremony in Villecresnes in 1996. The whole town celebrated our attendance. Susan Jacqueline Burton-nee Kille (my wife) was only 16 months old when Reg was killed and her brother, Stephen was born on 17 July 1944, just 12 days after his father was killed. On the ill fated flight on 4-5 Jul 44 when my father-in-law died along with all the crew except Horner (whom I met and took him to Villecresnes on 8 May 1997 for the commemoration of 8 May 1945.