Alec B. Craven

by Caitlin Dandrow

Alec B. Craven

My grandfather, Alec Bernard Craven, was a British citizen who joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II when Britain’s involvement began in 1939. I interviewed my grandmother about my grandfather, because my grandfather died years ago when I was still a small child.  It was interesting to find out these kinds of facts about him because  I never had the chance to get to know him as a young adult, and my grandmother said that he did not like to speak about the war.

 My grandfather, Alec, was born in York, Yorkshire, England in 1923 and was the oldest of three siblings.  He was the only child in the family to actually fight in the war.  He joined the RAF when he was 17-years-old, which was under the minimum enlistment age of 18.  Because of the terrible attacks on his country, he misrepresented his age, saying he was 18 to get admitted, and because the government was so desperate for soldiers, they gladly accepted any help they could receive. He wanted to be a pilot, but due to a problem with his eyesight he couldn’t, and ended up becoming a navigator on a Lancaster bombing plane in the Royal Air Force.

This is the beggining of the acceptance letter my grandfather received
from the Royal Air Force.



Britain Joins the War


The Germans knew that to successfully invade Britain they needed to control the air.  In 1940, Germany began air raids against British ports and RAF bases to prepare a path for a German invasion, having already taken over most of Europe, including France and Poland. My grandfather and others of the RAF were tasked with pivotal protection of the British people from German attacks on Britain. However, at that time my grandfather could only serve his country as a cadet in training to become a navigator. Germany underestimated Britain and sent the Luftwaffe to bomb England’s cities, which caused pandemonium because England was not prepared for war. Germany hoped to cross the English Channel from France and invade England. The planes and pilots in the German air force severely outnumbered the RAF.  Because of this, the Germans planned on tricking the RAF, into mobilizing in one area so the Luftwaffe could easily shoot down most of the RAF pilots and ease the invasion over the Channel.  England had a better defense than anticipated and was able to hold off the German invasion. Later, for 57 nights straight, starting in September 1940, there was a bombardment of bombing attacks directed at London and other cities, which was followed by “intermittent raids” until April 1941.

The People’s Solidarity
  
In World War II, the British people had amazing solidarity and unity and everyone helped in some way, whether it be with manufacturing airplanes and munitions for the pilots, or recycling the materials for re-use. Everyone joined the war effort and worked together because their country was being attacked, effecting the poor in the city street to royalty in Buckingham Palace. It was the duty of the city children to go to foster homes in areas of the country that weren’t being attacked, so as to ensure the survival of England’s next generation while their parents did their jobs to ensure England’s survival. It was considered the responsibility of the people who were living in places not being bombed, such as rural areas, to make temporary adoptions, and take care of the children for the entirety of their stay.

While my grandfather lived in York, although it was not an area hit hard by the German bombs, he had strong feelings of nationalism that caused him to enlist as a soldier and become a member of the air force.  He started out as a cadet, then became an airman and eventually became a warrant officer in the RAF.  Many people wanted to become members of the RAF and be able to take an active role in fighting the Germans directly, however few actually qualified for this elite service.  My grandfather took a test to become a navigator due to his failed attempt to become a pilot, and was put on duty immediately rather than being a member of the reserves for a training period like most people who did qualify for these positions were supposed to do.  Because of his high test scores he went right into active duty.  The Royal Air Force (RAF) was pivotal to the victory the British had against the Germans when they attacked in 1940. The RAF helped support the soldiers on land and sea with their aircrafts. They would fly across enemy territory and drop bombs, as well as to scatter propaganda posters to make Germany look weak.

Women’s Involvement and Use of Radar

The women, although not allowed to become soldiers, became involved in the fighting and supporting the RAF by taking jobs men vacated to continue the war effort, working in factories and also joining groups such as the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). This group helped the RAF, and Britain as a whole, by using radar systems all across the country to locate enemy planes and estimating the number of fighters in that area, and communicating their results and directions to the pilots via radio.  The RAF also used Direction Finding or D/F radio stations to keep track of their own fighters and help them navigate, as well as to inform pilots of incoming raids of enemy planes. My grandfather, as a navigator on a Lancaster bombing plane, would radio headquarters and other planes, and by using radar would help his crew navigate and reach their destination in one piece.
RAF information chain
This is the chain of who reported information (mainly using radio) to whom in the RAF, which affected the battle tactics of the pilots and land soldiers.

Fighting Against All Odds

The Royal Air Force was the underdog. The Germans were considered to have one of the strongest air forces in the world. The Royal Air Force had a small number of fighters, which could have been a fatal flaw in the war. They also had few planes, which were often destroyed during the battles and often lost at sea. Their air tactics included having their planes be wing to wing, leaving little room for maneuverability, and easy targets for their enemies to shoot down. With the help of radar systems, however, they had somewhat of an advantage because it would inform the pilots of where their enemies were and in what multitude. The RAF picked up ideas by studying the fighting tactics that the German fighters used, and changed their battle tactics to better suit their flying. One thing they did was spread out while flying, and soon enough they were taking down vast numbers of enemy airplanes and swiftly defeating the Germans. The British and Germans had dogfights in the air, and both were amazingly capable air fighters; the RAF managed to have amazing victories in the battles of World War II.

Here's a newspaper clip belonging to my grandfather of the Lancaster.


Bombings
   
My grandfather fought as an RAF navigator from the time of Germany’s attempted invasion of England until the end of the war. One fight he lived through was the Battle of Britain, which began in June 30, 1940 and ended in April 1941. The RAF joined the battle on August 8, 1940, the fate of England’s independence resting on their shoulders. The Germans’ Luftwaffe planes were superior to most others, and the RAF’s use of Hurricanes, Sweepers, Lancasters, and Spitfire planes helped them to fight back.  As the war continued, my grandfather flew with the RAF on nightly bombing sorties on Germany and occasionally Italy, and by the end of the war he had gone on 97 runs. The RAF began bombing at night after Germany started to, because Germany was wary of the skill of the RAF pilots. Because of this, the British began blackouts, where they turned out all of the lights so the Germans couldn’t see where to bomb people from their planes. While asking my grandmother about my grandfather she said, “You’d get in a plane, and not know if you were going to come back or not. One night he was riding his bike from town and fell in a ditch during a blackout. He hurt his wrist and wasn’t allowed to fly that night. The rest of his crew died that night.” Even though his crew dying during that sortie devastated him, he continued to fight in the war with a new group.   My grandparents had been foreign pen pals since Junior High School, and they wrote a lot during the war.  I asked my grandmother if he wrote or spoke much of the war, or about fighting the Luftwaffe and she said, “occasionally he would say something, but some of the flights were pretty awful.  It must have been horrible seeing your friends get shot down.  The pilots just couldn’t seem to be able to talk about it, it was so bad.”
Map of where Alec B. Craven flew across
This is a map of what British pilots had to fly across
when thy went to bomb the Germans on nightly raids.


Victory

Through the use of radar, penetration of German codes, and using their strengths such as plane speed to their advantage, Britain managed to win the battle. By cracking codes, the RAF was able to catch the Germans off guard and shoot down their forces before they could cause more damage. England united and didn’t buckle under the pressure, learning how to build planes faster, and how to fly better in order to survive. England managed to hold off Germany until the American infusion of troops could help end the war.  After the war, England was still in tatters.  My grandmother met my grandfather for the first time at the end of the war and they were quickly engaged.   Having sailed ten weeks from New York to Southampton, England in 1946 to marry my grandfather, she was able to see what England looked like after the war.  She described it as “the most God awful mess I have ever seen.”

A photo of the Lancaster.


Conclusion

    The RAF was pivotal in winning the war and demolishing the Luftwaffe. Without the RAF, England might have lost. The British were victorious in the war due to their solidarity and tenacity as a country. The war had a lasting effect on the soldiers.  With my grandfather and his bombing crew, while theywere incredibly close with other members of their squad during the war, they did not tend to stay in touch after the war, because it was so terrible and for many soldiers this had a really long-term impact on their lives.   Humorously, my grandmother told me, “your grandfather and I got married after the war, in 1946. The members of the Royal Air Force would rush to get ready whenever they heard the sound of bombs. Even weeks after we were married, every time there was a thump he was always up and running.”


This is a photo of the soldiers who successfully became navigators
and graduated, each one labeled by last name. My grandfather is
the third man from the left in the second row.










Bibliography

Primary Sources


“Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia”. Merriam Webster’s, Incorporated. Springfield. 2000. 234.

Col. Gurney, Gene. “The War In The Air: World War II”. Bonanza Books. New York. 1983. 78, 106, 131.

Mosley, Leonard. “The Battle of Britain: World War II”. Time Life Books. Alexandria. 1977. 1,27,47,50,53,56,57,86,87,90,93,116,124-125,127,131,132-133,134.

Secondary Sources

Dr. Bellamy, Chris. “The Battle of Britain”. BBC news. Oct. 7 2005. Jan. 11 2000. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/wwtwo/battle_of_britain_01.shtml.

“The Battle of Britain – Home Page”. DeltaWeb International Ltd. Dec. 16 2005. 2004. http://www.raf.mod.uk/bob1940/controlsys.html.

“The Battle of Britain – Home Page”. DeltaWeb International Ltd. Dec. 16 2005. 2004. http://www.raf.mod.uk/bob1940/images/controldiag5.gif.