Interview with John L Crabb


Interview with John L Crabb


John Crabb transferred to the RAF from the Army. He began training as a pilot in the USA but then returned to train as an observer in Canada. On his return was posted to 49 Squadron. After thirteen operations he and the bomb aimer developed colds and were unable to fly. Their crew left for an operation and were killed that night. John and his bomb aimer went to other crews. The bomb aimer died on his last operation. John’s last operation was to Munich and he worried for the entire time whether he would make it home. After being an instructor John went on a second tour of operations. This was with a Mosquito squadron based at RAF Bourn.




Temporal Coverage




00:40:11 audio recording


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ACrabbJL170604, PCrabbJL1701


BJ: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Brenda Jones. The person being interviewed is John Crabb. The interview is taking place in Mr Crabb’s daughter’s house in Burnside, Lanarkshire on the 4th of June 2017. Thank you, Mr Crabb for agreeing to speak to me today.
JC: That’s fine.
BJ: So, could you tell me a bit about your early life please?
JC: Just an ordinary childhood. No, as I say just, I was interested in sport, cycling, football. Just the normal run-ins. And then eventually I decided that I’d like to be a civil engineer so I went into that particular, well industry shall we say and was doing that when I went to the, joined the territorial camp. My boss was quite happy about that. It was mobilised and that was the end of civil engineering. So when I came back to start the civil engineering again to go in university etcetera it was just going to be too much. I’d been away for six and a half years which is a long time. So I decided, no. My father was in the Customs and Excise I thought, and the exams for that particular Customs and Excise came up and I sat and I passed and that was my life as a Customs and Excise officer. Distilleries, tobacco warehouses. All that sort of stuff.
BJ: And where did you grow up?
JC: Where? In Glasgow. Over in Dennistoun.
BJ: Ok.
JC: That, that was me. We got married and we moved out and got a house in Burnside and that’s where we’ve been ever since.
BJ: So, how did you come to join the RAF?
JC: Well can I go through that?
BJ: Yes.
JC: What I said to you.
BJ: Yes.
JC: I had no, I had no intention of going into the forces but war clouds as I said gathered and a friend and I decided we’ll have a fortnight’s camp in Gailes, get some money and have a nice two week holiday. So summertime came and we went to Gailes camp. It was lovely. The second week war was declared. They read the riot act. Everybody [laughs] Why I don’t know. And that was us. We were in the Army. I mean we got home for maybe a week or two but then we were called up and you started Army life. And I had that for two and a half years. I was the most healthy I think ever when I was in the Army. But conditions, food, tenting in winter time and all that was not happy. And then by good luck after two and a half years it was advertised they were wanting pilots. So we applied, myself. I’m talking about myself. I applied for the, to the colonel but [unclear] because at that time I was, at that time I was a qualified surveyor in the, in the Army. But with one of the conscripts had come in to, met with the conscripts had been conscripted and been put in to the Army. The same Army as I was in. And one of them, a friend of mine wore pilot’s wings. He had had an accident and he’d been washed out of the Air Force and had been pulled into the Army. But he, when he heard that, he also wanted to get back into the RAF, when he heard that a colonel had turned down my particular push he got in touch with somebody in RAF Command and we got our transfers. And we were going to get and it was like the life was between like chalk and cheese. Shirts. Nice tables laid out. Nice mugs. Chairs. Tables. Crockery. Chalk from cheese. And that was the start. So after that I was in the RAF and that was my life as a RAF.
BJ: So what happened when you first joined the RAF then?
JC: Well, when we first [pause] I think, I’m a little bit vague. I think we went to Newquay and we were, we were, I think we, aye we stayed at hotels that had been taken over and we just sort of had various lectures on planes and RAF life etcetera. But before, no, I’m a wee bit of touch. Before all that we went to Cardington. You know the airship hangars? And went through the medical tests, physical, all different types of tests and passed there. Then we went to Newquay and we were hanging about. So I was there for, I don’t, I can’t just remember but the next thing was I was posted to a flying school at Fairoaks outside of Woking and my pilot there, I cannot just remember his name I think he would have been a Spitfire pilot who was on rest. It was on a resting period for him. So we were flying Tiger Moths there. So flying Tiger Moths. I finished the course there and we were standing by. We didn’t know what was going to happen. And the next thing he said, you’ve got to go to a certain, I can’t remember if it was Manchester, and wait there. And the next thing we knew we were going to Canada. We were going to be sent out to Canada. So the next thing, by good, well not good luck we were sent back to Glasgow and we picked up the Louis Pasteur ship and we were off to Canada. It was quite funny. My father was still living in Glasgow and we managed to get word that we were going on this particular ship [unclear] So that was that. The Louis Pasteur. The next beautiful thing were the lights of Halifax. And oh boy, boy were we, well we got off and then we were, we were immediately, no time in Halifax. We were entrained and we went to a place called [pause] it was New Brunswick we went to. To a holding camp. And there it was, there were drills, lectures and various things. And the next thing we knew was you’re going down to America. But America at that time was at peace so we were inducted into the American Army. And because [laughs] because I had been in an Army they made me a corporal. I’ve got the certificate to prove that I was in the American Army. And that was wonderful but it was a completely different Army life. There was worked in peacetime everything. Drills. It was ridiculous things. Drills. And they had a, I think it was called the honour system. If I saw you doing something wrong I had to report you. And if I didn’t want, if I didn’t want to be reported you were told, they would say to you. ‘Right. You are now an aeroplane and you have to fly around the quadrangle and you have got to, you know go over as you go around the corners.’ It was ridiculous. Food every, everything you could think of for food. And as, as for hospitality you, you weren’t allowed out until you had what they called the Open Post and when you went out there all the girls in their cars, ‘Come on and meet the folks. Come on meet the folks.’ So that was that. From there I was sent to, that was Maxwell Field I was sent to. The name doesn’t come to me. And we were then on training again but this time on what they called Stearman planes and my instructor was Ray [Farenger] who was a Hollywood cartoonist. But for some reason he decided to, I don’t know whether he still did his cartooning with Walt Disney or that was only part time and he decided to be a pilot trainer. So he had three pupils. Training there was strictly to the letter. You had to do everything exactly right. But unfortunately after quite a long time doing very well in a Stearman some of our landings weren’t as good and of the three pupils three of us were washed out. Five pupils. Three of us were washed out. So what happened? We were sent back to Canada. To Trenton. At Trenton you had the option. You could either train as an observer or I think it was w/op ag wireless operator air gunner. So I chose to go on observer’s training. And that took, I think that it took about [pause] aye took just well over four months. And that was the a place called Portage le Prairie which is just outside of Winnipeg and we were flying Ansons. Ansons. Again were just two planes, two engine planes. So we completed and got the wings. At that time you got an O with one wing. But the minute, apparently the invasion of Europe, after that you were either got an N for navigator or you got a [pause] I forget what the other thing was but you didn’t, the O was done away with and that. As an observer you did bombing, you did navigating, you did gunnery, you did photography and all the rest. So went in a boat. And I just can’t [pause] it was a P&O boat. I can’t just remember. Got back safely to London and I was, we were actually I think we went down to Bournemouth and we stayed in Bournemouth. Then we did a bit of training in [pause] where was it now? It was one of the coastal towns in Scotland. Did some training there and then eventually we went up to Kinloss. At Kinloss they were Whitleys. You know, the bigger planes. And there you crewed up. Well, seven in a crew in in the, in Lancasters so what you did you went into a big, just into a big room, a big hangar. And everybody was there. Gunners, navigators, pilots. And you just mingled about and you decided or asked, ‘Can I fly with you?’ Well, I saw an elderly, I think he was a London solicitor. I may be wrong. But he had one medal. The Air Force medal which I thought now this guy can, he’d obviously done some training. He’s been good at it and he’s been awarded the Air Force Medal so I approached him. Yes. And then we got other people. The bomb aimer, gunners and w/op ags and we formed this crew. It was flying, maybe he was a flying, no he was a pilot officer then. Miller, Miller. I think he was John Miller, M I L L E R and he was an officer but the rest were NCOs. So that was us. The first, our first if I can get the page. I’ve got to keep thinking. Revise. Our first operation was Dortmund on the 23rd of May 1943. That was our first operation. And I did thirteen operations with them and they were all over Germany. And the next operation was going to be an Italian one. And we thought that’s great because compared with Germany Italy was, it was a different picture as regards the flak and night fighters and all that. So we were looking forward to that but unfortunately myself and the bomb aimer developed colds. You weren’t allowed to fly with colds. So we grinding our teeth watching, we were actually watched the crew with another operator, operator and the bomb aimer fly off. But they never came back. They were killed.
BJ: What happened?
JC: I don’t know. They’ve never, they’ve never, quite often go down to visit foreign sites where the bombers have come down they’ve identified the people but I think myself they must have been shot down over the sea or something went wrong. But there was nothing. Never heard anything about them. So I went with a brand new crew. My bomber went with another crew and on his last trip he was killed. So that was, that was it. So, the fact was that on a Lancaster you had to do thirty trips. Normally the Lancaster trips were five hours, six hours, seven hours and eventually I worked my way through. And I came to my thirtieth trip which had been my last trip and that last trip I knew that if I, if I managed to survive that last trip I’d become an instructor again. And the last trip was, let’s see, Munich. And instead of a five hour trip it was eight hours forty minutes. And boy was I sweating all the way home [laughs] But I made it. So after that they sent me to Market Harborough and I was an instructor in certain of the navigational aids, and also a screened navigator. In other words you flew with navigator pupils. Just to make sure they didn’t get lost or they got into a panic you’d bring them home. So that was, oh I did for, I suppose it must have been about a year. I have to refer to this to find out. I would imagine it must be a year. Then you were told you were going back on. You had to go back on operations. Now, the alternative was twenty trips on Lancasters or fifty trips on Mosquitoes. Well, I looked back on the folk I knew that had been killed and how it was. I mean Lancasters went into operate normally bomb at about twenty feet, sorry twenty thousand feet. And I mean the flak along that, when we were actually flying through flak bursts you know that the people on the ground have got your heights or the heights of the main planes going in very accurately. And you see them going down. You see the planes going down in front of you. Going down on fire. You think. But what kept, what more or less kept you going was it’s not going to happen to me. It’ll happen to somebody else but it’s not going to happen to me. So, and there was night fighters as well shooting you down. The night fighters quite often there’d be two of them. If they picked you out and they were going to attack you normally there was two of them and one had a light and that was to sort of attract you. That’s, that’s where he is. But the other one had no lights and they were the ones that would come and shoot you down. It was exactly the same when you were caught in certain searchlights. You were actually coned. You could read a paper it was so bright. All you could do was to dive and all the rest of it. But anyway I had the choice. Twenty on, going back on Lancasters, or fifty on Mosquitoes. So I chose Mosquitoes. And that was, went to a place called Bourn just outside of Cambridge, aye. It was Cambridge. So, on a Lancaster Berlin was about seven hours forty. On a, on a Mosquito it’s five hours forty. It’s three hours safety. And you’re flying at twenty nine, thirty thousand feet. And you were, as Mosquitoes was one of our practically the fastest bomber in the war. But you’d no guns. I know there were two types of Mosquitoes. There was the bomber Mosquito where we carried no guns but we had the Perspex noses. And the fighter Mosquitoes which had closed in noses because they had the guns. I mean they also bombed but their main aim was as fighters attacking. So that was that. So we carried on and got forty three in out of the fifty when the war was declared but then we were stood down to go out as a Mosquito squadron to fight the Japanese. And that war finished so we were put on just flying all over Europe, visiting practically Rome, Naples, Copenhagen. Norway. All over. All over the place. And that was what I kept up to ‘til I was finished with the forces altogether. But I had one, one good spell on the Mosquitoes. They were filming a big raid on the Amiens Prisons. The Amiens Prison was, it was, I can’t remember which [unclear] it was. It could have been in France at that time. It was full of prisoners of war, of people who, British spies and that and they wanted to get these people free so they’d got hold of London and asked if anybody, anybody could release these prisoners. So they decided to mount a Mosquito raid which did breach the walls and made a lot of prisoners escape. The actual man in command of that raid was shot down and killed. So they wanted to make this film. So to make this film myself and I forget who, the pilot’s name we were sent over to Paris and we carried the cameraman to film all the shots of the, the [unclear ] the pilots going in to attack the walls and see the walls getting shot down.
BJ: So this was after the war was it?
JC: This, oh this was after the war.
BJ: Yeah.
JC: So some delightful days in Paris [laughs] Came back to this country. That more or less is my war.
BJ: Ok. Do you want to take a break now then?
JC: Pardon?
BJ: Do you want to take a break now?
JC: Well, I can’t, I can’t think of anything more what to tell you. But that was —
BJ: Ok.
JC: What happened. So that was as I say we were flying. We flew all over the country which was very interesting.
BJ: Ok. Alright. We’ll take a break there.
[recording paused]
BJ: So, interview with Mr Crabb continuing. Ok. So, Mr Crabb can you tell me what it was like when you got to your first operational RAF base?
JC: Well, you knew that the people who were there were experienced bombers or flyers. They’d been over Germany. You hadn’t been over Germany. Now, initially they used to do what they called a second dickie. In other words I think it was observers were also included but for some reason only my pilot went on the second dickie. So, when we, myself and the rest of the crew went that was our first operation. So you, you were, well you didn’t know what to expect. You just hoped for the best. That you’d come back.
BJ: What was it like? The first one.
JC: It wasn’t anything like what I had experienced because part of the journey until you actually got to the target was comparatively quiet and you could see all these other planes, you know going in the same direction. You thought well again it won’t happen to us. It’ll happen to the other person. So that was really the first and then after that well you get used to it. You knew the risks and you say, well you still thought it won’t happen to us. It’ll happen to the other chap.
BJ: What was it like being in the plane for that length of time?
JC: Well, we were, normally you were too busy. You didn’t see anything because in a Lancaster there was a curtain drawn between you and cut out the engineer, cut out the pilot and there was a big metal door that prevents you going down the fuselage. So the only person you could see was the wireless operator sitting to your left. And you were at the particular table and you were working more or less all the time because wind changes and changes of direction and you had to be able to give the pilot the changes etcetera. Maybe two or three minutes before it actually had to happen. So you, you were busy all the time really.
BJ: And were there any particular memorable missions that you flew on?
JC: Not really. The only one I really remember as I mentioned was the fact that my thirtieth trip was from Munich and that was an eight hour. I think it was eight hours forty and I was more or less sweating all the way home. But I made it so that was, that was it. But normally it was just you’d go to briefing and you could, if you knew what the actual petrol, amount of petrol put in the planes you could have a rough idea whether it was the Ruhr you were going to, in other words called Happy Valley or you were going, you were going further to the Berlin which, which was the Big City. So you’d a rough idea but really until you went in for briefing and you saw the charts with the red lines. I mean once, once they pulled the curtain off you saw the red lines you thought, oh God, it’s the Big City tonight. You just, fair enough. Navigators and, and pilots went in one hour before the rest of the crew because you’d your flight plans to make out and various other, and then the main briefing would go in. The commander would give a chat and the pilot, the wireless people were given a chat and the weather persons would give a chat and that was it. It was finished. Just went to your lockers. Got your equipment. Your equipment on and got to your particular van. Took you out to your plane and you sit about. If you were a smoker you sat around, or you’d sit around smoking. And occasionally you would think, I wonder whether it will be scrubbed. In other words, cancelled. And then you knew eventually that operations were on that night so, so you get into your plane and once you get in to your plane you settle down. You’d a job to do. You did the job and you hope you were successful and that was it. Come back and go for your nice cup of coffee or tea and a fried egg and a bit of ham and get to bed. And the minute, more or less get back to your cabins you were out. You were fast asleep.
BJ: What was it like getting, flying through flak?
JC: Well, again, you just, the flak’s bursting all around you and as I said before it’s, if you’re flying through the smoke signals or the smoke from the actual explosions you knew that you had the right, the right height of the planes flying in. You just. There was nothing you could do about it. You just hoped for the best. The night fighters were the worst because eventually they did develop the technique of having their guns, instead of their guns pointing straight ahead of the plane they elevated them so they were up at probably angle of probably forty five degrees. And what they did was to fly below the Lancasters and fire upwards to get into the tanks and once they did that and the tanks were on fire that was it. You either baled out or you went down with the plane but that was, they were, they were flak you could see it, searchlights. You knew you could get through them but the first thing when you were approaching the target you see the flak going up all over the place. You think how are we going to get through this? You get through it. You find it’s not quite as deadly as it looks from a distance, it’s [pause] you look as though there’s no possible way you could get through that without being hit. So that —
BJ: Did, did you ever get hit by a night fighter?
JC: Well, I had a Canadian and an Australian gunner and they both shot down two. Well, the two of them shot down two German fighters. And the great thing about that is the smell of cordite from their guns coming into the cockpit. It was that sort of acrid smell. But there you are. They both went down in flames so we knew we’d killed them and that was —
BJ: Did your plane ever get hit?
JC: Twice we had a bit of shrapnel. Shrapnel. And on one occasion we were flying along and the mid-upper gunner shouted, ’Oh I’m hit. I’m hit.’ So you’d got to have an emergency oxygen can to go and see what was wrong and what had happened was the shrapnel has come up through the floor of the plane, hit the bottom of his seat and gone through it and gone in to his Mae West and it had stopped there. But obviously he’d felt the tremendous impact of the shrapnel coming. But he wasn’t cut or anything. But it was the only time really. I mean, you had bits of flak through occasionally but on the whole, no. We didn’t have any. We were lucky. We didn’t have any trouble in that respect.
BJ: And you said earlier that after VE day your squadron got sent off to Japan.
JC: No.
BJ: Oh.
JC: No.
BJ: Oh.
JC: As I said before I did forty three of the forty operations. The forty third and forty fourth were scrubbed because the war had finished. But then we were stood by to go as a Mosquito squadron to fight the Japanese. The Japanese capitulated and that was that. So we were, the whole squadron we left Bourn, and were sent down to Blackbushe. And from Blackbushe we were carrying diplomat mail, newspapers, mail, all over Europe. Just, just depended where you were sent. You didn’t know. You just went to a sort briefing and say you were flying to Copenhagen. Ok. Off we’d go. Flying up to Norway. And that was it.
BJ: What was it like visiting those places and actually landing?
JC: Oh, it was great. It was great. Up in, up in Norway the Germans, there was lots of Germans soldiers still there. Unarmed of course. The war was finished. You went past. You’d get the Germans saluting you, aye. But that that was it. there’s nothing more you could do about it.
BJ: And, and what did you do after you left the RAF?
JC: Well, after, after I left the RAF I went back to civil engineering. But after six and a half years I reckoned that I wasn’t really fit for the real studies to get the degrees. So I thought well the civil, the Civil Service examination you got for the Customs and Excise. I thought I’d sit for them and I passed them. And I’ve been happy ever since in the Customs. Well, I’m retired now obviously. But it suited me fine. But six and a half years is a is a big, part of your life.
BJ: How do you think it affected the rest of your life?
JC: Well, as the years pass you, you begin to forget about what the war was like and what you, what you actually you did. You just contented yourself. Got married, had children, settled down. That was it. Just a normal life with, but you got plenty of memories obviously.
BJ: And did you stay in touch with the people that you’d gone through the war with?
JC: No. I lost touch with all of them. And as I say the ones I was most in contact with were killed. So there was no, nobody that’s, but I’m still in touch with I can’t remember whether it’s called TM I get this little booklet from. From, it’s a squadron, purely 49 Squadron booklet that comes out. It keeps you in touch but now most of the actual original members of the squadron are, are gone. But people who were associated with these people are still interested in 49 Squadron and keep writing in. And others who are still alive who served in the actual wars still write in or they ask about do you know anything about such and such a person? So it keeps you in touch to a certain extent but apart from that the war is over.
BJ: Yeah. Ok. That’s the end of my questions. Anything else that you —
JC: No. I can’t think about. I had two crashes. Once in a Mosquito and once in a Manchester but it was nothing serious. We walked away from it. It was just —
BJ: What happened then?
JC: Well, the Manchester we were about to take off and one, they were not very good engines in a Manchester. It caught fire. So it was nothing you could do but get out quick. Now, the Mosquito well we were we must have been hit by flak because when the pilot put down the landing gear it still looked as if it still had got the green lights or whatever it was that the landing gear was ok but when we actually landed it just collapsed under us. We just, we didn’t, we just slid along the runway so we were perfectly safe, jumped out. There was no fire or anything. But the plane was, well I don’t know whether it was a write off or not. But that, that was all really. The rest of the time there was nothing much really that I can think about or would be of interest. If you have any questions.
BJ: What was it like when, did you get leave when you were on service?
JC: Oh right. You had regular leave. You’d come back home. You were in to your civilian clothes and forget about the RAF.
BJ: Yeah. What was it like coming home then?
JC: Oh very, very good. Coming back home. There was nothing like home.
BJ: No.
JC: East west home’s best.
BJ: What did you say to your family about life in the RAF?
JC: Never talked very much about it. My mother’s, when I went back on operations the second time I never told her at all because I mean she was worrying all the time.
BJ: Right.
JC: We kept most of, we kept, kept it away from the papers the folk who were getting killed on the Mosquitoes. I didn’t tell her at all. She just —
BJ: So she thought you were still.
JC: Training.
BJ: Still training. Goodness.
JC: She knew. She knew I was training at Market Harborough and I presume she, she wasn’t that terribly interested because she thought I was simply training people or instructing in classes.
BJ: Did anybody else, did anybody else in your family know you were back on operations?
JC: Not really. Well, my father. My father. But as I say my wife didn’t know. My father knew but he also kept my mother in the quiet too because she would have been a worrier too. But I just twice decorated and I had to send a telegram home just to let them know obviously. After I said, ‘Oh God. They’ll think it’s I’ve been killed.’ I couldn’t [laughs] I couldn’t stop it going so but —
BJ: Oh. Could you tell me about the decorations that you got? From the war.
JC: Well, I got the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Distinguished Flying Medal. Went down to Buckingham Palace and shook hands with the King. But unfortunately that was with the Distinguished Flying Medal. The second Distinguished Flying Cross, it was simply sent home to us because the King was ill. And I thought it was a great, a great loss to the people who had been given the decoration and didn’t have the opportunity of going down to the Palace and meeting the King. Your parents, my father and mother got free passes to London. There and back. Had good friends there. Stayed with them. But I mean to go as a, in to this great big room. There’s a little orchestra playing. Your parents are sitting facing the rostrum and it’s, you had to go up some steps to this little rostrum. The door behind that. That’s where the King came through. And as you went up, before you went up they pinned a little clasp. You go up. Your name is called. You go up. You stood in front of the King. You bowed. You shook hands. I forget what he said. Something about missions or something you’d done. You stepped back, bowed again and went down the side. Rejoined your folk. Your parents. But I thought for those who were decorated and didn’t get that it was very, very disappointing. I thought somebody else could have officiated in the King’s place. But that didn’t happen.
BJ: What did you get decorated for?
JC: Just keeping alive [laughs] That’s all. That was all. Nothing, nothing special.
BJ: Ok. Ok. Well, thank you very much, Mr Crabb.
JC: Thank you very much for the interview.



Brenda Jones, “Interview with John L Crabb,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 5, 2024,

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