Feature: Thomas was lucky in love and war

Thomas during his RAF days
Thomas during his RAF days

EVERYONE who has fought in a war has a story about chance and luck. Bullets that hit a canteen flask instead of their chest, bombs that failed to go off, or missions they missed out on which ended in tragedy.

Thomas Cranmer though has one which could well trump the lot.

Reunited: Thomas with his pilot Dennis Glendinning

Reunited: Thomas with his pilot Dennis Glendinning

The pensioner was 18 when he joined the RAF in 1943 and trained as a wireless operator before being posted to Egypt, Palestine and Southern Italy - flying 26 missions as part of the crew manning an American B24 Liberator.

However, it was while relaxing in barracks in Herefordshire that he struck lucky – and more than six decades on he is still reaping the rewards of his moment of good fortune.

Sat looking out on his delightful garden from the conservatory of his Gorringe Valley Road home, he explained, “I was sat on my bunk talking to a friend whose mum used to send him copies of the Brighton Gazette.

“In this particular copy their was a picture of some young women in uniform and my mate said ‘Why don’t we write to them?’.

Thomas with some of his memorabilia

Thomas with some of his memorabilia

“Well, we did, calling ourselves the 12 Lonely Airman and soon we were getting letters and parcels from lots of girls.

“I kept writing to one and we met for the first time two years later. We have been married ever since.”

Mr Cranmer and his pen pal-turned-soul mate Ilse celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary earlier this year, and the veteran joked he was glad to be interviewed because it gave him a break from the dozen WI members gathering in his front room.

A key member of an eight man flight crew – made up of four Brits and four South Africans – Mr Cranmer was posted to 31 Squadron South African Air Force at Celone, South-east Italy, as part of 205 Group RAF in December 1944.

From there he took part in a stack of bombing missions on targets ranging from railway yards in Austria, to strategic military posts in Germany and Northern Italy.

But, although he did not participate in the widespread carpet bombing of major cities, Mr Cranmer is quick to accept that it would not have been purely Nazi soldiers who died as a result of the 10,000lbs of explosives they dropped on each mission.

“We did not really think about that,” he explained, “We were given instructions and carried them out.

“We knew that whatever we did was holding the enemy back. Unfortunately there would have civilian casualties. Almost inevitably there would have been. But they were never intentional.”

The regret in his voice is obvious, but equally, so is the firm belief that the job he and his colleagues were doing was vital to the war effort. The end – freedom for Europe – justified the means.

Mr Cranmer himself escaped too many near misses – largely, he says, due to the brilliance of his pilot, a lieutenant Dennis Glendinning, a veteran of the crew at the age of 30.

“Compared to the rest of us he was an old man. It was reassuring to have someone older and we certainly looked up to him as the leader,” he recalled.

“He was a great pilot and when I met up with him in his hometown of Port Elizabeth back in 1999, I introduced him to my wife as the man who brought me home. Sadly, he has now passed on, leaving me as the only one of original eight who is still alive.”

His crew may be gone, but the memories of what they shared will stay with Mr Cranmer for the rest of his life – not least the fear they felt when taking to the air.

“The first bombing raid I went on was on a railway yard in Udine in Italy. I shall never forget it. To say I was scared would be an understatement and it did not get any easier.

“We were absolutely petrified every time. As soon as the bombs were dropped you felt the plane lift and the only thing that mattered was getting the hell out of there.”

As well as dropping bombs, the crew was also tasked with delivering vital supplies to partisans fighting a guerilla war against the Nazis in both Northern Italy and the former Yugoslavia.

Not as well know as the counterparts in the French Resistance, the groups performed an equally vital role and one which Mr Cranmer believes was key to the overall war effort.

“They were important, very important,” he said, “so keeping them supplied was essential.

“We had to go on our runs during daylight and at a specific site, usually something like a clearing in some woods.

“We would fly at no more than 300 feet and then drop the supplies. From where we were it looked like loads of ants coming out of the trees to collect it.”

For many involved in similar missions, the partisans would remain little more than supply-grabbing ants, seen from afar.

And so it was for Mr Cranmer, until 41 years after the way when a second remarkable piece of chance struck.

“We were negotiating the purchase of our bungalow and the man who owned it was Italian.

“We soon got talking about how I had been based in Italy and helped the partisans.

“Amazingly, it turned out that he had belonged to one of the groups we had dropped supplies to.

“We couldn’t believe it – coming face to face after all these years.

“It really is a small world and it was nice to meet someone who had benefited from what we had been doing.

“He even knocked a bit off the asking price.”

Most people will agree, it was probably the least Mr Cranmer deserved.