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Air Commodore Peter Cribb CBE DSO & Bar DFC

Born: September 28th 1918 in Yorkshire. Died: June 20th 2011 Age 92.

Air Commodore Peter Cribb, was one of the most successful and gallant master bombers of the Pathfinder Force; he flew more than 100 wartime operations, including one when he made an unauthorised raid on Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden.

Cribb was already a veteran of more than 70 missions when he returned to operations in May 1944 to fly the Lancaster. He attacked targets in the run-up to D-Day, often acting as the master bomber directing the main force against rail yards and gun emplacements.

In July he was put in command of the newly-formed No 582 Squadron and flew 16 daylight sorties in support of the Normandy landings.

On July 18 he was the deputy master bomber when more than 1,000 aircraft pulverised the German panzer divisions in front of Montgomery’s stalled army at Caen.

Cribb also controlled more than 700 bombers which attacked the V-1 sites before the bombing campaign resumed its efforts against major oil targets in Germany.

On October 3 he was master bomber for the attack on the sea walls of Walcheren Island. Coastal gun batteries dominated the approaches to the important port of Antwerp; the aim was to breach the walls and flood the island, most of which was reclaimed polder below sea level.

As the first to arrive at the head of 252 Lancasters, he orbited the target and directed eight separate waves of bombers, correcting the aiming point with flares and markers to widen the initial breach. The sea poured in, forcing the German defenders to abandon their carefully prepared positions.

Cribb was the last to leave the target after a brilliantly controlled attack, which allowed Canadian ground forces to capture the island and open Antwerp to the Allies. Newspapers hailed the achievement with the headline ‘RAF sinks an island’.

On promotion to group captain at the age of 25, Cribb was appointed to command the Pathfinder airfield at Little Staughton in Bedfordshire, and shortly afterwards he was awarded a Bar to an earlier DSO.

Frustrated at being desk-bound, he flew unofficially on a number of operations.

On April 24th 1945 he learned that a force of Lancasters was to bomb Hitler’s Bavarian retreat at Berchtesgaden, but the Lancaster squadron on his airfield was stood down.

Determined not to miss this final attempt to eliminate Hitler, Cribb commandeered a Lancaster and some bombs and made up a crew from the senior executives on his station.

He took off at dawn, catching up with the main force as it was approaching the target. He dropped his bombs and obtained an excellent aiming point photograph.

Anxious to get back to Britain before anyone realised what he had been up to, Cribb returned on a direct route at top speed‚ but to no avail. Air Vice-Marshal Donald Bennett, head of the Pathfinder Force, had tried to contact him and his deputy, only to be told that they were airborne on‚ ’10-hour navigation exercise’. It was said that, when he learned the truth, Bennett‚ ‘hit the roof’.

The son of a wool merchant, Peter Henry Cribb was born in the Yorkshire Dales on September 28th 1918 and educated at Prince Henry Grammar School, Otley, before gaining a cadetship to the RAF College, Cranwell, where he trained as a pilot.

Cribb joined 58 Squadron to fly the Whitley bomber, and on the outbreak of war flew convoy patrols before the squadron reverted to the bombing role. He was involved in attacks on German-occupied airfields in Norway and Denmark.

Following the German blitz into the Low Countries, he bombed road and rail systems being used to transport reinforcements, and during a hectic period in June, he flew numerous sorties in support of the British Expeditionary Force. After completing 25 operations he was rested.

In December 1941 Cribb was promoted to squadron leader and joined the RAF’s first Halifax squadron, 35 Squadron, as a flight commander.

He attacked major industrial targets in Germany before turning his attention to the German battleship Tirpitz, which was at anchor in a fjord near Trondheim.

Bad weather and a smoke screen severely hampered the low-level attack and the force returned the following day. As he approached in poor visibility, Cribb’s Halifax hit the sea and the tail wheel was ripped off.

After he had landed the intelligence officer asked him at what height he had delivered his attack. Cribb replied: ‘don’t know. The altimeter reads in feet, not fathoms.’

Cribb flew on the first 1000 Bomber raid, against Cologne on the night of May 30th 1942, and on the attacks on Essen and Bremen that followed. Shortly afterwards he was awarded a DFC.

35 Squadron became one of the founder squadrons of the Pathfinders, and Cribb, who was rated an Exceptional pilot, flew on the first raid mounted by the new force when he attacked Flensburg on the night of August 18/19 1942.
He went on to attack the heavily defended targets in the Ruhr, often returning with his Halifax damaged by enemy gunfire.
By January 1943 he had completed 60 operations and was awarded his first DSO.

During this period he shared a bleak Nissen hut with his Canadian colleague, ‘Shady’ Lane.

The winter of 1942-43 was especially cold, and both men were anxious to avoid being the last into bed, and thus responsible for switching out the lights.

Eventually Cribb circumvented this problem by shooting them out instead with his .38 revolver. Due to the cold and an alcoholic haze, he frequently missed. In the morning his batman would wake him with a cup of tea and inquire: ‘Shall I reload, sir?‚’

Cribb was given command of the Bomber Development Unit, working closely with the eminent scientist R.V. Jones to develop new bombing, navigation and electronic countermeasure aids. He frequently flew on operations unofficially to test new equipment and tactics. In May 1944 he returned to the Pathfinder Force to start a third tour of operations.

In May 1945 he left for Ceylon, from where he flew Liberators on mercy missions to drop food and medical supplies to the Prison of War camps spread across the Far East.

He served in India and commanded the airbase at Peshawar during the difficult period of Indian Partition.

After a period with Coastal Command and at the Air Ministry, on technical intelligence duties, he served at HQ Bomber Command, responsible for operational plans and policy at a time when the V-bombers were entering service.

He was appointed CBE.

In 1957 Cribb was sent to Germany, where he commanded three fighter stations and took every opportunity to fly the Meteor and Hunter fighters.

In 1961, on promotion to air commodore, he served in Aden as the senior air staff officer, having responsibility for operations in the Radfan and along the Yemen border.

Two years at the MoD left him disillusioned with the Wilson government‚ defence cuts, and disdainful of the ponderous bureaucratic existence in Whitehall. Accordingly, he resigned in 1967.

Cribb moved with his family to Western Australia, where he was manager of one of the state’s first giant iron ore mines before starting his own business in Perth. He was active as a Rotarian, magistrate and charity worker.

A keen sportsman in his youth, Cribb played rugby for the Yorkshire Wanderers, once breaking his nose during a warm-up match against the All Blacks.

In later life, he was a blue-water yachtsman and game fisherman.

A modest man, he never spoke of his wartime experiences unless pressed to do so and then only to relate the episodes he had found amusing.

He married, in 1949, Vivienne Perry, who survives him with their three sons.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 03 July 2022, 15:17