The Mysterious Death of a Battle of Britain Spitfire Pilot
I first came across David Crook when I was researching my Battle of Britain novel, The Burning Blue. I had picked up a copy of his memoir, Spitfire Pilot, in a second-hand book stall at Duxford and enjoyed it enormously. His is one of many personal accounts about the Battle of Britain that have been published over the past sixty years, but only a handful were actually written and published during the Second World War. Most famous of these (and still in print today) is Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy, which became an instant bestseller on its publication in 1942. Crook’s book also came out that year, and although it is now largely forgotten, I love it because of its obvious honesty and because it rattles along with a breathless immediacy that is lacking in so many post-war memoirs.
Yet it is also a highly personalised account. This is Crook’s Battle of Britain, and the battle of the handful of pilots he flew with in 609 Squadron. At no point is there any sense of a precise time frame. 609 Squadron were involved in sweeps across the Channel to Dunkirk and then they were moved to Dorset, flying from an airfield at Warmwell near Weymouth and intercepting German dive-bombers and their fighter escorts attacking channel shipping. Later, they flew up to London every day to take part in the huge sky battles of September. Of Goering’s Adler Tag, there is no mention, even though it was on 13th August that 609 had their most successful day, shooting down thirteen confirmed enemy aircraft for no loss of their own.
The book also reinforces the sense of the Battle being fought by a â€˜few’. Squadron full-strength could be as little as twelve pilots, and this sense of 609 Squadron being a very tight and close unit comes through very strongly. 609 was also an auxiliary squadron, (the equivalent of today’s Territorial soldiers), drawn from people local to the West Riding in Yorkshire. Rather like the Pals regiments of the First World War, these auxiliary squadrons were often sent off to train together and then to war together. Many of Crook’s fellow pilots were old friends. Two had been at school with him, and most had been at training with him throughout the year leading up to the Battle. Consequently, deaths in action affected everyone in the Squadron very badly. A close friend of several years had been Peter Drummond-Hay, lost in an early fight over Weymouth in July 1940. Crook wrote movingly and openly about his and other friends’ deaths. â€˜I could not get out of my head the thought of Peter, with whom we had been talking and laughing that day, now lying in the cockpit of his wrecked Spitfire at the bottom of the English Channel.’ Gordon Mitchell, one of his friends from school, was killed the following day. Geoff Gaunt, his oldest and closest friend was killed on 15th September, now remembered as Battle of Britain Day.
Crook’s own character also comes through very strongly in his book – and what a likeable fellow he appears to have been; honest, decent, and gregarious with a love of sport and his family and friends. I felt that I had almost known him after reading his book, something I sensed even more keenly after looking at his log-book in the Public Record Office in Kew, (now The National Archives). Some kept very terse, neat log-books, but Crooks is filled with jottings, pictures and cuttings.
Inevitably, I wanted to discover more about him and to find out whether he had survived the war. First port of call was to look him up on the Commonwealth War Grave Commission website, and there, to my great sadness I discovered he had died in December 1944. This is also written up in Kenneth Wynn’s Men of the Battle of Britain. Apparently, on the morning of 18 December, Crook took off on a morning high-level reconnaissance flight off the coast of north-east Scotland. Later, a Spitfire was diving into the sea; at any rate, no body was ever found although some of the pilot’s clothing was found floating in the sea.
He left behind his wife and at least a son, whom he mentions regularly in his book. I later discovered his wife had only recently died; of his son, I could find no trail. Later, when I was writing The Burning Blue, I used Crook’s log-book as the template for my protagonist’s Battle of Britain experience: my fictional squadron was based heavily on 609, while the hero flew on precisely the same days as Crook had done.
But all the time I was writing the book, I felt nagged by the mystery of Crook’s death. Oxygen failure was the presumed cause of his plight but that was nothing more than supposition: no remains of either pilot or plane had ever been found.
Last year, however, I mentioned Crook to a friend of mine, Professor Rick Hillum. Rick is as straight as can be and has had a highly successful business and academic career. He is also a diviner, and has found wrecks of aircraft and other archaeological finds with unerring accuracy using this method of detection. Rick’s the first to admit that most people are sceptical – as he was himself to begin with when he first came to this strange but centuries-old art. No matter how incomprehensible it may seem to the sceptics, however, Rick’s discoveries are proof that he’s got some kind of gift, whatever its mysteries.
Rick kindly offered to look into Crook’s case. I gave him every bit of information about him that I could lay my hands on and then a few months later we met up again. His findings were startling. Crook had not died of oxygen failure, Rick assured me. Rather, his end had come about from natural causes. Although not quite thirty at the time, he had suffered from an hereditary heart-condition that had only recently been detected. The Medical Officer had known about it, as had Crook, but he had not been taken off operational flying, as he should have been. And so on that fateful morning, he had suddenly suffered a massive and fatal heart-attack. According to Rick, he had died before the Spitfire had hit the water.
Rick also believes that Crook’s medical records still exist – although I have been unable to find them. If anyone has any ideas where I might search, I would love to hear from them.
If Rick is right, and I have no reason to think otherwise, the secret of David Crook’s death did not slip into the icy North Sea with him. And I would also like to think that this brave pilot would be pleased to know that his life is still remembered and that his book is still being enjoyed more than sixty years on.
I’m delighted to say that Greenhill Books has just published (October 2006) a new edition of this tremendous book, the first edition since 1942. The new edition has some excellent new material including a preface by the daughter of David Crook (who now lives in London), a short history of the 609 Squadron by Air Vice Marshal Sandy Hunter, and an introduction by Professor Richard Overy.
When first published, the Spectator reviewed the book and said that it was ‘a brilliant first-hand account of the life of a fighter pilot before and during the Battle of Britain which may be guaranteed to hold the almost breathless attention of every reader, in a way that nothing less realistic and matter-of-fact could possibly do’.
As David’s eldest grandson (born ’67) I’m amazed to hear about a hereditary heart condition. None of David’s siblings had heart issues and all lived until at least their 50s, two into their 80’s. David had three children, Nicholas, Rosemary & Elizabeth (Born Sept 1944- my mother) They’re all in fairly rude heath and as for the grandchildren ( 8 of ’em) we’re all great except for the hereditary rudeness!
As stated above Spitfire Pilot is back in print and as powerful a read of everyday life whilst at war as you will ever read.