Piecing together the lives of father's Second World War comrades
PUBLISHED: 13:00 05 August 2017
Vic Jay shares the story of his father Bob’s Second World War bomber crew.
When Flt Sgt Bill Mallon entered the sergeants’ mess at RAF Oakley, on August 22, 1944, he knew he was about to make the most important decisions of his life. Choose wrongly, and he would never return to his home in New Zealand again.
Bill and his two older brothers, Tom and Jack, had developed a fascination with flying when, as young boys, they had watched Gipsy Moths taking off and landing at their local airfield. All three had eventually trained as pilots and, as Bill looked around the room, he thought of Tom, who was already taking part in regular operations in support of Allied troops advancing across Europe following D-Day.
He thought also of Jack, who had been shot down and killed in France, shortly after the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, and whose death had heightened Bill’s appreciation of the importance of the next few minutes. He had to choose five men with whom he was to share the cramped space inside a Lancaster bomber, whilst flying deep into enemy territory.
Within the space of less than an hour, he had selected a navigator, a bomb aimer, a wireless operator and two young air gunners, one aged 19 and the other 20. Four months later, they would be joined by a flight engineer, and the Mallon crew was complete. Three months after that, Bill received the terrible news that his brother Tom had also been killed, shortly after taking off for a routine night patrol in Holland.
The flight engineer, Bob Jay, from Lincolnshire, was my dad, and many years after his premature death in 1974, the Mallon crew would come to dominate my life for nearly five years. Following a brief taxi run in a Lancaster, in April 2012, I decided to find out as much as I could about my dad’s experiences. I was ill-prepared for the scale of the tragedies I would uncover.
I eventually made contact with the families of all but one of the crew, four of them from New Zealand, and, with the help of photographs, letters, poems and drawings, was able to tell their stories and explore the devastating impact of the war on them and their families.
As the story gradually came to an end, I was left with one major regret – I had been unable to trace the family of Don Cook, the 20-year-old mid-upper gunner.
Unable to access RAF records, and with nothing more than a suspicion that he was from London, all attempts to find out who Don was came to nothing – until last week.
Kevin Mallon, Bill’s son, had found his dad’s old address book, hidden amongst family treasures lying in storage after an earthquake hit Christchurch in 2010. It may be the breakthrough I have been hoping for.
Don was born in Bethnal Green, between April and June 1924, and during the war lived with his parents, David and Mabel Cook, at 60 Belhaven Street. He would have celebrated his 21st birthday during the short period in which the Mallon crew was operational. The family continued to live at that address until at least 1965, after which the electoral rolls are no longer available online.
Kevin reported that he had been unable to find Belhaven Street on Google Maps, but I soon discovered that the whole area had been demolished in the 1970s. The trail had gone cold.
There is a strong possibility that Don married in 1978, at the age of 54, and that is the latest lead I am pursuing.
The crew’s full story is told in the book, The Mallon Crew, and I hope that I will soon be able to remove its postscript, which reads: “At the culmination of this project, I am left with one regret – I have been unable to locate the family of mid-upper gunner, Don Cook.
“Don remains a constant reminder that the internet does not have all the answers, and this project will not be complete until I have found him.”
Anyone who has information about Don Cook, or would like to purchase the book, is asked to email TheMallonCrew@gmail.com.