Wing Commander Cliff Alabaster – obituary
Wing Commander Cliff Alabaster was an officer who guided missions against V1 bases and battle cruisers but fell prey to friendly fire over Dorset
Wing Commander Cliff Alabaster, who has died aged 95, was a highly decorated bomber captain who flew more than 100 raids with RAF Bomber Command and the Pathfinder Force before embarking on a distinguished career in civil aviation.
After completing his training as an air observer, Alabaster joined No 51 Squadron, operating the twin-engined Whitley. He made his first operational raid on August 5 1940 against a flying-boat base on the Baltic and over the next few months attacked targets in Germany and France. On the night of April 3 1941 he took off to bomb the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Brest. On the outward route over Dorset, his Whitley was hit by machine-gun fire, which inflicted heavy damage, and the crew were forced to bail out. It was later established that the attack came from an RAF Hurricane, which had been hunting for German bombers returning to France from a raid on Swansea.
After completing 30 operations, Alabaster was awarded the DFC. He had been identified as an outstanding navigator and was sent to Canada to complete a specialist course before returning to Bomber Command. He applied to train as a pilot but his services as a navigator were considered too valuable.
Soon after the formation of the Pathfinder Force, Alabaster was asked by its leader Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Don Bennett to be the Force’s navigation officer as an acting wing commander. Six months later, in June 1943, he was appointed a flight commander on No 97 Squadron equipped with the Lancaster. Unusually for a navigator, he was appointed captain of his aircraft. He attacked targets deep in Germany and on the night of August 17/18 his was one of the lead Pathfinder crews on the raid against the secret German V1 and V2 Research Station at Peenemünde.
During an attack on Cologne his Lancaster was severely damaged by a night-fighter and some of his crew were wounded, but Alabaster was determined to press on to the target. After a successful attack, the aircraft became difficult to control and an engine caught fire. The pilot made a brilliant landing at a coastal airfield. He was awarded the DFC and Alabaster added a Bar to his earlier award for his “masterly captaincy”.
After completing a further 30 operations, Alabaster was awarded the DSO. The citation noted “his fearlessness and skill have been an important factor in the many successes obtained. He is a most excellent Flight Commander”. Finally, his repeated requests to train as a pilot were granted and he completed his training in May 1944 when, at Bennett’s insistence, he returned to the Pathfinder Force, initially on Lancasters before converting to the Mosquito.
In November 1944 he assumed command of No 608 Squadron, part of the Light Night Striking Force, and he made attacks against Berlin and other major cities. After completing his 100th operation he was awarded a Bar to his DSO. He was one of only 27 men to be awarded the DSO and Bar and DFC and Bar. He also received the Air Efficiency Award.
Robert Clifford Alabaster was born on March 11 1918 at Willesden, Middlesex. He won a County Scholarship and was educated at Willesden County School. On leaving school he worked in the legal department of London Transport but with war clouds gathering he enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in May 1939.
At the war’s end Alabaster was offered a permanent commission with the RAF but he chose to join Don Bennett who had just established British South American Airways (BSAA) operating “Lancastrians” (converted wartime Lancasters). On January 1 1946 Bennett and Alabaster flew the first international service out of “Heath Row” en route to Buenos Aires in the Lancastrian Starlight.
Wing Commander Cliff Alabaster (third from right) at a wartime wedding
BSAA merged with BOAC in 1949 and Alabaster began flying Argonauts. During a flight from London to Rio via Lisbon and Dakar, Alabaster’s aircraft was well past the point of no return over the South Atlantic when it suffered a double engine failure. He set course for Fernando de Noronha, part of a remote archipelago 400 miles east of the Brazilian coast where there was an emergency airstrip. It was very close to the side of a mountain and had been rarely used since the war. In Alabaster’s words, “we landed at night amongst the sheep”. All on board survived. For his airmanship he was awarded the King’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.
He was posted to BOAC’s Comet Development Flight in 1951 and flew many proving flights between London and Beirut. On May 2 1952 he was in command on the world’s first jet passenger service on the Khartoum to Johannesburg leg from London. When the Comets were grounded following disastrous crashes due to metal fatigue he flew Constellations but was happy to return to the Comet fleet, of which he was appointed Flight Manager, when BOAC brought back the redesigned version, the Comet 4, in 1958.
In February 1959 he took the then Prime Minister, Sir Harold Macmillan on a state visit to Russia for meetings with Nikita Khrushchev.
Later in 1959 he was in command of the first ever jet service between London and New York. Eventually the Comet was withdrawn from service and, appropriately, Alabaster operated the final flight, which touched down at Heathrow in November 1965 ending 13 years of aviation history. He then converted to the Vickers VC10, the aircraft he was still flying in 1973 as a route check captain when he retired from BOAC.
Alabaster worked for British Caledonian Airways as Flight Safety Advisor before joining Gulf Air in Bahrain flying ex-BOAC VC10s until 1978.
Following his final retirement he became treasurer for the Association of British Airways Pensioners (ABAP) and spent much time defending their cause. He also enjoyed his hobbies of sailing, furniture making, astronomy, playing the piano and gardening.
Cliff Alabaster is survived by Valerie, his wife of 52 years, and their two sons and two daughters.
Cliff Alabaster, born March 11 1918, died on February 17 2014