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Library Reference Number: 198

John Cruickshank, VC

Jack Burgess, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA

Having described former Saltire Branch President Bill Reid, VC, as the motivating factor who actively encouraged the recording of members’ aircrew experiences, it would have been rather remiss if we omitted to mention another Scottish VC who gained his award in the service of the Royal Air Force.

We last met in October 2005 when accompanied by his niece, John Cruickshank had travelled by rail from his home in Aberdeen to attend the Aircrew Association Reunion at Warwick. A very modest person, John nevertheless took an active part in the occasion, enjoying the company of other former members of aircrew.

Born on 20th May 1920 in Aberdeen, John Cruickshank was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh , Aberdeen Grammar School and Daniel Stewart's College. He joined the Territorial Army, enlisting in the Royal Artillery in May 1939, and serving there until the summer of 1941 when he transferred to the RAF. He underwent flying training in Canada and the US, earning his wings in July 1942. After further training, he was assigned to No. 210 Squadron in March 1943, flying Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats.

Flying Officer John Cruickshank, RAFVR, first flew operationally with No.210 Squadron, RAF Coastal Command in March 1943. It was not until 17th July 1944 and his 48th mission that he saw an enemy submarine. What then happened is described in his VC citation, gazetted on 1st September 1944.

“In recognition of most conspicuous bravery. This officer was the captain and pilot of a Catalina flying boat which was recently engaged on an anti-submarine patrol over northern waters, close to the Arctic Circle. When a U-boat was sighted on the surface, U-boat 347, Flying Officer Cruickshank at once turned to the attack. In the face of fierce anti-aircraft fire he manoeuvred into position and ran in to release his depth charges. Unfortunately, they failed to drop.

Flying Officer Cruickshank knew that the failure of this attack had deprived him of the advantage of surprise and that his aircraft offered a good target to the enemy's determined and now heartened gunners. Without hesitation, he climbed and turned to come in again. The Catalina was met by intense and accurate fire and was repeatedly hit. The navigator/bomb aimer was killed, the second pilot and two other members of the crew were injured. Flying Officer Cruickshank was struck in seventy-two places, receiving two serious wounds in the lungs and ten penetrating wounds in the lower limbs. His aircraft was badly damaged and filled with the fumes of exploding shells. But he did not falter. He pressed home his attack, and released the depth charges himself straddling the submarine perfectly, sinking U-347 immediately.

He then collapsed and the second pilot took over the controls. He recovered shortly afterwards and, though bleeding profusely, insisted on resuming command and retaining it until he was satisfied that the damaged aircraft was under control that a course had been set for base and that all the necessary signals had been sent. Only then would he consent to receive medical aid and have his wounds attended to. He refused morphia in case it might prevent him from carrying on.

During the next five and a half hours of the return flight he several times lapsed into unconsciousness owing to loss of blood. When he came to, his first thought on each occasion was for the safety of his aircraft and crew. The damaged aircraft eventually reached base but it was clear that an immediate landing would be a hazardous task for the wounded and less experienced second pilot. Although able to breathe only with the greatest difficulty, Flying Officer Cruickshank insisted on being carried forward and propped up in the second pilot's seat. For a full hour, in spite of his agony and ever-increasing weakness, he gave orders as necessary, refusing to allow the aircraft to be brought down until the conditions of light and sea made this possible without undue risk. With his assistance the aircraft was safely landed on the water. He then directed the taxiing and beaching of the aircraft, so that it could easily be salvaged. When the medical officer went on board, Flying Officer Cruickshank collapsed and he had to be given a blood transfusion before he could be removed to hospital.

Even by the demanding standards of exploits worthy of VC consideration, John Cruickshank's skill, courage, fortitude and leadership were remarkable. A U-boat was difficult to hit, partly because it was a small target and also because its gunners were well trained. Only masterly flying by Cruickshank and his second pilot, Flight Sergeant Garnett, brought the aircraft down safely. Garnett was awarded the DFM.”

One member of his crew had been killed and two wounded, and he too had been hit - it was later found that he had 12 wounds, two serious wounds to his lungs and ten penetrating wounds to his lower limbs. John told us on a previous occasion to Warwick, that had it not been for the prompt action by the medical officer who treated him immediately he was able to reach shore, he would have certainly died very soon from the massive loss of blood he suffered during the course of action with the U-boat.

Having been struck in seventy-two places during his encounter with the submarine, it was a miracle that John Cruickshank survived at all. Through the activities of the Aircrew Association, valuable opportunities have arisen to meet many interesting people. It has been a special privilege however, to meet with two members whose service with the Royal Air Force has led to being recipients of the Victoria Cross the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

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