For Valour: Flight Lieutenant Cruickshank VC

Portrait of Cruickshank

Image: photograph by 210 Squadron, RAF Coastal Command, of Flt Lt John Alexander Cruickshank (RAF Museum X004-7598/011; CH 137/44).

Location: July 17 1943, over the Norwegian Sea

Who: Flight Lieutenant Cruickshank VC, 20 May 1920

The Royal Air Force Museum wishes John Alexander Cruickshank VC, the last surviving Second World War recipient of the Victoria Cross, a very happy 104th birthday.

 Born on 20 May 1920, Flight Lieutenant Cruickshank VC (126700), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest gallantry medal, for his bravery in command on the 17-18 July 1944.

Image: photograph taken by Cruickshank’s aircraft during his successful attack on German type VIIC submarine U-347, west of the Lofoten Islands (RAF Museum X004-7598/11)

During the Second World War, the primary air-launched anti-submarine weapon was the depth charge. Exploding under water, if near enough to the submarine, the shock wave would cause major internal damage and start leaks, even if it did not rupture the submarine’s pressure hull. But to be effective the attacking aircraft should ideally fly diagonally across the submarine’s track, and at low level for accuracy, to achieve a ‘straddle’ – the depth charges dropped each side of the vessel. In the early years, a U-Boat would submerge as soon as an aircraft was sighted. But the Kriegsmarine [German navy] realised how vulnerable the attacking aircraft were, and therefore started mounting extensive anti-aircraft guns on the submarine, more powerful and longer ranged than the modest aircraft armament. Thus, instead of diving when attacked, they would stay on the surface and fight back.


Image: photograph by 210 Squadron, RAF Coastal Command, of a Consolidated Catalina Mk. IVA (JX574 T) in flight (RAF Museum P011892)

Flying Officer Cruickshank, of 210 Squadron, Coastal Command, was based at RAF Sullom Voe, Shetland Islands, and was captain and pilot of Consolidated Catalina Mark IVA, serial JV 928, coded ‘DA-Y’. Catalina aircraft had a very long endurance – the record being 27 hours aloft – and on this day Cruickshank was anticipating a patrol of 18 hours. While over the Norwegian Sea, west of the Lofoten Islands, he detected on radar and attacked a German type VIIC submarine U-347.

Cruickshank was awarded the Victoria Cross on Friday 1 September 1944, cited in the London Gazette on 29 August:

‘The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the under-mentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —

Flying Officer John Alexander CRUICKSHANK (126700), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 210 Squadron.

This officer was the captain and pilot of a Catalina flying boat which was recently engaged on an anti-submarine patrol over northern waters. When a U-boat was sighted on the surface, 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. The U-boat was sunk.

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 taxying 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.

By pressing home the second attack in his gravely wounded condition and continuing his exertions on the return journey with his strength failing all the time, he seriously prejudiced his chance of survival even if the aircraft safely reached its base. Throughout, he set an example of determination, fortitude and devotion to duty in keeping with the highest traditions of the Service.’

Note: although The London Gazette recorded Cruickshank’s rank on 17 July 1944 as Flying Officer, another source noted his promotion to Flight Lieutenant on 10 July 1944.

Flying Officer Cruickshank’s wounds were such that he was not able to fly again. He was released from active service in September 1946.

London Gazette (Supplement) 29 August 1944, p. 4073.
Bowyer, Chaz, For Valour: The Air VCs, London: Grub Street Publishing, 1992, pp.378-386.
Hendrie, Andrew, Flying Catalinas: The Consolidated PBY Catalina in World War II, Barnsley: Pen and Sword Aviation, 2012.

About the Author

Norman Brice: Volunteer

Volunteer Norman Brice

It all started very many years ago when, lying in my pram, I was awoken by what I later knew as Spitfires on their finals to RAF Biggin Hill, just a handful of miles away. As a schoolboy I was captivated by the annual September Battle of Britain Days at Biggin Hill with a vast range of visiting aircraft, including all three V-Bombers in gleaming anti-flash white.

Fast forward very many years past retirement I joined the RAF Museum London as a volunteer as a Vulcan and Cold War tour guide.