Badly wounded pilot’s determination sinks U-Boat

Oblique photograph taken from Consolidated Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 'Y', of No. 210 Squadron RAF during an attack on German type VIIC submarine U-347 west of the Lofoten Islands. After an initial attack in which the Catalina's depth charges failed to release, the captain, Flying Officer J A Cruickshank, made a second run from astern, through intense fire from the U-boat which killed the navigator and seriously wounded Nicholson and three other members of the crew. The photograph shows the splashes from the first of six DCs dropped on the second attack, landing astern of the U-boat which was making violent 'S' turns in an effort to escape. Machine gun fire from a gun housed in one of the Catalina's 'blisters' can also be seen at top left. The submarine was later confirmed sunk.

Oblique photograph taken from Consolidated Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 ‘Y’, of No. 210 Squadron RAF during an attack on German type VIIC submarine U-347 west of the Lofoten Islands. After an initial attack in which the Catalina’s depth charges failed to release, the captain, Flying Officer J A Cruickshank, made a second run from astern, through intense fire from the U-boat which killed the navigator and seriously wounded Nicholson and three other members of the crew. The photograph shows the splashes from the first of six DCs dropped on the second attack, landing astern of the U-boat which was making violent ‘S’ turns in an effort to escape. Machine gun fire from a gun housed in one of the Catalina’s ‘blisters’ can also be seen at top left. The submarine was later confirmed sunk.

Catalina Mark I, W8406, of No. 4 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit based at Stranraer, Ayrshire, on a training flight over the Irish Sea. It was shortly afterwards transferred to No. 210 Squadron RAF operating from Oban.

Catalina Mark I, W8406, of No. 4 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit based at Stranraer, Ayrshire, on a training flight over the Irish Sea. It was shortly afterwards transferred to No. 210 Squadron RAF operating from Oban.

For hours on end and for patrol after patrol Coastal Command aircraft patrolled the oceans, rarely spotting any shipping let alone any U-boats. There were only moments for action once one was sighted and then the attack had to be precisely executed to have a prospect of success. At the same time the Anti-Aircraft gunnery from U-boats was no small threat.

It is this context that the actions of 24 year old Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank on his patrol of 17th/18th July 1944 must be seen. The Victoria Cross citation explains what happened in some detail:

Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank VC

Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank VC

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned 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.

Seventy years after the event John Cruickshank is the only VC recipient from World War II still with us.

Air and ground crew of No. 202 Squadron RAF check equipment and ordnance issued to Consolidated Catalina Mark I, AJ159 'AX-B', on the slipway at North Front, Gibraltar, in preparation for a patrol.

Air and ground crew of No. 202 Squadron RAF check equipment and ordnance issued to Consolidated Catalina Mark I, AJ159 ‘AX-B’, on the slipway at North Front, Gibraltar, in preparation for a patrol.

Consolidated Catalina Mark II, FP530, of No. 45 Group, Transport Command, based at Bermuda, prepares to taxy while visiting Lagens. Parked behind it are Vickers Wellington GR Mark XIVs of No. 179 Squadron RAF which maintained a Detachment at Lagens between November 1943 and April 1944.

Consolidated Catalina Mark II, FP530, of No. 45 Group, Transport Command, based at Bermuda, prepares to taxy while visiting Lagens. Parked behind it are Vickers Wellington GR Mark XIVs of No. 179 Squadron RAF which maintained a Detachment at Lagens between November 1943 and April 1944.

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