It was from Sullom Voe that 210 Sqn Flying Officer John Cruickshank, earned himself the Victoria Cross for his action against a heavily armed German U-boat. During the attack, Cruickshank and four other crewmen were severely injured, his navigator was killed and the aircraft badly damaged. He continued to fly his aircraft (Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 ‘Y’) before relinquishing control to his second pilot. But knowing he couldn’t land the aircraft, Cruickshank refused morphine, circling over the base until daylight which allowed him to supervise the landing of the Catalina by the Second Pilot. His actions that night undoubtedly went a long way to saving his crew and his aircraft. Cruickshank is the last living recipient to have been awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War.
Born on 20th May, 1920 in Aberdeen, on Scotland’s north-east coast, Cruickshank spent some of his life in both Aberdeen and Edinburgh being educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, the Aberdeen Grammar School and Daniel Stewart’s College in Edinburgh. Before the war, he was employed by the Commercial Bank of Scotland, joining them in 1938. In 1939 he served in the Territorial Army before joining up in May, the 129 Field Regiment Royal Artillery being mobilised in the following August.
In June 1941, he transferred across to the Royal Air Force completing his flying training in both the US and Canada before returning to England and an operational squadron. By 1942 he had earned his wings and after further training he was assigned to an operational unit, 210 Squadron who were operating flying boats on maritime and anti-submarine patrols. By 1944 he was an accomplished and experienced pilot, flying many hours with 210 Sqn.
At 13:45 hrs on 17th July 1944, F.O. John Cruickshank, along with his crew: F.O. J.C. Dickson (Navigator); F.Sgt. J.S. Garnett (2nd Pilot); Sgt. F. Fidler (3rd Pilot); F.Sgt. S.B. Harrison (F.Engineer); W.O. W.C. Jenkins (1st W. Op.); F.Sgt. H. Gershenson (2nd W. Op); Sgt. R.S.C. Proctor (W.Op/Air G.); F.Sgt. F.J. Appleton (W.O/Air G.); and F.Sgt. A.I. Cregan (Rigger) took off in Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 ‘Y’ from Sullom Voe as part of Operation ‘Mascot’, an operation designed to attack and sink the German Battleship ‘Tirpitz’.
Tirpitz was anchored at her mooring in Kaafjord, Norway, and the RAF’s 18 Group role was to protect the attacking fleet from a defensive force of twelve German submarines designated Group Trutz. Cruickshank and 210 Sqn were part of that RAF 18 Group.
Following the unsuccessful attack, the British fleet returned, Group Trutz was re-positioned to lay in wait for them and it was here that Cruickshank made his attack.
At 21:45 at the position 6842N 0612E and a height of 1,500 ft, Cruickshank’s radar operator picked up a signal some 15 miles away, a position west of the Lofoten Islands, west of Narvik. The aircraft turned and vectored onto the vessel. At 5 miles distance they sighted an unknown surface vessel, and went to investigate.
The aircraft reduced altitude to 200 ft on a course of 2200 noting that the vessel was at that time stationary. After entering cloud, Cruickshank then sighted the vessel again at 2 miles, this time is was moving at a speed of about 20 knots and turning to starboard. The crew at this time considered it to be a ‘friendly’ and so fired a recognition flare whilst signalling the letter of the day. At this point, the vessel began to open fire and it was now certain that it was a U-boat and not a British vessel.
The Catalina, followed the U-boat (believed to be a German type VIIC submarine U-361) as it turned to port, and made a compete circuit remaining at 2 miles distance. Once ahead, the aircraft began its run in. Diving from 1,000 ft to 500 ft, it headed straight for the U-boat, inaccurate flak being met with fire from the Catalina’s front turret. As the aircraft passed the U-boat depth charges were dropped and the blister turrets also opened fire, hits were seen on the coning tower by both front and port blister turret.
Unfortunately the depth charges didn’t release and so Cruickshank turned the aircraft for a second attack. This time, the U-boat was stationary and firing more accurate flak. The Catalina was hit several times, killing the navigator, F.O. John C. Dickson, and seriously wounding Cruickshank along with three other crewmen. At 50 ft, 6 Depth Charges were released, this time successfully, the two blister turrets confirming wash from the drops but no defined ‘hits’. Immediately after the attack the Catalina entered thick sea fog obscuring any further views.
A photograph taken from Cruickshank’s Catalina during the attack. It shows the splashes from the first of six depth charges 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. © IWM C 4590
At 21:58 the attack was over, the Second Pilot took control of the Catalina, himself injured in the hand. The Wireless Operator F.Sgt. F.J. Appleton, treated the injured dressing their wounds, including those of Cruickshank. F.Sgt. Fidler took over the navigation from the killed navigator. He calculated the aircraft’s fuel and consumption and initial results were not good, but with damaged instruments this proved to be difficult.
A message was sent back to Sullom Voe that an ambulance was required urgently. A conversation then began between the ground and the second Pilot in which it was said that the flying boat’s hull had been damaged and the pilot was unable to land the aircraft as he was badly wounded. The Catalina informed Sullom Voe that they had about 5 hours of fuel (450 Gallons) available. It was also clear by this point that the radio wasn’t working.
Whilst dressing Cruickshank’s wounds Appleton realised how seriously injured the pilot was, but knowing the Second Pilot, F.Sgt. J.S. Garnett, could not land the Catalina, he refused morphine, instead insisting on being carried back to the controls to oversee the landing.
Garnett set a course for home, and just after 03:00 hrs they arrived over Sullom Voe. With unsuitable weather and darkness still enshrouding the base, the aircraft circled the area burning off fuel and waiting for daylight, beaching being the only option due to the aircraft’s damage.
For a further hour, some five and half hours after the attack, the Catalina circled the base, Cruickshank giving instructions, keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings. Finally, daylight appeared and the aircraft was able to land, successfully beaching at 04:05 hrs.
On examination, Cruickshank was found to have seventy-two separate wounds, including his lungs and legs, and the aircraft had been badly damaged. Cruickshank was given an immediate blood transfusion and then transferred to Lerwick hospital, with one further stop over before finally being transferred south.
Cruickshank made a good recovery but despite this he didn’t return to flying operationally again. On 29th August 1944, his award appeared in The London Gazette, receiving the Victoria Cross from King George at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, on 21st September 1944; he was just 24 years of age. He eventually left the RAF in 1946 and returned to banking, the career he had held before the war.
For his efforts and determination F.Sgt. J.S. Garnett was awarded the DFM.
The submarine was later confirmed as sunk, which that night, enabled the British fleet to sail through a gap in the German Submarine line, a gap made possible by both Cruickshank and one other successful sinking.
On May 20th 2020 John Cruickshank VC turned 100, his story was widely celebrated and reported about on BBC Scotland.
On 1st September 1944, Number 36682, p. 4073, Cruickshank’s citation appeared in The London Gazette, its states:
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 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.