John Alexander Cruickshank VC

b. 20/05/1920 Aberdeen, Scotland.

John Alexander Cruickshank (1920-) was born on 20th May 1920 in Aberdeen, Scotland, and was a pupil of Aberdeen Grammar School and later, Daniel Stewart’s College, in Edinburgh; during which time he became a Boy Scout patrol leader in the 4th Edinburgh Troop. In 1938 he gained employment with the Commercial Bank of Scotland as the start of a banking career, but on 10th May 1939, a few days before his 19th birthday, he enlisted in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, Territorial Army as a gunner.

John A Cruickshank VC

On the outbreak of war, he was called for service and continued to serve with the Royal Artillery until early 1941, when he applied for a transfer to the RAF for training as aircrew. On 30th June he officially transferred from the 129th Field Regiment, RA, to the RAF’s aircrew reception centre, and on 19th July 1941 began basic training at No 11 Initial Training Wing; being promoted to Leading Aircraftman on 1st September. Posted to Toronto, Canada on 15th September, he underwent elementary pilot training and later commenced his advanced instruction on 10th December 1941 at the US Naval flying base at Pensacola, USA. Completing his instruction, he was awarded pilot “wings” on 9th July 1942, and the following day was commissioned as a Pilot Officer, RAFVR. Arriving in England in early October, Cruickshank was next posted to No 4 (Coastal) OTU at Invergordon for operational training and crewing; where, on 10th January 1943, he was promoted to Flying Officer. Finally, fully-qualified as a flying boat pilot and with his crew, he joined his first operational unit, 210 Squadron, on 25th March 1943.

Flying the squadron’s Consolidated Catalina flying boats, Cruickshank soon adapted to the unit’s routine of operations, and on 10th July 1944 was further promoted to Flight Lieutenant. By then Cruickshank had completed 24 full operational sorties, apart from many  other “non-operational” flights, but – in common with many of his fellow “boat” skippers – had seen little excitement or direct offensive action against the enemy. Nevertheless he was by now one of the most experienced aircraft captains in his squadron; recognised as an utterly dependable pilot, skilled in his duties.

On the 17th July 1944, Cruickshank began preparations for his 25th operational sortie. His aircraft was Catalina JV928, DA-Y, and for this trip he was taking a ten-man crew, including himself as captain. His second pilot was Flight Sergeant Jack Garnett, while a third pilot, Sergeant S I Fidler, was fresh to operations and included to gain experience.

At 9.45pm, their radar screen showed contact with a surface vessel five miles ahead. As they approached they realised it was a German U-Boat, and Cruickshank’s response was to do a complete circuit around it, and begin a bombing run. When passing over, the Catalina’s depth charges failed to release, so he turned to port, climbing to 800 feet and continuing his turn to begin a second run. As they attacked, they were strafed by flak shells, and one of them exploded inside the Catalina. The explosion killed the Catalina’s navigator and injuring four including the second pilot Flight Sergeant Jack Garnett and Cruickshank himself. Cruickshank had been hit in seventy-two places, with two serious wounds to his lungs and ten penetrating wounds to his lower limbs. Despite this he refused medical attention until he was sure that the appropriate radio signals had been sent and the aircraft was on course for its home base. Even then he refused morphine aware that it would cloud his judgement. Flying through the night it took the damaged Catalina five and a half hours to return to Sullom Voe with the injured Garnett at the controls and Cruickshank lapsing in and out of consciousness in the back.

Once there Cruickshank returned to the cockpit and took command of the aircraft again. Deciding that the light and the sea conditions for a water landing were too risky for the inexperienced Garnett to safely put the aircraft down, he kept the flying boat in the air circling for an extra hour until he considered it safer and they landed the Catalina on the water and taxied it to an area where it could be safely beached. When the RAF medical officer boarded the aircraft he had to give Cruickshank a blood transfusion before he was considered stable enough to be transferred to hospital.

On 1st September 1944, the London Gazette announced the award of a VC to John Cruickshank, and a DFM to Jack Garnett for his splendid part in the whole action; and on 21st September both men attended an investiture at Holyrood House to receive their awards from the hands of King George VI.

Cruickshank’s injuries were so severe that he never returned to operational flying, being posted to HQ Coastal Command at Northwood, Middlesex on 14th December 1944; and he eventually left the RAF on 13th September 1946 to resume his “interrupted” banking career. In early 1977, after a successful career in international finance, “Jack” Cruickshank came home to Edinburgh to retire from business. Cruickshank is currently the only living recipient of the Victoria Cross from World War II, and lives in a nursing home in Scotland and is rarely seen in public due to his age.