A Tune for a Hero, John Cruickshank VC

This composing competition for an original pipe tune to honour WW2 flying hero John Cruickshank VC was sponsored by the Royal Northern & University Club, Aberdeen, and Piping Press. There was one prize: £1,000. 

It was won by Mr Dave Mason, a South African living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The competition was judged by a committee comprising P/M Richard Parkes MBE of World Champions Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band, P/M Ian McLellan BEM, formerly of 12 times Worlds winners Strathclyde Police Pipe Band, P/M Stuart Liddell the 2017 World Championship winning pipe major of Inveraray & District and a renowned solo piper, and PP Editor Robert Wallace (chair). Each gave his time freely.

The competition was for a pipe march of any time signature, of any duration, but one that should be uplifting and reflect Mr Cruickshank’s home city and his bravery during his time with the Royal Air Force Coastal Command.

The competition was announced at a special lunch at the club celebrating 100 years of the RAF. Mr Cruickshank (98) attended.

Read more and listen to the winning tune being played by the composer here.

Mr Cruickshank’s inspirational story reads: Within a year [of the outbreak of war], on his father’s suggestion, he joined the Territorial Army, enlisting in the Royal Artillery in May 1939; he served there until the summer of 1941 when he transferred to the RAF. He underwent flight training in Canada and the United States earning his wings in July 1942. After further training, he was assigned, in March 1943, to No. 210 Squadron piloting Catalina flying boats from RAF Sullom Voe, used by Coastal Command in its battle to keep the North Atlantic and Arctic sea lanes open for supply convoys.

Flying Officer Cruickshank was twenty-four years old when he piloted a Consolidated Catalina anti-submarine flying boat from Sullom Voe on 17 July 1944 on a patrol north into the Norwegian Sea. The objective was to protect the British Home Fleet as it returned from an unsuccessful raid on the German battleship Tirpitz. There the ‘Cat’ caught a German U-boat on the surface. At this point in the war U-boats had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns. FO Cruickshank attacked the U-boat flying his Catalina through a hail of flak. His first pass was unsuccessful, his depth charges not releasing. He brought the aircraft around for a second pass, this time straddling the U-boat and sinking it. All 52 crew members were lost.

An artist’s impression of the attack

The German anti-aircraft fire had been deadly accurate, killing the Catalina’s navigator and injuring four crew, including both FO Cruickshank and, less seriously, second pilot Flight Sergeant Jack Garnett. John Cruickshank was hit in 72 (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 F Sgt. Garnett at the controls and FO Cruickshank lapsing in and out of consciousness in the back. FO Cruickshank then 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 F Sgt.Garnett, he kept the flying boat in the air circling for an extra hour until he considered it safe to land on the water. This done, the aircraft was taxied to an area where it could be safely beached.

When an RAF medical officer boarded the aircraft he discovered FO Cruickshank had lost a great deal of blood and had to give him a transfusion before he was stable enough to be transferred to hospital. John Cruickshank’s injuries were such that he never flew in command of an aircraft again. For his actions in sinking the U-boat and saving his crew he received the Victoria Cross, while Flight Sergeant Jack Garnett received the Distinguished Flying Medal.

The Victoria Cross citation reads: ‘The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer 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. 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 John Cruickshank during his RAF service

‘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.’

John left the RAF in September 1946 to return to his career in banking; he retired from this in 1977. In March 2004 HM The Queen unveiled the first national monument to Coastal Command at Westminster Abbey, London. John said in an interview after the ceremony: ‘When they told me that I was to get the VC it was unbelievable. Decorations didn’t enter my head.’ Four VCs were awarded to Coastal Command in the war; the others were posthumous. John is now vice chairman of The Victoria Cross and George Cross Association.

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest award of the British honours system. It is awarded for gallantry ‘in the presence of the enemy’ to members of the British Armed Forces. It may be awarded posthumously. The first awards were presented by Queen Victoria in 1857 for acts of valour in the Crimean War. The medal has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients. Only 15 medals, 11 to members of the British Army and four to the Australian Army, have been awarded since the Second World War. Two thirds of all awards have been personally presented by the British monarch. These investitures are usually held at Buckingham Palace.