John Alexander Cruickshank is the last living recipient to have been awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War. He received the award for his bravery in an attack on a German U-boat on 17 July 1944. Despite severe wounds, he ensured the safe arrival and landing of his crew on the return from this attack. 

Cruickshank was captain and pilot of a Catalina flying boat whose assignment it was to assist in providing anti-submarine cover for ships involved in Operation Mascot, an unsuccessful attack on the German battleship Tirpitz.


John Cruickshank full length photograph
© IWM CH 13745

Flying Officer John Alexander Cruickshank, V.C.

Cruickshank piloted Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 'Y', of No. 210 Squadron RAF during an attack on German type VIIC submarine U-361, west of the Lofoten Islands. It was thought at the time (and for a long time thereafter) to have been U-347, but it is now believed to be have been U-361.

After an initial attack in which the Catalina's depth charges failed to release, Cruickshank made a second run from astern, through intense fire from the U-boat which killed the navigator, John Dixon, and seriously wounded four other members of the crew, including Cruickshank himself.

Photograph of the U boat attack
© IWM C 4590

This photograph was 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. The submarine was later confirmed sunk.

Cruickshank had been hit in seventy-two places, receiving two serious wounds in the lungs and ten in his lower limbs. His aircraft was badly damaged and filled with the fumes of exploding shells. But he did not falter. He released the depth charges himself, straddling the submarine perfectly. The U-boat was sunk, although the crew did not know it at the time. The second pilot took over the controls, as Cruickshank's wounds were examined and dressed. However, he knew that the second pilot did not have enough experience to safely land the aircraft in the dark. Rather than accepting morphine, Cruickshank was carried back into the cockpit to oversee the landing. It was 3am, five and a half hours after the attack, when they reached their base, yet they circled for an hour until sea and light conditions were safe enough to land. 

John Appleton, interview, 1995

The above audio clips are extracts from an interview with John Appleton in 1995; the VC winning mission is described from 11 minutes in on the first link.

Appleton was radar operator on board the Catalina during the mission. He describes the attack in great detail and the medical help given to crew members including Cruickshank, whom Appleton believed was mortally wounded. He also describes the aircraft's circling and landing on an emergency beach. This is possibly the best description IWM has of Victoria Cross winning action, since Appleton was standing looking over Cruickshank’s shoulder when he was wounded.

Cruickshank visits a London factory
© IWM CH 15291

After this flight, Cruickshank had been too severely wounded to resume operational flying. He served instead by making moral-boosting visits to factories and sites within the UK. This photograph shows him visiting the factory of Claude Butler in South London. He signs his autograph on the overall of Miss Gwen Surridge, one of the factory workers.

Cruickshank was awarded the Victoria Cross the month after the sinking of the U-boat. The Fourth Supplement to The London Gazette on 29 August 1944 gives a detailed description of the flight, and concludes with the following:

"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, [Cruickshank] 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."

On 20th May 2020, John Alexander Cruickshank celebrated his 100th birthday.


Cruickshank signs his name in the "aces"
© IWM CH 15077

19th April 1945, Wing Commander Cleasby watching Flight Lieutenant J.A. Cruickshunk, V.C. add his autograph to more than 1,000 signatures in Cleasby's "aces" album.

Curator John Delaney tells Cruickshank's story


Portrait of Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson RFC who was awarded the Victoria Cross for the destruction of the SL11 airship. This was the only VC awarded for action in Britain.
© IWM (Q 66470)

Lieutenant William Robinson VC

Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson (1895-1918) was part of the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War. He was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) after a dramatic aerial pursuit of a German airship.
cross patté (described in the Royal Warrant as a 'Maltese cross of bronze') having at its centre a crown surmounted by 'lion gardant'; beneath the crown an ornamentally draped scroll bearing the motto: 'FOR VALOUR'. Raised borders outline the shape of the cross. The plain reverse bears a central circle (with raised edge) to enclose the date of the act of gallantry. The suspension bar comprises a straight laurelled bar with integral 'V' lug
© IWM (OMD 2406)
First World War

How To Tell The Difference Between The Victoria Cross And The George Cross

Read about the key differences between Britain's highest awards recognising acts of extreme military and civilian bravery; The Victoria Cross and The George Cross.
Surrender of U-Boats at Harwich
IWM (SP 1052)
First World War

The U-Boat Campaign That Almost Broke Britain

From the start of the First World War in 1914, Germany pursued a highly effective U-boat campaign against merchant shipping. This campaign intensified over the course of the war and almost succeeded in bringing Britain to its knees in 1917.