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.
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.
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
“Session number 15555. John Appleton Reel 16.”
Interviewer: “Mr Appleton reel 16. We were talking about some of the flights you made in, well, we're in April 1944 now, just looking at your logbook and picking up the ones of interest.”
John Appleton: “Well, from then onwards, on the 28th of April, did another patrol in the Hancock area - these, some of these patrol areas were given names, just to make it easier to explain someone just saying we're going to the Hancock area, we know roughly where it was - and they had other names of course. And then during May we did bombing practise. On the 3rd of May, we did a transit to Alness and we didn't return till the 16th, so I assume we went on leave in that period. We used to fly down to Alness, go on leave from Alness. Most of us lived down south of England and then return to Alness and pick up a flying boat and take it home. All through May we did anti-submarine patrols. Interesting one, we were diverted to Alness on the 24th of May and returned two days later. That gives an idea of how much stand down we had after a trip. We took off on the 24th of May at 4 or 5 o’clock in the evening, flew for 18 hours, which would take us until noon or so the next day, which is the 25th. And then 9 o'clock on the 26th, after we had a decent sleep, we flew back to the Shetlands. And that nearly took two hours. More and more of these patrols. On the 3rd of May, 3rd of June, I was flying with Flight Sergeant Butler for some reason. And we were diverted to Alness. And then three days later, again the same procedure, we flew back to the Shetlands. And more and more patrols. Incidentally, the day we flew back was the 6th of June, and this is where we heard that the invasion of Normandy had happened. That trip to Alness, the previous one on the 3rd of June, was 20 hours, which I think is the longest operational trip I did. 20 hours from start to finish. Then we did more and more trips all through June at the end of June, we did a radar and Gee exercise. Now Gee was a navigation system which had been much used by Bomber Command. It was a system using three or four ground slave stations. And the time difference between a signal arriving from a master station at the various slave stations and retransmitted to the aircraft enabled you to position yourself in relation for those stations. We had special charts which made it easier to work that had been used extensively in Bomber Command and was now becoming available for our use. We wouldn't need it nearly so much as Bomber Command but it would be handy in certain areas, like in the channel or even getting back to base in bad weather. It was, I think it was a fairly short range thing. It was VHF, very high frequency, so it would only operate up to about 50 or 100 miles. A long wave, a longer version using ordinary high frequency of similar principle, not exactly the same, but similar was called LORAN. Which is American, an acronym for Long Range Air navigation. But we didn't get that. But LORAN was subsequently used in the 50s and 60s for maritime navigation. Then there must have been a gap due to bad weather again because we didn't fly again till the 12th of July. During which occasion I was minding my own business on the radio set when I was tapped on the shoulder and someone said, “We're being chased by a JU 88,” which seemed like a rather one sided affair. JU 88 being a very good aircraft which have been used for all sorts of purposes. Basically it was a bomber, but it was also used as a long range fighter, a night fighter. It had ample room, an ability to carry extensive radar systems. There were certainly a lot of them based in Norway used to patrol out along the Norwegian coast. The log book says we're actually patrolling along the Norwegian coast and I have a feeling that we were put there to bring up the German Air Force. Because as soon as we reported that we've been, we’d encountered the JU 88, of course, once the enemy had seen us and we knew he'd seen him, radio silence was unnecessary. So, we transmitted an O break A, O was emergency, and the oblique stroke A meant enemy aircraft. There were various other emergency signals, but that was the one that concerned us. We received a signal in reply saying Mosquitoes operating in your area at a certain time. And then they shifted us in a shifted our patrol area about 100 miles to the west. It seems to me illogical to assume that we'd been sent out to bring up the German Air Force. If you don't get the Air Force airborne, you can't go and shoot them down. So, one way of getting them up was to send out some bait in the form of a Catalina. And presumably the mozzies were already airborne by then and were not far away. Eventually, we got another signal saying abandon OPS return to base, which accounts for our trip only lasting 12 hours 45 minutes. So, we might have been successful there in causing a bit of a commotion amongst the German Air Force. And then on the 17th of July, we commenced our last trip. We weren't to know it at the time. We went into the OPS room, saluted, looked at the map on the wall. Noticed that the red ribbon went way up north to the Lofoten Islands. We weren't told much about, we weren't told anything, it was just another patrol and I just assumed, although John Cruickshank, our skipper, has told me since that he had an inkling of what was going on. But I, I certainly didn't know at the time. It seemed to me that it might be a breakout of U Boats from the Norwegian area, to get round the north of the UK down the Atlantic into the invasion area. This was the 17th of July, which makes it five or six weeks after D-Day. By this time, the U Boats could have recovered slightly and the people in charge in the German side worked out what to do to make maximum effort. I assume this information had been sent from the Norwegian Underground, which had very good contacts, especially with the Shetlands. There's a thing called the Shetland Bus, which was a fishing boat which used to wander back and forth like a taxi between Norway and the Shetlands, taking medical supplies, ammunition, radio sets, information, swapping people over and so on. In fact, the Norwegians, who are based in the Shetlands with us, were said to have had Norwegian pine trees in their mess for Christmas. And it was also said that some of them used to go and leave because Norway wasn't occupied totally. The Norwegians knew the place like the back of their hand, and there were gaps in the German garrisons.
So we went up on this trip. It was five hours or so to get there and the sea was dead flat, absolutely dead flat.”
Interviewer: “Let me just check the Catalina number was...”
John Appleton: “JV 928.”
Interviewer: “And the crew that day. If you could run through them, I've got them here.”
John Appleton: “Well, the aircraft letter was DA, the squadron letter, and Y, aircraft Y York. The crew comprise John Cruickshank, the skipper, John Dixon, Navigator, Jack Garnett, the second pilot, myself, Paddy Harbison, the 1st engineer, a chap called Bladen was a second engineer, I think. I think there was a Jenkins. The other crew had not been so consistently with us. There was a certain amount of shuffling at the bottom end of the crew list.”
Interviewer: “What about Ray Stockton?”
John Appleton: “Well, Roy Stockton with our rigger, he was our rigger on our right from the very beginning. But he was not on that trip. And he was very annoyed about that once subsequent events developed. What had happened was that we had Spitfire photographic reconnaissance aircraft up in North Russia. And these spits had taken off and photographed the Tirpitz. Having photographed Tirpitz, the pictures had to be got back to the UK and the only way to practical way to get them back was by Catalina. And the crew selected apparently was short of a rigger, so Roy Stockton was taken off that crew, off our crew and flew with them.”
Interviewer: “So who was his replacement? Was that Blayden?”
John Appleton: “No, I don't think the crew list on that form 540 is not accurate at all. For instance, there's no 2nd engineer listed. And one of the fellows who I think was listed as a wireless operator is listed elsewhere as a rigger. I've not been, I've not had the time to, to thoroughly check this out.”
Interviewer: “Sergeant Fiddler was the first...”
John Appleton: “Oh Fiddler. So, Ian Fiddler had joined the squadron five days earlier. He'd never done an operational training unit course. He'd got his wings and the aircrew situation at that time was such that such spare pilots were allocated straight to a squadron to be used as necessary. And so, he was assigned to our crew to make a trip just to get his hand in and just to get a feel. He probably wasn't expected to do any flying at all, just to sit around and observe.”
Interviewer: “So you took off at 13:45?”
John Appleton: “That's correct, yeah.”
Interviewer: “And you went first over Muckle..."
John Appleton: "Muckle Flugga, there are two departure points from the Shetlands that navigators chose to use, one with Muckle Flugga, the most improbable sounding name, and the other was Escher Ness. They're both names of Scandinavian origin apparently. The Shetlands, having originally been Danish or Norwegian or something, way back in the year dot. But a lot of names around there have Scandinavian origin. We flew on this northeasterly course for five hours or so until we got to the patrol area. We did our usual rotation on the hour, roughly on the hour, and I was on the radar. And I think it was only our second or so trip with the Mark 8 radar, which is a very impressive piece of equipment. It was far more sophisticated and better built than all the previous stuff, because the previous metric radar really was not much of a development on what had been put out in 1940- 41. But by this time, the American production system had gone into operation. It's really well developed, well, well built equipment was in use. So, I was sitting there watching and I'm sure now, I recall now, is our second or third trip with the Mark 8 radar 'cause on a previous trip I'd homed onto a cloud. I homed onto a target, which seemed to be getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and it was quite impossible that it could be a ship. By the time it reached about a mile or so in size, I said this must be a cloud, water vapour or something like that because it had ill-defined edges. Now nobody had told us about this sort of problem, but the radar was of such a type that you were getting reflections from clouds. And this, of course, has been subsequently developed in civilian radar into weather warning radars that are used in commercial airliners. And the sort of things you see on television where news reporters show you the local thunderstorm. It's all a question of what wavelength is used. Some wavelengths are quite impervious to rain, others get reflected by it. But anyway, this is on our second or third trip with the Mark 8 radar and I thought I saw a target.”
Interviewer: “That was at 21:30, I think you, you had your first contact at about 43 miles.”
John Appleton: “Yes, well, it came to 43 miles on the screen when I first noticed it. That's nautical miles around about 50 statute miles. I looked at it and it wasn't there every scan the, the radar real scanned like a tennis match from left to right. The Form 540 is not accurate and it said it was defected on the 90 degrees green which is on the beam, but in actual fact the scan only worked 80 degrees each side, so couldn't detect anything at 90 degrees, it wasn't scanning there, but there are many, many other errors in the Form 540. But I watched this target. And within a couple of minutes, that's another three miles or so, we used to fly at 95 knots, I felt confident that it was a target and ought to be worth mentioning, so I mentioned it, reported it to the skipper. And he, he turned the knob on the autopilot, and we started the home onto it. Of course, it would take nearly 20 minutes to get there. In our, in our attack situation, we flew about two miles a minute, so it would take 20 minutes to get 40 miles.”
Interviewer: “How would you prepare for action then?”
John Appleton: “Well, not nothing much really. At this point I must say that that in the BBC film, the script originally was full of action stations, rather like on a John Mills naval film. Bells ringing and her hat claxons blowing and people running all over the place. And I had to point out to these people that really none of this was called for because, as I say, it would take 20 minutes to get there and during which time the navigator would have checked his last position and handed it to the wireless operator in case the wireless operator had to send a signal. The people in the blisters would have got ready, switched on their reflector sights and strapped their guns made them ready to be used. Somebody would have gone up in the front turret. As it happened, it was Paddy Harbison, who was our first engineer, our 2nd engineer, whoever he was, was in the on the panel. And people just generally got ready for some sort of incident because we didn't know what the target was. At briefing nobody had mentioned, not to us anyway, of the presence of any shipping. We just assumed it was an anti-submarine patrol of some sort. And my guess was that it was submarines breaking out from Narvik to get out into the Atlantic and get round to the Normandy invasion area. When we got within a reasonable distance Paddy and the two pilots, Paddy in the front turret and the 2 pilots thought they could see something, a ship of some sort. By this time, I was getting very good strong returns, so I knew it was a proper target. And it was quite clearly identified as a naval ship. And they said it must be one of our destroyers. So, by time we got within about five miles, I suppose, although these figures are not the same as in the Form 540, we fired the colours of the day and the, from the very pistol, and flashed the Aldis lamp letter of the day. If this ship was one of ours, we didn't want it shooting us down, and the Navy tend to regard any aircraft approaching it as enemy. I'm surprised how poor that aircraft recognition was, but they just took no chances. It’s justified on the basis that an aircraft worth in those days $50,000 with a crew of 10 versus a ship probably worth $100,000 with a crew of 150, there's no doubt which one had to be sacrificed. So, we made sure we were identified. This must have confirmed to the German, to the ship that we were not on their side. So, I immediately heard them, Paddy Harbison, the 2 pilots on the intercom discussing they said it's not a destroyer at all, it's a U boat. So, John Cruickshank would have fired the claxon horn to alert everybody, told everybody on the intercom. And of course, by this time John Dixon had gone up for'ard into his bomb aiming position, switched on all the bomb aiming apparatus, checked what he had to check. And you could do everything in the way of checking except actually press the button that makes them drop. It's pretty obvious that you can't do that. So, we then commenced an attack. By this time, I knew that the submarine was well and truly in visual contact. Therefore, I could stand up and look over John Cruickshank's shoulder. There's a bracket on the bulkhead behind the pilots, and I could easily stand on that. And I could look forward and quite clearly this is part of my job actually. You could see no more on the radar. And it was my job to observe what I could about the submarine and about the action. And I saw the thing firing at us quite heavily. But it wasn't very accurate. The Flak was all over the place. We made this attack. And I went, I remember looking straight out of the window as the pilot banked as the aircraft banked and turned I could see out of the left side of the pilot's windows down into the conning tower of the submarine. And we did the usual breakaway and I immediately went aft, absolutely certain that I would see the destruction of a U Boat. When I got there I saw a couple of irate crew members and I said, “What's the matter? What's the matter?” and they said, “Look!” And they pointed to the two wings, and there were the six depth charges still there. The depth charges had failed to drop. I went forward to tell the skipper and they told him on the intercom the depth charges had failed to release. So, I heard John Cruickshank say to Dickie, you know, “What do you think gone wrong?” And John Dixon says, “I don't know, and I'll check and I'll check.” And John Dixon was a very thorough person, I'm sure he checked very, very thoroughly. Paddy Harbison had fired his machine guns on the way in, but as I said previously, I'm sure, quite uselessly. I'd noticed that the U boat had two pairs of 20 millimetre guns and a 37 millimetre gun. They're all behind gun shields. The gun shield would have three eighth, half inch thick steel and a rifle sized bullet really was useless on, on that sort of target. Anyway, Paddy reloaded his guns. Made me think how stupid it was that we had pan fed guns at all. The Vickers Gas operated gun, was it not a bad gun in itself, but it was fed by a pan of about 80 or 90 rounds. And when you fired half of them, you obviously couldn't make another attack with only half full magazines, so you had to change. This took time. You had to check. Everything up front should have been belt-fed so you could fire continuously. This was recognised in Sunderlands and liberators and so on. Those aircraft had belt-fed machine guns or cannons. Anyway, the skipper said, “Well, we better go in again. Here we go. Everybody ready?” I remember standing on this position because there there's no question the submarine was quite clearly visible. Although I could get back to the radar within a second if need be, if we lost it in sea fog.”
Interviewer: “So, the submarine wasn't attempting to dive at any at this stage, right?”
John Appleton: “Made no attempt to dive at all. I'll explain the reason for that later. But we didn't know why at the time. Paddy, Paddy gave the thumbs up that he was ready with his guns and we made another attack and it was as spot on as the first attack. We really went right over the conning tower of the U Boat, no question of that. But I did notice that the flack was considerably thicker this time, far more accurate, as it was grouped together instead of being spread all over the sky in front of us, it was aiming straight at us. And we flew straight through this lot. And it's quite obvious that we'd been hit. I don't know whether I heard the explosion or what but instinctively, I knew he'd been hit. I looked aft and I can see that the mechanic and bunk compartment were full of smoke. I can see flames in it, in that area, inside the smoke. Now there are fire extinguishers all over the place, but one particularly big one is on the for'ard side of the bulkhead in the back of the navigator compartment, right beside the radio gear. So, I went and grabbed that. But by the time I got, it was quite heavy, and by the time I got it through the bulkhead door the two fellows in the blister had got their local fire extinguishers and put this fire out. It was obvious that a shell had exploded somewhere near the starboard bunk. And it set fire to pullovers and clothing and odds and ends that were lying there. I then went forward. I noticed that Jack Garnett's left hand was bleeding. So, I went back aft and got the first aid kit. I took that forward. And I saw that Jack's wound wasn't that bad. I think I bandaged it. But then I looked at the skipper and I saw all his trouser legs were blood-soaked. And he hadn't said a word, he was still flying the aircraft, he had done the breakaway, which meant, you know, pulling up and climbing and getting some height. Get into a position, position where he could observe the U Boat and what was happening to it whether it was sinking or not. But then I realised he was badly wounded. So, having opened this first aid kit I found a big pair of scissors which obviously intended for cutting away uniform. Cut away the trouser leg in the hope of finding where he'd been hit. And before it got very far with this, he went deathly white and collapsed, he nearly fell off his seat. I beckoned to somebody in a navigation commandment who I think was Ian Fiddler. And he came and helped me and we steadied John. But it was obvious he was badly wounded, you could tell from this pallor and the blood everywhere. And so, we got him down off the seat, carried him through the bulkhead door, through the navigation compartment, through another bulkhead door, and put him on the port blister. At this point, Ian Fiddler went forward, being a pilot to help Jack Garnett.”
Interviewer: “He had taken over the controls immediately?”
John Appleton: “Jack, Jack Garnett had taken over flying the aircraft. Jack Garnett's windshield was shattered and even the captain’s windshield had some damage to it, but at some point Jack Garnett had slipped across to the left seat, the left seat for the captain had far more instruments, flying instruments than the co-pilot seat. It had blind flying equipment and so on.”
Interviewer: “So, he took Cruickshank’s seat? Now this, had this been another shell that had hit the plane. It doesn't sound like, it doesn't sound like the same shell.”
John Appleton: “No, we've been hit by I think a 37 millimetre shell which is the same sort of shell as a Bofors gun uses almost the same size, Bofors has a 40 millimetre but not much in it. This had obviously exploded quite clearly, right in the middle of the forward compartment. That it...”
Interviewer: “The nose, the nose compartment.”
John Appleton: “In the nose compartment, it had killed John Dixon immediately. I could see his body just blown to pieces. Paddy Harbison in the front turret had been hit in the legs. The side effects of the explosion that hit John Cruickshank, a little bit had hit Jack Garnett in the left hand, all of which pointed to the fact that the shell must have been, I think, to the left side of the nose compartment. I was standing behind John Cruickshank. But between me and him was a sheet of armour plate. This armour plate was installed to protect the captain against fighter attack from the rear. But as I've often made the point, it was all in the wrong place that we should never have been engaged in situations where fighter aircraft were a problem. We should have had armour plate on the front to protect us against our target, which was a submarine.”
Session number 15555. John Appleton Reel 17.
Interviewer: “Mr Appleton Reel 17. Now we're talking about the, the conflict with the U-347 on the 17th of July 1944. The two shells that had hit, it sounds like the, the one that hit in the blister, the back hit first, because you seem to have paid more attention to that first. Or was that because there was a fire there?”
John Appleton: “No, I think both shells would have hit the aircraft at the same time. But I was made aware of the after one by the smoke in the compartment, because the one thing one is very dodgy about an aircraft is fire. And nobody had said anything about anybody being wounded up front when all this was happening in the space of three or four seconds, probably less.”
Interviewer: “So, now..."
Now the 20, the, the; I think the after explosion in the bunk compartment was caused by 20 millimetre shells which would explode on contact with the aircraft. But the shell which hit the nose compartment, and there might have been more than one, were air bursting shells which burst at a predetermined time. And, and were there, and were far more powerful and caused far more damage. I never did find out exactly how many hit the aircraft but it could easily have been a couple or three 20 millimetres because the 20 millimetre guns fire more rapidly. The 37 millimetre fired at the speed of a Bofors gun, which I believe is round about two a second, two or three a second. So, there wouldn't have been time for more than two 37 millimetres to have hit the aircraft. But the, because there were four 20 millimetre guns firing at us, two pairs, it's reasonable to assume that both guns of at least one pair could have hit us and they could have easily fired 3 or 4 rounds between them, but hit the aircraft.”
Interviewer: “Now tell me about taking Cruickshank back because you, you carried him back didn’t you?”
John Appleton: “Having fallen off the off his seat or fallen over, and I got help, I beckoned to somebody to come and help me. We got John Cruickshank down and it was obvious we had to put him on a bunk, he couldn't stay where he was, he was obviously badly wounded. So, we carried him through the bulkheads. There were two bulkheads and also over the big mainframe to the rear of the engineers compartment and put him on the port bunk. In the Mark 4 Catalina, only two bunks and the starboard one had been burnt in the fire. He was obviously in terrible shape. And I realised he must be in terrible pain. I can see blood started to soak through into his chest, even through all his pullovers and flying gear, and so on. But he hadn't mentioned any of this at all.”
Interviewer: “Was he still conscious then?”
John Appleton: “He was lapsing between consciousness and unconsciousness. He was obviously in very bad shape. I thought he was mortally wounded. I wanted to make him as comfortable as possible. We had no facilities for doing any surgery or even trying to extract shrapnel or anything like that. We, I started to bandage his legs, and I gave him a sip of water. I knew that one had to be careful about giving food by mouth to anybody with suspected chest wounds, but in the circumstances, I thought, having lost that much blood, I could see blood everywhere, soaked into all his clothing. He must have had a dry mouth, so I gave him something to sip. Fortunately, the water tanks weren't even touched, so I had plenty of water. I got hold of a shell dressing and soaked it in water and washed, wiped his face with it. I knew how cooling and if comforting such an action could be. I knew what it was like just to have a headache when you're trying to do something, but to have been so badly wounded. It was obvious he was wounded now, well it was now obvious that he'd been wounded from chest down to his legs. Although he hadn't mentioned the chest wounds at all. I could see the leg wounds because his trousers were bloodstained.”
Interviewer: “Had he said anything?”
John Appleton: “He'd said nothing about wounds at all.”
Interviewer: “But about anything else?”
John Appleton: “Well, we got him on the bunk and I made him as comfortable as possible. It was obviously more comfortable to be laying out straight. And I put whatever I could find to keep him warm. There's usually a couple of blankets lying somewhere, and I put them on other people's Irving jackets or unwanted pullovers and so on. But I, I thought he must be in terrible pain. So, inside the first aid kit there were tubes of morphine. These were very simple devices. They were like a small toothpaste tube or more like an artist paint, paint tube, about 3 or 4 inches long, with a needle built into the end and the whole thing protected by a cap. You unscrewed the cap, put the needle in wherever you could, squeeze the whole of the tube in and then threw the thing away. You're then supposed to write in blood, of which the copious quantity available, on the forehead, the letter M for morphine, and if possible, the time, so that anybody subsequently treating the patient would know he'd had one lot of morphine. He knew what that morphine would be, one of the standard aircrew first aid kit ones. Which might have been standard in other branches of the services, I don't know. But at least you'll know when and how much morphine he'd had. And they could treat him accordingly. But John Cruickshank was alert enough to see what I was doing. And quite firmly said, “No, no, no, no,” and rejected, and I think he physically with his arms stopped me from attempting to inject him with a morphine. Well, I can see that was his wish. I didn't think it was the right decision, but that was his wish. So, I put the cap back on the tube, put it back in the bag because all these things have to be accounted for.”
Interviewer: “Do you know why he wouldn’t, or could you explain what...?”
John Appleton: “Well, I could guess that he realised that morphine would have affected his ability to do almost anything. It would have knocked him out, presumably. And he didn't want to be knocked out. I was more concerned with his comfort. I was determined to stay with him because nothing worse than coming around from one of these lapses into unconsciousness and finding nobody there just a draughty, battered about aircraft, fire damaged at that. So, I stayed with him there. But I must admit, after going back and forth, I've been up front to see how the other two pilots were handling things and how the navigation was going.”
Interviewer: “And how was it going?”
John Appleton: “Well, I thought we're going OK because Ian Federer had worked out a rough course to steer to get home. Frankly, we didn't have to steer too accurately. We knew where we'd come from. We knew where we were in our minds, and we knew roughly what course we would need to get home. And it was going to be five hours at least to get back home. So even if you didn't steer correctly, we would get down to a position where somebody would help us either another aircraft would come and meet us, or we get instructions from base who could be direction finding on our own signals.”
Interviewer: “Had the, the rest of the crew radioed back?”
John Appleton: “I didn't know this at the time. I didn't take much interest in it, but I know now, having read form orange and form 540, they sent a signal soon afterwards saying that we had had attacked the U boat with depth charges, the navigator was killed, the captain badly wounded, others were wounded, and the hull was damaged, we needed an ambulance on arrival. They signalled back, asking the extent of our damage, which we, the wireless operators, told them, although the details are not logged in the records. They told, we told them we had, I think 450 gallons of fuel left. We asked for a weather report at base because the Shetlands were always very variable as to weather. They, the base then sent a signal unable to determine your position. The reason for this was that we were so far north that the baseline for the triangulation from two or more direction finding stations were so small that the angle of intercept of the position lines was so sharp that the position could be out by 50 to 100 miles. The main station was at Sumburgh in the Shetlands itself. The next station would have been one of those in the Western Isles, at Islay or Stornoway or somewhere like that. And it wasn't until we got much closer to base that the baseline was broadened enough for them to be able to plot accurately. But they did send us a bearing, one single bearing and they gave us a course to steer. Having given us the bearing, we obviously had to steer the reciprocal and they would have added to it what they estimated was the drift caused by the prevailing wind as they knew it. So, they gave us this course of steer, which I think was 190 degrees, which is a little bit West of South, and also they made adjustments for the difference between magnetic North and geographic North. So, we steered on this course. Later on, we were given a position, and an updated course to steer.”
Interviewer: “And this was going on you, as you said, you were unaware of this at the time?”
John Appleton: “Well, I kept out of the way of the two wireless operators. They had enough to do. They were make making sure they were listening to everything. They probably had both receivers going on two different frequencies because everything would be duplicated. And also, they, if they were using Psycho, they had to, one of them had to be working a Psycho machine.”
Interviewer: “They they dropped the guns and ammunition. I believe that. Would that indicate it wasn't flying too well? I mean, was that?”
John Appleton: “We got the impression that we couldn't maintain height. This is a decision, presumably, of Jack Garnett and the flight engineer. We're assuming this was due to damage to the engine, even though we didn't know it. There were no indications on the airspeed on the Rev counters or the boost gauges. And so, it was decided to dump the guns and the ammunition, which is fairly easy to do. I suppose if we thought about it, we would have realised that the Germans would have been aware of our attack, but for one thing, the U Boat would have signalled that was being attacked. It had ample time in the interval of, say, two minutes between the first and second attack to send a signal. And when it no longer responded to the German headquarter signals that the Germans would have realised the thing had been sunk. And so, they might have had a revenge in mind by sending out fighters to catch us because they knew where we came from. The submarine would have identified us as a Catalina. So, we weren't coming from the Home fleet or anything like that, we're obviously coming from the Shetlands, so the Germans would have known in those five hours that they could have had a fair chance of getting us. But we didn't think about that. We just dumped the guns.”
Interviewer: “Did you help with that?”
John Appleton: “I think I did, and the ammunition.”
Interviewer: “Just picking up on some other things, was Cruickshank aware that Dixon had been killed?”
John Appleton: “After a while, I'd made Cruickshank as comfortable as I thought I could, wiped his face, giving him water and so on. He said, “How's Dickie?” which is the name he, or we all use for John Dixon. I was completely stumped by this, I thought how do you answer this to a, a man who I thought was mortally wounded anyway? I really did think he was so badly wounded he wouldn't make it. And all I was concerned with it was being comfortable and I didn't want to ruin this by blurting out what he did. So, before I could say anything, he just a judge guessed from my look and the hesitation. In responding to his question, he must have realised that Dickie was dead. They were close mates, they were different sort of people, altogether different, but they'd flown together almost every trip since February 1943. They were the two commissioned people on board. And so, John Cruickshank realised that Dixon was dead. And he said, “Well, Jack's a skipper.” I said, “Don't worry, skipper, don't worry. Jack's flying everything perfectly alright and Ian's navigating, no problem.” All I wanted to do is relax, make the skipper relax. There's nothing he could do or nothing I thought he could do. And the thought of five hours with all those wounds just lying there, bleeding, bleeding to death. There's just too much to contemplate.”
Interviewer: “What about Paddy Harbison?”
John Appleton: “Paddy Harbison. Must have come down from the front turret with his badly wounded legs. But I honestly can't recall where he went. He might have found a spare seat, the radar operator seat, for instance. Incidentally, I noticed in one of my trips up for'ard the radar said have been completely destroyed, by another of these shells. And it's just as well I moved away from it and stood looking over the skipper's shoulder at the submarine, using the mark one eyeball, instead of radar, because I'm most likely would have caught some of that shell too. As it was blood was running down my face and I remember wiping the blood away from my face and it must have congealed fairly quickly. I thought nothing more of it until later on when we landed. But anyway, I was saying I've been going back and forth up to the front of the aircraft and reporting back to Cruickshank whenever he was fit to hear anything. It must have taken it out of me a little bit because I, I remember falling, if you can remember falling asleep, I know I was asleep. Until there's a bit of commotion when someone said, “We're over base, we're over base,” so I immediately alerted myself, woke up.”
Interviewer: “And this should be about half past, 03:30?”
John Appleton: “That's right, though now the attack had occurred around about 11 o’clock at night but at that latitude, we're in the land of the midnight sun, where it never got dark. We were several 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and it was July which is so close to the 21st of June, which is today by the way, the longest day, that it never got dark at all. But we flew down south into an area where there was some darkness. So, it gradually got a little darker. And we got over base at 03:30 in the morning. And this was British double summertime, which put the clock 2 hours ahead of the sun. It was really 1:30. But it was 3:30 on the clock. And I said to the skipper, “We're over base,” and his immediate reaction was, “Help me up, help me up.” I said, “No, John, no, skipper, all's well, we've got Jack Garnett and Ian fiddler up front.” But Cruickshank was quite determined that they couldn't do it by themselves. He said, “You must help me up”. So, I got some help from somebody. And in the, in the commotion that was going on, I just don't recall who they were. And the thought of carrying the skipper up for'ard through those bulkhead doors, so the bulkhead doors were really big enough only for a large man to get through. There's no point in making the door any bigger than, say, what a six foot six man needs to get through. Anything bigger, you're defeating the object of a watertight door. The thing, the, the whole bulkhead was meant to isolate compartments of the aircraft. So, if water got into one, it didn't get into the next one. But you have to have a door and they made it as reasonably big as possible. But it certainly wasn't the right size for two men carrying a third to get through, without hurting the third man. For one thing, you had to step up high over the sill of the door, then you had to bob your head down to get under it. And width wise it barely let your elbows through, and when your elbows took part of your arms, which are carrying a lifeless man. And John Cruickshank is six foot three, he's a big man himself. It was very difficult. Not so much difficult for us, but we just thought how agonising for a person so badly wounded. And also, where I was aware that veins and arteries and so on may have stopped bleeding and may have congealed and healed up a bit, mainly because they were blocked by a piece of shrapnel. The shrapnel, the very shrapnel that cut them. For all I knew, could have sealed up the wound to some extent. To move a person and then move in so doing, move the piece of shrapnel could start the bleeding all over again. And he had lost enough blood as it was. We didn't want to lose any more. But eventually we got him up for'ard. I just can't recall how we did it. It's one of those things that you just did. And it's very hard to recollect how. Thinking about it, it almost seems impossible because we had to lift him about at least four feet from the walkway up into his seat. And the pair of us did this somehow, got him up on the seat.”
Interviewer: “He, he actually took over the controls from Garnett?”
John Appleton: “I don't know to what extent he actually took over control because there were limitations to what he could do. He could have had his hand on the wheel but he might have been just doing override action with Jack Garnett flying. Nobody ever discussed this later. Jack Garnett never did. In my mind, I was absolutely confident that Jack Garnett, even though he'd never landed the, an aircraft, never landed a Catalina. I had no doubt that he could have done under these conditions. There have been many reports of other aircrew landing their aircraft without even being pilots. I mean, if you have to, all aircrew have a fairly good idea of what goes on up there. And as long as you steer the thing for the landing area it must get there eventually, you back off power and it must come down. Maybe a terrible, terrible landing and may destroy the aircraft, but that's the risk you take. And I thought that was more important than risking John Cruickshank’s life. So anyway, the pair of them are up there.”
Interviewer: “So, probably Garnett was doing the flying but, but Cruickshank could have overridden?”
John Appleton: “He was overriding us, I'm sure, and also putting in advice. He would have been doing, say a quarter of the flying. He might have advised about, he could have used expressions like lower, lower, not so low, take it easy. He could have worked the throttles, for instance. Too much power, not enough power, all this sort of thing. Oh I just don't know the details of what they did.”
Interviewer: “You weren’t in there with them?”
John Appleton: “Well, I kept out of the way. There's hardly any room there for two pilots let alone tourists so I left them to it. If you can't contribute anything, keep out of the way. And he decided to circle because it still wasn't light enough to land. So, we waited I think about 40 minutes or so, circling the base, and I looked down from the blister in the half light, and I could see all sorts of activity; I went to the blister, it was a logical place to get out of the way. I knew I'd been hit because of the blood was pouring down my face. Subsequently found I'd been hit elsewhere. That was in hospital or later. And, if, we were not short of people, for instance, we had two signallers. We had another engineer. And that's all you need really to operate the aircraft. And with all these people on the water in their boats and tenders and dinghies and so on. I could see that everybody was there, the station commander, the squadron commander, the station engineer, the medical people probably in three or four boats. So that no matter where we actually landed, we could have medical people within seconds onto us. So, I sat in the blister, and eventually we landed, and...”
Interviewer: “What was the landing like?”
John Appleton: “I don't recall it being that bad, frankly. Just probably a bit bouncy, but we've made worse. Fortunately, the water was calm. And then we aim for this so-called Heinkel Gap. Which was a piece of beach at the end of the landing area, which was designated an emergency beaching spot. The idea being to run the thing up on the onto the sand. This is often useful in the case of an aircraft which is not irreparably damaged but it has problems. You can run it up, at least it, could be salvaged. At high tide it can be towed off, or it could be patched up or whatever. So we ran up at least it would stop the thing sinking, ran up on the beach. Of course, the dinghies came alongside, I looked from the blister, you could; standing in the blister you can look forward quite clearly with about two feet of headroom. And, em, I could see the medical people, hovering over the sliding doors or sliding hatches above the two pilots. And they're more particularly attending to the right hand seat, which I knew was where Cruickshank was sitting. And em, while this is happening, I realise that Cruickshank was being taken care of. Nothing I could do, nothing anyone could do apart from the medical people. At least we had professional medical people doing it now. I realised suddenly that the camera needed to be salvaged. Now the camera is located on a bracket over the tunnel hatch and takes pictures automatically once the depth charge release sequences are started. So, I went and retrieved the camera. Helped look after it and eventually I said to someone, “Would you please get this back to the base? Back to the OPS room?” But I had a bit of a problem, maybe I couldn't shout loud enough with all the hassle going on, but eventually I persuaded one of the motorboats to take it back. It's said in some stories that this picture here, the only one there is...”
Interviewer: “That's in your logbook. It's of the submarines.”
John Appleton: “U 347. Under attack was taken by a crew member, but this is not true. The only camera we had was in the tunnel hatch and was taken automatically. And as you can see from the line of the picture, it's dead across the conning tower. The conning tower is absolutely slap bang in the middle of the picture, and you can quite, quite, see quite clearly see the depth charge splashes where they landed at each side of the submarine. Well, after all this, I...”
Interviewer: “You hadn't actually seen this, of course. Yourselves. Had anyone? Did you really? When did you realise you'd sunk the, the, the U Boat?”
John Appleton: “Well, I certainly saw the submarine as we passed over it and looked down into the conning tower, which was deserted. Subsequently I found out that Paddy Harbison in the front had noticed as we broke away a violent explosion, which we suspect was one of the submarines own torpedoes going off. Because the explosive content of a torpedo was more than that of a depth charge that we dropped and also being inside the submarine itself, it would be more effective in destroying it. In fact, several torpedoes might have been discharged. But I, I only became aware of that later.”
Interviewer: “So, so sorry. I interrupted you. So, you you arranged for this camera to be...?”
John Appleton: “Well, the camera was taken ashore and that camera had this film with that picture.”
Interviewer: “Had it taken any others?”
John Appleton: “The camera had been taking pictures right from the very beginning of the first attack. And I understand, and I found this later from Cruickshank in recent years actually. Nobody had bothered to switch the camera off, or nobody thought about it, frankly. And according to the story, that frame was the very last frame of film on the role of film. We were lucky to have it. If we'd been a second or two later, we'd have missed it. After all, at, it's at 95 knots, it's the speed is roughly 150 feet a second. And so in one second we've flown 150 more feet, that's how accurately bomb aiming has to be. If you're half a second out, even in a Catalina, you're 75 feet out and 75 feet is enough to miss it. In the same way, if we've been a half a second out and taken that photograph the, the submarine would have been off-screen.”
Interviewer: “Now, who had dropped the depth charges because it wasn't Dixon? Or was it?”
John Appleton: “No, I'm fairly convinced it wasn't, Dixon. For this reason. John Cruickshank realised that for safety sake or prudence sake, he must press the parallel switch that he had in his control wheel just to make sure there's no problem again. Why he did this? It's just one of those things that one does by instinct. The reason I feel that it was his button that released the depth charges, I can't see why or how anything was faulty in the depth bomb, the depth charge release mechanism other than the press button, which would have got corroded. And I don't see how anything that John Dixon could have done would have cleared that fault.”
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.
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.
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
"They sent a signal soon afterwards saying that we had attacked the U-boat with depth charges. The Navigator was killed, the captain badly wounded, others were wounded, the hulls damaged we needed an ambulance on arrival."
On 17th of July 1944 Captain John Cruikshank and his crew on board their Catalina flying boat took off from Sollum Vow in the Shetlands to try and intercept German shipping coming out of Norway. They were in the far north of Norway near the Lofoten Islands when the radar operator, a man named John Appleton, picked up what he thought was a craft on the surface and they went in closer to investigate. So they flew in and conducted a textbook attack run over the U-boat but unfortunately as they flew over the U-boat for the first time the depth charges - they didn't drop.
So they banked around and came in for a second of attack rule and down the length of the U-boat to try and straddle it again and they attacked down the length of the U-boat into a hail of anti-aircraft fire.
The photograph that the Imperial War Museum has in its collection is the only photograph that survived from a whole sequence that was taken. You can see the aircraft just banking around immediately just a second or two after its depth charges have dropped and you can also see tracer bullets are hitting the water around from the from the two blisters on either side of the aircraft, where the machine gunners on the Catalina are trying to keep heads down of the anti-aircraft Gunners on board the U-boat.
Several members of the crew had been badly injured one crew member had been killed outright. It became almost immediately clear that Cruikshank as the Captain had been very very severely wounded. It turned out later on that he'd been hit 72 times.
"I realized he must be in terrible pain, I could see blood started to soak through into his chest even through all these pullovers and flying gear and so on but he hadn't mentioned any of this at all. He was obviously in very bad shape. I thought he was mortally wounded."
Cruikshank knew that the co-pilot was an inexperienced co-pilot with the crew at the time, and so he refused morphine and decided to live with the pain in case he was needed on the flight back. They arrived over the base at 3:30am. At that point Cruikshank insisted on being carried back to the pilot's seat and he insisted on them continuing to circle the base for an hour until such a time as he was he felt confident that they could go in for a landing run. And they went in, they landed, he guided the co-pilot down but he was so severely wounded he was given a blood transfusion in the cockpit before they even got him out of the aircraft and he was incredibly lucky to survive.
So John Cruikshank was awarded the Victoria Cross obviously for his incredible bravery in taking the Catalina and dropping the death charges for a second run over the U-boat in the full knowledge that there was a very good chance they were going to get killed while doing so. But I think and additionally he was sort of given the Victoria Cross in recognition of the efforts he made even though very severely wounded to make sure his crew could get back to base from that long five and a half hour flight from the Arctic Circle.
After he'd recovered from his multiple wounds he was never fit enough to fly again so but he did go on various morale-boosting tours of factories to show people how effective they were being to help the fighting forces. John Cruikshank is the last surviving Second World War recipient of the Victoria Cross and he's going to be celebrating his 100th birthday on Wednesday 20th of May.