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
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.