Born on 20 May 1920 in Aberdeen, Scotland, Cruickshank was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, Aberdeen Grammar School and Daniel Stewart's College. He was apprenticed to the Commercial Bank in Edinburgh
Within a year, on his father's suggestion, he joined the Territorial Army, enlisting in the Royal Artillery in May 1939, serving there until the summer of 1941 when he transferred to the RAF. He underwent flight training in Canada and the US, earning his wings in July 1942. After further training, he was assigned to No. 210 Sqn. in March 1943, piloting in Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats, flying from Sullom Voe.
Sullom Voe in Shetland is now known for its oil terminal, but during World War II it was a flying-boat base, used by 210 Squadron of the Royal Air Force 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 Atlantic. There the "Cat" found a German Type VIIC U-boat on the surface.
At this point in the war the aerial threat to the U-boats meant that they were fitted with anti-aircraft guns and Cruickshank had to fly the Catalina into the hail of flak put up by the U-boat. On that first pass his depth charges did not release. Despite this he brought the aircraft back round for a second pass and this time straddled the U-boat with his charges sinking it with all hands. Cruickshank's VC citation refers to the U-Boat as U-347, although it is now known that it was actually U-361 and that it went down with all 52 crew members.
The German flak however had been deadly accurate, killing 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. John Cruickshank's injuries were such that he never flew in command of an aircraft again and after the war he returned to his pre-war job of banking. 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
Victoria Cross citation
The announcement and accompanying citation for the decoration was published in supplement to the London Gazette on 1 September 1944, reading
'Air Office, 1st September, 1944.
"The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the under mentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —
Flying Officer John Alexander CRUICKSHANK (126700), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. No. 210 Squadron.
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 maneuvered into position and ran in to release his depth charges. Unfortunately they failed to drop.
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 taxiing 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."
He left the RAF in September 1946 to return to an earlier career in banking. He retired from this in 1977.
In March 2004 the Queen unveiled the first national monument to Coastal Command at Westminster Abbey, London. Cruickshank 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 VC's were awarded to Coastal Command in the war; the others were posthumous.
He is a living recipient and the last surviving VC for action in World War II.
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