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Veterans reunited

09 September 2013

Two veterans were reunited at Leuchars over the weekend. John Cruickshank, the last surviving holder of a Royal Air Force Victoria Cross was reunited with a Catalina flying boat in which he successfully sunk a German U Boat, U-347 after an amazing tussle over the Arctic Ocean almost 70 years ago.

The Catalina first flew in 1936 and although retired from service with RAF Coastal Command after the Second World War, it has continued to operate in many guises overseas including use as a water bomber to fight forest fires and even as an airborne platform to photograph wildlife safaris. But in its heyday the Catalina had an impressive range and endurance as an anti-submarine hunter.

Today the Cat had a reunion with an old friend, John Cruickshank VC. But first we had to collect John from his home in Aberdeen and bring him to Leuchars.

We picked John up in a Bentley Continental Flying Spur – the only car of its type in Scotland and very kindly supplied to us by Bentley of Glasgow. This amazing car has a top speed of 205mph – some 25mph faster than the Catalina.

Bob Kemp and John Cruickshank

The Flying Spur, aptly named, is designed for those who demand unrestrained luxury alongside uncompromising performance; it delivers the ultimate motoring experience, for driver and passengers alike. With acceleration faster than a Typhoon on full reheat, this car was a suitable vehicle to bring John Cruickshank to meet his old friend the Catalina.

Arriving at Leuchars in such style, the waiting Cat looked a world apart.

Gone were the sharp lines of the super-formed aluminium exterior and hand-crafted hides and veneers that adorn the interior of the Flying Spur, gone were the seams of A-Grade leather individually sewn, gone were the amazing layers of veneer, lacquered and polished by hand.

The Cat was oily, the interior smelt of rubber and petrol, it was noisy, it creaked and groaned, the seats were canvas, the paint had seen better days, the interior basic by any standards. Yet somehow this 80 year old lady had a charm and grace that threatened to outshine the Flying Spur.

John climbed into the cabin, his face taking on an excitement that even the 600 plus brake horse power of the Spur had failed to generate.

The two Pratt and Whitney engines, the same that powered the old Dakota, spluttered into life. Even more fumes wafted through the cabin; fumes to be savoured.

Easing open the throttles, the Cat wallowed out to the runway probably exactly as John had piloted her 70 years ago. Vibrating madly she accelerated down runway 09 into a 20 knot headwind. No flap, the Cat has none of these ’new ideas’.

Lifting off eagerly and smoothly, the gear came up with some clunking and the Cat suddenly took on the grace of a soaring seabird. Up, up the long delirious burning blue – we topped the windswept heights with easy grace. John and his Cat were reunited. 70 years ago seemed like yesterday.

John, now at the grand age of 94, recollected details of the Cat that did not fail to impress. Fuel load, speeds, power settings, weapon load – 6 x 250lb depth charges each set to a detonation depth of 25 feet, .303 machine guns, 0.5 inch guns on either side waist blister.

He recalled the position on the port side of the fuselage that housed the bunk on which he was treated for his severe injuries during his 48th mission in the Arctic Ocean so many years before. This was worth pondering.

John's Victoria Cross citation reads like an excerpt from a rather far fetched boy’s book of imaginary heroes. Patrolling at 2,000 feet far from his base at Sullen Voe in the Shetland Islands, John and his crew of ten came across an enemy submarine on the surface.

He immediately manoeuvred to attack the submarine but on his first pass the stick of 6 depth charges failed to drop. A re-attack was set up but by now the element of surprise was lost and the German gunners were fired up.

During the subsequent attack the Catalina was struck by shells a number of times, the navigator was killed; other members of the crew were wounded. John was struck in no less than seventy-two places; he received two serious wounds in the lungs and ten penetrating wounds in the lower limbs. The aircraft caught fire and smoke became a major problem.

John did not falter; he pressed home his attack and successfully straddled the submarine with six depth charges. The submarine sank almost immediately but John’s problems were only beginning. Having directed the crew to extinguish the fire, send the necessary signals, tend to the injured crew members and set a course for home only then would John allow his wounds to be seen to.

Now severely weakened from loss of blood, John was helped from the cockpit but refused morphine in case he should have difficulty in retaining command and control of his aircraft and crew.

Lapsing in and out of conscientious from blood loss, John continued as far as possible to rally the crew but the Catalina faced a transit of five and a half hours. Upon reaching Sullen Voe weather and light conditions were not suitable for the inexperienced co-pilot to land the badly damaged aircraft.

John was helped back into the cockpit and despite his injuries and blood loss he managed not only to bring the flying boat down safely but to control the ingress of water through the massive hole in the nose by keeping the elevator fully back with almost full power on both engines as he slewed the Cat towards the shore. Eventually the flying boat grounded in shallow water near the beach.

John collapsed once more and had to be given a blood transfusion in the aircraft before being taken to hospital. Even by the demanding standards of exploits worthy of VC consideration, John Cruickshank's skill, courage, fortitude, leadership and valour were off the highest order. He was immediately awarded the Victoria Cross – the highest award possible.

And 70 years on, there we were cruising over the North Sea at 2,000ft, John still with some German lead in his legs, totally at ease with the Cat and back in his element. Two veterans well and truly reunited.

After a press conference and photo shoot back at Leuchars it was time once again to shoot forward 70 years in technology and comfort and step back into the Flying Spur. John asked the driver to start the engines and take him back to his home in Aberdeen. "12 cylinders are already running Sir", came the reply and with that the Bentley eased forward on a northerly heading at ultra low level.

"So what’s it to be Sir, this limo or the Cat", asked the driver, John thought for a moment – "I'll have both thank you very much".

The RAF Benevolent Fund was delighted to assist in making John’ epic flight in the Cat happen. John has been a staunch supporter of the RAF Benevolent Fund for many years. He attended the very successful fundraising Reception in Edinburgh Castle earlier this year to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic