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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Flying Officer John Cruickshank VC - Battle/Action

There was a time not that long ago when British boy's comics celebrated the heroism of British and Commonwealth servicemen. As London celebrates the current British forces with the City Salute, Jeremy Briggs takes a look back at how British comics once celebrated them.

The Victoria Cross is the highest British award for military gallantry and is all too often bestowed posthumously. There are currently only ten living recipients of the Victoria Cross, the youngest of whom is Private Johnson Beharry who was awarded the medal for his rescue of his comrades in Iraq. His is the newest VC to be awarded and the citation for his bravery is worth reading. One of the oldest living recipients is John Cruickshank and his courage and determination was featured in both The Victor and Battle/Action.

Sullom Voe in the Shetlands 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 mean 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 we now know 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 be 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.

The story of F/O Cruickshank and his crew have been featured several times in British comics. Unsurprisingly The Victor featured it on the front and back covers in their long running True Tales Of Men At War series in issue 1143 dated 15 January 1983 and again in issue 1348 dated 20 December 1986 at a time when Victor had just incorporated DC Thomson's long running war comic Warlord. While Victor did often reprint its cover stories in this instance the tale was completely rewritten and redrawn with the art in the second issue in a slightly more modern style by Keith Shone.

Despite running biographical strips such as The Red Baron, Battle/Action were never as consistent in their depiction of real life people as The Victor however in 1979 they ran a series entitled True Life Heroes. Part 7 of this in the issue dated 19 February 1979 was entitled The Cat Strikes and covered the events of that night. This time the art was by Ian Kennedy and was produced as a line art centrespread with a single striking black and white wash panel. The colour was added during the production process. This spread was later reprinted in the 1985 Action Man annual amongst various other military stories and articles from various IPC titles including Battle/Action and Look and Learn.

Today the branches of the British military continue to do the job that the politicians ask of them, whether it has the vocal support of the public or not. Such is the way of our democracy. Without heroes like John Cruickshank we may not have retained that democracy to be able to make the choice to voice that support for them in the first place.

The details of the City Salute in London and their nominated charity, the tri-service Headley Court Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, are on their website.

(* This article is available on Bear Alley with illustrations from Battle/Action which are © Egmont UK Ltd and on Down the Tubes with illustrations from The Victor which are © D C Thomson and Co Ltd.)

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