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RAF toasts 100 years of heroism and heading towards the great blue yonder

Fergus Davidson - first on the left side.
Fergus Davidson - first on the left side.

Fergus Davidson started his military career as a cavalryman and moved on to flying Spitfires during the World War II.

John Alexander Cruickshank was a bank apprentice from Aberdeen and subsequently became a recipient of the Victoria Cross after sinking a German U-boat in Norway in 1944.

But although they came from different backgrounds – and Mr Cruickshank is still alive at the grand old age of 97 – these two north-east men were among the first to join the Royal Air Force as it surged ever higher into the sky.

It is the world’s oldest independent aerial organisation and sprung into being 100 years ago on April 1, 1918, following the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service.

As the decades have passed and technological developments have taken place at a giddy rate, generations of aviators have risen through the ranks in everything from Hurricanes to Hawkers and Tornado jets to Typhoon fighters.

And whether helping defeat the Nazis during the Battle of Britain, or being instrumental in maintaining the peace during the Cold War, the RAF has been at the heart of the country’s defence structure.

The former Group Captain James Johnston is among those who have witnessed many changes in the service, while he was on active duty in the north of Scotland.

He was station manager at RAF Kinloss, and a ubiquitous figure at the base until it was handed over to the Army in July 2012.

And he believes the qualities which sparked the creation of the force a century ago are still vibrant elements in its development today.

Mr Johnston said: “Right from the start, it has been a meritocracy, where people from all backgrounds have been encouraged to pursue their ambitions in a wide range of activities.

“We have always had a job to do, whether it is at national and international level, and whether it is during wars, or in keeping the peace, or taking part in missions of mercy, and the RAF has had so many different roles.

“It has never just been about aeroplanes: we have medical staff, engineers, weapons experts, people with an extremely diverse skills set and the bases at Kinloss and Lossiemouth became so important to the local community.

“Life hasn’t changed in that respect: during the Cold War, Kinloss was involved in Quick Reaction Alerts, and Lossiemouth is still dealing with QRAs in 2018.”

For many people, the RAF has always been regarded as the most glamorous part of the military, oblivious to the appalling casualty rates of pilots on both sides in WWII.

As Mr Davidson, who chronicled his action-packed existence in From One to One Thousand Horsepower, said prior to his death in 2011: “There was something special about the RAF, about these planes and the prospect of flying them.

“What enthralled me were the winged vehicles that soared across the sky, climbing, swooping… I had never seen anything like it and I marvelled at the ability of man to build and fly such superb machines.

“I used to cut out pictures of all types of aeroplanes and I followed accounts in the newspapers of the prizes which were offered for flights across the Atlantic, and I set my heart on becoming a pilot some day.

“I know that milions of other youngsters cherished this dream, but I was lucky. My dream came true.”

Even before the threat of war escalated, the speed with which the number of airfields increased throughout the north of Scotland during the 1930s was dramatic.

In the space of a few years, the main bases at RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth were augmented by satellite air strips just outside Elgin, one to the west of Forres and another to the east of Inverness.

Banff and Dallachy became two of the busiest airfields in the north-east, and operated together as a pilot advance flying unit (PAFU).

RAF Fraserburgh later joined this unit, and from May 1943 to September 1944, it turned omore than 1,500 fully-trained pilots.

But after the war, most of the airfields closed down and now there is very little sign of the activity which took place.

The RAF was also the catalyst for the creation of a flying-boat base during WWII at Sullom Voe in Shetland.

It was used by 210 Squadron of the RAF Coastal Command in its battle to keep the Atlantic and Arctic sea lanes open for supply convoy and it was here that Flt Lt John Cruickshank demonstrated the astonishing bravery which saw him gain a VC.

He flew his Catalina aircraft through a hail of flak over Norway, and while his first pass was unsuccessful, he brought it around for a second sortie, this time straddling the U-boat and sinking it.

However, the German anti-aircraft fire had been deadly accurate, killing the navigator and injuring four others, including both Flt Lt Cruickshank and second pilot Flight Sergeant Jack Garnett.

The Aberdonian was hit in 72 places, and suffered serious lung injuries and 10 penetrating wounds to his lower limbs.

Yet, despite these injuries, he refused medical attention until he was sure the appropriate radio signals had been sent and the aircraft was on course for its home base.

Even at that stage of his privations, he refused morphine, aware that it would cloud his judgement and potentially jeopardise all the men on board.

Flying through the night, it took the damaged Catalina five and a half hours to return to Sullom Voe, with Flt Sgt Garnett at the controls and his colleague lapsing in and out of consciousness in the back.

But the 24-year-old Scot then returned to the cockpit and took command of the aircraft. Deciding that the light and the sea conditions for a water landing were too risky for his inexperienced comrade, he kept the craft in the air circling for an extra hour, as the

prelude to landing it successfully on the water and ferrying it to an area where it could be safely beached.

This happened more than 70 years ago, but former Group Captain Johnston described how it encapsulated the philosophy of so many RAF personnel.

He said: “I had the privilege of meeting him [Flt Lt Cruickshank] at a dinner and it was an unforgettable experience for everybody who was there.

“There was a stunned silence for 45 minutes while he spoke, because everyone present recognised the incredible bravery he had demonstrated.

“And yet, one of the things which struck us the most was that he didn’t want a big fuss made about it. After everything he had endured, when he regained consciousness in the Catalina, the first thing he said was: ‘How are my crew?’

“That was the type of camaraderie which existed between these pilots. Close bonds were forged, which will never be broken. And they are still being established.

“Although I have left the RAF, it will always be a part of me.”

That emotion seems to be shared by all those who have served and who will raise a toast to the RAF this weekend.

Sandy Hamilton works as a volunteer at the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen, but remains inextricably linked to the air force.

He said: “As a civil engineer, I was fortunate to serve in the RAF Airfield Construction Branch which, in its time, has given tremendous support to the RAF in so many parts of the world in war, civil conflicts and in peacetime.

“I was stationed in the Canal Zone, Libya, Cyprus and Malta and made many lasting friends.

“Perhaps the most evocative time was during the 1956 invasion of Egypt when I was stationed at RAF Nicosia. Cyprus was ‘sinking’ under the mass of British and French aircraft, vehicles, weapons and men.

“Every available space was given to the parking of aircraft. I had never picked up any suggestion of a very early invasion when suddenly, one morning, I looked up above me and saw flight after flight of returning aircraft with open doors having just dropped hundreds of paratroopers.

“My hairs still rise when I think about the announcement on the BBC World Service, surrounded, as I was, by the very same aircrews. It recalled childhood memories of similar WWII reports on the radio.

“I certainly believe the RAF has been very instrumental in ensuring our freedom from the final days of WWI, especially during the brave defence of the Battle of Britain and its contribution to the far distant Falklands.”

Even now, with rising tensions between Britain and Russia, the personnel at RAF Lossiemouth will be on alert in the coming weeks. months and years.

They can’t all be heroes. But, even if Flt Lt Cruickshank might once have said “I’m just an Aberdeen banker”, he and his flying brethren’s exploits will never be forgotten.

He and so many others understand the wisdom of the RAF motto: “Per ardua ad astra” – through struggle to the stars.