Here I am on a sunny Sunday afternoon in a charming cemetery across which drifted the sounds of a nearby school summer fete. Sadly the story of the man I’d come to find is solemn - a soldier who was awarded a Victoria Cross for bravery yet died at just 25 (the youngest from World War II.)
John was born in Paisley and joined the Royal Air Force as the World War II started. He was a wireless operator and gunner for No. 83 Squadron who flew bombers.
On 15th September 1940 this 18-year-old was aboard a Handley Page Hampden bomber. They had flown over Antwerp, Belgium and destroyed German barges. Suddenly the aircraft was hammered by intense anti-aircraft fire. The rear gunner and navigator jumped out. John could have followed by dropping through the bottom escape hatch but he remained to try to extinguish the fire. He tried with two extinguishers for ten minutes and then with his bare hands. While this was happening thousands of rounds of ammunition exploded in all directions and he was almost blinded by intense heat. The aluminium sheet metal floor he stood on melted away leaving just the cross bearers. He turned on his oxygen supply despite his hands, face and eyes being burnt. He crawled forward and found the navigator had bailed out. However he found his log and maps and handed these to the pilot who returned the plane safely.
A year later John contracted tuberculosis which was probably brought on by weakness from severe burns. He was discharged from the air force with full disability pension but this wasn’t enough to support his wife and three daughters. An aunt lent him a car and he started taxi driving however, at just 22, his health was so bad the car was returned.
Aged 25 he spent four months at Markfield Sanatorium in Leicester but died. This man deserved a hearty salute. Who knows how long he would have lived had the aircraft not been shot at that night? How nourished would his wife and daughters lives have been should John have lived a long healthy life? His headstone is inscribed, “Courageous Duty Done In Love, He Serves His Pilot Now Above.”
Ironically his wife Janet Hannah also died also as a result of burns. Aged 83 she had fallen over in her garden on a hot day. She was unable to move, suffered horrendous sunburn and later died.
See him here…
Touching the “VC” and there it is on the left…poor lad, just 25…