Rev Rosalind Taggart with the Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council with participating clergy (Photo: Maurice Montgomery)
On Sunday, 17th November 2019 the minister and congregation of the Old Presbyterian Church, Templepatrick put together a very thoughtful, impressive and moving service to commemorate the life of Flight Lieutenant John Alexander Bright who died in 1943 at the age of 24. The service was attended by a number of dignitaries and representatives of the RAF. I was asked to give the address which can be found below:
On a site at Runnymede in Surrey, over-looking the river Thames, in the same valley where the Magna Carta was sealed by King John in 1215, stands the Runnymede Memorial, also known as the Air Forces Memorial. This memorial commemorates the names of those airmen and women of the Commonwealth who were lost in the Second World War in western Europe and have no known grave. They came from all parts of the Commonwealth and served in Bomber, Fighter, Coastal, Transport, Flying Training and Maintenance Commands. Some were from countries in continental Europe which had been overrun but whose airmen continued to fight in the ranks of the Royal Air Force. There are 20,275 names listed on this memorial. They have no known grave.
Just outside the town of Lincoln stands the International Bomber Command Centre which was opened in 2013 and was built to acknowledge the efforts, sacrifices and commitment of the men and women, from 62 different nations, who came together in Bomber Command during the war. This branch of service included Aircrew, Ground Crew, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Auxiliary Air Transport, Auxiliary Transport Services, NAAFI and others. Of the 125,000 Aircrew who served in Bomber Command, 72% were killed, seriously injured or taken Prisoner of War. More than 44% were killed whilst serving, giving the highest rate of attrition of any Allied unit. Each man was a volunteer, and their average age of death was only 23. Here at Lincoln is a memorial known as the Walls of Names containing the names of 57,861 men and women who lost their lives serving or supporting Bomber Command during the Second World War.
In Belfast, in St Anne’s Cathedral, there is a Roll of Honour unveiled as recently as May of this year in memory of the unit of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) which was formed in Belfast in January 1939. The RAFVR in Belfast was setup to support the rapid expansion of the pilot and navigator establishment necessary once war had been declared. Over 300 young men joined the RAFVR in Belfast between the 1st January 1939 and 1st May 1940. On 3rd September 1939, 140 of them were called into full time service and posted to various RAF stations in England for further training. It is said that many of these young men could not drive a car or ride a motorcycle but within six months of advanced training were flying Lancaster bombers or Spitfire fighters over enemy held territory. Of these 140 some 92 were Killed in Action and Forty-eight survived. These names are the ones listed on this Roll of Honour in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.
We are here today to remember one of the people listed on all three of these RAF memorials. A young man aged just 24, who has no known grave, and who served with Bomber Command in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. His name was John Alexander Bright and we are here to make our act of remembrance of him and to dedicate our own memorial to him.
John Alexander Bright was the only son of Victor Price Bright and Ellen, sometimes Ella, Bright, née Alexander. His mother, who was born in 1892, grew up on a farm not far from here at Kilgreel. Her family were long-time members of this congregation. Ellen Bright was also a great member and supporter of the Antrim congregation (information from Miss Olive Moore). Victor Price Bright was born in 1884 in Clones in county Monaghan where his family owned a tailors and drapers shop. Following their marriage in Belfast in 1915 they moved to Pembrokeshire where John Bright was born in 1919. It was here that he initially joined the RAFVR in January 1937, just a year after it was established, at the age of 18. Before the war he came to Northern Ireland with his family when they moved back to Stoneview, the family farm at Kilgreel. Nearby they also built a bungalow intended to be occupied by their son (information supplied by Dr Joan McMaster). With the outbreak of war J.A. Bright transferred to the Belfast RAFVR. His service number was 67597 and two years later, on 15th May 1941, Sergeant Bright was promoted to Pilot Officer. This was followed, the next year, by his appointment on 15th May 1942 as a Flying Officer. He was made Flight Lieutenant on 6th November 1942, although it is clear from his citation when mentioned in despatches in June 1942 that he had been an acting Flight Lieutenant for some months before that.
As a member of Bomber Command his experience of the war must have been intense. As I mentioned previously of the 125,000 Aircrew who served in Bomber Command a terrifyingly high number of 72% were either killed, seriously injured or captured by the enemy. It must have been a daily challenge of a high order to fly out into hostile airspace. J.A. Bright acquitted himself with some bravery. He was twice mentioned in despatches.
The efforts of the RAF Bomber Command significantly changed the outcome of the war. Their bombing raids did great damage to the enemies’ industrial capacity and forced them to direct large quantities of aircraft and artillery towards fighting the bombers. There is no doubt that the efforts of Bomber Command helped to contribute to the eventual Allied victory in Europe.
Memorial to Flight Lieutenant J. A. Bright (Photo: Maurice Montgomery)
John Alexander Bright served throughout the war until his death, reaching the rank of Flight Lieutenant, and it seems likely from the wording of his mother’s will in 1970, that promotion to Squadron Leader may have been imminent at the time he was killed. He was posthumously awarded the four medals that have been beautifully mounted and framed by the congregation. They are from left: the 1939-1945 Star, a medal awarded to all who served in any branch of the armed forces or merchant navy for at least six months during the war. The Air Crew Europe Star which was awarded to air crews of the Commonwealth forces who participated in operational flights over Europe from the United Kingdom during the war. The Defence Medal which was awarded to those who played a part in national defences on the home front which J.A. Bright will have done before he became a pilot. The War Medal which was issued to all who served in the forces for at least 28 days during the war. On this medal is attached an oak leaf which symbolises that J.A. Bright was mentioned in despatches. In other words his personal gallantry was recorded in the air force records during the war at the time, in his case not once but twice.
When J.A. Bright went to England to train to be a flyer he was stationed in a number of places. In the autumn and winter of 1941 he was training at RAF Edgehill, a satellite airfield for RAF Moreton-in -Marsh in Gloucestershire which was the base for 21 Operational Training Unit (OTU) RAF. One night, on 7th December 1941, when he was walking along the road with another pilot he saw a Wellington bomber which had recently taken off from the nearby airfield run into trouble in bad weather. It hit a telegraph pole before crashing into a field and bursting into flames about 500 yards away from the two of them and they ran to try and rescue the crew. Despite the fierce blaze, the intense heat, the continuing explosions as fuel and oxygen tanks caught fire, they managed to rescue two of the crew, although four others were also killed that night. (An account of this event can be found on the website The Fallen from the Villages of North and West Oxfordshire – The Fallen of the Sibfords)
On completion of his training at the OTU base, where he will have trained flying Wellington bombers, J.A. Bright transferred to an operational squadron where he will have had to convert to flying the Lancaster bomber. By February 1943 he was a member of 83 Squadron RAF based at RAF Wyton. On the evening of 19th February 1943 Flight Lieutenant Bright and the other six members of the crew set off on a night raid to Wilhelmshaven a coastal, shipyard town in northern Germany. They left their base at 18.16, flying with an Avro Lancaster, with serial number R5743 and code OL-K. This was the second mission in two days to this particular target and the first one had already failed. Sadly this mission was also to fail, the Lancaster bomber is presumed to have crashed into the North Sea at some point later that night with the loss of all members of the crew. The body of one of the crew was later washed ashore but the bodies of Flight Lieutenant Bright and the others were never recovered.
Like so many others, at the age of just 24, Flight Lieutenant Bright had given his life in the service of his country. We can only imagine the sense of desolation experienced by his family. With no other children, and following the death of her husband in 1949, Ellen Bright wanted to leave a legacy that was of use to others. In a will dated 27th January 1970 Mrs Bright, whose address was given simply as ‘Stoneview’, Templepatrick, bequeathed her estate to the Trustees of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland to be used “as the Trustees may in their sole discretion decide”, as the will was worded. The will further went on to say:
The said bequest is made to perpetuate the memory of my son Squadron Leader John Alexander Bright R.A.F.V.R. the Pilot of a Bomber lost over Wilhelmshaven on the Nineteenth/Twentieth day of February One Thousand nine hundred and forty-three aged Twenty-four years
It may be that young John Bright was an acting Squadron Leader and following on from Mrs Bright’s will it does seem to be the case that he was frequently referred to in denominational circles by this rank. However, the official records, including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission all describe him as a Flight Lieutenant at the time of his death.
Ellen Bright died on 8th May 1970 and her generous bequest passed to the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. It has been an invaluable Fund that has been used to support many denominational endeavours, especially by providing interest free loans to churches needing to undertake programmes of restoration. The Fund also provided the finance to publish the denominational Roll of Honour produced last year which listed all the men and women who served and who gave their lives in the First World War. So with that in mind it is only right that we make some act of remembrance today of John Alexander Bright and of Ellen Bright and her family as we dedicate these medals to the glory of God.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John ch.15 v.13)
Window display Templepatrick (This photo and photo at the top of this page: Maurice Montgomery)