Templepatrick service in memory of Flight Lieutenant John Alexander Bright

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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.

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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)

Poppy Memorial

Window display Templepatrick (This photo and photo at the top of this page: Maurice Montgomery)

Dedication of the Roll of Honour

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Decoration around communion table

Dedication Downpatrick Order of Service

Order of Service

On Sunday, 18th November the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Downpatrick hosted the service for the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War and the dedication of the new Roll of Honour of all the men and women who served in the war.

Dedication Downpatrick 18th November 2018 table 01

The service included Biblical readings as well as poetry from the First World War and extracts from the diaries and writings of Nurse Emma Duffin and Captain J.S. Davidson, who was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme. Laura Patterson was the organist, Jack Steers played the Last Post while Laura Neill played a lament on the pipes after the dedication of the Roll and at the start of the service.

Dedication Downpatrick 18th November 2018

Some of those taking part in the service (Photo: Mary Stewart)

Those who took part in the service included (left to right) Rev Paul Reid (Larne) who led the congregation in prayer, Jeffrey Martin who read the extracts concerning Captain Davidson, Rev Brian Moodie (Dromore) who read from the diary of Emma Duffin, Rt Rev Colin Campbell (Moderator, Holywood and Ballyclare) who dedicated the Roll, Rev Dr David Steers (Downpatrick, Ballee and Clough) who conducted the service, Rev Rosalind Taggart (Templepatrick) who read John ch.15 v.1-17, Rev Norman Hutton (Newry, Banbridge and Warrenpoint) who preached, Laura Neill who played the bagpipes and Sue Steers who read In Flanders Fields. The Rev Bridget Spain (Dublin – not shown in picture) read Micah ch.4 v.1-5.

Dedication Downpatrick 18th November 2018 poster

Poster, including picture of Downpatrick Church member Rifleman John Hayes, supplied by Richard Edgar

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Some images from before and after the service (Photos: Jeffrey Martin and Mary Stewart)

 

Irish Non-Subscribers serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force

Another curious detail of the First World War Roll of Honour of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is the high proportion of servicemen who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Out of the 588 names on the Roll a fair number served in overseas regiments including Australia (6), New Zealand (2), and South Africa (1). In addition there were four soldiers who served in the Indian Army and three joined up in the US Army. But by far the largest category for overseas service was the Canadian armed forces which totalled 27 personnel. Of these men 11 were killed during the war.

The congregations of All Souls’, the Domestic Mission, Mountpottinger, Belfast First Church, Clough, Downpatrick, Dromore, Glenarm, Holywood, Killinchy, Larne, Newry, Rademon and Templepatrick all number Canadian servicemen amongst those who joined up. Young men who had left their homes to begin a new life in a new country answered the call to return to Europe to fight in the war. As a Dominion Canada declared war on Germany in conjunction with Great Britain and a high proportion of the early volunteers in the Canadian army were men who had emigrated originally from Britain or Ireland.

One feature of the Canadian – and also Australian and New Zealand servicemen – is the online availability of their full military records. It is quite simple to call up their records and follow their careers from enlistment onwards in some detail. It is painfully sad to read of young men killed in France or Flanders and the Canadian authorities making arrangements to send a widows’ pension to their wife perhaps in Winnipeg or perhaps in county Down. It is frequently sad to read the records of those who survived the war. Few came through the years of conflict without a wound or some experience of disease or illness. Many must have suffered for the rest of their lives.

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Extract from the attestation papers of Belfast born Hugh Hanna, a member of Mountpottinger congregation who was killed serving with the 3rd Battalion Canadian Infantry. (At the top of the page can be seen part of the enlistment papers of Robert Black, a member of Downpatrick, originally from Hollymount, Ballydugan who served with the 20th Battalion Canadian Infantry but who survived the war and was discharged in January 1919).

Both images are taken from:

Library and Archives Canada

Personnel Records of the First World War

https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/personnel-records.aspx

 

NSP Lives of the First World War 05: killed fighting on the first day of the Somme

 

One of the striking features of the Roll of Honour of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is the large proportion of those who were killed during the First World War who lost their lives on the first day of the battle of the Somme.

The Roll of Honour includes a total of 98 servicemen who died in service. Of these 17 are listed as having been killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme (1st July 1916) and two more are listed as having been killed on 2nd July. In other words 19 out of 98 or just under 20% of all the fatal casualties in the denomination occurred at the start of the battle of the Somme.

Almost all of these men were part of the Ulster Division, mostly serving with the Royal Irish Rifles, eight of them belonging to the 13th Battalion and four of them serving with the 11th Battalion. The two soldiers who were recorded as killed on 2nd July were both members of the 8th Battalion.

The statistics alone indicate the impact the battle of the Somme must have had on the Ulster Division and on those back at home. Of the 19 who were killed five were officers, two were NCOs and the others were private soldiers. Some of the men were quite well-known such as Captain James Samuel Davidson, the son of S.C. Davidson the founder of the Sirocco works in Belfast.

Captain JS Davidson 1916

Captain James Samuel Davidson, 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles attached 108th Coy. Machine Gun Corps

Other deaths indicate the devastating effect the battle of the Somme had on families. So at Templepatrick two brothers were killed on the first day of the Somme, James Harper of the 15th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, aged 23, and his younger brother Joseph, aged just 19, serving with the 11th Battalion of the same regiment, both killed at the start of the battle. At Holywood congregation James Dermot Neill was killed on the first day of the Somme, his younger brother Robert Larmour Neill had been killed in action in May of the previous year. Both brothers are remembered on a family memorial in Holywood Church.

Holywood Memorial Lieut R L Neill

Holywood memorial to James Dermot Neill and Robert Larmour Neill

NSP Lives of the First World War 04: The Harrison family of Newtownards

 

One of the features of the new Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Roll of Honour is how often we see groups of brothers join after the outbreak of war. In many churches there are sets of brothers, sometimes two, sometimes three, sometimes four who respond to the appeal for volunteers. From contemporary newspaper reports we can imagine the effect this had on the families and friends who were left at home.

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The First Presbyterian Church, Newtownards in 1909

At the start of the First World War the secretary of the Newtownards congregation was Samuel Harrison, a man widely respected in the town and in the church. Three of the sons of Samuel and Grace Harrison (all members of Newtownards) joined up after war broke out, as well as two of their grandsons. In the July 1916 issue of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian it was announced that his younger son, Thomas James Harrison, had been awarded the Military Medal for bravery. In the Newtownards news of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian it was reported that “What the special act of bravery was that earned him this distinction has not been officially disclosed as yet, but we understand it was connected with acts of great bravery in rescuing wounded comrades. As a Church, we are proud of the fact that one of our number has earned this coveted distinction, and also that he is the first one in the town to receive this medal.”

In fact, as will be seen from the Roll of Honour, Thomas Harrison was himself killed before he could be presented with this medal. He died, along with so many others, on 1st July 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme.

I am grateful to Jeffrey Martin and Nigel Henderson for providing me with this picture of him which appeared in the Newtownards Chronicle at the time:

Rifleman Thomas James Harrison

From the ‘Newtownards Chronicle’

Credit: Nigel Henderson (Great War Belfast Clippings)

The extent of the casualties on the first day of the Somme must have had a devastating effect back home. At the time of Thomas’ death Samuel was nearly 72 years old and himself died little over a year later. It was perhaps a measure of how highly he was thought of that quite an unusually full obituary of him appeared on the pages of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian. It detailed his education at the National School at Ballycullen, an education cut short by the need to go out to work as a farm boy, but supplemented by a return to night class “after a hard days’ work begun at daylight”.

He was a man of fine, high principle, and greatly valued by his employer the obituary said. When promoted to the post of land steward he was the youngest man in that capacity in the county, eventually becoming the foreman of the road labourers for the local council. The obituary speaks highly of his ability to get on with all classes of people. The Newtownards Chronicle itself said “there is no individual in this county who is more highly respected by all classes and creeds than everybody’s good friend, Sam Harrison.” The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian detailed the local respect shown to him at his funeral:

Had he been one of the leading citizens or a wealthy manufacturer, the tribute would not have been so very remarkable; but as he died as he had lived – a plain working man – this tribute was the more noteworthy.

He had been a member of the church committee since 1875 and the secretary since 1898, the obituary emphasised his faith commitment:

A staunch Non-Subscriber and liberal Christian, his attachment to his Church was shown in the unselfish devotion of his mind and energies to its welfare.

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Picture from the ‘Non-Subscribing Presbyterian’

All this is part of the background to the experience of those who served in the trenches. In the words of his obituary Samuel Harrison left behind a fine record of faithfulness and a memory that should be an inspiration to those that follow him. For those left at home life continued as normal, at least outwardly. But it must have been hard to express in words the shared sense of loss felt by so many after 1st July 1916.

 

NSPCI Roll of Honour: Awards and Decorations

 

One of the things that people sometimes ask me is: Were any members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland awarded the Victoria Cross during the war? The highest award for gallantry since its inception in 1856 by Queen Victoria it is synonymous with bravery. However, having compiled this new Roll of Honour it seems clear that none of the recipients in the First World War were Non-Subscribers. This is not surprising since it is quite a rare award, only 615 Victoria Crosses were awarded throughout the whole of the Great War. But it is also clear, when looking at the Roll, that a number of members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches were given various awards for bravery or conspicuous service in battle.

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

This was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1886 as an award for officers, usually at the rank of major. In the First World War it could be awarded for “an act of meritorious or distinguished service”, usually when under fire or in the presence of the enemy. Three members of the denomination in Ireland were awarded the DSO.

Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM)

Like the Victoria Cross this was a medal that dated back to the time of the Crimean War, in this case it was the first medal to be awarded to a member of the armed forces who was not an officer for gallantry in the field in the face of the enemy. There are three people awarded the DCM on the Roll of Honour.

Distinguished Conduc Medal George V

Distinguished Conduct Medal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Military Cross (MC)

The Military Cross was instituted by Royal Warrant on 28th December 1914, after the start of the First World War. It was awarded to officers up to the rank of Captain for gallantry during active operations in the presence of the enemy. In the NSPCI Roll there are a total of 19 individuals awarded the Military Cross, including one recipient who was awarded a Bar to his MC.

Military Medal (MM)

The Military Medal was essentially the same as the Military Cross except it was awarded to ‘other ranks’. Instituted on 25th March 1916 its award was backdated to 1914. There are eight recipients of the MM on the Roll, including one person who was awarded a Bar to his first award.

Meritorious Service Medal (MSM)

This was awarded to Non-Commissioned Officers for meritorious service and was often awarded for service in the field during the First World War. Its award was extended to those NCOs below the rank of Sergeant and to private soldiers for acts of gallantry in the performance of military duties or in saving or attempting to save the life of another soldier. There are four instances of the MSM being awarded on the Roll.

Meritorious Service Medal George V

Meritorious Service Medal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Roll of Honour, when published, will also include all known occasions when a soldier was mentioned in despatches, occasions when a serviceman received a foreign award, and awards and decorations given to those serving with the Red Cross.