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)

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.

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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.

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Holywood memorial to James Dermot Neill and Robert Larmour Neill

NSP Lives of the Great War: 01 Alfred Turner

 

I am currently working towards the production of a Roll of Honour for the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland in the First World War. All being well we should be on course for the publication of as complete a Roll of Honour as possible of all the men and women of the denomination in Ireland who served in the Great War including all those who gave their lives. This will be published at a service in Downpatrick on Sunday, 18th November at 3.00 pm.

The Roll will comprise two parts –  a list, by congregation, of all the men and women whose name is known who served in any capacity in the war, and a list, with brief biographical details, of all those who were killed during the conflict or died as a direct result of their service.

It is a melancholy task to trawl through the records trying to identify the service of the hundreds of names (often no more than names to start with) and to place them in the context of a regiment or ship or other area of service. The first part of the book will consist – because of its nature – of a list of names, the second will contain a bit more detail. But all the names dealt with are human stories and there is in the case of everyone behind the name a detailed account of a life, a family, service, sacrifice, bravery and suffering.

Alongside the production of the book I thought I would add here some more detailed stories of some of the people who appear in the book. I begin, with this post, with the Rev Alfred Turner.

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Rev Alfred Turner in the uniform of the YMCA

Alfred Turner was the highly respected minister of Templepatrick for a number of years and alongside his ministry held the position of the first editor of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine. Under his guidance the magazine began to maintain a Roll of Honour as the Great War commenced although this stopped at the start of 1916 and kept no record of the last two years of the war. One of the reasons for this is that Alfred Turner himself was heavily involved in war work. He served with the YMCA at the front as a uniformed non-combatant bringing support to the troops and working essentially as a chaplain. As such he was one of about five Non-Subscribing Presbyterian ministers who took on this role, although his contribution was the most extensive. As YMCA workers they conducted worship for the soldiers, distributed tea and cocoa and sold biscuits, cake, chocolate, cigarettes and candles to the troops. Alfred Turner gives full accounts of his work in the NSP and writes of feeding up to 3,000 soldiers in one go and of leading worship in packed huts where:

A great quiet pervades the place whilst the minister says prayer, and you can feel the communion of Spirit when, in the course of prayer, he commends to our Father’s guidance and keeping the loved ones in the homelands. It is a prayer in which all hearts and desires are joined, and then all unite in saying the Lord’s Prayer.

His accounts (and those of some of the others working with the YMCA) are valuable descriptions of the privations of the troops as well as their morale and attitudes which I will probably return to at some point.

The Irish Census for 1901 and 1911 record Alfred Turner’s growing family on the point of the cataclysm of the First World War. In 1901 with his wife Mary they record two sons and a daughter, his sister in law and a visiting relative plus two live-in servants. By 1911 they have two more children (a boy and a girl) another visiting relative but no live-in servants, instead there is a German governess for the growing family. In 1911 Alfred Turner misread the instructions for recording place of birth in the census and before adding ‘England’ here had written and subsequently deleted Bradford, Yorks.

His eldest son (Hugh Nelson Turner) was 14 in 1911, his next eldest son (Alfred Clough Turner) just 10. Shortly after the outbreak of war Alfred joined the Queen’s University Veteran’s Corps and patrolled the Docks with that Corps. He later also worked as a munitions worker in Belfast. His eldest son had been studying for the ministry but joined up and is listed first of all in the NSP Roll of Honour as part of the Queen’s University Officer Training Corps. By March 1915 he is listed as being with the 14th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, later still being commissioned into the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment with which regiment he was wounded at Ypres in October 1917. His younger brother Arthur Clough Nelson is recorded on the War Memorial in Templepatrick Church as himself having become a Cadet before the end of the war. He would have been about 17 by then.

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Old Presbyterian Church Templepatrick War Memorial

The Rev Alfred Turner was 53 in the year the Great War broke out and he managed to pack a lot into his war service as well as see his eldest son join up and face all the horrors of the Western Front, with his next son not far behind. He made a number of extended journeys to France to work with the YMCA. While he was away somebody deputised for him as editor of the NSP. I have his personal bound set of the first ten years of the magazine. It is a poignant memento and contains a copy of the October 1916 issue sent out to him at the front. That issue contains his portrait (as shown above). In my copy a line runs through the photograph where it was folded to post and on the back page is written the military postal destination where Alfred Turner was based at the time (picture above).