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

The first day of the battle of the Somme

The centenary of the battle of the Somme gives us an opportunity to reflect on its impact in the context of our churches and our denomination.

The battle of the Somme began at 7.30 am on 1st July 1916. The German lines were subjected to a sustained bombardment for days in advance.

Lieut. Col. G. Bull the Commanding officer of the 12th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles described it like this:

The bombardment, which had lasted seven days without ceasing reached its climax at 6-25 a.m. on the morning of the 1st July, and from 6-25 a.m. until 7-30 a.m. the German trenches were treated to a perfect hurricane of shells.

But although this was intended to destroy the enemy and break up their lines it did not have that effect and meant that thousands of troops, when they went over the top, stood little chance.

Private William Roberts of the 18th Durham Light Infantry kept his own diary, and of the day the battle of the Somme began recorded:

Opened a violent bombardment on the German lines. 7am a village blown up by our mine and 7.30am advance started. We were the 4th Battalion to go over, which we did about an hour later.

The short but terrible rush through the fierce curtain fire with men falling on all sides I shall never forget. High explosive shells fell all round us. The sights I saw are too terrible to write about and men almost blown to pieces were lying side by side.

Unable to proceed further, the order to retire was given and I thanked God that I came through the terrible ordeal unhurt.

I went to work in our front line at night but had to come away as it was almost blown to pieces.

There again I saw dead and wounded lying side by side. Some were moaning and others had so far lost their reason that they were laughing and singing.

Of the members of our three churches of Downpatrick, Ballee and Clough at least seven were killed in the First World War from amongst the many who joined up. Three of them were killed in 1916 two of them at the battle of the Somme – including a member of Downpatrick, Rifleman John Hayes of the First Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, who was killed on 31st October 1916, and Rifleman Robert Kirkpatrick, a member of Clough, and of the 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles who was killed on 1st July, 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme. Both young men are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, the memorial to the 72,195 British and South African soldiers who were killed at the battle of the Somme and have no known grave.

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Memorial, Clough NSP Church

Without doubt the battle of the Somme was one of the most bloody in the history of the British army. There were 57,470 casualties on the first day alone and 19,240 soldiers were killed on that day.

One of those killed on the first day was a member of Clough but a glance at the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine for August 1916 shows four obituaries all relating to members of the denomination who were serving in France and who were killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme.

These were:

Captain W. Haughton Smyth of the 13th Royal Irish Rifles, a member of Banbridge, who was killed on 1st July.

Captain J.S. Davidson, a director of the Sirocco Works in Belfast, one of the largest engineering works in Ireland and a business set up in 1881 by his father to produce machinery for the tea industry. A member of a prominent Non-Subscribing family connected with Holywood who was killed at the start of the battle.

Lieutenant J. Dermot Neill, from Holywood, who had been commissioned into the 13th Royal Irish Rifles and subsequently transferred to the Machine Gun Corps who was killed on 1st July.

Private Joseph Harper, from Templepatrick, a member of the 11th Battalion the Royal Irish Rifles [according to the published obituary and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, although the Templepatrick church memorial has 18th Battalion] who was also killed on the first day of the Somme.

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Captain W. Haughton Smyth

And these are only the ones who have published obituaries in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine, there will have been many more. This just shows the enormous impact of the battle of the Somme on the whole country, on big towns and cities, and rural hamlets and villages, on industries and agriculture and communities and streets and families.

In the whole of the War there are only 16 obituaries in the magazine. Of these 16 obituaries 14 are of officers and most include a photograph of the deceased. Of this total of 16 obituaries four of them appear in the August 1916 issue, being of soldiers killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme. Generally the only people to have written obituaries in the magazine were officers so Private Harper was an exception. But if you look at the memorial in Templepatrick church you see on the list of those who were killed in the war right next to Joseph Harper the name of Private James Harper of the 12th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles [the Commonwealth War Graves Commission gives 15th Battalion – another difference with the memorial], presumably Joseph’s brother, who was also killed on the first day of the Somme.

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War Memorial Old Presbyterian Church, Templepatrick

In the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine there are also three additional brief notices, one of them is for one of the sons of the Rev Alexander Gordon, one is a mention of a death in a Rademon ‘News of the Churches’ report. But the third of these three brief notices is one of another soldier killed on 1st July 1916 listed as Private John White, Royal Irish Rifles (Holywood Volunteers) a member of Holywood. Another member of the 13th Battalion he was 24 years old and is buried in the Suzanne Military Cemetery nearby.

Private John White NSP

So out of a total of only 19 obituary notices in the magazine five of them – more than a quarter – relate to soldiers killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme alone, and these will by no means be the full list of those killed at that battle.

A record of the all engagements were kept by the battalion commanders throughout the war. The first day of the battle of the Somme is recorded as a day of confusion and slaughter. The death of Captain W. Haughton Smyth is noted in the report of the day by Colonel William Savage as:

No 9 Platoon came on under the command of Capt W.H. SMYTH, who was killed almost immediately. They were the carrying platoon and some of them reached the first line with material, which after dumping there or carrying to second line was not required, as all the time was spent consolidating, holding the line & helping the fighting platoons.

Captain J.S. Davidson’s participation in the battle of the Somme is similarly recounted in the war diary of 13th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. William Savage, the Colonel commanding the battalion records that:

Very little, almost no information, was sent in, this was due in the first place to most of the officers becoming casualties, and the difficulty of getting men across the fire swept zone of NO MANS LAND.

Signalling wires had previously been laid out by the Signalling Officer of the 17th but all attempts by the signallers to take a line forward were useless. I had 10 signallers killed and wounded. I append a list of the officer casualties by Companies 2/Lieut Fullerton of D Coy is the only officer who went over who has come back unwounded & has very little information to give about his Company.

He goes on to say that Captain Davidson and his company were sent out at 8.06 am. Eventually news came back that they had got so far but could not possibly advance any further and asked for reinforcements and additional ammunition. But it was impossible to get men or supplies out to them. Later at 12.40 pm they heard back from Captain Davidson:

A message from Capt Davidson 108th M.G.C. arrived “I am holding the end of a communication trench in A line with a few bombers & a Lewis Gun. We cannot hold much longer. We are being pressed on all sides and ammunition almost finished.”

But the situation continued to be confused, reinforcements could not be got out to him and the Germans were counter-attacking. At 3.20 pm a rifleman found his way back:

and reported that Capt Davidson had been wounded in the knee & while he & another man were carrying him out, he was shot dead between them.

The obituary of J.S Davidson in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian recorded that

with the outbreak of war he felt that his country had need of him, and gave up peaceful pursuits for military practice. As in business, so likewise in his military duties, he gave of his best. Taking nothing for granted, but making himself familiar with every detail of his duty, his work was characterised by extreme conscientiousness and thoroughness.

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Captain J.S. Davidson

But all the obituaries of those killed on the first day of the Somme express their patriotic motives and the sense of the rightness of the call that led the men to join up. Of Captain William Haughton Smyth the Rev J. Glynn Davies of Banbridge said he

had lost his life in a sacred cause, but he has lost it only to find it nobler and brighter than ever before. His body lies in the cold earth, but that which is greater than all matter, that which cannot be crushed or shattered by German explosive shell or pierced by German steel remains – the soul has gone to its God who gave it.

But sentiments like this must have been expressed all across the country as they coped with the terrible slaughter of so many young men. Of Lieutenant J. Dermot Neill, who is commemorated by a memorial along with his brother on the wall of our Holywood church, as well as on the memorial at Queen’s University, the unsigned obituary says:

Lieutenant Neill was one of those brave Ulstermen who, not on any rash impulse, but after cool deliberation of all the sacrifices and dangers involved, freely and cheerfully offered his services to his country.

He goes on to quote the minister:

Lieutenant Neill’s response to the call of duty – a call which, from the world’s point of view, had little promise to offer – but, on the other hand, much of danger, of privation, of hardship, and to face suffering and death. But he nobly gave his services to his King and country, and for that noble ideal that is sending Britons to war upon war, that in the peace which shall follow their glorious self-sacrifice, the nations of the earth, both great and small, may be free to follow the pursuit of industry and peace.

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Lieutenant J. Dermot Neill

The obituary of Private Joseph Harper is very poignant and is written by someone who knew that his brother was serving somewhere near him yet who did not know that his brother had been killed on the same day:

Joseph was nineteen years of age, and enlisted into the Army eight months ago. Comrades have written home to say that they saw him fall: that he fell in a great charge, when the 11th battalion earned for itself undying fame, and when many another brave boy gave all that he had to give for his King and Country. He fell as a brave boy would fall, with his face to the foe. An uneventful life had been his. He came out of a small cottage on the roadside in our parish, and had been mainly concerned with the duties that belong to the work on a farm. But he had a great heart in him, and when he left his home to go France, he left with a happy smile on his face, and with a spirit of hope and cheer and fearlessness in his heart. He has answered the roll-call in a better world than this. He was a member of our church, and occupied his place on our Roll of Honour. We express our deep sympathy with his widowed mother, his brothers (one of whom is fighting not far from where Joseph fell) and his sisters in their great loss.

But both Joseph and James were serving with the Royal Irish Rifles in different battalions and in fact both were killed on 1st July 1916 and the names of both are preserved on the Thiepval memorial.

But just this small sample from within our own household of faith is a reminder of the terrible impact of the battle of the Somme on so many people. So many families were left bereaved with fathers, sons, and brothers killed in the battle.

Everyone will perhaps have their own loved ones who they might remember as having served in the First World War, perhaps at the Somme. My own grandfather served throughout the First World War and was there present at the Somme. But we all have our own memories and ways of remembering.

In what I have said here I have looked briefly at a few men from our household of faith. There is much more that could have been said. I could talk about the impact at home on families, of the economic results of the war and of the effect on society that resonated across the last hundred years. But at the heart of any act of marking this terrible event of one hundred years ago should be remembrance, and today we make our small act of remembrance.

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

(from ‘Aftermath’, Siegfried Sassoon)

From an address given at a joint service of Ballee, Downpatrick and Clough churches at

Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church on Sunday, 3rd July 2016