It is, with great sadness, that I must announce the passing of John McFarland, early yesterday morning.
I am sure all readers of the blog would like to join myself and the Association in wishing our heartfelt condolences to the family at this sad time.
John was well know to all members of the Association and held in high regard. His visits to the annual Winter Reunions with Elsie and the McFarland family were, I am sure looked forward to by all others who attended and John never disappointed with his warmth, good humour and dry wit when spoken to, particularly regarding his recollections of the night he was shot down in 1944 whilst on a mine laying or ‘Gardening’ Operation to Kiel Bay.
John’s story began when he came to Belfast in 1940 to sit a Latin exam for a pharmacist’s apprenticeship he’d secured in Derry. “I’d always found the Latin a chore and a friend had told me about the great time he was having in the RAF so when I was in Belfast I went to the RAF recruiting office and joined up,”.
In June 1941 John was formally called up and began training as a navigator. After graduating, he should have gone to an Operational Training Unit where the air crews were put together, though they were infamous for their 20% loss of life. “But then word came through that I was to by-pass this, I never knew why, and join a crew before going onto 75 New Zealand Squadron as a replacement navigator – and you never asked who you were replacing,” said John.
John and the rest of the Murray crew were posted to Mepal in late January of 1944, flying their first Op on the 11th February, and after conversion to Lancasters took part in the first 75(NZ) Squadron Operation with Lancasters, bombing mashalling yards in Paris on 9th April. A series of aborted Ops perhaps had got the crew nervy about completing their tour and when an ‘easy’ Gardening Op came up in a now aged Stirling, the crew volunteered.
“We flew from a remote base near Ely in East Anglia and were engaged mainly in sea and French railway yard mining operations as well as drops to the French Resistance. It was during one of these we were shot down. The Germans had the capability to fire vertically upwards. We were over Denmark and it was around midnight when my navigator’s table shattered and I knew we’d been hit from below. Everything happened so fast. We had to bail out and use our parachutes. The parachute wrappers used to put little notes in with the silk saying things like ‘all the best’! Only three of us survived that night – the rear gunner’s parachute failed to open. That could have been any one of us for you just grabbed a parachute on your way out to board the aircraft…”
Four of the crew were buried at Gram, Denmark – James Murray RNZAF (Pilot), Haymen Kahler RAFVR (Flight Engineer) Jack Mulligan RCAF and Peter Woolham RAFVR (Air Gunners).
Gordon Irwin RNZAF (Wireless Operator), John and Douglas Hill RNZAF (Air Bomber) became Prisoners or War.
John landed in a ploughed field and was rescued by the farmer’s son whose family sheltered him for three days before the Germans found him. “I was sent to the same prison camp which featured in The Great Escape,” he explained. “Life there wasn’t great but some of the lads had built a radio and brought us news every day so we heard about D-Day and thought we’d be home by Christmas. Of course we weren’t.”
In January 1945 with the Russians advancing the POWs were put to march, sleeping in barns along the roadside, despite the bitter winter. “I’ve never experienced cold like it. One POW found a rat and held onto it just to keep his hands warm!” recalled John.
“I remember one morning though, two British fighter planes were circling overhead, making to attack because they thought we were Germans. We tried to spell out ‘POWs’ with towels on the ground but they came in, all guns blazing. Twenty men died – friendly fire I think they would call it today. Just days later we were freed by the British…”
Despite his stoicism in recounting the story, the tragic irony of that loss of life still sat heavily on John McFarland’s heart. “Back in the UK we were de-loused, de-briefed and told we could go home – so home it was,” he said. “That’s when I understood what it must’ve been like for our families. Our Commanding Officer, a wonderful man, had sent a personal letter to them when our plane hadn’t come back that night…”.
Johns funeral will take place this Saturday, at Knockbracken Reformed Presbyterian Church.
The family ask that donations, if desired, be made in lieu of flowers to Tear Fund Nepal Earthquake Appeal, c/o Kirkwoods Funeral Directors, 150A Kings Road, Belfast BT5 7EJ
After sending my condolences to David, John’s son last night, he mailed back and included the following poem that he said was a particular favorite of his Fathers. The same poem was picked, by coincidence to be read at my own Father’s funeral.
For all of you that had the pleasure of knowing John, however long that was, read this poem in your head and hear john say the words………..
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God
Ake Ake Kia Kaha