70 years ago tomorrow, Mick McCluskey took off in his torpedo bomber to lead a raiding party on Axis ships bombarding the island of Malta. He never returned, and his body was never found.
Mick was just 21 years old, born to Irish parents and brought up in Golders Green. He attended Finchley Catholic Grammar School from 1933-37, described as “a boy of pleasant disposition and great promise”, who obtained “outstanding success in the School Certificate Examination” before signing up with the Fleet Air Arm on the outbreak of war.
One of his classmates, Norman Taylor – a Corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals – wrote to Mick’s mother after he went missing. These are extracts from his letter:
“It does not seem such a very long time ago since we wrote papers for the Literary Society and Debating Society at School and I am certain that all who knew him in those days will feel his going as a great loss, for he was a brilliant scholar and a great chap to know.
“Perhaps those days in the last year [of school] were the happiest I ever spent. Most of my time was spent in Michael’s company, and I think we learned a great deal from each other. During the time we spent together in Holland, I think I learnt more about Mick than would have been possible in normal circumstances, since we were more or less alone in a very alien land.
“He was, at that time, in a transition period but he had the same good qualities of breeding, generosity, kindness and reliability which were his most marked characteristics right up to the last day on which I saw him.
“I believe that his ideals were expressed in the outlook of Siegfried Sassoon, of whom Mick was a great admirer, and who saw in the false gaiety of modern life, resultant from the last war, an underlying element of unreality and hopelessness. In the years which followed his leaving the School, this tendency of Mick’s to see things in their true colours became more pronounced and he used to give vent to them at times in his letters and also in discussions and arguments we used to have prior to the war.
“While he was in the Navy he worked hard, and I am sure that if he had been able to continue, he would have risen to some appreciable rank, for he had the spirit, determination, and the ability, in addition to his knowledge of aviation and his interest in everything concerned with the Air Arm.
“He always used to talk about the Celts and the Irish, their traditions and courage, and if he did give his life you can rest assured that he gave it as he would have wished. He was part of a fine Service, perhaps the finest Arm of the Navy, and one which has done valuable work out here and you will always be able to feel a pride in having bred so gallant a son.”
The work of the Fleet Air Arm was indeed both valuable and gallant, not just in defending Malta during the two-year siege, but in eventually inflicting enough damage on the Axis forces that they were forced to withdraw, cutting off a vital supply line to German forces in North Africa. Mick was one of 2,301 Allied airmen killed in the siege. The island of Malta – which saw 1,300 civilians killed – was awarded The George Cross for bravery by King George VI.
Mick’s name is engraved on the Lee-on-Solent Memorial in Hampshire, along with that of his co-pilot Denys Barnes, a 23-year old native of Surrey educated at the famous George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. Mick was one of 29 Old Boys of Finchley Catholic Grammar School killed in the Second World War; Denys one of 202 fallen Old Boys from George Watson’s.
May they all Rest in Peace.