The story of Flight Sergeant Francis McCluskey made the headlines a few years ago when television and newspapers picked up on the tragic account of the Ballymoney RAF airman who was shot down during the Second World War.
Flight Sergeant Francis Anthony McCluskey was only 20 years old when he took off on a mission to Osnabrück on 6 October 1942 in a Halifax bomber. He had joined the RAF after leaving Ballymoney four years earlier and was now an experienced air gunner having taken part in many missions over Germany. At midnight, Flight Sergeant McCluskey’s plane was attacked by an enemy fighter over Utrecht and the crew were forced to bail out. The young airman’s parachute did not deploy and he was killed when he came down among trees in the Prattenburg Estate, beside the town of Rhenen.
The lifeless body of Flight Sergeant McCluskey was found early the next morning by a 13-year-old Dutch girl, Jannie van Beek Pol, as she cycled through the forest with her father. Flight Sergeant McCluskey was buried a few days later in the town by the German air force, the Luftwaffe, with full military honours.
In 2015, relatives of Flight Sergeant McCluskey travelled with a delegation from Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council to Rhenen. While there, the family members met Jannie van Beek Pol for the first time and paid their respects at the brave airman’s grave and in the forest where his body was found. Sadly, within weeks of their visit, Jannie passed away peacefully in her sleep.
Flight Sergeant McCluskey’s flying cap and medals were later donated to Ballymoney Museum by his family and they remain a popular exhibit.
Nearly 75 years after his death, work is continuing to strengthen the bonds between Ballymoney and Rhenen. In early May, Joe Donaghy MBE, a member of Causeway Coast Branch, RAF Association and local historian Keith Beattie made a return visit to Rhenen to pay their respects, once again, at Flight Sergeant McCluskey’s grave and take part in the annual Dutch war commemoration ceremonies.
Joe described the recent trip as an experience he will never forget: “Keith and I felt it was important to go back to Rhenen and renew the friendships we made two years ago. It was humbling to see how the local people gather, as they do every year, to commemorate the Allied servicemen who died during World War II. The ceremony at Flight Sergeant McCluskey’s grave was very poignant as school children laid roses by his headstone. We also took part in the commemoration at the Elst war memorial and took the opportunity to visit the resting place of Jannie van Beek Pol.”
The Ballymoney visitors were the guests over lunch of the Mayor of Rhenen, Hans van der Pas, and discussed ideas for partnership projects between groups from each area.
Keith added: “This October marks the 75th anniversary of Flight Sergeant McCluskey’s death and Joe and I hope to visit schools and local groups later this year to tell his story and encourage people to remember all the young men who were killed during that conflict. The attempted Allied invasion, Operation Market Garden, also took place in the area surrounding Rhenen and we plan to carry out more research on Ballymoney men who may have been there in 1944 during that mission.”
Joe and Keith would like to thank Toon Blokland who was such a wonderful host during their visit and made sure they had such an enjoyable and successful trip.