Last Saturday, in a deeply moving ceremony, local World War Two airman Flight Sergeant Francis Anthony McCluskey was honoured by the people of Ballymoney when his name was added to the list of casualties on the War Memorial.
Francis ‘Frankie’ McCluskey had left his home in Union Street aged 16 in 1938 to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). On the night of the 6 October 1942, he took off from the airfield at Topcliffe, England, the air gunner in the top turret of a Halifax bomber, and was killed when the aeroplane was shot down over Holland on its return from a raid on Osnabrook, Germany.
Next morning, Flight Sergeant McCluskey was found hanging from a tree by his parachute in a forest near Rhenen, Utrecht by a local father and daughter. The girl, Jannie van Beek Pol, then aged 14 years old, retrieved the airman’s cap from the ground before they were forced to flee from an oncoming German patrol. Jannie kept the cap safe, always hoping to return it to the family. The body of Flight Sergeant McCluskey was cut down from the tree and, even though he was an enemy airman, he was given a burial with full military honours by the Germans.
In 2013, Toon Blokland, a war historian from Rhenen contacted Ballymoney Museum to ask for information on Francis McCluskey. It was at this stage it was discovered that the tragic airman’s name had been overlooked when the Roll of Honour was added to the Ballymoney War Memorial in 2000. Anxious to correct this unfortunate oversight, the museum began trying to find out more about Francis.
Despite several appeals in the media, no family of the young airman could be found. However, Patricia McCluskey, a cousin of Francis, came forward after a recent feature on story on the ‘Your Place & Mine’ programme on Radio Ulster. On Saturday, Patricia proudly attended the ceremony to remember her cousin; she brought her sister, Alice O’Brien, and other close family members to share in the special day. Alice revealed that she had visited Francis’ grave 25 years ago and both sisters told many stories about knowing this forgotten war hero as a young man before he left to join the RAF. It was a proud day for all the relatives to see Francis receiving the honour he deserved.
The occasion was made even more poignant by important visitors from Holland – the historian Toon Blokland and the Mayor of Rhenen, Hans van der Pas. The most moving moment of the day was when Toon handed over Francis’ cap, found by Jannie van Beek Pol, now 87 years old, to Patricia and Alice. Following this, the Dutch guests and McCluskey relatives enjoyed lunch together and were joined by Alfie Martin, an RAF airman who also flew Halifax bombers in WWII. Alfie, 90 years old, told the guests his amazing stories of being saved by the Resistance network after being shot down during World War Two.
The dedication ceremony in honour Francis McCluskey was held at the Ballymoney War Memorial at 3pm. The Mayor of Rhenen was joined by Alice and Patricia to lay wreaths below the newly engraved name of this brave Ballymoney hero. The day concluded with a private meeting between Toon and the family in which he told the emotional story of Francis’ last hours.
Ballymoney Borough Council would like to thank Joe Donaghy, the Causeway branch of the RAF Association and the Ballymoney branch of the Royal British Legion for their generous support in their work to honour Flight Sergeant Francis A. McCluskey.