Flight Sergeant Francis Anthony McCluskey served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve during World War Two. He flew with RCAF 405 (Vancouver) Squadron based in the United Kingdom.
Born on 1st July 1922, He was the son of Francis Anthony McCluskey Senior, a Flight Sergeant with the Royal Air Force in World War One. McCluskey Senior had enlisted again at the outbreak of World War Two. The family came from Union Street, Ballymoney, Co. Antrim.
Known as Frankie to his family and friends, McCluskey left the family home in 1938 aged 16-years-old. He joined the Royal Air Force and was a qualified air gunner by the time World War Two broke out in September 1939. Frankie died on 6th October 1942 aged 20 years old. He was the gunner on board a Halifax Mark II bomber. The crew took off from RAF Topcliffem Yorkshire at 1854hrs on 6th October 1942. The target was Osnabruck, Germany. On board with McCluskey were five Canadians and a Scotsman.
Death in Rhenen
The Royal Air Force bomber never reached the target. Before midnight, a Luftwaffe night fighter shot the Halifax down over the occupied Netherlands. The crew bailed out of the stricken plane. Francis’ parachute failed to deploy and he came down among trees in the Prattenburg Estate near the town of Rhenen, Netherlands. A Dutch girl Jannie van Beek Pol and her father found Francis’ body as they cycled through the forest the next morning.
A few days later, Flight Sergeant Francis Anthony McCluskey received a burial with full military honours from the German Army. The other six crew members became prisoners of war, first at Stalag 344 Lamsdorf and later at L3 Stalag Luft Sagan. News of Francis’ disappearance reached his grandmother by telegram. She still lived on Union Street, Ballymoney, Co. Antrim.
Francis McCluskey’s grave is in Rhenen General Cemetery, Utrecht, Netherlands. During the 4th May 2013 Remembrance Day commemorations in the Netherlands, the Mayor of Rhenen laid a wreath there.
Commemorations in Northern Ireland and the Netherlands
Until 2014, McCluskey’s name was not on the Ballymoney War Memorial, Co. Antrim. Member of the Rhenen Historical Association and retired officer of the Dutch Army Toon Blokland wrote to Ballymoney Museum. He informed them of the oversight and gave them details on McCluskey’s gravesite and his wartime story.
On 1st November 2014, Toon Blokland and Hans van der Pas, Mayor of Rhenen, visited Ballymoney, Co. Antrim. The trip received support from the Causeway Branch of the Royal Air Force Association, the Ballymoney Royal British Legion, and Ballymoney Council. The group held a ceremony of remembrance and added Francis’ name to the Ballymoney War Memorial. An appeal on BBC Radio Ulster’s ‘Your Place and Mine’ traced members of the McCluskey family who also attended the occasion. The guests from Rhenen met Alice O’Brien and Patricia McCluskey, cousins of the young airman, now living in Co. Londonderry. They donated Francis’ medals to the Ballymoney Museum. Another donation to the museum was a cap belonging to Francis, found by Jannie van Beek Pol. She had kept it safe since 1942 in the hopes that she would one day meet the McCluskey family.
On returning to Rhenen, Mayor van der Pas and Blokland made plans to bring the McCluskey family to the Netherlands in 2015. Marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, the McCluskey family visited Rhenen and laid a wreath at Francis’ grave. Francis’ nephew Paul O’Brien, cousin Patricia McCluskey, and Jannie van Beek Pol paid their respects. Joining them were Ballymoney Museum Manager Keith Beattie, and Mayor of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council Michelle Knight-McQuillan.
Jannie also brought the family to the forest where 20-year-old Francis Anthony McCluskey died in 1942. Film crews from BBC Northern Ireland and Utrecht TV followed the family, bringing their story to the news in both countries.
The family visited the Ballymoney Museum on Saturday 7th October 2017 along with Joe Donaghy MBE of the Causeway Coast RAF Association. Councillor Michelle Knight-McQuillan and historian Keith Beattie joined them for the ceremony. Flight Sergeant McCluskey’s cousins, Patricia McCluskey and Alice O’Brien laid a wreath in memory of Francis.