Obituary of John Ronald Crosland DSC 1922/2006

John (Johnny) Crosland was born in Lytham in November 1922, and named after his father who ran a boot repair shop in the Market Building. Sadly his father died when he was just 3 years old leaving his mother to bring up John and his sister alone.

He attended St Peter’s School, Lytham and was disappointed on earning his place at St Joseph’s as he wanted to stay in there until he was 13 so he could captain St Peter’s football team. As a boy John spent his days playing cricket and football until dark in the wide back alleys of Lytham. He remembered stealing apples from gardens and being scared of the gamekeeper at Lytham Hall on the Clifton family’s estate. Sometimes the boot-repairer’s errand boy would go up to the Hall delivering shoes there, and John would sit in the basket of the bike. He also remembered picking up bottle tops from under Lytham Pier, bashing them flat between two large stones on the beach and then using them to get Nestles chocolate out of the machines at the entrance to the Pier.

At St Joe's he excelled at sport playing cricket, rugby and doing particularly well in athletics - winning the school’s Victor Ludorum in 1938. He got the train from Lytham to Blackpool Central Station every school-day and then walked to Newton Drive, and back again later in the day. After gaining his School Certificate John went to train as an accountant in Blackpool. As he couldn’t pay the £500 apprenticeship fee he agreed to work for six years for 10s a week instead of the usual 5 years training. During the early part of the war he served with the Home Guard in Lytham, patrolling the sea-front, and in early 1941, he tried to join the Lancashire Fusiliers then, in August 1941, he volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm.

John set off in June 1942 for Lee on Solent (HMS Daedalus) to get basic kit and training, and then to Gosport (HMS St Vincent) for his first classroom training; about 7 weeks. In October 1942 the trainee pilots were sent from there to Grosse Ille, Michegan to take their first flying lessons, and finally to Pensacola, Florida to get their wings flying Harvards. Their training in America was part of the two governments' 'Arnold Scheme'. As a result John learned to fly a plane before he could drive a car. He was to be part of 1841 Squadron for the rest of the war flying Chance Vought F4U Corsairs from the British aircraft carrier, HMS Formidable.

Their first action was in July 1944, a bombing raid on the German battleship Tirpitz whilst it hid in the Norwegian fjords. Two of the squadron were shot down and taken prisoner. The Formidable then went into dock for a while and 1841 flew down through Gibraltar to Egypt before re-joining the ship for service alongside the American Pacific Fleet. Between periods of action at Okinawa and Shakishimo Gunto, the squadron spent time in Australia – mostly due to a refit after a serious hangar fire in June 1945. The carrier was hit twice by kamikazes in May 1945 but did not suffer as much damage as the wooden-decked American ships.

The last two days of the war were to see 1841 squadron involved in heavy action. On the 9th August 1945 the senior pilot, Canadian born Robert Hampton Gray, led his ramrod in a low attack on shipping in Onagawa Bay, Honshu and was shot down and killed. Gray was awarded a posthumous VC for his bravery in the attack, and his 2nd in command was awarded a DSC.

John was himself awarded the DSC for his part in operations that day – he was out on patrol when he spotted a Japanese Grace flying over the American fleet. He shot it down and then had to make a speedy exit as the Americans started shooting at his plane too. His best friend and cabin-mate, Alan Maitland, had flown on Gray’s fatal attack on the 9th and the following day, the last of the war, he was shot down and killed whilst making his 3rd strafing run over an airfield. It was to be the squadron's last mission. John kept Alan's watch and a clock from a F4U cockpit, for many years after the war.

He returned home and briefly returned to accounting. However, he was spotted playing football locally and invited to have trials for Blackpool FC. So began Johnny Crosland’s football career as a centre-half at Bloomfield Rd. He often laughed at the idea of being paid for doing what he loved. John supplemented his semi-professional wage of £6-£16 per week, and helped support his mother and sister, by buying a family run fish shop in Roseway which meant he had to be at the docks early each morning and train in the evening. He made his debut on September 18, 1946, in a defeat at Brentford and played in the next three games, before sitting out the rest of that season. He made only two league appearances in the 1947–48 but his first ever FA Cup appearance was as left back in the Cup final at Wembley where Blackpool lost 4-2 to Manchester United. Two days later they beat United 1-0 in a First Division match at Bloomfield Rd.

He didn’t play first team football in 1948-49 season but made 16 appearances the following one and in 1950 he played for England B on tour, losing 3-0 against Italy. In 1951 Blackpool were back at Wembley losing to Newcastle Utd. in the Cup final but John had been injured in an earlier round and did not play. He played for Blackpool through the 1952-53 season when once again they reached the FA Cup final. This time the captain Harry Johnston returned to the team from injury replacing John in the 'Matthew's Final' - one of the most memorable FA Cup finals ever. Losing 3-1 with only 20 minutes to go they beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3. John was named as twelfth man (in case of injuries before the match as there were no substitutions during the game then) and travelled down with the Supporter’s Club rather than with the team. Before the captain Harry Johnston could lead his team up the steps to get the cup off the Queen, John had to run on with Harry's false teeth! That evening he appeared with the rest of the team as guests on the radio quiz What’s my Line.

John captained Blackpool’s reserve team to Central League victory but in 1954, after 64 first team games, he was transferred to Bournemouth & Boscombe of the Third Division South as a full-time player where, after a 9 year courtship, he finally married Peggy. He revealed to her that he was the boy who, many years earlier with his school friend Peter Cross, had met up with Peggy daily outside her home near Central Station and walked to their respective schools - St Joseph’s and Collegiate Girls.

Whilst at Bournemouth John was chosen to captain the Third Division South team against the Third Division North, but after 108 consecutive appearances (most as captain) he moved to play semi-professional football at Wisbech Town where he and Peggy ran a pub in the market square. The Wisbech manager, Oscar Hold, had put together a non-league team made up of many ex top-flight players and had considerable local success.

In 1961, John and Peggy returned to Blackpool to run The New Shovels Inn on Common Edge Rd. Initially he travelled back to Wisbech every Saturday until the end of the season and then he signed for Lancaster FC. He finally hung up his boots aged 40, and in 1962 bought The Burlees hotel which they ran for 7 years before moving to South Shore and buying into a taxi business. He kept in regular contact with his football and squadron friends and, in 1992, he and Peggy moved to Huntingdon to be nearer their daughters and grandchildren. It was there that John passed away in May 2006.

John Crosland features prominently in a book entitled 50 Football Heroes: in War and Peace. The text selects fifty soccer players who have received awards for acts of valour and relates a micro biography of each individual with their football career and the details of their heroic actions.

50 Football Heroes: in War and Peace by Douglas Gorman & Robert Bradley retails at £10 plus postage and packaging and is available on Lulu through this link.

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