Captain Tony McCrum, a former naval officer, celebrated his 100th birthday last week. The square of the pretty Dartmoor town of Chagford was lined with hundreds of well-wishers who sang happy birthday, accompanied by two pipers. This was followed by the bells of St Michael’s Church ringing across the square.
With ancestors involved at the Battle of Trafalgar, and his father being, at one point, the Commander of HMS Hood, it is hardly surprising that Tony found himself at Dartmouth Naval College at the age of 13.
At the tender age of just 17 in 1936, Tony was put to sea as a mid-shipman and so started his remarkable career. But, with characteristic calmness, Tony would magnificently underplay what he was about to experience: “I had most of the war at sea. I have been more wounded in the last 2 years, as an old man, than I did in the whole of the war. I never had a single scratch.”
By the time the war broke out in 1939, Tony had worked his way to sub-lieutenant. Like many junior officers at the time, the first real experience of war was the infamous Dunkirk evacuation.
Tony was on HMS Skipjack at the time, a fleet minesweeper, and along with what seemed to be every available ship, yacht, fishing trawler and dinghy in the United
Kingdom, was rescuing hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the beaches of France and returning them to the likes of Dover and Ramsgate.
The ship managed 4 trips and rescued somewhere between 700-800 soldiers before its luck ran out. On June 1st, the Luftwaffe broke through and, to use Tony’s words, “caused carnage”.
“There were five Stukas. I can still see them. I could see one pilot quite clearly. I felt like waving to him.
‘They come so close you can see the bombs coming out. I remember on one occasion I saw this bomb come out and I remember thinking to myself: that’s going to hit the bridge. That’s me.
‘I just remember crouching in the corner and thinking ‘this is the end’.
‘It landed 10 feet from me but failed to go off. It went off three decks down and that’s what sunk the ship.”
Despite the fact that his ship had just been sunk, the Stukas were still hurtling around the sky and he was now in the water, Tony still had the clarity of mind to know that he didn’t want to swim to the Normandy shore.
“I was determined not to get mixed-up with the soldiers. I knew if I got to the beach, I would have very little chance of getting off.”
After spending some time in the water, he was picked-up by what is now commonly referred to as one of the ‘little ships’, before being transferred onto a commandeered Dutch skutsje which landed him at Ramsgate in Kent.
“By the time I was landed I just didn’t care. I was covered in oil, so I just stripped all my clothes off and was given a blanket.
‘A very nice WI came over and asked if I wanted a cup of tea, I said ‘yes, thank you very much!’ and [as I grabbed it] the blanket slipped-off!”
Tony was given an old pyjama top, trousers and slippers to return home in, only to be greeted by his mother: “What on earth are you doing in those extraordinary clothes!”
For Tony, the Dunkirk evacuation was over. HMS Skipjack was one of the first involved and played its part in helping over 338,000 soldiers escape total oblivion. Britain had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Having already partaken in an evacuation, Tony then found himself involved in four of the most significant invasions of the Second World War. But, this time, as a sailor-soldier, helping to handle the decrypts coming from Bletchley Park who had earlier broken the German Enigma Code.
The first was Operation Husky – the invasion of Sicily – which opened-up the sea channels in the Mediterranean and was the preamble for the mainland invasion of Italy. The second was the invasion of Salerno – Operation Avalanche – and, sat in a lounge overlooking the picturesque beauty of Dartmoor, Tony recalled the event which such clarity and lucidness, it felt like you were transported to the beaches of Italy.
By this time, he had been loaned to the Americans and was given the role of passing on the decrypts from Bletchley Park to General Mark Clark and Admiral Richard Conolly. Every evening he had to give the General and the Admiral a breakdown, based on the decrypts, of what the Germans were going to do the next day.
“I always remember on one occasion, Mark Clarke obviously hadn’t been very well-briefed because one day he turned to me after I had given him this stuff and he said ‘Gee, Tony! I don’t know how you do it!’. He thought I decrypted the German Enigma Code all by myself!”
At that point in the war, the intelligence coming from Bletchley Park couldn’t always be acted upon out of fear of letting the German’s know that the Enigma code had been broken.
“One evening, I decrypted a signal from Bletchley which said ‘German Squadron, is at first light tomorrow morning, going to try a new weapon on the southern anchorage and the target ship is the headquarter ship’. So I thought, ‘Oh great! Here we go again. Down again like Dunkirk’.”
The new weapon was one of the first maritime radar-guided missiles ever used in combat. Luckily for Tony, but not some of his fellow seamen, the missile hit at the exact time and place the decrypt said, but instead sunk HMS Spartan – mistaking her for the headquarter ship. Another near-miss faced down with awe-inspiring bravery.
When asked about what it was like working with the Americans, Tony recalled: “In those days, the admiral was in charge until the army could get a HQ set up on land.
‘Mark Clarke went ashore but wired back that there should be preparations made for an evacuation.
‘I was sent by the Admiral to give orders that there will be no evacuation. Here I was, this 25-year-old limey telling a general that he couldn’t evacuate! Anyway, I went ashore, gave him the order and then ran off!”
Even in the heat of battle, in an operation involving hundreds of thousands of men, it struck me how it’s the lighter moments, or ‘silly stories’, as Tony described them, that seem to get etched onto the consciousness.
In a sombre moment, however, he recalled how, on the way back to the beach, he remembers looking up at a very famous statue called Paestum. As the smile slipped away from his face in a moment of self-reflection, he recalled how he looked up at this statue and thought how ridiculous this war really was: “Here we are killing each other and there is this great monument to human civilisation.”
At his third invasion, the success wasn’t repeated from Salerno. The invasion and following battle at Anzio has been called one of the greatest blunders of the Second World War. Finally, he found himself landing on the shore of Southern France at Fréjus.
“I had the loveliest job I have ever had in peace or war. I was appointed as the staff-signal officer, French Rivera and had the coast under my control from Marseille to the Italian Border.” A smirk landed on his face: “A lot of cocktail parties.”
His next line, though, sums up the courage, resoluteness and devotion to duty that had been ever-present throughout his naval career to this point: “I was very much hoping to come home for D-Day, and that would have given me the full-house.”
The last year or so of the war was spent in the Far East at Trincomalee in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). Like probably millions of soldiers around the world in 1945, there is one particular moment that I don’t think Tony will ever forget.
A moment of the deepest human emotion: “On the 15th August – I know the exact date – I was on the bridge as the officer of the watch, screening the battleships. Suddenly the wireless office said ‘BRIDGE! BRIDGE!’, and they said that the Emperor of Japan was on the air. I suppose they had been alerted to intercept it.
“’The Emperor of Japan has just ordered all of his military commanders to surrender at 1200 tomorrow’.
‘I can remember thinking ‘that’s it – I’m alive.’ My first reaction was I’m alive.”
Despite the occasional moments of sheer terror, Tony largely remembers his war years fondly as a time where he was being constantly challenged and stretched.
He describes the immediate post-war years not so affectionately: “They were underwhelming.” Returning to the serene paradise of Dartmoor, up until recently you would have found this man dashing around Chagford on a motorised scooter, patriotically decorated with the Union Flag and the navy’s White Ensign.
Having sat, listened and been left in awe at this one man’s extraordinary bravery and dedication to his country for almost a century now, you just want to stop him and say ‘thank you’. And that is what happened on his 100th birthday, as Chagford lined the streets to celebrate and congratulate this truly remarkable man.