Naval Officer who evacuated Troops and later led a team deciphering Ultra Signals


Naval Officer who evacuated Troops and later led a team deciphering Ultra Signals

Milford Buildings Preservation Trust are saddened to announce the death of Captain Tony McCrum, who died aged 104. He was Patron of the Trust and one of our greatest supporters for over twenty years. He was also the last link to Milford House Co. Armagh- being the last person to have stayed there and remember it how it was

Born on March 13th 1919 in Alverstoke, Hampshire, the second sone of Captain Cecil Robert McCrum OBE RN of Milford House Co. Armagh and the Californian born Ivy (nee Nicholson). His father Cecil had been reckoned one of the rising stars of the Navy, but ended the trajectory of his career by sympathizing overtly with his people while he was second in command of the battle cruiser Hood during the Invergordon Mutiny. His mother Ivy came from a line of seamen stretching back to before the Battle of Trafalgar.

In 1924 the four year old Tony came from Hong Kong with his parents to stay at Milford House with his grandfather William McCrum (the world famous inventor of the penalty kick), to recuperate after the death of his elder brother Patrick. Tony had a remarkable memory and remembers his bedroom in great detail. He said the he was allowed to sit in the Dining Room but that the chandelier was so big and hung so low he thought it would fall and crush him. He talked of the people of Milford building him a miniature train to go round the factory. He did not understand the bathrooms in Milford. He housekeeper showed him in but in Hong Kong his nanny just bathed him in a tin bath. It is this story the Trust tell visitors and children hear on their visit to Milford House. Milford House was home to Manor House School (1936-1965) and past pupils held Tony McCrum in the highest regard!

It would be an understatement to say that Tony McCrum had a remarkable life. At 16.30 May 28th 1940 he was navigator of the minesweeper Skipjack, returning to Dover after a routine patrol, when she received orders to proceed to the Belgian seaside resort of De Panne. In the dawn light Captain McCrum saw dark shadows against the white sand dunes “like some black beetle spread across the beach. We had no idea that we were the vanguard of a huge evacuation and that hundreds of soldiers were waiting for us” Over the next few days Skipjack made three overnight crossings to the beaches, taking several hundred troops back. And on first light, Saturday June 1st, she came under continuous attack, which she fought off, reducing her ammunition supply to about 12 rounds per gun. Then at 08.45 she was dive bombed by 10 Stukas and hit by two bombs. A minute later three more bombs hit her. She turned turtle and floated bottom up for about two minutes before sinking.

A few survivors were picked up by the Dutch skoot Hilda and the tug St Abbs . Almost all the nearly 300 troops on board were below decks and had little chance to escape, and the enemy machine gunned men in the water. McCrum recalled “It was a lovely day for a bathe. There was hot June sunshine and a sandy beach a few yards awa, but the enemy continued his attack on the survivors in the water and turned it into a nightmare”. He was landed at Ramsgate where his abiding memories were, first being stark naked under a blanket while the ladies of the Women’s Voluntary Service offered tea “Cups of tea and biscuits served by unflappable grannies was the national panacea”. And secondly, being scolded by his mother when he arrived home in Bexhill dressed like a dosser in assorted raggle taggle clothes he had not had time to warn her that many of his good friends had died that morning.

Educated at Horris Hill prep school, McCrum entered Dartmouth in 1932 and , as a midshipman completed his training on the battleship Royal Oak on police duties during the Spanish Civil War. In June 1940 he was appointed first lieutenant of Bridlington, a sister ship of Skipjack, then in early 1942 he was chosen to specialise as a signal officer. His success as a squadron signal officer in the Hunt-Class destroyer Mendip, on escort duties on the east coast of England, protecting convoys against E- boat attacks, led to an even more responsible appointment, as signal officer in Largs.She was a former West Indies banana boat converted into an amphibious headquarters ship, preparing for the allied landings on Sicily. McCrum was mentioned in Dispatches for gallant and distinguished services and untiring devotion to duty in operations which led to the capture of the island.

His reward was to be appointed to the planning staff for the landing on the Italian mainland. He was also indoctrinated into Ultra, the codename for the signals intelligence gained from the enigma machine and others. Placed in command of a small team of seagoing radio operators, McCrum dispatched all messages with the prefix “Ultra” and took these messages to his chief, Rear Admiral Richard L Connolly of the US Navy.

Often McCrum read the German orders for the morrow’s battle at the same time as the German commanders for whom the orders were intended, and however much McCrum told Connolly he was only the messenger, the admiral would remark “Gee, Tony I don’t know how you do it!” When the US army faltered at the Salerno landings, Connolly trusted McCrum to carry a personal message to General Mark W Clark, ashore in his headquarters caravan. For this duty, McCrum changed out of his dirty khakis and into his white uniform with shorts and buckleskin shoes. Challenged every few yards and chiaked by soldiers from their foxholes, McCrum eventually found Clark and told him; “General there is no possibility of an evacuation”.

Over the next 12 months, McCrum became a tin opener (“you don’t know what’s there until you open the tin”), helping to liberate ports such as Naples and Toulon and make them available to the Allies. In early 1945 he joined the Tribal-class destroyer Tartar as staff signal Officer, 8th Destroyer Flotilla. Bound for the Far East, the celebrated VJ Day in Trincomalee harbour, and McCrum was again mentioned in Dispatches. Post- war, McCrum held significant appointments in his specialist field- including in 1952 signa officer in the SS Gothic, which was intended for use as a royal yacht. As it was his most important duty to link Buckingham Palace with Treetops Hotel in Kenya, where Princess Elizabeth was staying

In 1954 he commanded the destroyer Concord, and in 1960-62 he was Captain, Amphibious Warfare Squadron, the Persian Gulf. The Squadron consisted of the frigate Meon and four tanks landing ships carrying six Centurion tanks. With this force McCrum was tasked to keep the peace in the region, which he did through a programme of visits and calls. In 1961, when the Iraqi leader General Abd al-Karim Qasim, threatened the newly independent Kuwait, McCrum prompt action in landing his tanks deterred Qasim even before the arrival of the bulk of the British forces, which were being mustered for Operation Vantage in support of Kuwait.

In 1964, he resigned as he wanted to see more of his family. His second career was personnel manager at United Steel (later British Steel), and then at Redlands tile and bricks manufacturer, where his boss was Lord Beeching. A widower for 30 yerasm McCrum, engaged in a wide variety of activities: he wrote for and delivered the parish magazine and became chairman of the local history society. He was a Samaritan, delivered meals on wheels, and was advisor for Help the Aged- until he realised he was older than most of his clients! He also led walks on Dartmoor, and last crossed the moor from south to north when he was 80.

McCrum wrote Snotties (unpublishedm its title derived from the slang for young naval officers), Sunk by Stukas, Survived at Salerno (2010) and Abandon Ship (2012). In 1955 Tony McCrum married Angela Long, who had been a chipper wren in the war. She predeceased him in 1993 and he his survived by two sons

Captain Tony McCrum, born March 13 1919, died July 26 2023