Dunkirk. Sicily. Salerno. Anzio. Fréjus. One man’s incredible war at sea

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

The TM2 Interview with Captain Tony McCrum RN

Sitting drinking coffee in a quintessentially English home, tucked away in a secluded cul-de-sac surrounded by the rolling hills of Dartmoor, you couldn’t be further away from the decks of HMS Skipjack during the Dunkirk evacuation or the beaches of Salerno during the invasion of Italy.

But these are the events that punctuated one man’s remarkable 34-year career in the British Navy.

Meeting the now 99-year-old Captain Tony McCrum, he carries himself with such grace, balance and composure, you would hardly believe he was at the heart of one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. 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 would be put to sea as a mid-shipman and so would start 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 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 70

0-800 soldiers before its luck ran out. On June 1, 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 an

d 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  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.

Tony isn’t a man who is easily put-off, however. After a brief period of leave he was sent to Dunbarton, Scotland to aid the design of his next ship, the minesweeper HMS Bridlington.

He spend the next few months of the war sweeping for mines from Cape Roth on the edges of Scotland, right round to the coast of Falmouth. With what was becoming characteristic equanimity at situations that would scare the life out of most of us, Tony commented: “You only get blown-up minesweeping if someone makes a mistake.”

Having already partaken in an evacuation, Tony would now find himself involved in four of the most significant invasions of the Second World War. But, this time, as a sailor-solider, 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 Clark 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 Clark 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 would find 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 Riviera 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, formerly Ceylon. “I was quite scared to begin with as the Japanese didn’t have a good reputation. But by the time we got there, the Japanese were on the backfoot, so it ended-up being a bit of a doddle.”

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’. Tony worked at the signal school in Plymouth before eventually being made Captain of HMS Concord.

One of his initial tasks was to return to the Far East and support the Americans if the Chinese wanted to invade what is now Taiwan.

“One of the things I had to do was to go to Tokyo. I wasn’t very happy about that because, as you can imagine, there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment.

“So I gave a miss to the cocktail parties and went and climbed Mount Fujiyama. I said, ‘is there any volunteers to come with the captain to climb Fujiyama?’ Anyone that wanted to get promoted joined me!”

He would go on to command a squadron of ships in the Mediterranean and be part of NATO in Oslo. In 1963, at the age of 44, Tony voluntarily left the navy to spend more time with his family.

His brother, Michael, would recommend him for a job at United Steel Companies in Sheffield. A maritime man since the age of 13, and with the naval regime in his blood, it was initially a shock to the system to be in the ‘normal world’.
He recalls how he came out in boils from the stress of having to adapt into this new part of life: “I remember asking what they would do if I didn’t suit them. Only to be told ‘then we sack you’.”

Luckily for Tony, he took to the civilian world as naturally as he did to the navy, having a number of successful years training up graduates before moving on to a senior personnel role at Redlands.

In 1983, at the age of 64, he retired and moved with his wife to Chagford, having explored the town extensively while his mum was in Belstone decades earlier.

Even in retirement, though, the keenness to help and devotion to public service never went away. He ended up volunteering at AGE UK in Exeter.

Returning to the serene paradise of Dartmoor, you will now find 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’.

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