Admiral Victor Alexander Charles Crutchley

Victor Alexander Charles Crutchley was born on 2 November 1893 at Lennox Gardens, London, the only son of Percy Edward Crutchley (1855 -1940) and the Hon. Frederica Louisa Crutchley (1864-1932), second daughter of Charles Fitzroy, 3rd Baron Southampton. His mother had been a maid of honour to Queen Victoria, and Victor was a godchild of Queen Victoria (from whom he derived his first two names). He entered the Royal Naval College, Osborne, as a 13 year old Cadet, in 1906. Crutchley completed six academic terms at Osborne before proceeding to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth to complete his training.

On completion of this, and following promotion to midshipman on 15 May 1911, he joined the battleship HMS Indomitable. Crutchley was promoted Acting Sub Lieutenant on 15 September 1913 and undertook professional training courses at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich obtaining 1st class certificates in seamanship, navigation & pilotage and torpedoes. He was promoted Sub Lieutenant in April 1914, joining the battleship HMS Centurion in May 1914. He gained his watch-keeping qualification in January 1915 and was promoted Lieutenant on 30 September 1915.

Centurion operated as part of the Grand Fleet and was present at the Battle of Jutland (31 May-1 June 1916) where the ship fired four salvos at German cruisers before other British ships entered the line of fire and smoke obscured the enemy’s location. Otherwise the ships wartime service was frequent patrols of the North Sea seeking an enemy who often stayed in port.

After Jutland Captain Roger Keyes assumed command of Centurion and Crutchley became one of his more favoured officers. Keyes was promoted Rear Admiral in April 1917 and in early 1918 began planning the audacious amphibious raid on the German held ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. The plan was to sink obsolete ships in the ports and access channels to stop their use by German U-Boats which were inflicting heavy losses on Allied merchant shipping. In March 1918 Crutchley was hand-picked by Keyes to be first lieutenant of the obsolete cruiser HMS Brilliant which was to be one of the block-ships sunk at Ostend.

On 23 April 1918 HM Ships Brilliant and Sirius entered Ostend under heavy enemy fire and the two ships were scuttled, however, this failed to effectively block the harbour. Crutchley displayed great bravery and devotion to duty during the attack and was subsequently awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (London Gazette, 23 July 1918).

Crutchley volunteered for the second raid on Ostend, on 9 May, and joined the cruiser HMS Vindictive, which had previously taken part in the Zeebrugge raid. During the attack Vindictive’s Commanding Officer was killed and the Navigating Officer wounded, requiring Crutchley to take command. Despite heavy enemy fire he took the ship into the port and scuttled her. Crutchley then personally supervised the evacuation of his crew while under enemy fire. He got his men on board the damaged motor launch ML 254 where he took command from her badly wounded Commanding Officer. After the launch had escaped from the harbour it was in danger of sinking and Crutchley led the efforts to keep the stricken vessel afloat until the destroyer HMS Warwick came to the rescue. This second raid on Ostend also failed to fully close the port and prevent German U-Boats proceeding to sea.

For his outstanding bravery and leadership Crutchley was awarded a Victoria Cross (London Gazette, 28 August 1918). This award was via the ballot system where, in significant group actions, the men involved were permitted to nominate recipients by secret ballot. Crutchley was one of the last men to be awarded a VC in this manner. He was also later awarded a Belgian Croix de Guerre for his actions at Ostend (London Gazette, 2 September 1921).

In late May 1918 Crutchley was appointed as First Lieutenant of the destroyer HMS Sikh, then part of the Dover Patrol that regularly operated in the English Channel. In August 1918 Sikh was dispatched to join the Mediterranean Fleet and was serving there when the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918. During the latter part of 1918 and early 1919 Sikh served in the Black Sea enforcing the terms of the Armistice upon Turkey and also providing support to Allied operations in Southern Russia countering the advance of Bolshevik forces.

In April 1919 Lieutenant Crutchley joined the minesweeper HMS Petersfield serving in British waters and later on the South American and South Atlantic station. He served in the royal yacht Alexandra, during the latter part of 1921, before joining the Cadet training ship, the dreadnought HMS Thunderer, in January 1922. Crutchley was promoted Lieutenant Commander on 30 September 1923.

He served briefly in the royal yacht Victoria and Albert III during May-September 1924 before proceeding to the Mediterranean Fleet for four years, serving again under Roger Keyes, now Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet based at Malta. Crutchley served in the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth (1924-1926), the battleship HMS Valiant (1926) and the light cruiser HMS Ceres during 1926-1928. Crutchley was also an adept polo player, and was often invited to play for Keyes' polo team, the Centurions. At one point in 1927, Crutchley played on the same team as Keyes, the Duke of York, and Louis Mountbatten. He was noted by his superiors as an:

Exceptionally good officer in all respects. Capable of rising to the highest ranks.

Crutchley was promoted Commander in June 1928 and became the Commander (Second in Command) of the Royal Naval Barracks at Devonport. In 1930 he married Joan Coryton and they later had two sons and a daughter. In late August 1930, Crutchley joined the cruiser HMS Diomede, part of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy, as Executive Officer. Diomede took part in the relief operation after the town of Napier on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, was devastated during the 3 February 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake. The town was levelled and over 200 people lost their lives. Men from Diomede were landed to provide medical and logistical support and help restore services to the township.

During April 1932-February 1933 Crutchley also held the position of Honorary Naval Aide de Camp to the Governor-General of New Zealand, George Bathurst, 1st Viscount Bledisloe after whom the Bledisloe Cup is named. On 31 December 1932 Crutchley was promoted Captain and during 12 May 1933-3 August 1933 he was Acting Commanding Officer of Diomede while the ship was in refit. He returned to the United Kingdom in late November 1933 and undertook the Senior Officers War Course in 1934.

Crutchley was senior officer of the 1st Minesweeper Flotilla based at Portland, Dorset during 1935-1936, embarked in the minesweeper HMS Halcyon. In November 1935 he took the flotilla to join the Mediterranean Fleet in Alexandria, following the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in October 1935. This period saw a build-up of Royal Navy vessels in the Mediterranean and the potential for hostilities between Great Britain and Italy, however Britain ultimately took no action and Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians until they were defeated by Allied forces during fighting in April 1941.

On 16 April 1936, Crutchley was appointed as Captain Fishery Protection and Minesweeping, embarked in HMS Harebell, with overall command of the Royal Navy's minesweeping and armed trawler fleet. A year later, on 1 May 1937, he took command of the battleship HMS Warspite, which had just completed a three year refit at Portsmouth. This proved to be a trying time for the ships company as Warspite undertook extensive and difficult sea trials to try and rectify long standing propulsion and steering problems which may have been a legacy of damage suffered at Jutland in 1916.

The delays prevented the ship from joining the Mediterranean Fleet and affected morale with many of the ship’s company having their leave cancelled or curtailed. This information made its way into several British newspapers and Crutchley was censured by the Admiralty for a “gross error of judgement” as a result of the Royal Navy being brought into disrepute. Eventually, in the latter part of 1937, Warspite arrived in the Mediterranean to serve as the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet Admiral Sir Dudley Pound. Crutchley subsequently served as flag captain to Admiral Pound (1937-39) and also briefly for Admiral Andrew Cunningham.

Following the outbreak of war, on 3 September 1939, Warspite returned to British waters and was assigned to the Home Fleet. She operated from Scapa Flow and conducted patrols in the North Sea. On 9 April 1940 German forces invaded Norway and Warspite was soon committed to the campaign.

On 13 April 1940, Warspite took part in the second battle of Narvik where she accompanied nine British destroyers into Ofotfjord, and in the ensuing action eight German destroyers were destroyed. Captain Crutchley was mentioned in dispatches (London Gazette, 28 June 1940) for his command of Warspite in this action. In May 1940 Crutchley was appointed Commodore 2nd Class and took command of the Royal Naval Barracks at Devonport. During his period of command Devonport came under frequent air attack by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. Crutchley also provided support to Polish Naval forces, that had escaped to Britain, and was later awarded an Order of Polonia Restituta (Third Class) “for services to the Polish Navy” (London Gazette, 22 December 1942).

Crutchley was promoted Rear Admiral on 6 February 1942 and was loaned to the Royal Australian Navy, on 30 March 1942, for service as Rear Admiral Commanding the Australian Squadron (RACAS). He left for Australia via steamer in mid-April 1942 and, on 13 June 1942 on board the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia, Crutchley succeeded Rear Admiral John Crace, RN in command of the Australian Squadron. Crutchley would fly his flag in Australia for most of his time in command of the Australian Squadron. While Australia was in refit he flew his flag in HMAS Hobart (October-December 1942) and HMAS Shropshire (February-March 1944).

Rear Admiral Crutchley was described by one of his Australian staff officers as:

A big powerfully built man, greatly experienced in naval affairs in two world wars and in peace, fearless, warmly hospitable, very companionable, always pleasant, cheerful and un-ruffled, frankly straight forward. An impressive, commanding figure of a man.

The Australian Squadron had recently fought at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and was now preparing for its next fight. This was supporting the landing of US Marines at Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, to wrest control from the Japanese who were establishing a forward base there.

During the landings on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942, Crutchley commanded Task Force 62.2, the covering force for the transport ships, flying his flag in HMAS Australia. TF 62.2 included three Australian cruisers (HMA Ships Australia, Canberra and Hobart) and five American cruisers, fifteen destroyers, and accompanying minesweepers. Crutchley was under the overall command of Admiral Richmond Turner, USN, commander of the amphibious force. TF 62.2 was on constant alert, providing naval gunfire support to the landings or defending the transports against Japanese air attacks. By the evening of 8 August the Allied sailors had been in action for nearly 48 hours in oppressive tropical weather with little sleep.

On afternoon of 8 August, Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher, USN began withdrawing his aircraft carriers that had been providing air cover for the landings. Turner decided that the amphibious and support ships must also leave the next day. He summoned Crutchley and Major General Alexander Vandegrift (commander of the US marines on Guadalcanal) to an evening conference on board his flagship. Crutchley took Australia to the amphibious ships anchorage, leaving five cruisers and six destroyers on patrol to the north-west.

That night a powerful Japanese cruiser force from Rabaul attacked the Allied forces in the vicinity of Savo Island. They caught TF 62.2 by surprise, and sank or disabled four Allied cruisers, including the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra. The Australian cruiser was disabled and later sunk, the next day, by US destroyers when she was unable to get underway due to damage to her engine and boiler rooms.

In the wake of this disaster, Crutchley was criticised for leaving his command, and for an ineffective deployment of forces which allowed the Japanese to close the Allied forces without detection. This was a somewhat unfair criticism of Crutchley, who was ordered by Turner to attend the evening meeting. Additionally, the attacking Japanese forces took full advantage of the cover of darkness, poor visibility due to rain squalls, ineffective patrolling by the US destroyers and poor Allied communications to undertake their attack. The Japanese however broke off the attack when the Allied transport fleet was at its most vulnerable.

Despite the defeat at the Battle of Savo Island, and the loss of Canberra, Crutchley remained in command of the Australian Squadron and attached US Navy forces (Task Force 44 - re-designated TF74 in 1943). The RAN continued to operate alongside the USN in the South West Pacific Area during 1943-44. Crutchley handed over command of the Australian Squadron to Commodore John Collins, CB, RAN on 13 June 1944 and returned to the United Kingdom in early September 1944.

In the 1945 New Year’s Honours List Crutchley was appointed as a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB) and also awarded the US Legion of Merit (Degree of Chief Commander); a degree normally reserved for heads of state. Crutchley was promoted to Vice Admiral on 15 August 1945 and appointed as Flag Officer Commanding Gibraltar and Mediterranean Approaches (also known as Vice Admiral in Charge and Admiral Superintendent HM Dockyard, Gibraltar).

He was appointed as a Knight Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (KCB) in the King’s Birthday Honours List, in June 1946, and retired from the Royal Navy on 3 May 1947. Crutchley was subsequently promoted to Admiral, on the retired list, on 3 February 1949. In retirement he lived at Mappercombe Manor, near Bridport in Dorset. In 1955 he was appointed High Sheriff of Dorset and in 1957 became the Deputy Lieutenant for Dorset. He led the naval contingent at the 1956 Victoria Cross Centenary celebrations in the United Kingdom.

Admiral Sir Victor Crutchley, VC, KCB, DSC, RN died at Nettlecombe, Dorset on 24 January 1986 and was buried at St Mary’s Churchyard, Powerstock, Dorset. His wife had pre-deceased him in 1980.