Rear Admiral Gordon John Branstone Crabb

RADM Gordon Crabb

Gordon ‘Buster’ Crabb was born in London on 5 July 1917. In 1920, the Crabb family came to Australia to join their father, Lieutenant Sydney George Crabb, who was a Royal Navy officer loaned to the RAN and serving in the submarine depot ship HMAS Platypus. Sydney Crabb was discharged invalided from the RAN in 1926 and died in 1928. Gordon’s older brother, Charles Macvean Branstone Crabb also later served in the RAN Reserve as a Paymaster Lieutenant during World War II.

Gordon Crabb was educated at Melbourne Grammar and entered the RAN College (Flinders Naval Depot) in 1932. He excelled as a Cadet Midshipman and became Chief Cadet Captain, gaining his colours in rugby, hockey and tennis, and was awarded the King’s Gold Medal on graduation in 1935. He then proceeded to sea for further training in the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra, during 1936, and was promoted to Midshipman in June of that year. In early 1937 he was sent to England for training and served in the battleship HMS Barham until August 1937 and then undertook training courses at HM Ships Dryad (navigation), Excellent (gunnery) and Vernon (torpedos). Crabb was promoted to Sub Lieutenant in November 1938.   

Upon return to Australia, in March 1939 he was appointed to the light cruiser HMAS Sydney. Crabb was promoted to Lieutenant in February 1940 and was in charge of B-turret when the Sydney sank the Italian Cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni in the Mediterranean on 19 July 1940. He left the cruiser in April 1941 and proceeded to England to undertake the long gunnery course at HMS Excellent. In November that year HMAS Sydney was sunk in a surprise encounter with the German raider Kormoran off the coast of Western Australia and all 645 men onboard were killed. Among those killed was Crabbs’ good friend, Lieutenant Ian Treloar, who was in charge of A-turret. 

On completion of the long gunnery course in March 1942, Lieutenant Crabb was appointed to the gunnery school at HMAS Cerberus and served there until May 1943 when he became the First Lieutenant and gunnery officer of the destroyer HMAS Arunta. The destroyer saw service in New Guinea waters and was involved in actions at Arawe, Cape Gloucester, Saidor and the Admiralty Islands. In May 1944 Crabb transferred to the destroyer HMS Rotherham, as the gunnery officer, and then in November 1944 he joined the destroyer HMAS Napier in a similar capacity and served in the Burma campaign. Napier was in Japanese waters in September 1945 and Crabb, now the destroyer's Executive Officer, became a staff officer to Captain Herbert Buchanan, RAN who was Commander of the British Landing Force at Yokosuka Naval Base which supervised the surrender and hand over of this major Japanese naval facility. Crabb was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in June 1946 for distinguished service in the war in the Far East.

In late 1945 Lieutenant Crabb served briefly in the destroyer HMAS Quality and then joined the staff of the gunnery school at Cerberus in January 1946. Later that year Crabb was sent to England on exchange service at the RN gunnery school at HMS Excellent (Whale Island). In June 1947 he joined the light cruiser HMS Aurora, as the gunnery officer, and served in her until May 1948 when the cruiser was sold to the Chinese Nationalist Government. Crabb then returned briefly to Whale Island and then spent three months in the battleship HMS King George V. 1948 was an important year for Gordon Crabb; he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and also married Ruby Dorothy Smith who had served as a WREN driver in the Royal Navy during the war; they later had two children.

Upon return to Australia in late 1948 he was once again appointed to the gunnery school at Cerberus and then in mid-1949 joined the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia as the fleet gunnery officer. He was promoted to Commander in June 1951 and appointed as the officer in charge of the gunnery school at Cerberus. In April 1952, Commander Crabb became the executive officer at the Naval Air Station at Nowra (HMAS Albatross). In early 1954 Crabb was appointed to his first command; the destroyer HMAS Anzac. During his time in command of Anzac the destroyer served in Australian, South West Pacific and South East Asian waters. After handing over command of Anzac in September 1955 he served in Navy Office, in Melbourne, as the naval member on the Joint Planning Staff. Crabb was then selected to be the first Commanding Officer of the newly commissioned destroyer HMAS Voyager in early 1957. During his time in command of Voyager, (1957-58), the ship undertook extensive work up trials and later in 1958 served for eight months as part of the Far East Strategic Reserve and also operated in Philippine, South Korean and Japanese waters. Crabb was promoted to Captain in June 1957.

After handing over command of Voyager, Captain Crabb was appointed in early 1959 as the assistant head of Australian Joint Services Staff in London for two years. He returned to Australia in 1961 and was appointed to Navy Office as Deputy Chief of Naval Personnel and in late 1963 he undertook a course at the Australian Administration Staff College at Mount Eliza in Victoria. After completing this staff course he proceeded to England to study at the Imperial Defence College in London in 1964. Crabb returned to Australia in early 1965 and took command of the fast troop transport HMAS Sydney. In June 1965 his ship took the 1st Battalion RAR, and its supporting elements, to Vung Tau in Vietnam. This was the first of Sydney’s 23 voyages to Vietnam during 1965-72 and which earned her the nickname ‘the Vung Tau Ferry’.

Promoted to Rear Admiral in January 1966, he was then posted to Washington as the head of the Australian Joint Service Staff in the Australian embassy in Washington. There he produced some high quality assessments of the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States, which accurately reflected the gravity of the situation. In January 1967 Crabb was made a Commander in the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to the RAN.

In March 1968 he was appointed as Commander of the Australian Fleet. During his tenure as Fleet Commander he visited as many fleet units as he was able to. When he was at sea, he would sometimes fly his personal flag at the mast - a gold crab on a red background and rumour has it that he wore a crab emblem on his foul weather jacket. Rear Admiral Crabb also visited RAN units deployed to Vietnam, in June 1968, including the destroyer HMAS Hobart and the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam. As Fleet Commander, Rear Admiral Crabb was onboard the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne when she collided with the destroyer USS Frank E Evans in the South China on the night of 3 June 1969. Crabb quickly advised the Naval Board of the incident and that, in his view, it had been quite impossible for the Melbourne to avoid the Evans. Crabb also stated that Melbourne’s Commanding Officer, Captain JP Stevenson, had personally taken every action possible to avoid collision. The following US Navy enquiry however found that a portion of blame lay with Melbourne’s actions and Crabb sent a signal of protest to the Naval Board but his concerns that Stevenson was being made a scapegoat for poor US Navy seamanship were ignored.

Crabb relinquished his command of the Australian Fleet in January 1970. During 1970-71, he served ashore in Sydney as the Flag Officer Commanding the East Australian Area (FOCEA) and then in 1972 he was appointed to the Naval Board, in Canberra, as the Second Naval Member and Chief of Naval Supply and Works. Rear Admiral Crabb retired from the RAN in late 1973, after 41 years’ service, and joined Philips Industries as a consultant. 

Rear Admiral Gordon Crabb passed away in Sydney on 16 July 2001.