Obituary: Cuckfield-born Captain Michael Tubby’ Crawford
Unflappable submarine captain who survived 199 depth charges, sank four ships and covertly landed commandos on enemy beaches
The small proportions of the submarine HMS Unseen meant that she was perfect for slinking in close to shore, dropping off members of the elite Combined Operations pilotage parties to size up the beach’s suitability for landing, then retrieving them before sliding back into the deep.
It was a hazardous task - and as captain of the Unseen, Lt Michael ‘Tubby’ Crawford helped conduct five such missions in the early summer of 1943, ahead of the Allied landings on Sicily.
Crawford, who was known as the most efficient and gentlemanly officer in the business, could be relied upon to be unruffled in this perilous endeavour, when discovery by the enemy would blow the secrecy surrounding the forthcoming major offensive.
‘You have to take them in very close to the coast [and] you have to stay in that position,’ he told the Imperial War Museum. ‘We normally just submerged, stopped and went down and sat on the bottom if it was shallow enough. But, if you had to stay on the surface, you had to be really on the alert because the Italians did have coastal craft which occasionally appeared. From a submarine point of view they are not very pleasant operations, but we did each of these reconnaissances and then managed to get the chaps back, which was a great thing.’
The hallmark of his command was his calm nature and good humour from nowhere
The day before the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, Unseen returned to the island to drop a sonar beacon as a guide for Allied vessels. Crawford and his men sat on the surface and saw this vast array of shipping on the horizon as it came in. ‘Having sighted this convoy I said “Well, I’m going down below for a cup of cocoa” and told them to call me as soon as anything happened. I had my cup of cocoa and put my feet on the settee, and literally went out.’ Thus it was that Crawford slept soundly through the first night of the Sicily landings.
He was awarded a bar for his Distinguished Service Cross in 1943 for his captaincy of seven of Unseen’s patrols and later mentioned in despatches for the sinking or fatal damaging of four ships. Under Crawford, Unseen launched 18 torpedo attacks, yielding 15 hits and 11 successes. She also survived 199 depth charges - no wonder the consumption of rum over 257 days at sea during 11 combat patrols was seven gallons, seven pints and six tots per man.
Gathering intelligence on French warships in Toulon ahead of the Allied invasion of north Africa in 1942, Crawford raised the periscope to find that ‘there, very close to us, was a destroyer looking right at us. Of course he immediately came in as we decided to go deep and let fly with his depth charges, which were extremely close, and we really started plummeting into the depths. We had to blow our main ballast, and we finally pulled up with the deep-diving gauge just about on the stops.’
The safe depth limit for U-Class boats was 200ft, but she had plunged to 355ft. ‘We were naturally getting a bit anxious,’ Crawford said. ‘But we did just manage to get control of her.’
They slowly sailed home, astonished to be alive. A diving helmet symbol was sewn into her Jolly Roger to mark the 355ft record. Soon after, the submarine, known until then by her pennant number of P51, was formally named HMS Unseen. The irony was not lost on the crew, given that she had come within a whisker of being lost because she had been spotted by the enemy.
Crawford was resilient and determined, but the hallmark of his command of four submarines was his calm nature and good humour, never raising his voice in the control room, A man for whom the word ‘understatement’ might have been coined, he possessed a deliciously arid wit and chuckle.
The present Rear-Admiral Submarines, John Weale OBE, said: ‘Tubby was one of an.elite band of brothers who mastered the art of using the submarine as an instrument of war; who could attack our enemies ruthlessly and with, aggression, yet remain calm and considered in the face of extreme danger.’
With a tally of at least 27, Crawford probably holds the record for the most wartime submarine combat patrols by a Royal Navy officer. He cut his teeth against Axis forces in the Mediterranean at 23, with a year on HMS Upholder as first lieutenant to Lt. Cdr Malcolm David Wanklyn. Upholder’s job was to stop convoys from Italy tracking either side of Malta to take supplies to Rommel’s north Africa forces.
The ‘Fighting Tenth’ played a significant role in the Allies’ success, which is viewed as one of the Submarine Service’s greatest achievements during the Second World War, even if it came with an uncomfortably long list of lost boats.
Rum consumption over 257 days at sea was nearly eight gallons each
Wanklyn, whose naval nickname was nothing if not predictable, was a reserved character, but Britain’s undisputed submarine ace when it came to sinking enemy tonnage, attaining a record in Upholder.
Revered by his crew, he left a trail of destruction and, for Crawford, watching him in action was a masterclass in underwater warfare. Crawford was awarded the Distinguished Service Gross for his role in Upholder’s patrols between January and May 1941, during which she sank four enemy ships.
These included the torpedoing of the Italian troopship, the SS Conte Rosso, off Sicily, which earned Wanklyn the first submariner Victoria Cross of the Second World War. That September, Upholder also claimed two troop ships, the MS Neptunia and MS Oceania, within hours of each other. Shortly after Crawford left her, Wanklyn’s submarine was reported missing. The ace and his crew were all lost to graves which have never been found.
In between patrols, the home port of round face. His father served in Malta was under heavy siege. Once, when Upholder was tethered beside HMS Illustrious, Crawford stood on the bridge watching Heinkel bombers relentlessly target the aircraft carrier, an experience he found ‘quite alarming’.
Life dramatically improved for Crawford when he became tantalised by an inter-services liaison officer he bumped into at parties. Margaret Lewis was helping to run Allied agents in north Africa and Italy from Malta. She was awash with admirers, but shrewdly eschewed several ebullient boat captains, not to mention a member of the RAF, in favour of the quiet submariner.
They married in September 1944 in Blyth, Northumberland, settling in Portsmouth, where they lived for more than 70 years and raised four children. Such was their closeness that they were described as like ‘one person with two heads’. Crawford is survived by Margaret, now 96, their children, Simon, an artist, and Rosemary, an administrator, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The couple’s older sons, Michael, an electrical engineer, and David, a banker, predeceased him.
Michael Lindsay Coulton Crawford was born in 1917 in Cuckfield, West Sussex, although he spent his early years in Kenya, then on the Isle of Wight.
Although slightly built, Crawford was nicknamed ‘Tubby’ because of his round face. His father served in the Royal Engineers in the First World War but, after Merton Court preparatory school in Sidcup he joined the senior service at 13, entering Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth in 1931.
After a brief flirtation with the surface fleet he was promoted to sub-lieutenant and transferred to the Submarine Service as 'it took my fancy' and promised more responsibility.
The move lived up to his expectations and the outbreak of the Second World War saw Crawford stationed in Malta with S-Class boat HMS Sealion, which took part in the Norwegian coast campaign in 1940. From here he went briefly to HMS 123 and then Upholder.
After the war Crawford rose to the rank of captain, later appointments including chief staff officer to flag officer submarines and a return to his wartime port as commodore superintendent Malta between 1965 and 1968.
Leaving the navy in 1968, Crawford was publications officer for Flag Officer Submarines at HMS Dolphin, Gosport, until 1980. He and Margaret were involved with fundraising for the Royal National Lifeboat Association and were social linchpins at the Royal Naval Club and Royal Albert Yacht Club.
Frailty meant Crawford was unable to attend a dinner to mark the centenary of the Royal Navy’s submarine command course last month. His successors did not forget him, with former Deputy Commander-in-Chief Fleet Vice-Admiral Tim McClement raising a toast to his forthcoming 100th birthday.
The last surviving 'Fighting Tenth' submarine captain reached this milestone several weeks later, then died the next evening. Captain Michael Lindsay Coulton Crawford RN. DSC and Bar, was born on June 27,1917. He died on June 28,2017, aged 100
Caption: Tubby Crawford, centre front, with the crew of HMS Unseen and their Jolly Roger, after their record dive of 355ft,
The Times 11 July 2017
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.