1915-1986

 

John Crook's father Richard Hermon - a leading architect in Bolton, Lancashire

John H Crook was the son of Richard Hermon Crook, who had an architect's practice in Bolton, Lancashire and Irene Heald- a well read woman who wrote poetry, studied world religions and became a dedicated pacifist.

Thomas Heald - John Crook's uncle: Far left and serving as an infantry officer during the First World War

John's uncle Thomas Heald (the brother of Irene) won the Military Cross while serving in the Cheshire Regiment in the trenches of the First World War. Heald's war diaries were discovered by his daughter Anne Wolff after his death at the age of 91 and further research by her of other diary accounts of other officers in the regiment led to the publication of 'Subalterns of the Foot' by Square One Publications in 1991. The military background of the family was further deepened by the fact that John's great uncle on his father's side was Colonel Harry Crook. John's grandfather John Crook was a merchant and stockbroker living in Southport. On his mother's side his grandfather was a solicitor also living in Southport.

His great grand uncle Joseph Crook was Radical/Liberal MP for Bolton between 1851 and 1861 at the height of the Victorian Empire when the economic engine of Britain was the Cotton spinning industry of Lancashire. Joseph Crook and his brothers were key figures in a cotton trade that depended on importing raw cotton from the southern American states and using the latest manufacturing technology driven by steam power to spin cloth exported to the Empire, primarily India.

This was a dramatic and exciting time in Britain's history. Joseph Crook arrived in the new neo-gothic Parliament building designed by Barry at Westminster. The constitution was developing from the Reform Act of 1832 to widen the franchise to include more of the expanding Middle Class. Elections were still by public ballot and associated with bribery and intimidation.

Joseph Crook was an example of the patrician reforming Whigs/Liberals, a member of the anti-Corn Law league, who introduced a private member's act that improved the pay and conditions of women working in the dying and bleaching industry. He was treasurer of Bolton's Liberal Association, and responsible for the reopening of the Reform Club in Derby Street. He was presented with a cheque for £70 as a testimonial to his work on the "Bleachers and Dyers Short Time Bill" of 1859. As one of the founders of the Mechanics' Institute; he gave support to the Bolton Education League formed in 1869, and £250 towards the association for the founding of nondenominational schools.

Joseph Crook was philosophically opposed to war and campaigned for substantial reductions in military expenditure. He also served on a Parliamentary reform committee to improve democracy through the introduction of the secret ballot and extension of the franchise.

The historian for the Bank Street chapel, G.M. Ramsden writes: 'Throughout his life, he was a believer in freedom of religious thought and a supporter of the chapel and of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association. He spoke at the opening of the new Chapel building. He married in 1856 Mary Dorothy Biggs (1828-1909) and died in 1884, his funeral at Deane Church being conducted by the Vicar and the Rev. C.C.Coe. There is a memorial to him in the chapel.'

John H Crook's great great grandfather was Joshua Crook (1779-1849) who founded the cotton spinning firm of Joshua Crook & Son, in Blackburn Street. It was to become the second largest employer of labour in the town. He married Anne Tipping and they built the house "White Bank" in Deane. His son Joseph (the Liberal MP born in 1809) took over the firm and steered it through all the turbulent economic and political crises of the 19th Century. By resigning as MP in 1861 and 'taking the Chiltern Hundreds' he was able to find alternative cotton suppliers to the Southern American states' plantations. The American civil war had blocked the supply of cotton and brought about a deep recession in the cotton trade. He was also able to manage the reconstruction of the mills when they were badly damaged by fire in 1879 at a cost of £20,000.

The Crook family made a key civic, industrial and social contribution to the history of Bolton and this is reflected in the fact there is still a street with the family name in the town and the library contains archives containing the architectural designs by John H Crook's father Richard Hermon Crook. The Unitarian chapel in Bank Street includes a memorial on the South wall to a second cousin Lieutenant Phillip Crook who was killed in action in 1917 during General Alenby's campaign in Palestine in the First World War:

'In proud and loving memory of Phillip Joseph Crook Lieutenant in the Duke of Lancasters Own Yeomanry. Killed in Action at Wadi Hesi, Palestine November 17th 1917. This was erected by his parents Edward and Hilda Crook and systers, Evelyn, Anne and Sybil.'

 

John H Crook was actually signed up as an articled clerk (trainee solicitor) in Thomas Heald's firm of solicitors in Wigan at the age of 19 in 1934. Heald finished the First World War as a staff captain. In 1937 he raised the 6th Battalion the Manchester Regiment as Lieutenant Colonel until 1940. After entrepreneurial travels in the Middle East he had taken over his father's law practice.

 

John Crook aged 21

 

John Crook married Sylvia Napier in May 1943, two years after she was widowed by the death of her first husband, Alan Brian - an Australian pilot - during a bombing raid in Italy. They had a son, Peter in 1944. John enlisted in his uncle's territorial battalion in Manchester in 1939 and in March 1940 was accepted for emergency officer training at the Infantry Training Centre in York.

John Crook's first wife Sylvia Napier - the daughter of a General in the First World War

As he had been in the Army cadet corps at St Peter's School, York in the early 1930s, it was perhaps understandable that he would join the York and Lancaster Regiment. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and formally attached to the 1st battalion York and Lancasters. The battalion had taken a battering during the ill-fated attempt to pre-empt the German invasion of Norway in April 1940.

It has to be said the Norwegian campaign was chaotic, badly planned and the evacuation something of a shambles. He would have been fully aware of the plight and anxieties of the York and Lancaster battalions sent to Scandinavia ill-equipped and poorly trained while he was being drilled and instructed as a young officer at the York Infantry Training Centre. They would have been on stand by as replacements to assist in either the York and Lancaster 1st Battalion operation at Andalsnes or the operation involving the Hallamshire Battalion of the York and Lancaster regiment at Namsos.

After the Norwegian debacle John Crook was assigned to a platoon of the 1st Battalion to undertake anti-German paratroop duties in Scotland during the invasion threat following Dunkirk. He was then transferred to the Hallamshire Battalion as a Second Lieutenant in "D" Company and went to Iceland. Whilst there he was promoted to full lieutenant and when the Battalion returned to Britain in 1942 for re-equipping and retraining for the invasion of Europe he was promoted to temporary captain while attached to 146th Infantry Brigade Headquarters.

After Lieutenant-Colonel Trevor Hart Dyke took command of the Hallamshires towards the end of 1943, John Crook was transferred back to the Hallamshires to "D" company as a platoon lieutenant and second in command. Rather than land with the Hallamshires in Normandy his service records indicate he was posted to '105 Reinforcement Group'. It is possible he had been recruited in the month before D-Day to form a special reinforcement force called 'First Line Reserve' to plug the gaps in the initial invasion of the beaches.

Ministry of Defence records now indicate that he was posted to Normandy on 14th June 1944, ten days after the D-Day invasion of the beaches and only four days after the Hallamshires were landed somewhat chaotically with 146th Infantry Brigade.

In the end the losses on the British and Canadian invasion beaches were lighter than expected. And so he, along with other Hallamshire Battalion officers and other ranks recruited for this special purpose were moved to Normandy to help build up the infrastructure for the campaign inland.

The invasion troops had failed to break out quickly enough to Caen and German counterattacks and defence consolidation into Bocage country led to the exhausting and bloody campaign that lasted until the end of July and cost the Allies 100,000 casualties.

It was as this operation become bogged down in heavy losses that John Crook was posted from 105 Reinforcement Group to take on the role of second in command of "D" company on the 29th June 1944. By this time the original "D" company had been more or less 'wiped out.'

He found himself commanding a terrified and brave group of soldiers made up of traumatised veterans and nervous replacements experiencing near First World War conditions of shelling and mortar bombardments and sniper fire. This was the front line of the British and Canadian army commanded by General Bernard Montgomery. For more than two and a half weeks the Hallamshires had to bear an appalling casualty rate of several men killed or wounded every day from German artillery.

On July 16th John Crook had to help lead the soldiers of "D" company in a suicidal run towards the heavily defended village of Vendes that left many of his men dead and maimed in the treacherous fields and hedgerows of Bocage country. They were machine-gunned and blown up by rockets, mortars and artillery.

The flanks of this British army attack collapsed and the original Hallamshire attack force of "A" and "C" companies and a borrowed "D" company from KOYLI (King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) had to retreat back over the same ground to battalion headquarters.

John Crook had to take command of "D" company after the company commander Captain Mackillop was seriously wounded. He had to lead what was left of "D" company in a desperate defence against German counterattacks in this close country. This he did successfully.

After the battle of Vendes, he remained a front-line infantry platoon officer with the Hallamshires during the race across the River Seine to chase the retreating Germans and prepare for the attack on Channel port of Le Havre. He was at the heart of six weeks of battles and skirmishes which took another heavy toll of casualties. By the time he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident outside Le Havre on 9th September 1944 "D" company had suffered another wave of casualties.

The officer roll call for the week ending 21st July 1944 states he was 2nd in Command of "D" Company. By the week ending 29th July he was recorded as reverting to platoon leader (assumed 7th July 1944).

For the week ending 7th October 1944 the roll states 'Officers Quitted during week: Lieutenant J. H Crook. Cause: X(ii) List. 'X(ii list' was an army designation for wounded. The MOD records indicate he ceased his overseas service in North West Europe on 11th September 1944.

Veterans contacted by the author say John Crook was well liked by most of the men and remembered as a quiet and nice man.

Recently released MOD records indicate that he retained his category A fitness status until injured in the motorcycle crash on September 9th 1944. The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that he remained with the Hallamshire Battalion during their campaign in France throughout August to early September. MOD documents also record his knowledge of French and familiarity of this area of Normandy.

We will never know the full detail of his experiences in Normandy. Most of these civilian volunteers did their duty and never thought anyone would be interested in their stories.

 

John Crook when a private in his uncle's territorial Manchester Regiment in 1939

It is a fact that John H Crook suffered from post traumatic stress for most of his life. The details of what happened at Vendes on 16th July 1944 and the dreadful pounding he and his soldiers experienced from artillery, mortar fire and machine guns for nearly three weeks in slit trenches before this battle provide some idea of the stress British soldiers were subjected to in Normandy. The danger and horrors continued after the breakout from Bocage country and the Hallamshires chased the Germans across France.

His war was typical of many men of his generation. It was a combination of hard training, long periods of patrolling and intense periods of action and danger.

Like most of the veterans of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy he spoke very little of his experiences. He wanted no credit for what he had done. He always remembered his fallen comrades with quiet dignity and profound respect. He won no medals for gallantry. He would never be celebrated in films or television documentaries as 'a war hero.'

John Crook's Officer's record of service was released to his family by the MOD in 2005

If he were alive today and approached by a television documentary team to do an interview, it is probable he would decline wishing to keep his thoughts to himself.

In many respects he was typical of most of the civilian soldiers of the British army of 1944 that fought in a bloody, exhausting and terrifying battle after the D-day beach invasion. The British contribution has been diminished by American chauvinism and the distortion of Hollywood histories. It seems to have received little understanding apart from a few outstanding published histories.

John Crook was "demobbed" in 1946. He was discharged with the rank of honorary captain. He received four medals for his war service: 1939/45 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, and War Medal 1939/45.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of the British Legion and retained a love of France and Normandy long after his experiences in 1944.

It is perhaps obvious that the D-day commemorations for 2004 had been hijacked politically to equate with 'the war on terror' or to mean something about Britain's relationship with Europe. John H Crook had an abiding respect for the French people. He could make polite and respectful friendships with Germans of the same generation as his and who had fought against him in 'an enemy' uniform.

Trying to tell his story after his death has not been easy. It was difficult tracking down relevant official records and those that exist contain some obvious inaccuracies and mysteries. The Hallamshire Battalion War Diary for May 1944 is missing from the Public Record Office files. It has also emerged that many of the published histories are subjective and prone to partiality when recounting events, particularly battles.

A page from his Officer's service record setting out in his own handwriting his postings overseas

His arrival to join the Hallamshires on 29th June is not even recorded in the Battalion records. This is probably because the Hallamshires adjutant and replacement adjutants had been repeated casualties in the days before he made his way to the slit trenches in front of Tessel Wood separated from the village of Vendes by Bocage fields and a road. The adjutant was the administrative manager of the Battalion. He would keep all the written records in order. He would order replacements in men and equipment. The officer roll call sheets are also not comprehensive.

When the research project began the York and Lancaster Regiment's association disclosed that they were no longer aware of any officers from the 2nd World War period who were still alive. However, there has been some success in contacting Other Ranks who are now in their 80s and 90s who remembered him as a quiet man who was liked and respected.

Transport driver Corporal James Addison recalled driving him at great speed off the road to overtake a military convoy in Iceland in order to make an appointment with Brigadier Procter. Addison recalls Lieutenant Crook expressing his gratitude and admiration for the Corporal's impressive racing driver skills.

The full story of his war may never be told.

 

Acting in a school play..

 

John Crook's first marriage ended in divorce in 1950. Sylvia emigrated with Peter to Australia. John married Sheila in 1952 while he was working as a solicitor. He had finally qualified in 1947. The war had interrupted his legal studies. He joined the Colonial Service and worked as a land agent in Kampala, Uganda until 1957. John and Sheila subsequently moved to Calcutta, India, after he obtained a solicitor's position in a Bengal legal practice. John, Sheila and their two sons, Nicholas and Timothy lived in France for several years before settling in London in the 1960s.

 

In the 1st XV Rugby team at St Peter's School, York, 1933-34. John is fourth from right, back row. John had written on the back of this photo: 'Played 13 Won 10 Lost 3 Drawn 1, Pts For 229 Pts Against 48'. St Peter's School librarian and alumni officer Avril Pedley believes the player extreme right in the scrum cap is rugby XV captain Norman Yardley the famous cricketer and captain of England between 1947 and 1950. John H. Crook went on to play for Liverpool Rugby Union club in the 1930s. This was originally founded in 1856 and one of England's first football clubs. Unfortunately it lost its City ground in the 1980s and merged with St Helens. As a result it has lost some of its identity and individual history. John H. Crook would continue supporting Liverpool RUFC throughout the rest of his life by going to most away games in the Greater London area. He also played amateur tennis winning a number of English tournaments. His enthusiasm for tennis continued with an annual attendance at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis championships.

John Crook had a modest law career specialising in conveyancing and property. For many years he worked for Baileys Shaw and Gillett which was based in Queen's Square, Holborn. He died in Chelsea on 14th November 1986 after developing lung cancer. His sons wanted to research and develop a resource to honour his memory. Peter has commissioned award-winning Australian author Alan Gill to write a biography of Sylvia which includes detailed chapters on the romantic and moving love affair with John Crook.

This website seeks to portray the story of a man who served his country so that his children and grandchildren could live in peace and freedom.

It is also dedicated to the memory of all those comrades who served with him during WWII and seeks to mark profound respect for those who died in France in 1944 and the families who mourn them.