Nigel Crossley RN

In the church  of St Nicholas  Tadmarton the newest of the bells was cast in 1947 and donated by Mr & Mrs Crossley of Tadmarton House, Lower Tadmarton in the memory of their eldest son Nigel John Crossley who died of his wounds after the sinking of HMS Gipsy in 1939. Nigel came from a wealthy and well-connected family, his Grandfather Sir William Crossley had founded a successful engineering company and was an  original proponent  of the Manchester Ship Canal. His father Eric Crossley OBE served in the 11th Hussars during World War 1 and led the Tadmarton Home Guard in the Second World War and was the first captain of Tadmarton Heath Golf Club. He was recorded as a farmer in the 1901 and 1911 censuses first at Wykeham Park then at the Highlands. He also had business interests in South Africa.

His mother Janet was the daughter of a Baron. He had two sisters and two brothers both of whom served in the forces John Richard Irwin Crossley DSO served in the Royal Navy reaching the rank of Lt-Commander and Michael Crossley DSO OBE DFC, below, became a fighter ace shooting down 20 aircraft flying Hawker Hurricanes in the Battles of France and Britain. He attained the rank of Wing-Commander and led 32 Squadron.

Nigel John Crossley was born in Bucklow, Cheshire on 29th May 1904. On 15th January 1918, at the age of 13 he entered the service of the Royal Navy. He spent two years at the Royal Naval College, Osborne situated in the grounds of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, before spending another two years at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. On 15th May 1922 he was appointed Midshipman aboard the First World War battleship Ramillies, below. His commanding officer recorded that he was a smart and tactful officer with a good physique who played rugby and most other sports.

He then served on another First World War survivor, the 1913 light cruiser Lowestoft, from 14th August 1922 until 14th November 1923. On 14th November 1923 he transferred to another veteran cruiser HMS Dublin, below, built in 1912 and served with her on the African Station and stayed with her until 24th May 1924, when the Dublin returned home to join the Reserve fleet at Nore.

On 1st December 1924 he joined the HMS Victory shorebase at Portsmouth for training for promotion to Lieutenant. His report reads:

"A most promising officer in every way, has a good command of those serving under him, is quite exceptional at making a decision and taking responsibility, trustworthy, reliable and imbued with a good spirit, is keen on the service and exceptionally fit he is keen on sports and games"

He was promoted to acting sub-Lieutenant and on 20th April 1926 was appointed sub-Lieutenant on HMS Wakeful, a W class destroyer dating from 1916, in the Reserve fleet. On 11th November 1926 he transferred to another reserve destroyer HMS Watchman, below, being appointed sub-Lieutenant on 30th May 1927.  

His next ship was the Modified W-class destroyer HMS Witch, joining on 18th May 1928 and serving with her until July 1931. On 1st February 1931 he married Iris Barter. His next appointment was as Lieutenant aboard the minesweeper HMS Alresford, below, on 10th July 1931.  

On 25th September 1931 his wife had a son, Christopher, sadly Iris died four days later after complications following childbirth. He married again, to Marjorie Gilley on 17th March 1932 at St Georges, Hanover Square in London. He was made a lieutenant-commander in 1935 and commanded V and W class reserve destroyers. On the 3rd January 1939 he took command of the destroyer HMS Gipsy (H63), below.

HMS Gipsy

HMS Gipsy was built by Fairfield shipbuilders in Gowan and launched on 7th November 1935 being completed in February 1935 at a cost of £250,034. She was a greyhound class destroyer displacing 1350 tons, 323 foot long with a top speed of 36 knots. She carried a crew of 146 in wartime had 4 single 4.7 inch guns 2 x 4 0.5 inch machine guns depth charges and torpedo tubes and was equipped with ASDIC for submarine detection. 

After commissioning she was briefly with the Home fleet before being assigned to the 1st destroyer flotilla of the Mediterranean fleet until returning to Plymouth on 30th October 1939. She escorted convey HX6 from  Plymouth to Liverpool in which she searched for a U-boat off Milford Haven. She arrived at Harwich on the 12th November 1939 as part of the 22nd destroyer flotilla. She was involved with picking up survivors of the steamers "Blackhill" and the Italian "Grazia" victims of magnetic mines. On the 20th November she attacked a U-boat with depth charges and on the morning of 21st November rescued the crew of a downed German Heinkel HE111.

Magnetic mines, below, lay on the sea bed and were detonated by a ship passing overhead which would distort the earth's magnetic field causing a needle inside the mine to move and act as a detonator.

German magnetic mine

They were first sown in 1939 indiscriminately along open trade routes by German seaplanes and U-boats, contrary to international agreements. They caused more destruction to neutral countries shipping than to British vessels, including the Japanese liner "Tenkini Maru" and the Dutch liner "Simon Bolivar" and although the losses were nothing as severe as that to come in the Battle of the Atlantic they caused great concern at the time. At first the British had no counter measures for this new technology until a mine was washed up, below, allowing British experts to develop "degaussing" methods to reverse  magnetic fields on vessels and equip minesweepers and Wellington Bombers with the means to destroy these weapons.


At 1620 on Tuesday 21st November 1939 Rear Admiral Charles Harris, Flag Officer in command HMS Badger the naval base at Harwich received an Admiralty signal telling him to send four of his destroyers out that evening into the North Sea to counter U-boats coming across to mine the Thames estuary. HMS Gipsy had only returned at 1830, landing the three crew members of the downed German seaplane and were ordered to return to sea in an hour. At 1930 two seaplanes were spotted coming in low at, about 150 feet, from Landguard Fort  a gun emplacement protecting the approaches to Harwich. At this time in November it was pitch black so searchlights were switched on and the planes picked out. As they looped over the Harwich harbour boom each seaplane was seen to drop at least one object into the harbour mouth. A parachute was spotted and bearings taken of where the objects had fallen. The planes, which were Heinkel HE59s, below,remained unidentified and not a single shot was fired at them by Anti-Aircraft guns. The seaplanes, of an obsolete design, with a top speed of 137mph, open cockpits and banking at a low altitude right beside the fort and "coned" by searchlights should have made a viable target for the Lewis gunners of the Coast Artillery Regiment.

Heinkel HE59 seaplane

AA command's standing orders stated that only aircraft that had been positively identified could be fired upon in a measure to protect the RAF from "friendly fire". There was also a RAF seaplane base at nearby Felixstowe which may have stayed the gunners hands. It was also generally not known that the Germans dropped mines by parachutes which may have led to a belief that this was aircrew bailing out. The AA gunners at Landguard fort must of seen the German insignia and swastikas but still thought they were prohibited from firing without orders. These did eventually come but the planes had long gone by then. These mistakes were the first in a chain of failings that led to the tragic loss HMS Gipsy.

Officers at Landguard fort phoned Rear Admiral Harris at 1936 and told him about the seaplanes and the suspected mines. Harris ordered the harbour entrance closed and a search for the mines was carried out by gunners from the fort and a launch from RAF Felixstowe. This however was hampered by the high tide and darkness. Harris had planned to send his destroyers out at 2000, in only 20 minutes time. A better search could be carried out in daylight and at low tide. Harris phoned his superior officer, Admiral Brownrigg at Chatham but was told that it was imperative that the destroyers should set sail as soon as possible and that any delays were kept to a minimum. Harris decided to keep his destroyers at their moorings for the moment, and informed the flotilla Commander, Captain Creasy of the situation. After half an hours searching no trace of any mine had been found. It would not be possible to carry out a proper search for many hours and as the mines were almost certainly magnetic could not be cleared by conventional  means. With his superior officers insistence that the mission was urgent, Harris ordered each destroyer to be signalled by aldis lamp (there was no RT on British warships in 1939). The signal revised the time of departure to 2050 and stated: 

"proceed in execution of previous orders. When passing the entrance keep as far to the starboard side of the channel as possible, leaving cliff foot buoy close on port"

At 2046 Captain Creasey cast "Griffin" off and ordered an Aldis lamp signalled to all ships to follow from their various moorings. In the last hour Creasey had not told the rest of his flotilla about the mines although he knew of their existence and approximate location. His Captains therefore did not take any extra precautions such as move as many sailors as possible away from vulnerable lower decks and port side of the ship. The ships left in the order of their identification numbers. The Polish "Burza" first followed by "Griffin", "Gipsy", "Keith", "Bodicea" and finally another Pole "Grom". Moving out at about 10 knots the first two ships steered far to the starboard. "Gipsy", third in line was following in "Griffin's" wake, not having set a compass course for the west side of the channel. The strong ebbing tide pulled the ship back into the centre of the channel. They were just correcting the course when a 2123, still short of the Cliff Foot buoy there was an ear-splitting crash and "Gipsy" was jolted, lifted out of the water and broke in half. She had blown the most northerly of the two mines, which was some 250 yards further west of the estimated position. The ship drifted two hundred yards then slewed round in the channel.

The wreck of HMS Gipsy

The jolt had thrown Lt-Cdr Crossley off his open bridge onto the forecastle shattering his skull. The ship had broken exactly amidships between the two funnels. The boiler and engine rooms were flooded and many of their occupants drowned. The explosion had been heard on both sides of the estuary and many civilians and servicemen rushed to the waterside. The searchlights at Landguard fort were turned on sweeping across the dark water as launches from the now halted destroyers and from shore bases sped to the rescue. Many men had either fell or jumped into the water and these along with other survivors, including Crossley were picked up. The injured were transported to HMS Ganges the RN training establishment at nearby Shotley.

Thirty sailors had died, 29 bodies still trapped in the wreckage. Nigel Crossley was seriously injured and also lost was his pet bull terrier Benjamin who always sailed with him and was by his side when Gipsy was mined. The remaining destroyers broke off from the rescue at 2300 and went across on the anti-U boat sweep. This proved fruitless as there were no German warships of any kind in the southern North Sea that night. Lt-Cdr Crossley along with other injured sailors was being treated in the sickbay of HMS Ganges. He was still in a coma and despite head surgery he died on Monday 27th November. He was 35. He was buried two days later  in the naval cemetery next to Shotley Church up the hill from HMS Ganges and overlooking the Harbour. His flag draped coffin was pulled by boy sailors from the Ganges. It was a dank gloomy day and his widow Marjorie was waiting. A party  of ratings from HMS Badger fired a volley of shots as his coffin was lowered into the grave.

Lt-Cdr Crossley's funeral

He had served for only six months of the war which was to rage for six years and claim tens of thousands of his RN comrades. His gravestone bears the inscription......

BRAVE LIVING HERE, AND THEN BEYOND THE GRAVE MORE LIFE AND MORE ADVENTURE FOR THE BRAVE.

Churchill's anger over the incident led to Admiral Brownrigg being demoted for his inflexibility and the officer commanding coastal artillery for his negligence. An enquiry into the sinking of the Gipsy was opened on the 13th December at a hotel in Harwich questioning officers from the Gipsy as well as the other destroyers as well as Harris and other shore based officers. The enquiry took two days and its witnesses asked 157 questions. The enquiry attached no blame to anyone ,the only implied criticism coming in the recommendation  "all units should have full information of the danger to be avoided"

On the 24th November 1939 the Chief Constructor of the Navy inspected the wreck. The next day temporary anchors were put in place to stop it shifting or disintegrating further. Sailors removed the foremast, guns, torpedo tubes and depth charges. At low tide on the 28th December local tugs secured the two halves of the wreck to giant floats so as when the tide rose the wreck cleared the bottom. The two halves were then towed up the channel and beached off RAF Felixstowe. There was some consideration given to rejoining the two halves but this was soon ruled out. In August 1940 the stern half was towed across the harbour and beached on Harwich Hard where it was broken up over the next few years. the bow section being close to the shipping channel was blown up in 1942.

A report in the press at the time stated

 "Gipsy had never killed any Germans only saved some"

 relating to the three German airman she had rescued before sailing to her doom. 

 "Good  was requited with evil by a remarkable chance"

I first read the story of HMS Gipsy as a boy growing up in Kent. It featured in a collection of books chronicling the Second Great War that my father had brought during the war.Many of the above photos were taken from the first volume. Even then I was struck by the poignancy of the story. When I first visited Tadmarton Church and saw the memorial to Nigel Crossley I knew I had heard of HMS Gipsy  and revisited my father's books to confirm the story.

my sincere thanks to naval historian Mr Julian Foynes, his excellent booklet "Whose fault was the loss of HMS Gipsy?" gave me the correct version of the mining of the Gipsy. 

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