Lieutenant-Colonel Napier Crookenden
Unit : Battalion Headquarters, 9th Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 66121
Awards : Knight Commander of the Bath, Officer of the British Empire. Distinguished Service Order, twice Mentioned in Despatches.
Napier Crookenden was born on the 31st August 1915, the son of Colonel Arthur Crookenden CBE DSO, late of the Cheshire Regiment. He was educated at Wellington College and attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst where he gained the King's Gold Medal. Commissioned into the Cheshire Regiment as a Second Lieutenant in 1935, he complete a tour of Palestine with their 2nd Battalion. He was posted to a Territorial Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment in 1939, and accompanied them to France during the following year. He remained with this Battalion after the withdrawal from Dunkirk, until 1942 when he volunteered for the Airborne Forces. He attended parachute course 81 at R.A.F. Ringway, 6th to 16th September 1943. Upon completion of his airborne training and parachute course he was posted to the 6th Airlanding Brigade as the Brigade Major.
An account of his experiences on glider training can be found in his own book "Drop Zone Normandy", published in 1976, on pages 43 & 44:
"As the glider came in to land, the second pilot [would] call through the cockpit door 'Brace! Brace!' This was the signal for passengers to put their arms round each other's shoulders and lift their feet off the floor. No man was to undo his seat and shoulder straps until the glider had come to a stop. The risks of ignoring this rule were apparent in one demonstration near Cirencester in 1943, in front of several Generals. A Horsa [glider] of 6th Airlanding Brigade carrying a platoon of the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Brigade Major of the 6th Airlanding Brigade [Major Crookenden], with the Brigadier, Hugh Kindersley, flying as second pilot, landed downwind in error. It went racing across the filed at high speed, but the Irishmen, determined to put on a good show, undid their seat straps and prepared to launch themselves out of the door in record time. Still skating along at 50 knots, the Horsa crashed into a solitary oak tree, whereupon the platoon took off from their seats, flew up the fuselage at 50 knots and crashed on to the Brigade Major sitting quietly by the front bulkhead. The Brigadier was found still sitting unharmed in his second pilot's seat, but a large hole gaped where the first pilot, Major Ian Toler, should have been. He was eventually located by a stream of oaths, from below, near the landing wheels, where he lay with a broken ankle in the wreckage of his half of the cockpit."
As Brigade Major, Crookenden was closely involved in the planning of the Brigade's part in the airborne assault on the night of 6th June 1944. On the evening of D-Day, he took off from Brize Norton in a Horsa glider bound for LZ-N near Ranville, landing without incident.
The Orne bridgehead were subjected to regular counter-attacks, and for the next two months Crookenden was involved in heavy fighting. When the commanding officer of 9th Parachute Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway, was badly wounded and sent back to England at the end of July, Crookenden was promoted in the field and replaced him. Looking for his new command in the Bois de Bavent, Crookenden heard raised voices arguing in English, and imagined that he had walked in on a mutiny, but in the event he discovered men of the 9th Battalion arguing about the Cup Final prospects at home. Crookenden's task throughout the bitter fighting that followed was to maintain his battalion's formidable fighting ability. He did this by example, and patrols probing enemy lines would often find that the commanding officer was one of their number.
From December 1944 through to February 1945, Crookenden commanded the battalion in the final stages of Hitler's Ardennes offensive, fighting skirmishes with withdrawing German troops and helping to hold the line after the enemy had been forced back. For his actions during this period he was Mentioned in Despatches, gazetted 10th May 1945.
The Battalion returned to England with very little time to prepare for their next action. On the 24th March 1945, the 9th Parachute Battalion took part in Operation Varsity, with the 6th Airborne Division landing behind the Rhine defences. The Battalion dropped onto DZ-A, just to the north of the Diersfordterwald, with their objective being to capture two areas of high ground astride a road, thus helping to secure the left flank of the Division's relief force, and also to attempt to link up with the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 17th US Airborne Division.
The 9th Battalion arrived on DZ-A as the anti-aircraft fire in the area was beginning to die down, and so they were able to form up without much difficulty. For his actions on this day, Crookenden was awarded an immediate Distinguished Service Order, which was gazetted 7th June 1945. His citation reads:
As part of the airborne operation behind the Rhine defences on 24th March 1945 Lieutenant-Colonel Crookenden's battalion was assigned the task of seizing the Schneppenburg feature and the forward edges of the forest commanding the approaches to the Rhine. He directed the advance with the greatest vigour and as a result quickly seized the first objective with a large haul of prisoners.
On approaching the second objective, the battalion was held up by the enemy in strongly dug in positions. Lieutenant-Colonel Crookenden immediately took the leading Company round to a flank. He then personally led the assault. Although enemy fire was very heavy he pressed the attack with such vigour and determination that complete success was rapidly achieved, many Germans being killed and nearly 500 captured. Shortly afterwards Lieutenant-Colonel Crookenden was given the task of capturing the village of Lanchenoffer. This necessitated a final advance of 500 yards across open country in daylight. Fire was heavy, both from infantry in the village and from two self-propelled guns to a flank. Lieutenant-Colonel Crookenden decided to rush the objective. He himself again took the lead. The garrison was routed, 200 prisoners being taken and both self-propelled guns knocked out.
This officers courage and devotion to duty were outstanding. He was continually in the foreground of the battle where his leadership was largely responsible for the great success achieved by his battalion.
Crookenden continued to command his Battalion during the advance across Germany, culminating in the occupation of Wismar on the 2nd May 1945, only hours ahead of the Russians. By the end of the year, he and his men were in Palestine controlling civil disorder - a very different kind of soldiering. Crookenden's military skills were soon tested once more when, in the New Year of 1946, the Jewish Hagama began their operations against the British. For his actions between the period 27th March to 26th September 1946, he was awarded a second Mention In Despatches.
Crookenden went to Malaya in 1952 as GSO1 (Plans) to General Templar. There, as the Army Representative of the Combined Emergency Planning Staff of the Director of Operations, Crookenden soon made his mark. Travelling the length and breadth of the country, his staff produced papers which greatly assisted in operations against Communist insurgents. For his work in Malaya, Crookenden was awarded the OBE.
After a spell at the Nato Defence College in Rome, he became Chief Instructor of the Joint School of Air Warfare in 1957; he then had a brief tour as Colonel GS at Staff College before being appointed to command the 16th Parachute Brigade. After a period as Director of Land/Air Warfare, by which time he had added a helicopter pilot's licence to his fixed wing qualification, he was appointed, in 1967, Commandant of the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham, a post he held until 1969 when he was appointed GOC-in-C Western Command. In this, his last Army appointment, Crookenden showed that he had lost none of his taste for danger - participating more than once in foot patrols on the Falls Road under the command of a sergeant in his son's regiment, the Scots Guards.
After retiring from the Army in 1972, he became chairman of the Soldiers', Sailors', and Airmen's Families Association (SSAFA), bringing to the job his customary energy. He was also a strong supporter of the Parachute Regiment Association and the Cheshire Regiment Association, participating in many reunions and pilgrimages to battlefields. Crookenden was Colonel of the Cheshire Regiment from 1969 to 1971; Colonel Commandant of the Prince of Wales Division (1971-74); vice-president of the Royal United Services Institute (1978-85); and a Trustee of the Imperial War Museum. He was also Lieutenant of the Tower of London from 1975 to 1981. He was appointed a Companion of the Bath in 1966, and Knight Commander of the Bath in 1970. Possessed of a genuine interest in people and a keen sense of humour (his impersonation of Montgomery, correct down to the smallest mannerism, was a popular after-dinner turn), Crookenden was also a keen shot and swam every day until the last weeks of his life.
His first book, "Drop Zone Normandy", was published in 1976. It was followed by "Airborne at War" in 1978, and "The Battle of the Bulge" in 1980. Sir Napier Crookenden married Patricia Nassau in 1948, daughter of the 2nd Lord Kindersley, his former commander in 6th Airlanding Brigade. She survives him, with their two sons and two daughters. He died on the 31st October 2002 aged 87.
Sources: Obituary Daily Telegraph 2nd November 2002.
My thanks to Bob Hilton for this account.
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