Crosley, Robert Michael “Mike” DSC and Bar

Commander Mike Crosley was a Fleet Air Arm ace and later a test pilot.

The following obituary is from The Telegraph (UK): 

Among the operations in which he took part was Harpoon, when a convoy ferried supplies and new aircraft to the relief of the besieged island of Malta in the summer of 1942. Crosley flew one of four Sea Hurricanes allocated for air defence of the carrier Eagle.

On June 12, he was on alert on the deck of Eagle. After two hours strapped in his cockpit, he was expecting to stand down when he heard the klaxon sound. Within a few moments he was airborne, being directed by radar to an enemy aircraft; and when his flight leader turned back with engine trouble, Crosley decided to pursue the enemy alone. He closed until the wingspan of the three-engined Italian bomber filled his gunsight, then pressed the trigger. At that moment he noted sparks coming from the underside of the bomber – it was the enemy returning fire. Then smoke burst from the Italian’s engines and its wingtip came dangerously close as it dived towards the sea. Crosley followed, determined to finish it off; but as he emerged from the cloud he saw the bomber floating on the water with a yellow life raft beside it.

He later wrote: “(I) touched the trigger, but realised I was doing something wrong. I would like to think that I might have made friends with those seven aircrew who were picked up by a British destroyer.”

The next day, Crosley shot down a twin-engined German fighter-bomber. He wove in and out of the German’s slipstream, and when the target filled his gunsight he fired one long burst which hit the aircraft’s wing, “sparking like firecrackers.”

On the third day, Crosley was again involved in aerial combat and believed he shot down two aircraft: after detailed analysis he was credited with a possible and a probable, and was praised for helping to break up an air attack on the fleet.

On August 11, Eagle was torpedoed, and Crosley had just minutes in which to grab his life jacket from the aircrews’ briefing room before she rolled over and sank. He quickly joined 800 Naval Air Squadron, flying from the escort carrier Biter during Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa. On November 8, he shot down two Vichy French fighters in a dogfight over the airfield of La Senia, near Oran. He was awarded his first DSC.

Crosley was next appointed senior pilot of 804 NAS in the escort carrier Dasher, a ship which he thought was not only ill-fated but also ill-managed. Dasher – a converted merchant ship – began to break up while she was escorting an Arctic convoy, and Crosley was not surprised to learn that she had blown up after there had been a fire on board.

He was then selected to pass on his experience to new fighter pilots at HMS Dipper, near Yeovilton, where he flew the Royal Navy’s version of the Spitfire, known as the Seafire.

By D-Day Crosley had joined 886 Naval Air Squadron, flying Seafires from Lee-on-the-Solent. His role was to direct the fire of the heavy ships which were bombarding the German defences. On the second day of the Allied landings he shot down a German Bf109, which crashed 15 miles south-west of Caen, and two days later damaged an Fw190 which he chased in a dogfight through the skies over Normandy.

He spent the weeks after D-Day flying two, or even three, sorties a day before being appointed to command 880 Naval Air Squadron; this was based in Orkney as part of 30 Naval Air Wing, which embarked in the fleet carrier Implacable and carried out a series of attacks on German shipping in the fjords of Norway. By the time the war ended, 880 Squadron and Implacable were prosecuting the war in the Pacific, striking at the Japanese mainland. Crosley was mentioned in despatches, and in August 1945 received a Bar to his DSC.

Robert Michael Crosley was born on February 24 1920, the son of the tenor Lovat Crosley; the Crosley family had once owned Sunningdale Park in Berkshire. His mother deserted the family, and Mike’s early childhood was unsettled until he was rescued from a series of foster homes by his grandmother. He was educated at Pilgrims’ School, Winchester, and King Edward VII School in Southampton, and finally enjoyed some stability after his father married one of his leading ladies, Rose Hignell, and established a plant nursery on the banks of the Hamble.

Mike Crosley was a Metropolitan Police constable (a reserved occupation) when war broke out, but volunteered on the day of the Fleet Air Arm strike on Taranto, November 11 1940.

After the war Crosley joined No 6 Empire Test Pilots’ Course, and left the Navy to test Short’s flying boats under development in Belfast. On the outbreak of the Korean War he rejoined the Navy, helping to train new pilots and flying 75 missions over Korea from the carrier Ocean.

He wrote pilots’ notes for a range of aircraft, which he flew to their limits, and was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air. In 1954-55 he was Commanding Officer of 813 Squadron, flying the Wyvern from the new Eagle.

In 1958, Crosley was promoted Commander and returned to test flying at Boscombe Down, making the first deck landings of the Buccaneer low-level bomber.

He retired in 1970, aged 50, trained to be a schoolmaster and went on to teach physics at Bramdean Prep School, Exeter, and at Upper Chine Girls’ School on the Isle of Wight.

Having built his first boat, a canoe, when he was 15, Crosley later constructed three Flying 15s – all called If – which he sailed against the Duke of Edinburgh and Uffa Fox. He also built a 27 ft sloop, Seafire, which had to be extracted from his garden on the Isle of Wight by a crane. Crosley also made much of his own furniture, travelling far and wide to find rare veneers.

Crosley logged 2,818 flying hours in 147 different types of aircraft and made 415 deck landings. Throughout the war he kept extensive diaries, on which he based two books: They Gave Me a Seafire (1986) and In Harm’s Way (1995). Together they form a history of the wartime expansion of the FAA and a vade mecum for test pilots.

Mike Crosley died on the 20th 2010. He was thrice married, lastly, in 1969, to Joan Eglen, who survives him with his five children.

The following has been compiled by Steve McGregor of the Spitfire association. There are extracts from Mike’s second book, “Up in Harms Way – Flying with the Fleet Air Arm,” published by Pen and Sword Aviation.

Commander David “Shorty” Hamilton RN wrote, “I knew Mike well and have both his books. He had a horrific accident while doing some test flying for the RAAF when the plane disintegrated at high speed.”

He was posted from test flying at Boscombe Down to Oz to help the RAAF test fly the Mirage. On the 7th December 1964, he did three test flights. The first two were high altitude high Mach numbers.  On the third, he was carrying out engine surge tests and the aircraft entered a spin. Acting in accord with the Pilots Notes, he centred the controls and waited for the aircraft to recover – it didn’t. At 9,000 feet he ejected. The speed recorded was 750 knots, 150 knots above the maximum allowed for on that seat. The slipstream force on his body was 1640 pounds per square foot. He became unconscious. The parachute opening shock was 20 G at 300 knots. One leg restraint had jammed resulting in a broken leg, pelvic and groin injuries. The flailing broke his right arm and left collar bone. Being unconscious he could not lower the seat pack on its long line, so he developed a large oscillation of the parachute. He hit the ground after three and a half minutes on a downward swing which broke his left leg. This was the highest speed ejection recorded by Martin-Baker, the manufacturer of the seat. Mike landed only two miles from Laverton and ended up in RAAF Laverton Hospital where he was in a coma for eight days and kept under low temperature conditions.

Mike’s recovery took two and a half years. He eventually graduated to a wheel chair, which had been modified by the Squadron. It looked suspiciously like an ejection seat. He was given a note asking him to test the PRT (pilots relief tube) and he complained it was too short. The reply, “We apologise for the inconvenience, but were unable to obtain your measurements, so we assumed yours would be the same as an average Australian pilot.” When he got back to England, both legs had to be rebroken and set to enable him to walk on crutches. He resumed flying on the 27th April 1967.

Steve McGregor
The Spitfire Association