'Inspirational' wartime MC
Saturday 06 January 2007
Spencer Crookenden won a Military Cross while fighting with the Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy, cheated death three times and went on to become a chairman of K Shoes.
Born in 1919 in Chester, Crookenden joined the Royal Engineers and began the Second World War in April 1941 in the Western Desert constructing landing strips and laying minefields. In September, he contracted a serious case of dysentery, and was for some time on the War Office's "Dangerously Ill" list. In 1942 he rejoined the fighting with the 50th Division on the southern section of the Alamein defensive line, where the German advance had been halted but fighting was still heavy. One of the Royal Engineers' dangerous tasks was to patrol the no-man's-land between the lines and report back on the position of enemy minefields.
The 50th Division took part in the second Battle of Alamein, when the Allies broke through German and Italian lines. After the battle the terrain was littered with mines, which Crookenden's sappers were asked to defuse. Crookenden here made a personal collection of over 40 different types of German, Italian and French anti-tank and anti-personnel mines to demonstrate to his troops.
Crookenden's company then rejoined the pursuit of the Germans towards Tunisia. As the Germans withdrew, they blew up bridges and culverts and mined all possible alternative diversions: the sappers' job was to clear paths for Allied vehicles through these dangerous booby-traps.
In 1943, while commanding a night-time attack across a minefield and over an anti-tank ditch near Mareth in Tunisia, Crookenden won an MC and was promoted to major. The London Gazette recorded:
In spite of intense enemy artillery and machine gun fire coming down on the anti-tank ditch, Captain Crookenden, with great courage and energy, succeeded in blowing the ditch and constructing a bridge, over which it was possible to
pass anti-tank guns within an hour of the enemy position being captured . . .
His conduct in directing his men and standing on top of the anti-tank ditch, regardless of the heavy enemy defensive fire, was an inspiration both to his own R.E. party and to the Infantry, who were crossing the ditch by scaling ladders at the time.
After the Battle of Mareth, Crookenden was put in charge of the 42nd Field Company RE, which helped expel the Axis troops from North Africa. As he wrote to his brother Napier in May 1943:
It is not every day that one sees the complete staff of 21 Panzer Division driving in without escort in its own cars to give itself up or of watching vast groups of Germans and Italians driving down the road asking the way to the nearest POW camp.
That September, 42nd Field Company joined the Allied landings at Salerno, in Italy. Their job once again was to clear up a landscape littered with mines as the Germans retreated north. Two weeks after landing, Crookenden's jeep went over a mine and he was severely injured in the resulting explosion. Invalided out to hospital in Malta, he was classified by the medical officer as "a goner", but he was recognised by passing nurse who insisted on his receiving treatment. Crookenden made light of his wounds in a letter to his brother, saying he was "having a small chunk of Dunlop 'Heavy Duty' outer cover removed from my seat".
In June 1944 Crookenden rejoined the war, as an assistant to the Chief Engineer at 8th Army HQ at Rimini in North Italy. Hardly had he arrived, when he was struck by polio, and evacuated to a casualty clearing station. He woke to find a soldier sitting by his bed. He asked the soldier what he was doing, and he replied: "I have to sit here till you croak."
Crookenden survived, and found himself in hospital, in the adjoining bed to his brother Henry, from the 1st Battalion 60th Rifles, whose legs had been shattered by a mine. They were both invalided back to the same ward at the Wingfield Morris Hospital outside Oxford. Crookenden's paralysis receded and he eventually recovered, except in one leg. His brother was less fortunate, and eventually had both legs amputated from below the knee. Spencer and Henry's middle brother, Napier, who survived the war as an airborne commander in the Parachute Regiment, used to joke that, out of six legs, the brothers ended the war with three legs, of which he had two. The Crookendens' wartime letters are now in the Imperial War Museum.
After the war, Spencer Crookenden went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to read History, and then in 1947 joined the firm of K Shoes Limited, in Kendal, Cumbria. His positive and enthusiastic personality made him a natural for sales and marketing and in 1956 he became sales director, rising to marketing director in 1959 and chairman in 1975.
Crookenden had a popular "hands-on" approach even when in senior management. As marketing director, he could often be found down on the fitting stool in the shops helping customers to try on shoes, and as chairman he insisted on touring every K factory, speaking to every person, and often lost his voice on Christmas Eve.
He served variously as President of the British Footwear Distributors' Federation, President of the Boot Trade Benevolent Society and, in 1978-82, Chairman of the Footwear Industry Working Party set up by the National Economic Development Office.
Crookenden saw K Shoes through the difficult economic situation of the 1970s, but the company was under increasing pressure from cheaper imported shoes. In 1980 Ks received a hostile bid from Ward White - a manufacturer of safety shoes. Crookenden helped arrange the alternative of a "white knight" takeover by C. & J. Clark Ltd, the family-owned West Country shoe manufacturer. Crookenden joined the board of C. & J. Clark until his retirement in 1983.
In 1984 Crookenden was appointed chairman of the National Trust's Regional Committee for the North West, a position he held until 1989. Crookenden brought his practical approach to work for the trust - he enjoyed visiting the hill farms and, although he could not walk up to the fell tops to look at erosion, he went up in a helicopter to study the problem. Crookenden never quite lost his interest in shoes, however, and, on a visit by the Queen to the rain-soaked High Yewdale Farm in 1985, was most impressed by her sturdy, mud-resistant pumps. In 1991, he published a book, K Shoes: the first 150 years 1842-1992.
After the war Crookenden always wore a metal caliper and walked with two sticks, but was determined to ignore his disability as far as possible. He was a keen swimmer, played tennis, badminton and ping-pong, and walked one of a sequence of Border Terriers every day. His only voiced regret concerning his polio was that he had not taken up an invitation before the war to go skiing.
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