Obituary: Commander Mike Crosley

Policeman who became Second World War flying ace and talented test pilot

• Commander Mike Crosley, Second World War Aviator.

• Born: 24 February, 1920, in Liverpool.

• Died: 20 June 2010, in Newport, Isle of Wight, aged 80.

As a fighter pilot during the Second World War Mike Crosely was frequently shot at, was sunk while onboard the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, mentioned in dispatches as one of 24 "Ace" airmen, was awarded the DSC, twice in 1943 and 1945, flew Sea Furies during the Korean war and was recognised as being an extraordinarily talented test pilot.

After he retired from the military in 1970 he went on to become a physics teacher. To say he led an exciting life would be an understatement.

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Robert Michael Crosely was born in Liverpool in 1920. His family's base was in Hampshire although his father's job was with an opera company, which was frequently on tour. After his mother walked out, Crosely and his sister were placed in numerous separate foster homes, a far from enjoyable time for either child.

His grandmother eventually intervened and his father remarried, opened a nursery and settled down in a house overlooking the river Hamble.

Back in structured education firstly at Pilgrims' School, Winchester, and then King Edward VII School in Southampton, Crosley began to flourish academically and earned himself a choral scholarship.

He faced the Admiralty Interview Board in 1937 with a view to becoming a naval officer. He was unsuccessful so he joined the Metropolitan Police instead. As a bobby on the beat he witnessed the beginning of the Blitz, a dangerous and desperate time for residents of London. He was then advised that the RAF had a backlog of six months, so turned his attention to the military, successfully applying to the Fleet Air Arm at the end of 1940.

His initial training took place at HMS St Vincent in Gosport, during which time he was, oddly for an RAF recruit, trained to be a sailor. He enjoyed the rigours and camaraderie of military life and found that the structure suited him well.

After training he found himself at No 24 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) in Luton, where he was introduced to the Miles Magister, a basic piece of aircraft technology designed to train new pilots.

This was his first experience of the potential terror that military flight could bring, and when a fellow pupil crashed and died, Crosley found himself wondering if he had made the right decision. This train of thought was not helped when he survived a forced landing of his own. He soon buried his fears, however, and transferred to Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at RAF Netheravon where he flew Harts, Audaxes and Battles. There he was trained to fly using instruments, how to bomb and, crucially, how to effectively navigate.

A successful training period led him to the cockpit of a Sea Hurricane flying out of Yeovilton. At the time there were very few of the Mk 1B Hurricanes available for training purposes. This was the new series of fighters designed to land and launch from aircraft carriers. A lack of craft meant that the pilots trained in the soon-to-be-defunct model, an indication that the Royal Navy did not take the potential of aircraft quite as seriously as perhaps they should have.

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In his autobiography They Gave Me a Seafire, published in 2001, Crosley describes how pilots and radio controllers were trained in radar-controlled interceptions by pedalling around airfields on Walls Ice Cream tricycles, listening to radio signals from the tower.

At the end of 1941, Crosley was posted to HMS Eagle, only to be told that her entire fighter defence squadron was in Scotland, where he would have to go and collect it. Perplexed, Crosley travelled to Arbroath, where, after some searching, he eventually found the three pilots and two Hurricanes, not a huge resource for the defence of a Royal Navy aircraft carrier.

HMS Eagle was a converted battleship, bought by the British in 1917 in order to create a through-deck aircraft carrier. She was to play a pivotal role in the battle of Malta but on 11 August, 1942 she was struck by four torpedos fired from U-73, a German submarine.

The damage was catastrophic and the Eagle sank within four minutes of the initial attack. More than 160 men and 16 Hurricanes were lost to the sea, but Crosley managed to grab a life jacket and escape the ship as she rolled and sank.

Following the disaster on the Eagle he joined 800 Naval Air Squadron and continued his flying missions, shooting down two Vichy French aircraft in a frantic airborne battle in the skies over La Senia in North Africa. His display earned him his first DSC.

Crosley was an extraordinarily active pilot between 1942 and 1945, making his survival even more incredible, as at times he was flying two or three sorties every day. His skill and temerity were recognised with the command of 880 Naval Air Squadron, based in Orkney from where attacks were launched on German shipping in the Norwegian fjords. Once the Germans had been defeated 880 Squadron was shipped to the other side of the world, this time focusing its aggression on the Japanese. In 1945 Crosley was mentioned in dispatches and received a bar to his DSC.

In the years following the war he obtained a reputation as a fearless test pilot and was recalled to active service flying Sea Furies in the Korean War, flying from HMS Ocean.

In 1955 he received the Queen's commendation for valuable services in the air and in 1962 he became the first British pilot to fly the Phantom A35.

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He retired from the military in 1970, when he became a physics teacher in Devon before moving to the Isle of Wight with his wife Joan, in 1976. There they lived in the 16th-century house they had spent many years renovating in Binstead.

A life at sea had fostered a love of the open water and his passion was sailing and boat building. He built eight boats during the course of his life and wrote two autobiographical books, They Gave Me a Seafire and Up in Harm's Way.

In final years of his life he had possibly his most difficult battle, with Lewybody dementia.

Commander Mike Crosely died in a Newport nursing home on 20 June, 2010. He is survived by his wife, Joan, and their five children. CHRIS MAIR