Heroes of Plymouth

by Major John Barrow, MBE.
Published January 2013

The third in this series. A series which I have been informed by many of you is a particular favourite, thank you for your kind words. This time another recipient of the Victoria Cross, Second Lieutenant John James Crowe. The article was written by Major John Barrow, MBE.

John Crowe was born at Devonport, on July 11 1877 of a military family. His father was a private soldier in the 36th Foot, later to become 2nd Battalion, TheWorcestershire Regiment. The 36th returned to Portsmouth from India in December 1875 and transhipped to Devonport on 19th December. They were then stationed in Raglan Barracks till they left on 31st October 1877, when John Crowe was four months old.

His mother was a local girl, confirmed by the late Mrs. Livingstone, formerly Mrs. Gorrill, whose mother was the sister of Mrs.
Crowe. I am not aware of the maiden name of Mrs. Crowe.

John Crowe joined his fathers Regiment, by now the Worcestershire Regiment in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and served in the ranks for 17 years, 211 days and was a Warrant Officer for 3 years, 63 days. He served the whole of his time with the Regiment, including that in each of the four battalions of the Regiment. His latter years in the ranks were as Regimental Sergeant Major of the 2nd Battalion.

He served throughout the full 4 years and 3 months of the Great War and although he was frequently in the thick of the fighting he ended the war unscathed, although twice being blown up and once buried.

He was promoted Second Lieutenant of the same battalion on the 1st April 1918, and acting Captain on the 26th May 1918.

He gained his Victoria Cross with the 2nd Battalion at the Battle of Neuve Eglise on the 16th April 1918 – during the stand against the German onslaught on the Lys Valley. Battalion Headquarters with “B” Company took up its position in the Town Hall of Neuve Eglise. They were soon closely engaged with the enemy, who poured into the village and surrounded them. The defence held out stubbornly against the fire of machine guns and trench mortars, but it was only a matter of time before they must be overwhelmed. An attempt was made to get a message through for help, but the officer taking it was killed. Second Lieutenant Crowe was Adjutant of the Battalion, and he decided with volunteers to make a sortie and clear a path for retirement. With a quick rush they occupied a cow shed close by; then, with two men, Second Lieutenant Crowe crawled round and rushed a machine-gun post, capturing both guns. The others then came up, and communication with those in the rear was established. Fresh reinforcements for the enemy arrived, and the little garrison, ammunition exhausted, retired; Second Lieutenant Crowe’s party covered throughout their retirement.

The Citation for his award of the Victoria Cross reads:

“For most conspicuous bravery, determination and skilful leading when the enemy for the third time having attacked a post in a village, broke past on to the high ground and established a machine gun and snipers in the broken ground at the back of the village. Second Lieutenant Crowe twice went forward with two non-commissioned officers and seven men to engage the enemy; both times in face of active machine-gun fire and sniping. His action was so daring that on each occasion the enemy withdrew from the high ground into the village, where Second Lieutenant Crowe followed them and himself opened fire upon the enemy as they collected in the doorways of the houses. On the second occasion, taking with him only two men of his party, he attacked two enemy machine guns which were sweeping the post, killed both gunners with his rifle, and prevented any others from reaching the guns and bringing them into action again. He then turned upon a party of the enemy who were lined up in front of him, killed several, and the remainder withdrew at once. He captured both the guns, one of which was the battalion Lewis gun which had been captured by the enemy on the previous day. Throughout the seven days of operations Second Lieutenant Crowe showed an utter disregard of danger and was recklessly brave. His personal example and cheerfulness contributed largely to the determination of the garrison of the post to hold out. It may be safely said that but for his coolness and skill at the last moment when he personally placed the covering party in close proximity to the enemy, who were again closing round, and were also forming up in fours nearby, the garrison of the post could never have affected its escape. The valour and zeal displayed by Second Lieutenant Crowe was of the highest order”.

His Majesty King George V presented him with his Victoria Cross in the Field in France.

In addition to the award of the Victoria Cross Second Lieutenant Crowe was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government.

A most interesting feature of the award of the Victoria Cross to Second Lieutenant Crowe is that he earned the highest honour for valour at the age of 41. He is therefore believed to be the only man ever awarded the Victoria Cross who was already a holder of the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. (In those days, and indeed when I received mine in 1965, one had to serve for eighteen years to qualify for this medal. Some time later, the time was reduced to fifteen years bringing it into line with the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Air Force).

The Worcestershire Regiment had long held the reputation in the British Army of being a top class “Shooting” Regiment. It is not surprising to learn that the then Sergeant J.J. Crowe – who was an excellent rifle and revolver shot – was a member of the successful team from the 4th Battalion of that regiment, when it won the Queen Victoria Cup, the “blue ribbon” for rifle shooting, in 1904.

Captain Crowe retired from the Army and the Regiment in 1920 when he became School Attendance Officer for Brighton, which appointment he held for a further 22 years. He died at the General Hospital, Brighton, on 27th February 1965, aged 88 years.

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