German Tank Buster: Professional Cricket Player, Major Bob Crisp DSO, MC

 
 
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The majority of us, if we’re honest about it, live lives that are fairly ordinary. There may be flurries of interest. There may even be brief moments of heart-stopping excitement. But most of the time, we just go quietly from day to day.

However, there are some people who lead lives so packed with incident, achievement, and excitement that their biographies read like a Boys-Own story. One such person was Robert ‘Bob’ Crisp DSO MC: international cricketer, mountaineer, journalist, writer, civil rights campaigner, and war hero.

Bob Crisp was born in Calcutta, India on May 28, 1911. His family moved to Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) and Crisp attended Prince Edward School in Salisbury where it quickly became clear that he was a talented athlete. He represented the school in swimming, boxing, and athletics, but it was at cricket that he excelled.

By the time Crisp left school, he was 6’ 4” tall and a ferociously fast bowler. He played in his debut First Class cricket match in Bulawayo in 1929 at the age of 18. In 1935, he was picked as a member of the South Africa team which would tour England.

South African cricketer Bob Crisp (1911 – 1994) at Cardiff, where he is playing a match against Glamorgan, June 1935.

During his cricket career he achieved several records, though not all were formally recorded. In the 1970s, a reporter for the Guardian Newspaper was surprised to learn that many cricketers still held Crisp in awe as the first player ever to score 100 during a Test Tour.

That’s not one hundred runs: Bob Crisp made love to one hundred different women during his three-month tour of England in 1935.

During this period he also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Twice. It seems that Crisp had climbed the mountain alone and was on his way down when he met a friend, who was on his way up. Crisp agreed to climb the mountain again, but his friend broke a leg near the summit. Crisp carried him to the top and then all the way back down to safety.

South African cricketers Chud Langton (1912 – 1942) and Bob Crisp (1911 – 1994) at Cardiff, where they are playing a match against Glamorgan, June 1935.

When World War Two began, Crisp enlisted in the British Army. When he completed initial training, he was posted to the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3RTR) in Alexandria, Egypt.

The regiment had lost all of its tanks and most of its personnel during the German invasion of France in the summer of 1940, and Lieutenant Crisp was one of many new personnel who joined the Regiment in early 1941.

3rd Royal Tank Regiment by a Sherman tank during a break

Crisp spent most of his wartime service as commander of an M3 Stuart tank. The Stuart was manufactured in the US and provided to the British Army under the Lend-Lease policy.

It was provided with a gasoline-powered radial engine originally designed for use in an aircraft, but it lacked range. It had an operational range of just 75 miles, cross country.

A British M3 (Stuart I) during fighting in North Africa. Bundesarchiv, Bild / Dorsen / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Stuart was a light tank but it was well regarded in British service, being faster, more reliable, and lighter than the other main tank of the time, the Crusader.

The Stuart had equivalent armor and armament to the Crusader and its only real drawbacks were limited fuel capacity, a high profile necessitated by the location of its engine, and a small, two-man turret (most other tanks of the period had three-man turrets).

It wasn’t long before 3RTR discovered that the Stuart was also a match for the most common German tank of the early war period: the Panzer III.

In early March 1941, 3RTR was ordered to the port of Piraeus in Greece as part of the 1st Armored Brigade in Operation Luster, an attempt to halt the German invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia.

German artillery firing during the advance through Greece.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-163-0319-07A / Bauer / CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the mountains of Greece, Bob Crisp encountered combat for the first time and he embraced it with the same flamboyant enthusiasm with which he tackled most things in his life.

Crisp was credited with destroying several German tanks during this brief campaign.

When faced with a German Panzer IV, much heavier than the Panzer III and virtually impervious to the main guns of British tanks, Crisp angrily stuck his head out of the turret and fired his revolver at the German tank.

When a British armored column was under attack by a German Heinkel He-111 bomber, Crisp shot it down with the .30 caliber machine gun mounted on the cupola of his tank’s turret.

General Hermann Balck in a Panzer III Ausf. E command tank in Greece in 1941. The vehicle is fitted with a dummy 37mm main gun and a dummy MG 34 co-axial machine gun but has an actual ball-mounted MG 34 machine gun on the right side of the turret’s mantlet.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0

Unfortunately, the British campaign in Greece was a disaster. By the end of April, Crisp had been forced to bail out of burning tanks three times, and British forces were evacuated from Greece and pulled back to Egypt.

Crisp had been promoted to Captain (he was one of just twelve 3 RTR officers to make it back from Greece), but he didn’t stay at that rank for long.

He was demoted back to Lieutenant following several incidents which involved insubordination and a tendency to spend more money than he was paid. Crisp was said to owe money to every bartender in Alexandria, something that was not seen as becoming behavior for a British Army officer.

Crisp was demoted twice more during his career for similar reasons, something that must be almost unique in the British Army.

Retreating Greek soldiers, April 1941.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0

By the time that 3RTR arrived back in Egypt, a new force had entered operations in the western desert. General Erwin Rommel had been appointed to lead the Deutsches Afrika Korps, a German expeditionary force sent to North Africa to support their Italian allies.

Rommel immediately led his forces into eastern Cyrenaica where they besieged the vital British port of Tobruk.  In June 1941, the British counterattacked in Operation Battleaxe, a disastrous attempt to stop the German advance.

The Axis Offensive 1941 – 1942- German tanks advance in the desert shortly before the Battle of Sollum.

The British lost almost half their tanks during the first day of fighting and, as usual, Crisp was in the thick of the action. He fought continuously for 14 days in a failed effort to relieve Tobruk, surviving on little more than one hour’s sleep each night.

By June 17, the Germans were able to resume their advance, having destroyed almost 100 British tanks while losing just 12 of their own. 3RTR were pulled back to Cairo to rest and re-supply.

Erwin Rommel in his command halftrack, SdKfz.250 3.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-443-1589-07 Zwilling, Ernst A. CC-BY-SA 3.0

In November 1941, Crisp and 3RTR were involved in Operation Crusader, another attempt to stop the inexorable advance of the Afrika Korps and relieve the siege of Tobruk.

During bitter fighting, Crisp had two more tanks shot out from under him. Then, near an airfield at Sidi Rezegh, he found himself alone in his M3 when a column of around 70 German armored vehicles appeared. Crisp reacted immediately and in characteristic fashion – by attacking the German force single-handedly.

Matilda tanks on the move outside the perimeter of Tobruk, 18 November 1941.

His M3 careered through the German column, firing as it went. Taken by surprise and presumably assuming that no-one would be foolish enough to attack alone and that there must, therefore, be a larger British force in the vicinity, the Germans withdrew.

The following day, Crisp was on foot when he spotted a German emplacement of three anti-tank guns which was threatening the British advance. He commandeered a passing Signal Corps M3 which was armed only with a machine gun and attacked the emplacement.

Somehow, he destroyed the three guns, captured their crews, and freed a truck-load of British POWs. Operation Crusader finally managed to halt Rommel’s advance across the desert.

British Crusader tank passes a burning German Panzer IV tank during Operation Crusader

As a result of these actions, Crisp was recommended for the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for bravery. However, General Bernard Montgomery, the commander of British forces in North Africa intervened.

Montgomery would not countenance having such an insubordinate and profligate officer given this coveted award, and instead Crisp was awarded the Military Cross. Before he could receive the medal, Crisp was wounded when yet another of his tanks was destroyed in the desert. He was hit in the head by shrapnel and badly burned.

Military Cross Awarded by United Kingdom and Commonwealth

When King George VI, an avid cricket fan, presented the award, he anxiously asked whether Crisp would still be able to play. Crisp was able to reassure his monarch. ‘Fortunately Sire,’ he replied. ‘I was only wounded in the head.’

However, his wounds proved to be so serious that Crisp, by this time a Major and also the recipient of the Distinguished Service Order, was invalided out of the army soon after 3RTR was involved in the invasion of Normandy.

However, his post-war life was anything but quiet.

Crisp worked as a journalist but quit after disagreements with his editor. He wrote a book about his experiences in the war, Brazen Chariots, which the LA Times called “the finest narrative of tank warfare to come out of World War II.” He started several businesses, all of which failed.

The cover of his book Brazen Chariots

By the 1960s, he was living on a Greek island, in a small goat hut which lacked running water or a toilet.

In 1971, at the age of 60, Bob Crisp was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was, doctors told him, inoperable, and there was nothing they could do for him.

Crisp bought a donkey and decided to spend what he assumed were his last few months walking around the island of Crete, bringing in a little money by selling the story of his walk to a newspaper.

During the journey, he was given a single dose of a new, experimental cancer drug which was intended to be applied to the body. Misunderstanding, Crisp drank it, noting that it tasted so foul that he washed it down with a bottle of retsina.                                              

When he completed his walk several months later, doctors were astonished to find that the cancer had completely disappeared, though no-one was able to explain why.

Crisp continued to work as a journalist, campaigning against apartheid in South Africa. He was a co-founder of Drum, the first magazine in South Africa intended for black readers.

When the first ever cricket match was played between black and white schoolboys in South Africa in 1989, Bob Crisp was there as a guest of honor.                                                               

He also continued to be irresistibly appealing to the opposite sex. A journalist who visited Crisp in Greece noted that he had more than 20 girlfriends on the island. They ranged in age from their twenties to their fifties, while Crisp himself was 70.

Read another story from us: Victoria Cross Hero: The One Man Tank Destroyer at Arnhem

Bob Crisp never did get the hang of holding on to his money. When he died peacefully in his sleep in 1994 in England at the age of 83, his only possessions were said to be a newspaper and a receipt for a £20 bet on an upcoming horse race.

Nevertheless, he lived a life richer in experience and achievement than most of us can ever imagine.