London Letter


Beverley Baxter August 15 1953
London Letter


Beverley Baxter August 15 1953


London Letter

Beverley Baxter

I FIRST HEARD the news at the Japanese Embassy in London where a reception was being given for the youthful Crown Prince. The scene was an amusing and colorful one with various degrees of curtsies (down to none at all) by the women and every kind of bow by the men from a horizontal obeisance to a mere pulling in of the chin. The Japanese women in kimonos looked dainty and fresh as if they had just emerged from the bath.

I observed to my wife, who was reasonably impressed, that between the diplomats and the kimonos the whole affair should he titled “Call Me Madam Butterfly.” To which I added that everything seemed so unreal that it had no relation to the life around us.

And just then a friend came up and said: “Have you heard the news about Critch? He’s desperately ill and I’m afraid he is going to lose his sight.”

There are rules to drama in the theatre but none to the drama of life. It seemed such a cruelly incongruous setting to hear about a fellow Canadian with whom I served in the 1914 war and who has been one of my closest friends ever since. Both Critchley and I made our careers in England after the war but the Canadian bond was a special bond between us.

Now I have set myself the task of setting down in print the story of Brigadier-General Alfred Cecil Critchley known always as Critch— who defied the fates a thousand times; a man of vision and amazing courage whose faults of temperament were far outweighed by his generosity of spirit; a difficult brilliant domineering figure whose philosophy of life was summed up in a magnificent oath that he created: “BLASTING) !”

Critchley was horn in Calgary in 1890, his father, Major Oswald Critchley, being a rancher. Critchley père had arrived from England

with five pounds in his pocket and reached Calgary which consisted of eight tents his making the ninth. Eventually he was elected to the legislature by a majority of one vote after seven recounts. There were three sons who, with their father, made up a polo team that challenged all comers. Cecil was a handsome six-footer who worked in a bank for a while but longed for the zest of the open air. So he joined the Canadian Regular Army and was commissioned in the Strathcona Horse.

When the 1914 war broke out the father and the three sons came to the war. Just in passing and to complete the family record, the father married a second time after his wife’s death and twin sons were born. They were, of course, mere children in 1914 but they served with high distinction as regulars in the 1939 war and rose to high rank.

Critch, who is the hero of my narrative, went to the front with the Strathcona Horse as part of the First Canadian Division, was twice wounded, won the DSO, and was appointed to the staff of the First and then the Third Canadian divisions. Then he was sent to England to open a school for smartening up the newly arrived junior Canadian officers and complete the process of turning them from semi-civilians into real front-line soldiers. It was as a lieutenant that I was sent to the school at Bexhill-on-Sea and for the first time saw the spectacular commandant, Lieut.-Col. Critchley.

At some ungodly hour in the morning we were put on parade in companies and with sergeants-major who bellowed at us and managed even to make the word “sir” sound like a reproof. We were not ranker officers but officer rankers. All our glory was gone and we feared the worst. Then fo wild shouts of “shun!” we sprang to attention as the commandant arrived to inspect us. He stepped out of his car looking immensely impressive in his red-tabbed uniform— and the effect was not lessened by his Alsatian dog which bounded upward as if to show his adoration of his owner.

Critch inspected us and then we were marched into a great hall where he addressed us in a rapid-fire vigorous style that jolted us like an electric shock. “Gentlemen,” he snapped, “you are soldiers now. Don’t forget it. I don’t care what you were in Continued on page 40

London Letter


civilian life—share pushers, lawyers, plumbers, piano salesmen—by God you’re soldiers now. Anyone who ! slacks, anyone who malingers will go i back to his unit with no flowers by request! On parade and off parade—it makes no difference. I’ll stand no | slacking.”

The course was merciless. I think reveille was at 6 a.m. or perhaps it was J 4 a.m. We were run off our feet, we | dug trenches like madmen, we saluted our seniors with such vigor that our arms were in danger of a sprain. As for a day’s leave to London — we might as well ask for a trip to the moon.

When the course was over I was told j to stay behind on Critchley’s staff. I ; am sorry to record it was not my ¡ military achievements that won this reprieve. Critchley wanted me to put on a musical show with the next J crowd of junior officers when they j arrived. I did so. It was good fun and Critchley and I became close friends. I Then I went to the front where the hours were much easier.

Hut the British military authorities j had spotted Critchley’s genius for organization and he was given the rank i of brigadier-general (at the age of twenty-eight) with the task of training RAE’ cadets in much the same way as j he had trained us. The Duke of York, j afterward King George VI, was on his staff for a time. Incidentally Critchley ¡ learned to fly and was given his wings, j

Then came the peace and all the problems that peace can bring. Critch j was, of course, a regular but he was not j attracted by the prospect of going back ; to peacetime soldiering. His attitude ¡ toward this did not go as far as that of Disraeli who said that soldiering in j peacetime was only fit for a fool, and in wartime only fit for a barbarian, but Critch was determined to try his luck in Civvy Street. He had married Maryon, the daughter of that eminent Canadian John Galt, and they had a young son and daughter.

A Host of Friends — And Enemies

Like many of us he took the same view as Blucher who, after Waterloo, looked over the rooftops of London from a church tower and said:“What a city to sack!” London had been the magic spot where we spent our leave; London meant theatres, pageantry, opportunity, adventure. I joined Lord Beaverbrook while Critch, always a lone wolf, decided to make his own career in his own way.

The transition from spectacular authority to a civilian appointment was not easy to achieve. Critch had given orders for so long that he was apt to regard men in mufti as raw cadets. No one will deny that he was vain, hottempered and impatient. He disciplined himself in war but in the months that followed he did not discipline his temperament. What was worse, his luck was out.

He always had vision and at heart he was a builder. To use the homely old ¡ phrase he was determined to make two blades of grass grow where one grew j before. But he suffered fools badly, j forgetting that in England a man who j looks like a fool is not necessarily a fool. Critch made friends and enemies with complete profligacy.

With demoniac energy he set about a j plan to take ex-officers from the British j Army and settle them in Mexico. After !

I weeks of hard and successful work on ;

j engineering developments in Mexico he ; was quietly but officially told to drop the plan. Washington was not enam-


ored of the idea and had let its opinion he known in Whitehall.

There was much distress in the British coal mines and Critch spent most of his remaining money organizing shipments of coal abroad. But just as he was ready to send his armada overseas there was a coal strike and his coal supplies were confiscated. It was

about then that he and 1 met again and our friendship, which was to grow with t he years, had begun its stormy progress. It was also about then that he and his wife parted. The shadows were closing in.

Critch was running short of money and it looked as if the game was up. But one day he met an American friend who told him about greyhound racing in the U. S. A. Critch is a man who always believed that sport is good for man and beast and nations. Therefore lie threw himself into this project, built the first greyhound race track in Manchester and opened it to what looked like a complete flop.

Against the shouts of derision he hung on and suddenly the sport won its public. It swept like a prairie fire across England. He formed a company known as the Greyhound Racing Association, acquired the immense stadium at the White City in London, and organized the racing like a Roman pageant. The shares were put on the market and zoomed. Critch was a rich man and life was good. For better or for worse he had produced the poor man’s substitute for horse racing.

He paused long enough, however, to marry an attractive young woman. 1 was the best man and am now godfather to their six-foot son, Bryan. In the meantime Critch invaded the cement world and became a director and then vice-president of the great British Portland Cement Association.

He had a house at Wimbledon, a house in town, a house at Sandwich on the sea and he became so fine a golfer that he began to win tournaments. He never had the shots of a really topranking golfer but he possessed a courage that simply would not admit defeat. If his opponent was four up with four to play Critch believed that he would win at the nineteenth and very often he did.

Still impatient and unsatisfied, still looking for worlds to shoulder like Atlas, he turned his eyes toward par-

liament and managed somehow to get himself adopted for a by-election at the outer London constituency of Twickenham. As I had also turned my eyes in the direction of Westminster I took charge of his campaign. It seemed a good opportunity to familiarize myself with the technique of political life.

We got our man home and Critchley took his seat. But he was too impatient for the slow tempo of parliamentary life. Had he been instantaneously made a minister and given a department he would probably have made a huge success of it. But he had been giving orders for so long that he could not accommodate himself to the democracy of parliamentary life where the most boring member has the same rights as the man of destiny.

When the next general election loomed up Critchley dropped out. He had found one game where he was not a champion. But even as I write these words I must set down that in my opinion it is a thousand pities that the government of the day did not use his organizing genius in some colonial territories where trouble was brewing. Few men of my time had his powers of improvization and organization.

His greyhounds, however, were doing well, his cement interests were prospering and he had plenty of time to give to golf, winning many championships from better players who lacked his pugnacity and his courage.

Then came the 1939 war. He had acquired a reconstructed coast guard’s house on the seashore at Sandwich and at Christmas he invited me to stay with him. There I met a handsome young fellow who turned out to be Johnny, the son by his first wife. Johnny went to school in Canada but was then at Cambridge. Being his father’s son he could not remain a student when the bugles were sounding.

Johnny joined the RAF, but was refused a pilot’s license because his color vision was faulty. Refusing to be a grounded airman he volunteered to serve with the Finnish Ski Division in the war against Russia hut his ship was turned back just before reaching port. Finland had capitulated.

Whereupon Johnny enlisted in the Scots Guards, won his commission and was killed in the North African campaign. 1 went to see my old friend Critch as soon as I heard the news and in his eyes there was a hurt that would never heal. Nothing in his life took such a toll as the death of his son who had come to him after years of separation.

But the war had to be fought and Critch had prepared a vast scheme, similar to 1918, for training the personnel of the RAF. It was accepted by the Air Ministry; he resigned all his greyhound and cement directorships and threw himself into the task as he had done in the first war. Once or twice 1 went to stay with him at different centres and it seemed as if time had stood still since I had arrived with the Canadian draft at his school in Bexhillon-Sea.

No longer was he interested in anything but the war, and when the RAF took over his system of training he was appointed by the government to the chairmanship of the British Overseas Airways Corporation. This was what he wanted above all things and he threw himself into the task with a violence which produced excellent results, some blunders and a host of enemies. Undoubtedly he was ruthless but not for personal gain. He never learned the lesson that enough enemies can bring down a giant.

When the war ended he had not only surrendered his greyhound control but was no longer head of BOAC. However with his amazing vision he

saw the opportunity ahead and founded the Air Charter of Skyways Ltd., of which he was the chairman. When the challenge of the Berlin airlift came Critchley was ready with his planes, not only serving Britain but bringing rich rewards to his company. And since peace of a kind was in the air he resumed his golf and defeated better players as he had always done.

Then once more the shadows began to gather. Greyhound racing had been so taxed by the treasury that the profits had disappeared. Shares that had sold for twenty-five shillings were down to a couple of shillings. Much of Critchley’s fortune had evaporated although he still had considerable money.

Unhappily he went for a winter holiday to the Bahamas and while flying over that area he conceived the idea of taking over “Rum Island” in that part of the Caribbean and turning it into a winter holiday resort for American workers and their families. American industrialists were enthusiastic and London bankers were interested. Critchley got Billy (Holiday Camp) Butlin (another Canadian) interested and they raised further money in the City of London. Eventually but too precipitately the camp was opened — and flopped. American interests bought it for a song and Critchley had lost a hundred thousand pounds.

Courage Saved His Life

He was sixty years of age but never in his whole stormy career had he winced or cried aloud. With his third wife, the champion golfer Diana Fishwick, he moved to a pleasant home near Ascot and continued his cement and air-charter activities. His courage was indomitable and he set about planning new ventures. Occasionally he would telephone me and come to my house for lunch, and I admired him in the shadows as I had never done in the sunlight.

And now comes the hand of fate like a play of Euripides. He went to the coast to play in a golfing tournament and developed an irritating boil in his nose. True to form he paid no attention to it until it burst. But by that time, unknown to him, it had brought on a thrombosis and he had a frightful headache. Arriving home he diagnosed it as ’flu and was treated for that complaint. Too late it was discovered that the infection had reached the vein that feeds sustenance to the eye. Death faced him in the night but he summoned his courage from the depths and defied it. Death was defeated, but his eyesight had gone for ever.

He made a swift general recovery and I drove to the country to see him, dreading the ordeal as a child dreads the dark. When I got there 1 found Wing Commander Douglas Bader who, with two wooden legs, flew as a fighter pilot in the war and flies and golfs today like a youngster of twenty. Bader had brought his courage to sustain his friend Critch—and he also brought a gold watch from Critchley’s golfing friends, a watch that sounds the time. Another man to arrive was Sir Ian Fraser, a South African MP at Westminster, who was blinded in the first war and is now head of St. Dunstan’s.

There on the sofa was my old friend and I placed my hands on his shoulders because I was afraid to speak. “Blast you,” roared Critch, “w'hy do your newspapers publish such rot about cricket?”

I told him he was crazy and he said that I never knew a damned thing anyway about sport. Our voices rose in anger and we damned each other to eternity.

But both of us knew . . . and it was better not to say it. iç