Monthly Archives: May 2019

Harold Auten VC

Harold Auten was born in 1891. He joined the P&O Line as an apprentice in 1908. He became a member of the Royal Naval Reserve two years later and was promoted to Sub Lieutenant just before the outbreak of the First World War. He was one of the early recruits to the Royal Navy’s force of Q-ships, apparently innocuous merchantmen that carried heavy but concealed armaments in order to lure German U-boats to their doom. He served first on the former collier Zylphia as First Lieutenant.

Whilst serving on the Zylphia, he paid a Portsmouth second hand clothes shop £60 for 80 suits, a scruffy work one and a smarter shore going one for each crewman. He also came up with the idea of making it appear that his ship was on fire by putting a tub full of dried seaweed on her deck and setting it alight.[1]

In June 1917, the Zylphia was torpedoed by a U-boat that did not fall for her trap but remained submerged. She was taken under tow but sank just off the Irish coast at 2320 on 15 June 1917.[2]

By then, however, Auten had become First Lieutenant of HMS Heather, an Aubreitia class sloop. This class were warships designed to resemble merchantmen rather than being armed merchantmen.  Auten took command of her after her captain, Lieutenant-Commander William Hallwright, was killed in an action with a U-boat on 21 April 1917. In this case, the U-boat shelled the sloop, which then launched her “panic party. ” This was a group of sailors who pretended to be abandoning ship in a hurry in the hope of tricking the Germans into thinking that their opponent was a helpless merchantman not worth wasting a torpedo on. The captain of this U-boat was, however, not fooled. He dived his boat and made off.[3]

The Aubreitias did not make good decoys. They did not look like merchantmen if viewed from the bow or quarter and their 92 man crews were too big to carry out a convincing abandon ship routine.[4]

Auten, who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on 6 April 1918, realised this and successfully persuaded Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, commanding the naval forces defending the Western Approaches to put him in command of the Stock Force, an almost new  collier. She was armed with two 4 inch guns, two 12 [76mm] pounders, a 3 [47mm] pounder  and two fourteen inch torpedo tubes.[5]

On 30 July 1918, HMS Stock Force received a radio message stating that a U-boat was operating between the Channel Islands and South Devon.  She first encountered two French seaplanes, which tried to persuade her to steer away from danger, not realising that she was a Q-ship deliberately steering into danger.[6]

The seaplanes eventually left and Stock Force continued on her way until she was struck by a torpedo, which disabled her. The panic party was launched and the U-boat surfaced about half a mile away, a highly risky action by that stage in the war. It is especially strange considering that she was SM UB-80, whose captain, Kapitänleutnant Max Viebeg, had been awarded the Pour-le-Merite, Germany’s highest decoration, and was responsible for the destruction of 51 ships with a total tonnage of 80,000 tons over the course of the war.[7]

The panic party drew the UB-80 to a position 300 yards from Stock Force and in the arc of fire of both her 4 inch guns. They opened fire, wrecking UB-80’s conning tower and scoring numerous hits on her hull. She slipped below, stern first, but survived and returned to port thanks to the strength of her double hull. She was repaired quickly enough to sink a merchantman on 6 September and another 3 days later.[8]

Stock Force was also sinking. Her engines were still working, so Auten headed towards Plymouth. On the way, Stock Force encountered two trawlers who were heading towards the sound of the guns. Auten transferred the wounded to them and tried to get his ship back to port, but she foundered eight miles off the English coast.[9]

Auten was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation, not published until after the war because of the secrecy of Q-ship operations, but now available on Wikipedia, said that:

H.M.S. “Stock Force,” under the command of Lieutenant Harold Auten, D.S.C., R.N.R., was torpedoed by an enemy submarine at 5 p.m. on the 30th July, 1918. The torpedo struck the ship abreast No. 1 hatch, entirely wrecking the fore part of the ship, including the bridge, and wounding three ratings. A tremendous shower of planks, unexploded shells, hatches and other debris followed the explosion, wounding the first lieutenant (Lieutenant E.J. Grey, R.N.R.) and the navigating officer (Lieutenant L.E. Workman, R.N.R.) and adding to the injuries of the foremost gun’s crew and a number of other ratings. The ship settled down forward, flooding the foremost magazine and between decks to the depth of about three feet. “Panic party,” in charge of Lieutenant Workman, R.N.R., immediately abandoned ship, and the wounded were removed to the lower deck, where the surgeon (Surgeon Probationer G.E. Strahan, R.N.V.R.), working up to his waist in water, attended to their injuries. The captain, two guns’ crews and the engine-room staff remained at their posts.

The submarine then came to the surface ahead of the ship half a mile distant, and remained there a quarter of an hour, apparently watching the ship for any doubtful movement.

The “panic party” in the boat accordingly commenced to row back towards the ship in an endeavour to decoy the submarine within range of the hidden guns. The submarine followed, coming slowly down the port side of the “Stock Force,” about three hundred yards away. Lieutenant Auten, however, withheld his fire until she was abeam, when both of his guns could bear. Fire was opened at 5.40 p.m.; the first shot carried away one of the periscopes, the second round hit the conning tower, blowing it away and throwing the occupant high into the air. The next round struck the submarine on the water-line, tearing her open and blowing out a number of the crew.

The enemy then subsided several feet into the water and her bows rose. She thus presented a large and immobile target into which the “Stock Force” poured shell after shell until the submarine sank by the stern, leaving a quantity of debris on the water. During the whole of the action one man (Officer’s Steward, 2nd Class, R.J. Starling) remained pinned down under the foremost gun after the explosion of the torpedo, and remained there cheerfully and without complaint, although the ship was apparently sinking, until the end of the action.

The “Stock Force” was a vessel of 360 tons, and despite the severity of the shock sustained by the officers and men when she was torpedoed, and the fact that her bows were almost obliterated, she was kept afloat by the exertions of her ship’s company until 9.25 p.m. She then sank with colours flying, and the officers and men were taken off by two torpedo boats and a trawler.

The action was cited as one of the finest examples of coolness, discipline and good organisation in the history of “Q” ships.

Starling was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and Grey, Strahan and Workman the DSC. Tony Bridgland sates that ‘[m]any awards were made for the bravery in the first and last action of Stock Force,’ but I have not been able to find out how many or to whom.[10] Naval-History.net lists all British sailors awarded medals but the secrecy behind Q-ship operations means that the citations for Q-ship sailors omit the name of their ships. Its lists of men killed does not include anybody from HMS Stock Force.

Auten moved to New York after the war, working for the Rank Organisation in the film industry. He later owned a hotel and cinema in Bushkill, Pennsylvania. He remained in the RNR and was employed in organising convoys during World War II, initially with the rank of Commander and later Acting Captain. He was awarded the US Legion of Merit and the Dutch Order of Nassau as a result. He died in 1964. His medals are on display in the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

 

[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 16, 18.

[2] Ibid., pp. 96-99.

[3] Ibid., p. 135; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 171; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 95.

[4] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 95.

[5] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 135-36; Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 316.

[6] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 137-38.

[7] Ibid., pp. 138-39.

[8] Ibid., p. 139; Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 316.

[9] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 139-40.

[10] Ibid., p. 140.

Leave a comment

Filed under War History