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The Royal Navy Attacks on Kronstadt, Russia, 1919 and 3 VCs

In 1918, the leading British secret agent in Petrograd, as St Petersburg was then known, was Paul Dukes, code number ST/25. In order to provide a courier service for Dukes two Coastal Motor Boats were based, with the consent of the Finnish authorities, at the Terijoki yacht club on the Finnish of part of the Gulf of Finland, 25 miles from Petrograd and the adjacent Bolshevik naval base at Kronstadt. Augustus Agar, a 29 year old Royal Navy Lieutenant was given command of the CMBs. He was code numbered ST /34.[1]

The first CMBs, called 40 footers although they were actually 45 feet long, had a speed of 24.8 knots, an armament of a stern launched 18 inch torpedo and two or four .303 inch Lewis machine guns and a crew of two or three. Later 40 footers had more powerful engines, giving them a maximum speed of 35.1 – 37.8 knots. The subsequent 55 footers were armed with one or two 18 inch torpedoes, four Lewis guns and four depth charges. They had a crew of three to five and could make 35.25 – 41.2 knots. The later 70 footers were minelayers with six  Lewis guns, seven mines or 3 torpedoes, four depth charges, a crew of three to five and a maximum speed of 26 -36 knots depending on their engines.[2]

Agar had qualified as a pilot before the war, but did not serve with the Royal Naval Air Service. He served pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Hibernia, including at Gallipoli, and then in the elderly cruiser HMS Iphigenia, which acted as a depot ship for minesweepers covering the supply routes to Archangel and Murmansk in North Russia. In May 1918, he was assigned to a flotilla of CMB operating from the Essex coast. [3]

Agar successfully landed a courier near Petrograd in June. Dukes then ordered that there should be no more missions until mid-July because of the short nights. Agar then signalled Captain Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming RN, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, requesting permission to take action in support of an anti-Bolshevik Russian garrison that was being bombarded by Bolshevik naval forces. Cumming replied that the CMBs were to be used only for intelligence purposes unless otherwise ordered by the Senior Naval Officer Baltic.[4]

The SNO was Admiral Walter Cowan, an aggressive officer, and Agar was confident that Cowan would retrospectively support any action that he took. On 16 June, his first attempt to attack the Kronstadt Island naval base next to Petrograd had to be abandoned  after one of the CMBs broke down. The next night Agar, commanding the 40 footer CMB4, succeeded in sinking the 6,650 ton cruiser Oleg. On 19 August 1919 the award of the Victoria Cross to Agar was announced. See Naval-History.net for the citation.

Agar made two unsuccessful attempts to pick up Dukes. The first time, a Bolshevik patrol spotted Dukes’s courier. The second attempt failed because their rowing boat sank.[5]

On the night of 17-18 August, Agar in the 40 footer CMB7 led a flotilla of 55 footer CMBs into Kronstadt. He piloted the other boats into the harbour under heavy fire and then covered their withdrawal, again under heavy.

The 55 footers were of two types. The A boats carried one 18 inch torpedo and were capable of 35.25 knots. The BD type had two 18 inch torpedoes and a maximum speed of 35.1 knots.[6]

The flotilla was commanded by 34 year old Commander Claude Dobson, DSO in CMB 31BD. He had previously served in submarines and CMBs. He directed the attack and then torpedoed the 17,400 ton pre-dreadnought battleship Andrei Pervozvanny, before retiring under heavy fire.

Lieutenant Archibald Dayrell-Reed, captain of CMB 88BD was shot in the head and the boat thrown off course. Second in command 26 year old Lieutenant Gordon Steele took the wheel. moved Dayrell-Reed away from the steering and firing position and torpedoed the Andrei Pervozvanny. He then manoeuvred to get a clear shot at the 23,360 ton dreadnought Petropavlovsk, which was partly overlapped by the Andrei Pervozvanny and further obscured by smoke coming from her. However, he managed to fire a torpedo her and to turn away in a tight space, firing his machine guns as his boat exited the harbour under heavy fire. The elderly Russian cruiser Pamiat Azova, which was being used as a torpedo boat depot ship, was sunk by the CMBs.

The Andrei Pervozvanny was not repaired and was scrapped in 1923. The British claimed to have sunk the Petropavlosk in shallow water but the Soviets insisted that she was not damaged. She was renamed Marat and recommissioned in 1922. She was badly damaged by German dive bombers in 1941 at Kronstadt but enough of her hull remained above water for her to be used as a gun battery.[7]

CMB25BD, captained by 25 year old Russell McBean, who had been an early volunteer for CMBs and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross after the second Ostend Raid, also torpedoed the Andrei Pervozvanny, before withdrawing under heavy fire.

Acting Sub Lieutenant Edward Bodley, RNR’s CMB72A attacked a Bolshevik destroyer, but the CMB’s steering broke down. It encountered Acting Sub Lieutenant Francis Howard’s CMB86BD, whose engines had broken down and it took in tow.

The other three CMBs were lost: 25BD, 31BD and 72A. Four officers, including Dayrell-Reed, and four petty officers and ratings were killed. They are listed on Naval-History.net.

Dobson and Steele were both awarded the VC and Agar, McBean and Bodley the Distinguished Service Order. Their citations, published on 11 November 1919 are available on Naval-History.net: VC here and DSO here. Six other officers, including Howard, were awarded the DSC.  The award of Distinguished Service Medals to a number of petty officers and ratings for operations in Russia at the same time, but no details of how, where and when they were earned was given.

Agar was a Captain in 1939, commanding the cruiser HMS Emerald. She and her sister ship HMS Enterprise transported five tons of gold to Nova Scotia in order to pay for war materials before the later introduction of Lend Lease. He then commanded a destroyer flotilla and was chief staff officer, coastal forces, before in August 1941 taking command of the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire.

On 5 April 1942 Dorsetshire and her sister ship HMS Cornwall were sunk by Japanese dive bombers in the Indian Ocean. Agar survived but was wounded in the leg, swallowed oil and suffered from the bends, which damaged his lungs. He recovered from the leg wound but was unfit for further sea service. He was President and Captain of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich with the rank of Commodore from 1943-46. He then retired and became a farmer, dying in 1969.

His medals are in the Imperial War Museum in London and CMB4 is in the IWM’s Duxford branch.

Dobson reached the rank of Rear Admiral retiring in 1935 and dying in 1940. His VC is held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Steele was Captain Superintendent of HMS Worcester, a training college for Royal and Merchant Navy Officers from 1929 to 1957, apart from World War II, when he returned to the RN. He was featured in the TV programme This is Your Life in 1958, when he once again met Bodley, who had retired as Commodore of the P&O Line the year before. Steele’s VC belongs to Trinity House. He died in 1981.

MacBean retired from the RN as a Captain after the Second World War and died in 1963.

 

 

[1] K. Jeffery, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949, pp. 175-76.

[2] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, p. 100.

[3] H. C. G. Matthew et al, “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, Oxford University Press <<http://www.oxforddnb.com/subscribed>&gt;. Accessed 17 June 2019.

[4] Jeffery, MI6, p. 176.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 100.

[7] Ibid., p. 303.

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The Loss of HMS Vanguard 9 July 2017

At about 23:20 on 9 July 1917 the dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard blew up and sank at Scapa Flow. A flame was observed, followed by an explosion, more flames and smoke and a second explosion. The smoke completely obscured the ship, which had sunk by the time it cleared.

Only three of the 845 men on board were picked up. One of those, Lieutenant Commander Alan Duke, died in hospital two days later. The dead included Commander Ito, a Japanese observer with the Grand Fleet, and two defaulters from HMAS Sydney, who were being held in Vanguard’s cells. Some of Vanguard’s crew survived because they were attending

Previous posts in this series have dealt with the losses by accidental explosions of the old battleship HMS Bulwark on 26 November 1914 and the armoured cruiser HMS Natal on 30 December 1915. HMS Princess Irene, a minelayer converted from a liner, was also lost to an accidental explosion on 27 May 1915.

Several warships of other countries were also lost to internal explosions whilst in harbour during the First World War: the Italian pre-dreadnought battleship Benedetto Brin on 27 September 1915 and dreadnought Leonardo da Vinci on 2 August 1916; the Japanese battle cruiser Tsukuba on 14 January 1917 and dreadnought Kawachi on 12 July 1918; and the Russian dreadnought Imperatritza Maria on 20 October 1916. The two Italian ships were probably sabotaged by the Austrians, the Japanese and Russian ones lost to accidental explosions.[1] The old Chilean battleship Capitan Prat was damaged but not lost by an internal explosion.

A dockyard worker called John Harston had been working on Vanguard shortly before her loss. William Schleihauf says that he had also been on board Natal before she exploded, whilst a thread on the Great War Forum says that he had also worked on Bulwark and Princess Irene. The Court of Inquiry into Vanguard’s loss took evidence from Harston and his assistant Robert Williams, concluding that there was no reason to suspect them. Harston continued to work for the Admiralty, eventually retiring with a full pension.

Schleihauf points out that Vanguard, although less than 10 years old was obsolescent because of the rapid advance in naval technology. She had 12 inch guns, whilst the latest British dreadnoughts had 15 inch guns and were larger and faster. The other British ships lost to explosions in port were obsolete. Saboteurs could have found more valuable targets that were no better guarded.

The Court of Inquiry concluded that Vanguard was lost because of a magazine explosion resulting from the ignition of cordite which could have been caused by a number of reasons: an avoidable cause; abnormal deterioration in a charge because it had been abnormally treated; sabotage by the enemy; or the cordite becoming unstable. It made 13 recommendations for improvements in handling processes and storage.

Admiral Sir David Beatty, C.-in-C. of the Grand Fleet, concluded that the loss Vanguard was ‘probably due to defective cordite.’[2] The men killed when she exploded are listed on naval-history.net.

Vanguard is now an official war grave. Her White Ensign is regularly changed by RN divers. Ceremonies were held to mark the 100th anniversary of her sinking at St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, over her wreck in Scapa Flow and at the nearby Lyness Naval Cemetery, where the 41 men whose bodies were recovered are buried.

In addition to the footnoted sources, this post is based on the following websites, all accessed on 11 July 2017:

BBC News, ‘Orkney service marks HMS Vanguard sinking centenary’

 

The World War I Document Archive, ‘Explosions in Warships During the War’

 

The Great War Forum, ‘Sabotage what a coincidence’

 

William Schleihauf, ‘Disaster in Harbour: The Loss of HMS Vanguard’

 

[1] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 229, 233, 256, 259, 303.

[2] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. iv, p. 42.

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The First VC Awarded to a Submariner

The first submariner to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, captain of HMS B11. He received Britain’s highest award for gallantry after his boat sank the elderly Ottoman pre-dreadnought battleship Messudieh (alternatively Mesudiye) on 13 December 1914.

The British Admiralty, keen to move as many ships as possible to the Grand Fleet, had proposed that the blockade of the Dardanelles be left to the French. However, the threat from the German battlecruiser Goeben, now flying the Ottoman flag, meant that the French insisted that the British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable should remain.

Consequently, the blockading force consisted of Indefatigable, the light cruiser HMS Dublin and the French pre-dreadnought battleships Gaulois, Vérité, St Louis and Charlemagne, the armoured cruiser Amiral Charner and seaplane carrier Foudre. Each navy also contributed six destroyers and three submarines.[1]

The British submarines were B9, B10 and B11 of the B class. Although only eight years old, the rapid pace of development of submarines meant that they were obsolescent by 1914. They were designed for coastal patrol work with a range of 1000 nautical miles at 8.75 knots surfaced, a maximum speed of 12 knots surfaced and 6 knots submerged, an armament of two 18 inch torpedo tubes and a crew of 15. The petrol engine used on the surface made conditions for the crew even worse than in later diesel powered boats.

They had hydroplanes on each side of their conning towers to improve underwater handling, an innovation that was not repeated until US nuclear submarines were similarly fitted for the same reason 50 years later.[2]

The Ottoman navy was active against the Russian one in the Black Sea, but sat on the defensive at the Dardanelles. The Messudieh was positioned as a stationary guard ship.

The Allies conducted an active submarine campaign in the Dardanelles from December 1914, two months before the Gallipoli campaign began with a naval attack and four months before the first troops were landed. There was, however, a bombardment of the forts at the mouth of the Dardanelles by British and French warships on 3 November 1914, five days after the Ottoman fleet attacked Russian bases in the Black Sea, but two days before Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire.

Entering the Dardanelles was difficult for submarines even without the Ottoman minefields because of the current and differences in the layers of the water that made it hard to manoeuvre underwater. The British submarines were more manoeuvrable, and thus more successful, than the French ones.[3]

On 13 December 1914 B11 was chosen to be first Allied submarine to enter the Straits. They were protected by five lines of mines, but her diving planes were fitted with special guards to prevent her becoming tangled up in the mines’ wires.

Holbrook dived his boat underneath the mines, succeeding in passing them despite the strong current. He then came up to periscope depth, spotted a large enemy warship, closed to 800 yards range, fired a torpedo and dived. After hearing an explosion, he brought his boat back to periscope depth and saw that the enemy ship was settling by the stern.

The return journey was made more difficult by the fact that the lenses of B11’s compass had steamed up, making it unusable. Holbrook was not even certain where he was and had to estimate the time that it would take to clear the minefields on the way home. B11 bumped along the bottom several times. Eventually, he felt it safe to return to periscope depth. He could then see the horizon and steer for it. However, the compass was still unusable. B11 returned to base after being submerged for 9 hours to learn that she had sunk the Messudieh.

Holbrook’s VC was gazetted on 22 December, making it the first ever awarded to a submariner and the first of the war to a sailor to be announced. Commander Henry Ritchie’s VC was given for an act of gallantry on 28 November, but gazetted later than Holbrook’s. Every member of B11’s crew was decorated: Lieutenant Sydney Winn, the second on command, received the Distinguished Service Order and the other members of the crew either the Distinguished Service Cross or the Distinguished Service Medal. The DSC was awarded to officers and warrant officers, the DSM to petty officers and ratings.[4]

The citation for Holbrook’s VC, taken from this website, stated that:

For most conspicuous bravery on the 13th December 1914, when in command of the Submarine B-11, he entered the Dardanelles, and, notwithstanding the very difficult current, dived his vessel under five rows of mines and torpedoed the Turkish battleship “Messudiyeh” which was guarding the minefield.

Lieutenant Holbrook succeeded in bringing the B-11 safely back, although assailed by gun-fire and torpedo boats, having been submerged on one occasion for nine hours.

Note that English spelling of Turkish names differ.

The Ottomans blamed the loss of the Mesudiye on the Germans, who they said had insisted on putting her in an exposed position despite their opinions. She sank in shallow waters, making it possible to cut holes in her in order to extract trapped men. 37 men were killed out of a crew of 673. Many of her guns were salvaged and used in shore defences of the Dardanelles.[5]

In August 1915 the town of Germanton changed its name to Holbrook. Norman Holbrook visited Holbrook several times and his widow donated his medals to it a few years after his death. His VC is now on display at the Australian War Memorial, with a replica on show in Holbrook near a model of B11.

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. ii, pp. 70-72.

[2] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 87. This source has been favoured where its information differs from the Wikipedia entry linked in the text.

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 119.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 72-73.

[5] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 73, note 1.

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