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Gordon Campbell and the Crew that Won 5 VCs

The 11 medals, including the Victoria Cross, awarded to Vice Admiral Gordon Campbell were recently sold at auction for £840,000, a record for a set of British medals. Most VCs sold in recent years have been bought by Lord Ashcroft, part of whose collection is on display at the Imperial War Museum. Campbell’s medals, however, were bought by his great nephew Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza. He intends to display them in a British museum. The seller, the Fellowship of St John (UK) Trust Association, intends to use the proceeds to support a number of charitable projects.

Campbell was born in Croydon, Surrey on 6 January 1886, although his family were originally from Airds, Argyll. He was educated at Dulwich College. At the outbreak of the First World War he was a Lieutenant-Commander captaining HMS Bittern, an elderly destroyer. In September 1915, bored with escort duties, he volunteered for ‘special service’ and found himself captain of an elderly collier called Loderer that was fitted as a Q-ship, one of a number of apparently innocuous merchant ship that were manned by the RN and given heavy but concealed armaments. She was renamed HMS Farnborough before going into action.

Farnborough was initially armed with a Maxim machine gun in a fake hen coop abaft the funnel, a 12 pounder gun in a fake engine housing aft and two 12 pounder amidships, one on each side, hidden behind gunwales. The gunwales and the walls of the fake hen coop and engine housing were hinged so that they could easily fall and the staff that would fly a neutral flag would fall with the fake engine housing to avoid any risk that Farnborough might open fire whilst flying neutral colours. Campbell managed to obtain two more 12 pounders, which were housed in fake extensions to cabins just forward of the funnel, and two 6 pounders, which were placed on the wings of the bridge, behind easily removable screens.

The early drafts of men for Q-ships had mostly comprised hard men with poor disciplinary records, either because such men were thought to be suited to this type of work or because they were the most expendable. In fact it required very disciplined men. Eventually highly disciplined and efficient men were recruited and trained.

Farnborough would have carried a crew of about six officers and 24 men but as a warship needed 11 officers and 56 men in order to work her armament. It would have been very suspicious if they had appeared on deck on their way to their action stations, so Campbell arranged a series of trap doors and hidden alley ways to allow them to get to their gun and lookout positions without being seen.[1]

Although most of a Q-ship’s crew would remain concealed when a U-boat was sighted, a small number would appear on deck and pretend to panic, making deliberately clumsy attempts to abandon ship. The last man off HMS Farnborough would carry a large cage containing a stuffed parrot.[2]

Farnborough was commissioned on 21 October 1915, but did not encounter any U-boats until 22 March 1916 She was off the coast of Kerry when U68 (Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Güntzel) fired a torpedo at her. Farnborough ignored the torpedo, so U68 surfaced and fired a shot across her bows. The British ship’s crew appeared to be abandoning ship, so U68 closed to 800 yards and attempted to sink her by gunfire.

Farnborough, however, raised the White Ensign, revealed her guns and opened fire. Her crew believed that they scored hits before U68 dived. Campbell took his ship over the spot at which the U-boat had dived and dropped a depth charge. U68 shot out of the water, her bow clearly damaged. Five more shots were fired into the base of her conning tower before she dived again. Farnborough dropped two more depth charges. A lot of oil and some wood fragments came to the surface. Nothing more was seen of U68 or her crew. Campbell was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, two other officers the Distinguished Service Cross and three men the Distinguished Service Medal.[3]

Farnborough’s next action came on 17 February 1917. At 9:45 am on she was flying a Norwegian flag when  U83 (Kapitänleutnant Bruno Hoppe) fired a torpedo at her. Her guns and most of her crew remained concealed whilst the panic party attempted to abandon ship.

U83 at first watched through her periscope, coming within 10 yard of Farnborough. She then surfaced about 300 yard from the Q-ship. Campbell held his fire until all his ship’s guns were bearing. Her first shot hit the conning tower and allegedly decapitated Hoppe. Farnborough fired 45 shells at U83 from point blank range.[4]

Only eight of the submariners managed to get into the oily water as their boat sank, and Farnborough’s boat could find only two of them, one of whom died after being rescued.[5]

Farnborough was badly damaged and sinking. Campbell signalled:

From Q5. To Vice-Admiral Queenstown, via Valencia. 12.00 hours, Feb 17th, Q5 slowly sinking respectfully wishes you goodbye 1110.[6]

However, the destroyer HMS Narwhal arrived before noon and took Farnborough’s crew off her. The sloops HMS Buttercup and Laburnum took her under tow. She listed badly at 3:30 am on 18 February, but managed to reach Mill Cove in County Cork, where she was beached at 9:20 pm.

Campbell, by now promoted Commander, was awarded the VC, two other officers the DSO, three the DSC, seven petty officers or ratings the DSM and another a bar to a DSM previously awarded. The other 25 members of the crew were Mentioned in Dispatches.[7]

Following the loss of HMS Farnborough, Campbell was given command of another Q-ship. She was a 3,000 ton 10 year old tramp steamer, originally called Vittoria and at first named HMS Snail. This was then changed to HMS Pargust. She was armed with a 4 inch gun aft under a dummy boat; four 12 pounders, two 14 inch torpedo tubes and an 11 inch bomb thrower. All were concealed but could be quickly brought into action, Most of Farnborough’s crew volunteered to follow Campbell to Pargust. Campbell was unable to discover what the name of his new ship meant or any previous ship of any country that had been called Pargust. Neither have I, even though unlike him I have Google.

On 8:00 am on 7 June 1917 Pargust was about 90 miles off the coast of southern Ireland when a torpedo struck her, killing Petty Officer Isaac Radford and badly injuring Engineer Sub-Lieutenant John Smith RNR. The explosion dislodged the pins that held in place the screen concealing one of the 12 pounders. Able Seaman William Williams, DSM, RNR [Royal Naval Reserve, then a reserve of professional seamen from the Merchant and fishing fleets], a 26 year old Welshman, took the weight of the screen on himself in order to keep the gun hidden, Campbell could not see any sign of the U-boat, but ordered the panic party to abandon ship. Eventually, he spotted a periscope 400 yards away.

The submarine, UC29 (Oberleutnant Ernest Rosenow), approached Pargust. U-boat captains had now learnt to be wary of apparently innocuous merchantmen, so Rosenow spent half an hour examining Pargust and her lifeboat before surfacing 50 yards away from Pargust. At first nobody came onto the U-boat’s bridge or deck, but an officer eventually appeared, shouting at the  men in the lifeboat to hand over the ship’s papers. Lieutenant F. R. Hereford, DSC, RNR, the man with the parrot and apparently the merchantman’s captain, pretended not to answer. A man with a rifle then appeared on the bridge.

Pargust now had a good angle of fire on UC29, whilst the lifeboat was out of Pargust’s arc of fire but at risk from the rifleman. At 8:36 am Campbell ordered gunners to open fire. A number of hits were scored, slowing UC29. She was listing to port and leaking oil and men appeared on her deck and conning tower with their arms raised. The U-boat, however, gained speed, washing the men on her casing overboard. Campbell ordered his guns to recommence firing. Only one 12 pounder could now bear, but UC29 exploded and sank about 300 yards away. Only two survivors were found. Pargust had fired 38 shells, plus a torpedo that missed, in four minutes. She was immobile but afloat. She was towed to Queenstown (now Cobh) by HMS Crocus, escorted by HMS Zinnia and the USS Cushing.

It was decided that one officer and one other rank from Pargust’s crew should receive the VC as recognition of the entire crew’s gallantry. The warrant establishing the VC allows for a secret ballot to be held amongst the survivors of a unit of ship’s crew to choose one or more of their number when it is impossible for the higher command to single out any individuals. The officers wanted Campbell to be the officer recipient, but he refused on the grounds that he already had a VC, which he regarded as having been awarded to the entire crew.

The ballot chose Lieutenant Ronald Stuart, RNR, a 30 year old from Liverpool, and William Williams as two men to be awarded the VC. Coincidentally, Seaman William Charles Williams had been awarded a posthumous VC at Gallipoli in 1915. He and Commander Edward Unwin used the weight of their own bodies to secure lighters that were intended to provide a bridge for troops to land from the steamer River Clyde. Campbell, now a Captain, did receive a bar to his DSO.[8]

Pargust was too badly damaged to be repaired, so Campbell was given command of another Q-ship, HMS Dunraven, a 3,117 ton collier. Her modifications incorporated various lessons learnt from previous Q-ships, including armouring the bridge and fitting a perforated pipe that would give off enough steam to make it appear that the ship had been hit in the boiler or engine room. Many British merchantmen heading for the Mediterranean carried railway trucks on their deck. Dunraven had four fake ones made of canvas, which could be collapsed in order to change her appearance.

Most of Pargust’s crew volunteered to transfer to Dunraven, but Stuart had been appointed to command the Q-ship HMS Tamarisk. He was replaced as First Lieutenant by Lieutenant Charles Bonner, RNR, Second Office of Pargust. Smith tried to join Dunraven, but Campbell insisted that he had not recovered fully from his wounds.

U-boats were now wary of solitary merchantmen that might turn out to be Q-ships. On 5 August HMS Chagford (Lieutenant Douglas Jeffrey, RNR) was torpedoed by a U-boat. Jeffrey launched the panic party and the U-boat surfaced 800 yards away. The first explosion, however, knocked down the screens hiding Chagford’s guns, so Jeffrey had to open fir at once. The U-boat dived and fired two  more torpedoes into Chagford. The Q-ship was badly damaged and sank the next day, although most of her crew were saved.

Three days after Chagford was attacked Dunraven was about 100 miles west of Ushant. Campbell had decided that his ship would act as if she was one of a number of British merchantman that by then were armed instead of as a helpless victim.

On 10:58 am Dunraven spotted UC71 (Oberleutnant Reinhold Satzwedel) but proceeded on her way as if she had not seen the submarine, which dived. Satzwedel was a leading U-boat captain who sank 111 Allied ships of a total tonange of 172,824 tons before being killed on 2 December 1917 when his new command, UB81, hit a mine. He was awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Pour Le Mérite, nicknamed the Blue Max.

Half an hour later UC71 surfaced and opened fire. Dunraven opened fire with her single unconcealed gun, but its crew, including William Williams, deliberately fired short and acted clumsily in order to tempt UC71 closer.

Campbell and his crew gave the impression that they were panicking by making lots of smoke and sending uncoded distress signals. UC71 ceased fire, closed to 1,000 yards and reopened fire. Campbell used Dunraven’s perforated pipe to make it appear that she had been hit in the boiler or engine room and ordered the panic party to abandon ship.

A massive explosion made Campbell think that Dunraven’s magazines had been hit, so he sent a genuine distress call. A nearby battleship sent one of her escorting destroyers to help, but Campbell signalled her to stay away once he learnt that it was a depth charge that had exploded and that Dunraven’s secret was still safe.

Dunraven was, however, badly damaged. A fire on the poop deck was close to setting off the 4 inch gun’s magazine. The heat of the deck meant that the gun crew had to sit with boxes of shells and cordite on their knees, as they might otherwise explode. Campbell did not want to open fire until UC71 was in the arc of his three hidden 12 pounders. At 12:58, however, an explosion sent the gun into the air. Remarkably all the crew survived. One ended up in the water and the fall of the others was broken by the canvas fake railway trucks.

Dunraven was now revealed to be a warship and UC71 dived. At 1:20 pm she torpedoed Dunraven, which was now sinking and on fire. UC71 observed the Q-ship through her periscope for nearly an hour. Unknown to Campbell she had no torpedoes left. At 2:30 UC71 surfaced and opened fire. She was astern of Dunraven, which no longer had any guns able to bear on her. One shell hit the bridge and would have killed the four men on it had it not been armoured.

At 2:55 UC71 dived to periscope depth. Dunraven fired both her torpedoes, but one missed and the other failed to explode. The armed yacht USS Noma then appeared and fired at UC71’s periscope. The U-boat dived deeper at 4:00 and the action was over.

The destroyers HMS Attack and Christopher then arrived. The wounded were treated and Dunraven taken under tow. She sank at 3:17 am but all the crew had been taken off. However, on 19 September Seaman Alex Morrison died of wounds received in this action.

Again two VCs were awarded. The one for an officer went to Bonnar, whilst the lower deck one was awarded to Petty Officer Ernest Pitcher, DSM of the 4 inch gun crew by ballot. The other members of the 4 inch gun crew received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Campbell was awarded a second bar to his DSO and his crew received a DSO, three bars to DSCs, three DSCs, seven CGMs, 3 bars to DSMs, including one to William Williams, 21 DSMs and 14 Mentions in Dispatches. As well as the VC Pitcher received two French medals, the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire, to add to the DSM he was awarded after Pargust sank UC29.[9]

On 14 August the Q-ship HMS Prize was sunk with all hands by UB48: a previous post in this series told the story of how her captain William Sanders earned the VC. Q-ships did not destroy any more U-boats. A significant number of British merchantmen were now armed. U-boats would often surface to engage them but would take up a position that favoured the submarine. Dunraven’s action with UC71 showed that a Q-ship then had the choice of taking heavy damage before fighting back or revealing her guns early, in which case the U-boat would dive and escape.[10]

Campbell, who also received two French decorations, the Croix de Guerre and another French award, the Legion d’Honneur captained  the cruisers HMS Active and Patrol later in the war. His final seagoing appointment was as captain of the battlecruiser HMS Tiger in 1925-27. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1928 but immediately retired. He was briefly an MP and returned to the RN in WWII. He died in 1953.

Pitcher retired from the RN in 1927 with the rank of Chief Petty Officer. He was then a woodwork teacher and a publican. He returned to the RN in WWII and died in 1946. Bonner became a marine salvage expert after the war and died in 1951. Williams was a founder member of his local branch of the British Legion and died in 1965. Stuart, who received the DSO, Croix de Guerre and US Navy Cross as well as the VC, returned to the Merchant Navy after the war. His final sea going command was the 42,000 ton transatlantic liner RMS Empress of Britain. In WWII she became the largest ship to be sunk by a U-boat, but he had by then moved to shore duties.

One of Stuart’s sons was awarded the DSC and the other a Mention in Dispatches in the WWII Battle of the Atlantic. Campbell’s nephew, Brigadier Lorne Campbell received the VC, DSO and Bar, OBE, four Mentions in Dispatched and the US Legion of Merit in WWII.

Because of the secrecy behind Q-ships the medals awarded to their crews were announced without any details of why they were awarded. The names of the men decorated can be found on Naval-History.net. They were announced in the London Gazette issue 29603 of 30 May 1916 for Farnborough’s first action, 30029 of 20 April 1917 for her second, 30194 of 20 July 1917 for Pargust and 30363 of 30 October 1917 for Dunraven. The VCs citations were finally published in full in issue 31021 of 19 November 1917.

 

 

[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. 12-15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 18-19.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916, pp. 101-2.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1933 vol. xviii, Home Waters part viii, December 1916 to April 1917, pp. 204-5.

[5] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 73-74.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., p. 74.

[7] Naval Staff vol. xviii, p. 205.

[8] This account of Pargust’s story is based on Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 90-96 and websites linked in the text; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 181.

[9] This account of Dunraven’s story is based on Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 105-15;  J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938) vol. v, pp. 107-9 and websites linked in the text.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval vol. v, 109-111.

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