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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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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.

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The Second Battle of Heligoland Bight 16-17 November 1917

During the First World War, the British laid large numbers of mines in the Helgoland Bight in an attempt to prevent U-boats travelling to the Atlantic via the North Sea. The Germans sent  minesweepers up to 100 miles from Heligoland almost every day in an attempt to clear them. They were normally escorted by light cruisers and torpedo boats, with battleships sometimes covering them. By mid November 1917 the British Admiralty had enough intelligence on German operations to plan an attack on the minesweepers and their escorts.[1]

The British striking force that sailed from Rosyth on the Firth of Forth at 4:30 pm on 16 November comprised: 1st Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral Trevelyan Napier) of two light battle cruisers and four destroyers; 6th Light Cruiser Squadron (Rear Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair) of four C class light cruisers and four destroyers; 1st Light Cruiser Squadron (Commodore Walter Cowan) of one C and 3 Arethusa class light cruisers and two destroyers; and 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron (Vice Admiral William Pakenham (five battlecruisers, a light cruiser and eight destroyers.

Pakenham was in overall command of the operation, but Napier commanded the two light cruiser squadrons as well as his own cruiser squadron.

The 1st Battle Squadron of six battleships and 11 Destroyers was in a supporting position several hours steaming away.

The Germans had the VI Minesweeping Group, II and VI Support Groups and IV Barrier Breaker Group, totalling 16 auxiliaries and a similar number of trawlers, escorted by eight destroyers of the 7th Torpedo Boat Flotilla and the four light cruisers of the II Scouting Group (Konteradmiral Ludwig von Reuter). Two German battleships were in support near Heligoland.[2]

The light battlecruisers, HMS Courageous and Glorious, were fast (32 knot), lightly armoured ships armed with four 15 inch, 18 4 inch and two 3 inch guns plus two 21 inch torpedo tubes. They had very shallow drafts and had been intended to take part in operations in the Baltic, which were cancelled when Admiral Lord Fisher ceased to be First Sea Lord. Fisher called them large light cruisers in order to evade a government order forbidding the construction of more capital ships.[3]

The British spotted German ships at 7:30 am on 17 November, opening fire seven minutes later. The Germans destroyers and light cruisers turned towards the British and covered the minesweepers with a smokescreen. All withdrew except the armed trawler Kehdingen, which had been hit and immobilised. The other German ships were in the smoke before the British could ascertain their strength.[4]

The German ships became visible briefly and were fired on but the situation remained unclear until 8:07, when Napier’s flagship Courageous cleared the smoke, allowing him to see three German light cruisers to the south east, steering east north east. Four minutes later they changed course to the south east.[5]

The German auxiliaries were now to the north east and were not being pursued. Reuter could therefore draw the British through the minefields towards the German battleships.  The British could fire only their forward guns at his light cruisers but a single hit by a 15 inch shell on one of them could slow her by a few knots, meaning that he would have to abandon her, as Admiral Franz von Hipper had had to do with SMS Blücher at the First Battle of Heligoland Bight in 1915.[6]

Courageous and Glorious opened fire at 8:10, but it was another 10 minutes until all the British ships were in range of the Germans. They then laid another smokescreen and 15 minutes later disappeared into dense smoke. Napier was now at the edge of the British minefields and turned to port, considering that the situation was too uncertain to risk continuing. The light cruisers followed just after 8:40. The 6th Light Cruiser Squadron made the smallest turn and HMS Cardiff was hit and damaged at 8:50. The smokescreen was now clearing, revealing that the Germans had not changed course. [7]

Napier’s squadron had lost five miles and was now at extreme range, although the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron and HMS Caledon of the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron were closer.[8]

The British opened fire again at 8:52. Napier decided to follow the Germans for 12 more miles, which would take his force to the edge of an area that the Admiralty had in 1915 labelled as being dangerous because of mines. His force had now been reinforced by the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, which had been ordered by Pakenham not to enter the minefields.[9]

At 8:58 Pakenham  ordered the British to withdraw. He had received a signal from Napier at 8:52 that implied that contact with the Germans had been lost permanently but actually meant that they had temporarily disappeared behind a smokescreen. All British ships were in action by the time that Pakenham’s withdrawal order was received, and it was disregarded.[10]

Firing was intermittent, but the British believed that they had damaged at least one German cruiser. The Germans launched an unsuccessful torpedo attack around 9:30. At 9:32 Napier took Courageous and Glorious out of the action because they had reached his danger line, but the light cruisers, whose commanders  did not have the chart Napier had based his decision on, continued. At 9:40 HMS Calypso was damaged, but the British appeared to have the advantage until 9:50, when shells from two German battleships started to land amongst them. The light cruisers withdrew, covered by Repulse. The Germans did not pursue them and a thick fog descended at 10:40.[11]

The British thought that some of the eight or 10 torpedoes fired at them came from a U-boat but none were present.[12]

The Germans repeatedly straddled the British ships but scored only seven hits, all on the light cruisers. The British managed only  five hits, with SMS Königsberg being the only German ship seriously damaged.  A shell from Repulse penetrated her three funnels and exploded over one of the boiler rooms. Her repairs were completed on 15 December.[13]

Naval-History.net lists 22 British sailors killed at the Second Bight of Heligoland Bight, all of them on light cruisers. None of the sources consulted give German casualties.  One of the British dead, Ordinary Seaman John Carless of HMS Caledon, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Carless, who had joined the Royal Navy in September 1915 after being rejected by the army four times because of a weak heart, remained at his post and continued to load his gun despite being severely wounded.  The citation for his VC, quoted on Wikipedia, stated that:

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. Although mortally wounded in the abdomen, he still went on serving the gun at which he was acting as rammer, lifting a projectile and helping to clear away the other casualties. He collapsed once, but got up, tried again, and cheered on the new gun’s crew. He then fell and died. He not only set a very inspiring and memorable example, but he also, whilst mortally wounded, continued to do effective work against the King’s enemies.

— The London Gazette, No. 30687, 17 May 1918

The British failure to pursue more effectively was partly due to the light cruiser admirals not having all the information about minefields available to the Admiralty and to Napier. Additionally, Napier pursued at 25 knots when Courageous and Glorious were capable of at least 30 knots and were superior to the German light cruisers that they were chasing.[14]

The only vessel sunk in the battle was the German Kehdingen but losing only one trawler when so heavily outnumbered was a success for the Germans in an action where the British might have sunk a large number of minesweepers, destroyers and cruisers.

 

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, pp. 165-66.

[2] M. Faulkner, A. D. Lambert, The Great War at Sea: A Naval Atlas 1914-1919 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2015), pp. 138-39; 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, pp. 300-1,

[3] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 39-40.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 169-70.

[5] Ibid., pp. 170-71.

[6] Ibid., p. 171.

[7] Ibid., p. 172.

[8] Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 302.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 172-73.

[10] Ibid., p. 173.

[11] Ibid., pp. 175-76.

[12] Marder, From. vol iv, p. 305.

[13] Ibid., p. 304.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 177; Marder, From. vol. iv, p. 305

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The Ostend Raid 9-10 May 1918

The British raid on Zeebrugge and Ostend on 23 April 1918 was intended to block the entrances to the canals linking the German destroyer and U-boat base at Bruges to the sea. The failure at Ostend led Vice Admiral Roger Keyes, commander of the Dover Patrol, to plan another attack on Ostend. He planned to use the old cruiser HMS Vindictive, which had carried assault marines and sailors to Zeebrugge, as a blockship. She was captained by Commander Alfred E. Godal, who had captained the blockship HMS Brilliant during the previous attempt to block Ostend. She was ready to go on 27 April, but the weather was too bad to proceed.[1]

The night was dark enough in the first fortnight of May from 9:30 pm to 3:00 am. The attacking force would take two and a half hours to sail from Dunkirk to Ostend and would have to withdraw by 2:00 am in order to be clear of shore batteries by daybreak. It was decided, with advice from captains of Dover to Ostend steam packets, that the tides would be ideal on 10-13 May and almost so on 9 May. 14 May was a possible date but more doubtful. The delay allowed another old cruiser, HMS Sappho, to also be used as a blockship.[2]

The two blockships were accompanied by 18 motor launches and 10 coastal motor boats (CMBs, an early form of MTB/PT Boat). Fire support would come from seven monitors escorted by eight destroyers, five of them French, two motor launches and two French motor boats. The Allies did not know if the German destroyers of the Flanders Flotilla, which had returned to Germany in mid February, had returned to Zeebrugge, so another 12 British destroyers were deployed in three groups of 4 to cover against a German attack on the raiding force. Keyes commanded the northern group from HMS Warwick but Commodore Hubert Lynes commanded the expedition, known as Operation V.S., from HMS Faulknor.[3]

On the afternoon of 9 May Keyes and Lynes were lunch guests of the King of the Belgians at La Panne [De Panne in Flemish] in the unoccupied part of Belgium. Keyes noticed a change in the wind so left early, giving the king a hint why. He and Lynes hurried to Dunkirk to start Operation V.S.. Aerial reconnaissance revealed that the Germans had removed all the buoys in the approaches to Ostend. The British had allowed for this and HMS Faulknor carried an illuminated buoy to be positioned at the point where the attacking ships had to turn. To obtain surprise, the main bombardment from shore based guns, naval monitors and Handley-Page bombers would not start until the last moment.[4]

Vindictive and Sappho arrived at Dunkirk at 10:45 pm. The expedition sailed 45 minutes later but a boiler problem forced Sappho to drop out just before midnight. Lynes decided to go ahead with only Vindictive since she had been the only blockship available when V.S. was first planned.[5]

Faulknor dropped her buoy at 01:25 am on 10 May, with Vindictive passing it 12 minutes later. The British ships were covered by a smoke screen, and the only sign of enemy action until then was a single searchlight. At 01:43 am the British bombardment began. Five minutes later a mist descended, reducing visibility to a few yards and dividing the attacking force into a number of small, uncoordinated units. Vindictive was then about 12 minutes from her target. The destroyers outside the harbour and mist started firing star shells in order to illuminate the canal mouth.[6]

CMB 24 (Lieutenant A. Dayrell-Reed) and CMB 30 (Lieutenant A. L. Poland) fired torpedoes at the eastern pier head, damaging it. However, it is doubtful whether these brave attacks succeeded in reducing the German fire.[7]

Vindictive was finding it difficult to find the harbour mouth because of the mist. Godsal turned his ship in the hope of finding it. CMB 26 (Lieutenant C. F. B. Bowlby) did manage to identify the eastern pier head and fire a torpedo at it, but it hit the bottom and exploded so close to CMB 26 that she was badly damaged. Godsal was forced to order CMB 23 (Lieutenant the Hon. C. E. R. Spencer) to light a powerful flare in order to illuminate the harbour mouth. This showed Godsal the target but also showed his ship to the Germans. CMB 25 (Lieutenant R. H. MacBean) fired two torpedoes at the pier heads, which hit them but did not stop the fire that was raining down on Vindictive.[8]

Vindictive had to steer a course towards the western bank and then manoeuvre across the channel with the help of the east flowing tide in order to block the channel. As she began this manoeuvre, Godsal stepped out of the conning tower for a better view. A shell then hit it, killing him and knocking the navigator, Lieutenant Sir John Alleyne, unconscious. Vindictive remained on her existing course and had run aground by the time that Lieutenant Victor Crutchley was able to take command. He tried unsuccessfully to move Vindictive before ordering her crew to abandon ship and setting the sinking charges. She was lying at an oblique angle and did not block the channel.[9]

The survivors of Vindictive were picked up by motor launches 254 (Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Drummond), which took off two officers and 38 men and 276 (Lieutenant Rowland Bourke), which rescued Alleyne and two ratings from the water. Both launches were badly damaged, and Crutchley had to take command of 254 after Drummond was wounded and Lieutenant Gordon Ross killed.

Three men were found alive on board Vindictive by the Germans, despite Crutchley searching her before leaving.[10] Odsal, another officer and a petty officer were amongst the 16 British sailors killed in Operation V.S.: all are listed on Naval-History.net.

Shortly after Crutchley informed Keyes onboard HMS Warwick that the mission had failed she struck a mine. The enemy destroyers were absent and the mist was now protecting the British from German shore batteries. She was towed back to port.[11]

Keyes wanted to make a third attempt, which was in initially approved. By the end of May, however, the situation had changed with the result that the potential benefits would not justify the risks involved.[12]

The Dover Straits Barrage meant that U-boats could no longer travel through the English Channel to the Atlantic, reducing the effectiveness of boats based in Flanders. The Flanders torpedo boats and destroyers were by this stage of the war restricted to a defensive role.[13]

On 14-15 February 1918 German destroyers had sailed directly from the Helgoland Bight attack to successfully attack the Dover Barrage. This operation showed that destroyers did not need to be based in Flanders to threaten the Dover Barrage, but it was never repeated.

Crutchley, Drummond and Bourke were all awarded the Victoria Cross and a large number of other men were also decorated. See Naval-History.net for the VC citations and a list of the other men awarded medals.

[1] B. Pitt, Zeebrugge: Eleven VCs before Breakfast (London: Cassell Military, 2003), pp. 177-80.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, p. 266-67.

[3] Ibid. pp. 267-69, footnote 1 on pp. 268-69.

[4] Pitt, Zeebrugge, pp. 180-84.

[5] Ibid., pp. 184-85.

[6] Ibid., pp. 185-87.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, vol. v, p. 270.

[8] Ibid., p. 271.

[9] Ibid., pp. 271-72.

[10] Ibid. footnote 2, p. 272.

[11] Ibid., p. 273.

[12] Pitt, Zeebrugge, pp. 203-4.

[13] M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2003), pp. 207-8.

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The Zeebrugge Raid 23 April 1918

On 23 April 1918 the British raided Zeebrugge and Ostend with the intention of blocking the entrances to the canals linking the German destroyer and U-boat base at Bruges to the sea. These bases had been bombarded a number of times since August 1915.[1]

Approaches from Ostend and Zeebrugge to Bruges Docks. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeebrugge_Raid

Vice Admiral Roger Keyes succeeded Vice Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon in command at Dover on 1 January 1918. Keyes had in his previous job as the Admiralty’s Director of Plans prepared a plan to block Ostend and Zeebrugge. Bacon had made several changes to the plan. Keyes dropped Bacon’s intention of destroying the lock gates as well as blocking the locks, as he thought that this was impracticable. He retained his predecessor’s idea of landing on the mole at Zeebrugge in order to capture guns that threatened the approach of the blockships and to provide a diversion. This meant that a battalion of marines was needed as well as sailors.[2]

The old armoured cruiser HMS Vindictive (Captain Alfred Carpenter) would carry the first wave of the Zeebrugge assault force. Her armament, apart from two 6 inch guns on each side of the upper deck was removed and replaced with weapons more useful in an opposed landing: an 11 inch and two 7.5 inch howitzers; two flamethrowers; five pom-poms; 16 Lewis machine guns; and 16 Stokes mortars. The rest of the troops would be carried by two Mersey ferries, Iris (Commander V. Gibbs) and Daffodil (Lieutenant H. G. Campbell), which had double hulls and double bottoms, making them hard to sink, and had a shallow draft, enabling them to steam over minefields. However, it also meant that their decks were low, so they needed 30 foot scaling ladders to reach the parapet of the mole. The three assault ships were all fitted with grappling hooks to secure themselves to the mole.

Five old unarmoured cruisers were chosen to be the blockships: HMS Thetis (Commander R. S. Sneyd), Intrepid (Lieutenant S. S. Bonham-Carter) and Iphigenia for Zeebrugge; and HMS Sirius and Brilliant for Ostend. They carried minimal crews but kept some guns in order to fire as they approached and were fitted with extra steering positions to prevent a single hit disabling them. They were filled with cement to make it harder to move them and fitted with explosive charges to blow out their bottoms and sink them in the locks, with firing positions both fore and aft. Two C-class submarines, C1 (Lieutenant A. C. Newbold) and C3 (Lieutenant R. D. Sandford), were to destroy the viaduct that connected the Zeebrugge mole to the shore by exploding charges stowed in their bows.[3]

The attack would be covered by a smoke screen. Existing phosphorus based ones made dense but also created flames that were a beacon at night. Keyes therefore got Wing Commander Frank Brock, a former Royal Naval Air Service officer now serving with the newly formed Royal Air Force, to devise a substitute. Brock, a member of the family that founded and then still owned Brock’s, a large fireworks company, used chlor-sulphonic acid to produce dense smoke without flames. It was also used in saxin, a synthetic substitute for sugar, and 82 tons were needed. There was only one British manufacturer, so tea drinkers who used sugar substitutes had to drink unsweetened tea in order to provide enough chlor-sulphonic acid.[4]

The German coastal defences were formidable. There were also anti-aircraft batteries, including two guns on the mole. The numbers below are British estimates, which according to Mark Karau underestimate the actual numbers. However, the British estimate of 38 U-boats and 28 torpedo boats at Bruges and 30 destroyers at Zeebrugge was too high.[5]

 

Size Ostend Zeebrugge Zeebrugge Mole
Star shell howitzer 1
3.5 inch (88 mm) 4 2
4.1 inch (104 mm) 5 4 3
5.9 inch (150 mm) 15 7
6.7 inch (170 mm) 4
8.2 inch (208 mm) 4
11 inch (280 mm) 12 8
15 inch (380 mm) 4

Source: Corbett, J. S., Newbolt, H., Naval Operations. 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938), vo. v, pp.246-47.

A 580 yard long railway viaduct, just wide enough to carry the railway, connected the shore to the Zeebrugge mole. The mole curved to the north east. It was 1,850 yards long and 80 yards wide and made of masonry. There was a 16 foot tall parapet on the western (seaward) side. A narrow masonry extension 260 yards long ended with a lighthouse. The mole batteries were on the extension, with an unimpeded arc of fire on any vessels approaching. the anti-aircraft guns were in a wired position 150 yards from the end of the mole, with a trench running across the mole. The gun crews and the mole’s 1,000 man garrison were housed in reinforced concrete sheds. There was a seaplane base at the south west end of the mole, which had its own garrison and concrete sheds.[6]

The British took advice from Belgian engineers, including two men who had recently escaped and had worked on a Zeebrugge dredger during the occupation, about the best places to position the block ships. The attack was to be preceded by aerial bombing and then an hour long bombardment of Ostend by seven monitors and Zeebrugge by two monitors. Similar attacks were made in the weeks before the operation to make this seem like a routine operations.[7]

A total of 165 vessels, 82 officers and 1,698 marines and seamen took part in the operation. As well as the assault and block ships, the monitors and numerous smaller craft, 29 destroyers would participate, with seven light cruisers, two flotilla leaders and 14 destroyers of the Harwich Force covering in case German ships tried to intervene from the north east. It was not an entirely British operation, as the French contributed seven torpedo boats and four motor launches.[8]

Keyes insisted that the men on the block ships and submarines should all be volunteers and unmarried. He said that the other participants were taking no greater risks than the infantry on the Western Front, but in practice the number of men keen to take part was far more than the number needed.[9]

Keyes originally intended to command from HMS Vindictive, but then realised that he needed to be able to move around to ensure that the various parts of the operation were going well. He therefore transferred his flag to the destroyer HMS Warwick.[10]

The force sailed on 11 April. While it was en route the RAF bombed Zeebrugge. At 00:45 am the expedition stopped in order to remove from the block ships the men needed for the passage but not the assault. Before it could get underway again the wind stopped and then began to blow from the wrong direction for the smoke screens. Keyes decided that it was impossible to attack without a smoke screen and called off the mission. Coastal Motor Boat 33 was captured by the Germans, who found plans on board that revealed that a blocking expedition at Ostend was planned.[11]

Another attempt was made on 13 April, but it had to be called off because the wind was too strong. There would not be another period when there was sufficient darkness and high water for three weeks. The Admiralty was inclined to cancel the operation on the grounds that surprise had been lost and the men could not be kept cooped up for so long. Keyes, however, persuaded them to let him try again between 22 and 28 April, when the high water was suitable. However, there was a full moon on 26 April.[12]

The assault troops had been accommodated on the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Hindustan in port, but she was very crowded. Keyes arranged for HMS Dominion, another old battleship, to be sent in order to improve the living conditions ahead of the second attempt.[13]

The weather forecast on 22 April was favourable, with strength and direction of the wind being suitable and a good chance of clouds to obscure the moon. The expedition therefore set sail that day, with the attack to take place in the early hours of 23 April: St George’s Day.[14]

The aerial attack had to be cancelled because of rain, but the monitors started to bombard Ostend at 11:10 pm and Zeebrugge 20 minutes later. Coastal motor boats began to lay smoke screens at 11:30 pm and attacked the western end of the Zeebrugge mole in order to distract the Germans from the approaching Vindictive. Keyes had HMS Warwick positioned so that he could see both the attack on the mole and the approach of the block ships.[15]

 

Zeebrugge Raid 23 April 1918. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeebrugge_Raid

The Germans did not realise what was happening until the last minute, but then benefitted from a change in the wind. The smokescreen was blown across the approach routes, meaning that British vessels could not see each other, but the Germans could see them as they emerged from the smoke. Vindictive emerged just after midnight, coming under heavy fire. She suffered heavy casualties and many of her guns were put out of action. Captain H. C. Halahan, commander of the naval landing parties, Lieutenant-Colonel B. H. Elliot, commander of the Royal Marine landing parties and Major A. A. Cordner, his second in command, were all killed.[16]

Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil managed to get alongside the mole, a considerable feat of seamanship. Anchoring was very difficult. The surviving landing parties managed to get onto the mole under heavy fire. They could not destroy the mole’s guns, but the attack on the mole succeeded as a diversion. The Germans saw the block ships entering the harbour but probably assumed that the attack on the mole was the first stage in a landing.[17]

The towline of C1, one of the two submarines that were to be blown up against the rail viaduct connecting the mole to the shore, parted, meaning that only C3 reached the start line. Her crew were meant to abandon ship after setting her on a course for the viaduct, but her captain Sandford decided to ram the viaduct with the crew still on board and then light the fuses. They then took to a motor skiff that they had to row because of damage to its engine. They were just clear when the explosives blew up and destroyed 100 feet of the viaduct, including the telephone wires connecting the defenders of the mole to the German headquarters, They were then firing on HMS Thetis, the first of the block ships.[18]

Thetis was badly damaged and then was fouled by nets that had been laid across the harbour. She was unable to proceed to her target lock gates and ran aground before detonating her explosive charges. She had, however, cleared the way for Intrepid and Iphegenia to reach their target, where they grounded and blew themselves up. Motor launches took off the crews of the block ships. The British then withdrew, but the destroyer HMS North Star was sunk by the battery at the head of the mole. The destroyer HMS Phoebe took most of her crew off. Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil managed to withdraw, covered by Keyes’s flagship Warwick.[19]

The attempt to block Ostend failed, however. The shift in the wind had a more serious effect there. The Stroom Bank buoy had been moved a mile east of the position that the British expected it to be in. the block ship captains could not be sure of their positions because of the smoke blowing towards them. When they sighted the Stroom Bank buoy they did not realise that it had been moved, steered on a course based on it being in its previous position and sank their ships in the wrong place.

The British lost two motor launches and HMS North Star plus the block ships and submarines deliberately sacrificed. They reported 70 dead, 400 wounded and 45 missing. I counted 199 listed on naval-history.net as dying at Zeebrugge on 23 April and 16 of dying of wounds during the next week, but there are probably others who later died of wounds. Wikipedia, sourcing P. Kendall, The Zeebrugge Raid 1918: The Finest Feat of Arms (Brimscombe Port: Spellmount, 2009), says that British casualties were 227 dead and 356 wounded. The Germans claimed that 214 British were killed, 383 wounded and 19 captured, themselves losing Germans lost eight dead and 16 wounded. The German destroyers V69 and S53 were lightly damaged and S63 heavily damaged but remained seaworthy.[20]

One of the German dead was Matrose [Seaman] Hermann Künne, who had previously killed a British officer, probably Brock, in a cutlass fight.

The success at Zeebrugge and failure at Ostend led Keyes to propose another attack on Ostend. This was approved, but the British could not be ready to carry it out until the next period of favourable tides, which began on 9 May.[21]

The Zeebrugge canal was left unusable at low tide. Admiral Ludwig von Schröder, the local German commander, feared at first that it would also be blocked at high tide, but four relatively small German torpedo boats though it on the evening on 24 April, with a U-boat following the next day. The larger destroyers would have to use the Ostend canal. By 14 May salvage work allowed them to use the Zeebrugge canal at high tide and a wooden walkway allowing foot and bicycle traffic to and from the mole was completed on 8 June,[22]

The raid was executed very gallantly but its main effect was to boost Allied morale at a time when their armies on the Western Front were retreating as a result of the German March Offensive. Flanders based U-boats had to travel round Scotland to reach the Atlantic because of the Dover Barrage, which the German attack of 14-15 February showed could be attacked by destroyers based in the Helgoland Bight without them having to go via Bruges. The Germans, however, chose not to repeat that successful operation. . Both sides were happy enough with the outcome of the Zeebrugge Raid to give their commander a high award: the oak leaves to the Pour le Merite, popularly known as the Blue Max, for von Schröder; and a knighthood for Keyes.

Eight men were awarded the VC: the citations. originally published in the London Gazette, are on naval-history.net. Four of the awards were made under Clause 13 of the Victoria Cross Warrant. It allows that in a case where a large number of members of a unit deserve the VC it should be awarded by ballot of their peers. In this case the officers and the other ranks of the crews of the assault ships and the naval landing parties and the officers and the other ranks of the marine landing parties each selected one of their number.

Six awards were announced in July 1918, all to survivors and including the four Clause 13 medals. The naval officers chose Carpenter and the naval other ranks Able Seaman Albert McKenzie. The marine officers voted for Captain Edward Bamford and the marine other ranks for Serjeant Norman Finch. The other two went to Sandford of C3 and Lieutenant Percy Dean, commanding Motor Launch 282, which picked up survivors of the block ship,

The award of posthumous VCs to Lieutenant Commander George Bradford, RN and Lieutenant Commander Arthur Harrison, RN, were announced in March 1919. Both had commanded landing parties.

Barrie Pitt’s book Zeebrugge: Eleven VCs before Breakfast also covers the 10 May attack on Ostend, in which another three VCs were awarded. It will be the subject of a later post.

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1922 vol. vi, The Dover Patrol i, pp. 25-50.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. v, -pp. 242-44.

[3] Ibid., p. 245; M. D. Karau, The Naval Flank of the Western Front: The German Marinekorps Flandern, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2003), p. 190.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, pp. 245-46.

[5] Karau, Naval, pp. 187-88.

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 247.

[7] Ibid., p. 249.

[8] Ibid., pp. 249-50.

[9] B. Pitt, Zeebrugge: Eleven Vcs before Breakfast (London: Cassell Military, 2003), p. 60.

[10] Ibid., p. 69.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v. pp. 251-52.

[12] Pitt, Zeebrugge, p. 82.-81

[13] Ibid.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v. pp. 252-53.

[15] Ibid., pp. 254-55.

[16] Ibid., p. 256.

[17] Ibid., pp. 256-60.

[18] Ibid., pp. 260-61.

[19] Ibid., pp. 261-64.

[20] Karau, Naval, p. 196.

[21] Ibid., p. 198.

[22] Ibid., pp. 200-3.

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The Battle of Imbros 20 January 1918

The evacuation of Gallipoli did not end the Royal Navy’s presence in the Aegean. There was a risk that the German battlecruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau might break out of the Dardanelles. This ships had officially been transferred to the Ottoman Navy and renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim and Medilli, but the German names are used here because they remained under German command and had German crews.

Rear Admiral Sydney Fremantle, commanding the RN’s Aegean Squadron, thought that  a break out would have one of three objectives: joining the Austro-Hungarians in the Adriatic was the most likely and had the highest chance of success; a raid on Allied transport routes was possible but had too low a chance of success to justify the risks involved; and raiding Mudros, Salonika, Port Said or Alexandria was unlikely as it would be a ‘desperate venture…end[ing] in the eventual destruction of the enemy.’ In fact, the last option was the one chosen.[1]

On 12 January 1918, Fremantle was succeeded by Rear-Admiral Arthur Hayes-Sadler. His squadron included the last two British pre-dreadnought battleships, HMS Agamemnon and Lord Nelson. Their speed of only 18 knots meant that they could not intercept  Goeben (22 knots) and Breslau (designed for 27.5 knots but capable of only 20 according to Arthur Marder). However, their armament of four 12 inch and ten 9.2 inch guns each versus Goeben’s ten 11 inch and twelve 5.9 inch guns and Breslau’s twelve 4.1 inch guns meant that they could stop them returning to the Dardanelles. The British had also laid a number of minefields.[2]

The Germans had also changed their command. In September Vizeadmiral Wilhelm Souchon had returned to Germany in September to take command of the 4th Battle Squadron of the High Seas Fleet. His replacement, Vizeadmiral Hubert von Rebeur-Paschwitz, hoped that a sortie would draw Allied ships away from Palestine, where the Ottomans were under pressure; boost Ottoman morale after the loss of Jerusalem; and show that warships were meant to be used.[3]

Aerial reconnaissance had told the Germans that HMS Lord Nelson was not at Mudros. She was taking Hughes-Sadler to meetings in Salonika. He would normally have used the yacht Triad for such a journey, but she was unavailable so he chose to use his flagship rather than a destroyer.[4]

The German staff assumed, on the basis of information from minesweepers, that the mines laid across the entrance to the Dardanelles in 1916 had been washed away. They did not know that more minefields had been laid since, which they could not avoid. Just before the operation began they received a captured chart that showed that there were more minefields than they had realised. It appeared to show that there was a gap between them, but they did not realise that it was only a rough indication rather than an exact plan. The German sortie achieved surprise but at the cost of not properly reconnoitring the enemy minefields .[5]

Goeben and Breslau sailed at 4:00 pm on 19 January, accompanied by four Ottoman destroyers. They left the Dardanelles at 6:00 am the next day, when destroyers turned back. Ten minutes later Goeben struck a mine, receiving only minor damage.[6]

In Mudros harbour on Lemnos the British had HMS Agamemnon, three light cruisers, a sloop, and four destroyers, only two of which were ready for action. Another minesweeper and a monitor were under repair. As well as HMS Lord Nelson, another 23 ships were on detached duty in six squadrons, including two cruisers, four light cruisers, six destroyers and eight monitors.[7]

Freemantle’s orders to detached squadrons, which were still in effect, were that if they encountered Goeben they should lead her ‘in a direction in which support may be obtained.’ However, the general signal that was to be made if Goeben was out was to ‘take all necessary action to engage the enemy.’ RN officers were bound to interpret this as an order to attack her. At 7:40 am the Germans attacked the British ships at Kusu Bay, Pyrgos. They quickly sank the monitors Lord Raglan and M28 before heading for Mudros, pursued by the destroyers HMS Tigress and Lizard.[8]

At 8:30 am Breslau struck a mine. The Germans could now see mines in the clear, blue water. Goeben attempted to take Breslau in tow but at 8:55 struck a mine, which caused serious damage. Breslau then detonated another four mines and began to sink. The Ottoman destroyers came out in order to pick up survivors but withdrew after coming under fire from the British destroyers at 9:30. The British briefly chased them but had to give up due to the risk from shore batteries and mines. They picked up 14 officers and 148 men from the Breslau.[9] Her official crew was 354.[10]

Goeben withdrew.  She struck another mine at 9:48, causing her to list by 15 degrees. She came under air attack but by 10:30 was into the Straits. At 11:32, however, she ran aground and was stuck for six days. Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service aircraft flew 270 sorties against her, dropping 15 tons of bombs. Strong winds, low clouds and effective anti-aircraft fire meant that only two hits were scored. Even if more had been obtained, the 65 and 112 pound bombs used could have done little damage. Two seaplanes armed with 18 inch torpedoes arrived on the seaplane carrier Manxman too late to attack. Indirect fire from a monitor was also ineffective.[11]

This left submarine attack. One E-class boat, E12 was available on 21 January, but one of her engine shafts had been fractured. This restricted her surface speed and battery recharging, but not her submerged speed, so Hayes-Sadler refused to allow her to attack, although her captain, Lieutenant F. Williams-Freeman, was willing. Two more, E2 and E14 arrived on 21 January, but nothing was done until the C.-in-C. Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, arrived on 25 January. E14, which was newer and had a more experienced captain and crew than E2, was sent in two days later, by when Goeben had been refloated and left. E14 was detected by hydrophones, forced to the surface by depth charges and destroyed by shore batteries. Her captain, Geoffrey Saxton White, was later posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation, from naval-history.net, which also lists all the British casualties, read:

31354 – 23 MAY 1919

Admiralty, S.W., 24th May, 1919.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers:

Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Saxton White, R.N.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as Commanding Officer of H.M. Submarine “E 14” on the 28tlh of January, 1918.

“E 14” left Mudros on the 27th of January under instructions to force the Narrows and attack the “Goeben,” which was reported aground off Nagara Point after being damaged during her sortie from the Dardanelles. The latter vessel was not found and “E 14” turned back. At about 8.45 a.m. on the 28th of January a torpedo was fired from E 14” at an enemy ship; 11 seconds after the torpedo left the tube a heavy explosion took place, caused all lights to go out, and sprang the fore hatch. Leaking badly the boat was blown to 15 feet, and at once a heavy fire came from the forts, but the hull was not hit. “E 14” then dived and proceeded on her way out.

Soon afterwards the boat became out of control, and as the air supply was nearly exhausted, Lieutenant-Commander White decided to run the risk of proceeding on the surface. Heavy fire was immediately opened from both sides, and, after running the gauntlet for half-an-hour, being steered from below, “E 14” was so badly damaged that Lieutenant-Commander White turned towards the shore in order to give the crew a chance of being saved. He remained on deck the whole time himself until he was killed by a shell.

_____

Enver Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister had warned von Rebeur-Paschwitz to be careful with his two ships because of their great value to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans thought that the Germans had taken too great a risk with them.[12]

Goeben’s damage was not fully repaired until after the war, by when she was the property of Turkey. She was not scrapped until 1971. although she had by then been out of service for many years.[13] The Allies did not realise the severity of her damage and continued to fear another sortie by her.[14] She did operate in the Black Sea later in 1918.[15]

Hayes-Sadler, who was in poor health, was replaced by Rear-Admiral Cecil F. Lambert. The main negative for the Royal Navy of the action was that it allowed the Press to again bring up the story of the blunders that had led to Goeben and Breslau getting to the Ottoman Empire in 1914.[16] The operation was a mistake by the Germans, who upset their Ottoman allies, lost a modern light cruiser and had a battlecruiser damaged in return for sinking two monitors and a submarine.

[1] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. vol. v, pp. 12-13.

[2] Ibid., p. 13.

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, p. 255.

[4] Marder, From. vol. v, pp.15-16.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. vol. v, pp. 85-86.

[6] Marder, From. vol. v, p. 15.

[7] Ibid., p. 14.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 84.

[9] Ibid., pp. 88-90.

[10] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, p. 159.

[11] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 16-17.

[12] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 92.

[13] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 152.

[14] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 18-19.

[15] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. v, p. 294.

[16] Marder, From. vol. v, pp. 19-20.

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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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