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William Sanders VC

On 22 June 1917 Lieutenant-Commander William Sanders was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation, available on Naval-History.net, said merely that Sanders ‘had been decorated because of his conspicuous gallantry, consummate coolness, and skill in command of one of H.M. ships in action.’ The reason for the vagueness was that Sanders was one of a number of sailors awarded the VC in 1917 for actions involving Q-ships, apparently innocuous merchant ships that were manned by the RN and given heavy but concealed armaments. First World War submarines carried relatively few torpedoes (12 in the newest German boats and six or eight in older ones), so often surfaced to sink smaller targets with gunfire.[1]

William Sanders was a thirty-four year old New Zealander who has been a merchant seaman before the war. He had already been awarded a Distinguished Service Order for unspecified reasons whilst serving in a Q-ship. In early 1917 he was given command of HMS Prize, a Q-ship that had originally been a German ship called Else and was the first enemy ship to be captured by the British in the war.[2]

Prize, a 227 ton schooner, was  armed with two 12 pounder guns [76.2mm} and a Lewis machine gun. At 8:35 pm on 30 April 1917 she spotted a surfaced submarine two miles away. She was U93 (Kapitänleutnant Edgar Freiherr von Spiegel von und zu Peckelsheim) and was on her maiden voyage.[3]

Speigel had previously commanded U32 and wrote a book called Kriegstagebuch U 202 based on his experiences: there was no U202 in WWI. It was translated into English after the war under the title War Diary of U202.

By 28 April U93 had sunk three sailing ships and a steamer, totalling 5189 tons. One  of the sailing ship was Danish and the other two plus the steamer Norwegian. The largest sailing ship was torpedoed after being stopped, with the others being sunk by gunfire. That day she damaged the 207 ton Danish sailing ship Diana, which was towed into Queenstown: see U-Boat.net.[4]

On the evening of 29 April U93 torpedoed the defensively armed steamer Comedian (4,889 tons) and then the Ikbal (5,434 tons), both British and carrying ammunition. Both were first torpedoed and then finished off by gunfire. In the early hours of 30 April U93 torpedoed and sank the defensively armed British steamer Horsa (2,949 tons). She picked up survivors from both Ikbal and Horsa, who reported that their treatment ‘left nothing to be desired.’[5]

At 6:30 am U93 was in sight of the Russian sailing ship Borrowdale (1,268 tons) and two defensively armed steamers: the Italian Ascaro (3,245 tons) and the British Huntsmoor (4,957 tons). She torpedoed and sank the Ascaro at 7:05 am. Five minutes later the Huntsmoor opened fire. She then sighted U21 and HMS Begonia (Q10) headed to her. Begonia was a fleet minesweeping sloop that had been modified to look like a merchantman rather than a secretly armed merchantman.

At 09:00 am U21 sank the Borrowdale by gunfire. U93 surfaced and transferred her prisoners to the Borrowdale’s boats. At 09:40 am U93 opened fire on Begonia, which replied, forcing U21 to dive. U93 remained on the surface until Begonia had reduced the range to 1.5 miles, when she dived and escaped. At 5:30 pm the same day U93 torpedoed and sank without warning the Greek steamer Parthenon (2,934 tons): see U-boat.net for a list of the ships sunk by U93.[6] 

U93 by now had only two torpedoes left.[7] Three hours after sinking the Parthenon, she encountered what appeared to him to be an innocuous sailing ship but was actually HMS Prize. Following his normal tactics of surfacing to attack small ships with gunfire and torpedoing large ones whilst submerged, Spiegel opened gunfire on the sailing ship at 08:45 pm. Some of its crew apparently panicked and abandoned ship.

U93 scored several hits on her, wrecking her radio room and one of her two engines, and had closed to 80 yards range by 9:05 pm when Sanders raised the white ensign and ordered his concealed guns to open fire. Spiegel tried to ram but U93 was too close to Prize to do so. The British quickly hit the U93′s conning tower and forward gun. Spiegel and two other Germans ended up in the water. U93 withdrew to 600 yards range. Prize could not close the range because her second engine had given out, but U93 disappeared and appeared to have sunk.

Prize picked up Speigel, Warrant Officer Wilhelm Knappe and Petty Officer Walter Deppe. She was very badly damaged but managed to reach Kinsale on 2 May. Three of her crew were wounded. Sanders was awarded the VC and promoted to Lieutenant-Commander. Lieutenant W. D. Beaton received the DSO.[8]

U93 had not sunk. After her forward gun was put out action her executive officer Oberleutnant Wilhelm Ziegner ordered her to zigzag. Hits to her fuel and diving tanks meant that she was listing 14 degrees to starboard, but she was able to get out of range. As well as the three men who went overboard, several were wounded and one died during the night.

U93 had been hit at least nine times, her guns, periscope and wireless masts were out of action and there was damage to he fuel and diving tanks and several valves and compressed air tanks. A hole in the pressure hull meant that she could not dive, although it was above the waterline when surfaced. She had only just enough oil to get home, with no reserve for high speed dashes if she met Allied warships.

Ziegner managed to get her round Shetland, narrowly avoiding British patrols. U93 met a German trawler near Sylt Island and was towed into Wilhelmshaven after running out of fuel. She was cheered by all the ships she passed and Admiral Reinhard Scheer, C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet went on board to congratulate her crew.[9]

Prize was lost with all hands, including Sanders, on 14 August. She encountered UB48 whilst operating with the British submarine D6. The idea was that Prize would attract a U-boat and then signal its position to D6 which would torpedo the German vessel. Sanders, however, opened fire on UB48, which dived and escaped. Now knowing that Prize was a Q-ship, UB48 returned and torpedoed her without surfacing.[10]

Spiegel wrote more books after the war and served in the German diplomatic service in WWII: see Wikipedia. He died in 1965. Ziegner captained UC87 in 1918 but died in December 1919: see U-boat.net.

 

 

[1] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), pp. 175-78.

[2] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 83.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1933 vol. xviii, Home Waters part viii, December 1916 to April 1917, pp. 424-26.

[4] Ibid. pp. 424-5 says Diana was sunk.

[5] Ibid., p. 425.

[6] Ibid., pp. 425-26.

[7] Friedrich Ruge, The Submarine War: a U-Boat commanders view in B. Fitzsimons, Warships & Sea Battles of World War I (London: Phoebus, 1973), p. 140.

[8] Naval Staff vol. Xviii, pp. 426-27.

[9] Ruge in Fitzsimons, Warships, p. 141.

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 117-18; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 170.

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Richard Bell Davies VC

Richard Bell Davies, a career naval officer, learnt to fly at his own expense in 1913 at the age of  27. He then transferred to the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps, which was taken under the control of the Admiralty as the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 July 1914.

On 27 August he was one of the 10 pilots of the Eastchurch Squadron of the RNAS, commanded by Wing Commander Charles Samson, who flew their aircraft to Ostend. After three days they were ordered to return to England via Dunkirk. One of the aircraft crashed on landing at Dunkirk. This delayed the flight home and on 1 September they were ordered to remain at Dunkirk in order to operate against enemy airships and aircraft and to carry reconnaissance missions. As well as aircraft, they were equipped with armed motor cars that raided the enemy’s flanks.[1]

During the First Battle of Ypres, lasting from 19 October to 22 November 1914, the RNAS aircraft carried out reconnaissance missions for the army. Davies attacked German aircraft in the air on three separate occasions, but all managed to land behind their own lines.[2]

Davies and Flight Lieutenant Richard Peirse carried out a number of bombing raids on the German U-boat bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge. Both were awarded the Distinguished Service Order for an attack on Zeebrugge on 23 January 1915. Their citations, from naval-history.net, stated that:

Squadron Commander Richard Bell Davies

Flight Lieutenant Richard Edmund Charles Peirse

These Officers have repeatedly attacked the German submarine station at Ostend and Zeebrugge, being subjected on each occasion to heavy and accurate fire, their machines being frequently hit. In particular, on 23rd January, they each discharged eight bombs in an attack upon submarines alongside the mole at Zeebrugge, flying down to close range. At the outset of this flight Lieutenant Davies was severely wounded by a bullet in. the thigh, but nevertheless he accomplished his task, handling his machine for an hour with great skill in spite of pain and loss of blood.

Davies held the rank of Lieutenant in the RN and the appointment of Squadron Commander in the RNAS.

Davies was later sent to the Dardanelles. In October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers opening up a railway supply line from Germany to the Ottoman Empire. RNAS aircraft and seaplanes made several bombing raids on a rail bridge over the river Maritza south of Kulelli and a rail junction at Ferrijik. During an attack on the latter on 19 November Flight Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert Smylie’s Henri Farman was forced to land by rifle fire. Davies landed his aircraft and rescued Smylie in perhaps the first ever combat search and rescue mission. The citation for his Victoria Cross and Smylie’s Distinguished Service Cross, again from naval-history.net, stated that:

29423 – 31 DECEMBER 1915

Admiralty, 1st January, 1916.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Squadron-Commander Richard Bell Davies, D.S.O., R.N., and of the Distinguished Service Cross to Flight Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert Formby Smylie, R.N., in recognition of their behaviour in the following circumstances:

On the 19th November these two officers carried out an air attack on Ferrijik Junction. Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie’s machine was received by very heavy fire and brought down. The pilot planed down over the station, releasing all his bombs except one, which failed to drop, simultaneously at the station from a very low altitude. Thence he continued his descent into the marsh. On alighting he saw the one unexploded bomb, and set fire to his machine, knowing that the bomb would ensure its destruction. He then proceeded towards Turkish territory.

At this moment he perceived Squadron-Commander Davies descending, and fearing that he would come down near the burning machine and thus risk destruction from the bomb, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie ran back and from a short distance exploded the bomb by means of a pistol bullet. Squadron-Commander Davies descended at a safe distance from the burning machine, took up Sub-Lieutenant Smylie, in spite of the near approach of a party of the enemy, and returned to the aerodrome, a feat of airmanship that can seldom have been equalled for skill and gallantry.

Davies was flying a Nieuport 10, a two seater reconnaissance aircraft that had been converted into a single seater fighter by covering the front cockpit. Smylie managed to squeeze past the controls into the front cockpit.

Davies was later awarded Air Force Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. He joined the Royal Air Force when it was formed by a merger of the RFC and the RNAS on 1 April 1918, but was one of the few former members of the RNAS to return to the RN after the war. He served in a mixture of staff appointments connected with aviation and sea going post between the wars. When the RN regained control of the Fleet Air Arm in 1939 Davies was appointed Rear Admiral, Naval Stations, commanding its shore bases.

He retired with the rank of Vice Admiral in May 1941, but then joined the Royal Naval Reserve with the rank of Commander, serving as a Convoy Commodore. They were senior Merchant Navy officers or retired admirals and commanded the merchant ships but not the escorts of a convoy. He later captained two escort carriers, HMS Dasher during her commissioning period and the trials carrier HMS Pretoria Castle. He died in 1966.

 

[1] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. i, pp. 371-76.

[2] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 392-93

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The British Capture Kut-Al-Amara 28 September 1915

In June and July 1915 the British captured Amara and Nasiriyah in Mesopotamia. The force that did so was nicknamed Townshend’s Regatta because most of the troops of Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army travelled along the Euphrates and Tigris in a flotilla of various types of ship and boat.

The British had landed troops at Basra in November 1914 in order to protect their interests in the region, notably but not only the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan and the pipeline to its Persian oilfields. The capture of Amara and Nasiriyah meant that the oil facilities and the vilayet (province) of Basra were securely held and the British should then have halted.

Townshend and his division were, however, ordered to advance on Kut-al-Amara, with the intention of taking Baghdad. He argued in his memoirs that this operation should not have taken place. Basra vilayet and the oilfields should have been defended by a force based at Basra, with outposts at Qurna, Nasiriyah and Ahwaz.[1]  He was right, but the campaign continued for a number of reasons: the need for a victory somewhere after defeats elsewhere; over confidence by local commanders; and momentum created by a series of easy victories early in the campaign.

The need for re-fits and the fact that the larger ships could not move any further up the Tigris meant that the naval force was reduced to the armed tug Comet, the armed launches Shaitan and Sumana and four horse boats carrying 4.7 inch guns towed by the motor launches RN 1 and RN 2. Captain Wilfrid Nunn, the Senior Naval Officer, and his successor, Captain Colin Mackenzie, were both ill, so Lieutenant-Commander Edgar Cookson of the Comet took over.[2]

The horse boats were so called because they had no engines and were normally towed by horses walking along the river or canal bank. The 4.7 inch guns were elderly, but the launches and horse boats had very shallow draughts, so could provide fire support for the troops in waters too shallow for the sloops that had provided this earlier in the campaign. RN 1 was commanded by Leading Seaman Thompson, a veteran, and RN 2 by Able Seaman Phil Gunn, a young sailor who would later be commissioned and rise to the rank of Captain: the rest of their crews were Indians. RN 1 and RN 2 were protected against sniper fire by steel plates around their cabins and engine rooms.[3] Phil Gunn’s RN 2 would lead the advance of the whole expedition.[4]

The advance began on 12 September, with the troops moving to Ali-al-Gharbi by ship. From then on, the shallow water meant that the troops had to march along the river bank, with the shallow draught tug, launches and horse boats providing fire support. The Ottomans withdrew without offering any resistance and the British force halted at Sanniaiyat from 15-25 September, during when it received reinforcements. The temperature was 110-16° F in the shade, of which there was little.[5]

The engines of the aircraft that had operated in Mesopotamia so far had proved to be unsuitable for the hot, dusty atmosphere: 70 hp Renault ones in the Maurice Farmans and 80 hp Gnomes in the Caudrons and Martinsydes. In early September three Royal Naval Air Service Short seaplanes with 150 hp Sunbeam engines under the command of Squadron-Commander R. Gordon arrived from Africa, where they had been involved in the operation that resulted in the destruction of the light cruiser SMS Königsberg. Their climbing ability was poor and it was difficult to get a long enough take off run on the Tigris. Two had their floats replaced to allow them to operate from land, thereafter giving good service despite engine problems.[6]

"Kut1915" by This map was created by the Department of Military Art and Engineering, at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). - http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/great%20war/great%20war%20%20pages/great%20war%20map%2047.htm. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kut1915.jpg#/media/File:Kut1915.jpg

“Kut1915” by This map was created by the Department of Military Art and Engineering, at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). – http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/great%20war/great%20war%20%20pages/great%20war%20map%2047.htm. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kut1915.jpg#/media/File:Kut1915.jpg

 

Aerial and naval reconnaissance discovered that Nureddin Pasha’s Ottoman troops were dug in astride the river in a strong defensive position 8 miles from Sannaiyat and 7 miles from Kut. There were two Ottoman divisions with 38 guns plus two cavalry regiments and 400 camelry. Most of the mounted troops were away on a raid and missed the battle of 28 September.[7] The Ottoman divisions had only six battalions each, meaning that they were outnumbered by the 14 British battalions. Some of the Ottoman guns were obsolete, giving the British an small artillery advantage.[8]

Townshend decided to divide his force into two columns. Column A would demonstrate against the Ottoman troops on the south bank of the Tigris. Column B, its flank protected by the naval flotilla, would attack on the right bank in order to pin the enemy’s centre. Column A would then cross the river and attack the enemy’s left flank.[9]

A boat bridge was laid across the river on 27 September. Column B advanced to within 2,000 yards of the enemy, whilst Column A demonstrated during the day before crossing the river under the cover of darkness. It was ready to attack by 5:00 am, with Column B advancing at the same time. The Ottomans advanced on the south bank at 11:00 am in order to enfilade Column B, but were thrown back by fire from the naval 4.7 inch guns and army 4 and 5 inch guns. The gunboats had moved forward at 11:00 am to engage Suffra Mound, which was taken by Column B by 2:00 pm. The boats came under shell and rifle fire, but the Ottoman artillery was largely silenced by the afternoon. Contact between the two columns was maintained by the aeroplanes and seaplanes, as the strong wind created clouds of dust that made visual signalling between the columns impossible.[10]

At 4:50 pm Column A began to advance on the rear of the enemy facing Column B. Enemy reinforcements appeared 40 minutes later, but Brigadier-General W. S. Delamain re-deployed his troops to face them. A bayonet charge routed the Ottomans, who escaped under the cover of darkness, suffering heavy casualties and leaving four guns behind.[11]

At 6:00 pm the naval flotilla heard of Delamain’s success from a seaplane. Townshend asked Cookson to advance to an obstruction that blocked the river in the hope of destroying it and allowing a pursuit by water and land. The flotilla set off after dark at 6:30 pm, coming under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, as they approached the obstruction, which consisted of a dhow in the centre, attached by wire hawsers to two iron lighters. An attempt to ram the dhow failed, so Cookson jumped on it in an attempt to cut the hawsers with an axe. He quickly suffered several bullet wounds and died 10 minutes later. The flotilla then withdrew.[12]

The flotilla, now commanded by Lieutenant Mark Singleton of the Shaitan, resumed its advance the next morning, 29 September. The Ottomans had retreated from the obstruction and the British vessels reached Kut at 10:00 am. The low level of the river made navigation difficult, but they continued past Kut. On 30 September they encountered two armed Ottoman vessels, the Poineer and Basra. Sumana and Shaitan had both run aground, the former breaking both rudders, so the Comet engaged the two enemy steamers herself before being joined by the Shaitan. The Basra was damaged and withdrew. The British pursued, but then came under fire from shore based guns astern of them. The Shaitan ran aground again and there was a risk that she and the Comet would be cut off, but the Shaitan managed to re-float herself and the British retired to Kut. The difficulty of conducting a pursuit when the only means of transporting heavy equipment was along a low river meant that the Ottomans were able to withdraw to a prepared position at Ctesiphon.[13]

The British suffered 1,233 casualties of whom 94 were killed. They captured 1,700 men and 14 guns: total Ottoman casualties were 4,000.[14] Twelve men on the Comet, four of them soldiers, were wounded.[15] Cookson is the only sailor listed on naval-history.net as being killed in Mesopotamia from 27-30 September. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The same website gives the citation:

29446 – 21 JANUARY 1916

Admiralty, 21st January, 1916.

 The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant-Commander Edgar Christopher Cookson, D.S.O., R.N., in recognition of the following act of most conspicuous gallantry during the advance on Kut-el-Amara:

On the 28th September, 1915, the river gunboat “Comet” had been ordered with other gunboats to examine and, if possible, destroy an obstruction placed across the river by the Turks. When the gunboats were approaching the obstruction a very heavy rifle and machine gun fire was opened on them from both banks. An attempt to sink the centre dhow of the obstruction by gunfire having failed, Lieutenant-Commander Cookson ordered the “Comet” to be placed alongside, and himself jumped on to the dhow with an axe and tried to cut the wire hawsers connecting it with the two other craft forming the obstruction. He was immediately shot in several places and died within a very few minutes.

 

[1] C. V. F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia (London: T. Butterworth Ltd, 1920), pp. 35-36.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. iv, Naval Operations in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. pp. 75-76.

[3] D. Gunn, Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1915 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2013). Kindle edition, locations 812-22, Chapter 22. This well researched book, by Phil’s son David, gives an excellent description of the Mesopotamian Campaign from the viewpoint of one of the RN’s lower deck.

[4] Ibid. Kindle locations 1067-79, Chapter 28.

[5] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 76.

[6] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. v pp. 253-58. Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 76 says that there were four RNAS seaplanes

[7] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 76.

[8] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 192.

[9] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 77.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., pp. 77-78.

[12] Ibid., p. 78.

[13] Ibid., pp. 78-79.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 195 and footnote 2.

[15] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 78. Footnote 1.

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Frederick Parslow VC and the Merchantman Anglo Californian’s Battle with U39

On 4 July 1915 the 7,333 ton merchant ship Anglo-Californian was 70 miles south of the Fastnet Rock, close to the end of a journey from Montreal. She normally carried nitrate, but on this voyage her cargo was 927 horses, intended for the Western Front. This was the fifth time that she had brought horses across the Atlantic. She was captained by 59 year old Frederick Parslow, whose son, also called Frederick, was her second officer. As well as her crew of 44 men, there were 50 American and Canadian cattlemen on board to look after the horses.[1]

At 8:00 am the Anglo-Californian, which was then 24 hours from its destination, Avonmouth, was spotted by SMS U39, captained by Kapitänleutnant Walther Forstmann. In order to conserve his torpedoes, Forstmann decided to surface and call on the merchantman to surrender. U39, capable of 16.5 knots on the surface, was three miles away from the Anglo-Californian, which was designed to sail at 12 knots. Parslow, however, believed that his ship, being lightly loaded, could make two knots more than this, so decided to flee.

The Anglo-Californian made radio contact with the Q-ship Princess Ena, a former cross-Channel ferry that had been armed with three concealed 12 pounder guns in order to act as a trap for U-boats. She was capable of only 15 knots, so would struggle to arrive in time, but she called up the destroyers HMS Mentor and Miranda.

Forstmann opened fire at 9:00 am from a range of one and a half miles. Captain Parslow remained on the open bridge with his son, ordering his crew to take cover below. The Parslows had no protection from the German gunfire. They had to lie down, with the son steering from a prone position and the father occasionally lifting his head to command the ship on a zig-zag pattern At 10:30 am Forstmann called on the Anglo-Californian to surrender. Captain Parslow realised that his ship could not escape, so ordered her to stop and the crew to abandon ship.[2]

At this point, Princess Ena opened fire from 9,000 yards. Her shots fell short, but Parslow then received a radio message urging him to ‘hold on’ as the destroyers were on their way. He therefore ordered his crew to return below decks, and to get the ship underway again. The Germans resumed firing, this time with rifles as well as U39’s deck gun. They targeted the bridge, which was soon wrecked, with the steering wheel and compass being damaged.[3]

With several holes in the hull, a fire in the hold and no sign of the Royal Navy, Captain Parslow decided that he had no choice but to surrender. He ordered the engines stopped and the crew to abandon ship. The lifeboats were swung out under the direction of Chief Officer Harold Read. Forstmann, however, was unwilling to risk being tricked a second time, so continued to fire from a range of only 1,500 yards. One lifeboat was upended as it was being lowered into the sea after one of the davits was hit, and another lifeboat capsized.

Captain Parslow was then killed, just as the two British destroyers appeared. Forstmann dived his boat and escaped. Twenty of the men and twenty of the horses on board the Anglo-Californian were killed. She was escorted into Queenstown (now Cobh) early the next day.[4]

Captain Parslow’s son and Chief Engineer James Crawford were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on 10 September. The citations below are from Naval-History.net:

 29292 -10 SEPTEMBER 1915

….. award of the Distinguished Service Cross to the following Officers:

Sub-Lieutenant Frederick Parslow, R.N.R. For his services in the horse-transport “Anglo-Californian,” which was attacked by a German submarine on the 4th July, and subjected to heavy gun-fire for an hour and a half. Sub-Lieutenant Parslow steered the ship throughout the action, and maintained his post after his father, the Captain of the ship, had been killed by a shell, until some of our patrol boats arrived and drove the submarine off.

Engineer James Crawford, R.N.R. For his services as Chief Engineer of the same transport, in the escape of which he was largely instrumental by maintaining the vessel’s maximum speed in spite of a shortage of firemen.

Captain Parslow was not given any official award until 23 May 1919, when he was posthumously commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve and awarded a Victoria Cross. The Admiralty may have feared that awarding a gallantry medal to a member of the Merchant Marine during the war could have allowed the Germans to claim that its members were combatants.

Parslow’s citation below is from Naval-History.net:

 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 Frederick Parslow, R.N.R.

For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the Horse Transport “Anglo-Californian” on  the 4th July, 1915.

At  8 a.m. on  4th July, 1915, a large submarine was sighted on the port beam at a distance of about one mile. The ship, which was entirely unarmed, was immediately manoeuvred to bring the submarine astern; every effort was made to increase speed, and an S.O.S. call was sent out by wireless, an answer being received from a man-of-war. At  9 a.m. the submarine opened fire, and maintained a steady fire, making occasional hits, until  10.30 a.m., meanwhile Lieutenant Parslow constantly altered course and kept the submarine astern.

At 10 30 am the enemy hoisted the signal to “abandon the vessel as fast as possible,” and in order to save life Lieutenant Parslow decided to obey, and stopped engines to give as many of the crew as wished an opportunity to get away in the boats On receiving a wireless message from a destroyer, however, urging him to hold on as long as possible, he decided to get way on the ship again The submarine then opened a heavy fire on the bridge and boats with guns and rifles, wrecking the upper bridge, killing Lieutenant Parslow, and carrying away one of the port davits, causing the boat to drop into the sea and throwing its occupants into the water.

At about  11am two destroyers arrived on the scene, and the submarine dived

Throughout the attack Lieutenant Parslow remained on the bridge, on which the enemy fire was concentrated, entirely without protection, and by his magnificent heroism succeeded, at the cost of his own life, in saving a valuable ship and cargo for the country He set a splendid example to the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine.

This website includes a painting of the Parslows under fire by Thomas M. M. Hemy, titled Unconquerable, and other pictures of the action, the Parslows and the Anglo-Californian.

 

 

[1] B. Edwards, War under the Red Ensign 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2010), pp. 61-62.

[2] The last 3 paragraphs are based on Ibid., pp. 65-67.

[3] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, pp. 18-19.

[4] The last two paragraphs are based on Edwards, War, pp. 68-69.

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Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith VC and HM Submarine E11

Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith was captain of the submarine HMS E11 at the outbreak of WWI. In October 1914 E11 was one of three British submarines that tried to enter the Baltic Sea. The other two succeeded, but E11 was delayed by technical problems. On 19 October she mistook a neutral Danish submarine for a German U-boat, but her torpedo attack fortunately missed. She was spotted by a seaplane whilst recharging her batteries on the surface the next day; destroyers searched for her all day. After trying but failing to get past the Germans patrols again the next day Nasmith headed back to base on 22 October.[1]

On 17 December E11 was at southern end of a patrol line of British submarines in Helgoland Bight. Just after 7:00 am a number of German destroyers appeared, searching at high speed. An hour later large ships, which must have been returning from the German raid on the English north east coast, came into sight. Nasmith approached to 400 yards of one of them and fired a torpedo, but it ran too deep. He tried to get a shot on the third in the German line, but its zigzag course left it 500 yards away and heading straight for E11, forcing Nasmith to dive rapidly. This disturbed the boat’s trim, and she broke the surface when returning to periscope depth. She was able to escape. but the Germans made off at high speed.[2] On Christmas Day 1914 E11 rescued four of the airman who took part in the Cuxhaven Raid.

By May 1915 E11 was in the Dardanelles. On 17 May E14 returned from a successful patrol in the Sea of Marmara that earned her captain, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Boyle, the Victoria Cross and every member of her crew a medal. E11 was to head through the Straits to replace her the next day. The night before Boyle briefed Nasmith on the mines, nets and guns defending the straits.[3]

19 May: E11 set off at 1:10 am on 19 May, passing through the Allied destroyer line at 3:20 am and then diving. At 6:10 am she saw the Ottoman battle ships Targut Reis and Heredin Barbarossa, accompanied by several destroyers. The battleships withdrew and the destroyers fired on E11 whenever her periscope was raised. It was very easy to spot because of the speed that she was making and the light conditions. By 9:45 pm she was through the Straits. At 10:00 pm she surfaced in order to charge her batteries.[4]

20 May: She stayed on the surface, charging her batteries until 4:00 am, apart from 0:30 – 0:40 am, when a destroyer appeared, forcing her to dive. No merchant ships were seen during the day. Generally E11 stayed on the surface at night in order to charge her batteries. During the day she was on the surface if it was safe to do so.

21 May: At 11:30 am E11 stopped a small sailing vessel. Four chickens were taken; the scared but polite skipper declined payment. E11 used the vessel as a screen for the rest of the day: it was then very foggy.

22 May: Only warships were encountered and evaded. Attempts to radio the destroyer HMS Jed failed.

23 May: Course was altered towards Istanbul at 3:00 am. A transport was encountered at 4:50 am, whilst E11 was inspecting a sailing vessel. E11 dived to attack, but the transport spotted her and made off. At 5:50 am the 775 ton Ottoman gunboat Peleng-I Derya was seen anchored off Istanbul.[5] E11 dived, approached her and fired a torpedo into her. The gunboat sank, but first got off rifle fire and shots from her 6 pounder gun; one of the latter put E11’s forward periscope out of action.

24 May: Radio contact was made with Jed. Thereafter E11 and Jed were in regular contact.

At 10:30 am a smaller steamer was spotted heading west. E11 surfaced and ordered her to stop. The steamer tried to flee, but stopped after coming under rifle fire from E11. Her crew panicked and started to abandon ship. The panic was calmed by Silas Q. Swing, the war correspondent of the New York Sun. He said that the steamer was a passenger ship that was heading for Chanak and was not, as far he knew, carrying stores, before just making the last boat.

The steamer was in fact carrying a 6 inch gun, other gun mountings and a large amount of ammunition. After taking some souvenirs E11’s crew set a demolition charge, sinking the ship, which was the 480 ton naval auxiliary Naga.[6]

More smoke had by then been spotted. It was another steamer, similar to the Naga. E11 dived to attack, but was spotted. The target headed for Rodasto, with E11 pursuing on the surface. Large quantities of stores could be seen on the steamer’s deck. She berthed at Rodasto’s pier. E11 dived and approached, but ran aground 2,000 yards away as the water quickly became shallower. She fired a torpedo, which sank the steamer; she was the 512 ton SS Hunkar Iskelesi.[7] E11 then withdrew under rifle fire, which seemed to be aimed at her remaining periscope. It was hit but not damaged.

Another vessel was then observed. It was a small paddle steamer, which initially tried to flee. It stopped after coming under rifle fire, but then tried to ram E11 after realising that the submarine did not have any guns other than rifles. The paddle steamer, which was carrying horses, finally ran ashore. E11 approached, but came under fire from 50-100 cavalrymen. She fired a torpedo, but it missed; only the stern could be targeted and the shallow water made it impossible to close the range.

At 10:30 pm E11 headed towards Istanbul.

25 May: On the same day as U21 sank the battleship HMS Triumph E11 arrived at the Golden Horn. At 12:30 pm she fired torpedoes at two transports moored at the Arsenal Wharf. One hit and damaged the 3,559 ton SS Istanbul, which beached herself in shallow water, while the other, aimed at SS Kismet, circled back, forcing E11 to take evasive action, before escaping back to the Sea of Marmara.[8] The action was observed by the USS Scorpion, guard ship to the US Embassy. Her log noted that four torpedo boats fired on E11.[9]

26 May: The spare torpedoes were made ready. The rest of the day was spent bathing, repairing and mending clothes and resting.

27 May: An Ottoman battleship and two destroyers were seen at 1:30 am, but one of the destroyers forced E11 to dive as she was about to fire. A small steamer was observed at 5:00 pm, but not attacked after she fired on E11.

28 May: Smoke was spotted at 6:00 am. Half an hour later a convoy of one large and four small transports, escorted by a destroyer became visible. At 7:30 am a torpedo was fired at the largest transport, hitting and sinking the 474 ton SS Bandirma. Nasmith, conscious of the risk to E11’s periscope from Ottoman fire, dived his boat. He brought her back to periscope depth once safely clear, observing the destroyer searching for the submarine and the other transports continuing on their course.

At noon a steamship was seen approaching. A torpedo was fired, but no explosion was heard, although the target was seen to stop briefly. The torpedo was later found floating and hoisted back on board after Lieutenant Robert Browne had removed the firing pistol. Damage to the torpedo’s head showed that it had struck the ship, the 216 ton SS Dogan, without exploding.[10]

A small sailing vessel was stopped at 4:30 pm. She was not carrying any cargo and was allowed to continue after being relieved of various delicacies.

29 May: An attack on a store vessel at 7:00 am failed, with E11 breaking surface. Only two or three destroyers were seen during the rest of the day.

30 May: Day spent mainly in clearing the foul air in E11, cleaning her as far as possible and washing and bathing by the crew.

31 May: At 8:00 am a large ship of the German Rickmers Line was seen embarking troops at Panderma. At 9:20 am a torpedo was fired that hit her. She listed heavily to port, but her crew managed to beach her. The ship, the 3,431 ton SS Madeline Rickmers, was wrecked.[11]

1 June: A quiet day.

2 June: A destroyer was spotted at 8:10 am but E11 evaded her by diving. At 9:00 am E11 surfaced and headed to intercept a ship whose smoke had been observed just before diving. At 9:20 am E11 dived. She fired a torpedo 20 minutes later and the target, which was the 390 ton store SS Tecielli, sank in 3 minutes.[12]

At 12:30 pm the smoke of a small ship escorted by two destroyers was spotted. E11 dived at 1:15 pm. She fired a torpedo at the merchant ship at 2:15pm , but it passed under the target, which was the 400 ton SS Basangic.[13] The torpedo was found and floated back in to E11 via the stern torpedo tube after the firing pistol had been removed.

3 June: Smoke was seen at 3:00 pm. E11 dived and approached the vessel, which resembled a steam yacht. She was not closing the range quickly enough, so surfaced. When the range was down to 2,000 yards the enemy vessel turned and headed straight towards E11, which dived. The enemy had disappeared when E11 surfaced. A destroyer forced her to dive at 4:00 pm and remain submerged until midnight.

4 June: The only ship observed was a destroyer in the afternoon and evening, which was thought to be the one that had been hunting for E11 the day before.

5 June: The day was spent ventilating the boat, charging the batteries and bathing. Problems were found in one of the main motors and the intermediate shaft was cracked, so Jed was asked to give E11 permission to return to base.

6 June: A quiet Sunday of bathing, prayers, exercise and battery charging. A destroyer an some sailing vessels were seen in the afternoon. At 9:30 pm E11 headed slowly on the surface towards the north entrance to the Dardanelles.

7 June: E11 dived at 3:40 am and entered the Straits. At 6:30 am she passed Gallipoli at 90 feet. She examined all the anchorages, but found no battleships. A few small vessels and sailing ships were seen. The nest target was a troopship anchored off Moussa Bank. At noon a torpedo was fired at her. It struck, and the ship, which was the 3,590 ton SS Ceyhan, sank.[14]

E11 passed Nagara Point at 1:30 pm and Chanak 30 minutes later. A large mine became attached to the port foremost hydroplane at Chanak. At 4:00 pm E11 cleared the mine by surfacing stern first and heading astern at full speed. She was then met by the destroyer HMS Grampus, which escorted her to Port Mudros.

On 25 June the London Gazette printed the citation for the award of the Victoria Cross to Nasmith. Lieutenant Guy D’Oyly Hughes, his second in command, and Browne both received the Distinguished Service Cross and every petty officer and rating was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Nasmith’s citation, reproduced on Naval-History.net, said that:

 29206 – 25 JUNE 1915

Admiralty, 24th June, 1915.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant-Commander Martin Eric Nasmith, Royal Navy, for the conspicuous bravery specified below:

For most conspicuous bravery in command of one of His Majesty’s Submarines while operating in the Sea of Marmora. In the face of great danger he succeeded in destroying one large Turkish gunboat, two transports, one ammunition ship and three storeships, in addition to driving one storeship ashore. When he had safely passed the most difficult part of his homeward journey he returned again to torpedo a Turkish transport.

The number of ships that E11 was credited with sinking ties in with the ships named by Nicholas Lambert in his footnotes to the Navy Records Society’s reprint of the report of E11’s patrol on which the above is based. Their total tonnage was 13,211 tons.

This was only the first of three patrols that Nasmith and the crew of E11 made in the Dardanelles. The other two will be the subject of later posts.

 

 

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, pp. 237-38.

[2] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 45-46.

[3] Ibid. vol. iii, 32.

[4] This account of E11’s patrol is based on [142] ‘The First Sea of Marmora Patrol’ by HM Submarine E11, 19 May to 7 Hune 1915 by Lieutenant-Cammander Martin Nasmith, Lieutenant Guy d’Oyly Hughes and Lieutenant Robert Browne, document no. 142 in N. A. Lambert, ed. The Submarine Service, 1900-1918 (Aldershot: Ashgate for the Navy Records Society, 2001), pp. 301-13. Additional comments made by the editor are footnoted.

[5] Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 303.

[6] Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 305.

[7] Ibid. Footnote 2, p. 305.

[8] Ibid. Footnotes 1-3, p. 306.

[9] Ibid., p. 307.

[10] Ibid., pp. footnote 1, p. 309.

[11] Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 310.

[12] Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 311.

[13] Ibid. Footnote 2, p. 311.

[14] Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 313.

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Joseph Watt VC Fought a Light Cruiser in a Drifter

On 15 May 1917 three Austro-Hungarian light cruisers attacked a force of drifters that were patrolling the Straits of Otranto in order to prevent Austro-Hungarian and German U-boats breaking out from their bases in the Adriatic into the Mediterranean.

The drifter Gowan Lea, with a crew of eight men and a dog and armed with only a 6 pounder gun and depth charges, attacked the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Novara, which had a crew of 318, nine 3.9 inch and one 47mm guns and four 17.7 torpedo tubes. Gowan Lea’s skipper, Joseph Watt was awarded the VC. He was born in  Gardenstown, Banffshire and in peacetime skippered a Fraserburgh drifter. His vessel survived; its only casualty was the dog, who suffered shock and died three days later. Watt’s VC, Italian Al Valore Militare and French Croix de Guerre were sold by the auctioneer Spink for £204,000 on 19 April 2012; see the BBC website. I think that the purchaser will have paid £170,000 with a 20% fee to the auctioneer added on. The previous day’s Scotsman reported that the citation for Watt’s VC read:

Skipper Joseph Watt, Royal Naval Reserve.

For most conspicuous gallantry when the Allied Drifter line in the Straits of Otranto was attacked by Austrian light cruisers on the morning of 15 May, 1917. When hailed by an Austrian cruiser at about 100 yards range and ordered to stop and abandon his drifter the “Gowan Lea” Skipper Watt ordered full speed ahead and called upon his crew to give three cheers and fight to the finish. The cruiser was then engaged, but after one round had been fired, a shot from the enemy disabled the breech of the drifter’s gun. The gun’s crew, however, stuck to the gun, endeavouring to make it work, being under heavy fire all the time. After the cruiser had passed on Skipper Watt took the “Gowan Lea” alongside the badly damaged freighter “Floandi” and assisted to remove the dead and wounded.

According to this website on the VC, one Victoria Cross; two Distinguished Service Orders; six Distinguished Service Crosses; five Conspicuous Gallantry Medals; eighteen Distinguished Service Medals; and 31 Mentioned-in-Despatches were awarded for the action; see the London Gazette for the list of recipients. Thanks to poster Michaeldr of the Great War Forum for the link to the London Gazette.

Most of these awards were made to the drifter crews, but some went to the crews of the cruisers HMS Dartmouth and HMS Bristol, which participated in the later stages of the Battle of the Otranto Straits. Deckhand Frederick Lamb of the Gowan Lea received the CGM for continuing to fire her gun despite being wounded. Watt’s entry in Wikipedia, says that three other  members of the Gowan Lea’s crew received the CGM or the DSM. Since the London Gazette gives the citations for awards of the CGM but just lists recipients of the DSM, this is presumably Lamb’s CGM and two awards of the DSM.

The Otranto Barrage consisted of a line of drifters, mostly British, which were intended to trap enemy submarines that could then be attacked with depth charges. There were not enough drifters to have a continuous line and submarines could evade the line; in 1916 most passed it on the surface at night. In July 1916 there were supposed to be 50 drifters at sea, but a French officer reported that there were only 37, of which only 10 had their nets out. Strong currents meant that the drifters would move apart. Rear Admiral Mark Kerr, commander-in-chief of the British Adriatic Squadron, thought that 300 drifters were needed.

Only one submarine, the Austro-Hungarian U6 on 13 May 1916 was definitely destroyed by the Otranto Barrage. Two others were lost to unknown causes and may have fallen victim to it; the German UB44 in August 1916 and the Austro-Hungarian U30 in April 1917.

The Austro-Hungarians made several attacks on the Barrage; the one on 14-15 May 1917 was the largest. It was led by Captain Miklos Horthy of the Novara, which was accompanied by her sister ships the Helgoland and the Saida. They were modified to make them look like British destroyers from a distance. Two Tatra class destroyers, the Csepel and Balaton, would carry out a diversionary attack. Two Austro-Hungarian submarines, the U4 and U27, and a German minelaying submarine, the UC25, also took part.

The two Austro-Hungarian destroyers attacked a convoy, sinking the Italian destroyer Borea and a munitions ship, and damaging the other two ships in the convoy, one of which was set on fire. For some reason, they did not finish off the damaged ships, which both made port. The drifters were being screened by the Italian flotilla leader Mirabello and the French destroyers Commandant Riviere, Bisson and Cimeterre. The destroyer Boutefeu had returned to port with condenser problems.

Horthy’s cruisers evaded this force and two Allied submarines and attacked the drifters. They used their sirens to warn the almost defenceless drifters of their presence, giving their crews an opportunity to abandon ship, which the Gowan Lea did not take. Other drifters also resisted.

According  to the British official history[1]Floandi, described as a freighter in Watt’s VC citation, was a drifter which fired on the Novara. Skipper D. J. Nicholls and one of her enginemen were wounded, with the other engineman being killed. The crew of the Admirable, next to the Gowan Lea in the line,abandoned ship, but one man returned to her. He tried to man the gun but was killed before he could fire.

The Austro-Hungarians sank 14 drifters out of 47 and damaged four, three seriously. They rescued 72 of the drifters’ crews before heading back to their base at Cattaro, but they were 40 miles further from it than from the Allied base at Brindisi.

The attack on the convoy began at 3:24 am and that on drifters at 3:30 am. At 4:35 am Rear Admiral Alfredo Acton, commander of the Italian Scouting Division, ordered the Mirabello destroyer force to intercept the Austrians. It took some time until other Allied ships were ready to sail, but the British light cruisers Dartmouth, flying Acton’s flag, and Bristol, the Italian flotilla leader Aquila and the Italian destroyers Mosto, Pilo, Schiaffino and Acerbi set sail at 6:45 am. Acton did not order the Italian light cruiser Marsala and four more destroyers to sea until 8:25 am, an hour after they were ready.

The Mirabello group contacted the Horthy’s  cruisers at 7:00 am, but the French destroyers struggled to keep up. Acton’s force intercepted the Austro-Hungarian destroyers at 07:45. The Austro-Hungarians escaped after disabling the Aquila.

Acton was now between Horthy and Cattaro  and the two forces spotted each other at 9:00 am. Dartmouth (eight 6 inch guns) and Bristol (two 6 inch and 10 4 inch guns) outgunned the three Austro-Hungarian cruisers (nine 3.9 inch guns each), but Acton’s force was being whittled down. Pilo and Schiaffino  remained with Aquila, Mirabello had problems with her fuel supply and Commandant Riviere broke down at 11:45; Bisson and Cimeterre stayed to escort her. Bristol’s bottom was fouled, and she dropped behind the other cruisers.

Horthy’s  cruisers were able to concentrate on Dartmouth, so Acton slowed her to allow Bristol to catch up. Between 10:30 and 11:00 am Dartmouth damaged Novara, but Acton decided to concentrate on Saida, which was lagging the other two Austrian cruisers, which had drawn ahead of the British ships. Marsala and her destroyers had now arrived.

Saida was not badly hit, but Novara had now stopped. However, Austro-Hungarian reinforcements, including a heavy cruiser had now appeared, so at noon Acton headed back to Brindisi. On the way there, UC25 torpedoed Dartmouth and the Boutefeu, which had come out to assist her, struck one of the mines laid by UC25 and sank.

Aircraft from both sides were present. The Austrians got the better of the Italians, and their aircraft were able to spot for their destroyers. The Austrians bombed and strafed the British cruisers but did not damage them.

The action was clearly a success for the Austrians. The multi-national Allied force had suffered from signalling problems. It was clear that the drifters could not be protected at night unless more destroyers were available, which they were not. consequently, the barrage was maintained only during the day.

As Paul Halpern points out[2], the action made little strategic difference. The major Austro-Hungarian warships were still confined to port, and the threat to Allied shipping in the Mediterranean continued to come from submarines. Horthy had risked three of the best Austro-Hungarian warships in order to attack an ineffective blockade.

The big gainer from the Battle of the Otranto Straits was Horthy himself. He was promoted to Rear Admiral and made commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in March 1918. He was Regent of Hungary from 1920-44.

Skipper Joseph Watts returned to the fishing fleet after the war. The Scotsman quoted a spokeswomen for Spink, the auctioneers who sold his medals, as saying that:

 “His Victoria Cross, so bravely earned, was kept in a small drawer on his boat, amidst the accumulated junk of a sailor’s life. Joseph Watt died at home in Fraserburgh from cancer of the gullet on 13 February, 1955, and was buried alongside his wife in Kirktown Cemetery. His loss was felt all over the North-east fishing communities with deep regret.”


[1] Henry Newbolt, Naval Operations, vol. iv (London: HMSO, 1938), p. 300.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 166.


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