Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Cornwall in the First World War

During this month, each weekday I'm posting a different image showing Cornwall's First World War.

In July 1903, at just 15 years old, Mullion-born Ernest Herbert Pitcher joined the Royal Navy. By August 1914 he was serving in the Dreadnought battleship King George V. The following year Ernest volunteered for special service with Britain’s growing Q-ship fleet.

Q-ships were intended to combat Germany’s submarines by posing as defenceless merchant vessels. To inflict a nasty surprise on attacking U-boats these tempting targets concealed weaponry aplenty: deck-guns, torpedoes, depth-charges. It was perilous work, the Q-ships serving as decoys to draw enemy fire, their crews all volunteers.
In February 1917, ex-collier Q-ship HMS Farnborough was sailing off Ireland’s west coast.  Among her crew was Ernest, by then a Petty Officer. Farnborough was attacked by submarine U-83; in a brutal exchange the U-boat was sunk, the ship damaged but beached, while Ernest was mentioned in despatches.

By the summer he was embarked in HMS Dunraven, again a Q-ship disguised as a collier. On 8 August, around 130 miles south-west of Ushant in the Bay of Biscay, submarine UC-71 spotted Dunraven. Taken in, the U-boat surfaced and attacked. Shells from its deck-gun struck the ship, setting off depth-charges; fire caught at her stern while a torpedo caused more damage. 

The British replied with two torpedoes of their own, but missed. UC-71 stole away while Dunraven slowly began to go down; later she sank under tow. Happily the crewmen who’d lived through the action were rescued, and the story of PO Pitcher’s gallantry came out.

Ernest had been in charge of the sailors manning Dunraven’s 4-inch gun, hidden in the poop. When the magazine below was set afire, to stave off catastrophe the men carried all the powder and shells they could up to their gun. There they calmly held these materials on their knees, to stop the deck’s heat igniting them. Finally though the magazine had exploded; the sailors were blown high into the air. With several injuries, Ernest came round on the deck.

Somehow, all the gun-crew had survived. In the light of such exceptional discipline and bravery, along with the other sailors Ernest’s name was entered into a ballot for a Victoria Cross, and drawn. He received his medal in November 1917; his men were awarded Conspicuous Gallantry Medals.

In July 1918 Petty Officer Pitcher VC and his wife Lily attended a private view of the Exhibition of Naval Photographs at the Princes Galleries in Piccadilly, London, where they met King George V and Queen Mary.   

After the war, as a regular Ernest stayed in the Navy; during August 1920 he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer, and that year was a member of the honour guard at the Cenotaph Service of Remembrance. He left the Service in 1927, becoming a teacher and then a publican. During August 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, he rejoined the Navy. Courageous Ernest Pitcher saw out his second great war, and died in February 1946.

My book, 'Cornwall In The First World War', is published by Truran. With 112 pages and 100 images, you'll find it in bookshops across the Duchy. It's also available through Amazon:

No comments: