Inside the First World War – Part Seven

  • 2 March, 2014
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Sunday Telegraph on 02 March 2014.

Ernest Herbert Pitcher – He stood by his gun as shells started major fires

As the son of a coastguard and having been born in the Cornish harbour village of Mullion, Ernest Herbert Pitcher’s chosen profession would not have surprised anyone. Pitcher, who was born on New Year’s Eve, 1888, joined the Royal Navy, aged just 14 and, by the outbreak of the First World War, he was serving in the super-dreadnought, HMS King George V. The following year, he volunteered for service in the expanding fleet of secret “Q-ships”, at one stage Britain’s only “answer” to the U-boats, German submarines that were causing such terrible damage to the Allies’ merchant fleets.

Throughout the first two years of the war the Royal Navy was unable to halt the massive loss and damage to merchant ships caused by the U-boats. Depth charges, mined nets, deep minefields, hunter destroyers and special patrols of submarines were among the tactics used to target the U-boats but all proved to be largely ineffective. In his book VCs of the First World War: The Naval VCs, Stephen Snelling spelled out the scale of the problem: “In six months [during 1916] the monthly losses of British and foreign vessels had more than trebled to 368,521 tons. By contrast, U-boat losses during the whole of 1916 amounted to just 25, of which five were due to accidents and a further four to action by our Russian ally. The unpalatable truth was that the Royal Navy was not merely failing to check the submarine campaign, it was actually in danger of losing it, and with it, the war itself.”

As U-boat numbers steadily increased, they became the supreme maritime threat to Britain’s survival. To preserve costly torpedoes and allow them to plunder their target’s valuables, U-boats would often surface close to a merchant ship, bring it under fire from their deck-mounted gun and force the soft target to surrender. The merchant crew would then leave their ship to the German submariners, who would take any valuables that took their fancy before scuttling it. The Q-ship was a gunship disguised to look like a merchant ship and developed to combat this practice. As soon as the U-boat surfaced to collect its booty, the ship’s gun would be revealed and it would try to blow the U-boat out of the water. Pitcher served on the ex-collier Loderer, also known as HMS Farnborough, or Q-5.

Loderer, which had been built in 1904, was fitted out with the typical devices of a Q-ship: five 12- pounder guns variously concealed by a “steering house” aft, hinged flaps on the main deck and dummy cabins on the upper deck; two six-pounder guns hidden at either end of the bridge; and a Maxim gun in a dummy hencoop amidships. There were 11 officers and 56 men on board, with Pitcher one of the few regular Royal Navy ratings. Loderer was commissioned under her original name on October 21, 1915, but was renamed Farnborough after the Admiralty received an anonymous tip-off that her new role as U-boat “bait” had been leaked to the Germans. On March 22, 1916, Farnborough made the fourth Q-ship U-boat “kill” of the war when she sank Kapitänleutnant Guntzel’s U-68 with all hands. This success led to the Q-ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Gordon Campbell, being promoted to Commander. On February 17, 1917, to the west of Ireland, Farnborough accounted for her second “kill”, U-83, which was sunk with the loss of all hands bar an officer and one seaman.

The following month, Pitcher and most of the rest of Q-5’s crew elected to follow Commander Campbell, who by this point had already been awarded the VC, to his next Q-ship: another former collier which was renamed Pargust. She had improved equipment and armaments, including a four-inch gun, and went to sea in May, but she was torpedoed a month later by Kapitänleutnant Rose’s UC-29. The decoy “panic party” left the ship and when the U-boat surfaced the remaining crew fired 38 shells at it, causing it to blow up and sink. Pargust, which had been damaged in the attack, was towed into a nearby port the next day but her crew survived the attack. Under the 13th rule of the VC’s Royal Warrant, an officer and a rating were each awarded the VC on behalf of the whole crew. Other decorations were also awarded including to Commander Campbell, who received a bar to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) that he had won for his second “kill”, and to Pitcher, who was awarded one of eight Distinguished Service Medals (DSMs).

Most of Pargust’s crew now followed Campbell on to Dunraven. At 10.58am on August 8, 1917, their new ship, disguised as a British merchant vessel, was zigzagging some 130 miles off Ushant in the Bay of Biscay when a U-boat was sighted on the horizon. Dunraven maintained her course as the U-boat, UC-71, closed. At 11.17am, the enemy submarine dived, then resurfaced 5,000 yards away on the starboard quarter. The U-boat opened fire at 11.43am and Campbell, acting in the manner of a panicking merchant captain, sent out a distress signal giving the ship’s position. He also fired off some token rounds from the ship’s little two-and-a-half-pounder gun, as if it were the only weapon he possessed. The U-boat closed again and, when a torpedo almost hit Dunraven, the crew generated a cloud of steam to simulate boiler trouble. At the same time, Campbell dispatched a “panic party” to make it look as if the ship was being abandoned.

The submarine now scored three quick hits on Dunraven’s poop. The first detonated a depth charge that wounded three men and cut communications between Pitcher, the captain of the four-inch gun crew, and the bridge. However, Pitcher’s team decided not to move, as leaving their position would have given the game away. It was imperative that the Germans had to remain convinced that the ship had already been abandoned. The second and third shells started a major fire that meant Pitcher and several others were now concealed on a “red-hot deck”. They lifted boxes of cordite off the deck and on to their knees in a bid to stop them exploding, but still they did not flee. At that point, UC-71 was obscured by black smoke from Dunraven’s stern, which presented Campbell with a dilemma. He knew an explosion on his own vessel was inevitable, but if he delayed in giving the order to abandon ship he might get a clear shot at the submarine. He later wrote: “To cold-bloodedly leave the gun’s crew to their fate seemed awful, and the names of each of them flashed through my mind, but our duty was to sink the submarine. By losing a few men we might save thousands not only of lives but of ships and tons of the nation’s requirements. I decided to wait.” The explosion on Dunraven came at 12.58pm, before the U-boat could be fired upon. It blew out the stern of the ship and propelled the fourinch gun and its crew into the air. The gun landed on the well deck and one man was thrown into the sea, while Pitcher and another crewman landed on mock railway trucks made of wood and canvas, which cushioned their falls and saved their lives.

As UC-71 crash-dived, two shots were fired at her but without any telling effect. Pitcher and the other wounded men were now removed to the cabins, where they stayed for the rest of the action with “shells exploding all around them”. As Campbell was preparing a torpedo attack, Dunraven was shelled behind the engine room. Then the U-boat resurfaced and for 20 minutes shelled the Q-ship until diving again at 2.50pm. Campbell responded by firing two torpedoes. Both missed but, fortunately for Dunraven’s crew, the U-boat had now exhausted its own supply of torpedoes and fled the scene. A British destroyer, Christopher, towed the battered Q-ship towards Plymouth but, as the weather deteriorated, she sank at 3am.

A list of awards for the bravery of the Dunraven crew was announced in the London Gazette on November 2, 1917. No fewer than 41 members of the crew received decorations and a further 14 were mentioned in dispatches. The VC assigned specifically to the gun crew was awarded to Pitcher after a ballot to see who should receive it. Furthermore, a second VC – a personal award – was made to the ship’s First Lieutenant, Charles Bonner. In a letter to Campbell, the ship’s commander, who was awarded a second bar to his DSO, the American Admiral W S Sims wrote: “I know nothing finer in naval history than the conduct of the after-gun crew.”

The heroic action involving Dunraven was a turning point. Both sides came to an unofficial agreement that there was a stalemate in this form of warfare and, eventually, the Q-service was wound down. Pitcher, who always sported a dark, bushy beard, received the gun crew’s VC from George V at Buckingham Palace on December 5, 1917. He was later awarded the French Médaille Militaire for the action, on top of the Croix de Guerre that he already held. After the First World War, Pitcher did his best to ensure that his heroic legacy on Dunraven lived on – he eventually named both his daughter and his house after the ship. On August 1, 1920, Pitcher was promoted to chief petty officer; seven years later he retired from the Royal Navy after a quarter of a century’s service. He then worked in Swanage, Dorset, as a woodwork teacher in a boys’ preparatory school. For a time, he also ran a pub, the Royal Oak in nearby Herston. However, after the outbreak of the Second World War, he rejoined the Royal Navy and served on shore for five years at Poole, Portland and Yeovilton.

After the war, Pitcher’s health deteriorated and he became seriously ill with tuberculosis. He died on February 10, 1946, at the Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital in Sherborne, Dorset, aged 57. His body was brought back to Swanage, where he was buried in Northbrook Cemetery. The Commonwealth War Graves’ headstone marking his grave bears the inscription: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”

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