It is a delight when this website produces new information and makes new contacts between people. Carl Clayton has sent us this letter and provided us with updated, revised articles on ‘Kipper’ – Rear Admiral Eric Robinson V.C.
I’ve had more interesting contacts arising from the article. The village where Kipper is buried is putting up a memorial stone and has asked me and Kipper’s granddaughter to attend the event.
I have made some changes to the article based on feedback that I have received. There are changes to the chapters on China, the Dardanelles and Dundee. Also I have corrected some typos. I attach the new versions and would be grateful if these could be put up some time.
Thanks again, Carl
Carl has written two very interesting and informative articles about Rear Admiral Eric Robinson, a hero in World War One and World War Two, which I am sure will be enjoyed by many of our readers. Admiral Robinson is certainly another in the line of great naval heroes, established by the education and tradition of the Victorian and Edwardian Navy, and who deserve not to be forgotten! Carl will be grateful for any comments or additional information from readers.
To read Part 2 click here
This account was originally written for the family of Eric Robinson as an attempt to put his career into an historical context. It has steadily grown as I researched the different aspects of his remarkable life and discovered more background information. It is based on family archives and published sources. To my shame (I am a librarian by profession) I did not include full citations in the text but I will provide a list of references with the second part of the story. It was written for a non-specialist audience and If any readers spot any glaring errors or can provide further information please get in touch. CC
This is the story of Rear Admiral Eric Gascoigne Robinson VC, OBE, otherwise known as Kipper. Exactly when and why he got this nickname is not known. Possibly it was a name he picked up at school or on the training ship HMS Britannia – his Britannia classmates used the name later in his life. Maybe it was given to him later because of his heavy smoking (as in smoked kipper) – most photographs of him “off-duty” show him with a pipe in his mouth. I hope that I will be forgiven for being so informal for in spite of his rank and status as a much decorated naval officer, Admiral Robinson was not one to stand on ceremony.
Eric Robinson’s career in the Royal Navy is notable in that it sheds light on what might be regarded as sideshows rather than the main theatres of war. He was involved in the Boxer rebellion when attention was focused on the Boer War. In the Great War he was at Gallipoli and Palestine rather than with the Grand Fleet in the North Sea. When the Armistice was being celebrated he was fighting in the Caspian Sea against the Bolshevik. In 1940 he was involved in the Battle of the Atlantic while the Battle of Britain was being fought and then was posted to Dundee, a place dismissed by an Air Ministry official as ‘not important to the war effort’. What makes his career so interesting is that it is both typical of a naval officer of the period and also unique in many ways.
This story can be read on different levels. It is a “Boy’s Own” tale of stirring adventure. It throws light on some interesting aspects of naval history. It is a story the British Empire from its height at the end of the 19thCentury, through the “war to end all wars” and the war against fascism. It begins in an Empire prepared to use gunboat diplomacy to achieve its goals and ends with a nation standing alone against Hitler.
Finally, it is the story of an individual life, a man who did his duty as he saw it in the context of his social class and times. A man, who overcame obstacles, achieved great things, suffered personal loss and lived by Kipling’s famous words:
‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same’
Carl Clayton (2014) cclayton[at]hotmail.co.uk
Chapter 1. Kipper goes to sea
Eric Gascoigne Robinson was born at Greenwich, London on the 16th May 1882, the third child of the Reverend John Lovell and Louisa Aveline Robinson. His father, a Naval Chaplain was born in 1849 in Ireland and entered the Royal Navy in 1871. From 1879 to 1902 John Robinson taught algebra and geometry at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich and was Assistant Chaplain to the Fleet 1881 – 1902.
John Robinson published two books that were standard textbooks for naval students – Elements of Dynamics and Elements of Marine Surveying (Treatise on Marine Surveying 1882). One of his pupils was the Prince of Wales, later George V and among the family papers is an examination script written in a boyish hand a bearing the name “George”.
His wife Louisa was the daughter of General John Hawkins Gascoigne CB, RMLI and this is where Eric got his second name. John and Louisa had three children, Mary, Ernest and Eric.
Eric was educated at St John’s School, Leatherhead, and the Limes, Greenwich and from an early age he was destined to follow his father into the Royal Navy. In 1897 at the age of 15 he joined HMS Britannia, the Royal Navy’s officer training establishment. Britannia was an old wooden-walled ship, laid down in 1860 as the 131-gun Prince of Wales. She was moored in the river Dart above the town of Dartmouth and attached to a second ship, the Hindustan, which provided accommodation. The main purpose of training was to prepare future officers for the navy with both the skills and the required ‘moral fibre’ for their future role. Britannia had a Spartan regime of hard exercise and hard discipline. The day began, winter and summer, with a bugle call at 6.30 a.m.and a plunge into a cold salt-water bath, and it proceeded with muster, studies, drills, prayers and meals – the passing hours marked by bugle call and ship’s bell. Mathematics featured prominently on the timetable but there was time for sport and Eric was an enthusiastic hockey player.
The Royal Navy that Eric joined in 1897 was at the height of its power. Britannia ruled the waves and the navy maintained the Empire on which the sun never set. It was also a navy going through a period of rapid change. HMS Warrior, the world’s first ocean-going iron-hulled battleship had been launched in 1860 as the largest, fastest and most powerful vessel of its time and it made all other warships obsolete. However in appearance it still had similarities with the older generation of ships. Warrior was equipped with steam engines but also had masts and could operate under sail. Its guns were much larger but they were still arranged in broadsides along the length of the hull. Over the next few decades the appearance of warships was to change dramatically. HMS Monarch, the first seagoing warship to carry her guns in turrets, and the first British warship to carry guns of 12-inch (300 mm) calibre, was launched in 1868.
The year that Kipper joined Britannia was the 60th anniversary of the accession of Queen Victoria and to mark the occasion a grand Naval Review was held at Spithead, only a few miles from Dartmouth. On June 26th 1897, was gathered the greatest armada the world had ever seen. No fewer than 165 ships flying the White Ensign were present from the latest battleships like HMS Majestic to cruisers, torpedo-boat destroyers and gun boats. The entire fleet was manned by over 38,000 officers and men. If the cadets were taken to see this spectacle they would have witnessed an amazing sight. Just as the review began and the bands struck up the national anthem, a small boat dashed out from her position and into the passing review, travelling at high speed. The authorities became alarmed and sent out a picket boat to stop the vessel but she was going so much faster that the wash she created nearly sank the pursuing navy vessel. The watching dignitaries and crowd were astounded by the speed of this boat. This was the first public appearance of Turbinia. Designed by Charles Parsons she used a (literarily) revolutionary new type of engine – the steam turbine – which produced much higher speeds than the old reciprocating engines. The Royal Navy quickly adopted this engine for its warships and in 1906 when HMS Dreadnought, the first of a new generation of all big-gun battleships was launched; she was equipped with steam turbines.
Midshipman Eric Robinson’s first appointment in 1898 was to the battleship HMS Majestic. Launched in 1895 Majestic was a 1st class battleship armed with four 12 inch and ten 6 inch guns. When Eric joined her she was the flagship of the Channel Fleet so he would have experienced the strict discipline and the ‘spit and polish’ regime of the late Victorian navy. These large warships were essential training grounds for inexperienced midshipmen before being posted to smaller ships where they would have more responsibility.
Chapter 2. Kipper sails East
In June 1899 Midshipman Robinson was posted to the cruiser HMS Endymion, and sailed to China. This in itself would have been an adventure for a young man of 17 – but he arrived just in time for the outbreak of the Boxer rebellion.
In the 18th century the Chinese Empire, ruled by the Manchu dynasty, came into conflict with European commercial interests, especially the British Empire. The British wanted to obtain tea and silk from China – not only because they wanted these luxury goods but also because they could be taxed by the Government. China was prepared to sell these goods for silver bullion – the only currency they would accept – but Britain wanted to trade them for goods produced in the British Empire. The Chinese Emperor Qianlong (ruled 1736-95), fearing that opening up China to trade would expose his subjects to foreign ideas and destabilise the Empire, insisted that only the port of Canton could be used by foreign ships.
By 1839 Britain was no longer prepared to accept this limitation on its right to trade – the closed door was to be forced open by military force. The spark for this was opium – an illicit product grown in British India that was being smuggled into China. The Chinese authorities tried to put a stop to the import of this drug but the British companies involved in this profitable trade objected strongly and called on the British Government to support their commercial interests. Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston agreed and the 1st Opium War began. Chinese settlements on the coast were attacked by Naval forces and occupied by troops and in 1842 the Chinese Empire was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing. This treaty opened up four more ports for trade and ceded theisland of Hong Kong to Britain as a colony. Shipments of opium to China nearly doubled. This 1st Opium War was followed in 1856 by the 2nd Opium War when a joint Franco-British force occupied Beijing, which resulted in further concessions to Britain, France and Russia. China was in danger of becoming a victim of foreign imperial powers.
From 1861 the Chinese Empire was effectively ruled by the Empress Dowager Cixi, mother of the child Emperor Tongzhi. This remarkable woman did much to modernise China and opened the country up to foreign trade while standing up to the predatory attention of foreign powers and opposition from factions within the Imperial court. In 1875 her son the Emperor died but Cixi made her 3 year old nephew Guangxu the new Emperor and continued to rule as the Empress Dowager. By 1889 the Emperor Guangxu was old enough to rule in his own name and Cixi was forced into retirement. During this period the Emperors advisers led China into a war with Japan and suffered a serious defeat, loosing Korea and Port Arthur.
In 1898 Cixi regained effective control following a coup against the Emperor Guangxu’s advisors. However she was still faced by the aggressive behaviour of foreign powers and by the increase of anti Western sentiment amongst the Chinese population. The behaviour of Christian missionaries in particular caused great offence. Inevitably Christianity came into conflict with traditional Chinese beliefs but there was another aspect. If a Christian convert had a dispute with a native Chinese official the missionary would always take the part of the convert, no matter what the facts of the case. If the missionary could not intimidate the local Chinese officials they would appeal to their consul to apply extra pressure and this could be backed up with military force. This undermined Chinese sovereignty and cause a sense of grievance among Chinese peasants which often led to riots.
In the spring of 1899 riots in part of China occupied by Germany led to harsh reprisals. German troops burnt down villages and shot many Chinese peasants. These atrocities led to the growth of a nationalist group known as the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, or Boxers as they were known by westerners. As the Society grew in size attacks against Christian converts and missionaries increased. Emperess Cixi recognised the danger this posed to good relationships with the west and ordered that the perpetrators be arrested and the Boxers banned in the provinces most affected by the attacks. However, this was not enough for the foreign powers which demanded that much harsher measures be taken against Chinese peasants in order to ‘eradicate’ the Boxers. They backed up their demands with threats of military force.
Cixi was determined to resist these threats. It was a matter of national sovereignty and Cixi was aware that if she went along with these demands it would only increase the anger of the Chinese people at all levels. She wanted to stand up to the threats but knew that the Chinese army and navy were not strong enough to withstand the full power of foreign force. Lacking any option she accepted the view of some of her advisers that the Boxers could be used as shock troops in the looming conflict. These advisers convinced Cixi that the Boxers could be an effective auxiliary force and that they could be controlled by the Imperial government. Events were soon to spiral out of control.
In the spring of 1900 drought and famine led to unrest in the region surrounding Beijing. Thousands of Boxer supporters crowded into the city. They were armed with knives and other improvised weapons but believed that protective spirits made them immune to bullets. Mobs roamed the streets calling for death for all foreigners and an obvious target were the foreign diplomats of the legations. Home to the representatives of eleven counties the Legation Quarter was situated next to the wall of the Royal City and soon it was under siege by the Boxers. Cixi was very aware that any harm to the diplomats would not be tolerated by the foreign governments and would result in catastrophic retaliation. She attempted to achieve a subtle balance, ensuring that the legation came to no harm while not being seen to act against the Boxers. On the 31st May Cixi gave permission for a small force of 400 foreign troops to travel from Tientsin to Beijing to protect the legations. The British commander Admiral Seymour however decided to send a much larger force. When Kipper arrived at Tientsin from HMS Endymion he found himself part of a force of 2,000 sailors and marines embarking on a convoy of five trains which left on the 10th June 1900 due to arrive in Beijing the following day.
It soon became clear that the relief column would not have an easy passage to Beijing. Every few miles the trains had to stop as the railway line was being sabotaged by the Chinese. Three days later the relief force had covered only 25 miles and was still 84 miles from Beijing and the situation was getting worse. It was becoming clear to Admiral Seymour that instead of leading a force to assist the Chinese government to put down an uprising he was now facing war with Imperial China. A large force of regular Chinese troops attacked the trains and the sailors and marines were forced to detrain and form a line along the tracks. Both sides opened rapid fire and Kipper described hearing the bullets hissing overhead. The allied force then counter attacked in a series of charges, pausing to fire volleys into the Chinese ranks and forcing them back. One bullet passed through Kipper’s helmet and another grazed his arm but eventually the Chinese troops retreated.
The attack was beaten off but the position of the relief force became desperate. The railway line back to Tientsin had been cut so no supplies or reinforcements could arrive. There were a growing number of casualties and the situation in Beijing was getting worse with attacks on the legations intensifying. News was received that the German Ambassador in Beijing had been killed and on the 21st June Cixi declared war on the Western powers. Seymour decided to abandon the trains and retreat on foot back to Tientsin along the Hai river. Every day they had to fight off both Imperial troops and fanatical Boxer forces who believed that they were impervious to western bullets. They were running out of food and ammunition and had to abandon their artillery. On the 22nd the column found its route blocked by the strongly fortified Imperial Army Arsenal at Hsiku (Xigu). However, three Chinese officials appeared and told Seymour that he could pass without opposition. Then as the weary column marched along the river bank under the walls of the Arsenal they came under fire. It seemed as if they had been led into a trap. A desperate battle developed with the allied force fighting for their lives. They managed to capture some of the Chinese guns being used against them and turned them on the enemy. Then a force of Marines outflanked the Chinese lines and attacked the arsenal from the rear. To their surprise they found it was weakly defended and soon the allied troops found themselves ensconced in an impregnable position inside the arsenal. The battle clearly demonstrated the fighting spirit of the allied forces but also showed the confused situation on the Chinese side with some factions still trying to avoid conflict with the Westerners.
Seymour’s force found that the Arsenal was well equipped with arms and ammunition although much of it was out of date and their problems were far from over. That night the Chinese launched a counter-attack which was beaten off with difficulty. They were under siege by a much larger Chinese army and had no idea of what was going on outside. A Chinese servant eventually managed to get through to Tientsin and on the 25th June a relief force including Russian Cossacks arrived to break the siege. The column, including a tired, hungry and unwashed Kipper, was able to continue its retreat to Tientsin.
The Legations in Beijing were still under siege and their situation appeared to be desperate. Cixi was still trying to maintain her balancing act. She took steps to ensure that the Boxers were not able to storm the Legation and even arranged for fresh food to be delivered. She declared that she would fight to the end against the invaders but she began to recognise that the Boxers were not a force she could rely on. They were not inclined to follow orders and they were running wild in Beijing and other cities, looting and pillaging at will. The Allies meanwhile had set up an Eight Nation Alliance and were organising a second much larger relief force with substantial forces from Russia, Japan, Britain, France and the USA. This left Tientsin on August 4th and Kipper marched with it. The next day there was a battle to capture the arsenal at Pei Tsang (Beicang) and during this action he was wounded in the upper arm.
For this campaign Kipper received the China Medal with the “Relief of Pekin” bar.
This relief column eventually entered Beijing on the 14th August and ended the siege of the Legations. The Dowager Empress fled the city and later China had to sign a humiliating peace treaty granting further concessions and a large war indemnity to the Allies. The imperial nations of Europe had demonstrated that they had the power to impose their will on any opposition. There was no one to challenge their right to dominate the globe as long as they did not fall out amongst themselves. Fourteen years latter that’s exactly what happened.
Notes. 1. Cixi is the modern transliteration of the shortened version of what was an honorific name. It is sometimes given as Tzu-hsi in other sources.
Chapter 3. Kipper goes to war
Following his exploits in China Kipper was promoted to Sub-lieutenant in 1901 and Lieutenant in 1903. In 1905 he joined the torpedo training school HMS Vernon where he was trained in the use of torpedoes, mines and explosives. Vernon was not a sea going vessel but rather a group of three old ships moored at Porchester creek. Two of the ships were wooden hulks used for accommodation. The third was an iron hulled ship which provided the power for the Vernon from its engines, as well as classrooms and offices. When Vernon moved ashore in 1923 this ship became a floating oil jetty. It was a sad fate for what had been the most powerful battleship in the world – for this was HMS Warrior, the first ocean-going iron-hulled battleship. Fortunately the Warrior was rescued and restored to its former glory it is now on show at the Royal Naval Dockyard, Portsmouth.
Mines and torpedoes were beginning to emerge as a significant weapon system in this period. The basic principle of both was to detonate an explosive device against the hull of a ship. The word torpedo was used in the 19th century for static devices which exploded when a ship passed over them. It was only at the turn of the century that torpedo was used strictly for self propelled devices fired from a boat or submarine. Kipper’s training in this aspect of weapons technology was to have a significant impact on his future.
In July 1913 Eric Robinson (now a Lieutenant-Commander) married Edith Gladys Cordeux. The wedding photographs show a handsome, dashing naval officer and his beautiful young bride; two well established Edwardian middle-class families joining together. It was the high summer of the British Empire and the future must have looked bright for Kipper and for his brother Ernest, an officer with P&O, who was to get married himself in June 1914. Less than a year after Kipper’s wedding Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo and Europe went to war.
At the outbreak of war Kipper was serving on the cruiser HMS Amethyst under Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt operating in the Channel. His brother Ernest transferred from P&O to the Royal Navy as a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) and joined HMS Hawke, a cruiser which had achieved some unwelcome fame in 1911 when it collided with the White Star liner RMS Olympic, sister ship of RMS Titanic.
Amethyst was part of the Harwich Force and was attached to the 7th Cruiser Squadron on patrols in the North Sea with the cruisers Bacchanate, Euryalus, Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy. These old cruisers were regarded as obsolescent but were given the important task of patrolling the “Broad Fourteens” in the North Sea to protect ships sailing between England and France from German ships operating from the north German ports. Concerns were raised that these old cruisers would be very vulnerable to an attack by German battle cruisers and the force gained the sombre nickname of ‘the live bait squadron’. The First Lord of the Admiralty Wilson Churchill agreed to withdraw the ships but it was then decided to retain them until replacements were available.
Kipper was eager to see some action and welcomed news of minor engagements such as the sinking of the German minelayer Konigen Augusta Louise. Much of his time was spent on routine patrols, towing British submarines into position and recoaling. He did not get on particularly well with his commanding officer Commodore Tyrwhitt and was pleased when Tyrwhitt transferred his flag to the faster cruised HMS Arethusa. However this meant that Kipper was to miss out on the first big naval battle of the war. On the 28th August German and British forces met at the Battle of Heligoland Bight. A fleet of cruisers and destroyers under Tyrwhitt intercepted a force of German destroyers and a confused battle ensued resulting in the sinking of six German ships. Unfortunately for Kipper the transfer of Tyrwhitt to the faster Arethusa on the eve of the battle meant that the Amethyst was not involved and he was left to observe the result of the battle – towing the damaged destroyer Laurel into Sheerness. In his diary he described the first real taste of the war as ‘Horrible – but wish we had not missed it.’
Kipper and Amethyst returned to their regular patrols with the 7th Cruiser Squadron, but the deteriorating weather was making the task more difficult. Struggling to stay on station with the cruisers the Amethyst and other smaller ships suffered considerable damage in the September gales. The Admiralty decided that in bad weather the cruisers should operate without their escort.
On the 21st September Kipper was transferred to the battleship HMS Vengeance as torpedo officer. Armed with four 12ins and twelve 6ins guns Vengeance had entered service in 1902. Kipper may have been disappointed that he was not serving on a Dreadnought with the Grand Fleet and might miss out on the decisive battle with the German High Sea Fleet which, everyone believed, would decide the outcome of the war. The posting did mean shore leave however and Kipper and Edith (or Robbie and Jinks to use their own pet names) were able to spend a last night together before he joined his new ship. The entry in his diary for this night makes clear the passion of a young couple who could not be sure if they would ever see each other again.
He had been reluctant to leave his colleagues in the Cruiser Squadron but Kipper had no premonition of the disaster that was about to engulf them. The following day Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy were on patrol in the North Sea when the Aboukir was hit by a large explosion. Thinking she had run into a mine the other ships stopped to give assistance, but it was not a mine, it was a torpedo from the German submarine U9. Presented with two stationary targets the German U-boat commander Otto Weddigen torpedoed the Hogue and then the Cressy, sinking all three ships with the loss of 1,459 lives.
The loss of the three ships confirmed the vulnerability of the “live bait squadron” and more significantly it highlighted the threat posed by U-boats. For the Royal Navy it was a painful but valuable warning.
A few weeks later, on the 15th October, the U9 was again hunting in the North Sea. Captain Weddigen sighted two more British cruisers, HMS Theseus and HMS Hawke. He missed the Theseus but sank the Hawke with the loss of 486 of the crew. Among the dead was Kipper’s brother Ernest who had been married for less than four months. As 1914 drew to a close Lieutenant-Commander Eric Robinson must have pondered the cruel fate of a war in which he had yet to see action but had lost a brother and many colleagues to a single U-boat captain.
Chapter 4. Kipper in the Dardanelles
In January 1915 HMS Vengeance was ordered to the Dardanelles to take part in an operation which the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, believed would shorten the war.
The idea behind the Dardanelles operation was simple. If the British fleet could sail through the narrows separating Europe from Asia they would reach the Sea of Marmara. From here they could attack the capital of the Ottoman Empire – Constantinople – and possibly force Turkey out of the war. Even if this did not succeed they could sail through the narrows at the East end of the Marmara and into the Black Sea. This would open up the route to Russia enabling the Western Powers to send supplies to their Eastern ally while Russia could export grain and cotton to the west. All this would put extra pressure on Germany’s Eastern Front which would relieve the pressure on the Western Front. Above all it could be done entirely by the navy with no need for extra troops. Obviously the Turks would contest the passage of the Dardanelles from their forts and batteries along the shore but Churchill was confident that a few broadsides from the battleships would wipe out these fortifications.
This proved over-optimistic. The Turkish defence of the narrows depended not on the fortifications on either side but on the lines of mines laid in the narrows themselves. These mines could cripple or sink even the largest warship. Mines could be swept by small vessels such as the converted trawlers used by the Royal Navy but the minefield were protected by Turkish artillery, both fortress guns and mobile field artillery.
Firing large calibre navel guns at targets on land produced spectacular explosions with fountains of flame and debris. It seemed inconceivable that anything could survive and the ‘shock and awe’ of the barrage which must surely send any survivors fleeing in blind panic. In fact, as the generals on the Western Front were discovering, dug-in troops could survive an artillery barrage and fight back.
The Royal Navy, despite having on paper, overwhelming superiority, found itself in an almost impossible situation. The battleships could not sail through the Dardanelles because of the mines. The trawlers could not clear the minefields because the enemy gunfire. The enemy guns could not be silenced unless the battleships could engage them at short range and they could not do this because of the mines.
The navy began their attack on the Turkish forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles on the 19th February 1915. Bad weather then caused a delay but the attack was resumed on the 25th. Commodore Roger Keyes who was responsible for planning the operation under Vice Admiral Carden quickly recognised the problem. He wrote “We must have a clear channel through the minefield for the ships to close to decisive range to hammer the forts and then land men to destroy the guns.” With no soldiers available it was decided to prepare a landing force of sailors and marines to destroy the Turkish guns. Keyes chose Kipper to lead the raiding party. His expertise with explosives gained at HMS Vernon was one factor in his selection but another was his friendship with Keyes. Kipper had first met Keyes in China during the Boxer rebellion and they had worked together when Keyes had been commander of submarines with the Harwich Force in 1914. Keyes believed that Kipper had the coolness under fire that would be needed for this operation.
At this stage of the campaign the land on either side of the Dardanelles was only lightly garrisoned by Turkish troops. The Turks had realised that that the forts defending the entrance to the Dardanelles were very vulnerable to a naval attack. Manoeuvring freely in the Adriatic warships could bring their guns to bear from long range and from several directions against the forts at Kumkale (on the Asian side) and Seddulbahir (on the European side). The Turks decided to show only symbolic resistance and to let the Allied ships into the narrows – where their firing range was not as important and they would be more exposed to the forts and howitzer batteries on the two shores. Thus on the evening of the 25th February it was decided to abandon the forts in Kumkale and Seddulbahir. British intelligence as to the actual situation on shore was very limited and Kipper’s small force was dispatched with limited knowledge of what they might find. The sailors and marines landed on the Asiatic shore unopposed and began to move along the coast towards the site of some Turkish guns closely observed by officers on board HMS Vengeance. After passing a cemetery Kipper’s force came under heavy rifle fire from several directions. The British ships fired several salvos at the local village demolishing some windmills but the firing continued from the front and the flank. Kipper led his force of sailors and marines towards Achilles Mound, a small hill reputed to be the burial site of the Greek hero. It was believed that Turkish guns were located in a hollow at the top of the hill but it was not clear if there were any soldiers defending the guns. To make things more difficult the British sailors were wearing their white uniforms which were standard issue for the Mediterranean but which made them very visible targets. Leaving his party under cover halfway up the slope Kipper took a bag of explosives and some fuses and walked up the hill in full sight of the British ships and any Turkish snipers. He discovered a 75mm L/30 Krupp Field Gun which could be used as an anti-aircraft weapon. He placed the charges by the Turkish gun, set the fuses and walked back down again. When just clear there was an explosion and the gun was hurled up into the air.
Kipper had not finished. He led his party along to the nearby Orhaniye Fort (Fort No 4) which was also abandoned. Realising that he needed more explosives than he could carry himself he led a small party into the fort and discovered a damaged 240mm L/35 Krupp Fortress Gun which he also destroyed. Leading his party back to their boats Kipper and his men came under more heavy fire from Turkish troops and only accurate fire from the Vengeance enabled them to get away. One marine had been killed and three wounded.
For Kipper it had been a calculated risk but for the observers on the ships the sight of a lone officer dressed in white sauntering along a foreign shore while under fire appeared to be an act of immense bravery and there was an immediate suggestion that Kipper should be recommended for Britain’s highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy; the Victoria Cross. This daring commando raid had achieved valuable results but at the same time it showed the problems facing the naval forces. They needed to put raiding parties ashore to ensure the destruction of the Turkish guns, but the Turks were now rushing reinforcements to the Gallipoli Peninsular. A similar raid six days later in the same area resulted in 19 killed, 25 wounded and 3 missing. The Navy was beginning to realise that it would need troops to secure the Gallipoli Peninsular.
Kipper was now to become involved with the second problem facing the Allied forces – clearing the minefields. The Royal Navy had very few of their regular minesweepers in the Dardanelles and relied on converted trawlers with civilian crews. These boats took great risks in attempting to clear the minefields while under heavy fire from Turkish guns – but for some this was not enough. Winston Churchill wrote to Rear Admiral de Robeck (who took over command from Carden on the 15th March) asking why mine-sweeping should be interfered with by firing which caused no casualties. “Two or three hundred casualties would be moderate price to pay for sweeping as far as the narrows… The work has to be done whatever the loss of life and small craft and the sooner it is done the better”.
Believing that the civilian mine-sweeper crews were not showing sufficient resilience under fire, Admiral de Robeck asked for volunteers to crew the trawlers and Kipper was one of those who responded. On the night of 13-14 March 1915 he commanded a trawler manned by volunteers from Vengeance, which joined six others manned from the battleships and five picket boats commanded by midshipmen, to sweep the minefields in the channel. They sailed into a hail of fire from the Turkish guns on the shore. It was dark and they were frequently blinded by Turkish searchlights. Shells and bullets filled the air and they were surrounded by mines. Kipper’s trawler was hit 84 times. Despite this he sailed into the minefields three times and this action was added to the recommendation for his VC.
There can be no doubt that Kipper and others showed immense bravery in the minefields – but it was to be in vain. The minesweepers could not clear the mines in the face of heavy fire from the shore, and the battleships could not destroy the shore forts and batteries. On March 18th De Robeck made a final attempt to force the narrows by sea-power alone. Ten British and French battleships began bombarding the Turkish Forts until they appeared to have been silenced. Then a second wave of ships steamed even further into the narrows. It seemed that the sheer number of ships might win the day – but then disaster hit. Unknown to the Allies, the Ottoman minelayer Nusret had laid a line of mines ten days earlier in a bay where they had noticed the British ships manoeuvring on previous occasions. By this operation a single Turkish ship inflicted a major defeat on the Anglo-French naval forces.
First the French battleship Bouvet was hit by shore batteries and ran into one of the mines and sank within minutes. Then the British battleships Irresistible and Ocean were both sunk by mines. The Gaulois was badly damaged by Turkish guns and the Inflexible also struck a mine and only just managed to return to port. When night fell the Allied ships retreated and it became clear that naval forces alone could not force a passage through the Dardanelles. The decision was taken in London that troops would have to be landed on the Gallipoli peninsular. The naval phase of the Dardanelles operation was coming to an end, but for Kipper there was to be yet another dangerous mission.
Surface ships could not sail through the Dardanelles but submarines could. In December 1914 (before the naval attack was launched) Lieutenant Holbrook sailed the submarine B11 into the Straits and sank the old Turkish battleship Messudiyeh. For this action he received a VC. By April 1915 the British were ready to try again with the new E-class submarines which would be able to reach the Sea of Marmara. On the 17th Lieut. Cdr. Brodie attempted to take the E15 through the straits but strong currents forced her aground close to Fort Dardanos. The Turkish guns opened fire killing Brodie and six of his men and the rest of the crew were captured by the Turks. The British did not want this new submarine to fall into the hands of the enemy and made determined efforts to destroy it with other submarines, destroyers and battleships but they were unsuccessful. Admiral de Robeck ordered a last desperate mission. Two steam powered picket boats from HMS Triumph and HMS Majestic were fitted with torpedoes in the hope that they could steal in under cover of darkness and destroy the E15. It would be an extremely hazardous operation and would need a leader with courage and coolness under fire. Kipper was the obvious choice.
Picket boats were small vessels, 17m in length, which were carried aboard larger ships. Their main purpose was to patrol around the warships when at anchor. They were not very fast but their shallow draught and manoeuvrability made them ideal for the task. For this operation the two boats were fitted with harnesses to carry the torpedoes and launch them over the side. Kipper set off just before midnight in command of the Triumph’s boat closely followed by the second boat commanded by Lieutenant Goodwin. Almost immediately they were picked out by the searchlights on the Turkish shore. This not only illuminated the two boats but also blinded the commanders. For over an hour Kipper crept towards the position of the stranded E15 while under heavy fire. Still unable to see his target he tried a blind shot but his torpedo missed the submarine. Then one of the sweeping searchlights momentarily illuminated the E15 and Lieutenant Goodwin was able to launch his torpedoes, one of which hit the target just before the conning tower.
Both picket boats turned away but at that point Goodwin’s vessel was hit by a Turkish shell and began to sink. Kipper immediately turned back and still under heavy fire managed to rescue the crew of the stricken boat. There was only one casualty.
The incident captured the imagination of the public even more than Kipper’s VC winning exploits. Under the headline “Brilliant Naval Enterprise. Turks Foiled” The Times reported “The country will read with pride and admiration the story of the brilliant exploit of the volunteer crews of the picket boats of the Triumph and Majestic. This very satisfactory piece of work rivals in daring and audacity the finest cutting out achievements of the old seamen.” The piece concluded “No incident of the war better illustrates the living presence in the Fleet today of the spirit and tradition of the old navy.”
The event was viewed in similar terms by the enemy. A German diver, Ernest Roschmann was working on salvaging the E15 when the attack took place – an indication of how important the craft was seen to be. He wrote “I have never in the course of the war seen an attack carried out with such pluck and fearlessness.”
Finally and with brutal honesty, Roger Keynes wrote
“I am honestly lost in admiration for Robinson, he has done splendidly and I honestly am surprised. I did not think much of him as a First Lieutenant. But that evidently does not prevent him being an exceedingly brave man.”
Back at home Kipper’s father John received a letter from his former pupil – now King George V – offering his congratulations. Every member of the picket boats’ crews except one was decorated. Lieutenant Godwin received the Distinguished Service Order. Two others received the Distinguished Service Cross and the rest the Distinguished Service Medal. The exception was Kipper himself. Some felt that he should have received a second VC for his actions but he had to be satisfied with promotion to the rank of Commander.
Meanwhile, the Dardanelles campaign was moving towards its final tragic act. It was recognised that the navy could not force the straits until at least one shore was occupied by allied troops. The first troop landings on Gallipoli took place on the 25th April 1915 but a combination of inept British leadership and fierce resistance by the Turks meant that the British Empire forces were pinned down on the coast and despite ferocious fighting they were unable to occupy the peninsula. Kipper spent some time on the island of Imbros, one of the main bases for the Gallipoli operations. He was then sent to the Anzac beachhead on 5th August 1915 as Naval Transport Officer. On the morning of 7th August during the landings at Sulva Bay Kipper was badly wounded and had to be evacuated. His adventures in the Dardanelles were over. On the 16th August the award of the Victoria Cross for the action at Kum Kale and the attack on the minefields was officially announced in The London Gazette. It was reported in The Times the next day where it was seen by his family. A yellowing cutting in the family archives has written on the back the note:
“The actual copy of the “Times” in which the announcement of Eric’s VC was first seen by the Dwellers in Devon Lodge on the morning of August 17th 1915. J.L.R.”
© Carl Clayton January 2012. Revised January 2015
If you have any comments please email: cclayton[at]hotmail.co.uk
To read Part 2 click here