Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (19 - 21 June 2013)

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Date of Auction: 19th - 21st June 2013

Sold for £20,000

Estimate: £7,000 - £9,000

The extremely rare Kronstadt raid D.S.O. group of eleven awarded to Commander L. E. S. Napier, South African Naval Force, late Royal Navy and a founding member of the South African Naval Service, who was wounded and taken prisoner following the loss of his C.M.B. to point-blank fire from the Russian destroyer Gavriil - enduring shocking conditions at Petrograd and Moscow over the coming months, and the threat of ‘Chinese torture’, he was finally exchanged for a Soviet prisoner in April 1920

Distinguished Service Order, G.V.R., silver-gilt and enamel; 1914-15 Star (Mid. L. E. S. Napier, R.N.); British War and Victory Medals (Lieut. L. E. S. Napier, R.N.); 1939-45 Star; Atlantic Star, clasp, France and Germany; Africa Star; Italy Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45; Africa Service Medal 1939-45, these last seven officially inscribed, ‘70001 L. E. S. Napier’, mounted as worn, minor enamel damage to first, otherwise very fine and better (11) £7000-9000

D.S.O. London Gazette 4 May 1920. The original recommendation states:

‘Lieutenant L. E. S. Napier was in command of Coastal Motor Boat No. 24A in the attack on Kronstadt Harbour on 18 August 1919, passing through the line of forts under a heavy fire. Then attacked and sank the patrolling destroyer at the entrance to the middle harbour. His boat has not been heard of since.’


Lawrence Egerton Scott Napier was born in Glasgow in February 1896, the son of Francis Napier, but went out to South Africa in 1902, where his father became an eminent and respected member of the medical profession in Johannesburg.

Nominated by Transvaal for a Colonial Cadetship at the R.N.C. Osborne in January in 1909, he subsequently moved to the R.N.C. Dartmouth in early 1911, where he became a term-mate and personal friend of the future George VI.

A Midshipman serving in the battleship H.M.S. Vanguard by the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, he removed to the sloop Snapdragon in the acting rank of Sub. Lieutenant in January 1915, in which capacity he served in the Mediterranean, and thence, from February 1917, in the Romola in the North Sea. Having then been advanced to Lieutenant, he received his first command, the destroyer Menace, and remained employed in her in the North Sea until the War’s end.


Subsequently enrolled for service in Coastal Motor Boats (C.M.Bs) at Osea Island in March 1919, he found himself ordered to Bjorko in the Baltic in that summer, in one of eight C.M.Bs intended for use in a raid on Kronstadt harbour, in his case as C.O. of C.M.B. 24, the whole under Commander C. C. Dobson, D.S.O., R.N.

And accompanying them in that daring enterprise on the night of 18-19 August - but as an observer - was Augustus Agar, V.C., who had already established a secret base at Terrioki on the Finnish shore north of Kronstadt, from whence, in addition to carrying out a courier service for agents in his C.M.B., he had executed a brilliant solo attack on the Russian cruiser Oleg in Kronstadt harbour on 16-17 June, winning a V.C. in the process - and a price of £5,000 on his head from the irate Bolsheviks.

Of subsequent events on 18-19 August, much has been written, not least by Agar in Baltic Episode, but the following account of Napier’s fortunes have been taken from Harry Ferguson’s excellent history of the raid, Operation Kronstadt:

‘Meanwhile Agar and Napier had arrived just outside the entrance to the military harbour. There was no sign of the other C.M.Bs but since zero hour had passed and the R.A.F's attack had clearly begun Napier opened out the engines of C.M.B. 24 and headed straight for the Gavriil. The destroyer was in darkness and seemed unaware of the cacophony from the nearby harbour. The second in command, Lieutenant Osman Giddy, primed the charge so that they would be ready to launch the moment Napier had the right line. They were already under heavy fire. Giddy later estimated that there were at least ten different shore batteries firing at C.M.B. 24 at this time.

Suddenly Napier spotted another C.M.B. making for the harbour entrance. Afraid of hitting her, he broke off the attack and put C.M.B. 24 into a wide turn to buy some time. The other C.M.B. passed and Napier came out of the turn so that he could attack the Gavriil broadside on. As soon as his boat had straightened out, he pulled the toggle and the torpedo slid out of the trough behind him.

Almost immediately the length of the Gavriil lit up against the darkness as her main guns suddenly opened up. Either Sevastyanov's men were incredibly accurate or they were unbelievably lucky. There was a tremendous flash and an explosion. Giddy was thrown across the cockpit. He felt a searing pain in the small of his back and knew that he had been hit by shell splinters. He lay on the floor of the cockpit for a moment, completely stunned. The C.M.B. seemed to have stopped dead in the water and all he could see was the night sky above him. But why had the Gavriil ceased firing? For a moment Giddy wondered if he was dead.

Then the voice of C.M.B. 24 's mechanic, Ben Reynish, brought him back to reality:

“Well, that's sugared it.”

Ignoring the pain, Giddy hauled himself upright and looked around, trying to assess the damage. There was no sign of Laurence Napier. He must have been blown into the water, but in the darkness Giddy could not see him. No one else in the crew seemed to be injured and the two sailors who had been manning the machine guns, Charles Harvey and Herbert Bowles, were clambering back to their positions to return fire. Giddy decided that the shell must have been a near miss. He was about to go below and see what could be done to get the engines going again when first one and then another shell landed on either side of the boat, knocking him off his feet again as Harvey fell back with his right arm shattered at the elbow. Giddy looked down, saw that there was water pouring into the boat and realised with horror that C.M.B. 24 had been split along her entire length by the force of the explosions. He shouted for Bowles and Reynish to help him unlash the fenders from the side of the boat because these would float, but before they could do this C.M.B. 24 simply fell apart and sank below the freezing waters. As he floated in the water, held up by his Gieves life jacket, Giddy began to lapse in and out of consciousness but he could see that the Gavriil was untouched - either Napier had missed or the torpedo had malfunctioned. Either way, the remaining boats were now at the mercy of the Soviet destroyer which would have a clear shot at any C.M.Bs entering or leaving the harbour ... ’

As neatly summarised by John Winton in his V.C. at Sea, ‘This brilliant coup de main severely embarrassed the Cabinet, who were at that very moment conducting delicate negotiations with the Bolsheviks for the withdrawal of the large British land forces then in Archangel. The raid also had another unexpected and unfortunate political effect. The Russian Baltic Fleet, and especially the Kronstadt garrison, had been scornfully critical of the Bolsheviks. The audacity of the raid caused them to turn temporarily over to the Bolshevik side. However, Victoria Crosses are happily not awarded by politicians, and Dobson and Steele were duly gazetted on 11 November 1919, the first anniversary of Armistice Day.'

Prisoner of the Bolos

But what of Napier? As it transpired, he was one of three officers and six men who were pulled from the water and taken prisoner, initially being taken to Kronstadt Naval Hospital, where the town’s Commandant was also based - ‘a brutal type who wore the cap ribbon of the Petropavlosk’.

Moreover, continues the official report submitted by Lieutenant Bremner to the Admiralty on his return, ‘our wounds had been attended to in the most casual fashion, the doctors seeming to take little or no interest’, while ‘the hospital was very dirty and the sanitary arrangements and bed utensils too filthy for description - we were put in a ward by ourselves and two armed guards were with us night and day.’

Far more disturbing was the threat of torture. Bremner continues:

‘That afternoon and evening Lieutenant Napier and party were questioned closely and independently, but their answers were so varied that I do not think the enemy derived any benefit from them. Lieutenant Napier was threatened with torture by Chinese if he did not answer more satisfactorily. I need scarcely say that this threat did not influence Lieutenant Napier in the slightest.’

Napier and his fellow captives were transferred to Petrograd on 19 August 1919, where they were imprisoned in Gorokway Gaol, the officers with a Russian to keep them company in their cell, and the men in ‘a very dirty room containing about 80 prisoners of all classes from criminals to hostages’. Rations were appalling, Napier making an official protest, but to no avail. And on the 28th one and all were interrogated by the Revolutionary Military Council of the Baltic Fleet, when, according to Bremner, Napier ‘renewed his protests as to treatment, following it up by a letter to the Revolutionary Military Council of the Baltic Fleet. Shortly afterwards a slight improvement was made in their food.’

In fact, in mid-September, Napier and his comrades were transferred to Spalernia Prison, where conditions were better, but in the following month were entrained for Moscow in goods wagons, over 30 prisoners being crammed into each. And conditions on arrival at Andronievsky Monastery, which had been converted to a prison, were depressingly similar to Petrograd - it was many days before each man was issued with a (filthy) sleeping blanket and the whole place was crawling with vermin. Further letters of protest were quickly despatched, as a result of which Napier and his comrades were visited by a British clergyman, the Rev. F. W. North, who was Chaplain of the English Church in Moscow and who did all within his power to assist his fellow countrymen.

Then came outbreaks of Typhus in December and Small Pox in January 1920, by which stage survival was looking bleak. However, good fortune was about to intervene, the Bolsheviks having entered into negotiations for an ‘exchange’ of prisoners, and at the end of the latter month the Rev. North was granted permission to take a party of four British prisoners, including Bremner, over the frontier to Finland. But Napier would have to wait until May before he was exchanged with other British officers for Fedor Raskolnikov, Commanding Officer of the Bolshevik Naval Forces, who had been captured in the Baltic in December 1919. Admitted to the King Edward VII Hospital on his return to the U.K., he received his D.S.O. from the King while still a patient.

South African Naval Service 1922-31 and South African Naval Force (S.A.N.F.) 1939-45

Placed on the Retired List at his own request in June 1922, Napier transferred to the South African Naval Service on its inauguration in the same year, when he was given command of H.M.S.A.N minesweeper Immortelle, one of three ships allocated by the Admiralty to form the nucleus of the new force. And he remained similarly employed until being placed on the Retired List at his own request as a Lieutenant-Commander in 1931, following which he became in turn a traffic officer in Cape Town, a farmer, and a senior official of the Automobile Association.

But with the renewal of hostilities in September 1939, he was quickly back in uniform, gaining appointment as Deputy Director of the Sea Defence Force (S.D.F.) before electing for secondment to the Royal Navy. In the interim, in late 1942, he had commanded two contingents of S.A.N.F. personnel in America, where they picked up a number of minesweepers - see C. J. Harris’ War at Sea - South African Operations during World War Two, for further details.

During his first period of secondment to the Royal Navy, from October 1942 to November 1943, Napier was attached to the Admiralty Delegation in Washington D.C., prior to being appointed S.O. British Landing Craft Bases at Sousse and Tripoli in May 1943, from whence he commanded a squadron of landing craft in the assaults on the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa, and in the Salerno landings.

In January 1944, on returning to service with the S.A.N.F., he was appointed South African Naval Officer-in-Charge at Cape Town, but he was once more seconded to the Royal Navy from July 1944, and ended the War as Chief Staff Officer to the Commodore, East Africa Command.

After the War Napier joined the Merchant Navy and served as Master of Coasters plying between Cape Town and South West Africa. He died at Kalk Bay in August 1969.