Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (19 & 20 July 2017)

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Date of Auction: 19th & 20th July 2017

Sold for £7,500

Estimate: £5,000 - £6,000

The rare 1914 ‘Battle of the Falkland Islands’ D.S.M. group of five awarded to Stoker Petty Officer G. S. Brewer, Royal Navy, who was severely burnt when trying to extinguish a fire after a shell hit the gun port at A.3 casemate of H.M.S. Kent during her successful action with the German light cruiser Nürnberg; he was afterwards on board when Kent hunted down S.M.S. Dresden, the last surviving ship of Admiral von Spee’s Asiatic squadron, and forced her surrender and scuttling in Chile

Distinguished Service Medal, G.V.R. (150950 G. S. Brewer, Sto. P.O., H.M.S. Kent); 1914-15 Star (150950 G. S. Brewer D.S.M., S.P.O. R.N.); British War and Victory Medals (150950 G. S. Brewer, Sh. Cpl., R.N.); Royal Navy L.S. & G.C., E.VII.R. (G. S. Brewer, Sh. Cpl. 1Cl., H.M.S. Prince of Wales) mounted for wear, light contact marks, good very fine and rare (5) £5000-6000

Footnote

Provenance: Glendining’s 23 September 1987 and Captain K. J. Douglas-Morris Collection, B.D.W. 16 October 1996.

D.S.M. London Gazette 3 March 1915 ‘The following awards have been made in recognition of the services mentioned in the foregoing despatch from Vice Admiral F. C. D. Sturdee regarding the action with the German Squadron off the Falkland Isles.’ A total of 12 D.S.M.’s were awarded for the Battle of the Falklands.

M.I.D. London Gazette 3 March 1915.

In nearly every action in which the Navy has fought since the introduction of steam, the officers and men in the engine rooms and stokeholds have frequently won the special praise of their commanding officers, and never was such praise more worthily earned than when the cruiser H.M.S. Kent chased, fought and sank the German light cruiser Nürnberg off the Falkland Isles on 8 December 1914.

The armoured cruiser Kent, commanded by Captain John D. Allen, was a vessel of 9,800 tons, designed for a speed of twenty-three knots, and on the morning when the German fleet, under Admiral von Spee, walked into the trap that had been prepared for it at the Falkland Islands, she was doing the duty of guardship at the entrance to Port William harbour. Many of the ships inside had filled up with coal the day before, but the Kent was one of those detailed to fill her bunkers on the 8th, so that she was none too well provided with fuel. As soon as the Germans were sighted, Admiral Sturdee ordered the Kent to weigh anchor and keep in touch with the enemy while the remainder of our ships were getting up steam. The cruiser stood out to sea at once, and it will always remain a mystery why the heavy German ships, with their long-range 8.2 inch guns, did not there and then open fire on the isolated British vessel, for they were well within range, and altogether outmatched the Kent, with her 6-inch weapons. Those on board fully expected that the attack would be made, but much to their surprise, the enemy sheered off instead to the east, leaving the Kent to shadow them without interference.

Presently the rest of the British squadron headed out of harbour at a rapidly increasing speed, and the ships quickly disposed themselves into battle formation, the battle cruisers Invincible and Inflexible leading the line and engaging the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. In the course of a few hours the action had resolved itself into three distinct phases. The heavy armoured ships fought out their battle alone; the Glasgow and Cornwall devoted themselves to the Leipzig; while Captain Allen, the junior of the cruiser captains, was entrusted with the task of accounting for the Nürnberg. It was, perhaps, a curious selection, for not only was the Glasgow two knots faster than the Kent, but the latter was, on paper, actually half a knot slower than the German she was sent to chase. The Nürnberg was in fact a faster ship than the Leipzig to which the Glasgow and Cornwall were devoting themselves; the Kent having not had the chance of completing with coal, was not particularly well placed for carrying out a long chase. However, if her bunkers had been loaded to their full capacity, the added weight would have reduced her speed and probably put the possibility of a chase completely out of the question. It was a chance either way, and the men of the Kent rose magnificently to the one before them.

If they were to catch the enemy at all they would have to do it quickly, otherwise the Kent would be left helpless in mid-ocean without fuel. In a few brief words Captain Allen told the engineers and the stokers how they stood, and appealed to them to get their utmost out of the ship. Seaman and others who could be spared were sent down below to help in the blistering business of feeding the furnaces and rushing up the coal from the bunkers. The engineers, with a careful eye on the vanishing fuel, tightened up a valve here and opened a steam pipe there, coaxing the 22,000 horse power engines as a jockey coaxes a racehorse. As one of the stokers put it afterwards, ‘It was a case of either getting the Nürnberg or busting up in trying to’.

Little by little the Kent increased her pace. Her record speed in ten years of service was a shade over twenty-four knots, but before long Engineer Commander Andrew and his perspiring band of artificers and stokers had her doing well over twenty-five, an achievement which can, perhaps, only be adequately appreciated by an engineer. All the time the voracious furnaces were eating up the coal at an enormous rate, and although the Nürnberg was being gradually overhauled, it was becoming doubtful whether the Kent would have sufficient fuel to complete the business when she got within range, to say nothing of getting back to her base at the Falklands afterwards. It was therefore decided to eke out the coal with anything combustible that could be found on board. Wooden boats were taken out of their cradles, broken up, and taken below to feed the furnaces. Wooden spars, companion ways and ladders shared a similar fate, and even the wooden planking of the decks was torn up and passed down to the stokeholds.

Shortly after four o'clock the Kent passed within range of the Leipzig, giving her three broadsides as she went, and in less than an hour afterwards the grimy stokers down below gave a great shout as they heard one of the 6-inch guns in the forward turret bark out its 100-lb message. They well knew what that bow-chaser meant. The enemy was within range at last. Like the other German ships in this action, the Nürnberg fought exceedingly well. The Kent had opened fire at eleven thousand yards, nearly six and a half miles, and in a few minutes the full-speed fight was in full swing. Both vessels made good shooting, and by a combination of fine marksmanship and good luck one of the earliest of the Kent’s shells struck the Nürnberg square in the stern, disabling the after guns and seriously affecting the enemy's speed and manoeuvring power. The German weapons fired more rapidly than ours, and the shells fell thickly around the British cruiser. The silk ensign presented to the ship by the people of Kent was shot to ribbons, the fore-top mast was carried away, and many shells and fragments penetrated the funnels. One hit came perilously near ending the Kent’s career for ever. A shell from the Nürnberg entered a casemate by the gun-port, a most remarkable chance, and burst inside, killing or wounding the whole of the gun's crew. A fire was started among the cordite charges lying about, and a flash of flame shot down the ammunition hoist and into the passages below. A sergeant of Marines, Charles Mayes, dashed through the flames and threw the burning charges and sacks away so that the fire would not spread, and then, seizing a hose, flooded the compartment and extinguished the fire. In the words of the Commander-in-Chief, ‘the extinction of this fire saved a disaster which might have led to the loss of the ship’, and there were some seven hundred souls on board.

When the range had closed to 7,500 yards and the two ships were running broadside to broadside, the Kent started firing lyddite. After that, the end was not long in coming. The Nürnberg’s upper deck was already a mass of twisted and battered scrap-iron, and her sides were peppered with holes. A great fire now burst out in the fore part of the ship, and her guns became silent; but when the Kent also ceased fire and closed to 3,000 yards, the enemy's colours were seen to be still flying at the masthead. Another five minutes' hammering, however, brought them down with a run, and the action was over at 0657, having lasted almost exactly two hours from the firing of the first shot. The Kent now devoted herself to the task of saving life. Nearly all her wooden boats had been burnt, and the enemy's fire had been so heavy that all those left had several holes knocked in them. These had to be patched up before the boats could be launched into the rising sea, for a stiff breeze, with rain, had sprung up during the afternoon, and it was half an hour before the first could be got away. By that time the Nürnberg had disappeared, showing how great was the damage she received before giving in. As she went down a group of men could be seen on her quarter deck, waving the German flag as they went under. Only about a score were picked up, and although everything possible was done for them, many died of exposure. The German loss was about 350 officers and men, while the sunken cruiser was a vessel of 3,400 tons, armed with ten 4.1 inch guns, and less than seven years old.

The Kent had been hit altogether thirty-six times, without counting the holes made by splinters. Her loss in men was five killed and eleven wounded, of whom three later succumbed to their injuries. Included amongst the wounded was Stoker Petty Officer Brewer. Whilst impossible to apportion credit for the victory, the greatest measure must be accorded to the men down below. They saw nothing of the fight; but had it not been for their magnificent efforts, giving their ship a speed more than two knots above that for which she was built, the gunners up above would never have got within striking distance of the enemy. The Kent had sailed so close to the wind that when she got back to the Falklands little more than the sweepings of coal remained in her bunkers. Only one of her engine-room staff, however, was accorded any recognition, Stoker Petty Officer G. S. Brewer receiving the Distinguished Service Medal. Captain J. D. Allen was ultimately made a C.B., while Sergeant Mayes, for virtually saving the ship from destruction, was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Ref: Deeds that Thrill the Empire).

George Silvester Brewer was born in Gosport, Hampshire on 16 June 1870. A Carpenter by occupation, he enlisted into the Royal Navy as a Stoker 2nd Class in September 1889. He was promoted to Stoker in January 1890, Leading Stoker 2nd Class in December 1896 and Leading Stoker 1st Class in February 1898. Brewer was rated as Ship’s Corporal 1st Class from May 1901 until he was shore pensioned in September 1911, when he joined the Portsmouth R.F.R. Awarded the L.S. & G.C. in October 1904. Recalled to the Service with the onset of war, he was rated as a Stoker Petty Officer and served on the old armoured cruiser H.M.S. Kent, October 1914-December 1915, being wounded, mentioned in despatches and awarded the D.S.M. for his services at the battle of the Falkland Islands.

In the action with the Nürnberg, most of the casualties occurred when a shell hit casemate gun port No. 3. Two men were killed and eight were wounded by burns, four of whom would later succumb to their wounds. Fast action by Sergeant Mayes after a flash of flames went down the hoist into the ammunition passage below, by flooding the compartment, probably saved the ship. When the fire occurred from the shell impact, George Brewer, who was in charge of the Stokers fire brigade in that part of the ship, was standing in front of the open door from casement No. 3 holding a hose and playing water on the fire inside, when another flash of flames inside caused him to be blown backwards and be badly burned on the head, face, arms and wrists.

On 8 March 1915, Brewer was aboard Kent when she located the German light cruiser Dresden, the only warship of von Spee’s squadron to have escaped destruction during the Falklands action, and which the South Atlantic squadron were now hunting down. Kent gave chase but Dresden escaped and anchored in Cumberland Bay on the Chilean island of Mas a Fuera, where she claimed eight days of sanctuary under international law before having to leave or be interned. Kent intercepted a radio message from Dresden requesting a collier to be sent out to Mas e Fuera and immediately proceeded there, whilst calling up reinforcements from the other British warships hunting Dresden in the maze of islands and straits off the south west coast of Chile. Kent was eventually joined by Glasgow and, on the morning of 14 March the two ships appeared off Cumberland Bay. Both British warships opened fire; Dresden fired off three shots before her guns were knocked out by British gunfire. On fire and holed at the waterline, Captain Lüdecke raised the white flag and sent over a negotiator to gain time while he prepared Dresden for scuttling. At 10:45, the scuttling charge detonated in the bow and exploded the forward ammunition magazines. The bow was badly mangled; in about half an hour, the ship had taken on enough water to sink. This was the end of von Spee’s East Asiatic Squadron.

After the destruction of Dresden, Kent sailed to Esquimalt naval base on Vancouver Island to repair and refit her battle damage and returned to England in May. In August 1915, whilst still on the Kent, Brewer reverted to his earlier rate of Ship’s Corporal 1st Class. His remaining service, until demobilised in September 1919, was on shore bases. With copied service papers, gazette extracts and other research.