Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (12 November 2020)

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Date of Auction: 12th November 2020

Sold for £19,000

Estimate: £8,000 - £12,000

The George Cross (exchange E.G.M.) awarded to Able Seaman G. P. Niven, Royal Navy, for heroism on the occasion of an explosion in ‘X’ turret aboard H.M.S. Devonshire whilst she was engaged in a ‘full calibre firing’ exercise off the Greek island of Skiathos in July 1929

George Cross, the reverse officially inscribed (A.B. George Paterson Niven, O.N. J.26679., 1st January, 1930) together with its Royal Mint case of issue; 1939-45 Star; Atlantic Star; Burma Star; War Medal, good very fine (5) £8,000-£12,000

Footnote

Medal of the Order of the British Empire, Military Division, For Gallantry (E.G.M.) London Gazette 1 January 1930: Midshipman Anthony John Cobham, R.N., and Able Seaman George Paterson Niven, R.N.

‘On 26 July 1929, H.M.S. Devonshire was carrying out full calibre firing, when at the first salvo there was a heavy explosion aft which blew off the roof of one of the turrets. When the explosion occurred, Midshipman Cobham immediately took stretcher parties aft and ordered one crew to follow him and the other crew to rig hoses. When he reached the turret some very badly burnt men with their clothes still on fire were falling out of the hatch in the rear. He and Able Seaman Niven did what they could for them and then went into the gunhouse, where there was still a lot of cordite burning fiercely, and pulled out more bodies, after which they turned on the hoses and helped to cool things down. Though they did not realise it at the time they had both inhaled a large quantity of cordite fumes which had a most unpleasant delayed action effect.’

H.M.S. Devonshire had been commissioned into the Royal Navy on 19 March 1929. Seventeen months after her launch, and on 11 May, after carrying out trials at Portland, she sailed for Gibraltar. After undergoing an eight-week work-up period at Gibraltar, on 8 July, she finally steamed east to Malta, arriving in Grand Harbour three days later.

Eight days after arriving on station, Devonshire and the rest of the Mediterranean Fleet sailed for manoeuvres in the Aegean Sea, off the island of Skiathos. Controlling the exercises was the C-in-C in his flagship H.M.S. Royal Oak, and also taking part were Queen Elizabeth, London and Sussex, together with units of the Third Destroyer Flotilla. Arriving off Skiathos on 21 July, the fleet lay at anchor and, while the senior officers planned the forthcoming manoeuvres, the sailors were granted recreational leave for ‘picnic and bathing parties’.

When they got under way Devonshire and the destroyers practised torpedo firing, after which there was gunnery practice. At 08.00 on Friday 26 July the fleet weighed anchor, and within minutes London, Sussex and Devonshire had formed a single line ahead in order to carry out a full calibre shoot with all eight guns (twin turrets) together. At 08.45 there was a flurry of manoeuvring as Sussex, which was rejoining the line, almost collided with Devonshire; the latter’s stem did in fact touch Sussex's port quarter, but no damage was done and the exercise continued.

At 10.00 exactly Devonshire fired her first broadside, but practically simultaneously a huge explosion shook the ship. A faulty breech mechanism in X turret had caused a shell and some cordite bags to ignite, and the force of the explosion blew the roof off the gun turret and started fires in the gun house and pump room. Fortunately these were soon extinguished, but the explosion took a heavy toll of the Royal Marines who were manning the turret.

One officer and six men were killed instantly, one of them being blown overboard. Devonshire, meanwhile, made for the Greek port of Volos where seventeen injured men were transferred to the hospital ship R.F.A. Maine. However, eleven of these subsequently died and sixteen of the victims were buried at Volos with full military honours.

Devonshire returned to Malta and from there proceeded to Devonport where, on 14 August 1929, her tragic first commission ended.

George Paterson Niven was born in Portobello, Edinburgh on 15 March 1897, the son of Angus McKenzie Niven and Mary (née Gordon). His father was a Railway Signalman and George followed his career into the Railways until on 17 August 1913 he joined the Royal Navy as a Boy 2nd Class at H.M.S. Ganges.

During the First World War, he joined Crescent and Collingwood, and signed up for 12 years’ adult service in 1915. He was promoted to Able Seaman later that year and served through the war in Defiance, Diligence, Dolphin, H.M. Submarine C5, and Marlborough (also entitled to 1914-15 Star trio). Following the Great War, he served aboard Revenge (1921-22), Glorious (1922-23), Valiant (1923-24), Hood (1925) and eventually joined Devonshire.

During the first two years of the war Cobham was overseas and did not arrive in England until March 1942 when he was invited to an Investiture at Buckingham Palace to have his E.G.M. exchanged for a George Cross. He was much touched when the Admiralty flew Niven to London from a shore base in the Western Isles so that they could get their George Crosses together. Niven was married in 1939 in Birmingham to Rosie Magdalen Post. Able Seaman George Niven died in Birmingham on 2 February 1947, and is buried in Yardley Cemetery, Birmingham, where his previously unmarked grave is now marked with a newly erected headstone.