Exceptional Naval and Polar Awards from the Collection of RC Witte
Date of Auction: 13th December 2007
Sold for £5,500
Estimate: £3,500 - £4,000
Distinguished Service Cross, G.V.R., hallmarks for London 1916, in its Garrard & Co. case of issue; Transport Medal 1899-1902, 1 clasp, China 1900 (J. M. Dowie); 1914-15 Star (Eng. Lt. J. M. Dowie, R.N.R.); British War and Victory Medals (Eng. Lt. J. M. Dowie, R.N.R.), these last three in their card boxes of issue, generally extremely fine (5) £3500-4000
FootnoteD.S.C. London Gazette 19 November 1915.
James Munro Dowie, who was awarded his Transport Medal for services in the S.S. Duke of Portland during the Boxer Rebellion, joined the crew of the Q-Ship Baralong on her commissioning in March 1915. He was subsequently present on the occasion of her controversial action with the U-27, an engagement that ended in international outcry and claims of cold blooded murder.
The incident in question took place on 19 August 1915, on which date an enemy submarine torpedoed the White Star passenger liner Arabic, causing 45 deaths. Informed of the liner’s loss, the Baralong, under Lieutenant Godfrey Herbert, R.N., with Sub. Lieutenant Gordon Steele, R.N., the future Kronstadt raid V.C., as his “Jimmy the One”, set off in pursuit of the offending U-Boat. By all accounts tempers were running high among the crew, the recent loss of the Lusitania fresh on their minds, not least the tragic images of dead women and children laid out in the morgue at Queenstown, their operational base. As it transpired, the Baralong never did catch up with the U-Boat responsible for the Arabic’s demise, but she did discover the U-27 engaging the Letland Line’s Nicosian. Herbert immediately ordered action stations, and fought a classic engagement which resulted in the destruction of the enemy submarine with no loss to his own crew.
He then observed a number of German survivors attempting to clamber up the side of the Nicosian and, fearing that they might attempt to scuttle or set fire to her, he ordered his men to renew their fire. Several Germans were undoubtedly killed in this manner, but at least another six got aboard and quickly disappeared below deck. What happened next will probably never be known for certain, too many conflicting accounts having shrouded the true version of events, but in his original report Herbert merely stated that he sent a party of his Marines aboard to apprehend the enemy submariners, but fearful that they might have gained access to the Nicosian’s fire-arms in her charthouse, he warned a Lance-Corporal not to hesitate to open fire on them if necessary. Herbert continues:
‘A thorough search was made, which resulted in six of the enemy being found but they succumbed to the injuries they had received from lyddite shell shortly afterwards and were buried at sea at once.’
Some 20 years later, after the furore had somewhat abated, Herbert wrote a differing account which confessed to three of the enemy having been found hidden in the propeller-shaft alley:
‘Without further ado, these were shot. Meanwhile, the Marines continued their search and found the remainder, who, in default of surrender, were too put to death likewise, and buried at once.’
This latter account bears striking similartities to those taken from the Nicosian’s passengers, some of whom reported their version of events to the German Ambassador in the United States, thereby sparking off the entire controversy, a situation further fuelled by the Baralong having been seen flying the “Stars and Stripes” as part of her neutral disguise.
Although the official Admiralty version of events would later compromise Herbert by its conspicuous absence of exoneration for his actions, for the moment at least he was the architect of the destruction of an enemy submarine, a feat that resulted in him being awarded the D.S.O. Three of his men received D.S.Ms, including the Lance-Corporal who had headed the boarding party.
Quickly re-christened the Wyandra, and given a new C.O., Lieutenant-Commander A. Wilmot-Smith, the ex-Baralong was back in action in the following month, when, on news being received of the loss of three British steamers over a nine hour period, she was despatched to find the culprit. Heading for the area in question, south-east of the Fastnet, Wilmot-Smith came upon the steamer Urbino, lying stopped and under fire from the U-41. By means of clever manoeuvring, he managed to close the range for his hidden guns to 500 yards, his “Panic Party” all the while distracting the U-Boat’s commander, Kapitan-Leutnant Claus Hansen. Wyandra’s subsequent barrage of fire blew the U-41’s conning tower to pieces, and she slipped below the surface leaving just two survivors - both of whom were picked up and unjustly claimed another example of a ‘murderous act’.
Wilmot-Smith was awarded the D.S.O., Dowie his D.S.C., and two ratings the D.S.M., it being noted by Keble Chatterton that Dowie’s award ‘was a well-deserved decoration, for much depended on the Engineers in these ships, and they had much to suffer.’ He was also the very first Engineer Lieutenant to be so honoured in the War.