Exceptional Naval and Polar Awards from the Collection of RC Witte

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Date of Auction: 13th December 2007

Sold for £3,300

Estimate: £1,800 - £2,200

The Great War D.S.O. group of five awarded to Commander F. M. Main, Royal Naval Reserve, who, having been decorated for his services in the armed merchant cruisers Calyx and Alcantara in the period 1914-15, was given special promotion for his deeds in the latter ship’s famous North Sea duel with the German raider Greif in February 1916, ‘an action which savoured of the days of Nelson, the two ships being engaged at point blank range’ - and both sunk

Distinguished Service Order
, G.V.R., silver-gilt and enamel; 1914-15 Star (Commr. F. M. Main, D.S.O., R.N.R.); British War and Victory Medals, M.I.D. oak leaf (Commr. F. M. Main, D.S.O., R.N.R.); Royal Naval Reserve Decoration, G.V.R., silver, silver-gilt, hallmarks for London 1920, the 1914-15 trio official replacement issues, good very fine or better (5) £1800-2200

Footnote

D.S.O. London Gazette 7 August 1915:

‘In recognition of services in patrol cruisers since the outbreak of war.’

Frank Morgan Main, who for many years was employed by the Elder Dempster Line, commenced his wartime career as a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, when he joined the armed merchant cruiser Calyx in November 1914, a commission that would witness her being subjected to “friendly fire” in the following month, when she was mistaken for a German raider. Transferring with his skipper, Captain Thomas Erskine Wardle, to the Alcantara in April 1915, he was employed on patrol work between Scapa Flow and the coast of Norway, on one occasion carrying out a survey of Jan Moyen Island for enemy radio stations or submarine bases. He was awarded the D.S.O., but further distinction was to follow for his part in Alcantara’s spectacular North Sea duel with the German raider Greif on 29 February 1916.

At about midday on that date, in a position of 60 miles E. of the North of the Shetlands, the Alcantara was due to rendezvous with her relief ship, the Andes, when a wireless message instructed her to remain thereabouts and keep a sharp lookout for a suspicious steamship coming out of the Skagerrak. But it was not until about 8.45 a.m. on the following morning that Captain Wardle spotted smoke on the horizon on his port beam. During the course of making passage to this unidentified steamship, he received a wireless warning from the Andes that this was in all probability the vessel he was seeking, so Wardle signalled to the latter to stop, and fired two rounds of blank ammunition. By this stage the two ships had approached to within 1,000 yards of each other, the Alcantara coming up astern and lowering a boarding boat. At that moment, however, the “stranger” - which had Norwegian colours painted on her side and the name Rena-Tonsberg - dropped her bulwarks and ran out her guns. She was, infact, the enemy raider Greif, and the point blank nature of the ensuing 20 minute duel is best summarised in Deeds That Thrill The Empire:

‘From the very first the British gunners got home on the enemy. His bridge was carried away at the first broadside, and then, systematically, our guns searched yard by yard along the upper works of the enemy, seeking out the wireless room from which were emanating the meaningless jargons that “jammed” the Alcantara’s wireless. This had been set to work at once to call up assistance - a proper fighting precaution in any event, but doubly so in this case, seeing that it was quickly apparent the Greif carried considerably heavier ordnance than her own. Before long the enemy’s wireless was smashed, and our guns promptly turned themselves upon the hull and water-line of their opponent. In a few minutes the Greif had a great fire blazing aft; a few more, and she began to settle down by the stern; and as the Alcantara’s guns methodically and relentlessly searched her from stem to stern her return fire grew more and more feeble until, after about fifteen minutes’ fighting, it died away almost entirely. On paper, judging by the difference between the armaments, the Alcantara ought to have been blown out of the water by this time; but, although she was hit frequently, the actual damage she sustained was almost negligible. The Greif was already a beaten and doomed craft when other vessels came up in answer to Alcantara’s wireless. The first to arrive was the Andes, Captain George B.W. Young (another converted unit of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Line), and a few rounds from her apparently completed the enemy’s discomfort. Not long after, a “pukka” cruiser appeared on the scene; but it is reported that, seeing the Alcantara had already made a hopeless mess of her opponent, this cruiser clicked out the signal “Your Bird” and went about her other business!

But the fight was not yet over. The
Greif had again begun to blaze away with the one or two guns that remained intact when there happened one of those misfortunes that are apt to occur to the most efficiently handled ships. An unlucky shot carried away the Alcantara’s steering-gear, and her captain was immediately robbed of the weapon upon which he had chiefly depended for the destruction of his enemy - his seamanship. The Alcantara, though nearly all her guns were intact, became unmanageable, and for the first time in the action she was swung round by the seas into such a position that her full broadside was exposed to the enemy. There had, too, been no half-measures in fitting out the Greif for her work. She carried not only a powerful equipment of guns, but also torpedo tubes, and, although she was fast settling down in the water, she was able to bring them to bear now on a most favourable target - a big ship lying broadside on with disabled steering-gear. The first two torpedoes that were fired missed - in spite of the short range. The third caught the Alcantara squarely. Whereby it happened that after some twenty minutes of the most fierce and closely contested fighting the naval campaign had seen, the two principal combatants found themselves making headway towards the bottom in company. The Greif was the first to go. It is believed that, like the Moewe, she carried a big cargo of mines to be strewed where they would be most likely to entrap our warships. However that may be, she blew up with a tremendous explosion and went to the bottom, just a few minutes before the mortally injured Alcantara turned over on her side to find a resting place within a few hundred yards of her ... Of the 321 officers and men with which the Greif entered the fight, five officers and 115 men were rescued from the sea and made prisoners by the British destroyers that came upon the scene. The remaining 201 went to the bottom with their ship. The Alcantara’s loss amounted to five officers and 69 men, of whom nearly all were killed by the final torpedo.’

In the subsequent list of recommendations submitted to Their Lordships, Main was cited in the following terms:

‘He was in the after-control during the action and manoeuvred the ship when the steering gear was wrecked aft. It is due to this officer’s organisation as Executive Officer that so many lives were saved.’

In fact Main was also placed in charge of Alcantara’s boarding party, but the relevant boat was smashed by a shell before it could even be lowered, setting it on fire and killing or wounding some of the crew. No doubt, however, as a result of his recently gazetted D.S.O., he was, on this occasion, rewarded by special promotion to Commander (London Gazette 22 June 1916 refers).

Main ended the War ‘in charge at Cardiff of the defensive armament of merchant ships in the Bristol Channel, and he was presented to the Prince of Wales in 1918, when his Royal Highness inspected the establishment. He chatted with the Prince for some time, describing the guns, the fitting shops and the various defensive devices at the Cardiff Channel Dry Docks. While at Cardiff, Commander Main had about 2,000 men under his charge.’

He died at Portsmouth in October 1924, having been awarded his Reserve Decoration back in March 1915.