A Collection of Awards to the Q-Ship H.M.S. Penshurst

Date of Auction: 4th March 2020

Sold for £750

Estimate: £1,000 - £1,400

The Great War D.S.M. awarded to Wireless Operator E. V. Chamberlain, Royal Naval Reserve, who was decorated for bravery during three specific actions aboard the Q-ship Penshurst, one of the most famous and highly decorated Q-ships of the War, in which ship he was an original crew member and was still serving on the occasion of her loss in the Irish Sea in December 1917

Distinguished Service Medal, G.V.R. (W.T.S. 310. E. V. Chamberlain, W/T.O.P. 1 Cl. RNR. Atlantic. 20.22 Feb. 8 Mar. 1917.) in case of issue with original riband and brooch attached, contact marks and abrasively polished/ acid cleaned, therefore fine £1,000-£1,400


Provenance: Sotheby’s September 1994.

D.S.M. London Gazette 23 May 1917

Ernest Victor Chamberlain was born in 1886 near Guildford, Surrey and attested for the 2nd Life Guards on 30 September 1905. He was promoted Corporal in August 1912 and discharged on 18 December 1913 at his own request. He entered the Royal Naval Reserve as a Wireless Telegraph Operator 1st Class on 26 August 1914, and was stationed at Chatham’s H.M.S. Pembroke and then H.M.S. Drake until 15 October 1915, at which time he joined H.M.S. Patrol. He joined the armed boarding steamer H.M.S. Stephen Furness (later to be sunk by UB-64 on 24 December 1917) on 19 March 1915 and then saw brief periods of service in each of the armed trawler H.T. Hawk and the auxiliary patrol depot ship H.M.S. Zaria. Then, in December 1915, his next appointment was on ‘special service’, to the submarine repair and depot ship, H.M.S. Cyclops, at Scapa, under Francis Henry Grenfell.

H.M.S. Penshurst
Built in 1906 as a cargo steamer, the “Splendid Penshurst” became one of the most famous and highly decorated Q-ships of the Great War. She was a Special Service Vessel (also know as a Q-Ship) whose function was to act as a decoy, inviting attack by a U-boat in order to engage it with, hitherto concealed, superior surface firepower. Her two captains, Francis Grenfell and Cedric Naylor, both received multiple decorations - the latter ended up as one of the most highly decorated Naval officers of the Great War, with three D.S.Os and two D.S.Cs to his name, the whole for services in the Penshurst. By the time she went down with her Ensign flying on Christmas Eve 1917, having been torpedoed, this legendary Q-Ship had accounted for two enemy submarines and seriously damaged three others. In all she was in action with enemy U-boats on eleven occasions over a two year period.

Her first engagement with the German Imperial Navy was on 29 November 1916 when Penshurst fell in with a U-boat which was attacking the steamer WileysidePenshurst was able to approach to 3000 yards before the U-boat ordered her to stop. Grenfell's crew went through their "abandon ship" deception routine, putting out boats manned by a "panic party", while Penshurst stopped, waiting for the U-boat to come closer. However the U-boat declined to come closer, and with it partly hidden in the glare of the setting sun Penshurst opened fire. She got several shots off before the U-boat dived, and closed to drop depth charges on the spot, but the U-boat (which was unidentified) escaped.
Penshurst was more successful the following day on 30 November when she sank the UB-19. The latter had been spotted by a seaplane lying off Alderney, Grenfell putting off the “panic party” and then engaging the enemy submarine from 250 yards - 13 of UB-19’s crew were rescued. In keeping with the Admiralty Prize Law, an impressive sum of £1000 was distributed among the crew

Then on 14 January 1917, she sighted the UB-37, Kapitain Lieutnant Günther. The U-boat opened fire immediately and Captain Grenfell ordered the usual “abandon ship” tactics to be carried out. Slowly the UB-37 closed in until she was 700 yards off the Q-ship’s starboard bow and twice in succession Penshurst was hit by shell fire and several members of her crew, who were waiting in concealment for the order to ‘Open fire’, were killed or wounded. At first Grenfell anticipated that Günther would take UB-37 around to the Q-ship’s boats off Penshurst’s port quarter and that such action would afford the opportunity of decreasing the range, but it soon became obvious that Günther had no intention of closing in and Grenfell decided to reveal his true colours and commence an action. At 4.24 p.m. Penshurst hoisted her White Ensign and her apparently deserted decks became alive with activity as the screens concealing her armament were lowered and her guns opened a rapid fire on the submarine. The first shell from Penshurst’s 12-pounder struck the base of UB-37‘s conning tower and when the black smoke which resulted from the violent explosion had cleared away, it was observed that a part of the U-boat’s conning tower was missing. A second shell caused further damage to UB-37‘s hull and at least four more hits were registered on her conning tower before she sank to the bottom with all hands. To ensure the U-boat’s destruction, Penshurst steamed over the position where she had disappeared and dropped depth-charges before returning to Portland. Again £1000 was shared by the crew.

On 20 February Penshurst again encountered a U-boat in the Southwest Approaches. She was again attacked, and after the U-boat closed was able to fire on her, causing damage. The U-boat submerged and was depth charged, but on this occasion was able to escape, returning to base despite the damage.

Just two days later, on 22 February, Penshurst engaged the U-84 which had just sunk the sailing ship Invercauld off the south coast of Ireland. Having narrowly avoided a torpedo while picking up survivors, Grenfell and his men achieved several hits, causing U-84 significant damage and wounding members of her crew - the U-Boat managed to limp back to Germany on the surface, where Admiral Scheer described her survival as a miracle.

On 8 March Grenfell fought another surface action with a U-Boat at the Eastern end of the English Channel and the later the same month on 30 March, Penshurst again engaged a U-boat, UB-32. Both vessels were badly damaged, Penshurst requiring a major refit, but Grenfell added to his brace of D.S.Os with rapid advancement to Captain.

Cedric Naylor now assumed command, and fought his first action as captain on 2 July, in the Western Approaches, his gunners getting in 16 hits on the U-Boat before it fled the scene just as three Royal Navy destroyers arrived.

Again in action on 19 August, Penshurst was torpedoed and badly damaged by gunfire, exposing her hidden guns. Despite this, the submarine surfaced and Penshurst pretended to “run away” according to plan. She then opened fire with her 3-pounder gun in an attempt to entice the submarine closer before opening up with her heavier guns. Hits were scored against the submarine and eventually Penshurst used her 12-pounder with good effect and hit the submarine four times, causing it to break off the action and dive. Penshurst, badly damaged, was unable to follow up with depth charges, and so set course for Plymouth and much needed repairs.
Penshurst fought her last action on 24 December 1917, in the Irish Sea, versus the U-110, which fired a torpedo, hitting her in the engine room. Penshurst scored some hits but was unable to bring all her guns to bear as she was down by the stern. She was again torpedoed, this time fatally - with two exceptions, however, all the crew were subsequently rescued. Naylor received a second bar to his D.S.O. for this, the Penshurst’s final action.

Chamberlain joined H.M.S. Penshurst on 1 May 1916, aboard which vessel he served right up to her loss in December 1917. He shared in all of the Penshurst’s engagements with the enemy, and he was quickly identified for a gallantry award, and unlike many of the later awards to this ship there are three dates on his D.S.M. representing the following three actions mentioned above, which are among the most well-known. He was also aboard Penshurst in her final action on 24 December 1917. Subsequently posted to Vivid, Chamberlain returned to active service in the armed merchant cruiser, H.M.S. Ophir from February 1918 until the end of the War.

Research with the lot contains confirmation of him having received £7 and 10 shillings from further prize money of £300 distributed to the crew of the Penshurst in December 1917. This was most likely in connection with the action on 2 July 1917 where a U-boat was damaged and Naylor awarded the D.S.O. Chamberlain’s share being the joint highest (with 4 others) paid to any of the ship’s 47 ratings.

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