Rank: Petty Officer Stoker 308347
Regiment: Royal Navy, HMS Falmouth
Died: 20 August 1916
Beer Memorial Cross, St Michael's Church Tablet, Beer
Other Memorial: Plymouth Naval Memorial [Google]
PDF Download: HARNER William John
William Harner was born in Beer on 12 July 1886, and was the eldest son of George Harner, the blacksmith who built the church clock. At the time of the 1901 census William, then aged 15, was living in Cemetery Lane, Beer with his father and two younger brothers, Walter, then aged 13, and Frederick, 11. His mother was dead, since George is described in the census as a widower, and George’s sister Martha (William’s aunt) also lived with them.
William joined the Royal Navy as a Stoker 2nd Class on 13 April 1905 at Devonport. In July that year he joined his first ship, the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand. He became a Stoker 1st Class in July 1906 while still serving on the New Zealand, and after a spell ashore at Devonport he joined the Monmouth-class armoured cruiser HMS Donegal in January 1908. In March 1909 he transferred to HMS Aboukir, a Cressy-class cruiser, and in May 1911 he joined HMS Indus, a hulk moored at Devonport which served as the Royal Naval Engine Room Artificers’ School. In September that year he was promoted to Leading Stoker, and in January 1912 he joined HMS Orion, a brand new dreadnought battleship.
In the summer of 1913 William married Bessie Newbury from East Street, Colyton. She was a lacemaker, and described herself in the 1911 census as ‘Mender, plain Nottingham net’. In January 1914, while still on HMS Orion, William was promoted to Petty Officer Stoker, and the following month left the ship for a shore posting at Devonport.
At the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 1914 he was on board the Weymouth-class cruiser HMS Falmouth, which he joined only five days earlier. Falmouth, a 5,250-ton ship with a crew of 475, was part of the 5th Cruiser Squadron in the Atlantic, and took part in the sinking of four German merchant ships.
In late August 1914 she joined the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron, which was part of the Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, and on 28 August she took part in the battle of Heligoland Bight, in which three German cruisers were sunk, with no British losses.
On 24 January 1915, HMS Falmouth took part in the battle of Dogger Bank in the North Sea. German ships set out to scout the Dogger Bank area and attack any British ships there, but the signals ordering them to sea were intercepted and decoded by Room 40, the Royal Navy’s codebreakers. British ships from Harwich and Rosyth were sent to engage them.
Rear-Admiral Hipper, commanding the German forces, was expecting to find only light British ships, but was then faced with the British battlecruiser squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral Beatty, as well as light cruisers and destroyers from Harwich. The German armoured cruiser Blucher was sunk.
On 31 May 1916 HMS Falmouth was involved in the battle of Jutland. By then she was the flagship of the 3rd Light Cruiser Squadron, commanded by Rear-Admiral Napier. Falmouth was struck by a German shell, but was not badly damaged.
On 19 August 1916, German ships under Admiral Scheer planned to attack Sunderland. The British Grand Fleet sailed south to meet the attack, and another force sailed north from Harwich.
Scheer had placed a screen of U-boats in front of his force, and when HMS Nottingham, a sister ship of the Falmouth, was torpedoed and sunk by one of these, the Grand Fleet turned back to the north to avoid further losses.
While returning northwards, HMS Falmouth was hit by torpedoes fired by the U-boat U66 and then, while under tow to the River Humber, was hit again the following day, this time by torpedoes from U52. Even then, she took eight hours to sink.
William Harner was the only fatality on the Falmouth. He is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, for the officers and ratings of the port who have no grave but the sea.
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