Devon Men in the Royal Navy

HMS Vanguard © IWM (Q 74890)

On this website, we can see that a number of the fallen and indeed many of the survivors fought in the Royal Navy and the RNVR, the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

As East Devon is a coastal community, this is, perhaps, not all that surprising.

For many years, the Royal Navy had been the largest and most powerful in the world, and throughout the Great War remained so. Its job was to keep food, munitions and other supplies flowing into Britain and its Empire. To this end, a major role was in anti-submarine warfare, and another was to keep enemy fleets confined to their home waters.

A naval blockade of Germany was set up early in the Great War and continued for a number of months afterwards to encourage Germany to sign peace treaties.

Not all the losses the Royal Navy suffered were due to immediate enemy action:  HMS Vanguard, for instance, sank after an explosion on board while she was stationed at Scapa Flow, Britain’s main naval base off the north east coast of Scotland.

Vanguard, a St Vincent class dreadnought battleship, was one of the most modern and powerful craft in the navy, having been launched in 1909. But this did not help as she sank almost instantly after an accidental explosion on the night of July 9, 1917. All but two of the 800-plus men on board died: the incident remains the worst accidental explosion in British history.

Among the victims of the Vanguard explosion was Ordinary Seaman Francis Thomas Veal, from  Budleigh Salterton, who was the son of Francis C Veal of the Coastguard Station. Francis the younger is remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.

But the threat of German submarines was ever-present: one of their victims was Wallace Harding, a Petty Officer from Otterton.

He was one of the men serving on HMS Bergamot, a convoy protection vessel launched on May 5, 1917, and commissioned just a month later.

However, she was destined not to survive, as she was sunk on August 13 by a single torpedo launched by the German submarine U-84 west of Killybegs in the north of Ireland. She went down within four minutes of the attack. Fortunately, a large number of her 80-plus crew survived, although sadly PO Harding was not among them.

The British too, had their submarines, among them the E-class vessels which were the mainstay of the Royal Navy’s underwater operations throughout the Great War. Petty Officer Telegraphist Robert Larcombe from Otterton served on E-30, which sank with no survivors from a crew of 30 on December 22, 1916, after hitting a mine in the North Sea. Robert died earlier than his shipmates, on April 7 of that year, when one of the craft's batteries exploded.

Pictured above is HMS Vanguard (© IWM (Q 74890))

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    • 1.

      Thursday 31 July 2014 8:15 PM
    • Ilfracombe Boy wrote:
    • Excellent site. These are not Royal Navy sailors in the picture as they have moustaches?

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