Gordon Steele VC: A life on the Thames and at sea

By Nub News Reporter

29th Nov 2023 | Local History

Gordon Steele VC
Gordon Steele VC

AT November's meeting of Thurrock Local History Society Mark Rowland gave a very detailed and interesting talk on the life of Gordon Steele, VC.

He was born in Exeter in 1891 and followed his father Henry and brothers into the Royal Navy. His father retired in 1903 and was appointed captain of TS Cornwall at Purfleet, where 200 boys were trained.

Gordon attended Palmer's School and joined the T.S. Worcester for officer training as well as seamanship and left in 1909.

He was apprenticed with P & O and joined the RN reserve, serving on four ships. He was a midshipman when war broke out and became a sub-lieutenant.

Gordon had further training for war service, including torpedoes. He had an illustrious career, serving on HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow, engaged in the Battle of Jutland, and was given command of Q ships in late 1918.

In January 1915 he was appointed to HMS Antwerp, and later transferred to the Baralong, armed with 12-pounder guns.

Disguised as a merchant ship with an American flag it cruised the Irish Sea. During this time the Lusitania had been sunk and the Baralong was on her way to find survivors of the White Star Line SS Arabic.

They came across the German submarine U-27 which was firing into the British steamer Nicosian and ran up a signal flag indicating rescue. The Germans allowed the freighter's crew and passengers to board lifeboats, and prepared to sink the freighter.

The Baralong's commanding officer then ordered shooting and the U-27 sank; all the crew went down except for the gun crew who were then fired at, with no Germans surviving.

The Nicosian was towed to Avonmouth; the Baralong's crew were told to keep quiet, but some were appalled by what had happened, no proper enquiry taking place.

Gordon was promoted to Lieutenant on the E22, responsible for torpedo firing. After the armistice was signed he came back to Portsmouth.

After WW1 he continued his service on coastal motorboats and when the British and French joined in the Russian civil war he was sent to various ports in the Baltic, second in command of the Motorboat No.88.

With the aid of several maps Mark gave a detailed account of the Kronstadt Harbour battle in August 1919. The RAF squadron carried out a nearby bombing raid as a distraction. His commanding officer had been shot dead and the vessel thrown off course. Steele took the wheel and torpedoed their target, the Russian battleship Andrei Pervozanni and under difficult circumstances, obscured by smoke and under heavy fire, also manoeuvred to torpedo the Petropavlovsk.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry and coolness under fire and was one of the guards of honour at the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920.

Gordon stayed in the navy, specialising in anti-submarine work. His last appointment was to HMS Cornwall again. He was on half pay in 1929 to HMS Worcester and in 1938 the Cutty Sark was brought from Falmouth, moored alongside the Worcester.

Steele was made an Honorary Captain in 1939 and in WW2 he was brought back as commander in charge of submarine defences in the Clyde.

In Grays it was the end of the Worcester, in poor repair. It was replaced by the Exmouth, no longer used for training children.

Gordon Steel retired at the age of 55 and in 1958, he was the subject of an episode of the BBC programme, "This is Your Life", hosted by Eamonn Andrews.

He died in 1981, aged 89, after a full and adventurous life.

The group's next meeting is the Christmas Party on Friday, 15 December.

The next lecture is on Friday, 19 January at St John's Church Hall, Victoria Avenue, Grays, when chairman Susan Yates' talk is entitled Grace 250. All visitors are most welcome.


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