THE bravery of a teenage sailor from the North-East is to be immortalised in a Dutch documentary. DAVID ROBERTS learns about a 15-year-old boy's heroism in one of the early naval battles of the First World War.
In Ormesby Church, a pleasant nineteenth century building, on the outskirts of Middlesbrough, sits a plaque dedicated to Senior Midshipman Duncan Stubbs. However, the stone-built church with its leafy graveyard is a far cry from the young boy's final resting place.
Several hundred miles away, in the cold depths of the North Sea lie the remains of three First World battle cruisers, HMS Cressy, HMS Aboukir and HMS Hogue. These three ships were part of what was known as the Live Bait squadron because of the perilous nature of their job patrolling the waters around Britain during the First World War. In testament to that fact, all three of those ships were sunk during in one of the first clashes with a U Boat in an encounter lasting a little over one hour. Approximately 1,500 sailors were drowned in the battle, including Midshipman Stubbs.
In recent months, the three ships, designated as official war graves, have been the centre of international controversy as Dutch salvage vessels have tried to retrieve scrap metal from them. An alliance of veterans organisations, divers and environmentalists have protested against the salvage work on the wrecks, which have also become an important habitat for a range of marine wildlife.
As a result of the prominence of the three ships, diver and filmmaker Klaudie Bartelink has teamed up with historian Henk van der Linden, and, with the help of a Dutch lottery grant of €1.2m, have volunteered to make a film detailing the history of the three ships. As part of that film, it will focus on one particular sailor, Duncan Stubbs.
Born in 1899, the young Duncan was brought up in Nunthorpe, Middlesbrough, the son of a prominent local solicitor TDH Stubbs. At the age of 12 and a half he enlisted in the Royal Navy College, Osborne. Here, he excelled at most things he turned his hand to. As well as representing the college at cricket, in his second year, he came out head of the list, being presented by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty with the prize for the highest aggregate of marks, including seamanship and engineering.
He then entered the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, but with the outbreak of war was posted to HMS Aboukir, raised to the rank of senior midshipman and placed in charge of four 4-pounder guns. On September 22, 1914, the Aboukir was the first of the three boats to be struck by a German U-Boat torpedo and soon began to sink. Despite his tender age, Duncan showed commendable bravery in going to the aid of a fellow midshipman who was still asleep when the torpedo struck. In a letter to TDH Stubbs, Duncan's commanding officer, Lieutenant JB Hughes, wrote: “It required some pluck to do that (go back for the sleeping midshipman), with the ship heeling over and liable to go at any moment.”
The same officer wrote: “He was a very great friend of mine. So absolutely straight and upright, so thoroughly keen at any work or game, always cheerful no matter at what hour of the night or day or how rough the sea was.”
With the Aboukir sinking, Duncan swam for the Hogue. As they were in the water, he and another midshipman tried to help a drowning marine and helping to keep him afloat. They held him for as long as possible, but the man eventually drowned and sank. As they approached the Hogue, it too was torpedoed and so they were forced to swim again for the Cressy.
A local newspaper article written at the time records how Duncan had changed clothes and was sipping cocoa on the quarterdeck of the Cressy when it too was struck by a torpedo and he had to take to the water once again. Lt Hughes writes that Duncan was last seen holding onto a plank in the sea. However, he never came aboard the Dutch rescue vessel Titan.
When Mr van der Linden began researching for the film, he wrote to Navy News appealing for family members of the ships' crews to get in contact. The advert was passed to Alice Barrigan, Duncan Stubbs' great-niece.
By sheer coincidence, another person to get in contact was a relative of William Shrubsall, a reservist from the south coast of England, who served with Duncan. He is the only one of his shipmates Duncan mentioned in his letters home to his family.
Mrs Barrigan said: “It seems inconceivable now, but this was like Nelson's navy, there were 15 year old midshipmen ordering around reservists in their forties. It seems Duncan was quite a fan of Gunner Shrubsall's tall stories. Here were two men from very different background united by this one event. It's a story of gross incompetence, coupled with individual heroism.”
Over the weekend, members of the Dutch filmcrew visited the region to speak to Duncan's family, including his niece, Shirley Storey, as part of the research into the remarkable young man. Naturally, their visit took in the church where another permanent memorial to his bravery remains.