The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 6 No 1 - June 1983

Naval Deeds of Valour by Land and Sea

By S. Monick

The following talk was delivered on Wednesday 28 October 1981, as part of Museum Week

In this talk, I hope to illuminate aspects of the courage displayed by members of the Naval Service, by land and sea, over a period of a century. Four points should be made at the outset. The First concerns the fact that the British Royal Navy features so heavily in this talk. There can be no doubt that acts of supreme courage are performed by naval personnel of all nations. However, the traditions of the Royal Navy have moulded to a very large extent, the traditions of our own South African Navy (one need look no further than the similarity of uniforms and rank structure). For this reason, the emphasis upon the Royal Navy is justified in terms of the continuity of tradition which it implies with regard to the South African Navy.

Secondly, the Decorations gained by naval personnel and in particularly the Victoria Cross and Conspicuous Gallantry Medal - feature to a very large extent. However, the talk is not concerned primarily with medals, only with the light which they throw upon naval acts of courage.

Thirdly, the period covered in this talk is approximately that of a century, from the institution of the Victoria Cross in 1854 to the end of World War II. Obviously, acts of naval courage - albeit confined to the Royal Navy - extend far beyond 1854. However, this limitation in terms of period is justified in view of the fact that our point of reference is that of awards granted to naval personnel. The Victoria Cross and Conspicuous Gallantry Medal were instituted in 1854 and 1855 respectively; and, therefore, it is from these points in time that one can relate naval acts of gallantry to specific Decorations.

With regard to this focus upon Decorations, a further point should be made. The Victoria Cross tends to dominate the discussion because the records relating to this award are so well documented. Moreover, the VC, together with the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, were the sole awards available to naval personnel of non-commissioned rank during the 19th Century for outstanding devotion to duty. The Conspicuous Service Cross was instituted in 1901,* the Distinguished Service Medal was instituted in 1914, and the George Cross and George Medal in 1940. Commissioned ranks were slightly more fortunate in the period preceding World War I in this regard. The Distinguised Service Order (DSO) was instituted in 1886.

[* Editors’ note: The Conspicuous Service Cross was succeeded in 1914 by the Distinguished Service Cross. However, this latter Decoration was reserved for commissioned officers.]

Fourthly, the role of members of the Royal Marines is excluded from the talk’s terms of reference. This is due to the fact that Marines have traditionally been associated with service on land in the popular imagination, unlike the Royal Navy.

The title of the talk may at first appear strange. The Navy is the traditional sea force, yet the emphasis in this talk, as the title implies, is the courage of naval personnel as displayed on land. However, it is a remarkable fact that, during the period commencing 1854 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, of the 41 awards of the Victoria Cross made to members of the Royal Navy and Indian Navy, no less than 33 were granted for services in land operations. During the course of World War II the balance is in reverse order; the predominant emphasis being upon service at sea. During the Great War of 1914-1918, of the 42 awards made to naval personnel, 9 were awarded for services associated with land operations. As John Winston states in his book, ‘The Victoria Cross at Sea’ ‘There was no major fleet-against-fleet action after Navarino [Greece] in 1827, and the majority of naval nineteenth-century VCs were won on land ... A VC won afloat was a rarity. In the 20th century the picture has changed completely, and it was VCs ashore that become rare’. When one studies the awards of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal one notices, similarly, that in the vast majority of cases in the 19th Century the awards were made for services on land. The reason, as the above extract implies, lies in the nature of Britain’s sea role during the 19th Century. This role was that of ‘policeman of Empire’, so to speak. In the entire century between Waterloo and the outbreak of World War 1, Britain was at war with only one European power (Russia, in the Crimean War of 1854-1856). In all the remaining cases the conflicts consisted of ‘little wars’, colonial campaigns (in the vast majority of instances against primitive, unsophisticated peoples); in which the Royal Navy’s principal role was to transport troops to the theatres of conflict and support the land operations with personnel (hence the role of Naval Brigades, which will be discussed below). The Royal Navy’s other principal role in the Victor an era was extensive patrolling of routes along which the illicit slave traffic might pass, fulfilling Britain’s leading role in the suppression of the slave trade. In the present century the balance changes; the Royal Navy’s major role drastically altered in the course of two World Wars, in which Britain and the Commonwealth (together with her Allies) were involved in sea operations against major naval powers (Germany and Japan).

Time permits us to study but a small number of acts of gallantry on the part of naval personnel. In order to utilize this time with maximum profit, the deeds of gallantry selected for discussion have been chosen with a view to their representing certain illuminating aspects of naval actions in the past and present centuries. These aspects may be summarized as:


I have selected four instances of outstanding acts of gallantry on land by naval personnel during the course of the 19th century. They have been selected largely because of their unique character. Chicken’s was the only naval VC ever to be awarded for services on horseback; Knyvet Wilson’s award was for hand-to-hand combat in the Sudan; William Hall was the first Black to be awarded the VC (in addition to being a member of the most famous Naval Brigade in the 19th century, that of HMS Shannon); William H. Bevis is significant in so far as his Conspicuous Gallantry Medal was awarded at Majuba.

George Bell Chicken: There could, perhaps, be no more inappropriate name for a recipient of the VC. George Chicken’s was the only naval award of the VC ever to have been won on horseback. He was, strictly speaking, a civilian volunteer serving with the Indian Naval Brigade. (The Indian Navy was abolished in 1862.)

On 27 September 1858 Chicken attached himself to a mixed party of mounted police and irregular cavalry, in an attack upon a force of approximately 700 mutineers encamped at a village called Suhejnee, near Peroo, in Bengal. Apparently Chicken had openly announced his determination to win a Victoria Cross and he behaved with conspicuous gallantry during the charge that day. The mutineers were routed and were soon in flight, pursued by Chicken and the others. When Chicken caught up with a party of about 20 heavily armed mutineers, the found himself quite alone, having forged recklessly ahead of his comrades. Chicken at once charged the mutineers, killing five with his sword, but was then set upon by the rest, knocked off his horse and badly wounded. He would almost certainly have been killed had not four of his comrades galloped up and rescued him.

There is a tragic postscript to this story. Chicken’s Victoria Cross was gazetted on 27 April 1860; a special Royal Warrant signed on 13 December 1858 qualifying non-military personnel serving as volunteers for the VC, without which sanction Chicken would not have been eligible for the award. However, it is more than possible that Chicken never knew of the award that he had tried so hard to win; for in May of 1860 his schooner Emily, of which he was in command, was lost with all hands in a violent squall off Sandheads, in the Bay of Bengal.

Arthur Knyvet Wilson: At the time of perfoming the services that were rewarded with the VC, at the battle of El-Teb on 29 February 1884, Wilson was a Captain in the Royal Navy, on the staff of Rear Admiral Sir William Hewett, VC. Prior to this he had commanded the torpedo depot ship, Hecla. Wilson wrote in a letter the same day (29 February 1884): ‘I had no business to be there, but as I had nothing to do here, and the place where the battle was expected to, and actually did, take place was within walking distance, I thought I would walk out at daylight this morning in time to march out with the troops.’ The location of the battle was El-Teb in the Sudan, approximately 17 kilometres inland from the Red Sea. Capt Wilson’s ship, Hecla had contributed two officers, 25 sailors, and a Gardner machine gun to the Naval Brigade but, as Wilson stated in this same letter: ‘I had nothing to do with that and simply went as a spectator.’ On 29 February Maj Gen Sir Gerald Graham’s force advanced towards El-Teb, in the form of the traditional British square, with the Naval Brigade and their machine guns at the two leading corners. As the square advanced towards the Sudanese positions general firing broke out and several members of the Naval Brigade were hit, including Lt Roys of HMS Caryfort who was badly wounded. Wilson took his place. When about 18 or 27 metres distant from the enemy, some soldiers broke ranks and ran forward into a Sudanese battery, thinking it to be empty. They were rapidly disillusioned in this respect, and returned with about 20 Sudanese spearman in hot pursuit. Wilson wrote: ‘One fellow got in close to me and made a dig with his spear at the soldier on my left. He failed to reach me, and left his whole side exposed, so that I had a cool prod at him. He seemed to be beastly hard, and my sword broke against his ribs.’

Wilson himself was slashed on the head by a Sudanese swordsman, but his pith helmet took the brunt and the blade only cut his skin. However, blood poured over down his face and beard and, indeed, Wilson attributed his VC to his ghastly appearance, which could not but escape notice: ‘If only I could have got a basin of hot water and washed my face I should have escaped notoriety.’ His exploit was noticed by (then) Brig Redvers Buller, and he was duly recommended and gazetted for the Victoria Cross on 20 May 1884. Wilson subsequenty rose to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, and, indeed, was one of the most important personalities of the Senior Service during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

William Hall: Able Seaman William Hall was the first Black to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Hall gained his VC during the Indian Mutiny, at Lucknow in November 1857. The relief of the British Residency at Lucknow on 17 November 1857 was among the most famous incidents of the Indian Mutiny. Included in the relieving force which fought their way street by street through Lucknow was a Naval Brigade from the 50-gun steam frigate HMS Shannon, commanded by Capt William Peel. On 16 November members of the Naval Brigade, under the immediate command of Lt Thomas Young Shannon’s gunnery officer, reached the formidable fortress of Shah Nujeff, a domed mosque surrounded by a masonry wall cut with loopholes for musketry fire, The sailors ran their guns so close to the Shah Nujeff wall that their muzzles almost touched the brickwork and, when they fired, the guns and crews were completely hidden in smoke and brick dust. The guns crews maintained a steady fire despite a hail of musket balls and grenades from the defenders of the walls above. Finally, Hall was left the sole survivor of his crew, all the rest being killed or wounded. Young took the last gunner’s place, helping Hall to load and serve the gun. (Young was also awarded the VC for this action. In addition, two other members of the Brigade received the VC for their gallantry on this particular action). One hears much today of the need for all population groups to co-operate in the common defence of South Africa. The story of the heroism of Hall and Young is, therefore, a pointed anecdote in this context.

As in the case of Chicken, there is a curious postscript to ths story (or perhaps one should say prologue). Hall had in fact deserted in 1856, and his name was marked in the books of HMS Victory (whence he had deserted) as ‘R’ (Run), to show that he was a deserter, on 12 March 1856. However, he rejoined the Navy in October 1856 on the strength of Shannon. He was clearly an expert seaman, and finally left the Navy, in June 1876, with the rank of Quartermaster and Petty Officer on HMS Petrel; after which he returned to his native Nova Scotia, where he died in 1904.

Prior to the outbreak of World War I, there were two other Blacks awarded the VC.

William H. Bevis: I have selected William H. Bevis principally because his action is extremely topical in the centennial year of the First South African War of Independance of 1880-1881. Bevis, a member of the crew of HMS Boadicea, was an Assistant Sick Berth Attendant. At Majuba he, together with Surgeon Mahon, tended the mortally wounded Commander Romilly. They remained with him after the plateau was totally devoid of their fleeing comrades, and until the Boers were within a few paces. When they rose, they were permitted to carry Romilly from the action. For this gallant action, Bevis was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal; an award which, in actual fact, is far rarer than the VC. Originally instituted in 1855, abolished in 1856 (with the introduction of the VC), it was re-instituted in 1874. Of the 1855 award, 11 awards were made to ten recipients. Between 1874 and 1946 (when the last award to date was made) a total of only 234 awards (with one Bar) have been made. When one compares this figure with the 1 352 VC’s awarded to all servicemen to date, the rarity of the CGM clearly emerges.


In the four illustrations of naval gallantry on land discussed above, all were serving with Naval Brigades. These were a consistent feature of British military operations during the course of the 19th Century. Indeed, the concept underlying the Naval Brigade - that of a unit of seaman fighting on land - can be traced to the 16th Century. The Naval Brigade comprised either an individual unit from a single ship or, in a fleet of considerable size, detachments from a number of ships brigaded together (and often including Marines). It is of interest to note that Brigades from individual ships acquired a reputation in much the same manner as that of a regiment. An outstanding example is the Brigade from HMS Shannon, commanded by Capt Peel, VC, to which reference has been made with regard to Hall’s VC, and which rendered such outstanding service during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-1858. No less than five VCs were gained by members of the Brigade. Their Commander, Capt Peel, had gained his VC in the Crimea. John Winton writes of Peel’s Brigade: “Peel’s Jacks”, as they were called, were superb campaigners, able to march, fight, live off the land, handle guns and horses with equal ease, and soon won a fearsome reputation among the sepoys, who firmly believed that the Jacks were all four foot high by five foot wide from snout to tail, carried 9-pounder guns over their heads, and ate human flesh as much as they could, salting down the rest for future consumption.’ Surely an enviable reputation to acquire among the enemy! In 1857 Peel’s Brigade consisted of approximately 200 sailors and marines, with six 24-pounder guns, two 8-inch guns, and two rocket tubes mounted on bullock-drawn carts known as ‘hackeries’.

Subsequently, such Brigades had served in the China War of 1860, the Abyssinian Expedition of 1868, and the Ashanti War of 1873-1874. Naval Brigades were certainly no stranger to South Africa. During the Zulu War of 1879 detachments from HMS Active, Shah, Tenedos and Boadicea assisted the land forces at the battle of Inyezane, Kambula and Gingindlovu. With specific reference to Majuba, the Naval Brigade drawn from HMS Boadicea and Dido were severely mauled, suffering approximately 50% casualties in dead and wounded (including their Commanding Officer, Cdr Romilly who, as stated above in connection with William H. Bevis, was mortally wounded). (The detachment from HMS Boadicea had also featured at Laing’s Nek). Naval Brigades played a prominent role subsequent to the War of 1880-1881; in Egypt (1882), the Sudan (1884-1885 and 1896-1898) and the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. During this last mentioned conflict, Naval Brigades featured prominently in the relief of Ladysmith, Colenso, and Spioen Kop. The records relating to the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal mirror the Victoria Cross in illustrating the extensive role of Naval Brigades in 19th Century military operations.

Naval Brigades were particularly associated with the gunnery aspects of military operations. (This is natural, in view of the fact that the sailor’s role in sea combat was mainly orientated towards gunnery; especially after the development of long range naval artillery had dispensed with the need for boarding parties and hand-to-hand combat). Hence, during the Zulu War of 1879, in the battle of Inyezane, one finds the Brigade from HMS Active bringing to bear their two 7-pounders, two 24-pounders, rocket tubes, and one Gatling gun. Midshipman L.C. Coker, 19 years of age, played an important role in dispersing the Zulus from a hill, whence they had taken up position, by 300 well aimed rounds from a Gatling gun. The Gatling gun - an early type of crank-handled machine gun - is a recurrent feature in the fire power provided by the Naval Brigades during the Zulu War; one finds them employed at Gingindlovu as well as Inyezane. During the First South African War of Independence, the Naval Brigades contributed the (rather marginal) support of their rocket tubes; although at Majuba they contributed no artillery whatsoever (which is hardly surprising when one considers the climb involved) and were employed solely in an infantry role.

Officers of the Naval Brigade from HMS Active, which served in the Zulu War of 1879. The detachment consisted of 170 sailors and marines, under the command of Cdr Campbell.

The tradition of the Naval Brigade was continued in the form of the Royal Naval Division of World War I. Comprising several battalions - the Drake, Hawke, Hood, Benbow, Collingwood, Anson and Howe - it served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front from 1916. The Division was formed mainly from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Fleet Reserve. It included the 1st and 2nd Naval Brigades and a brigade from the Royal Marine Light Infantry. At Gahlipoli its losses were so severe that the Benbow and Collingwood battalions had to be disbanded. Cdr Daniel William Marcus Beak, VC, DSO, MC and Bar, RNVR, gained the VC whilst serving with the Drake Battalion at Logeast Wood, near Bapaume, France, in 1918. Another member of the Drake Battalion, CPO George Prowse, VC, DCM, RNVR, was also awarded the VC for his services in France in 1918. Prowse was one of the very few naval non-commissioned ranks to gain a Distinguished Conduct Medal (the Naval Division being under Army Command).


There are many instances of extremely young naval personnel displaying acts of extreme gallantry. I have selected but two examples from extreme ends of the time scale, so to speak; viz, an example from World War I and one from the Indian Mutiny. The two examples have been chosen with the object of illustrating the central theme of this talk; deeds of gallantry by naval personnel on both land and sea.

John Travers Cornwell: ‘Boy’ Cornwell was one of four recipients of the VC who gained the award for their actions at the battle Jutland, in May 1916. On 31 May 1916, at 17h30 the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron under Rear Admiral Hood, sighted gun flashes to the south-west and the light cruiser Chester found herself in action against four German light cruisers. Chester’s six 5,5 inch guns were no match for the thirty 5,9 inch guns of the German cruisers. Chester was hit 17 times within the space of only a few minutes. Her fire control and half her guns’ crews were knocked out. Thirty men were killed and 46 wounded - 1 in 5 of her ship’s company. Among the casualties was the entire crew of the forward 5,5 inch gun turret. After the shock of the battle, only one figure was still standing by the turret. He was Boy First Class Jack Cornwell, the sight-setter, who took his orders from fire control and applied the necessary range corrections to the gun. He was quite literally, a boy, not yet 16 and a half years old, and he had been in the Navy for less than a year. But the short months of naval discipline told. Although mortally wounded, Cornwell remained, in the words of Admiral Beatty’s despatches, ‘standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him.’ Cornwell lived long enough to he taken ashore, but he died of his wounds on 2 June.

Arthur Mayo: Midshipman Mayo was only 17 years of age when he performed the action which was rewarded with the VC. At the time Midshipman Mayo, like Chicken, was serving with the Indian Naval Brigade. He was part of the detachment from the steam paddle frigate Punjaub, whose officers and men comprised No. 4 detachment of the Naval Brigade that landed in Calcutta in June and immediately went up-country for service in suppressing the mutiny in Eastern Bengal. In November the detachment was in Daca, where the 73rd Native Infantry Regiment and elements of the Bengal Artillery were openly mutinous and had to be disarmed. Early on 22 November 1857, five officers and 85 men of the Brigade, under Punjaub’s First Lieutenant, Lt T.E. Lewis, stormed and captured the Treasury, where thousands of rupees were stored, and pressed on to the Lall Bagh, a large enclosure in the town, formerly the palace garden of the rulers of Bengal.

When they had got inside the Lall Bagh, the sailors found the sepoys already drawn up for battle in front of their magazine, with two 6-pounder guns in their midst. A domed mosque in the centre, a hospital, numerous buildings and a barracks on top of a hill, had all had loopholes knocked in their brickwork and were heavily defended by the armed mutineers. The total strength of the mutineers was between 300 and 400. When the sailors deployed into line the sepoys opened fire with cannister shot and musketry, but fired too high. The sailors replied with one volley and then charged uphill, broke down the barrack door with musket butts and stormed inside. In a desperate hand-to-hand battle, many sepoys were bayoneted to death. With the barracks secure, the sailors repeatedly charged downhill to take the remaining sepoys in the flank. In this last charge Midshipman Mayo placed himself some 18 metres in front of his men and led the way, with a great cheer, to capture the 6-pounder guns.

Mayo served with the Naval Brigade until January 1860, having distinguished himself once again and been mentioned in despatches in February 1859, when he took part in an expedition with native infantry and artillery into the Arbor Hills. Although wounded in the hand with a poisoned arrow, he led a storming party across a bridge to take a native stockade.

Unlike his counterpart in the Indian Naval Brigade, George Chicken, there is a happy conclusion to this story. Mayo was invalided home in 1860, graduated from Oxford in 1865, and spent the remainder of his life as a clergyman, dying on this 80th birthday in 1920.


In this part of the talk, the focus is entirely upon the acts of gallantry performed at sea. It is, specifically, concerned with deeds performed by South Africans. However, it is of interest to note in passing that the very first VC ever awarded was to a sailor. He was Charles David Lucas who, at the time of performing the service that gained him the award, was a Mate on board HMS Hecla (the same name as Knyvet Wilson’s ship). On 21 June 1854, whilst Lucas’s ship was bombarding the fortress of Bomarsund, in the Baltic, a live shell was thrown onto the deck. Without a moment’s hesitation Mr Lucas coolly picked it up and threw it overboard. It is pleasing to record that Mr Lucas retired as a Rear Admiral.

Before finally leaving the 19th Century, one may note that the above illustrations of gallantry throw a most interesting light upon lesser known aspects of Victorian society, and lead us to look upon the 19th Century from a fresh and unprejudiced viewpoint. It is commonly supposed that Victorian society was almost a caste system in its veneration for rank and class. Yet we have seen a Mate rise to be a Rear Admiral (Lucas) whilst, on another level a black seaman (Hall) could leave the service with the rank of Petty Officer.

In the present century the Distinguished Service Cross has featured as an important pointer to acts of naval gallantry. The extent to which South Africans have featured in such acts during World War II may he gauged from the fact that, during the War, 38 DSCs were made to South African naval officers. Altogether 233 decorations were gained by South African Naval Forces during World War II.

Within this context, it is germane to mention Lt Cdr D.A. Hall, who was the only naval officer who served entirely with South African Naval Forces during the full course of World War II. Moreover, he is the only South African to have been awarded a Bar to his DSC. His first award was gained on HMSAS Southern Maid, whilst serving on the Alexandria-Tobruk supply run in 1941. His Bar was gained on HMSAS Natal, for sinking the German U-Boat U714, in 1945. The unique aspect of this operation was that the submarine was sunk whilst HMSAS Natal was undergoing trials. A further point of interest is that the six DSCs granted in 1941 were made to officers of the ever renowned ‘small ships’ of the 22nd Anti-Submarine Group, SA Seaward Defence Force serving in the Mediterranean Sea.

It is appropriate that we close this talk with the focus upon the only Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to be awarded to a South African. It is thus appropriate because earlier this award was discussed with reference to a recipient who gained it at Majuba. The South African association with the decoration thus leads us to conclude this talk with a discussion of Chief Stoker Petty Officer R. Sethren whose medal group the Museum is most proud to possess.

At the time of the action which gained him this award, he was serving in the Mediterranean theatre in one of the ‘small ships’ referred to above in connection with the DSC. Sethren was a member of the crew of HMSAS Southern Isles, a unit of the 42nd Anti-Submarine Group. The citation reads: ‘For his steadfast bearing when H.M.S.A.S. “Southern Isles” was attacked by an enemy aircraft which machine-gunned the deck. Though eleven times wounded, he stood to his gun and turned a steady fire on the aircraft until it fell in flames into the sea.’ It is extremely difficult to pinpoint the precise time and location in which this gallant action occurred; but we do know that on 29 June 1941 some 72 km from Tobruk, when HMSAS Southern Isles was serving in convoy, which included Southern Maid, the convoy was attacked by force of 50 aircraft, eight of which concentrated upon each ship in the convoy. ‘The sky’ said the Commanding Officer of Southern Isles ‘appeared to rain bombs, most of which fell within 100 ft of the ship.’ It may well be that it was on this occasion that Sethren so distinguished himself. Chief Stoker P0 Sethren died in 1967. He was invalided out from the Navy in 1943 as a result of the wounds sustained by him; and, indeed, suffered from these wounds for the remainder of his life.


It may well be asked why I have chosen certain themes in the foregoing talk. The necessity for discussing acts of gallantry with reference to South African servicemen is obvious. But why focus upon the land operations of the Navy, and the youthful naval personnel who have featured in deeds of valour. The answer resides in the distinct pattern which is beginning to emerge in South African military operations. SAS Rand has a distinctly land service aspect; not only from the viewpoint of its military training but also in so far as since 1975, members of the contingent have served in South West Africa (in the vicinity of Walvis Bay, where they are mainly involved in harbour protection duties). In other words, one may well witness a re-activation of the concept of the Naval Brigade in present and future South African Defence Force operations.

Bibliography: Work referred to in the talk

Winton, John. The Victoria Cross at Sea. London, Michael Joseph, 1978, p 15.

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