Remembering a hero of the First World War

I was surprised to read that the medals of the late Vice-Admiral Gordon Campbell have been bought for posterity by one of his descendants.  The Telegraph reports:

Baron Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza paid a world record price for the collection at auction 100 years after the VC [Victoria Cross] was awarded to Vice Admiral Gordon Campbell.

Campbell was captain of the “Q-ShipFarnborough and successfully destroyed a German submarine U.83 on February 17 1917.

His complete group of 11 medals also included the DSO [Distinguished Service Order] with two bars and France’s prestigious Legion d’Honneur Chevalier’s badge, and Croix de Guerre, 1914-1918.

The collection, which set a new world auction record for a VC and any group of British medals, will now stay in the UK on public display.

There’s more at the link.

Campbell was a remarkable man in a remarkable field of endeavor. Q-ships were merchant vessels that were converted to carry guns and depth charges, and sent out in an attempt to entice German submarines to attack them.  It took great courage for the crews to sit there, waiting to be torpedoed, knowing that they could not take evasive action.  Only when the enemy submarine came to the surface, to finish them off by gunfire, could they drop their own disguise and open fire themselves.  A summary of their operations may be found here.

Campbell was particularly successful as a Q-ship commander, sinking two U-boats in the course of his exploits.  He was awarded the VC and three DSO’s (for American readers, that’s equivalent to the Medal of Honor and three Navy Crosses), among other medals.  For an excellent short account of his career, including many photographs, see here.

Campbell wrote a very interesting book about his Q-ship exploits, called ‘My Mystery Ships‘.  An online e-book in HTML format may be found here, and the book may be downloaded free of charge in various formats here, being out of copyright.  I recommend it.



  1. One of the reasons the Q-ships worked is that following the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the American threat to enter the war over the loss of American life, the Germans suspended Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (USW).

    The practice of sinking or capturing enemy merchant vessels was perfectly acceptable under the rules of European warfare. The problem was that subs allowed this to be done without warning.

    Before subs, let's say I am a merchant captain, steaming along with a cargo bound for Liverpool. My lookout spots a smudge of smoke on the horizon, so we know there is a ship out there. The smoke changes course and starts bearing down on us. As the ship's hull clears the horizon, we can tell it is in fact a warship. As it gets closer, we can see its flag and know that it is a warship of a hostile nation.

    I as the merchant captain have choices through all these phases of the encounter. I can alter my course and speed, try to evade. As the enemy ship gets withing range, I can surrender and try to save the lives of crew.

    None of these options apply with subs; the first warning I get, if I'm lucky and have a sharp-eyed lookout, it the faint wake of the torpedo approaching my ship. Usually it was a sudden explosion with no warning.

    When the Lusitania went down in May 1915, over 1,200 people died, including over 100 American citizens. She was a passenger liner only slightly smaller than the Titanic and was torpedoed just five moles off the Old Head of Kinsale on the Irish coast. Bodies began washing up on shore the next day…women and children among them. Although the sinking was, by the rules of war as they existed at the time, perfectly legal, the public outcry against the Germans was huge.

    Rather than risk bringing another large, industrial nation into a war that was stalemated on the Western Front, Germany agreed to cease USW against merchant ships and instead operate under Surface Rules of Engagement. This means that the submarine had to surface before closing on the merchant ship.

    These first generation submarines were actually quite fragile as warships go. Even a light gun could punch holes in their unarmored hulls. So the British began arming some of their merchant ships with deck guns, which were hidden behind fake deck cargo.

    When a submarine surfaced to sink this fat, dumb, and happy merchantman bumbling along without a care, "panic parties" on deck began running about. The pointed at the sub, yelled and screamed, started un-lashing the lifeboats, and generally had hysterics while the helmsman altered course to bring the gun to bear and behind the fake cargo screen a Royal Navy gun crew loaded and trained the weapon on the vector indicated by the pointers and screamers. At the opportune moment the fake cargo screen dropped, final adjustments were made to sight in the gun, and the U-boat got a nasty surprise.

    I know I've made it sound like shooting fish in a barrel, but the gun crew had to be quick. The Germans had their own deck gun, and it would be manned the moment the sub broke the surface. It was a situation where two unarmored ships were having at it, with the complication that if the merchant gun crew failed to sink or disable the sub, it had the option of submerging and engaging from cover (hence the depth charge launchers)

    At any rate, German sub losses went way up after the suspension of USW, and British merchant losses dropped significantly.

    If you're interested in the VC itself, Try Awarded for Valour.

  2. As the Lusitania was carrying munitions she was technically not a civilian but a legitimate target. (much disregarded fun fact)

  3. It's not mentioned in the article, but how did the medals of Vice Admiral Gordon Campbell pass out of the hands of the family in the first place? Was that policy at that time, that the higher-ranked medals reverted to government hands on the death of the recipient? Or were they sold to raise money during a belt-tightening period?

    Seems like that's the sort of family treasure you don't ever let go.

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