First World War commemoration for Mullion Victoria Cross sailor Ernest Pritcher
WITH the country preparing to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Mullion will be remembering a home-grown hero who won one of the county’s three Victoria Crosses in that conflict.
Petty Officer Ernest Herbert Pitcher won his VC, the country’s highest military award for bravery, following a desperate battle between his ship and a German submarine in the Bay of Biscay in 1917.
The national commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war will be centred around events in August, and Mullion will have a special place in that commemoration with the dedication of a paving slab engraved with PO Pitcher’s name.
Mullion Parish Council chairman John Lang said despite his heroism, Pitcher’s story was not well known in the area.
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“Any recognition for the village of a brave man is always of interest,” he said.
“It’s another important part of the village’s history.”
He said the timing was poignant as Mullion’s Royal British Legion branch had disbanded only last month.
The village had also just formed a heritage society to preserve its local history. “This is certainly something that could go on display and be of great interest,” he said.
Last August Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced that the home town of every First World War VC winner would get a commemorative paving slab. Further details of the scheme have yet to be announced.
The VC is Britain’s highest decoration for valour in the face of the enemy. The other two First World War recipients of the honour from Cornwall were Sergeant Horace Curtis, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, from St Anthony-in-Roseland and Private James Finn, South Wales Borderers, from Bodmin.
ERNEST Herbert Pitcher was born in Mullion on December 31, 1888, to George and Sarah Pitcher.
He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15 and was a serving petty officer at the outbreak of war in 1914.
He was assigned to HMS Dunraven, which was a Q-ship, a merchant vessel armed with concealed guns. The idea was that a U-boat would surface to attach the apparently defenceless ship with its guns, rather than wasting torpedoes, whereupon the Q-ship would uncover its guns and open fire on the submarine before it had time to submerge.
PO Pitcher was the gunlayer on the ship’s 4in gun, concealed with a fake hatch and laundry hung out to dry.
As one of a handful of regulars in ships largely manned by former merchant seamen and reservists Pitcher was one of the most effective hands, being mentioned in dispatches by Commander Gordon Campbell, and had already been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
On August 8, 1917, HMS Dunraven was cruising in the Bay of Biscay when she was shelled by an enemy submarine, UC-71.
A shell from the U-boat’s deck gun struck the poop deck, setting off one of her concealed depth charges. Thick smoke obscured the gun crew’s view, while fire threatened to set off explosives, powder and shells in the magazine below.
Despite the danger, Pitcher and his crew remained at their stations, determined to keep the true identity of their vessel a secret, but before HMS Dunraven had a chance to spring its trap another shell from UC-71 scored a direct hit on the poop deck.
Pitcher was blown off his feet and thrown through the air, sustaining several serious wounds.
His shipmates were also badly injured, yet despite the devastation the entire gun crew survived.
HMS Dunraven managed to fire off a couple of rounds from one of the remaining guns but UC-71 quickly submerged and escaped.
The Q-ship began to hunt for the submarine but she was herself torpedoed and sunk 36 hours later.
The incident was later described as being the greatest action of any Q-ship against a submarine and “fought by a ship’s company of heroes”.
PO Pitcher was awarded the Victoria Cross for his action under fire, while all the members of his gun crew received Conspicuous Gallantry Medals.
After the war he remained in the Royal Navy until 1927, after which he took a job as a PE instructor, woodwork teacher and groundsman at a boys’ school.
At the outbreak of the Second World War he again joined up, going back to the Royal Navy as a Chief Petty Officer and being posted to a number of island stations.
He died on February 10, 1946, aged 57, and is buried at the Northbrook Cemetery in Swanage, Dorset.