yeovil at War

Alfred James Gatcombe

Lost at sea during the Dardanelles Campaign

 

Alfred James Gatcombe was born in Yeovil on 13 September 1881, the son of glover Sarah Gatcombe (b 1856) and an unknown father. In the 1891 census Sarah and 9-year old Alfred were living at 74 Huish. He was probably known as James, since his name on the War Memorial in the Borough is recorded as Gatcombe, J rather than Gatcombe, AJ.

Alfred enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1897 when he was just 16 and was to serve for the next eighteen years. His mother married Charles Southcliffe in 1898 and moved to Crown Buildings with her husband.

In the 1911 census Alfred was aboard HMS Ramillies in the Grand Harbour at Valetta, Malta. HMS Ramillies was launched in 1892 and commissioned in 1893, serving in the Mediterranean Fleet as flagship. In 1902 she was replaced in that role by HMS Venerable and returned to England for a refit, and was commissioned into the Reserve in 1905. She suffered damage in maneouvres in 1906, and was re-commissioned in to the Special Service Division of the Home Fleet in 1907, becoming the Parent Ship of the 4th Division of the Home Fleet in 1910. She was relieved of that role a year later, reduced to material reserve at Devonport in August 1911 and laid up at Motherbank for disposal in July 1913. She was sold for scrapping on 7 October 1913.

Sadly we know little of Alfred's career in the Royal Navy (Service Number 191807) although it is known that he later served aboard HMS Triumph as an Able Seaman.

HMS Triumph was the second of the two Swiftsure-class pre-dreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy. Purchased from Chile before completion, she was initially assigned to the Home Fleet and Channel Fleets before being transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet in 1909. The ship briefly rejoined Home Fleet in 1912 before she was transferred abroad to the China Station in 1913.

Triumph participated in the hunt for the German East Asia Squadron of Maximilian Graf von Spee and in the campaign against the German colony at Tsingtao, China early in World War I.

Upon completion of her refit in January 1915, Triumph was transferred to the Dardanelles for service in the Dardanelles Campaign. The ship departed Hong Kong on 12 January and stopped at Suez from 7 February to 12 February before moving on to join the Dardanelles Squadron. Triumph took part in the opening attack on the entrance forts on 18 February and 19 February 1915, and joined the pre-dreadnoughts Albion and Cornwallis in using her secondary battery to silence the fort at Sedd el Bahr on 25 February. She, Albion, and Majestic were the first Allied battleships to enter the Turkish Straits during the campaign when they carried out the initial attack on the inner forts on 26 February. She also took part in the attack on Fort Dardanoson 2 March 1915. She and Swiftsure were detached from the Dardanelles on 5 March for operations against forts at Smyrna, returning to the Dardanelles on 9 March 1915.

Triumph participated in the main attack on the Narrows forts on 18 March, and fired on Ottoman trenches at Achi Baba on 15 April. On 18 April, one of her picket boats and one from Majestic torpedoed and sank the British submarine E15, which had run aground near Fort Dardanos and was in danger of being captured by Ottoman forces. Triumph supported the main landing by the Anzac forces at Gaba Tepe on 25 April, and continued to support them through May.

On 25 May 1915, the ship was underway off Gaba Tepe, firing on Ottoman positions, with torpedo nets out and most watertight doors shut, when she sighted a submarine periscope 300 to 400 yards (270 to 370 m) off her starboard beam at about 12:30 hours. It belonged to the U-boat U-21Triumph opened fire on the periscope, but was almost immediately struck by a torpedo, which easily cut through her torpedo net, on her starboard side. A tremendous explosion resulted, and Triumph took on a list 10° to starboard. She held that list for about five minutes, then it increased to 30°. The destroyer Chelmer evacuated most of her crew before she capsized ten minutes later. She remained afloat upside down for about 30 minutes, then began to sink slowly in about 180 feet (55 m) of water. Three officers and 75 enlisted men died in her sinking, among them was Alfred Gatcombe. He was 33 years old.

On 4 June 1915 the Western Gazette reported "In the official list recently published of those missing in the Triumph in the Dardanelles appears the name of Able-Seaman Alfred James Gatcombe, son of Mrs Southcliffe of 3 Crown Buildings, Huish. Seaman Gatcombe, who was a quiet and steady man, had been in the Navy for about 18 years and was well-known in the town. (HMS Triumph was sunk by German U.88 some 60 miles off Gaba Tepe, outside the Dardanelles on 25 May 1915)."

Alfred Gatcombe's name is recorded on Panel 7 of the Portsmouth Naval Memorial and is also on the Yeovil War Memorial in the Borough although, as stated above, incorrectly.

 

gallery

 

HMS Ramillies on which Alfred was serving in 1911.

HMS Triumph. Alfred went down with her on 25 May 1915.

 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of Alfred Gatcombe.

 

Portsmouth Naval Memorial

After the First World War, an appropriate way had to be found of commemorating those members of the Royal Navy who had no known grave, the majority of deaths having occurred at sea where no permanent memorial could be provided. An Admiralty committee recommended that the three manning ports in Great Britain - Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth - should each have an identical memorial of unmistakable naval form, an obelisk, which would serve as a leading mark for shipping. The memorials were designed by Sir Robert Lorimer, who had already carried out a considerable amount of work for the Commission, with sculpture by Henry Poole. The Plymouth Naval Memorial was unveiled by HRH Prince George on 29 July 1924.