Commander Gordon Charles Steele VC
1 November 1892 – 4 January 1981

The first of the following sections was prepared by Jonathan Catton – Heritage & Museum Officer, Thurrock Museum, Thurrock Council and the second is an article taken from the 2012 magazine by NEIL BEAUMONT (1961-1968)

Gordon Charles Steele was born in Exeter 1st November 1892 into a naval family. In 1903 his father Captain H. W. Steele was Captain Superintendent of the Reformatory Ship Cornwall moored in the Thames off Purfleet in West Thurrock. The family probably lived on board with the cadets serving sentences from the London Courts for petty crimes. Gordon attended Palmer’s Endowed School in Grays during this time.
In 1907 Gordon had been enrolled as a cadet on HMS Worcester moored on the Kent side of the Thames to be trained in the skill needed for naval service. He did well here being awarded the Howard Medal for meteorology and came second in the King’s Medal of 1909 and in the same year was awarded an apprenticeship with the Pacific and Orient Line.
In January 1916 his father suffered a heart attack and died, his wife temporarily becoming the Lady Superintendent of the Reformatory Ship Cornwall.


On the outbreak of the Great War he joined the Royal Naval Reserve and was one of the first reservists to join the Submarine service serving on board D8 for 5 months. He later served on two ‘Q’ ships (merchant navy ships converted in to gun boats and heavily disguised) used to attack U-boats which were attacking allied fleets coming and leaving via the channel.

On August 19, 1915, Gordon witnessed the actions of Lieutenant Godfrey Herbert RN of HMS Baralong which attacked and sank U-27 as it prepared to sink a nearby transport ship. About a dozen of the U-boat sailors survived and swam towards the merchantman; Herbert, fearing that they would scuttle her, ordered them to be shot, as they swam towards the transport and also as they climbed aboard. This sad event was later leaked and an international political scandal developed known as the "Baralong Incident".

He then was enrolled in to the Royal Navy, one of the first of the RNR to do so and rejoined the Submarine Service on E2. Later he served on the Royal Oak and took part in the Battle of Jutland. His first Command in 1917 was of Escort P63 and ended up on the sloop “Cornflower” as the Great War concluded.

He continued his service on coastal motor boats and was part of the North Russian Relief Force when he was involved in an attack on Kronstadt Harbour. Admiralty, with the world nearly at war again after barely a year, were concerned with the Russian Revolution now in full swing. A decision was made to do something about the threat to allied shipping that was created and compounded by the Russian Civil War. Hidden away in massively fortified harbours, the Russians were sheltering their ominous fleet of ironclads which preyed mercilessly on both convoy and hunter alike.


The mission on 18 August 1919 at Kronstadt harbour on the island of Kotlin, some 20 miles from St. Petersburg on the Baltic sea, was to attack the moored battleships of the First Pacific Fleet, including the prized Bolshevik battleship Petropavlovsk and the huge battle ship, the Andrei Pervozvanni. Using a number of CMB each with two torpedoes this night time fast hit and run action was planned to outrun the harbour defence guns and destroy the fleet. It did not go entirely to plan as the citation to the award of a Victoria Cross to Steele testifies:
For most. conspicuous gallantry, skill and devotion to duty on the occasion of the attack on Kronstadt Harbour on the 18th August, 1919. Lieutenant Steele was second-in-command of H.M. Coastal Motor Boat No. 88. After this boat had entered the harbour the Commanding Officer,
Lieutenant Dayrell-Reed, was shot through the head and the boat thrown off her course. Lieutenant Steele took the wheel, steadied the boat, lifted Lieutenant Dayrell-Reed away from the steering and firing position and torpedoed the Bolshevik battleship Andrei Pervozanni at a hundred yards range. He had then a difficult manoeuvre to perform to get a clear view of the battleship Petropavlovsk, which was overlapped by the Andrei Pervozanni and obscured by smoke coming from that ship. The evolution, however, was skilfully carried out, and the Petropavlovsk torpedoed. This left Lieutenant.  
Steele with only just room to turn, in order to regain the entrance to the harbour, but he effected the movement with success and firing his machine guns along the wall on his way, passed under the line of forts through a heavy fire out of the harbour.

In this successful action another naval officer was awarded with a Victoria Cross, Cdr. Claude Dobson RN, HM CMB 31. Lieutenant Gordon Steele VC was to be chosen to be part of the Unknown Warriors VC Guard of Honour which took place in the Westminster Abbey service on Armistice Day.
In 1929 he joined The Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College and continued there until 1957 so he was a cadet, trainer and Commandant of the establishment. During the 2nd WW he was in charge of HMS Exmouth (Ex Grays Training Ship) now being used as a submarine and minesweeper supply base at Scapa flow.

In 1940 he met, by chance, and for the first time, the pilot of the aircraft Group Captain Fletcher, RAF, who had attacked the searchlight. Needless to say, a great time was had by all in the mess that night.

Described by one ex-Worcester boy as a silver haired, kindly gentleman who, if cut in half would have had printed right through him, like a stick of rock HMS Worcester. A Worcester cadet himself he was a father figure to the ship and obtained the third Worcester for the college. Captain Steele VC, who was called affectionately "Diddy" by the cadets was not only famous as a VC holder, Gordon was much admired by not only the cadets and staff but also the London Shipping scene at large and a very Christian man. His VC is now kept at Trinity House in London.




Following research into Old Palmerians who died in the two World Wars I (Neil Beaumont) discovered that an Old Palmerian, Gordon Charles Steele, won the Victoria Cross after taking part in a motor torpedo boat raid on Kronstadt Harbour on the 18th August 1919.

The information below derives from information from a wide range of primary and secondary sources and a fuller account is intended to be published.

The Victoria Cross is renowned throughout the world and is awarded only for “most conspicuous bravery, or some daring pre-eminent act of valour or selfsacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy”.
Only 1355 Victoria Crosses have been awarded and the first presentation was made by Queen Victoria on 26th June 1857.
It is now 93 years since Gordon Steele won the Victoria Cross, the highest honour this country can bestow for bravery, and, at last, I am proud to say that he will be remembered by a memorial in the College Library.
A plaque, presented by the Association, designed and crafted by John Sach and made from Indian Silver Wood from the old Boys’ School Library, is intended to be [has been] unveiled in 2012.

The Supplement to the London Gazette of Tuesday, 11th November1919 published the following citation in respect of the award of his Victoria Cross:-
“Lieutenant Gordon Charles STEELE. Royal Navy.
For most conspicuous gallantry, skill and devotion to duty on the occasion of the attack on Kronstadt Harbour on the 18th August 1919.
Lieutenant Steele was second-in-command of H.M. Coastal Boat No. 88.
After this boat had entered the harbour the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Dayrell- Reed, was shot through the head and the boat thrown off her course.
Lieutenant Steele took the wheel , steadied the boat, lifted Lieutenant Dayrell- Reed away from the steering and firing position and torpedoed the Bolshevik Battleship “Andrei Pervozvanni” at a hundred yards range.
He had then a difficult manoeuvre to perform to get a clear view of the Battleship “Petropavlovsk” which was overlapped by the “Pervozvanni” and obscured by smoke coming from that ship. The evolution, however, was skilfully carried out and the “Petropavlovsk” torpedoed. This left Lieutenant Steele with only just room to turn, in order to regain the entrance to the harbour, but he effected the movement with success and firing his machine guns along the wall on his way, passed under the line of forts through a heavy fire out of the harbour.”

The first entry I found was in the 1934/5 School Yearbook which included “Commander G.C.Steele,V.C., R.N., Captain Superintendent of H.M.S. Worcester”.
School records showed Gordon Charles Steele entered Palmer’s in the Michaelmas Term of 1905 along with two of his brothers, William Jermyn and Arthur Daveney Steele. Previously, they had attended Vale College in Ramsgate, Kent. Another brother, John D’Arcy Steele, entered the School in 1911, he had been previously educated at home.
Gordon was born in Exeter on 1st November 1891 and his parents were Henry William Steele and Selina May Steele, née Symonds. The naval tradition was strong in the family as Gordon’s father was serving in the Royal Navy and his maternal grandfather served as a General in the Royal Marine Light Infantry.
Henry Steele entered service in the Royal Navy in 1869 and enjoyed a distinguished naval career including being mentioned in despatches. He retired with the rank of Captain and was appointed Captain Superintendent of the Training Ship “Cornwall”, moored at Purfleet, and the Steele family moved to the area.
During Henry Steele’s time in charge of the “Cornwall”, he made many improvements in respect of the boys’ welfare and the Ship’s facilities.
“Cornwall” boys were provided with a good elementary educational grounding together with naval training and Captain Steele also instituted a system which offered supervision of the boys when they left the Ship to try to ensure they made good progress.
Captain Steele was 60 years old when he died in January 1916. He left a widow, four sons and three daughters and the funeral took place at Aveley Parish Church.
On leaving Palmer’s at the end of the Lent Term in 1907, Gordon Steele joined the training ship H.M.S. “Worcester”, moored off Greenhithe across the Thames from the “Cornwall”. The “Worcester” trained boys to serve as officers in the merchant navy and, on leaving, Gordon joined the Peninsular and Oriental Line and also chose to enrol in the Royal Naval Reserve as a Midshipman.
After induction training at the outbreak of the First World War, Gordon undertook specialist submarine training and was one of the elite recruited into submarine warfare which was in its infancy.
By the end of 1914 Gordon was aboard the S.S. “Vienna”, a purpose–built railway passenger ship moored at Harwich, and used as an overflow depot ship for submarine officers. Before the War it transported passengers to and from the Hook of Holland. Shortly, she was to be fitted out as an armed decoy steamer and become one of a secret force known as “Q-Ships”.
During its adaptation the “Vienna”, alias the “Antwerp”, was provided with two 12-pounder guns hidden beneath a decoy frame in which holes were cut to enable expert Marine rifle marksmen to fire through. By the end of January 1915 the “Vienna” was ready for war service in its new role. Sub–Lieutenant Steele was appointed second–in-command and Gunnery Officer, serving under Lt.-Commander Geoffrey Herbert who was an expert in submarine warfare.
As a decoy ship, the “Vienna” steamed along at a steady pace in the North Sea hoping to lure German submarines to the surface, with the aim of destroying them before they destroyed her. This was not for the faint-hearted. The time in the North Sea proved fruitless so she was sent to operate off the Cornish Coast in the area to which the German submarines had moved but, again, had no success.
Herbert and Steele moved to another armed decoy ship, the “Baralong”, and by May, 1915 they were back to their decoy duties. On 7 May the “Lusitania” was lost along with nearly 1200 lives and many small steamers were also being sunk. The “Baralong” had, in fact, picked up a distress signal from the “Lusitania” but arrived too late to be of help.
The “Baralong” now spent its time cruising in the area between the south-west of England and the south of Ireland and, at last, on 19th August, she encountered the Germans when she went to the aid of the S.S. “Arabic”, a large liner, and the S.S. “Nicosian”. Both had been attacked by a German submarine and the former had suffered the loss of over 40 lives.
The “Baralong” arrived and indicated it was to rescue the “Nicosian’s” crew but the submarine, rather than withdraw, chose to continue to attack the “Nicosian”. In response, Herbert decided to attack the submarine and, so, raised the White Ensign. Steele, as gunnery officer, showed outstanding skill and courage in shattering the submarine’s conning tower and, at risk to his own life, removing one of the shells which had misfired in the port 12- pounder gun.
The submarine was incapacitated and the German crew escaped to the “Nicosian” and the “Baralong’s” marines pursued them on board and, no doubt with the “Lusitania” fresh in mind, killed the German submarine captain and others of his crew.
In recognition of their actions the “Baralong’s” crew were awarded £1000 and several decorations were bestowed on them. Gordon Steele’s outstanding contribution was rewarded with the rare honour of being transferred from the Royal Naval Reserve to the Royal Navy. Before the end of the year he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.
Actions such as those in which Steele took part convinced the Admiralty of the great worth of the “Q- ships” and they played an increasing role in the War.
After the “Baralong”, Steele served at Jutland on the battleship “Royal Oak”.
In the autumn of 1917 he was given command of H.M.S. P63, a patrol boat specially built for anti-submarine warfare and, later, he commanded H.M.S.
The Great War ended on 11 November 1918 but Gordon Steele, now a regular, continued to serve in the Royal Navy and was to be in action again within a year.
Russia had been a member of the Allied coalition in the War until a series of mutinies by its soldiers and sailors culminated in the October 1917 Revolution. The Russians withdrew from the War leaving the Germans free to concentrate on the Western Front. In November 1917 the Russians began negotiating with the Germans and, in March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed which marked the formal end of Russian/German hostilities. The Treaty also gave Germany the right to occupy substantial areas of European Russia in which the Allies had large supplies of military equipment.

In March 1918 Allied forces had been sent to retrieve the supplies and, also, to train the opposition Tsarist White Russian Army and, thereby, came into conflict with the Russian revolutionaries. The conflict continued into 1919 when the Allied forces guarding the military equipment were trapped by the Russian winter and the British now raised the North Russia Relief Force to secure their evacuation and the Force arrived in Russia in June 1919.
On 17th June Lieutenant Augustine Agar won the Victoria Cross for an attack in a Coastal Motor Boat (C.M.B.) at Kronstadt when a Russian cruiser was sunk.
Against this background, Steele and Agar were to participate in a raid on the Russian Navy moored in Kronstadt Harbour on the night of 18th August 1919. For their part in the action Steele won the Victoria Cross, Agar the Distinguished Service Order and Commander Claude Dobson, who commanded the attacking flotilla, the Victoria Cross.
The variety of Steele’s naval service to date had been wide and he had already demonstrated his bravery, cool-headedness under fire, gunnery skills and quick judgement. All of these qualities, and more, were to be put to the test at Kronstadt Harbour.
C.M.B.s were introduced in April 1916, constructed of wood, 45 feet long, very fast and lightweight, built to skip over the water and German minefields and deliver torpedoes and, then, move away quickly. The boats weighed 4¼ tons and were later improved to travel at 40 knots and able to use two torpedoes, mounted above the water line either side of the hull. They were powered by twin petrol engines of 750 combined horse-power and light, rapidfiring guns defended the boats. The C.M.B.s had been used for the famous attack on Zeebrugge and Ostend on St. George’s Day in 1918.
The crew on Steele’s C.M.B.was minimal with two lieutenants, a sublieutenant together with two motor mechanics and a wireless operator.
Rear-Admiral Sir Walter Cowan, based at Björkö in the Gulf of Finland, commanded the British naval force against the Bolsheviks and his objective was to blockade the Bolshevik Northern Fleet. Agar’s success emboldened Cowan to undertake the more ambitious attack on Kronstadt Harbour which was a major Russian naval port which also protected Leningrad. The attackers would have to overcome a series of defensive forts and a destroyer which protected the approach to the Harbour. If they survived these they would then face the Russian harbour gun defences and those aboard the numerous ships in the Harbour.

The raid was undertaken by a flotilla of 7 C.M.B.s commanded by a very experienced submarine captain, Commander C.C. Dobson D.S.O., R.N., who was on board C.M.B. 31 commanded by Lieutenant R.H. Macbean, R.N..
Another boat was captained by Agar. Steele was second–in-command and gunnery officer of C.M.B. No. 88D commanded by Lieutenant A. Dayrell- Reed, D.S.O., R.N.. Dayrell-Reid had served in submarines and taken part, as a navigator, in the Zeebrugge raid.
Aerial reconnaissance ahead of the attack showed that, moored immediately to the left inside the Harbour, was the 23,300 ton battle-cruiser “Petropavlovsk”.
To its left, amongst other ships, was the 17,200 ton battleship “Andrei Pervozvanni”. Each was armed with 12 inch and many other guns. Across from the Harbour entrance the submarine depot ship “Pamiat-Azov” was moored and, to the starboard of the Harbour entrance, 5 vessels were moored alongside each other including the 15,170 ton cruiser “Rubric”.
The night of 17th/18th August 1919 was chosen for the attack and the flotilla of 7 C.M.B.s started off at 10p.m.. Dayrell-Reed’s boat continued to take on water which had to be pumped out at regular intervals but he proceeded and his boat was one of three which were ahead of the others. After hugging the Finnish coast they altered course for Kronstadt at 11.45p.m.. His was now one of only four which were up to speed and, after about half an hour, they could see Kronstadt Island and, after a few miles, they could see the series of small forts guarding Petrograd Bay.
By 1.00a.m. 3 boats, including Dayrell-Reed’s, were amongst the forts.
Amazingly, neither the forts nor the Russian destroyer opened fire and, as the three leading boats approached the Harbour, they formed up into single file with Dayrell-Reid’s boat going in third. A few minutes earlier a diversionary air attack had begun to provide cover for the C.M.B.s.
Once in the Harbour C.M.B. 79 fired at the “Pamiat Azov” and hit it. The other two C.M.B.s opened fire but, as the Russians were still quiet, Steele held fire. Now the Russians opened fire and Dayrell-Reed, who was steering the C.M.B., was hit and his boat veered off course.
It was now that Gordon Steele took the initiative and, moving Dayrell-Reid from the conning tower, could see he had been shot in the head. Steele took control of the boat and continued and he and Dobson torpedoed the battleship “Andrei Pervozvanni”. Steele then executed a very tight turn, still under enemy fire, and, again, from only about 100 yards gave the order to fire the other torpedo at the battle-cruiser “Petropavlovsk” and, once more, hit the target. Before he heard the second torpedo hit, Steele had to perform a turn within the minimum of space in order to allow his boat to escape from the Harbour and this he did and then performed another expertly executed tight turn to escape the Harbour entrance, still under heavy Russian gun fire from within the Harbour.
Steele now proceeded back to Björkö and, on the journey, they tended to Lieutenant Dayrell-Reed but he died later back at the base.
The commander of the flotilla, Commander Claude Dobson, was also awarded the Victoria Cross and his and Lieutenant Steele’s citations were published in the Supplement to the London Gazette of 11th November 1919 and Gordon Steele’s is reproduced in full above.
The attack had called for the highest bravery, undertaken in the dark in a very confined space in a heavily defended harbour packed with well-armed ships.
Additionally, the Coastal Motor Boats had to be manoeuvred with the highest standards of skill at the same time as having to evade, as far as it was in their power, heavy enemy gunfire and, at the same time, focus on firing their torpedoes to destroy their targets. As second-in-command, Gordon Steele had this responsibility thrust upon him in the direst of circumstances and, in a life or death situation, carried out his duty to the highest standards.
Gordon Steele continued serving in the Royal Navy. In 1929 he returned to his old ship, the Training Ship “Worcester”, taking over its command. He remained in charge, apart from anti-submarine duties in the Second World War, until he retired in 1957.
Commander Steele had been the subject of an episode of “This is Your Life” in 1958 but, on contacting the B.B.C., they informed me that a copy of the broadcast had not been kept.
Gordon Steele was a Fellow of the Institute of Navigation, a Freeman of the City of London and a Younger Brother of Trinity House.
Gordon Steele died on 4th January 1981 and lies buried in All Saints New Cemetery, Winkleigh in Devon.