Submarine hero to be honoured 100 years on

Holbrook wearing his mock VC

Four generations from the family of a First World War submarine Commander, Norman Holbrook, will join together at Gosport’s Royal Navy Submarine Museum exactly 100 years after the heroic operation that won him the Victoria Cross, the first to be awarded to a submariner.

The Museum will play host to 117 members of the Holbrook family including 92 year old niece Molly Jennings on Saturday 13th December.

Amongst the highlights of the day will be the opportunity to see the wooden VC crafted by Holbrook’s crew on news of his award.

Some of the family will then attend the unveiling of a memorial in front of Southsea Library, Palmerston Road by The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Cllr Steven Wylie, and the Leader of Portsmouth City Council, Cllr Donna Jones with senior Royal Navy representatives and other guests at 3.30pm.

Southsea born Commander Norman Holbrook, was a 26 year old Lieutenant in command of Submarine B-11, and the first submariner recipient of a Victoria Cross. The citation reads "for most conspicuous bravery on the 13th December 1914, when in command of the Submarine B-11, he entered the Dardanelles, and, notwithstanding the very difficult current, dived his vessel under five rows of mines and torpedoed the Turkish battleship Messudiyeh which was guarding the minefield. Lieutenant Holbrook succeeded in bringing the B-11 safely back, although assailed by gunfire and torpedo boats, having been submerged on one occasion for nine hours."

The Dardanelles were of significant strategic importance, geographically linking Britain with its allies Russia, however, Turkey had aligned with Germany and the treacherous, narrow stretch of water was heavily fortified with shore-based artillery, underwater minefields, subject to strong and hazardous currents and challenging to navigate.  

Holbrook and his crew of 15 were amongst the pioneers of submarine warfare in the early years of the First World War. Submarines were relatively basic, with poor ventilation and with limited time underwater. Pre-radar, navigation was via the periscope and existing maps.

Great Great niece Elizabeth Mooney, who researched her Great Great Uncle’s daring exploits as part of an A level project explains: “The entire trip was fraught with dangers, unexpected errors and malfunctions. The submarine, which had a broken compass on the return foray, had to surface on occasion, leaving it open to attack. At one point, the boat had to grate along the bottom of the channel while going full speed in order to escape. This drained her power, forcing her to slow down whilst still in enemy waters.”

The woman behind the reunion, Great Great Niece Samantha Axtell explains: "We are thrilled to come together as a family to mark the 100th anniversary – to the day - of Commander Holbrook’s tremendous achievement. It is a unique opportunity to remember and be inspired by his bravery and daring do. It’s also a chance to remember his crew, all of whom received a Distinguished Service Medal and the First Lieutenant, a Distinguished Service Order."

She continued: "Norman was one of eleven siblings, five of whom fought in the First World War and were decorated. They were known as the Fighting Holbrooks. This is the first time in 42 years that the family has reunited, we have found Holbrook relations from six different branches of the family. There will be 117 of us coming together across four generations. Aged from 94 to under five, we will be joined by three of Norman's nephews and nieces (now in their 90s). Norman didn’t have children of his own."

"We are hugely grateful to the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Museum in Gosport for hosting us. It is the perfect venue to explore his achievements, delve into the museum archives and visit HMS Alliance, which although from the Second World War, does give an indication of what life might have been aboard.  It is essential that we look to this generation and the sacrifices they made and understand why it is an important part of valuing our freedom and democracy"

“Commander Holbrook was an ordinary man who – except in Australia – has been largely lost to history.  The events today in Portsmouth, at the Submarine Museum and earlier this year at his old school Portsmouth Grammar, puts that omission straight.”

Cllr Jones, Leader of the Council said: "Lt Holbrook was a true local hero and I'm so pleased we can create a permanent memorial to him in the area where he was born. It's an honour to play a part in the commemoration of his courageous act."

Professor Dominic Tweddle, Director General of The National Museum of the Royal Navy which comprises the Royal Navy Submarine Museum said: “This is an incredible story of bravery by Holbrook and his small crew, all undertaken underwater and in very risky conditions. In the face of real danger they refused to give in. His, and the crews actions, were the embodiment of what it is to serve one’s country and we are very proud to be able to share this with his family today.”

Holbrook’s actions captured the imagination throughout the British Empire and he featured on memorabilia like cigarette cards, and a small town in Australia even changed its name to Holbrook in his honour.

He left the Submarine service in 1918 and the Royal Navy, aged 32, in 1920 and was promoted to Commander on retired honours in 1928. At the age of 51, he served the Admiralty in Second World War. He raised Guernsey cattle in Midhurst, West Sussex, gardened and enjoyed fishing. He died on July 3rd 1976 and is survived by his second wife Gundula, who lives in Innsbruck, Austria.

Lt Holbrook was born in Southsea in 1888 and attended Portsmouth Grammar School. He was invested with his Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 5 October 1915.

Umbra Crew

Crew of the HMS Umbra.