A daring rescue at sea

In the article I wrote concerning the grave of Surgeon-Lieutenant Frank Pearce Pocock, DSO, MC and Bar, I mentioned Lieutenant Commander George Nicholson Bradford, VC. He featured briefly in “Arras North” by virtue of the fact that one of his brothers, 2nd Lieutenant James Barker Bradford, MC, happens to be buried in Duisans British Cemetery. In the book I didn’t labour the VC bit, nor did I do that for the other VC winner in the family, Roland. I did, however, refer to another incident when George showed great bravery during the early part of his naval career.

The collision involving HMS “Doon” and the Lowestoft trawler, the “Halcyon”, took place at 3.20 a.m. on the 3rd March 1909 about 15 miles east of Owen’s Light. The “Doon”, in company with another ship, HMS “Chelmer”, was on its way to Dover in order to act as escort to King George V who was travelling to Calais.

The “Doon”, which was travelling at around 15 knots, struck the port side of the trawler, which was doing just over half that speed. Five of the “Halcyon’s” crew managed to jump aboard the “Doon” leaving four others in the vessel, which by now was taking on water. Although it was pitch black, both Royal Navy ships had their searchlights trained on the stricken vessel, but the “Chelmer’s” soon failed.

Around 10-15 minutes into the rescue, a whaler from the “Chelmer”, with Bradford in charge, approached the trawler and managed to rescue three of the remaining men. The officer in charge of the “Chelmer”, Captain Loftus-Jones, (who also won the VC in the Great War) had initially pulled alongside the “Halcyon”, but fearing that she was now sinking quickly decided to abandon all further rescue attempts.

However, just as the whaler was about to be hoisted out of the water, the “Chelmer” received a signal from the Doon” stating that a boy was still aboard the sinking vessel. Without hesitation, and with not a second to spare, Bradford returned to the trawler, boarded it, and made his way to a hatch where he found the boy unconscious. It appears the boy had been climbing up through the hatch, but had slipped and fallen during the impact of the collision. Grabbing the boy, Bradford emerged on deck as the trawler made its final lurch shortly before disappearing beneath the waves. As soon as Bradford jumped back into the whaler carrying the boy the trawler up-ended, leaving only its bow still visible, and minutes later the boat disappeared completely. The damaged “Doon” then made its way to Portsmouth for repairs escorted by its sister ship.

Bradford’s bravery that night was truly remarkable. The rescue took place in the middle of the night, and on a boat that was highly unstable. With the dead weight of the boy in his grasp, Bradford would have had little means of grabbing or holding on to anything and the chances of his slipping overboard were extremely high. Whether he gave much thought to his fate as he carried out this audacious act is something probably only he knew. He was, however, physically fit and had always excelled at sport, particularly boxing, which he kept up throughout his time in the navy. It was also said that he was not an ambitious man, nor was he ever particularly keen on promotion. He was, instead, often described as a steady, reliable kind of man, one who was confident and yet modest.

As far as I know, Bradford never received any official recognition for his bravery that night; something I find hard to believe. Of all the accounts that I’ve read, not one mentions any award in connection with this incident. On my bookshelves at home is a copy of “Brigadier-General R.B. Bradford, VC, MC, and his Brothers”. It talks in some detail about the incident involving the “Doon”, but it too fails to mention any award or other testimonial. It is, by any standard, an incredible story and one worth telling.