Edward Unwin VC

Awarded the Victoria Cross in 1915

 

Biography

Commander Edward Unwin VC

Born on 17 March, 1864, at Fawley Lodge, in the New Forest, Edward Unwin was educated in Cheltenham and Malvern. At 14 years old, he joined the naval training ship HMS Conway before being apprenticed on the Royal Mail ship Roslyn Castle in 1880.

The subsequent years saw Unwin take service with the P&O Line and the Egyptian Navy. He then joined the Royal Navy in October 1895 as a Lieutenant. Two years later, he was part of Benin Expedition and later saw action during the Second Boer War.  Promoted to Lieutenant-Commander in 1903, Unwin retired from the Royal Navy in 1909 in the rank of Commander.

The First World War

In 1914, Unwin was recalled to active service as Fleet Coaling Officer aboard Admiral Lord Jellicoe’s flagship, Iron Duke.

He was given command of HMS Hussar in February 1915 but redeployed to command SS River Clyde, a converted collier, in March of the same year to prepare for the Cape Helles landings at Gallipoli.

It was planned to put 2,000 men of the 29th Division ashore V beach by creating a bridge of lighters for them to move across. Cdr Unwin successfully ran the SS River Clyde aground but the planned pathway over the lighters failed as they shot ahead of the ship and the steam hopper that was to form the shore link went awry. A hail of fire was immediately unleashed by the Turkish troops in response to the attempted landings.

Cdr Unwin and Able Seaman William Williams got into the water and pulled the boats into position. Joined by Midshipman George Drewry, and under heavy fire, they maintained the bridge to allow passage for those disembarking from SS River Clyde.

For an hour, waist-deep in water and with nothing to secure the ropes to, Cdr Unwin and Williams held on to the lighter nearest to the beach. As Cdr Unwin was about to attempt to make his way elsewhere, a shell fell alongside and wounded Able Seaman Williams. Cdr Unwin took hold of Williams and tried to get the injured man into the lighter but it drifted from him.

Carrying Williams, Unwin waded across to the nearest lighter where he was assisted by Mid. Drewry and another man. However, Williams was badly wounded and died before they could get him back to the SS River Clyde.

Suffering the effects of prolonged immersion in cold water, Cdr Unwin returned to the ship for medical attention.

Meanwhile, the lighters were drifting apart. Mid Drewry swam out with a rope in an attempt to secure them but it was too short. Calling out for help, Drewry was assisted by Midshipman Wilfred Malleson who exposed himself to the gunfire and swam out with another rope, again too short. All the while, Seaman George Samson was aboard the hopper that was to have formed the shore link, trying to maintain the bridge of lighters.

By this time, Cdr Unwin had recovered sufficiently to disregard the doctor’s orders and climbed back down to the lighters. Once more helping to secure the bridge, Unwin realised that it was a magnet for enemy fire and meant almost certain death to anyone trying to cross it.

Reporting this back to senior staff officers aboard the SS River Clyde, Cdr Unwin remained on the upper bridge. The carnage of the landings was clear to see from his position and, apparently maddened by the failure of his landing plan, Unwin returned to the fight determined to save those he could reach.

Taking a boat, he manoeuvred himself to the beach and began gathering up the wounded.  Exhausted, Cdr Unwin did not give up and carried men on his back whilst he crawled back to the boat. Feeling “a bit dicky”, Cdr Unwin signalled those aboard the ship to haul them back.

Finally forced to stop through pure exhaustion, Cdr Unwin’s rescue efforts were taken over by Sub-Lieutenant Arthur Tisdall, who made several trips back and forth in a lifeboat.

The actions of Commander Unwin, Able Seaman Williams, Midshipman Drewry, Seaman Samson, Midshipman Malleson and Sub-Lieutenant Tisdall would earn each of them the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery in the presence of the enemy.

After V Beach

 

Edward Unwin continued his service with the Royal Navy after the Gallipoli landings.

He was instrumental in the landings at Suvla Bay in August 1915, once again assisted by Midshipman Drewry to bring men and supplies ashore. The landings were successful but the area was evacuated in December 1915. Cdr Unwin was the last to leave Suvla and once again went to the rescue of a soldier who had fallen overboard as he was being shipped out. Unwin was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for his part in the evacuation.

In 1916 he was given command of HMS Amethyst on the south-east coast of America; January 1917 appointed Principal Naval Transport Officer (PNTO), Egypt; and in January 1919 appointed PNTO Eastern Mediterranean as a Commodore.

Honours continued to be bestowed upon Unwin during his service, including the Order of the Nile, 3rd Class; Companion of the Order of the Bath and the French Legion of Honour.

He retired from the Royal Navy for the second time in 1920 with the rank of Captain. This rank was back-dated to November 1918 in recognition of his distinguished war record.

In retirement, Cdr Unwin moved to Ashbourne, Derbyshire, then to Hindhead in Surrey. He died on 19 April, 1950.

 

The Victoria Cross Award

The Victoria Cross is the nation’s highest award for gallantry, instituted in 1856 by Queen Victoria.

It is only awarded in exceptional circumstances: "for most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy." 

The act has to be seen by several witnesses and a recommendation made to the monarch. The monarch then considers the recommendation and may approve the award.

The army commander on that fateful day of 25 April 1915 was reportedly inundated with recommendations from fellow servicemen of Edward Unwin who had witnessed his heroism.

In his dispatch reporting the Gallipoli landings, Vice-Admiral John de Robeck made a special recommendation of Commander Unwin and those who worked with him to bring men to safety at V beach:

“While in SS River Clyde, observing that the lighters which were to form the bridge to the shore had broken adrift, Commander Unwin left the ship and under a murderous fire attempted to get the lighters into position. He worked on until, suffering from the effects of cold and immersion, he was obliged to return to the ship, where he was wrapped up in blankets.

“Having in some degree recovered, he returned to his work against the doctor's order and completed it. He was later again attended by the doctor for three abrasions caused by bullets, after which he once more left the ship, this time in a lifeboat, to save some wounded men who were lying in shallow water near the beach. He continued at this heroic labour under continuous fire, until forced to stop through pure physical exhaustion.”

 

Recorded in The Gazette, Supplement 29264, 16 August 1915

 

Cdr Unwin received his Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 15 January 1916. Writing sometime after the landings, Unwin insisted that he had only done what he “had to do”. 


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Family honours New Forest WWI Victoria Cross hero in a Ceremony at Hythe on 11th May 2015

 

A First World War hero, who received the Victoria Cross for his remarkable courage in rescuing men at Gallipoli, has been honoured in the New Forest parish of his birth.

 A commemorative stone recognising the gallant actions of Commander Edward Unwin was unveiled on the Promenade in Hythe during a poignant ceremony on Monday 11 May.

 Three generations of Cdr Unwin’s family gathered on the waterfront to pay tribute to their brave forefather, alongside invited guests. Family members included Cdr Unwin’s grandson Mr Nick Elliott, grand-daughter Mrs Johanna Dix-Perkin, his great grand-daughter Dr Rosie Wabe, and his two great-great grand-daughters, Amber, aged seven, and Daisy, aged four, who laid flowers after the ceremony.

Commander Edward Unwin played a vital role in the Gallipoli campaign 100 years ago. In April 1915, at the age of 51, Cdr Unwin was in command of the SS River Clyde and preparing to land on V Beach in Cape Hellas, Turkey, in order to disembark 2,000 troops. The plan was to beach the 4000 tonne vessel and land the troops over a bridge made of lighters (small boats) lashed together.

When the bridge was swept away, Commander Unwin and Able Seaman William Charles Williams dived into the water and, under fire from Turkish troops, pulled the remaining boats into position to form a makeshift bridge. Sadly Williams was mortally wounded and Cdr Unwin tried to rescue him, but collapsed from the cold and exhaustion.

After a short rest and against medical advice, he returned to the water to rescue wounded men until he was wounded himself and collapsed again. Finally he went out a third time to recover casualties from the beach.

For his actions, Cdr Unwin was awarded the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace in June 1916. Five of his comrades also received this honour for their part in the battle.  Commander Unwin survived the war and died in Surrey in 1950.

The ceremony  was organised by New Forest District Council, in partnership with Hythe and Dibden Parish Council, to mark the centenary of the award of the Victoria Cross to Cdr Unwin, VC CB CMG RN, and to remember the contribution of all those from the New Forest who served their country during World War One.

 Other guests included Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre; Commander Andrew Phenna, Executive Officer of HMS Collingwood, and other senior members of the Royal Navy.

 Also present were Cllr Maureen Holding, chairman of New Forest District Council, soldiers from Marchwood Military Port and Cdr James McClurg from the Royal Naval Association.

 After an introduction by New Forest District Council Chief Executive Dave Yates, and a welcome by Cllr Holding, Mr Crosthwaite-Eyre gave an address on the New Forest at War.

 Cdr Phenna responded on behalf of the Royal Navy, giving a vivid description of Cdr Unwin’s extraordinary acts of valour and reading the Victoria Cross Citation.

Cllr Holding and Mr Crosthwaite-Eyre then unveiled the stone memorial, which includes details of Cdr Unwin’s actions.

 After a blessing of the commemorative stone and the Naval Prayer, delivered by Royal Navy Chaplain, The Reverend Richard Ellingham, a Royal Navy bugler played the Ceremonial Sunset.

 Cllr Holding said: “We are honoured to commemorate one of the New Forest’s most eminent sons. Commander Unwin was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at the Gallipoli landings during the First World War and we shall never forget his bravery in the conflict.

 “This commemorative stone, laid in the parish of his birth, will stand as a timeless reminder to all those who view it of the debt we owe him and all those who risked and gave their lives, in fighting for King and Country.”

 Commander Phenna said: “It is important that we pay tribute to those who acted selflessly and with valour in the face of the enemy.  It is only by remembering their actions that we can be guided in our own careers today.  The servicemen and women we train at HMS Collingwood are all ‘inspired by history to train for the future’.”