The Portsmouth Grammar School recently celebrated and reflected on the life of former pupil, national and local hero, Norman Holbrook VC RN when a plaque commemorating his bravery during the First World War, which led to him becoming the first submariner ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross, was unveiled at the school.
“It is incredibly poignant for us to be able to commemorate Norman Holbrook in a year when the whole nation has been reflecting on the Great War and the heroism of so many in service of their country,” said Mr James Priory, Headmaster at The Portsmouth Grammar School. “We were honoured to be asked by the Submariner’s Association to be the home to a plaque commemorating his daring exploit, and hope that for years to come pupils and passers-by will be able to remember his bravery and realise that he was once also a pupil of the school when they see the plaque.”
Norman Holbrook joined PGS in 1900, leaving in 1903 at the age of 13 as he had passed the entrance examination to HMS Britannia, the naval officer cadet training establishment in Devon. He started his career at sea aboard HMS Illustrious as a 20-year-old Midshipman. Two months later he was promoted to Sub-Lieutenant and, two years later, as a Lieutenant, he joined the fledgling Submarine service in 1910. In 1913, he assumed his first command, the petrol-driven A13, based at HMS Dolphin in Gosport, Britain’s main submarine base.
With the outbreak of war a year later, Lieutenant Holbrook was commanding the B11 which had been built in 1905 and was already considered old and obsolete. B11 was one of the submarines based at the western end of the Dardanelles, and was ordered to penetrate the Straits, an extremely hazardous mission as it was a narrow and shallow channel with strong currents, and was protected by Turkish minefields, batteries of guns, howitzers, patrols and searchlights.
On the 13 December 1914, B11 dived under five rows of mines. Through the periscope, Norman could see a two-funnelled warship moored in Sari Sighlar Bay – she was the 10,000 ton Turkish battleship Messudiyeh. Holbrook fired his starboard torpedo. It ran true and hit the ship, which turned over and sank in ten minutes. 37 men died, many trapped in the hull.
The Turks had seen and opened fire on B11’s periscope as Holbrook turned for home. The sub grounded on a sandbank which forced her entire conning tower above water and the Turks redoubled their fire. Fortunately, B11 slid off into deeper water and, despite having a damaged compass, retreated to the safety of the Mediterranean, staying submerged for an incredible nine hours. Everyone was exhausted, the batteries were running out, the light was fading and the air was bad, virtually unbreathable.
Lt. Holbrook was a national and local hero, becoming the first submariner ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross, and he was also the first naval VC of the war. His First Lieutenant, Sydney Winn, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and every member of the crew was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
Lieutenant Norman Douglas Holbrook VC commemorative plaque is the second of fourteen that the Submarines Association will be unveiling over the next few years.