Family meet to honour VC submariner
The first submariner to receive the Victoria Cross has been honoured 100 years to the day after he launched an audacious raid on a Turkish battleship during the First World War.
Commander Norman Holbrook was given the honour after he dived his B-11 sub under five rows of mines and torpedoed the Messudiyeh warship in the Dardanelles on December 13 1914.
Following the strike he managed to guide the vessel to safety despite coming under fierce attack.
Today 115 members of the Holbrook family, representing four generations, gathered at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire, where a wooden VC crafted by the recipient's crew on news of his award was on display.
Later the group - including the submariner's 92-year-old niece Elizabeth Holbrook - attended the unveiling of a memorial in front of a library in Southsea, Portsmouth, where he was born.
Commander Holbrook was a 26-year-old lieutenant at the time of the exploits which earned him the VC - Britain's highest military decoration for gallantry in the presence of the enemy.
His citation said it was awarded "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 - a narrow stretch of water in north-western Turkey linking the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara - assumed key strategic importance during the conflict as a geographical link between Britain and ally Russia, while Turkey was in partnership with Germany.
Commander Holbrook's great-great-niece, Elizabeth Mooney, who researched his feats as part of an A-level project, said: "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."
Commander Holbrook's actions captured the nation's imagination and he featured on memorabilia like cigarette cards, and a small town in Australia even changed its name to Holbrook in his honour.
Professor Dominic Tweddle, d irector-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 crew's 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."
Samantha Axtell, another great-great-niece, organised today's reunion.
"We are thrilled to come together as a family to mark the 100th anniversary - to the day - of Commander Holbrook's tremendous achievement," she said.
"It is a unique opportunity to remember and be inspired by his bravery and derring-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."
Commander 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 October 5 1915.
He left the submarine service in 1918 and later the Royal Navy in 1920 and was promoted to Commander on retired honours in 1928.
At the age of 51, he served in the Admiralty in the Second World War. He raised Guernsey cattle in Midhurst, West Sussex, gardened and enjoyed fishing.
He died on July 3 1976 and is survived by his second wife, Gundula, who lives in Innsbruck, Austria.
Ms Axtell said: "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."
She added that the family were known as "the fighting Holbrooks" after five of Commander Holbrook's 10 siblings fought in the war and were decorated.
Leader of Portsmouth City Council Donna Jones said Commander Holbrook was a "true local hero".