b. 23/10/1898 Bermondsey, London. d. 03/11/1918 Chatham, Kent.
Albert Edward McKenzie (1898-1918) was born on 23rd October 1898 at 10 Alice Street, Bermondsey, South-East London, the youngest son of Alexander McKenzie and Eliza (nee Marks). His father, a photographer, died while Albert was an infant and most of his childhood was spent at 1 Shorncliffe Road, Old Kent Road, with his widowed mother and her large brood.
He was educated in London County Council Schools in Webb Street, Bermondsey, and Mina Road, Southwark, and attended St Mark’s Sunday School in Camberwell. This south London parish would supply 4,286 men for the country’s armed forces, the largest number of any London parish, and McKenzie was to become the most distinguished member of what became known as “St Mark’s Little Army”, as well as one of more than five hundred men to lose their lives before the war’s end.
Albert McKenzie joined the Royal Navy training ship Arethusa at Greenhithe in 1913. A fine athlete despite being just 5ft 2in tall, he excelled at football and boxing, for which he gained the first of an array of medals and trophies. Having left Arethusa as a Boy Second Class on 20th June 1914, he advanced one step in rank to Boy First Class a week before Christmas. He was promoted to Able Seaman on 23rd April 1916, and served in minesweepers, patrol boats and in convoy escorts before being transferred to the battleship Neptune, part of the Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow. He then became one of fifty men to answer the call for volunteers from the Neptune for special service. He was one of eight “Arethusa Lads” to embark on HMS Vindictive to Zeebrugge. All were to be decorated for bravery, seven of them receiving DSMs to set alongside Albert’s VC.
On 22nd/23rd April 1918 at Zeebrugge, Belgium, Able Seaman McKenzie was a member of a storming party on the night of the operation. He landed with his machine-gun in the face of great difficulties, advancing down the Mole with his commanding officer (Arthur Leyland Harrison) who with most of his party was killed. The seaman accounted for several of the enemy running for shelter to a destroyer alongside the Mole, and was severely wounded whilst working his gun in an exposed position.
So serious were his wounds in the raid, he was ferried straight from the docks at Dover to the Royal Naval Hospital at Chatham. He was still recovering from his injuries when it was announced in the London Gazette of 23rd July 1918 that he had been selected by the crew of Vindictive, Iris II, Daffodil and the naval assaulting force to receive the VC. With his mother and sister Mary, he attended, on crutches, the investiture in the quadrangle of Buckingham Palace on 31st July 1918.
After the ceremony he returned to his mother’s house where he was greeted by the Mayor of Southwark, who held aloft McKenzie’s blood-stained uniform and smashed watch. His mother, who had already lost one son in the conflict, received a gift of War Bonds and an illuminated address.
By the autumn of 1918 the young seaman was still being treated in Chatham Naval Hospital, where his wounded foot had developed septic poisoning. But just as he appeared to be making a good recovery, he fell victim to the influenza pandemic. In his weakened state the “flu” soon developed into pneumonia from which he died on 3rd November, just 8 days before the Armistice.
His body was returned to London and on 9th November, following a funeral service, attended by Captain Alfred Carpenter VC, he was buried in Camberwell Old Cemetery. A message from the King and Queen was read to the mourners, and Captain Carpenter spoke to Albert’s mother and said “the splendid example which your boy set at Zeebrugge will be accorded a high place of honour in the naval records of the British Empire.” It was the politician T.J. McNamara, however, who had the best words, “Mrs McKenzie has lost a son, but the nation has found a hero.” McKenzie’s medals including the VC, 1914-15 Star and the Victory Medal 1914-19 were loaned to the Imperial War Museum, and are now part of the Ashcroft Gallery.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON
BURIAL PLACE: CAMBERWELL OLD CEMETERY, CAMBERWELL, LONDON.
SQUARE 85, GRAVE 25538
Kevin Brazier – Image of McKenzie VC Grave and the map of Camberwell Old Cemetery, London.
Timothy Beuselinck – Image of the McKenzie VC Medal Group at the Bruges Exhibition in 2018.