b. 03/02/1886 Torquay, Devon. d. 23/04/1918 Zeebrugge, Belgium.
Arthur Leyland Harrison (1886-1918) was born in Torquay, Devon on 3rd February 1886, the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur J Harrison of the Royal Fusiliers and Adelaide Ellen Harrison. He was educated at Brockhurst Prep School and then Dover College, before joining the Royal Navy as a cadet in September 1902. He was promoted to Lieutenant in October 1908, and that same year gained his first command, Torpedo Boat No 16. Strong and athletic, Harrison as also an outstanding sportsman who excelled on the rugby field. A tireless forward, he played for the Royal Navy, United Services and England, gaining two caps, against France and Ireland, in the winter and spring of 1914. That season, the last before the war, was generally regarded as his best, and there is no doubt the conflict robbed him of further caps. He was often described as a “sturdy, bustling type” and “quite a good place-kicker.”
He served aboard HMS Lion, Admiral Beatty’s flagship, at the Battles of Heligoland Bight in August 1914 and the Dogger Bank the following January. A shipmate and fellow gun commander of Francis Harvey VC, he received a mention in despatches for the “splendid manner” in which he took charge of A turret during the fighting at Jutland when Lion sustained heavy damage. He was one of the three turret commanders cited by Lion’s captain in his report.
He was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in October 1916, and continued to serve in the Grand Fleet, but found time on leave to play rugby in scratch games at the Old Deer Park, Richmond, Surrey. Still very fit for his age, he was always, according to accounts, “well to the fore.” Towards the end of 1917, he was one of the volunteers who answered the call for “hazardous service”, the phrase for recruitment by Admiral Keyes for the Zeebrugge Raid. Joining the staff at Dover, Harrison was an obvious choice to organise and train the seaman landing parties who would storm the mole. It was a task he revelled in.
On the night of 22nd-23rd April 1918, he was in command of the Naval Storming Parties embarked in ‘Vindictive’. Immediately before coming alongside the Mole Lieut.-Commander Harrison was struck on the head by a fragment of a shell which broke his jaw and knocked him senseless. Recovering consciousness he proceeded on to the Mole and took over command of his party, who were attacking the seaward end of the Mole. The silencing of the guns on the Mole head was of the first importance, and though in a position fully exposed to the enemy’s machine-gun fire Lieut.-Commander Harrison gathered his men together and led them to the attack. He was killed at the head of his men, all of whom were either killed or wounded. Lieut.-Commander Harrison, though already severely wounded and undoubtedly in great pain, displayed indomitable resolution and courage of the highest order in pressing his attack, knowing as he did that any delay in silencing the guns might jeopardise the main object of the expedition, i.e., the blocking of the Zeebrugge-Bruges Canal.
He was not on the original list of men recommended for the VC. Instead, like George Bradford, his name appeared in a list of “gallant souls who did not live to see the success of their endeavours.” Given that two of the six eventual VCs for Zeebrugge were elected, it seemed nothing more could be done. Keyes, however, thought differently, and eventually on 23rd February 1919, ten months exactly after the raid, the VCs for Harrison and Bradford were announced. Both the awards were gazetted on 17th March 1919. Two months later, Harrison’s mother made the short journey from Wadden Cottage, Durham Road in Wimbledon to Buckingham Palace to receive her son’s medal.
Sadly, Arthur has no known grave. His name appears on the Zeebrugge Memorial in Belgium, on the Roehampton War Memorial in South West London and on a plaque in St Mary’s Church, Wimbledon. His VC was donated to the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, by his surviving relatives in 1967. More recently, on the 82nd anniversary of the Zeebrugge Raid, in 2000, an impressive memorial was unveiled at Roundham Head, Paignton, Devon, to the only England Rugby International Rugby player to be awarded the VC.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: BRITANNIA ROYAL NAVAL COLLEGE, DARTMOUTH.
BURIAL PLACE: NO KNOWN GRAVE – ON ZEEBRUGGE MEMORIAL, BELGIUM.
Timothy Beuselinck – Image of Harrison VC’s medals at the Brugge Exhibition.
Britannia Naval College – Image of Harrison VC’s medal.