Bernard Armitage Warburton-Lee VC

b. 13/09/1895 Wrexham, Wales. d. 10/04/1940 Narvik, Norway.

Bernard Armitage Warburton-Lee (1895-1940) was born in Iscoyd, near Wrexham, Wales on 13th September 1895, the son of Joseph Henry Warburton-Lee (1856-1932), who was born in Iscoyd, but later lived in Lancashire.

Bernard A Warburton-Lee VC

Lee’s first naval appointment was to Hyacinth as a Midshipman on 15th January, 1913. He was promoted to the rank of Acting Sub-Lieutenant on 15th January, 1915 and to Sub-Lieutenant on 15 July, on both occasions being re-appointed in Hyacinth. He quit the ship on 31st July, 1915 and took an appointment in the destroyer Cherwell on 15th September.

Lee left Cherwell on 3rd January, 1916 and the next day received an appointment in the more modern destroyer Mameluke. Lee was promoted to the rank of Acting Lieutenant on 15th January, 1917, and to Lieutenant on 15th April. sLee left Mameluke when he was appointed to the Mischief on 21st April, 1917. He went over to Wrestler on 16th April, 1918. Lee was mentioned in despatches for his services in Grand Fleet destroyers in the first half of 1918. However, in November, 1918, a Court of Enquiry found him at fault in a collision between Conqueror and his command, Wrestler. Lee had not been keeping a good lookout and was cautioned to be more careful in future.

Warburton-Lee did not leave Wrestler until 12th April, 1921 and proceeded to take a series of Gunnery courses, intersperse with some unpaid time. He married on 9th October, 1924 to Elizabeth Campbell Swinton (1904-1981), and they had a son, Philip John, born in 1927 in Kensington, London. He was then promoted to Lieutenant Commander on 15th January 1925, and was promoted to Captain on 30th June 1936.

In 1936 due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and because there was fear of social unrest in the naval station, the Foreign Office in London, organized a ship to repatriate all the remaining British citizens and on 22nd July 1936 HMS Witch, captained by B.A. Warburton-Lee, departed from Ferrol in northwestern Spain back to Britain.

On 28th July 1939, Warburton-Lee was appointed to command his final ship, HMS Hardy as part of the Second Destroyer Flotilla. She was 337 feet long, 34 feet in the beam, with a draft of nearly nine feet. She was powered by two shaft geared turbines linked to three boilers, and could reach speeds in excess of thirty knots. For armament she carried five 4.7 inch Mk1X quick firing guns in single mountings, eight 0.5 inch anti aircraft guns in twin mountings, and eight Mark 1X torpedoes in quad mountings. Her complement was supposed to be 175 officers and men, but at the time of the battle she was probably carrying more than that.

On the morning of April 8th 1940, the British mounted Operation Wilfred, who’s main purpose was to lay mines of the southern side of Vestfjord, together with a dummy minefield off Bud. Besides the Battleships Renown and Warspite, and the Carrier Courageous, the minelayers were to be escorted by the Second Destroyer Flotilla under the command of Captain (D) Bernard A.W. Warburton-Lee, in H.M.S.Hardy. Whilst the British were mounting ‘Wilfred’, the Germans had started Operation Weserbung, with the intention of occupying Norway. Thus, unknowingly, both Fleets were due to be in the same bit of sea at the same time. In howling gales and snowstorms, elements of both sides spotted each other and briefly engaged, only to loose contact in the atrocious weather.

Neither side really knew what was going on, especially the British, but the brief encounter caused a flurry of signals back to the Admiralty. They knew nothing about the events that were about to happen in Narvik, but had already had reports about German warships approaching Oslo, Trodheim, Bergan and Stavanger. The Admiralty immediately issued orders for the task Force to keep watch on Narvik and report any developments. At 1200 hours on April 9th Captain Warburton -Lee was in the Vestfjord when he received a signal from the Admiralty telling him that some troops had landed at Narvik, and ordered him to seizee or sink their transport ships, and if he thought prudent, recapture the Town.

Warburton-Lee, or ‘Wash’, as he was known to his crew, was a bit of a ‘press on’ character, and relished this new challenge. He decided to sail for Narvik with five Destroyers, Hardy, Havelock, Hostile, Hunter and Hotspur. But before he fully committed himself he wanted to find out a bit more about what was going on. So, at 1600 hours he stopped at Tranoy and sent two officers ashore to the Pilot Station to ask around. Even though there were some difficulties with the language, it transpired that at least six warships and a U-boat had passed the Station on their way to Narvik. ‘Wash’ passed all this information to the Admiralty and informed them of his intention to attack the next day at high tide.

On 10th April 1940, on being ordered to carry out an attack on Narvik, Captain Warburton-Lee learned that the enemy was holding the place in much greater force than had been thought. He signalled to the Admiralty that six German destroyers and one submarine were there, that the channel might be mined, and that he intended to attack at dawn. The Admiralty replied that he alone could judge whether to attack, and that whatever decision he made would have full support. Captain Warburton led his flotilla of five destroyers up the fjord in heavy snow-storms, arriving off Narvik just after daybreak. He took the enemy completely by surprise and made three successful attacks on warships and merchantmen in the harbour. As the flotilla withdrew, five enemy destroyers of superior gunpower were encountered and engaged. The captain was mortally wounded by a shell which hit the bridge of H.M.S. Hardy.

Warburton-Lee’s body was recovered and he was buried in Ballengen New Cemetery, Ballengen, Norway. He was recommended for, and awarded the first posthumous VC of the Second World War. (Gerard Roope’s posthumous VC action was prior to Warburton-Lee’s, but was not gazetted until 1945). Warburton-Lee’s medals are not publicly held.