Geoffrey Saxton White VC

b. 02/07/1886 Bromley, Kent. d. 28/01/1918 lost at sea, Dardanelles, Turkey.

Geoffrey Saxton White (1886-1918) was born on the 2nd July 1886, at ‘Leecroft’, Durham Road, Beckenham, Kent, and he was the second of three sons born to William Henry White, a civil servant, and Alice White. He was educated at Parkfield School, Haywards Heath, Sussex, and then Bradfield College, Berkshire, before joining the Royal Navy as an Officer Cadet in 1901. He completed his Officer course and passed out from HMS “Britannia”, as a Midshipman on the 15th November 1902, and embarked on a career in the Navy that saw him serve in both home waters and further abroad. Between 1902 and 1908, he served on the cruisers HMS “Amphitrite” and HMS “Glory” and also the battleship HMS “Venerable”. During the same period he gained two promotions, becoming a Sub-Lieutenant on the 15th February 1906 and Lieutenant on the 1st October 1908.

Geoffrey S White VC

On the 1st April 1909, White’s naval career took a new direction when he joined HMS “Forth”, a Mersey class cruiser launched in 1886, and converted to become a depot ship for “B” and “C” class submarines. White began his submariner training but it was to be a further two years before he was given his first command, HMSub “A4”. During his training period, White married Miss Sybil Thomas, and the couple were to have three children, two boys, Peter and Anthony born in 1911 and 1913, and a daughter, Sheila, born in 1917. A few months after being given command of “A4”, White’s submariner career progressed and he was posted to command HMSub “C27”, part of the submarine flotilla stationed out of Chatham in The Nore Command.

In April 1914, White was posted back to a surface vessel and he joined the newly commissioned battleship HMS “Monarch”, where he served during the first year of the war until returning to submarines in September 1915. He took command of HMSub “D6”, part of the 11th Flotilla, and postings to Harwich, Blyth and Leith followed until August 1916, when he was given command of HMSub “E14”, part of the 12th Flotilla, and sailing out of Malta. “E14” already had an illustrious wartime career and been involved in one VC action in 1915, when in an operation to penetrate the Sea of Marmara, she successfully dived beneath the minefields and broke into the Sea of Marmara on the 27th April 1915. She quickly sank the Turkish gunboat “Nurel Bahr”, sinking 200 tons on the 1st May. She then went on to damage the minelayer “Peik I Shevket” sinking 1014 tons in a torpedo attack. On the 3rd May she torpedoed transport ship “Gul Djemal” with 4,000 soldiers on board. Upon her return, her Captain, Lieutenant Commander Edward Courtney Boyle received the VC; Lieutenant Edward Geldard Stanley and Acting Lieutenant Reginald Wilfred Lawrence were both awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and all the ratings were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

White was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander in October 1916, and ordered out to Brindisi, for patrols around the Mediterranean in the December. In 1917, “E14” was one of four submarines sent to Corfu, where a new base was being established to strengthen the Otranto Barrage, the Allied naval blockade of the Otranto Straits in the Adriatic Sea. White and his crew, along with those of the other boats, lived in a tented encampment near an old Venetian gun battery. The work was unexciting and targets were few and far between, but White carried out his duties and came to the attention of his superiors who considered “E14” to be the best run and kept boat in the flotilla and White to have exceptional boat handling and judgement skills that were worthy of a better command.

Since the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula, in early 1916, the British had employed a policy of containment in the Dardanelles Straits area with a series of minefields being laid by the Royal Navy and patrols by two destroyers supported by a single battleship HMS “Agamemnon”, a pre-Dreadnought vessel that was out dated, two monitors “Raglan” and “M28” and a collection of lighters. For months the British had been patrolling the area in the hope that the German battlecruiser “Goeben” and her escort vessel, the light cruiser “Breslau” would venture and make for the Mediterranean. On the 20th January 1918, the German Vice-Admiral, Hubert von Robeur-Paschwitz, planned on attacking the patrols around the mouth of the Dardanelles and destroying them before raiding the base on Mudros. His plan caught the British unaware and before the British could react to reports of sightings of the two enemy vessels the “Goeben”, now renamed “Yavuz” by the Turkish navy, opened fire and destroyed a look out post at Kephalo. Minutes later the monitors “Raglan” and “M28” were hit and set ablaze and rendered useless and the way to the open Mediterranean seemed open and unobstructed.

However, things began to go awry for von Robeur-Paschwitz, when “Breslau”, also renamed by the Turks and now sailing as “Midilli”, struck a mine. Despite the danger to herself, the “Yavuz” went to her aid but she also detonated a mine. The effort to assist “Midilli” was wasted when she detonated a further four mines and began to slowly sink. Now under attack from British aircraft, the “Yavuz” retreated and made for the entrance of the Dardanelles, and safety but she struck another mine and began listing. Despite being damaged she was able to make her escape but then a navigation miscalculation near Nagara Point, saw her run aground and become stuck fast. For the next six days she remained stuck fast and became the focus of countless British attacks with aircraft dropping up to 15 tons of bombs a day on and around the stricken ship.

Despite the bombing, little damage was inflicted and long range bombardment also proved to be ineffective and so to avoid losing the chance to sink this ship like on two previous occasions, it was decided to launch an attack with submarines. HMSub “E12”, the only submarine in the area, was out of action with engine trouble and undergoing repairs, so HMSub “E2” was ordered from Malta, and “E14” from Corfu. By the 24th January, all three submarines were assembled and it was decided that “E14” would make the attack as she had the most experienced crew and commander.

On the 28th January “E14” was instructed to find the grounded battlecruiser and attack, however, “E14” had herself been run aground at the start of the mission and the delay allowed the Turks a brief respite from the attacks and time to work on refloating the vessel. The Royal Naval Air Service were the first to discover that the “Yavuz” had been successfully refloated and she had gone. “E14” then set out to locate the ship and carry out the planned attack but she was not found and “E14” turned back. Then came the following sequence of events, for which White was posthumously awarded the VC.

“E14” left Mudros on the 27th of January under instructions to force the Narrows and attack the “Goeben” which was reported aground off Nagara Point after being damaged during her sortie from the Dardanelles. The latter vessel was not found and “E14” turned back. At about 8.45 a.m. on 28 January a torpedo was fired from “E14” at an enemy ship; 11 seconds after the torpedo left the tube a heavy explosion took place, caused all lights to go out, and sprang the fore hatch. Leaking badly the boat was blown to 15 feet, and at once a heavy fire came from the forts, but the hull was not hit. “E14” then dived and proceeded on her way out.

Soon afterwards the boat became out of control, and as the air supply was nearly exhausted, Lieutenant-Commander White decided to run the risk of proceeding on the surface. Heavy fire was immediately opened from both sides, and, after running the gauntlet for half-an-hour, being steered from below, “E 14” was so badly damaged that Lieutenant-Commander White turned towards the shore in order to give the crew a chance of being saved. He remained on deck the whole time himself until he was killed by a shell.

The surviving crew, of which there were just nine, were rescued and interred by the Turks and it was not until they were repatriated after the war that recommendations were made for gallantry awards based upon their reports. White’s VC was announced in the London Gazette and Distinguished Service Medals to Able Seaman Mitchell and Signaller C. Timbrell, who rescued a wounded signaller who was unconscious in the water. Further awards were made eight months later to Petty Officer Perkins who received a DSM and Signaller Pritchard who was awarded a bar to his DSM.

White’s death was the second tragedy in the family within a period of four months. His brother Ronald had died while he was serving with 16th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps in France in October. White’s body was not recovered at the time, and he has no known grave and he is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial as well as the Horley War Memorial, in Surrey where his parents were living at the time.

In one of those strange twists of fate, the wreck of “E14” was found in June 2012, almost ninety three years to the day that White’s widow received the VC from the King at Buckingham Palace. Turkish divers found the boat lying in 20m of water about 250m from the shore at Kum Kale. It is reported to be in remarkably good condition and lies at a 45 degree angle on the sandy bottom and the British Government have requested that the Turks treat the site as a registered war grave.

The medal was not publicly held and was owned by White’s grandson but it was privately purchased by Lord Ashcroft in 2016 and now forms part of the Ashcroft VC Collection at the Imperial War Museum.