b. 06/01/1886 Croydon, Surrey. d. 03/07/1953 Isleworth, Middlesex.
Gordon Campbell (1886-1953) was born at Upper Norwood, Croydon, Surrey on 6th January 1886, the ninth son and thirteenth of sixteen children born to Colonel Frederick Campbell CB, VD, JP, a Royal Artillery veteran of the Maori Wars, and his wife, Emilie Guillaume nee MacLaine. He was educated at Dulwich College and passed into HMS Britannia as a naval cadet in 1900, although it was a close call. Expected to pass in the first seven, he actually passed 59th out of a total of 65. His first ship was the Prince George, which he joined as midshipman in 1902.
Over the course of the next few years, he served in a variety of ships in the Channel Fleet, the Pacific, the Mediterranean and on the China Station. During that time, he was off duty for six months with a serious leg injury dating back to his rugby playing days at Britannia. Despite fears that he might be left with a “stiff” leg for the rest of his life, he made a good recovery and resumed his career, being made sub-lieutenant and then appointed first lieutenant of the destroyer Arun. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1907, and appointeed to the recommissioned King Alfred, a flagship on the China Station, where his old injury recurred, eventually leading to an operation.
Gordon recovered again with determination, and on 14th January 1911, he married Mary Jeanne Davids. After two years on Impregnable, the boys’ training ship at Devonport, he was given his first command, the elderly destroyer Ranger, part of the same port’s own flotilla. Six months later he turned over to the Bittern, in which he was serving when war was declared in August 1914. After a spell of unexciting escort duties, his command was suddenly curtailed by a chase after a suspicious looking vessel which turned out to have been a new seaplane carrier undergoing trials. The encounter ended with Bittern in dry dock, needed a refit.
Campbell was desperate to get into action, and applied for a destroyer at Harwich or a gunboat in the Persian Gulf, but was instead offered a “special service” appointment under Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, at Queenstown. On Trafalgar Day 1915, hee commissioned the ex-collier Loderer, and in her converted guise as the Q-ship Farnborough, enjoyed the first of his successes, the destruction of U-68, on 28th March 1916. Campbell’s victory was recognised by the award of the DSO and promotion to Commander over the heads of many others on the Navy List.
A long lean spell followed, before he embarked on a record-breaking run of success which would bring him the VC, two Bars to his DSO, the French Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre with Palm (both gazetted in 1918), as well as a glut of awards to his crew. On 17th February 1917 in the north Atlantic, Commander Campbell, commanding HMS Farnborough (Q.5) (one of the “mystery” Q ships) sighted a torpedo track. He altered course and allowed the torpedo to hit Q.5 aft by the engine-room bulkhead. The ‘Panic party’ got away convincingly, followed by the U-boat. When the submarine had fully surfaced and was within 100 yards of Q.5—badly damaged and now lying very low in the water—the commander gave the order to fire. Almost all of the 45 shells fired hit the U-boat which sank. Q.5 was taken in tow just in time and was safely beached.
During his two years commanding Q-ships, Campbell, described as Bayly as “a born leader”, dedicated himself to the work of hunting and sinking submarines. He served as Bayly’s flag captain in the light cruiser Active, taking charge of all anti-submarine operations in the Irish Sea. He saw out the rest of the war as Senior Naval Officer and commander of a flotilla of destroyers.
Peace-time saw him return to his pre-war role, first as commander of the cadet training cruiser Cumberland and then the boys’ training establishment Impregnable, in which he had served before the war. His last sea-going role was as captain of the battlecruiser Tiger from 1925-1927. The following year he was retired as a 42-year-old admiral with a letter he described as “less gracious than one would send to a cook who had served you for two years”.
He took a trip to the Sahara Desert and wrote his memoirs, and in 1928 “My Mystery Ships” was published. It was a worldwide best seller, and went on lecture tours throughout Britain and America. More books followed, mostly on nautical matters, including his autobiography “Number Thirteen”, published in 1932. By then Campbell, had embarked on a new career as a Member of Parliament for Burnley. He was elected with a majority of 8,000 in 1931. He held his seat until 1935, when he lost his seat in the General Election.
Campbell took on more book commissions and public speaking engagements, until the Second World War brought an unexpected recall from his old friend Winston Churchill, ensconced again at the Admiralty. Campbell was given the task of refitting and requisitioning a new fleet of Q-ships. They proved a dismal failure, and he resigned his command in April 1940. The scheme was abandoned and he spent the rest of the war as a Resident Naval Officer in Padstow, until his health failed him in 1943.
Retired for a second time, he resumed writing. He wrote a textbook on flags, which was published in 1950. His health was beginning to fail, and he passed away in the West Middlesex Hospital, Isleworth on 3rd October 1953. He was buried in All Saints Churchyard, Crondall, Hampshire, and his medals were passed onto his former school Dulwich College. They are due to go on sale on 23rd November 2017 at Morton & Eden. They were sold to his great nephew for £700,000. They are now on loan to the RN Museum in Portsmouth Dockyard.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: ROYAL NAVAL MUSEUM, PORTSMOUTH (LOAN).
BURIAL PLACE: ALL SAINTS CHURCHYARD, CRONDALL, HAMPSHIRE.
Kevin Brazier – Images of Gordon Campbell’s grave
Dulwich College – Images of Gordon Campbell portrait and replica medal group.