b. 01/11/1891 Exeter, Devon. d. 04/01/1981 Winkleigh, Devon.
Gordon Charles Steele (1891-1981) was born on 1st November 1891, at Exeter, the son of Captain H W Steele, RN, and Selina May, daughter of Major General Symonds, RMLI. He was educated at Vale College, Ramsgate, before joining Worcester [II] as a cadet in 1907 under the command of Captain Superintendent, Captain Sir David Wilson-Barker, Kt, RD, RNR.
During his time on Worcester [II], Gordon Steele achieved distinction in winning many prizes on the ship, including the P&O Gold Watch for runner-up in the voting for the King’s Gold Medal. He left the Worcester in 1909 to join P&O as an Apprentice, obtaining his second mate’s certificate in 1913. He was then appointed as Third Officer in charge of a watch for a further year until 1914. He had joined the RNR some years earlier and at the outbreak of the First World War was serving in HMS Conqueror as acting Sub-Lieutenant RNR. He was transferred from the Royal Naval Reserve to the list of Sub-Lieutenants in the Royal Navy in 1915 as a reward for distinguished service in action whilst serving as Gunnery Officer of his second Q-ship, Baralong. On this occasion, Gordon Steele destroyed a German submarine, U-27, which had attacked the steamer Nicosian. He was also mentioned in dispatches.
Three months later he was promoted to Lieutenant, Royal Navy. In that capacity he served on HMS Royal Oak at the Battle of Jutland, and was later appointed to HMS Iron Duke. During the latter part of the First World War, Gordon Steele was appointed to a number of commands. For his first command, he was appointed Captain of HMS P63, a patrol boat, from 1917 to 1919, later taking over command of HMS Cornflower, a frigate. His greatest moment, however, occurred in 1919 when he was serving on a Thornycroft coastal motor boat [CMB] during the raid on Kronstadt harbour in north west Russia. Here, he distinguished himself in an act of conspicuous gallantry.
On 18th August 1919, Lieutenant Steele was second in command of CMB No. 88. The commanding officer was Lieutenant A Dayrell-Reed, DSO, RN, [OW – 1903]. Following the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks had gained control of much of the former Imperial Russian Navy and an action was planned to attack inside the harbour. The action was extremely risky as CMB 88 was heavily outgunned by the massive firepower of the Russian warships.
Notwithstanding, Lieutenant Dayrell-Reed began entering the harbour and shortly afterwards was killed by a shot to the head. As the boat now weaved off course, Lieutenant Steele, realising what had happened, took the wheel and steadied her. He now manoeuvred CMB 88 to a position suitable for launching a torpedo at the Bolshevik Battleship, Andrei Pervozvanni. He gave the command to fire at a range of one hundred yards, the torpedo finding its mark, exploding on the side of the ship. He now turned his attention to the Battleship, Petrapavlovsk, partly obscured by smoke from the stricken Andrei Pervozvanni.
Lieutenant Steele successfully fired off a torpedo at his second target which again found its mark; he then made a rapid retreat from the harbour, under heavy concentrated fire from the line of forts. Making his escape out to sea, he saved his ship. As a result of this gallant action and the torpedoing of two capital ships, Lieutenant Gordon Steele, RN, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Following his exploits at Kronstadt, Lieutenant Gordon Steele returned to more peaceful pursuits with the Royal Navy. In 1923, whilst in command of Patrol Boat No. 31 at Portland, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. With an aptitude for foreign languages he became a Naval Interpreter in Russian. In March 1925, with specialist experience in anti-submarine duties, he was appointed to the staff of Rear-Admiral of submarines at Gosport. His last appointment in the RN was as First Lieutenant of the new Royal Navy cruiser HMS Cornwall, in which he served on the China station from 1927-1928.
Following his tour of duty with HMS Egmont, Gordon Steele was selected to be Captain Superintendent of HMS Worcester, a post he held from September 1929 until his retirement in 1957, excepting only his wartime duties with the Royal Navy.
On 20th January 1958, Gordon Steele VC was the subject of the BBC programme This Is Your Life, hosted by Eamonn Andrews. He was only persuaded to attend because he was informed that the subject that night was Mr Fred Everard Junior!
During the BBC programme, Gordon Steele was introduced to Captain E R Bodley, DSO [OW – 1915], who had commanded CMB.72 as a Sub-Lieutenant during the dash into Kronstadt harbour on the first of the two attacks. Captain Bodley later joined P&O and retired as Commodore of their fleet in 1957.
He was a Liveryman and Freeman of the City of London, a Fellow of the Institute of Navigation and a younger brother of Trinity House. His Victoria Cross is on show with his other medals at Trinity House in London and his sword is on display at the Royal Navy Museum in Gosport.
Gordon Steele VC died in Exeter on 4th January 1981 in his ninetieth year. He was buried in All Saints New Cemetery, Winkleigh, Devon.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: TRINTY HOUSE, TOWER HILL, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: ALL SAINTS NEW CEMETERY, WINKLEIGH, DEVON.