b. 11/05/1891 Exmouth, Devon. d. 23/11/1918 Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire.
Richard Douglas “Baldy” Sandford (1891-1918) was born at 15 The Beacon, Exmouth, Devon, on 11th May 1891, the seventh son of the Venerable Ernest Grey Sandford, Archdeacon of Exeter, and Ethel (nee Poole). Like his older brother Francis, Richard was educated at Clifton College before going on to HMS Britannia at Dartmouth en route to a career in the Royal Navy. He became a midshipman on 15th September 1908, serving on the battleship HMS Hibernia and then, from January 1910 until April 1911, on the torpedo-boat destroyer HMS Arab.
During the following three years his career oscillated between “big ship” duties and destroyers. After Arab, he went to the battleship Formidable and then, in December 1911, as a Sub Lieutenant, in the destroyer HMS Mohawk, before joining the cruiser Duke of Edinburgh as an additional officer in February 1913.
What had been an orthodox career path was broken in January 1914 when he joined HMS Dolphin (2nd Submarine Flotilla) for submarine training. This service, still in its first flush of youth, evidently suited him, and the remainder of his naval career was spent as a submariner. On completion of the course, he moved to HMS Onyx (1st Submarine Flotilla) at Devonport in May, as a spare officer.
His first boat was the Armstrong-Laubeuf type W1, which he joined as second-in-command while she was under construction at Newcastle in November 1914. On her completion he moved with her to Portsmouth for trials, before transferring to the 10th Submarine Flotilla at Immingham in May 1915. Based on a French design, the W-Class boats were unsuitable for North Sea work and were later sold to India. After an uneventful 7 months, Dick Sandford was transferred to the 11th Submarine Flotilla at Blyth, where his new submarine, the overseas boat G6, was being built.
He was there only briefly, as in August 1916, he was transferred to C34, a smaller, coastal boat, part of the Dover Patrol’s 4th Flotilla. C34 later fell victim to a German U-Boat, but by then the much-travelled Sandford had departed to a new boat under construction. This was K6, a huge, steam-driven boat that belonged to the most ill-starred submarine class ever built. In less than a year, 4 K Boats were lost. Sandford spent two months waiting for the boat’s completion, eventually joining as a Lieutenant in February 1917.
On 31st January 1918, the ships in the Firth of Forth were ordered out on a full-scale Grand Fleet exercise. The Rosyth contingent included the 5th Battle Squadron and the 2nd Cruiser Squadron, together with the 1st, 3rd and 4th Light Cruiser Squadrons, numerous destroyers and two K-class flotillas. Tragically in a massive disaster, the submarines crashed into a group of minesweepers, meaning several boats were lost. The officer on watch on K6 was Dick Sandford, and the crew included the 17 year old midshipman called Louis Mountbatten. Following an inquiry into the Battle of May Island, there were several changes in personnel. Among those who left Rosyth was Dick Sandford, though he left the K-Class for the planned Zeebrugge Raid.
Following the disaster at May Island, he attended a “perisher course” for potential submarine commanders at HMS Dolphin and was put in temporary command of K2. But when his elder brother Francis, who was serving as demolitions officer on Keyes’ staff, approached him with the offer of commanding C3 on its mission to blow up the viaduct, he seized the opportunity to change his luck and rescue an otherwise undistinguished career.
On 22nd/23rd April 1918 at Zeebrugge, Belgium, Lieutenant Sandford commanding HM Submarine C.3, skilfully placed the vessel between the piles of the viaduct which connected the Mole with the shore, before laying his fuse and abandoning her. He disdained to use the gyro steering which would have enabled him and his crew to abandon the submarine at a safe distance, but preferred to make sure that his mission would be successful.
Of all the VCs awarded for the operations at Zeebrugge and Ostend, his was the most approved. When his VC was gazetted on 23rd July 1918, it was said to have “snowed telegrams” on his family. Eight days after the announcement with his wounds healed, he went to Buckingham Palace to receive his VC from King George V. To this, the French added their Legion of Honour, which was gazetted on 28th August.
By then, Sandford had returned to duty in command of the 6th Flotilla’s C30. His stay was short. In October, he transferred to the 10th Flotilla, based on Teesside, where he became the relief CO and then CO of the G11. Shortly afterwards, however, he contracted typhoid fever and went into Cleveland House Naval Hospital, Grangetown, where he died on 23rd November 1918. He was just 27 and he had little time to bask in the glory of the VC.
He was buried in Eston Cemetery, near Middlesbrough, and is remembered on a number of memorials including at the Submarine Museum. His medals are held by the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, Devon.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: BRITANNIA ROYAL NAVAL COLLEGE, DARTMOUTH.
BURIAL PLACE: ESTON CEMETERY, ESTON, NORTH YORKSHIRE. SECTION J, PLOT U, G709.
Sheila Marrison – Image of Sandford VC’s grave in Eston Cemetery.
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Image of the Sandford VC Medal Group at Dartmouth College and the VC Stone in Exmouth.
Thomas Stewart – Image of the Zeebrugge Memorial and of the Memorial at the Submarine Museum, Gosport.