AROUND 200 people gathered in Swanage for a service honouring a Great War Victoria Cross hero and three other naval servicemen who died in the First World War.
Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer Ernest Pitcher, whose gravestone stands in the town’s Northbrook Cemetery, won Britain’s highest honour for gallantry in the face of the enemy for action aboard HMS Dunraven.
The Cornish-born sailor, who went on to serve in World War II, died in Sherborne aged 57.
After the Swanage St Mary’s Church service, a parade – including servicemen, veterans, members of the Royal Marines and Royal Navy Associations and descendants of Ernest Pitcher – made its way to the cemetery for a graveside commemoration.
The three other Royal Navy men buried at the same cemetery are Frank Corben, WP Coffin and Arthur Taylor.
Derek ‘Blondie’ Boorn, a member of the Poole and District Branch of the Royal Marines Association, helped organise the commemorative event – one of many taking place across the UK to mark 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War.
Recalling Ernest’s action in the Bay of Biscay on August 8, 1917, Mr Boorn said: “A shell from a U-boat gun struck Dun-raven’s poop deck where the four-inch gun was disguised as a fake hatch and phoney laundry hanging out to dry.
“The shell set off one of the Dunraven’s concealed depth charges, and while thick smoke obscured the hidden gun crew’s view ports and fire threatened to set off powder and shells in the magazine below the poop, Pitcher and his crew maintained stations, not wanting to give the game away.”
Rather than abandoning their positions, Ernest, 28, and others in his crew took the shells on deck and held them on their knees to prevent them igniting from the fire below.
When Dunraven’s ammunition store exploded after a second direct hit on the poop deck, they were all blown into the air.
Mr Boorn said: “Despite the devastation, the gun crew survived. Pitcher cartwheeled through the air and landed near the engine room, sustaining wounds in several places.”
Dunraven was hit by a torpedo in the ensuing battle, sinking 36 hours later.
During the Swanage service, held earlier this month, wreaths were laid on all four Royal Navy war graves in the cemetery.