War heroes recognised at poignant service

Bournemouth Echo: Former Royal Marines Graham Barber and Derek Boorn with club secretary John Seager, club chairman Steven Poultney and Jerry May with his AR15 rifle Former Royal Marines Graham Barber and Derek Boorn with club secretary John Seager, club chairman Steven Poultney and Jerry May with his AR15 rifle

A POIGNANT service will be held in Swanage this summer in honour of a Great War Victoria Cross hero and three other naval servicemen who died in World War 1.

Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer Ernest Pitcher, who is buried at the town’s Northbrook Cemetery, was awarded Britain’s highest military honour for gallantry for action aboard HMS Dunraven.

The three other Royal Navy men buried at the same cemetery are Frank Corben, W.P Coffin and Arthur Taylor.

Ernest was serving as crew chief for the ship’s single four-inch gun when it was attacked by the U-boat UC-71 in the Bay of Biscay on August 8, 1917.

Derek ‘Blondie’ Boorn, a member of the Poole and District branch of the Royal Marines, is one of the people organising the service.

Taking up Ernest’s story, Mr Boorn explained: “A shell from the U-boat’s deck gun struck the Dunraven’s poop deck where the four-inch gun was disguised by 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 their stations, not wanting to give the game away.”

Rather than abandoning their positions, Ernest, aged 28, and others in his gun crew bravely took the shells on deck and held them on their knees to prevent them igniting from the fire below.

When the magazine – the Dunraven’s ammunition store – blew up following 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.

Ernest was awarded the VC by ballot. The rest of the gun crew received Conspicuous Gallantry Medals.

The Cornish-born sailor, who died in Sherborne aged 57, went on to serve in the Royal Navy in the Second World War.

He was also awarded the French Medaille Militaire and the French Croix de Guerre.

The service takes place at Swanage’s St Mary’s Church, Sunday, August 10, from 2.15pm.

It will include a parade to a commemorative service at Northbrook Cemetery.

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