Arthur Leyland Harrison VC
Born in Torquay, Cornwall on 3 February 1886, Arthur was the eldest son of retired army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Harrison and his wife, Adelaide. He spent his early years living in Dover and was educated at Brockhurst Preparatory School, before attending Dover College. He trained as a Naval Cadet in September 1902 and progressed rapidly. In October 1908 he achieved the rank of Lieutenant.
Arthur was a talented rugby player. He honed his skills at Dover Coll and later represented the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth and the United Services Portsmouth. He featured in many Army versus Navy game and also made Club appearances for Hampshire.
Arthur is known to have earned two England caps prior to the war and in The Rugby Football Internationals Roll of Honour, E.H.D Sewell wrote:
It goes without saying that though past the age at which most men receive their first National Cap, he was so fit that he would have played many more times for England but for the War. His game was the sturdy, bustling type, and he was quite a good place-kicker.
By 1914 family the Harrison family had moved to Waddon Cottage, 160 Durham Rd. Wimbledon and Arthur's father died soon afterwards. Young Arthur was now a Naval officer, stationed on H.M.S. Lion, an leading battlecruiser with a crew of over 1000 men. The 30 ton steam turbine ship was armed with 24 guns and saw action in 3 major sea battles of the Great War – Heligoland Bight (1914), Dogger Bank (1915) and Jutland (1916).
The first offensive was a North Sea battle on 28 Aug 1914, involving a surprise attack on enemy patrol boats west of the German base at Heligoland. The British were initially out-gunned, however when smoke and fog caused confusion amongst the warring vessels, the leading British ships joined forces with Vice Admiral Beatty’s 1st battlecruiser squadron. This included Arthur's ship H.M.S. Lion, Princess Royal and the Queen Mary. The Royal Navy fleet remained intact and lost 35 men, compared to German losses of 3 ships and 715 men, plus the capture of a further 336.
The German Navy responded to the defeat by staging a number of raids on British coastal towns, including Admiral Hipper's attacks on Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. Much of the enemy shelling took place at 9am on 19 December, 1914. Eighteen people were killed and the British public were outraged that enemy vessels could sail so close to home shores.
Hipper now sought to lead a repeat attack on the British fishing fleet near Dogger Bank but his ship Blucher was intercepted by British battlecruisers, light cruisers and destroyers sent from Harwich. The Germans attempted to escape but Blucher was sunk and the flagship S.M.S. Seydlitz was badly damaged., British indecision and misinterpreted signals left Vice Admiral Beatty's flagship, H.M.S. Lion open to attack. Hit several times, she was forced to retire from the main battle. Arthur Harrison was a Lieutenant on board the Lion and witnessed, at first hand, the highs and lows of the war at sea.
In 1916, Rheinhard Scheer, commander of the German High Seas Fleet, sought to resume attacks on the British coast. However his coded messages were intercepted and the attack vessels were met with the full force of the British Grand Fleet, commanded by Admiral Jellicoe. The battle ran for two days from the 31 May, to 1 June. Beatty’s battle cruisers ( including H.M.S. Lion ) fought their weaker German counterparts, forcing the enemy ships to flee southwards. This was followed by a clash with German Dreadnoughts to the north.
Having miscalculated the likely position of Jellicoe’s battle fleet, the German vessels pursued Beatty, but found themselves under direct bombardment from the British guns. An order to retreat came too late and there were heavy German losses. Arthur Harrison's ship Lion was one of several cruisers to pursue the retreating vessels through the night, inflicting lasting damage on the German fleet. Arthur was later mentioned in dispatches for his courage and leadership during the battle.
During the Battle of Zeebrugge in April 1918, British storming parties were intent on capturing the Mole - a concrete structure which linked sea and shore, near the Bruges Canal. This would make it easier for Allied forces to stage a land and sea assault on the German bases at Zeebrugge and Ostend. Planned in great secrecy, the Zeebrugge raid was conducted by a fleet of 75 ships, including Harrison’s vessel, H.M.S. Vindictive, which had been stripped of all non-essential items in preparation for the attack. In addition to her giant guns, the battlecruiser was equipped with a cargo of howitzers, flame throwers and mortars for use by the storming parties.
Three ancient British cruisers were due to be scuppered at precise locations, in order to block the entrance to Zeebrugge harbour. Unfortunately, the German gun batteries survived the initial British bombardment, hitting the ships before they reached the allotted site.
Vindictive played a major part in the Battle of Zeebrugge in 1918, carrying naval storming parties alongside the Mole. The ship was carrying over 200 troops, who had been specially trained to stage an attack on the German batteries. A smokescreen was meant to shield their arrival, however this proved ineffective due to unexpected winds. Exposed to the full barrage of enemy fire, the ship moored at the wrong site and landing parties were forced to disembark in full view of the German machine-gun. It was amidst such chaos that Arthur Harrison performed the act for which he was later awarded a Victoria Cross.
The following account was printed in the London Gazette, an official Government publication.
Arthur Leyland Harrison, Lieutenant Commander, Royal Navy
For most conspicuous gallantry at Zeebrugge on the night of the 22nd – 23rd April, 1918
This officer was in immediate command of the naval storming parties embarked in Vindictive. Immediately before coming alongside the Mole, Lieutenant Commander Harrison was struck on the head by a fragment of a shell which broke his jaw and knocked him senseless. Recovering consciousness he proceeded on to the Mole and took over command of the party, who were attacking the seaward end. The silencing of the guns on the Mole head was of the first importance and though in a position fully exposed to the enemy’s machine-gun fire, Lieutenant Commander Harrison gathered his men together and led them to the attack. He was killed at the head of his men, all of whom were either killed or wounded.
Lieutenant Commander Harrison, though already severely wounded and undoubtedly in great pain, displayed indomitable resolution and courage of the highest order in pressing his attack, knowing as he did that any delay in silencing the guns might jeopardise the main object of the expedition i.e. the blocking of the Zeebrugge-Bruges Canal.
London Gazette, 17 March 1919
Arthur was killed on his 32nd birthday and his body was never found. His posthumous VC was given to his mother Adelaide, who was still living in Wimbledon.
Arthur is commemorated on a memorial at the Zeebrugge Mole. His name is also listed at Wimbledon Parish Church and on the Roehampton War Memorial.