Able Seaman Reginald Vincent – a short life in the Royal Navy

The Poole and East Dorset Herald newspaper reported on the funeral of Able Seaman Reginald Vincent who died from influenza and pneumonia on 16 March 1920 aged 22. His parents lived at 7, Princess Road, Branksome. The newspaper report was headlined ‘A Hero of Zeebrugge’ and mentioned he had taken part in the Battle of Jutland. A Culture Volunteer on the Poole First World War project provides the background to Vincent’s naval record.

Reginald Vincent was born on 7 December 1897. According to the Royal Navy Register of Seaman’s Services, he was employed as a greengrocer’s boy before he joined the Navy. He signed on in January 1914 at the age of 17 when, as ‘Boy Second Class’, he went to the training establishment, HMS Impregnable, at Devonport, Plymouth. A ‘Boy’ was the lowest ‘rank’ in the Navy. He was promoted to ‘Boy First Class’ on 13 July 1914.

Vincent transferred to HMS Endymion on 14 July 1914. HMS Endymion was an Edgar-class cruiser that had been launched in 1891. A ‘Boy First Class’ who served on a light cruiser during the First World War, described how, after just one weeks training, he became a sight-setter for one of the 4in guns. While the rest of the crew had duffel coats to keep themselves warm, he was not given one because he was a ‘boy’. After a couple of weeks, some of the crew took pity on him and gave him some warm clothing. His duties were 4hrs on and 4hrs off on a two watch system.

On 30 November 1914, Vincent left HMS Endymion and returned to shore. He was based at the HMS Vivid I navy barracks in Devonport until 5 December 1914.

From 6 December 1914 to 24 November 1915 he served on HMS Hilary which was an armed merchant cruiser which had been converted from a cargo vessel after being requisitioned in 1914. HMS Hilary was part of the 10th Cruiser Squadron and carried out blockade duties along the German coast.

Vincent left HMS Hilary and spent from 25 November 1915 to 23 February 1916 at the HMS Victory I shore establishment in Portsmouth. It was during this posting that he signed on for 12 years. He then joined the battlecruiser HMS Princess Royal on 24 February 1916 as an Ordinary Seaman.

HMS Princess Royal saw action on 31 May 1916 in the Battle of Jutland as part of Rear-Admiral Beatty’s First Battle Cruiser Squadron. The squadron came across the German fleet and, as the range began to decrease, the guns were placed at the ready. However, clouds of smoke from the British destroyers accompanying the Squadron began to obscure the German vessels which, in contrast, were not hampered by poor visibility. As the range decreased below 18000yds (16.4km) the British guns opened fire but while the 13.5in guns of HMS Princess Royal were superior to the German guns the quality of the British rangefinders was not as good. The German guns opened fire at 16500 yards (15km) and scored numerous hits while the British gunners were struggling to find the range. HMS Princess Royal was hit twice and one of her forward turrets was put out of action as was, shortly afterwards, the aft turret. HMS Lion, a sister ship of the HMS Princess Royal, was only saved from total destruction when its Q turret was hit, and the cordite ignited, because of the rapid order to flood its magazine. As many as 80 men were involved in the operation of loading and firing a turret.

HMS Princess Royal, along with other ships, stopped firing at 8.40pm because they had never fired their guns at night. During the battle, the HMS Princess Royal was seriously hit on nine occasions and a midshipman was ordered to sketch the damage that had been sustained while it sailed home.

Vincent was promoted to Able Seaman on 1 February 1917. Throughout his brief career, he was assessed as either good or very good in character and his ability was either satisfactory or superior at his annual assessment.

His next posting was even more dramatic than Jutland when he spent 1 March to 22 April 1918 on board HMS Hindustan. This ship was involved in the preparations for the attack on Zeebrugge and Ostend which was aimed at blocking the exit points for the German U-boats from their inland base at Bruges.

A force of around 2000 men was brought together. One sailor was told that the chances of being killed were nine out ten but still volunteered, preferring that to spending any more time languishing in Scapa Flow which he described as a ‘dismal theatre of war’. Vincent was one of several men on HMS Princess Royal who were selected to take part and, remarkably, the Poole History Centre has a copy of Reginald Vincent’s actual account of his experiences of the Zeebrugge raid.

Along with other sailors, he was with men from the Middlesex Regiment on board HMS Hindustan while they were trained in fighting techniques and night exercises. The men were transferred to the cruiser HMS Vindictive and sailed on 13 April but the raid was cancelled because of the weather. The men inspected models of the target and carried on with their training whilst they waited for the weather to improve. Vincent’s role was to lower a prow or ramp from HMS Vindictive on to the heavily-defended Mole that protected the canal entrance. He describes that the prow had a ‘man-bodyguard’ which it was hoped would provide shelter for the soldiers as they attempted to leave the ship. Vincent was part of No 1 section ‘A’ company, who also carried supposedly ‘bulletproof plates’ to protect themselves but in the event they were not used.

At 1420 on 22 April a small flotilla of vessels set sail towards Zeebrugge. The force included HMS Vindictive, the Mersey ferries Daffodil and Iris as troop transports, the concrete-filled blockships Intrepid, Iphigenia, and Thetis, and the submarine C3 which was towed by a destroyer. At around 2245, rum was issued to everybody on board HMS Vindictive and Vincent noted that he, along with many others, had more than just one drink. At 2300, the sailors were at their ramps and the marines were lined up ready to go. Half an hour later, the attacking force was lit by enemy star shells known as ‘flaming onions’. Around 2345, the ships began to be hit by shells; many of the prows on HMS Vindictive were lost, including the one to which Vincent had been assigned so he had to join the rest of his company. It was at this point he was hit by shrapnel. ‘I took very little notice of this at the time – just felt the sting’. He noted that 10 pieces of shrapnel were later removed from his arm when he eventually made it to hospital. The order was given ‘to go over the top’ and he landed with ‘A’ Company who destroyed most of its objectives on the Mole. A vicious fight developed during which they often ‘looked back at the ship and saw her enveloped in flames and smoke. We thought it was ‘Goodbye, Vindictive’ – the ship was their only route home. The three blockships were sunk at the entrance and a viaduct connecting the Mole to the mainland was destroyed by C3. At around 0115, the badly-damaged HMS Vindictive left with survivors of the raid, as well as those of the dead that could be recovered. Vincent noted many of those who could fell asleep after plenty of rum.

The survivors returned to Dover around midday on 23 April 1918 where HMS Vindictive was met by a rousing reception and a hospital train. Along with five others, Vincent stayed at Dover on HMS Arrogant as they believed there were more badly wounded who should get preferential treatment. The next day, the men were sent to Chatham Barracks where they had a meal and two tots of rum. When he went to the sick bay he was immediately taken to the R.N. hospital; ‘it was found that I had almost put off too long having my arm attended to – I might have lost it.’

After three weeks, Vincent transferred to Chatsworth Royal Naval Hospital where he wrote down his experiences of the Zeebrugge Raid.

Although, the Germans had dredged a way round the blockships by the middle of May the psychological impact was substantial. A daring raid by the Royal Navy had struck at a strongly defended German position.

It is believed that 214 men were killed in the attack and 383 were wounded – of which Vincent was one. The newspaper reported that he was visited by the King and Queen while in hospital. A note on his Seaman’s Register states that his name was in the ballot for a Victoria Cross which was one of several awarded for the Zeebrugge raid. Unusually, the 4th Battalion Royal Marines Light Infantry was awarded the Victoria Cross and a rule meant that a ballot was carried out for who should receive it. Two of the eight Victoria Crosses for the raid were awarded by this method which was also the last time it was granted in this way.

Vincent was attached to HMS Victory I until 30 September 1918 and on the following day he joined HMS Vindictive. This was not the same ship that had taken part in the Zeebrugge raid as this had been converted into a blockship for the second raid on Ostend. A Hawkins-class cruiser, HMS Cavendish, was being built when it was decided to convert it to a seaplane-carrier for six planes and be renamed HMS Vindictive. The ship sailed to Baltic in 1919 where it was involved in the multi-national action against the Bolsheviks and its seaplanes attacked the Soviet fleet at Kronstadt on 18 August 1919. It is believed that HMS Vindictive left the Baltic at the end of 1919. Vincent went on home leave in February 1920 and returned to duty where he got influenza which developed into pneumonia. He died on 16 March 1920 at the Royal Naval Hospital, Gosport and is buried in All Saint’s Churchyard, Branksome.


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