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U-boat killer honoured with memorial stone in his native Croydon
20 February 2017

VC winner Cdr Gordon Campbell became the latest Great War hero with a monument in his home town.

Sailors and civic leaders gathered in Croydon to dedicate the latest in a series of memorial paving stones being laid across the UK to remember those who won Britain’s highest military decoration between 1914 and 1918.

SUBMARINER Capt Bob Anstey salutes one of the bravest – and coolest – men in Royal Navy history as the latest Great War hero was honoured with a memorial paving stone.

Cdr Gordon Campbell is the latest of 44 Senior Servicemen to be commemorated with a special slab in his hometown, in his case Croydon, for winning the nation’s highest decoration in the 1914-1918 war.

Exactly 100 years earlier Campbell was locked in a life-and-death struggle with a German submarine, part of a renewed game of cat and mouse on the high seas with the future of the British Empire at stake.

As 1917 began, the Royal Navy had still not found an antidote to the German U-boat menace, and shipping losses were rising alarmingly.

They were about to reach terrifying levels, for on February 1, the Kaiser let his submarines off their leash to wage unrestricted war against merchant men. No longer would the German Navy abide by international laws; it would sink any vessel on sight, whether neutral or foe.

The only ace up the Royal Navy’s sleeve was deception: heavily-armed raiders disguised as ordinary steamers which would reveal their true colours when a U-boat surfaced – most shipping was sunk by a submarine’s deck gun, not torpedoes – for the kill.

The Navy called them Q-ships and had scored some notable success with them since they were first introduced in 1915.

Gordon Campbell, a 31-year-old from Upper Norwood, was put in charge of the fifth Q-ship, a former collier, rebuilt and renamed HMS Farnborough, and had already sunk U-68 off the Irish coast when he encountered U-83 in heavy seas off Ireland’s south-west tip.

Campbell deliberately allowed Farnborough to be torpedoed – though he skilfully manoeuvred his ship so that it hit an unimportant section and killed no-one, but still caused her to flood badly.

As his crew pretended to panic and lower the boats to abandon ship, U-83 surfaced. As the boat closed to within 100 yards of its prey, Campbell unmasked his guns and rained fire and fury on the German submarine.

At this near point-blank range, the British guns were devastating. Farnborough’s 6lb gun took the head clean off U-83’s commander, Kapitänleutnant Bruno Hoppe. Nearly four dozen rounds peppered the boat, which quickly sank. Only one man survived.

Despite her decks being awash Farnborough was beached that night. Gordon Campbell went on to become a vice admiral, best-selling author, MP for Burnley in Lancashire, speaker on the lecture tour scene, dying at the age of 67 in 1953.

Nearly 65 years on from his passing, the Mayor of Croydon, Councillor Wayne Trakas-Lawlor, read out the brief, deliberately vague citation for Campbell’s VC as his memorial stone was commemorated in his native borough. After the words of the Naval Prayer, the strains of Sunset from a Royal Marines bugler carried across the square in front of Croydon library, where the town’s imposing cenotaph stands.

“It’s thanks to the bravery and selflessness of people such as Cdr Campbell that we in Britain enjoy the freedoms available to us today – freedoms that we’re sometimes guilty of taking for granted,” Councillor Trakas-Lawlor told those gathered for the dedication ceremony.

“I’m proud to be a part of a ceremony that will mark the part played by Cdr Gordon Campbell and his crew in a remarkably hostile environment and I’m glad people have come along to the cenotaph to pay their respects and say a quiet ‘thank-you’ to a brave man.”