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Naval VC hero's medal haul expected to help global community projects

16 October 2017
This is as impressive a collection of military decorations you are ever likely to see - earned by one of the Royal Navy's greatest U-boat killers.

Not the legendary Johnny Walker, but one Gordon Campbell who lured three German submarines to their death in the Great War and was sunk trying to destroy a fourth.

The 11 medals the later vice admiral earned - including the Victoria Cross for the first action and Distinguished Service Order with two bars - are expected to fetch around £300,000 when they go under the hammer at auction next month.

At the age of 29, the Croydon-born officer was given command of HMS Farnborough, a specially-converted collier dispatched to hunt down U-boats.

The fact that Campbell was nominated by his fellow officers for a second Victoria Cross, but out of modesty declined, places him amongst the very greatest names in British military history.

David Kirk

Disguised as ordinary steamers, the ships would typically wait until a submarine surfaced and was preparing to sink its prey with its deck gun, and then reveal their true colours, uncovering guns and raising the White Ensign.

Campbell sank U-68 in March 1916, earning the DSO, then in February 1917, allowed the Farnborough to be torpedoed - though not in a critical location - pretended to abandon ship, then turned the tables on his attacker when it surfaced and dispatching U-83 to a watery grave.

The action resulted in Campbell receiving the nation's highest decoration.

He repeated his 'sinking ship' trick a few months later in another disguised vessel, or 'Q ship', HMS Pargust, with UC-29 the victim. Two of his crew earned the VC by ballot.

Campbell's luck ran out the third time he tried to spring his trap. Patrolling the Bay of Biscay in HMS Dunraven, he came under attack from UC-71 and lost the ensuing duel in what he described as "a fair and honest fight".

His officers proposed a second VC for their skipper, but he said the men should be recognised; the decoration went to his deputy, and a petty officer gunlayer.

All of these actions were shrouded in mystery at the time; the existence of Q ships was kept secret from the British public as well as the enemy, which means Gordon Campbell isn't a name as widely known as other WW1 VC winners such as Albert Ball or Jack Cornwell.

A century later, however, David Kirk of specialist medal auctioneers Morton and Eden, believes Gordon Campbell's actions make him "one of, if not the single greatest Naval VCs of the 20th Century and is without doubt of the highest national importance.

The fact that Campbell was nominated by his fellow officers for a second Victoria Cross, but out of modesty declined, places him amongst the very greatest names in British military history."

After the war, Campbell commanded the 100-strong Guard of Honour of VC winners which assembled for the Burial of the Unknown Warrior, was in charge of the battle-cruiser HMS Tiger, served as Naval aide de camp to George V, wrote a best-selling memoir of his Q ship exploits, and served for four years as the MP for Burnley.

He died in 1953 with his 11 medals eventually being passed down via his son David to the Fellowship of St John Trust Association.

Proceeds from the sale will help projects run by the trust in Zimbabwe, South Africa, West Indies and a community project in Burnley.

The medals, which also include the Legion d'Honneur Chevalier's badge and Croix de Guerre, 1914-1918 - go under the hammer in London on November 23.

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