Saturday, 5 September 2015

Forgotten Hero

Forgotten Hero

It can be strange the way writers of non-fiction sometimes accidentally stumble into a story. Only two years into my full-time writing career in 1999, I was invited, as a script writer, by a friend, an academic working at the University of Kalmar in Sweden, to visit the country to meet a marine archaeologist, Bjorn Axel Johanssen, who was working on a potential TV documentary about wrecks at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. 

That night in Kalmar we visited a Chinese restaurant, drank copious amounts of beer, and ambled back through silent, snow-clad streets to Bjorn’s warm, comfortable apartment. Over yet more beers he produced a VHS tape and slotted it into the player. It contained enthralling footage, taken by Kalmar’s diving team, of various wrecks. In one WW1 wreck’s cabin, through the clear water, the divers’ lamps eerily illuminated a very well-preserved bunk with the captain’s sea boots still standing in a corner.
   I asked how this was possible. Bjorn explained. The Baltic is a small and shallow sea, its unique feature is its brackish water – a mixture of fresh water and saline seawater. This means that, for example, wooden wrecks, often quite ancient, remain well-preserved due to the lack of shipworms which infest other oceans. Iron and steel wrecks also look remarkable, without the intense encrustation of organisms you would see in the much deeper Atlantic or Mediterranean. We watched shots of four wrecks in a sequence, and then Bjorn pointed out the fascinating fact that all these vessels had been sunk in one day in October 1915 by one British submarine. I was intrigued. I asked him if he knew which submarine had wrought such destruction. He searched his files. It was HMS E19.

The TV documentary never happened. Back in the UK, in an attempt to salvage something from the trip, perhaps a magazine feature, I phoned the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport. I asked if they had anything on HMS E19. The curator replied “Yes, a couple of pages. But would you like to see the service record of her captain?” I asked “Why - is he interesting?” She replied, rather slowly and cryptically “Oh, yes. Yes indeed … without a doubt.”
Two days later, the contents of a large manila envelope insinuated the heroic spectre of a murdered man into my writing life, and he’s been at my shoulder like a spirit pursuing redemption every day for the past fifteen years. I had found a handsome, brave and intelligent neglected hero, Captain Francis Newton Allen Cromie, CB, DSO, RN, but what was I to do with him?

Born in Ireland in 1882, educated in Wales, at the age of 18, Cromie saw his first action with the Naval Brigades during China’s Boxer Rebellion.  By the age of 24, he was in command of a submarine and had received the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal after almost losing his life when he saved a drowning sailor washed overboard in the English Channel. Sartorially elegant, teetotal, handsome and non-smoking, Cromie was a skilled watercolour artist, musician, orator, singer and raconteur. Loved by his crews, in addition to his compassion and bravery, as the Bolshevik Revolutions broke, he also became a consummate mediator during many dangerous confrontations.
Until Lenin arrived back in Russia on his sealed train, the new submarines of Britain’s Royal Navy were fully occupied in the Baltic, fighting alongside the Tsar’s Imperial Navy, and the sailors of both forces looked up to one man. In September 1915 he took command of HMS E19, and two other submarines, entering the Baltic to join the Royal Navy’s sub flotilla based in Reval (today’s Tallin).

On October 3rd HMS E19 set out on a voyage of destruction, and on one day alone, October 11th 1915, Cromie sank 5 ships in the Baltic Sea. E19 scored 9 victims between October 3 - November 2, and on November 7th enraged the Kaiser’s Navy by adding the cruiser Undine to the casualties, topping off a successful patrol on December 4 by despatching the 1300 ton freighter Friesenberg. Yet the frigid Russian winter had set in, curtailing further action in the frozen Baltic until the spring.

Tsar Nicholas II visited Reval on the Royal Train and awarded Cromie one of Russia’s highest honours, The Order of St. George, the equivalent of the VC. In 1916 he would receive the DSO from the Admiralty, and later the Legion of Honour from the French. Cromie took overall command of the Reval Flotilla, and he and his 200 sailors were feted wherever they went. He soon mastered the Russian language. In a speech he made to assembled actors, poets and musicians in a Moscow Theatre, to a standing ovation he said:

“You are all artists - musicians, poets, novelists, painters, composers: you are creators. What you create will live long after you. We are simple sailors. We destroy. But we can say truthfully that in this war we destroy in order that your works may live.” 

The British contingent shared their accommodation in the long Baltic winter, with the sea impassable, with the Russian Navy on board an old warship, the Dvina.    In March 1917, The Bolshevik Revolution had begun; the Tsar’s Navy mutinied, murdering over 1,200 of its officers. His skill as a mediator saved many naval and civilian lives.1918 Trotsky signed the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, which brought Russia out of the conflict, making Cromie’s flotilla surplus to requirements, with no war to fight. The White Finns offered Cromie a personal sum of £50,000 to prevent Red Sailors from entering Helsinki, whilst the White Finns ‘dealt’ with their own Bolsheviks ashore. He refused the offer. The Treaty of Brest Litovsk stipulated the surrender of Cromie’s flotilla to the Germans. The Finnish business community then offered him, a personal fortune of £5 million for his seven boats. He refused, sailed the submarines into the Gulf of Finland and in the sight of the advancing Germans, scuppered the whole flotilla. His 200 men were then sent home on a gruelling ten-day train journey to join a UK-bound ship in Murmansk.

Sonia Gagarin around 1915, the Cruiser Aurora at St. Petersburg and the book 'Honoured by Strangers' by Roy Bainton.
Cromie's Russian love, Sonia Gagarin, The Cruiser Aurora, on the Neva
Pictures  by Graham Harrison

Obstinate as ever, Cromie, though married man, was carrying on an affair with a young Russian socialite, Sonia Gagarin. He became a regular figure at Petrograd’s British Embassy, staying behind alone once his men had gone home to fight his clandestine war against Germany single-handed. Cromie was always the charming ladies’ man. He went around with two Baronesses, Baroness Schilling and the enigmatic double agent, Moura Budberg, Great Aunt to  Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Yet Sonia Gagarin was his true Russian love, whilst Baroness Budberg fell hopelessly in love with H. G. Wells. 
Soon, the murky world of espionage, where Cromie was well out of his depth, would engulf him as the Allies secretly planned military intervention against Lenin. Among Cromie’s cloak-and-dagger associates was the duplicitous ‘Ace of Spies’, Sidney Reilly, the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s 007.

Following a carefully planned ‘sting’ by agents of the Cheka, (the fore-runner of the KGB) the British Embassy was raided by Red Guards on Saturday, August 31st 1918. Cromie, pistol in hand, defending his last outpost, was shot dead on the building’s grand staircase. He was 37.
 As they were all under suspicion of being complicit in Allied counter-revolutionary plans, the majority of British nationals in Petrograd were arrested and thrown into the Peter & Paul Fortress. With no-one to arrange Captain Cromie’s funeral, the task was taken on by the neutral Dutch and Swedes, who stepped forward to give a brave man a proper burial.  When his ragged, ad-hoc cortege passed along the banks of the Neva en route to Petrograd’s Smolensky Cemetery, along the embankment, lounging sailors on the decks of the moored Russian destroyers of the new Soviet Navy, suddenly realising whose funeral this was, spontaneously formed ranks and gave him a final salute.

Churchill praised Cromie as ‘a man of great ability’, and The Times carried a short report of his death on September 5th.  Cromie was posthumously awarded Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB)  from King George V, which was collected by his widow Gwladys at a special investiture at Buckingham Palace.

Cromie charming a lady at the Petrograd Tennis Club

Writing Cromie’s biography, Honoured By Strangers was a tough job. Clues were thin on the ground. I spent 2 weeks in Russia visiting relevant locations. In the old British Embassy, which now houses the St. Petersburg University of Arts and Culture,  the staff and students were drop-jawed as I told them Cromie’s story, and the grand marble staircase still had the impact marks of the bullets fired on that fateful day.
The book got 18 rave reviews, then vanished as the publisher, Airlife of Shrewbury, went into liquidation. I retained the rights to the book but it has taken 14 years for it to be re-issued as an e-book. Throughout that time, I was determined to see Cromie’s story presented to the public. Saga magazine ran it as a 2-part feature, and paid for my trip to Russia. I’ve had countless meetings with TV production companies in the hope of a documentary, all fruitless. I’ve tried every avenue I could think of - Max Hastings, the History Channel, Channel 4, BBC TV and radio, even sending the book to Jeremy Clarkson. The only decent, gentlemanly response came from Private Eye’s Ian Hislop, who had the good manners to write and explain that he found it fascinating, but was ‘too busy’.
So here we are in the midst of a media orgy of Great War centennial documentaries, and I ask this question: a handsome hero, submarine warfare, an illicit love affair, the Bolshevik revolution, espionage, and murder: what’s not to like!? I’ve done all the hard work. There’s plenty of material, brilliant locations, hundreds of potential screenshots. But nobody seems interested. I’ve even written the screenplay.
Perhaps this particular hero is fated to remain neglected. A poignant coda; his heartbroken Russian lover, Sonia Gagarin, moved to the USA and married a Russian √©migr√© called Rostkovsky. She died, childless and alone, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1979. She would never visit Russia again, and unless some creative director spots this story in time for the centennial of her lover’s murder in August 2018, neither shall I.

Honoured By Strangers, 
The Life of Captain F.N.A. Cromie CB DSO RN (1882-1918)
is available as an e book from Constable & Robinson. 

Roy Bainton (Royal Literary Fund Associate Fellow, Society of Authors, NUJ, President, Nottingham Writers’ Club)

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