Captain Augustus (Gus) Agar and the Mystery VC
This months readers story was sent to us by The Old Framlinghamian Society – a group which reports, liaises and organises events for former pupils of one of Suffolks oldest schools, Framingham College.
In the school chapel, there hangs a Victoria Cross which was awarded to Capt Augustus Agar, who was at Framingham college. It is actually a copy, the original resides in the Imperial War Museum, but it’s good to know that it catches the eyes of every pupil that enters the chapel.
The story that surrounds this medal is truly extraordinary, as it is one of the only examples of a Victoria Cross that, when it was awarded, couldn’t actually be announced to whom it had been received by! As a result, this cross became known as the “Mystery VC”.
The story begins during a time of upheaval in Russia. The First World War had ended, but in Russia the Bolshevik Revolution was underway. Russia had once been our Allies in the war against Germany but now they posed a grave threat.
Britain secretly sent Royal Naval support out to the region in the form of Coastal Motor Boats (CMB’s). These boats, under control of MI6, had a shallow draft so could operate close to shore and could fire one to two torpedo’s from them (depending on their size). Captain Agar had been captaining such launches for over a year during the war so was the perfect person for a very clandestine mission – he was to ferry British secret agents to and from mainland Russia over the Baltic Sea.
Being based in Teriyaki, Finland, the work was extremely hazardous. Ajar and his men had to dodge mines, sea forts and huge Russian war Ships which patrolled the entrance to Bolshevik naval base at Petrograd in order to collect men with codenames such as ST25. If they were caught, they were likely to be shot as spies, despite carrying royal Naval Uniforms with them to prove they were military.
Below is an excerpt from a very lengthy article which was expertly researched and written by Chris Essex – which we reproduce below with kind permission.
Agar’s instructions, received from the Head of MI6 – known simply as ‘C’ – were that together with 2 CMBs plus crews he would be transported to the Baltic (under the guise of ‘civilian salesmen’) where he and his crews would set up a courier service between the Finnish coast and a British agent in Petrograd (St Petersburg), ‘ST25’, (identified later as Sir Paul Dukes): Agar himself was ‘ST34’. His team consisted of three Sub-Lieutenants of the Royal Naval Reserve and two Chief Motor Mechanics: his own boat being crewed by Sub-Lieutenant Hampsheir (sic) and Chief MM Beeley – referred to as ‘Faithful Beeley’ throughout. The boats were unarmed, though each could carry one torpedo: the crews wore plain clothes but carried minimal uniform and a white ensign in case of need. He was given £1000 in cash to cover expenses.
Hampsheir, Agar, Beeley – their faces tell everything.
The Royal Navy had a squadron of light cruisers and destroyers in the Baltic under the command of Admiral Sir Walter Cowan, and with its base at Bjorko in the gulf of Finland. Agar reported to Cowan on his arrival in the Baltic. The Admiral told him his squadron had three tasks – to stop the Russian Fleet from interfering with the freedom of the Baltic States, to make certain the Germans were observing the terms of the Peace Treaty, and to give British shipping free access to Finland. The Russian fleet, now controlled by the Bolsheviks and considerably more powerful than the British squadron, was based at Kronstadt, in the fortress island of Kotlin in the Bay of Petrograd, remaining a constant source of anxiety.
Cowan was his source of supply for fuel and other stores and, at Agar’s request, provided a destroyer to tow the two CMBs on the long haul from Helsinki to Bjorko. Cowan was asked by Agar if he had any torpedoes and two were found.
Two agents in Finland, ST30 and ST31, were assigned to work with him, act as intepreters and so on and he also had considerable help from the British Minister in Helsingfors, Mr H M Bell, and a well-to-do Finn, known as ‘Mr L’. The principal ‘courier’ was an ex-officer in the Russian army, referred to as ‘Peter’. The base he recommended was at Terrioki (Terijoki), about 13 miles north of Kronstadt and was ideal for the purpose. It was a yachting centre, the Cowes of Petrograd, where the pre-war aristocratic yachties kept their boats and their dachas. There was a Yacht Club where Agar could keep their stores and also a church steeple from which he could see what was going on in Kronstadt harbour. The local Finnish Army Commandant, with whom he formed a friendship, knew he was there and provided sentries. As his real task had to be kept secret, Agar originally told him that he was there to spy on the Russian fleet.
His first run was to take Peter to Petrograd, to make contact with ST25. The inner bay was protected by a chain of forts and breakwaters and his original instructions had been to take the courier to the Estonian coast whence he would make his way overland to Petrograd; but Agar, advised by Peter and with the help of a local smuggler, felt confident that he could get past the forts to the mouth of the river Neva – and, despite Cowan’s misgivings, did so. He arranged to pick Peter up in 2 days time, with a second attempt 2 days later if necessary. After landing him successfully, Agar took the opportunity of reconnoitring Kronstadt on his return trip. This run was made on the 12th of June, a fortnight before the ‘White Nights’, a period around the end of June when it was twilight nearly all night.
He collected Peter successfully, receiving a message from ST25 that he was to attempt no further runs until after the White Nights – a whole month to wait.
There were two forts covering the entrance to the Bay, one in Finland, Fort Ino, and one in the South, at Krasnaya Gorka, manned mainly by Estonians but in the hands of the Bolsheviks. The Estonians, under the mistaken impression that a White Russian Army was on its way, had mutinied and raised the white flag: the Russians had set out to subdue them. The forts had been built to defend the inlet so all their guns faced westward, which meant that the Soviet ships could attack from the east without fear of retaliation. On the morning of the day that Agar went to fetch Peter, two battleships left harbour and started a continuous bombardment from the rear.
Agar knew that both Britain and the Finns would wish Krasnaya Gorka to be relieved, that Cowan’s small squadron lacked the muscle to do anything and that the only means of attack was either from the air or with his torpedoes.
Agar, decided to take matters in to his own hands. Without specific authorisation to attack, he knew however he was unlikely to be reprimanded by anyone if he did.
Agar decided to attack that night. He assembled both his crews and told them of his decision, which was his alone. They would wear their hidden naval uniforms in case of capture and fly the white ensign. Unfortunately on the approach with no lights and at high speed, the second boat struck a floating object, breaking the propeller shaft. The mission had to be aborted as Agar towed the damaged boat back to base.
Not to be deterred he decided to go alone the following night. By this time, he had seen from his observation post in the steeple that the two battleships had returned to harbour for more ammunition and the armoured cruiser OLEG had taken their place.
He left, with Hampsheir and Beeley, in a short, choppy sea. As they reached thedestroyer screen, they suffered a mishap that is explained more fully on the
tape than in the book. To launch a torpedo a CMB ejected it from the stern –
pushed out by a ram, itself impelled by a cordite cartridge: the boat just had to
get out of the way before the torpedo motor fired. Until the point of ejection, it
was held fast by ‘stops’. While removing the safety pin from the cartridge,
Hampsheir accidentally fired it: fortunately, the stops were still in place and the ‘fish’ did not move. Reloading with a fresh cartridge was a tricky job in the dark and in a choppy sea: Hampsheir was by now both seasick and in shock: ‘Faithful Beeley’ saw this and ‘deliberately and carefully’ reloaded by himself. Agar said ‘it felt like three hours but was probably about three minutes’: the book gives a delay of 20 minutes. They were still unseen by the Russians.
He then gathered speed, penetrated the destroyer screen and fired his torpedo at the OLEG ‘as if it was an ordinary practice run’, aiming at the centre of her three funnels. He put on full speed, and made for the Estonian coast so as not to reveal where he had come from. A thick column of black smoke rose from the OLEG.They came under heavy fire from all directions and were soaked by shell splashes but undamaged. As soon as he was clear, he turned north towards Finland at 35 knots. Hampsheir, besides being very seasick, was ‘all in’ from shock.
Agar received an urgent summons from the Finnish Commandant who had heard from the Commandant of Fort Ino that a Russian warship had apparently blown up, they thought sunk by her crew. Agar admitted he was a British naval officer and was responsible for the explosion, assuring him that they had been in uniform and flying the White Ensign. The Finn, initially concerned about the possibility of retaliation, finally placed his hand on his shoulder and said that he was in the presence of a very brave man. He also promised to keep the information to himself as long as the boats were at Terrioki.
Agar needed to see the Admiral as soon as possible, but first had to make sure of the fate of the OLEG and wait to see if the battleships came out again. The Commandant made arrangements for him to be flown over the area – keeping well clear of the forts – and, once more, arranged for his transport to Bjorko. From the air, Agar saw the OLEG ‘lying on her side on the bottom of the sea and looking like an enormous dead whale’. Meanwhile, the Red Flag was again flying over Krasnaya Gorka, the breaches in the wall having made further defence impossible.
The Admiral was ‘more than pleased’, was sure the Russian ships would not venture out of their minefield now that one had been sunk and promised to stand by him whole-heartedly should there be ‘any difficulty with the Foreign Office’.
Meanwhile, as there were four weeks before he could do another courier run, he towed the damaged CMB to Bjorko, where he arranged for both boats to be repaired and refitted. To their surprise, as they entered harbour ‘the forecastle and upper decks of our ships were crowded with sailors who cheered as we passed through the lines of destroyers and cruisers anchored close to the flagship’. While the presence of the boats was now well known, the secret of the Special Mission was still closely guarded. The Admiral told Agar he had recommended him for the Victoria Cross.
By July, Agar who was still continuing his work in the region, received the news that the King had awarded Agar the Victoria Cross: Agar writes: ‘No details were given, so I became … another “mystery VC”’. Hampsheir received the Distinguished Service Cross and Beeley the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.
This wasn’t the end for Agar, in fact he went on immediately after this event to complete another amazing war story – but that is for another time.
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