Submariner Hero of First World War Remembered

British hero Captain Francis Newton Cromie

British hero Captain Francis Newton Cromie

In this post I look at the life of British hero Captain Francis Newton Cromie RN.

St Martin's House on City Road has been the home of Sue McKeeman for over 30 years. It is a fine property much older than its Georgian appearance might suggest and was once the home of the Prust family who, besides fielding many mayors, purportedly entertained Oliver Cromwell during his brief visit in 1648.

It was also the childhood home of Sir Tom Ince Webb Bowen who rose to the rank of Air Vice Marshall during the Second World War; on the face of it sufficient for the property to enjoy somewhat elevated historical status. But it became the childhood home of a British hero whose death in 1918 was to lead to questions being asked in the House of Commons and who uniquely was posthumously made a Companion of the Order of the Bath.

Francis Cromie was born on the January 30, 1882. After the failure of his parents' marriage his mother returned to her family home here in Haverfordwest.

St Martin's House, City Road, childhood home of British hero Captain Francis Cromie.

St Martin's House, City Road, childhood home of British hero Captain Francis Cromie.

Captain Cromie attended Haverfordwest Grammar School before starting as a cadet in the Royal Navy and in 1903 he was one of the first to volunteer as a submariner. Seven years later he was given command of the ‘Onyx’ submarine along with a small flotilla.

At the start of the First World War he was given the Baltic assignment. He organised his force in a systematic attack on German ships bringing ore from Sweden to Germany. Between autumn and Christmas 1915 he sank ten ore carriers and the German cruiser “Undine”. For this latter feat, he was awarded the Order of St George by the Tsar and later received the DSO.

After the Russian Revolution in November 1917 he tried to convince the new Bolshevik government that their navy was still a force of importance against the Germans in the Baltic but Lenin’s government surrendered to the Germans in February 1918.

Cromie was unwilling to allow his flotilla to fall into German hands and took them out to sea to destroy them.

He then, without any vessels, was due to return home with his officers and men but at the very last minute he was ordered to return to Petrograd to see what assistance he could be to the British Embassy and was given the title of Naval Attaché. For several months he undertook an active role involving undercover work and propaganda against the Germans. The Russians were suspicious of Cromie’s attitude towards their revolutionary endeavours and considered that he might be harbouring Tsarist sympathisers in the Embassy. In August 1918 they decided to raid it.

Mary Britnieva, a British nurse on the Russian Front, wrote a book in 1934, after her escape to London, entitled ‘One Woman’s Story’ in which she described the death of Captain Cromie at 4pm on the 31st August 1918.

‘My sister in law ran out into the hallway and as she emerged she saw Captain Cromie running down the steps two at a time, straight towards her. Behind him at the top of the stairs, stood a man firing at the Captain. Several bullets whizzed by her head and crashed through the glass of the entrance doors behind her. Her horror seemed to root her to the spot and suddenly, just as Captain Cromie reached the last stair, he pitched forward as if he had stumbled, staggered a little and then crashed down backwards with his head on the bottom step. My sister in law ran to him and lifted his head. He was moving his eyelids and she felt something warm trickling down the fingers of her right hand with which she was holding up his head from underneath. Suddenly a terrific blow made her drop Captain Cromie’s head and sent her spinning against the right hand wall. The man who had struck her grabbed her and ran her up the stairs hitting her violently from time to time and finally pushing her into the Chancery room where she found all of the members of the Embassy and the Consulate standing with hands raised above their heads. After being searched for arms, the Embassy staff were forced to hand over their papers and then marched downstairs and on to the street.’

As they went down the stairs, they had to walk past Captain Cromie’s body, by now stripped of the St George Cross. These staff members were then marched off to the Peter and Paul fortress where they and the staff of the French Embassy were kept in appalling conditions.

Captain Cromie was buried in the Smolensky Cemetery in St Petersburg, with Russian sailors standing to attention on their rusting hulks moored on the River Neva as the cortege went past, a reflection of the high regard in which he was held.

The CB Order was presented to his widow along with the DSO at a Buckingham Palace ceremony.