John Turner CGM, 2015





Earlier this year Martham Local History Group was contacted by Christopher Jary, who is researching the life of John Turner. A note in the Parish Magazine put Christopher in touch with some of John’s surviving relatives, who provided photographs and family background. Christopher has given us this enthralling account – just a taste of the whole project, a copy of which we will receive for our archive.

Noel Mitchell, March 2015.


One hundred years ago, on 18th February 1915, a young man from Martham went to Yarmouth to enlist in the Royal Naval Reserve and joined their Trawler Section, which was recruiting fishermen from all round the country.  His name was John Turner and he was twenty-four.  His parents lived at Rectory Cottage and, when he was sent for training at Milford Haven, John left behind him a young wife and family.

Late that summer John sailed for the Adriatic as a Deck Hand aboard the drifter Serene.  A huge number of drifters and trawlers assembled at the port of Otranto (on the heel of Italy), where they were used to provide a screen across the strait to Albania.  The purpose of the screen was to guard the nets that blocked off the Mediterranean to German and Austrian craft coming down from the Northern Adriatic.  Here John was promoted to Second Hand aboard the drifter Garrigill, which had a larger crew than most (about 13 or 14 hands) because it had a 6-pounder gun and was fitted with wireless telegraphy.  In July 1916 Garrigill attacked with depth charges and sank a German U-boat which had become entangled in the nets.

On 15th May 1917 two Austrian cruisers (picture right) left harbour and steamed towards the thin line of about fifty drifters and trawlers manning the Otranto barrage.  There could be no contest: the cruisers were heavily armed, large warships – one size down from battleships – while the drifters were tiny and mostly unarmed.  Chivalrously, the Austrian captains gave the British crews the opportunity to surrender, but their offer was rejected.   Skipper Watt aboard the Gowan Lea refused vehemently and exhorted his crew to fight.  His boat opened fire and kept up a persistent, though miniscule, barrage on one of the cruisers.  Watt later took his damaged drifter to the aid of another drifter, the Floandi, seven of whose crew had been killed or wounded.  Skipper Bruce and his crew on the Quarry Knowe remained at their posts until their drifter blew up.  Skipper Stephen of the Tails stood firm while his boat sank beneath him.

Other drifters (right), including John Turner’s Garrigill, fought on.  The Austrians seemed to be making the Garrigill a particular target – probably because they could see her wireless aerials that could yet summon help.  Under heavy fire and realising that the wireless was in danger, John climbed the mast to strike the topmast and save the aerials from destruction.  As he did so, shells were passing between the mast and the funnel.  The Austrians’ concerns about the wireless were well founded: two British light cruisers, summoned by signals from the drifters, arrived and the Austrian ships withdrew.  Thanks to the wireless, the cost to the drifters had been lower than one might have expected.  Fourteen had been sunk, three seriously damaged and one less severely damaged.  Seventy-two members of their crews had been taken prisoner and nine had been killed.

At the end of August 1917 a list of fifty-one awards was published in the London Gazette.  Some went to the drifters’ Royal Navy escorts but most went to the crews themselves.  Skipper Joseph Watt received the Victoria Cross and five sailors – including John Turner – received the next award, the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.  It was unusual for such a rare award to be made five times in a single action.  During the whole of the Great War only 108 CGMs were awarded (compared with 627 VCs). 

John Turner’s bravery had been recognised with a very high honour.  Indeed, one book written in 1918 suggested that he might have been awarded a VC: Courage of the very highest type was shown by Second Hand John Turner, RNR, in performing an act the like of which had been recognised on many occasions by the award of the Victoria Cross.

John returned to England early in 1918 and served at Milford Haven, Grimsby and on the Clyde until March 1919, when he returned to Martham.  He spent the rest of his life in Martham, living in Stone Cottages, Cess, and working variously as a fisherman, boatbuilder and marshman.  He and his wife Susanna had four children. One of his grandsons, Melvin Grimble, and a granddaughter, Pauline Parker, still live in Martham and helped with this project.  

There are eight other grandchildren living in the village and other surrounding parishes.

John died, aged 74, in Northgate Hospital, Great Yarmouth, fifty years ago next June.

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