As a seagoing nation many of our ancestors served on ships that plied the world either in trade or in the defence of this island kingdom’s interests. Some of our forebears will have served for a part of their time at sea under the White Ensign of the Royal Navy, before continuing under the Red Ensign of a commercial shipping line. In the case of Harold Auten, however, he began as an apprentice in the mercantile marine, working his way up to be Third Officer employed by the P&O company and then served in the Royal Navy Reserve in a very interesting capacity – in command of what appeared to be a tramp steamer in the First World War.
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We are able to use the resources of TheGenealogist to find evidence of this firstly by discovering Auten’s apprenticeship record under the Occupational Records – Merchant Navy apprenticeships. Here he appears as a 17 year old apprentice to George Dodd in 1908.
Next, we turn to one of the new Occupational Records that have been recently added to TheGenealogist – a book record called Merchant Adventurers, in which Auten is listed in an appendix of those who were awarded the Victoria Cross. The book record also has the names of mariners given various other awards as well as those who had died in service. We see that H Auten is one of four RNR and RN officers listed in this book to have won the VC in WWI. He also appears later in the slightly larger numbers of men that had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
The secret Q-boat
Having started out in the merchant service, before the outbreak of the First World War, Auten joined the Royal Navy Reserve (RNR) as a sub-lieutenant presumably while still working for P&O. After serving in a number of ships, that we can discover by searching TheGenealogist’s Military Records where he appears in various editions of the Navy Lists, by 1917 and the later years of WW1 he had been posted to an unnamed vessel in the ‘Special Service’.
In this conflict Auten served with distinction in various Q-ships. These craft, sometimes known as decoy vessels, special service ships, Q-boats, or mystery ships, were in fact heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry, designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks on them. Thus the former Merchant Navy man had become the Master in charge of a secret weapon deployed by the Royal Navy – a vessel that looked to the untrained eye to be a defenceless merchantman, but was actually anything but.
To find out more we can look in the Education Records of TheGenealogist. It is here that we come across various mentions of our interesting subject in the Wilsonian Magazine, the school publication for a grammar school in London named Wilson’s School. In one edition it recounts a visit by the boys to see one of the ships that their ‘Old Wilsonian’ had been in command of. The writer recounts that it was a disappointing “ordinary looking ocean tramp” named ‘Suffolk Coast’. They go on to recount that this boat actually had a secret periscope hidden in the smoke stack, the windlass was a lookout station and the wireless connections were protected by being behind an untidy mass of ropes. The article mentions that Commander Auten had since written a book giving the history and adventures of the Q-boats and by searching TheGenealogist’s Newspapers and Magazines Collection we easily unearth an advertisement for this book in the March 29, 1919 copy of The Sphere.
The junior Auten appears in the Navy List for 1912 as a Midshipman (proby) in the RNR with seniority from 1 July 1910. Promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in 1917 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross “for services in Vessels of the Royal Navy employed on Patrol and Escort duty” in that year. With this information we can turn to TheGenealogist’s Military Records and in the Medals Collection, we find his entry in the listing for The Victoria Cross & Distinguished Service Order 1857-1923.
This record provides fulsome details regarding Harold Auten telling us that he was awarded The Distinguished Service Cross, and was then awarded the Victoria Cross [London Gazette, 14 September 1918]: “Harold Auten, D.S.C., Lieut., Royal Naval Reserve.” In this profile it states that the official statement, unlike the great majority of official statements of the award of the Victoria Cross, is unaccompanied by details. The reason for this was that Lieut. Auten was in command of a “hush” ship, and it was necessary to the existence of these vessels that their methods of warfare should be kept secret. When he was presented with his Victoria Cross in the Quadrangle of Buckingham Palace, the band played, “Hush, hush, hush! Here comes the Bogey Man,“ greatly to the amusement of the King and the spectators.
However, if we turn back to the Wilsonian Magazine in the Education Records on TheGenealogist then after the war ended on 11th November 1918 the restriction had been lifted and so they printed the citation that had previously been shrouded in secrecy but had now been published by the London Gazette (supplement) 20 November 1918.
His Majesty’s Ship “Stock Force,“ under the command of Lieutenant Harold Auten, D.S.C., R.N.R., was torpedoed by an enemy submarine at 5 p.m. on the 30th July, 1918. The torpedo struck the ship abreast No. 1 hatch, entirely wrecking the fore part of the ship, including the bridge, and wounding three ratings. A tremendous shower of planks, unexploded shells, hatches and other debris followed the explosion, wounding the first lieutenant (Lieutenant E.J. Grey, R.N.R.) and the navigating officer (Lieutenant L.E. Workman, R.N.R.) and adding to the injuries of the foremost gun’s crew and a number of other ratings. The ship settled down forward, flooding the foremost magazine and between decks to the depth of about three feet. “Panic party,“ in the charge of Lieutenant Workman, R.N.R., immediately abandoned ship, and the wounded were removed to the lower deck, where the surgeon (Surgeon Probationer G.E. Strahan, R.N.V.R.), working up to his waist in water, attended to their injuries. The captain, two guns’ crews and the engine-room staff remained at their posts.
The submarine then came to the surface ahead of the ship half a mile distant, and remained there a quarter of an hour, apparently watching the ship for any doubtful movement.
The “panic party” in the boat accordingly commenced to row back towards the ship in an endeavour to decoy the submarine within range of the hidden guns. The submarine followed, coming slowly down the port side of the “Stock Force,“ about three hundred yards away. Lieutenant Auten, however, withheld his fire until she was abeam, when both of his guns could bear. Fire was opened at 5.40 p.m.; the first shot carried away one of the periscopes, the second round hit the conning tower, blowing it away and throwing the occupant high into the air. The next round struck the submarine on the water-line, tearing her open and blowing out a number of the crew.
The enemy then subsided several feet into the water and her bows rose. She thus presented a large and immobile target into which the “Stock Force” poured shell after shell until the submarine sank by the stern, leaving a quantity of debris on the water. During the whole of the action one man (Officer’s Steward, 2nd Class, R.J. Starling) remained pinned down under the foremost gun after the explosion of the torpedo, and remained there cheerfully and without complaint, although the ship was apparently sinking, until the end of the action.
The “Stock Force” was a vessel of 360 tons, and despite the severity of the shock sustained by the officers and men when she was torpedoed, and the fact that her bows were almost obliterated, she was kept afloat by the exertions of her ship’s company until 9.25 p.m. She then sank with colours flying, and the officers and men were taken off by two torpedo boats and a trawler.
The action was cited as one of the finest examples of coolness, discipline and good organisation in the history of “Q” ships. London Gazette (supplement) 20 November 1918.
Sunk with colours flying!
It is perhaps necessary to make clear exactly what the purpose of a Q-boat’s panic party is. It was a tactic of these special service ships that a group of the crew, dressed as civilian mariners, would pretend to “abandon ship” when a Q-ship was attacked to draw the enemy submarine in close. Once the U-boat was vulnerable, the Q-ship would then drop its panels to reveal its deck guns and immediately open fire. At the same time, the vessel would reveal her true colours by raising the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. When successfully fooled, a U-boat could quickly be overwhelmed by the power of the Q-ships several guns to its one. Thus it is noted that while the enemy U-boat was sunk, so too was the Stock Force.
HMS Stock Force, however, went down “with her colours flying”, a vessel of the Royal Navy. As such we will not be able to find her in the Merchant Shipping Losses 1914-1918 that are part of the recent release from TheGenealogist – but we will find her in the Return Showing the Losses of Ships of the Royal Navy, 1914-1918 that are also part of the records released.
Between the wars: America
After the war Harold Auten became involved in promoting British Films in America and eventually became an executive vice-president in New York of the British company, the Rank Organisation. He is to be found in several of the commercial ships’ Passenger Lists on TheGenealogist in between the wars. For example the 20th July 1935 when he sailed on the SS Bremen from Southampton to New York and at this time he gave his occupation as a Film Representative.
We can also find him in the 1940 US census on TheGenealogist. At this time he is recorded as a Foreign Representative in the British and Australian Film Commission.
Throughout, he remained a member of the RNR and in 1941 he was awarded the Royal Naval Reserve Officers Decoration. When World War II occurred he returned to service holding the rank of Commander (later acting Captain) in the RNR and serving as senior staff organising trans-Atlantic convoys. Thus continuing his association with both the Merchant Navy as well as the Royal Navy.
This British seafaring hero ended his days in America aged 73 in October 1964, where he had made his home in Pennsylvania. This can be confirmed by consulting the US Social Security Death Index on TheGenealogist.
The myriad of records on TheGenealogist have enabled us to discover Commander Auten VC, DSC, RD, from his early apprenticeship as a mariner in a merchant shipping company, to being a Third Officer in P&O. Joining the Royal Navy Reserve before the First World War, and his secret deployment in various Mystery Ships. His greatest exploits has been revealed when under the Red Ensign of a merchantman he and his crew secretly drew their U-boat quarry into range. Then, hoisting the colours of the Royal Navy, his tramp steamer would at the same time reveal its devastating concealed guns and sink the enemy submarine.
We have found his award of a VC and read the official statement detailing the reason for the gallantry honour. A citation that was only released after the armistice. We have then followed him to America in the passenger lists, discovered him in the US census and finally noted his death recorded in the US Social Security Index. Harold Auten appears to have been a fascinating man from the records that we have found gathered on TheGenealogist. A mariner who sailed under both the White Ensign of Britain’s Senior Service and the Merchant Navy’s Red Duster (the affectionate name given to the Red Ensign). What we can see is that throughout his time at sea he seemed to have been a link between the two.