Winkleigh a Devon Village - Heroes and the History of Winkleigh in Devon | Jackie Freeman Photography | Photographs and images

South aspect of Winkleigh village, Devon:

 Winkleigh  Devon:

Photograph: South aspect of Winkleigh village, Devon:

© Jackie Freeman Photography, Winkleigh - 2008



An illustrated History of the village of Winkleigh Part V

With photographs by Devon Photographer Jackie Freeman

with other archive images


Written by David Freeman

For the Television Series:  Secret Britain


Winkleigh - Her Sons and Heroes


The Story of Captain Gordon Charles Steele VC


Captain Gordon Charles Steele VC

Captain Gordon Charles Steele VC.



Captain Gordon Charles Steele Victoria Cross

                                                                    Victoria Cross



 Winkleigh has, as we have already learned from its history, given the world more than its fair share of  heroes, leaders and brave men.


 Since time began, the Hundred has always produced its finest in troubled times. Many we shall never know as their stories remain unrecorded and are shrouded by the mists of time.

Others are known more so.


 Every man who turned out on a cold winter morning eager to face the foe on the field of battle and lied about his age to the recruitment officer, is a surely a hero. And some were not to return to this place. 

Many did but chose not to talk of their exploits nor do to this day.

 Not least is the story of one Winkleigh son who was recognised by his King and country for outstanding bravery and courage in the face of infinite peril. For his selfless actions, he was awarded the highest acolade known to man.

That man was Gordon Charles Steele VC.




 There cannot be a man in the Kingdom who doesn’t know of the Victoria Cross?

Simply put, it is the most revered of all gallantry medals. The highest and most prestigious award for a display of bravery so abject & incredible, that it defies belief.

 The Victoria Cross is a medal of honour and recognition reserved for the finest of the fine, be he the lowly stoker or private, captain or commander.  It is a measure of their actions as a human being which is counted here, not his status or creed.


In the dark timbered board rooms of the Admiralty, with the world nearly at war again after barely a year and teetering on the edge of disaster, the Russian Revolution in full swing, a decision was made to do something about the threat to allied shipping that was created and compounded by the Russian Civil War. 
For hidden away in massively fortified harbours, the Russians were sheltering their ominous fleet of ironclads which preyed mercilessly on both convoy and hunter alike.

These monsters of the deep were colossal, dreadful killing machines with huge armament and terrible might. Some sixteen thousand tons of terror which stalked and bombarded and killed without remorse.

 These battle heavy pre Drednaughts hid behind the skirts of safe harbour and were beyond the reach of the conventional fleet upon which they preyed. The decision therefore was made to build a small flotilla of speedy and maneuverable timber speed boats armed with torpedoes.

For a fact, these were Tiny David’s to pitch against the Goliaths in an attack the battleships whilst they lay in their nests. A near impossible task.

 On the 18th August, 1919, Kronstadt Harbour on the island of Kotlin, 20 miles as the crow flies from St Petersburg on the Baltic sea, shielded the flagship of the First Pacific Fleet, the Bolshevik battleship Petropavlovsk and the huge battle ship, the Andrei Pervozvanny.

Andrei Pervozvanny.



 The then 27 year old Gordon Steele was a lieutenant and ranked second-in-command of one such Coastal Motor Boat, number  88. An allied vessel of the North Russia Relief Force. It was designated as part of a small flotilla of CMBs to run the gauntlet of the Russian minefields which protected Kronstadt  harbour and launch a perilous night time attack on the anchored battleships.

Coastal Motor Boats - CMB's


 To truly grasp the enormity and incredible nature of such a task, you have to appreciate the scale of the upcoming encounter.

Kronstadt was protected not only by heavy shore batteries and well trained personnel but ringed by a series of island fortresses, equally well armed and with intricate minefields, laid within its passages.

Then too. One is a giant, the other an ant!

This is best illustrated by looking at the photographs above and to the left. Here you will see the the CMB's with the crew standing on the dock.

Now take a look at the battleship they hunted! The launch alongside towards the rear is over half as big again as the CMB's.



 Coastal Motor Boats known by their initials as (CMBs) had a shallow draft and a high speed somewhere in the region of 35 knots and had been specifically designed to slip into the enemies harbour, fire off their torpedoes and make a quick getaway.

That was the theory at least.

 Unfortunately, these high powered speed boats were hardly silent and upon their approach to Kronstadt, Steele’s  tiny 3 man vessel was immediately caught in the cross beams of the powerful searchlights which ringed the heavily armed naval base and they sustained a vicious and repeated barrage of gun fire from both shore batteries and from on board the anchored warships.

 The motor boats Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Dayrell-Reed desperately tried to take avoiding action but slumped over his controls in a hail of machine gun fire dying instantly, shot through the head.

The small craft reacted lurched off course speeding out of control into the night.

 Without a second thought, lifting the body of his Captain away from the steering consol and firing position, Lieutenant Steele took the helm and quickly gained control of the ill fated torpedo boat.

At this time, any normal man would have turned on his heel and sped away from the terrible firefight which had riddled the small boat with bullets.

But this was no ordinary man and turning back was not an option.


 Instead, Leiutenant Steele changed course and closed on the massive battleship Andrei Pervozvanny, firing a torpedo at less than a hundred yards range. An almost suicidal effort. 

The resulting explosion caused huge damage to the monstrous ship. Damage which was to completely put it out of action fo many weeks.


 By now, the smoke and fire from the listing battleship Andrei Pervozvanny obscured the view of the other Russian battleship almost completely. It was impossible to get a clear shot. But by skillfully maneuvering the torpedo boat into firing position again, Steele  managed to find an angle and launched a second torpedo at the prize of the Pacific Fleet, the Bolshevik battleship Petropavlovsk .

Now finding himself in an extremely dangerous position beneath the walls of the harbour, Steele had to run the gauntlet and try to get out of the basin through its entrance which was by now partially blocked with floating debris and shrouded in smoke.

 In a magnificent effort of great seamanship and incredible bravery, Lieutenant Steele found only just enough room to turn the motor torpedo boat in a tight circle in order to regain the chance of making the entrance to the harbour.

In an epic effort which rivals the most incredible of film scripts, firing his machine guns along the wall on his way, Steele passed under the line of forts which guarded Kronstadt harbour and escaped through a heavy fire out of the harbour and into the safety of the bay.


For his magnificent effort and unquestionable courage Gordon Steele was awarded the highest accolade for bravery by his King. The Victoria Cross.



 Gordon Charles Steele’s career in the British Navy was to be a long and distinguished one and in the ensuing years, he rapidly climbed the ranks. Actively serving as an officer on HMS Baralong and eventually, becoming a Commander and Captain in his own right, serving in HMS Exmouth, a Depot ship for Submarines and Minesweepers in Scapa Flow during WW II.

 Later in his career he became the Commander of HMS Worcester (the Thames Nautical Training College)  & was a fine commanding officer.

Always very much a father figure to the ship and known affectionately by his men as “Diddy” .


 Captain Gordon Charles Steele is best  remembered as a silver haired gentleman who, if you cut him in half would have goodness printed right through him like a stick of rock.


 On the 4th of January, 1981, Gordon Charles Steele VC passed away and is interred in the municipal cemetery in Winkleigh.  

His Victoria Cross  kept in perpetuity for the nation at Trinity House, London.





The Ironic Tale of Another Winkleigh Hero

Lieutenant Henry Digory Hartnoll DSC.


Lieutenant Henry Digory Hartnoll DSC.

Lieutenant Henry Hartnoll DSC






Lieutenant Henry Digory Hartnoll DSC.

Distinguished Service Cross


 Lieutenant Henry Hartnoll, D.S.C. of the Royal Marines, was the son of Commander Henry James Hartnoll DSO, who was the Commander of HMS. President.


 Henry was born on 6th May, 1921 and born into a military family, immediately joined the Royal Marines at the outset of the war in January 1939. he was commissioned as Probationary 2nd Lieutenant in May and  obtained a first-class certificate in naval gunnery in the October.  
  On being promoted to Lieutenant, he proudly served his country in H.M.S. Coventry & Valiant and latterly as ironically, AA Gunnery Control Officer in H.M.S. Neptune.

 Henry Hartnoll took part in many Naval operations during the war from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean including; Stavanger, the Malta convoys, Benghazi, Crete, Tobruk, Greece, the Syrian coast and the Red Sea. But on the 3rd December 1941 whilst on board HMS Coventry, he was to prove himself a hero beyond the call of duty, with his actions probably saving the lives of all 327 officers and men on board. 

It was a selfless and brave action for which he was rightly awarded the D.S.C. medal, the Distinguished Service Cross.

As the citation reads:

"For his bravery and initiative, without thought for himself, when H.M.S. Coventry was in action with the enemy. An incendiary machine-gun bullet hit the after ready-use ammunition locker, setting one of the charges on fire. Lieutenant Hartnoll jumped down from his action station on No. 8 gun deck, lifted the loaded, hot cylinders and threw them overboard."


 But lightning implausibly can and often does strike twice in a lifetime because ironically, he was then transferred to H M S Neptune.  



 On the night of 19 December 1941, there occurred one of the most terrible but least known naval disasters of the Second World War when the Cruiser HMS Neptune ran into an uncharted minefield in the Mediterranean off Tripoli and sank with the loss of 764 officers and men.
Just one man was rescued by an Italian torpedo boat, after 5 days in the water. 


The second irony in this sad tale.

On board was Stoker 1st Class Aubrey John Longston, also from Winkleigh.

Lieutenant Henry Digory Hartnoll and Aubrey Longston both lost their lives in the tragedy.


Both men are honoured on the Winkleigh War Memorial and whether Stoker or Lieutenant, both in the eyes of their country are heroes




Lieutenant Godfrey Bremridge AFC - RAF

WWI  Air  Ace


 Lieutenant Godfrey Bremridge AFC, Royal Flying CorpsUnit 65 Royal Air Force was the son of Revd.Henry Bremridge, (1854 - 1913) the notable Vicar of Winkleigh in Devon.

Godfrey Bremridge born 01 March 1895, flew Tiger Moths and Sopwith Camels with 65 Squadron.

 In 1913 aged only 18, he eagerly joined the Royal Flying Corps and earned himself recognition as an air ace flying a Sopwith Camel and downing 5 enemy aircraft winning the Air Force Cross for his courage and tenacity.

After the war he emigrated to the Transvaal in South Africa where he started an orange farm, became father to 2 daughters and a son, John Henry.

In the thirties, the family returned to England while the children went through school but with onset of the second world war, in 1939 he re-joined the RAF, this time as a Pilot Instructor of vast experience and was a great asset to the Air Force who were in great need of additional pilots.

Ironically, Godfrey Bremridge was killed doing what he loved best, in a flying accident on Friday 12 September 1941.

He is interred at SYWELL (SS. PETER AND PAUL) CHURCHYARD Northamptonshire.










A History of the Borough Town of Winkleigh, Devon CONTINUES with our Roll of Honour>

Sponsored by Jackie Freeman Photography - Winkleigh - Devon


Photographer: © Jackie Freeman Photography Winkleigh2008






Copyright: Jackie Freeman 2008



The Winkleigh Roll of Honour

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Unauthorized use of the images illustrated is prohibited and protected under international laws of copyright.

Photographs: © 2008 Jackie Freeman Photography: Winkleigh - Devon - England

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