WORSLEY, Lieutenant Commander Frank

Lieutenant Commander Frank Arthur Worsley was an accomplished navigator and mariner as well as an Antarctic and Arctic adventurer. He had an eventful war from sinking submarines to fighting the Bolsheviks in Russia.

Lieutenant-Commander Frank Worsley 1917 (Source: Akaroa Museum)
Lieutenant-Commander Frank Worsley 1917 (Source: Akaroa Museum)

Born in Akaroa in February 1872, Frank Worsley joined the New Zealand Shipping Company as an apprentice at age 15 in sailing ships[1]  after attending Fendalton High School.[2] He was a specialist navigator and in 1900 received his foreign trade master’s certificate. His first command was the government schooner Countess of Ranfurly.[3]

The New Zealand government purchased the 1st class gunboat HMS Sparrow in 1905 for use as a training ship. Worsley was appointed as the first commanding officer in March 1905. He brought the vessel from Sydney to Wellington and remained in command until he resigned in March 1906.[4] He returned to the United Kingdom and served as a Lieutenant in the RNR and worked for the Allan Line.  At this time he served aboard a vessel that operated in the Canadian Arctic.[5]

In 1913 he was offered the position of Master of Shackleton’s ship Endurance to explore Antarctica as Shackleton’s request for a RN vessel and three officers and 15-20 ratings was turned down. Expecting the war to be over in six months he accepted.[6] However when the Endurance left London on 1 August 1914 war was already a certainty. His biography states that ‘as an RNR officer, known that the hostilities would have lasted so long, he would probably never have sailed with Shackleton.’[7] It is noted that as a ‘splendid ship master…untiring energy [he] made an ideal combination with’ [8]Shackleton.

The expedition reached the Antarctica in October 1914.[9]  There in the Weddell Sea the Endurance was crushed and sunk by the  pack ice. For six months the crew lived on the drifting pack-ice until it broke up in the open sea east of Graham Land.[10] In an epic struggle against the elements, the party in boats led by Worsley in the cutter Dudley Docker[11]  reached uninhabited Elephant Island while Shackleton explored possible escape routes.[12] On 24 April 1915 Worsley, Shackleton and others set out in a whaler James Caird  to reach South Georgia sixteen days later and organise a rescue party for the men left behind. ‘Worsley’s navigation under the most difficult circumstances and his study of the wind and currents of the South Atlantic was the overriding factors in the success of the voyage.’[13] They reached the island after a voyage of some 1480kms on 10 May 1915 and only made contact with the inhabitants at the whaling station ten days later after crossing the rugged interior.[14] After a number of attempts Worsley and Shackleton rescued the men on Elephant Island in August 1915.[15]

Naval Service:

In February 1917 he left Wellington aboard the RMS Makura arriving in Liverpool on 9 April 1917.[16]  This was the height of the shipping crisis for the Admiralty as the unrestricted U-boat campaign was sinking one merchant ship in every four before it returned to port and the pace of construction was falling behind the losses due to German submarines.[17]

One of the responses to the immediate threat posed by the U-boats was the Q-ship. This was a merchant ship that carried guns concealed by hatches or false super structure.  By 1917 a large number of RNR officers and ratings were posted to such vessels including William Sanders. Because the German commanders had become aware of the silhouettes of Q-ships, the last to be built were made to look as much as a merchant-ship as was possible. Worsley would be posted to one of the last ten Q-ships to be constructed.[18]

Travelling to London after arrival Worsley was issued with his officer’s kit and sent to HMS Pembroke, a shore establishment at Chatham, to be trained in anti-submarine warfare.  On completion of the training he was posted to the Q-ship PQ61 which was being fitted out at Belfast.[19] The ship was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 31 July 1917 and its disguise was as a small coastal steamer of 600 tonnes. The main armament was a 4-inch (102mm) covered by a tarpaulin between two cargo derricks.[20] Worsley thought that the ship was ‘rather too orthodox and typical of Admiralty build.’[21]

On the morning of 26 September 1917 while conveying the tanker SS San Zeferino PQ61 encountered the German mine-laying submarine UC33 in the Irish Channel. The submarine had fired at torpedo at the San Zeferino which had struck near the engine room and badly damaged the vessel. To fool the German commander that PQ61 was leaving the stricken tanker, Worsley ordered that the revolutions be reduced and took the ship out to 4nm (7km) from the tanker and used it to cover a approach that he thought would intercept the submarine on the surface.[22] He then turned PC61 back towards the tanker.

Seeing the submarine on the surface about 1/2 nm (1km) off the starboard beam about to open fire with its deck gun to finish off the tanker Worsley decided to attack.[23] Steaming full ahead at 24knots, Worsley ordered his crew to prepare for ramming a submarine with a displacement of 1000 tonnes. PQ61 struck the submarine ‘stem on, on port side just abaft [the] conning tower’.[24] The German submarine did not see the ship until it was just about on top of it as the mist camouflaged the approach of PQ61.[25]

Using his skill at handling a ship in Antarctic waters, he timed it exactly so that the shallow draft ship would strike the submarine without tearing its hull upon striking the submarine. Fortunately PQ61 was equipped with a small solid-steel ram.[26] As the ship approached the submarine the gun was fired with one shot hitting near the conning tower.[27]

Worsley described what happened next:

The moment before impact the engines were stopped and our bows settled down in the water just as I had timed they should. As the bows fell, the ram caught the submarine amidships, tearing her sides open and rolling her beneath us. We felt a terrific shock and at the same time heard the unearthly rasp of tearing steel. She [the submarine] sank rapidly beneath us and immediately afterwards we were shaken by a tremendous explosion. For a moment I thought that another submarine had got use with a torpedo, but it was either the chamber of the rammed vessel bursting open or her mines exploding.[28]

The UC33 was one of six U-boats sunk in the Irish Channel and the 88th U-boat sunk in the First World War. Only two of the crew were spotted on the surface. The commanding officer Ober-Leutnant Alfred Arnold was rescued but the rating died before he could be brought aboard PC61.[29]  This was a significant victory in that mine-laying submarines were capable of wreaking havoc on shipping lands and forced the RN to commit resources to minesweeping. Lieutenant Charles Palmer RNVR was one of the New Zealanders who served with the minesweepers during this period.

After the rescue of the German commander, Worsley ordered that the tanker be taken under tow. The German officer had volunteered that further submarines were in the vicinity so a watch was kept and Worsley called other warships to begin searching.  Two submarines were spotted but avoided contact with the convoy escorts. After a difficult 12-hour tow the tanker was brought into Milford Haven.[30] Arnold gave his silver whistle to Worsley with a note of thanks for his rescue.

Worsley was awarded the DSO, while his first officer Stenhouse received the DSC and two Petty Officers were awarded the DSM for steering and gunlaying. It was the practice at this time to pay out prize money. Worsley received £68 for UC33. He would serve a further ten months in command of PQ61 and became adept at using depth charges against submarines.[31]

On 16 September 1918, he was posted to the Q-ship HMS Pangloss based in the Mediterranean. He was to take over from Captain Gordon Campbell VC DSO & Bar, one of the most famous of all the Q-ship commanders. While on the way to the Mediterranean he met Shackleton in London.  Shackleton was preparing to join the North Russia Expeditionary Force which was being sent to support the White Russian forces against the Bolshevik Red Army in the Russian Civil War.[32]

Shackleton got the Admiralty to post Worsley to Russia and he was allowed to keep his rank of Lieutenant-Commander. Shackleton was given the rank of Major.[33] The purpose of the Expeditionary Force was to prevent the Germans from capturing the ice-free port of Murmansk as the Russian government collapsed as a result of the October revolution led by the Bolsheviks.  Other Allied forces were sent to Archangel

The Armistice of November 1918 only accelerated the dissolution of the Russian government and the decent into all-out civil war. The purpose of the Allies occupation was now redundant there was no real purpose for the forces to remain. General Edmund Ironside selected Worsley as Director of Arctic Equipment and Transport on the Archangel front in November 1918.[34] His knowledge of operating in extreme conditions was invaluable. He ensured that the soldiers were given suitable equipment to handle the harsh Russian winter. He lectured to as many soldiers as he could on how to protect against frostbite and hypothermia. He would also travel to the front lines on occasion.[35]

In late January 1919 the Bolshevik forces launched a major offensive that pushed back the Allied forces. Worsley attached himself to active army units on the Vaga River front and commanded British, Canadian, American and White Russian units in action despite his lack of land warfare training. In April 1919 when the spring thaw came to the Vaga River he was given command of the gunboat HMS Cricket. He spent the next two months in action aboard this ship against Bolshevik gunboats and land forces on the Vaga and Divina Rivers.[36] He said of the time:

My knowledge of ice stood me in good stead…the Commodore allowed us to be the first gunboat to work through the broken ice up the Dvina River, and the first to engage the Bolsheviks. I had two happy months of fighting in her [HMS Cricket]: that is, we’d have two hours’ fighting every other day…we shelled “bolo” [sic] gunboats, land batteries, villages and troops and assist in the re-capture of some 10 miles [16km] of ground lost in the autumn and winter.[37]

By this time the Admiralty had begun to send regular RN officers that had finished their wartime duties elsewhere and needed a post. In June 191 Worsley was posted to HMS Fox ‘for duty in fitting out gun-barges for work up the river.’[38] He was then posted to command HMS M24 a monitor and tender for HMS Fox.[39]

He had not the taste for land warfare. In August 1919 he attached himself to a unit of the Hampshire Yeomanry commanded by General Grogan VC. He was invited along to join a party from the regiment to carry out a raid on the Bolshevik front line to obtain intelligence. The raid was successful but the return trip was very difficult. On the third day of the raid after avoiding contact the party was approached by a Bolshevik unit looking for the raiders. After delivering a charge, the Hampshires broke contact and retreated in to the forest pursued by the surprised Bolsheviks. Worsley’s skill with navigating had been a boon to the raid already and at this time the commander of the raid asked him to navigate a successful route into the safety of the Allied lines.  On the fourth day the party reach safety without further contact with their pursuers. For his part in the raid and the successful return General Grogan and the raid commander recommended Worsley for a Bar to his DSO. [40]

The Bar to the DSO was awarded on October 1919. The citation for the award stated:

In recognition of the gallantry displayed by him at Pocka, in North Russia between August the 2nd and the 5th of August 1919. This officer formed one of a large patrol which, in circumstances of great danger and difficulty, penetrated many miles behind the enemy lines, and by his unfailing cheery leadership he kept up the spirits of all under trying conditions. By his assistance in bridging an unfordable river between the enemy lines, he greatly helped the success of the enterprise.[41]

He was also awarded the Most Excellent Order the British Empire (OBE) along with several Mentioned-in-Despatches.  The Russian forces awarded him the Order of St. Stanislaus.[42] Unfortunately the campaign as a whole was unsuccessful. In August 1919 General Lord Rawlinson arrived at Archangel to coordinate arrangements for the British evacuation and handover to the White Russian forces.[43] Events moved quickly and by the end of September 1919 the last Allied troops and sailors including Worsley were embarked from Archangel. In mid October Murmansk was also evacuated. The last naval vessel to depart was HMS Glory. The Bolshevik armies moved in after the departing Allies to take control of Murmansk and Archangel.[44]

Worsley returned to London after twelve months on campaign. He was officially demobilised from the RNR on 2 January 1920.[45]  In 1921 Worsley reunited with Shackleton for another expedition as sailing master and hydrographer to Antarctica using the ship Quest. While on the voyage south Shackleton died on 5 January 1922 at South Georgia.[46]

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Worsley once again sought service with the RN. He wrote to the Admiralty seeking a posting supporting the Finnish against the Russians or to Norway. The Red Cross gave him an appointment as an ‘Advance Agent – Norway. he served in this position from 20 May to 1 July 1940. In this capacity he made one brief trip but the rapidly deteriorating situation for the BEF made any other trips redundant.[47]

In London he was in charge of Red Cross/St John training depot for ambulances. It was closed in late 1940 and Worsley again asked the War Office for a posting.  In August 1941 he was given command of the home trade vessel Dalriada. This vessel was deployed by the Admiralty to keep the harbour entrance at Sheerness clear of wreckage and salvaging equipment for reuse. He left the ship in November 1941 after it was found that his age was 70 and not 64. It would be problematic to be seen to risk a wartime hero on dangerous work so he was sent to deliver small vessels around the British coast from Leith.[48]

Despite his age, the Royal Navy appointed him to a posting at the shore establishment HMS King Alfred, a training base for Reserve and Volunteer Reserve officers. Many New Zealanders would also pass through this base during the Second World War as part of their training.  He arrived in April 1942. he lectured in navigation, charts and pilotage.  he remained there for two months and then returned to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich where he had trained in 1917.  His duties were cut short by illness and he passed away on 1 February 1943 at Claygate in Surrey. However, his example was remembered by those who he had taught and those that followed after them.[49]

 

Sources

 Beers, Dr. Henry Putney, U.S. Naval Forces in Northern Russia (Archangel and Murmansk) 1918-1919, Administrative Reference Service Report No. 5, Washington DC: Office of Records Administration Administrative Office Navy Department, November 1943.

Dennerly, P.W., ‘Worsley, Frank Arthur 1872-1943’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three 1901-1920, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, p. 577.

Grant Howard, The Navy in New Zealand: An Illustrated History, Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1981.

Robert Jackson, At War with the Bolsheviks: The Allied Intervention into Russia 1917-1920, London: Tom Stacey, 1972.

John MacKenna, Jonathan Shackleton, Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

John Thomson, Shackleton’s Captain: A Biography of Frank Worsley, Christchurch: Hazard Press Publishers, 1988.

‘Obituaries’, The Polar Record 4:26 (July 1943), p. 88.

[1] ‘Obituaries’, The Polar Record 4:26 (July 1943), p. 88.

[2] P.W. Dennerly, ‘Worsley, Frank Arthur 1872-1943’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three 1901-1920, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, p. 577. See also Grant Howard, The Navy in New Zealand: An Illustrated History, Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1981, p. 32.

[3] P.W. Dennerly, ‘Worsley, Frank Arthur 1872-1943’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three 1901-1920, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, p. 577.

[4] T.D. Taylor, New Zealand’s Naval Story, Wellington: A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1948, p. 178.

[5] P.W. Dennerly, ‘Worsley, Frank Arthur 1872-1943’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three 1901-1920, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, p. 577.

[6] John MacKenna, Jonathan Shackleton, Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, pp. 142-143. See also John Thomson, Shackleton’s Captain: A Biography of Frank Worsley, Christchurch: Hazard Press Publishers, 1988, p. 115.

[7] John Thomson, Shackleton’s Captain: A Biography of Frank Worsley, Christchurch: Hazard Press Publishers, 1988, p. 115.

[8] ‘Obituaries’, The Polar Record 4:26 (July 1943), p. 88.

[9]John MacKenna, Jonathan Shackleton, Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, pp. 148-149. See also P.W. Dennerly, ‘Worsley, Frank Arthur 1872-1943’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three 1901-1920, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, p. 577.

[10] ‘Obituaries’, The Polar Record 4:26 (July 1943), p. 88.

[11] ‘Obituaries’, The Polar Record 4:26 (July 1943), p. 88.

[12] ibid., p. 154. See also P.W. Dennerly, ‘Worsley, Frank Arthur 1872-1943’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three 1901-1920, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, p. 577.

[13] P.W. Dennerly, ‘Worsley, Frank Arthur 1872-1943’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three 1901-1920, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, p. 577. See also ‘Obituaries’, The Polar Record 4:26 (July 1943), p. 88.

[14] John MacKenna, Jonathan Shackleton, Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, pp. 156-159. ‘Obituaries’, The Polar Record 4:26 (July 1943), p. 88. Worsley wrote about his experiences in the books Shackleton’s Boat Journey and Endurance.

[15] ibid., pp. 160-162. Due to the war, the RN advised Shackleton that a ship could not be supplied at the time for the rescue. Two vessels were borrowed from the Chilean government.

[16] John Thomson, Shackleton’s Captain: A Biography of Frank Worsley, Christchurch: Hazard Press Publishers, 1988, p. 115.

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid., p. 116.

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid., p. 117.

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid., p. 118.

[23] ibid., pp. 117-118.

[24] ibid., p. 117. Quote from the official Admiralty report.

[25] ibid., p. 118.

[26] ibid.

[27] ibid., p. 119.

[28] ibid., p. 118.

[29] ibid., pp. 118-119.

[30] ibid., p. 119.

[31] ibid., p. 121. His pennant from PQ61 is in the collection at Akaroa Museum.

[32] ibid., p. 122.

[33] ibid., p. 123.

[34] ibid., p. 124. See also P.W. Dennerly, ‘Worsley, Frank Arthur 1872-1943’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three 1901-1920, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, p. 577.

[35] ibid., pp. 124-125.

[36] ibid., p. 125.

[37] ibid.

[38] ibid., p. 126.

[39] ibid.

[40] ibid., pp. 127-128.

[41] ibid., p. 128.

[42] ibid., pp. 128-129.

[43] Dr Henry Putney Beers, U.S. Naval Forces in Northern Russia (Archangel and Murmansk) 1918-1919, Administrative Reference Service Report No. 5, Washington DC: Office of Records Administration Administrative Office Navy Department, November 1943, p. 54.

[44] Robert Jackson, At War with the Bolsheviks: The Allied Intervention into Russia 1917-1920, London: Tom Stacey, 1972, p. 171.

[45] John Thomson, Shackleton’s Captain: A Biography of Frank Worsley, Christchurch: Hazard Press Publishers, 1988, p. 130.

[46] John MacKenna, Jonathan Shackleton, Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, pp. 190-195. See also Howard, p. 32 and P.W. Dennerly, ‘Worsley, Frank Arthur 1872-1943’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three 1901-1920, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, p. 577.

[47] John Thomson, Shackleton’s Captain: A Biography of Frank Worsley, Christchurch: Hazard Press Publishers, 1988, p. 175.

[48] ibid., pp. 176-178.

[49] Grant Howard, The Navy in New Zealand: An Illustrated History, Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1981, p. 32. See also John Thomson, Shackleton’s Captain: A Biography of Frank Worsley, Christchurch: Hazard Press Publishers, 1988, pp. 178-179 and P.W. Dennerly, ‘Worsley, Frank Arthur 1872-1943’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three 1901-1920, Auckland: Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books/Department of Internal Affairs, 1996, p. 577.