John Turner CGM: a Martham hero of the Great War


In 2015 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 Great 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 steam drifter 'Serene'.  Each drifter was fitted with a small deck mounted six pounder gun. 

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 'Otranto Barrage' was established by the Navy during the winter of 1915-16.  By early 1917 it had grown to include 120 vessels, including 45 armed steam drifters, operating in rotation, supported by an assortment of motor launches, destroyers and larger vessels.  The drifters had travelled from Yarmouth, Lowestoft and the East Coast of Scotland.  The purpose of the screen was to guard the anti submarine fishing 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.  It was one of two submarines sunk by the flotilla.

In the early hours of 15th May 1917 under the guise of a feint against an Italian convoy three light Austrian cruisers, Saida, Novara and Helgoland left harbour and steamed towards the thin line of drifters and trawlers manning the Otranto barrage.  Before the flotilla realised what was happening the Austrian cruisers opened fire, intent on removing the 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 1976 in Northgate Hospital, Great Yarmouth. 

              line astern


John, at
                  front door in Cess                                  

Above: John Turner CGM, after returning from sea in 1917
Below: John in later years

John with

Below: SMS Saida 1917

The citation:

30258 - 28 AUGUST 1917


Honours for Service in the Action in the Straits of Otranto on the 15th May, 1917.


To receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

Dkhnd. Frederick Hawley Lamb. R.N.R., O.N. 1491 TS. Though severely wounded in the leg by the explosion of a box of ammunition on H.M. Drifter "Gowan Lea," he stuck to his gun endeavouring to make it work.


Engmn. Charles Mobbs, R.N.R., O.N. 1760 ES. He remained at his post until the main steam pipe was shot away, when he was forced to leave the engine-room, but as soon as possible he returned and put out the fires. He also went in a small boat and assisted to plug holes in the ship's side, thus enabling her to reach port safely.


2nd Hnd. John Turner, R.N.R., O.N. 5098 DA. He displayed great coolness whilst under fire. Seeing that the enemy were endeavouring to destroy the W/T apparatus, Turner went aloft to strike the topmast, quite regardless of the fact that shells were passing between the mast and funnel.


Engmn. Walter Watt, R.N.R., O.N. 2089 TS. The crew were taken prisoners, but on their way to the Austrian cruiser Watt jumped overboard. He was recaptured, and when alongside the cruiser he again jumped overboard and escaped. He was picked up by another drifter 1 1/2 hours later.


2nd Hnd. Joseph Hendry, R.N.R., O.N. 1959 SA. His ship being in a sinking condition, the remainder of the crew left her in a small boat and were taken prisoners, but Hendry refused to leave. His ship eventually sank under him, and he was in the water for some hours until picked up by another drifter.

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SMS Saida, Austrian light cruiser, 1917