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  • Claire Jordan

What a sea mine really means

This is Tankerton seafront on the north Kent coast.

When I was little, my Stepney grandparents moved down to this sleepy little place, after which many an ice-cream was had by little me here on a Sunday afternoon, from the old kiosk opposite which stood a curious object.

It was a huge, heavy metal ball fixed in place into which (even with all the ice-cream on board) I could have fitted a dozen times over, and it had strange antenna sticking out of it like a dalek who’d had too much dinner.

The sign proclaimed this to be a sea mine. But when you’re little, you don’t understand quite what that really means and, in any case, the old Maunsell Forts, sticking up out of the perpetually chilly North Sea waters in the distance like monstrous frozen AT-ATs straight out of Star Wars were rather more interesting to a sticky five-year old.

But the sea mine really did mean something.

Today, I’d like to offer up a little tribute to the crew of HM Submarine E16, which on this day, 22nd August, in 1916, hit a mine while on patrol in the North Sea, and was lost with all hands.

One of the 31-man crew was Engine Room Artificer (ERA) 3rd Class Edward Bevan, the Griffithstown-born son of a Great Western Railway employee who himself had joined the same railway company as an engine fitter as a young man, but who had decided in August 1909 to apply his skills in a rather different setting: he joined the Royal Navy and was straightaway made an ERA 4th Class.

In 1912, he’d married Mabel Hurst, and they had two children: little Mabel Millicent and John. Posted to the shiny new submarine E16 soon after her launch in early 1915, at almost 6ft tall, Edward must surely have had quite some difficulty at his post in the engine-room, avoiding too many head-bumps or back-aches.

On 22nd December 1915, E16 managed something extraordinary in torpedoing and sinking an enemy auxiliary ship through a screen of other vessels, including a torpedo-boat.

The Highland-born Commander of E16, Kenneth Duff-Dunbar, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for this gallant action, and the only other member of the plucky little sub’s crew to receive a gallantry award was our Edward Bevan who had clearly done exceptional work that day.

Edward’s Distinguished Service Medal was gazetted at the same time as Duff-Dunbar’s DSO in January 1916.

Commander Duff-Dunbar went down (ironically) with German measles in the following months, but was back in command of E16 by July 1916; she was now patrolling the North Sea as part of the Harwich Flotilla.

But alas, on 22nd August, E16 sank somewhere off Heligoland Bight and was lost with all 3 Officers and 28 men.

When the wreck of E16 was eventually found in 2001 by a German diver, she was seen to have a large, gaping hole in the hull consistent with a mine explosion.

Although no one saw what happened at the time, it is believed she had entered a minefield that day which sealed her fate.

Edward’s Mabel had her little son and daughter to worry about, and Commander Duff-Dunbar’s wife Katharine was, on the day he died, six months pregnant.

When the baby arrived in November, it was a boy, and she named him Kenneth James for the fallen father who never knew him.

Incredibly, 27-year old Captain Kenneth James Duff-Dunbar of the Seaforth Highlanders was himself killed in action in Normandy on 6th August 1944 and, like his Dad and Edward Bevan, has no known grave.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission remembers Edward and his Commander on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, and Captain Duff-Dunbar the younger on the Bayeux Memorial.

And in the Old Municipal Cemetery at Wick on the north-east coast of the Scottish Highlands overlooking the North Sea, there is a family grave, that of Kenneth senior’s Mum Jane, on which are also memorialised her lost son and grandson with the words:

“I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.”

An epitaph, where no epitaph can otherwise be, for the grave-less, valiant Edward Bevan, the brave crew of E16 and the same-named father and son commemorated on CWGC Memorials many miles away.

We Will Remember Them.

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