b. 04/01/1890 Kandy, Ceylon. d. 30/12/1968 Alton, Hampshire.
Augustus Willington Shelton Agar (1890-1968) as born on 4th January 1890 in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He was the 13th of 13 children and always regarded 13 as his lucky number. His father was Irish and took up tea planting in what was then Ceylon. He was married to an Austrian lady. All the boys were sent to English public schools; all the girls to either Austrian or German schools.
In his early naval days, Agar was seconded to the Army with 2 other young naval officers to learn to fly (basic flying training was a joint service operation, as it was in WW2). On qualifying for his pilot’s certificate, he was transferred to the Naval Air Station at Eastchurch in what would become the Royal Naval Air Service (later amalgamated with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps to form the RAF) but they had no planes: There was as yet no aircraft industry and the Admiralty was reluctant to spend money on aircraft. (Bearing in mind the capabilities of aircraft at the time and the fact that the problems of flying from a deck had not been solved, according to Agar Their Lordships saw the future of Naval aviation as lying with airships.) So he was advised to go back to sea for a year before trying again: the fact that he had already written off three of the scarce aircraft might have had something to do with it.
He was then – 1913 – appointed to HMS HIBERNIA, one of the last pre-DREADNOUGHT battleships, known as the Wobbly Eight, where he served for three years, mainly in the Home Fleet, but with a visit to the Dardanelles at the time of the evacuation of Gallipoli: this was his first time under fire. He next went to Archangel in the depot ship for the minesweeping trawlers that were keeping that port open for the supplies we were sending to Russia. Then after a short course at the Torpedo school he joined the Coastal Motor Boat (CMB) base at Osea Island in the river Blackwater as Torpedo and Mining Officer. After some time there, he was called to the Admiralty and seconded to the Secret Service. This launched him on the events that led to his VC.
His instructions, received from the Head of MI6 – known simply as ‘C’ – were that together with 2 CMBs plus crews he would be transported to the Baltic (under the guise of ‘civilian salesmen’) where he and his crews would set up a courier service between the Finnish coast and a British agent in Petrograd (St Petersburg), ‘ST25’, (identified by Agar as Paul – later Sir Paul – Dukes): Agar himself was ‘ST34’. His team consisted of three Sub-Lieutenants of the Royal Naval Reserve (the tape refers to them as Midshipmen but, in the photographs, they are dressed as Sub-Lieutenants) and two Chief Motor Mechanics: his own boat being crewed by Sub-Lieutenant Hampsheir (sic) and Chief MM Beeley – referred to as ‘Faithful Beeley’ throughout. The boats were unarmed, though each could carry one torpedo: the crews wore plain clothes but carried minimal uniform and a white ensign in case of need. He was given £1000 in cash to cover expenses.
Agar felt that his small force should be doing more than acting as a shuttle service. The Bolsheviks had seized much of the Russian fleet at Kronstadt, and Agar considered these vessels a menace to British operations and took it upon himself to attack the enemy battleships.
He set out with his two boats, HM Coastal Motor Boat 4 and another, on 17th June 1919. One had to turn back before completing its mission, but Agar continued into the bay. The battleships were not in the harbour though. CMB4 penetrated a destroyer screen and was closing on a larger warship further inshore when CMB4, whose hull had been damaged by gunfire, broke down. She had to be taken alongside a breakwater for repairs and for twenty minutes was in full view of the enemy. The attack was then resumed and a Russian cruiser, the 6,645 ton Oleg was sunk, after which Lieutenant Agar retired to the safety of the open bay under heavy fire. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander on 30th June 1919.
When details of his VC were published that the King had awarded Agar the Victoria Cross: Agar writes: ‘No details were given, so I became ... another “mystery VC”’. Hampsheir received the Distinguished Service Cross and Beeley the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Cowan now had a flotilla of 8 large CMBs (55’ against Agar’s 40’ and carrying 2 torpedoes each) commanded by Commander CC Dobson. A co-ordinated air and sea attack on the Russian fleet was launched on the night of 18thAugust: Agar led the boats through the chain of forts but did not join the attack. They sank the two Russian battleships and a submarine depot ship for the loss of three CMBs. Dobson, too, was awarded the VC. (Agar received the DSO for this action).
Their activities were now well known to the Red Commissars in Petrograd and a large reward – reputed to be £5,000 – had been placed on Agar’s capture, dead or alive: the Commandant earnestly begged him to leave. Cowan had one final task for him – to go with one of the boats from the Flotilla and lay four mines outside Kronstadt harbour, enough to serve the Admiral’s purpose of finally sealing in the Russian ships. At the end of September, after five months in the Gulf of Finland, he travelled home in luxury as a King’s Messenger, with despatches from the Ambassador in Helsingfors and the Admiral.
After delivering his despatches to the Foreign Office, he reported to C once more. Another man was waiting outside. ‘Something in his manner caught my attention: “Are you Dukes, by any chance?” I asked. “Yes, and I suppose you must be Agar”.’ The First Sea Lord then wanted to see him, thence to Buckingham Palace to receive his VC from the King, who received him in his private study and talked to him for over half an hour, until an Equerry came in to say the Privy Council was ready and waiting. The King told him he must some time serve in the Royal Yacht.
In 1920 he was married – a ‘Society Wedding’ – but the marriage seems to have been doomed by incompatibility from the start: despite an attempt to revive it, it ended in separation and divorce in 1927. He then spent three years in New Zealand, at the time the New Zealand Navy was being established – at first in HMS CHATHAM and then, as an Acting Commander, in command of the New Zealand Training Ship PHILOMEL. Then came his appointment to the Royal Yacht, the VICTORIA AND ALBERT, where he served for two years, being promoted Commander soon after he left.
Next, he was appointed to command HMS WITCH, divisional leader of the 4th Flotilla in the Mediterranean Fleet, with a full programme of exercises and cruises – culminating in a visit to Venice on the occasion of the Schneider Trophy races. His relief arrived while he was there and he returned to London by the Overland Express. There followed 15 months at the Naval Staff College at Greenwich and then, in 1929, a year as one of the two Naval officers attached to the Army Staff College at Camberley.
In 1930, the Government set up an international conference – The London Naval Conference – in an attempt to agree on a limitation of naval armaments: Agar was appointed as Naval Adviser to the High Commissioner for New Zealand. In the Autumn of that year, he joined the West Indies Squadron, based in Bermuda, in command of a newly built sloop, HMS SCARBOROUGH. Early in 1932, he remarried and, in July, was involved in a serious aircraft accident – on a visit to New Bedford, Massachusetts, he was a passenger in a light aircraft which was caught in a severe hailstorm: the pilot lost control and the plane crashed into the river. The other two occupants were killed: Agar had multiple injuries besides other complications and the doctors were doubtful if he would live. ‘The best specialists were brought from Boston to wrap up what remained of my lungs.’ Within a week he was off the danger list and, within two months, back in Bermuda to convalesce. He was allowed to remain on the Station, with a temporary relief appointed until he was fit again.
In 1938, he was appointed as Captain of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, but, before he had taken up the appointment, the Fleet had mobilized for war and the EMERALD was at sea once more – on blockade duty for three months almost continually. Then came another secret mission – for both EMERALD and ENTERPRISE– carrying gold bullion from the Bank of England to Halifax, NoviaNova Scotia: he carried 962 boxes of gold weighing over 5¾ tons. Then it was convoy duty, including escorting the first Canadian troop convoys, until June 1940.
In August 1941 at Scapa Flow, he assumed command of HMS DORSETSHIRE – a ‘County’ class cruiser of 10,000 tons. After a short ‘work-up’, he escorted a troop convoy to South Africa (all reinforcements for the Middle East had to go via the Cape) and went raider-hunting in the South Atlantic, arriving at Cape Town three days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. This led to further troop convoy work with the newly formed Eastern Fleet until, when he was in Colombo dockyard for new anti-aircraft guns to be fitted, news was received of the approach of a Japanese task force and he was ordered to rejoin the Fleet immediately.
However, in setting the rendezvous position, everyone had seriously underestimated the range of the Japanese aircraft –almost double that of comparable British planes. On 5th April 1942, Japanese dive bombers caught the DORSETSHIRE and she sank within eight minutes of the first bomb hitting. Only 16 of the 500 men who went into the water died, a testament to crew discipline and the leadership of Agar and the other officers. Agar worked hard to save his crew, picking up the wounded in a whaler. He was reported by survivors as speaking calmly. During the engagement he was wounded in the leg by splinters, which later turned septic and oil fuel which had found its way into his eyes and lungs caused him much pain and trouble.The lung trouble affected him for the rest of his life: it made him unfit for sea service and he was placed on the retired list. There was one more appointment, however –the combined office of President and Captain of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, with the rank of Commodore. The office of President was normally held by a senior flag officer.
He wrote 3 books – ‘Footprints in the Sea’, ‘Showing the Flag’ and ‘Baltic Episode’. In 1945 he contested for the Conservatives the seat of Greenwich in the General Election, but was unsuccessful. Augustus ‘Gus’ Agar retired to a farm at Hartley Mauditt near Alton, producing strawberries. He died on 30th December 1968 at the age of 78 and was buried in Alton Cemetery, Hampshire. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London, along with his telescope. The survivor of his two Coastal Motor Boats in the Baltic is on permanent display at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, together with other material relating to his exploits there.
LOCATION OF MEDAL:LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: ALTON CEMETERY, HAMPSHIRE.
Augustus Agar's medal collection including VC and DSO on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (Aug 2014).
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
SECTION R GRAVE 238
HM Coastal Motor Boat 4 displayed at Imperial War Museum, Duxford.