b. 31/12/1888 Mullion, Cornwall.. d. 10/02/1946 Sherborne, Dorset.
Ernest Herbert Pitcher (1888-1946) was born on New Year’s Eve, 1888 in Mullion, Cornwall, the son of George and Sarah Pitcher (nee Beverstock). While he was still an infant, his family moved to Swanage, Dorset, where his father continued his service as a coastguard. Educated at the local board school, Charles joined the Navy at Portsmouth, aged 15, on 22nd July 1903. At the outbreak of war, he was serving on “King George V”, the flagship of the Second Battle Squadron based at Scapa Flow, and in 1915 he became one of the earliest recruits to join the Q-ships.
Most of the crews were RNR men, bolstered by regular navy seamen with experience in gunnery. As a petty officer, Pitcher quickly emerged as one of Campbell’s steadiest hands, a gun captain whose coolness under fire was successively recognised by a mention in despatches, a Distinguished Service Medal and the Victoria Cross, all earned within a matchless six-month period.
On 8th August 1917 in the Bay of Biscay, Atlantic, Petty Officer Pitcher was the 4-inch gun layer on HMS Dunraven (one of the Q ships) when she was shelled by an enemy submarine. He and the rest of the crew waited while the battle went on overhead and all around them. When the magazine below them caught fire they took up cartridges and held them on their knees to prevent the heat of the deck igniting them and when the magazine finally blew up they were all blown into the air.
Petty Officer Pitcher received his VC from King George V at an investiture in Buckingham Palace on 5th December 1917. Like Williams VC, his bravery was also marked by the award of the French Medaille Militaire (gazetted on 28th August 1918), which he added to the Croix de Guerre he already held. In a famous photograph of 1918, he was pictured between Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra, with the King on one side and the elderly courtier Sir Dighton Probyn VC peeping through the plant on the other side, shows him like a “fish out of water”, his jersey awash with medal ribbons. That same year, he married Lily Evers in Wareham and they went on to have a daughter, Ruth Mary Dunraven Pitcher.
After the war, Ernest continued in the Royal Navy. He was rated up to Chief Petty Officer on 1st August 1920, and eventually retired on a pension on 30th December 1927, one day short of his 39th birthday. He had completed 25 years in a distinguished career capped by the award of the Naval Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. Returning to Swanage, he found work at a boys’ prep school as a groundsman, PT instructor and part-time teacher of woodwork. Later, he appears to have operated an off-licence, but eventually ended up earning a small wage as a commissionaire in a local amusement arcade.
During World War II, he rejoined the Navy on 5th August 1940, and spent the remainder of the war in naval establishments at Poole, Portland and finally HMS Attack at Yeovilton. In early 1946, his health began to fail. Seriously ill with tuberculosis, he was admitted to the Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital. Sherborne, where he died on 10th February 1946. He was buried in Northbrook Cemetery, Swanage with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone. His medals were sold at auction in 1997 for £28,000 and were purchased by the Ashcroft Trust and are displayed in the Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: NORTHBROOK CEMETERY, SWANAGE, DORSET. PLOT F, GRAVE 122
Ernest Pitcher's medals including VC and DSM on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London
St Mary's Church, Swanage
HMS Dunraven by Charles Pears
A slightly clearer image of his medals courtesy of his great-nephew Gary Prout CGC
Pitcher and his wife with George V and his wife.
Swanage (Gary Prout CGC)
Freemasons Memorial, London (Brian Drummond)