b. 22/08/1891 Leatherhead, Surrey. d. 03/10/1964 Bushkill, USA.
Harold Auten (1891-1964) was born at The Shrubberies, Leatherhead, Surrey, on 22nd August 1891, the son of William Blee Auten, a retired navy paymaster, and Edith Fanny (nee Ross). He was educated at Wilson’s Grammar School, Camberwell, and joined the P&O Line as a 17-year-old cadet.
In 1910 he joined the Royal Naval Reserve and was made sub-lieutenant two months before the outbreak of the Great War. The summer of 1915 found him on the staff of the Captain of Devonport Dockyard, as junior assistant to a commander charged with fitting out trawlers for patrol work. His mundane duties were interrupted in September 1915, when orders came to report to the Zylpha, a “mysterious” vessel about which no one knew anything. It proved to be his introduction to Q-ships. The Zylpha, described by Auten as a “dirty old tramp”, was one of three ex-colliers which formed Admiral Bayly’s original decoy force, and Auten was on a special list of six chosen officers, who included Gordon Campbell (later VC), transferred to Queenstown command in southern Ireland.
Auten was well suited to his new role, coming up with new ideas and tactics. He came up with the idea of setting light to a tubful of dried seaweed during a U-Boat encounter to give the enemy gunners a false impression of the range and their accuracy.
Auten served on Zylpha for 18 months, engaged in endless patrols, most of which were uneventful. Submarine encounters were rare. Once, during a three month spell in West Indian waters in 1916, Zylpha was despatched to hunt a U-Boat. It turned out to be a film maker shooting realistic scenes of attacks on merchant shipping. The closest Zylpha got to success was in April 1917. Having narrowly escaped a torpedo attack, she was heavily bombarded (some 53 shells were counted) yet managed to score a hit on her attacker before she made off.
On 22nd April, Auten was appointed to command the Q-sloop Heather (Q-16), whose previous captain had been killed in an engagement with a U-Boat. He then spent five months vainly attempting to tempt U-Boats into close-quarter action in the Irish Sea, without luck.
Eventually, in September 1917, he was given permission to find and fit out a small coaster collier: a decision was led him to Stock Force and the VC action the following summer.
On 30th July 1918, in the English Channel, off the coast of England, Lieutenant Auten was in command of HMS Stock Force (one of the 'Q' or 'mystery' ships) when she was torpedoed by a U-boat and very badly damaged. The 'Panic party' took to the boats and the U-boat surfaced half a mile away, but after 15 minutes the 'Panic party' began to row back, followed by the U-boat. When it lay about 300 yards from Stock Force, the guns opened fire, doing tremendous damage to the submarine, which sank in a very short time. Nearing safe harbour, Stock Force finally sank about four hours later, Lieutenant Auten and her crew being taken off by a torpedo boat.
Auten, who had been awarded the DSC on 6th April 1918, went to Buckingham Palace to receive the VC from King George V on 18th September 1918. As he marched forward to be decorated the band struck up “Hush, Hush, Here Comes the Bogeyman,” and an amused Auten would use that as a nickname for the rest of his life. At the time, he was involved in commissioning the ex-collier Suffolk Coast, his fourth Q-ship. On 10th November, he sailed out of Queenstown for gunnery trials. The following day, bad weather forced her to put into Milford Haven, where he found out about the Armistice.
In 1919, he published his memoirs, “Q-Boat Adventures”, and this helped inspire the silent movie “Q-Ships, Vampires of the Deep”, on which he acted as technical adviser. He then decided to leave the Navy and from 1922 made his way in the film business. It proved a sound decision. He rose to become executive vice-president of the Rank Organisation in New York and later became the American representative for the Australian-based Greater Union Theatres. He also held a post with United Artists for a number of years. For almost 30 years he lived in Bushkill, Pennsylvania, a small village 95 miles from New York. From there, he ran an antiques business and the extensive Bushkill Manor Motel complex, as well as the local playhouse.
He was a heavy smoker and a noticeable limp caused by polio, but this did not stop him serving again in World War II. He was promoted to Commander in the RNR just five days before the outbreak of war, and held a senior post in the port of New York, organising convoys to Europe. He was married twice, to Margaret, by whom he had two children, and then to Dagmar, who had worked as his secretary in New York. Both marriages ended in divorce.
In 1948, he built a Catholic Church in Bushkill, but it put a heavy strain on his finances. By the early 1960s, his business, which had suffered several setbacks including a heavy flood, was in trouble, although he continued to live in and operate the motel. When he died of lung cancer in Monroe County Hospital, Bushkill on 3rd October 1964, he left only debts.
Penniless, he was buried in his secretary’s family plot at Sandhill Cemetery, Bushkill, and he left no will. His medals were sent via post to his old school in London, before being presented to the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, where they are now held. He was remembered by his secretary, Shirley Shinaman, who said “everything he did was top notch, it had to be A1 or nothing.”
LOCATION OF MEDAL: ROYAL NAVAL MUSEUM, PORTSMOUTH, HAMPSHIRE.
BURIAL PLACE: SANDHILL CEMETERY, BUSHKILL, PENNSYLVANIA, USA.
Lewisham Shopping Centre (Derek Walker)
Harold Auten's medals at Royal Navy Museum