b. 09/07/1888 Southsea, Hampshire. d. 03/07/1976 Midhurst, Sussex.
Norman Douglas Holbrook (1888-1976) was born in Southsea, Hampshire on 9th July 1888, the fourth son in a family of six boys and four girls to Colonel, later Sir, Arthur Richard Holbrook and Amelia Mary nee Parks. Colonel Holbrook was the proprietor of the Portsmouth Times, founder of the Southern Daily Mail and the Hilsea-based Holbrook Printers, a deputy lord lieutenant and later MP, who managed to combine business, civic and political duties with a keen interest in the military.
In all, five of the Holbrook boys were to serve in the Great War, three in the Army and two in the Navy, earning between them a VC, DSO, MC and CBE. Not to be outdone, their father, a former officer in the Volunteers and a commanding officer of the 6th (Portsmouth) Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment, commanded Royal Army Service Corps’ units in the Salisbury Plain training area, for which he was knighted.
Norman attended Portsmouth Grammar School, where he passed the entrance exam to HMS Britannia. As a midshipman, he served in the battleships Revenge and Jupiter (1905-06), and then in the cruiser Monmouth. He was promoted to sub-lieutenant in 1908 and lieutenant the following year, and reported to HMS Mercury for submarine training on 4th January 1910.
Having gained experience in A, B and C class submarines, he did a spell in the Bonaventure, the Home Fleet’s submarine depot ship, before gaining his first command, the A13, on 19th March 1913. He was then posted to HMS Egmont in Malta on 30th December, to take command of the B11, the vessel in which he would be awarded the VC.
On the outbreak of war, the B11 commanded by Holbrook, was posted to serve in the Dardanelles strait. On 13th December 1914, combating the difficulties of a treacherous current in the Straits, he dived under five rows of mines and torpedoed and sank the Turkish battleship Mesudiye, which was guarding the mine-field. He then succeeded in bringing the B11 back to the Mediterranean, in spite of being attacked by gun fire and torpedo boats. When they got back to safety the B11 had been submerged for 9 hours.
Following the success, he was given the nickname “Five Rows of Mines” Holbrook, and following this the B11 was given more mundane duties as the B boats were gradually being replaced by the new faster and larger E boats. Despite this, Holbrook was still heavily involved in incidents. In the Gulf of Smyrna on 17th May 1915, he was the first submarine to spot an enemy submarine in the region, but was spotted before he could launch an attack.
In August 1915, the B11 was dispatched from Mudros to Alexandria to patrol the Egyptian coast to deter Turkish gun-runners seeking to incite rebellion among the Senussi tribesmen. On 16th August, the two boats were anchored off Cape Lukka. They then saw a party of Arabs flying a flag of truce. As a senior officer, Holbrook went towards shore on a smaller boat. He attempted to talk to them but this aroused suspicion and he turned back. On returning to the B11, the Arabs opened fire sinking his small boat, and Holbrook was wounded.
The following month, Holbrook returned to England to recuperate and his command of the B11 was over. On 5th October 1915 he attended Buckingham Palace to receive his VC from King George V. More honours and awards followed. In July 1916, a Navy prize court awarded the B11’s crew £3,500, of which Holbrook’s share was £601 10s 2d. The French also awarded him the Legion d’Honneur (gazetted 7th April 1916). In an amazing accolade, a small town in Australia, previously called Germanton, decided to rename themselves “Holbrook” in honour of the B11’s actions in the Dardanelles.
Holbrook continued to serve on submarines throughout the remainder of the war. His first boat after returning to England was the new F3, which he took to Harwich. Five months later, he transferred to V4, before taking command of the new mine-laying submarine E41. In January 1918, following promotion to Lieutenant Commander, he left E41 to take command of J2, one of a new fleet of submarines.
Holbrook married a widow, Viva Dixon, daughter of Frederick Woodin, on 21st June 1919, and they went on to have a son, who sadly was killed in action in Italy during World War II. Holbrook retired from the Navy in 1920 and was promoted to Commander on the retired list in 1928. Shortly afterwards, he and his family moved into Four Acres, Kingston Hall, a mansion they built in Surrey. During WWII, the house was used as a base for the American High Command and for a short time, a home for the Dutch Royal Family. By then, Holbrook was back in uniform, as an officer in the Admiralty Trade Division, interviewing survivors of ships lost in enemy action.
After the Second World War, he was Chairman of the family printing firm for a number of years, before he settled at Stedham Mill, near Midhurst, West Sussex, where he had a 300 acre mixed arable and dairy farm. His wife died in 1952 and the following year, he re-married to Gundula Felder, an Austrian woman from Innsbruck. Holbrook died on 3rd July 1976, six days short of his 88th birthday, while watering his garden at Stedham. He was buried in St James’ Churchyard, Midhurst, West Sussex.
In addition to his VC, he was awarded the 1914 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oak leaf, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953, and the Knight of Legion d’Honneur. In 1982, his widow, Gundula travelled to Australia and presented his medals to the town of Holbrook. In 2004, the medals were put under the care of Greater Hume Shire Council, who in turn, in December 2009, agreed to loan Holbrook’s medals to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL, CANBERRA (LOAN).
BURIAL PLACE: ST JAMES CHURCH, STEDHAM, WEST SUSSEX.
Norman Holbrook VC's memorial paving stone laid in December 2014 in Southsea, Hampshire.
John Wheatley portrait (IWM)
Portsmouth Grammar School
Holbrook's submarine "B11" which allowed him to enter the Dardanelles.
War Illustrated, 19th June 1917
War Illustrated, 19th June 1917
National Memorial Arboretum