HOPEWELL, William [of Southwell]

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Royal Navy

By Mike Kirton

Born 1894, Died 1973

William Hopewell, C.G.M.


After the No. 1 and No. 2 of his Lewis gun section had become casualties in the ship in which Private Hopewell was serving, he took the Lewis gun ashore and brought it into action.  He continued to fire the gun throughout the operation, and was almost the last man to retire, bringing his gun out of action with him until it was rendered useless by a direct hit by a shell.

                                                        London Gazette 30807

23rd July 1918

To receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal


Along with his three elder brothers and his father, William Hopewell, after leaving school, worked for E. Carey & Sons as a threader.  Family records suggest that he had been a member of the Church Lads’ Brigade and was also a member of the Territorial Army, but in January 1913 he had a complete change of career and, aged 19, joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry.  Although only 5’ 4’’ he must have been a fit young man to be accepted into the RMLI prior to the outbreak of war.  William served on several Royal Naval ships:

1914-17 H.M.S. Exmouth, which was originally part of the Northern Patrol, but in 1915 was sent to the Dardenelles to support the campaign.  In late 1915 she was transferred to the Aegean and in 1917 sailed to the East Indies Section on escort duties.  Whilst in the Mediterranean William Hopewell had been involved in the landing at Athens and in quelling the disturbances.

1918 H.M.S. Glory, which was the flagship of the British North Russia Squadron.

1918 H.M.S. Vindictive for the Zeebrugge Raid.

1919-1921 H.M.S. Ramillies

Late 1921 H.M.S. Hood, the new battle cruiser.

Following the death of his two brothers in 1915 William wrote to his aunt and vowed, ‘I’ll get my own back for what they did to Albert and John’. His opportunity came in 1918 when he volunteered to take part in the Zeebrugge Raid.  It had been made clear that the possibility of not surviving was very high.


The Zeebrugge Raid

‘…the finest feat of arms in the Great War’

Winston Churchill

German U-boats, based in the Bruges Canal, were responsible for sinking a third of Allied merchant shipping and during 1918 there was a fear that the ongoing threat to essential supplies could have starved Britain into submission.  Britain started making plans to stop the submarines gaining access to the sea.  The objective was to blow the lock gates and sink blocking ships in the channel.  As Paul Kendall states in the introduction to his book about the raid, it was an audacious plan and its leader, Vice-Admiral Roger Keys, could only offer the prospect of death or capture to those who took part.  Selection for the volunteers was extremely rigorous and William Hopewell did well to be accepted.  No doubt his experiences in the Dardanelles played a part.  The volunteers were subjected to extensive and tough training and a number were rejected at this stage.  Whilst the training was taking place around 2,000 workers were involved in fitting out the assault ships for the mission.  Two submarines were filled with explosives with the intention of them destroying the viaduct that connected the Zeebrugge Mole to the shore.  H.M.S. Vindictive was to land a raiding party of Royal Marines at the entrance to the Bruges Canal to create a diversionary attack and to destroy German defences and guns, whilst three old ships, packed with concrete, were manoeuvred into position to block the canal.

      The raid was initially planned for 3rd April 1918, but due to an unfavourable wind direction it was postponed until 23rd April when the tides would be favourable.  A large force came together for the raid, consisting of 168 vessels of various size and 1,780 officers and men, of which 690 were Royal Marine Light Infantry.  All this as another raid was to take place on Ostend.  Unfortunately, as the raiding party approached there was a change in wind direction and the smoke screen that had been laid was shifted, and the Germans spotted the approaching small armada.  The marines immediately came under heavy fire and a desperate fight ensued.  Within less than an hour the order was given to withdraw and it was at this point that William Hopewell came into his own.  As the Marines withdrew to H.M.S. Vindictive his Lewis Gun crew were providing covering fire.  During the action two of his colleagues were wounded and William took the Lewis Gun on to the Mole and continued to fire at the enemy with no concern for his own safety.  Eventually, as the citation mentions, he was almost the last man to retire to safety after his Lewis Gun had been hit by a shell and made inoperable.  227 men were killed and 356 wounded in the raid.

      Despite such a supreme effort the raid was only partially successful, as the block ships failed to get into their correct positions and it was still possible for submarines to navigate in and out of the canal at high tide.  However, the attack was deemed to be a success and provided a welcome boost to moral at a time when the Western Front was still at stalemate.

      For their efforts 8 Victoria Crosses and 16 Conspicuous Gallantry Medals were awarded.  William Hopewell narrowly missed a V.C., four members of the award committee voted for him, but insufficient to win the day. As well as his C.G.M. William was awarded the Croix de Guerre with a bronze palm – high honour indeed for this modest man.

      William stayed in the marines until 1922 and when he returned home he went back to E. Carey & Sons. He later worked at the local gas works as a stoker, and at the Workhouse as a gardener.  He had married Beatrice Hancock in 1919 and they had 3 sons and 3 daughters.  His daughter Betty Thornton describes her father as very reserved and unassuming.  When he returned home immediately after the raid the local band, press and dignitaries were waiting for him at the station.  On spotting the reception committee he jumped off the train and ran home across the fields to Chatham Street.  At the outbreak of the Second World War, aged 45, he volunteered again, but was rejected on age grounds and joined the Home Guard for the duration.  William died on 9th May 1973.

(Extracted from Southwell at War 1914-1919)

This page was added by Mike Kirton on 23/06/2014.

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