b. 26/08/1886 Liverpool. d. 08/02/1954 Charing, Kent.
Ronald Niels Stuart (1886-1954), the first Royal Navy officer to receive the VC by ballot, came from an old seafaring family. He was born at 31 Kelvin Grove, Toxteth, Liverpool, on 26th August 1886, only son and the youngest of six children to Neil Stuart, a master mariner of Scottish ancestry, and Mary Harrison nee Banks, a master mariner’s daughter who gave up her dressmaking business to become a captain’s wife, sailing with her husband between England and Australia.
Ronald’s parents were married in Montreal, and their first child was born in Quebec, before they sailed for the Mississippi where Neil Stuart became a river boat skipper. After arriving in Liverpool, he became a dock superintendent, before venturing into the grocery trade from a store in Prescott Street. This proved to be a poor move, and he died after an accident whilst preparing to go back to sea. At the time of his father’s death, Ronald was attending a public school, Shaw Street College. His father’s death changed everything, and he was forced to leave school and take a job in an office. He hated it, and he was rescued by an aunt who secured him an apprenticeship with Messrs Steele & Co in 1902. His first ship was the sailing barque “Kirkhill” and he was aboard in 1905 when she struck a rock and foundered off the Falklands. He lost everything but managed to reach shore safely. Having completed his time, he joined the Allan Line, voyaging all over the world on a variety of ships.
Whilst he was working for the company, war intervened. He spent almost two years in the “clapped out” destroyer Opossum. It was a dull appointment, and was mostly employed in patrol work in Plymouth Sound. His attempts to seek more active commands were rejected. His misery was ended in the spring of 1916 when he was selected to join Gordon Campbell’s crew as a replacement Number One for a decorated officer who had shown signs of cracking under the strain of decoy work. Campbell came to rely on Ronald for his expertise in handling and fitting out merchant vessels to ensure their decoy role was not compromised.
On the 7th June, 1917, while disguised as a British merchant vessel with a dummy gun mounted aft, H.M.S. "Pargust" was torpedoed at very close range. Her boiler-room, engine-room, and No. 5 hold were immediately flooded, and the starboard lifeboat was blown to pieces. The weather was misty at the time, fresh breeze and a choppy sea. The "Panic Party", under the command of Lieutenant F. R. Hereford, D.S.C., R.N.R., abandoned ship, and as the last boat was shoving off, the periscope of the submarine was observed close before the port beam about 400 yards distant. The enemy then submerged, and periscope reappeared directly astern, passing to the starboard quarter, and then round to the port beam, when it turned again towards the ship, breaking surface about 50 yards away. The lifeboat, acting as a lure, commenced to pull round the stern; submarine followed closely and Lieutenant Hereford, with complete disregard of the danger incurred from the fire of either ship or submarine (who had trained a maxim on the lifeboat), continued to decoy her to within 50 yards of the ship. The "Pargust" then opened fire with all guns, and the submarine, with oil squirting from her side and the crew pouring out of the conning tower, steamed slowly across the bows with a heavy list. The enemy crew held up their hands in token of surrender, whereupon fire immediately ceased. The submarine then began to move away at a gradually increasing speed, apparently endeavouring to escape in the mist. Fire was reopened until she sank, one man clinging to the bow as she went down. The boats, after a severe pull to the windward, succeeded in saving one officer and one man. American Destroyers and a British sloop arrived shortly afterwards, and the "Pargust" was towed back to port. As on the previous occasions, officers and men displayed the utmost courage and confidence in their captain, and the action serves as an example of what perfect discipline, when coupled with such confidence, can achieve.
In recognition for his actions of Q5 and the Pargust led to the award of the VC and DSO and his elevation to his first command, the Q-sloop “Tamarisk”. In her, he not only enhanced his reputation, but added to his list of honours as a result of his remarkable seamanship in October 1917, when Tamarisk went to the aid of a torpedoed American destroyer, 20 miles off the Irish coast. He succeeded in working Tamarisk close enough to get a line aboard the rudderless and badly damaged USS Cassin. Stuart was awarded the only US Navy Cross given to a VC holder during the war, although it was not announced until nearly 10 years later on 14th October 1927.
After the war, Ronald returned to his career with Canadian Pacific. During the 1920s, he rose steadily up the ranks. Prior to his first command, the freighter Brandon in 1927, he was staff captain aboard Empress of Australia. He was then given command of the Duke of York in 1929, and remained with her until 1934, when he was made Commodore of the CPS fleet, and given the appointment of master of the company’s flagship, Empress of Britain. At 47, he was one of the youngest to hold the rank. His career with Canadian Pacific was capped when he was made General Manager in London, an appointment which spanned the Second World War until his retirement in 1951.
He was also to rise through the ranks of the Royal Naval Reserve, achieving the rank of Captain in 1935, and being Naval ADC to King George VI in 1941. Sadly, his life was also marked by personal tragedy. In 1931, his wife Evelyn, whom he married in Toxteth in 1919, died, leaving him with three sons and two daughters to bring up. His four unmarried sisters took up the mantle of his house and children, while he pursued his career. Two of his sons followed him into the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy (one earning a DSC), while Ronald lived out his retirement at Beryl Lodge, Charing, Kent. It was there on 8th February 1954, he died, aged 67. He was buried in Charing Cemetery, Charing, Kent. His medals are held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, GREENWICH.
BURIAL PLACE: CHARING CEMETERY, CHARING, KENT.
Ronald Stuart's medals including VC and DSO on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (Jan 2015)
Please note the three images of Ronald Stuart's VC stone unveiling at Princes Park, Liverpool on 7th June 2017 are courtesy of James O'Hanlon
Freemasons Memorial, London (Brian Drummond)