Search our records : Walter Salter Harner

Surname: Harner
Forename(s): Walter Salter
Service Number: 228795
Date of Birth: 4th August 1887
Force: Royal Navy
Unit: Submarine C3
Decorations / Honours: Conspicuous Gallantry Medal
Civilian Occupation: Labourer
Parents: George
Home address: Ashill Cottages, Beer, Devon

Walter Harner was born in Beer on 4th August 1887.  His father, George, was a blacksmith and built the church clock, which is still operating today, and which bears his name.

The 1891 census shows Walter, his elder sisters Rose and Frances, his elder brother William and his younger sister Martha, living with their father, George, in Ashill Cottages, Beer.  Walter's mother had evidently died by this time, as George is described as a widower.

Walter joined the Royal Navy as a Boy Second Class on 23rd November 1903.  He trained on HMS Boscawen, which was a 19th century warship moored at Portland.  His first operational ship was HMS St. George, an Edgar Class cruiser, which he joined in May 1905. While on this ship, in August 1905, he was promoted to Ordinary Seaman.  He joined HMS Duke of Edinburgh, an armoured cruiser, in March 1906, and was promoted to Able Seaman in June of that year .  

He remained on Duke of Edinburgh until March 1908, and then spent the summer of that year at the RN Torpedo School at Devonport (HMS Defiance).  Not long after this he began his association with submarines, which would eventually lead to an award for gallantry.

He served on two submarine depot ships, HMS Forth (1909 to 1911) and HMS Egmont (in Malta, 1911 to 1913) before returning to cruisers, joining HMS Leander in July 1914.  He was serving on this ship when war broke out in August 1914.  In November that year he returned briefly to his first ship, HMS St. George, which by this time had been converted from a cruiser to a submarine depot ship.  In April 1915 he was promoted to Leading Seaman and joined HMS Dolphin, the Royal Navy's submarine training base at Gosport.

On 9th August 1915 Walter married Ada Woodgate, a dressmaker from Beer, whose family lived in Mount Hill Terrace.  Walter gave his address as HM Submarine H5, which he had joined the previous month . 

He remained on the H5 until November 1916. After another spell at Dolphin, he joined the submarine K2 in March 1917, and was promoted to Petty Officer the following month.  He served on the depot ship HMS Maidstone from July 1917 until March 1918, when he became part of the six-man crew of the submarine C3, which was to play an important role in the raid on the German naval base at Zeebrugge on 23rd April 1918 .

Zeebrugge was an important base for German destroyers and torpedo boats which harassed the vital supply line across the English Channel in support of the British troops in France and Belgium.  It also allowed U-boats to enter the North Sea without passing round the northern tip of Denmark.

The harbour at Zeebrugge was protected by a curving wall, 'The Mole', almost a mile long.  At its landward end it was linked to the coast by a railway viaduct some 400 yards long, built on a network of girders.  In the event of an attack from the sea, the German plan was for troops to be rushed to positions along the Mole by means of a light railway which ran along the viaduct. 

The Dover Patrol, the British naval forces protecting the cross-Channel supply route, was commanded by Admiral Roger Keyes.  He planned to attack both Zeebrugge and Ostend by night, destroy the lock gates at Zeebrugge, and sink blockships to block the entrance to each of the harbours.

Lieutenant Commander Francis Sandford, one of the seven sons of the Archdeacon of Exeter, devised the plan to destroy the viaduct and prevent German troops reaching their defensive positions on the Mole.  An elderly C-class submarine with its bows packed with five tons of amatol explosive was to be towed to a point close to Zeebrugge, and would then start engines and ram the girders of the viaduct. The crew would use gyroscopic controls to guide the submarine the last few hundred yards to the target, and would abandon the submarine and escape in a motor boat before the explosion. 

Francis Sandford's younger brother Lieutenant Richard Sandford accepted the job of commanding C3 on this mission.  However Admiral Keyes clearly suspected that the crew would actually take the submarine all the way to the target themselves.  Referring to the gyroscopic guidance system, Keyes said: 'I do not believe that he or his brother ever intended to make use of it, and they only installed it to save me from a subsequent charge of having condemned six men to practically certain death.'

In the event, Keyes was proved right.  When C3 slipped her tow from the destroyer HMS Trident off the Belgian coast at 0230 on 24th April 1918, Richard Sandford opted to take the submarine all the way to the viaduct, to ensure that it hit the right point.  As coxswain, it would have been Walter Harner's job to steer C3 into the viaduct.

Another member of the crew of C3, Stoker Henry Bindall, described what happened as they prepared to abandon the submarine after it had lodged in the base of the viaduct:

'We lowered the skiff and stood by while the commander touched off the fuse.  Then we tumbled into the skiff and pushed off.  We had rather a bit of bad luck.  The propeller fouled the exhaust pipe and left us with only a couple of oars and two minutes to get away.

The lights were on us now and machine guns going from the shore.  Before we had made 200 yards the submarine went up.  We had no doubt about that.  There was a tremendous flash, bang, crash and lots of concrete from the Mole fell all round us into the water.  It was lucky we were not struck. Coxswain Harner and I took the oars first, till I was knocked out.  Then Cleaver grabbed the oar and carried on till the coxswain was hit.  I was hit again, and Lieutenant Price, lifting me and Harner into the bows, took the oar and was afterwards relieved by Roxburgh when Lieutenant Sandford was hit.'

A few minutes later, a picket boat commanded by Lieutenant Sandford's elder brother Francis picked up all six crew of C3 (four of them wounded), and shortly afterwards transferred them to the destroyer HMS Phoebe.

Lieutenant Sandford was awarded the Victoria Cross, one of eight awarded for the Zeebrugge raid (three others were won by participants in the raid on Ostend on the same night).  Walter Harner and the other three non-commissioned members of C3's crew were awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM).  The citation in the London Gazette for 23rd July 1918, reads as follows:

  Sto., 1st Cl., Henry Cullis Bindall, O.N.K.5343 (Po.). P.O. Walter Harner, O.N. 228795 (Dev.). Ldg. Seaman William Gladstone Cleaver, O.N. 2211961 (Po.). E.R.A., 3rd Cl., Allan Gordon Roxburgh, O.N. 272442 (Ch.).

'The ratings above mentioned were members of the crew of Submarine C.3, which was skilfully placed between the piles of the Zeebrugge mole viaduct and there blown up, the fuse being lighted before the submarine was abandoned. They volunteered for and, under the command of an officer, eagerly undertook this hazardous enterprise, although they were well aware that if the means of rescue failed, and that if any of them were in the water at the time of the explosion, they would be killed outright'.

The London Gazette on 28th August 1918 announced the award of the Croix de Guerre to Walter and a number of others involved in the raid, including the other three non-commissioned members of the crew of the C3.

After the raid, Walter returned to HMS Dolphin, before joining the submarine H21 in January 1919.  In February 1920 he began a two-year stint as an instructor at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.  During this period,  on 11th November 1920, he was among the recipients of the Victoria Cross and Conspicuous Gallantry Medal who represented the Royal Navy in the guard of honour at the interment of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, in the presence of King George V.

In November 1922 Walter joined the battleship HMS Emperor of India, a 25,000 ton ship with a crew of over 900, a world away from the six-man C3. This was to be his last ship.  In April 1925 he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer, and the following month he left Emperor of India for a series of shore postings at Plymouth, which ended with his retirement on 3rd August 1927.  Walter died in Portsmouth in 1975 .  His wife Ada died in 1970, also in Portsmouth .