Harry Charles Birnie

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A Young Harry Birnie

Captain R.N.R. Harry Charles Birnie, D.S.O, R.D. (10 October, 1882 – 9 March, 1943) served in the Royal Naval Reserve.

Life & Career

Birnie was born in New Aberdour, Aberdeenshire the son of the Reverend Charles Birnie and Katherine Alexander.

He went to sea around the turn of the century in the biggest barque of the day, The Strathdon which regularly sailed to Australia for the Aberdeen White Star line.

Birnie began working with the Cunard shipping line in 1905 as a junior officer on R.M.S. Campania. On April 26, 1907 while in Campania, the chief officer Arthur Rostron (later famous for later rescuing the Titanic survivors) called out to Birnie, "Keep clear of the snag right ahead." Rostron's impression of this obstruction changed as they drew near to was what he described as “a huge sea monster!” Both he and Birnie had a good sight of it not 50ft from the ship. Rostron describes the account in his memoir, "Home from the Sea". Many years later, Birnie confirmed Rostron's story to researcher R.T. Gould. Such unusual sightings were not unique for Birnie, as when he was a child in 1894 or 1895, he and his father had seen on the beach at New Aberdour, “a long snake-like thing" extending from the water's edge to a rock some distance away.[1]

Great War

During the war, Birnie served in the Royal Naval Reserves.

On 4 October, 1915 he was appointed in command of T.B. 82, remaining in command until 19 February, 1916. The following day, he was appointed commanding officer of the destroyer Fairy. He would remain in her until 8 October, 1917.[2]

On 21 October, 1917 he was appointed to Attentive to take command of the patrol boat P57 upon commissioning. On 18 November, Birnie's patrol boat sank UC 47 off Flamborough Head Yorkshire by ramming and depth charges. Birnie received the D.S.O. for this exploit on 28 February, 1918.[3] The admiralty awarded a “kill bonus” of £1000 to be shared by the crew.[4]

Upon leaving P57 in mid-September, 1918, Birnie was appointed to command the "Q" ship Privet, but this was cancelled. After some time providing special service at President, he was demobilised on 31 January, 1919.[5]

World War II

From 1940 onwards, Birnie held the rank of Commodore, Second Class, commanding several Atlantic convoys. Some of these were quite large; Birnie served as Vice Commodore sailing in Pacific Pioneer in Convoy ON.50 from Liverpool to Halifax (24.12.1941 - 3.1.1942), as Commodore of Convoy UR.32 from UK to Reykjavik in the "Empire Beaumont" (July 11-16 1942) and Commodore of Convoy ON.62 from Liverpool to New York (Feb 1943) in Belgian Airman — a convoy of 63 ships.

In 1942, Birnie was mentioned in dispatches for “outstanding devotion to duty during two years of arduous service as Commodore of convoys." [6] In February and March 1943 he was in command of convoy SC121 from New York to Liverpool, sailing in a Norwegian merchant ship the M.V. Bonneville.

Birnie was amongst those 36 of 45 crew lost on 9 March when Bonneville was torpedoed.

Credits

Thanks to Barbara Walker, granddaughter of Birnie's cousin, Mary Birnie, for much of the information on this page.

See Also

Naval Appointments
Preceded by
Wesson C. H. Jones
Captain of H.M. T.B. 82
7 Oct, 1915[7] – 19 Feb, 1916[8]
Succeeded by
Robert T. Park
Preceded by
Guy K. Twiss
Captain of H.M.S. Fairy
20 Feb, 1916[9] – 8 Oct, 1917[10]
Succeeded by
Geoffrey H. Barnish
Preceded by
New Command
Captain of H.M.S. P57
23 Oct, 1917[11] – 9 Sep, 1918[12]
Succeeded by
Arthur P. Melsom

Footnotes

  1. The preceding is a near-quote from a short biography Barbara Walker wrote for Birnie.
  2. Birnie Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 340/12.
  3. Birnie Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 340/12.
  4. Letter from Walker, paraphrased here, citing London Gazette 19.12.1918 p. 2301.
  5. Birnie Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 340/12.
  6. London Gazette 15.12.1942 p. 5462.
  7. Birnie Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 340/12.
  8. Birnie Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 340/12.
  9. Birnie Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 340/12.
  10. Birnie Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 340/12.
  11. The Navy List. (November, 1917). p. 396f.
  12. Birnie Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 340/12.