World War One officer’s story to be told at BRNC

A rare medal and papers relating to a Royal Navy Officer who served during the First World War have been loaned to the museum at Britannia Royal Naval College.

The Albert Medal for Lifesaving was presented to Lieutenant (Lt) David Wainwright for his action on board HMS Penarth on 4 February 1919. 

The ship lost its way in a fog and snow storm off the Yorkshire coast and drifted into an un-cleared minefield, hitting a mine and sinking with the loss of 37 of the crew. 

Lt Wainwright took charge of the situation, overseeing the launch of survival rafts and making his way below deck unaided in an attempt to rescue an injured crewmate.  

My Grandfather's story serves to remind us all of the bravery and selflessness of the young men of his generation who fought for us.

Jonathan Wainwright

With the ship listing heavily it struck another mine and the front was blown off and sank.  Lt Wainwright was forced to wait until the compartment he was in had filled with water before he could float to the surface and escape.

He was one of seven who eventually survived the sinking and was picked up by a patrol boat after 43 hours drifting in freezing conditions without food or water.

Dr Richard Porter, one of the curators of the Britannia Museum said:  “Lt Wainwright’s award of the Albert Medal was announced on 16 May 1919. 

“The medal was instituted by a Royal Warrant on 7 March 1866 and discontinued in 1971. 

“It was named in memory of Prince Albert and was originally awarded for life-saving at sea. However in 1877 the medal was extended to cover saving life on land.”

David Wainwright was born in 1894 and joined the Royal Navy in 1907.  He began his training at Osborne Naval Training College and two years later, aged 15, he arrived at Dartmouth. 

David was in the same year as the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII.

In April 1916, David was promoted to Sub Lieutenant to serve on HMS Nomad, a new M class destroyer.   

The following month HMS Nomad was hit at the Battle of Jutland and the crew abandoned ship before it eventually sank. 

Papers loaned to the College include one advising David’s parents that he had been killed in action. 

However on 10 June the Admiralty confirmed that he was in fact a Prisoner-of –War (POW).

Dr Porter said:  “David remained a German POW for the next two and half years and the letters he sent home are also among the papers. 

“He made two escape attempts and was eventually released in December 1918. 

“In January 1919 David resumed his Naval career and just a month later was involved in the action for which he received his Albert Medal.”

David retired from the Royal Navy in May 1920 at his own request, but remained on the retired list being promoted to Lieutenant Commander in July 1924.

He applied for and was granted a Certificate of Service as Master of a Foreign-going ship upon leaving the Service and later joined the Royal Irish Constabulary.  Two years later he joined the British Gendarmerie.

David married Frances Whitefield while in Palestine in April 1924. Their son, David, was born the following year. 

It appears David and his family left Palestine in 1926 and a second child, Sally, was born in the UK.

Throughout the 1930s David made various attempts to return to active service with the Royal Navy and gain promotion. 

He was appointed among the observers to supervise the transfer of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany in 1938. 

David was then selected for a minesweeping course at Portland.  When the course ended on 22 March 1939, David stayed on at his hotel, but went missing on 28 March. 

He was not seen alive again.  His body was washed ashore and found on 19 June 1939.  The cause of death was reported as drowning.

David’s medal and papers have recently been passed into the custody of his grandsons, Simon and Jonathan Wainwright.

Jonathan said: “My Grandfather's story serves to remind us all of the bravery and selflessness of the young men of his generation who fought for us.

“What impresses me most about him was his concern for the men who served under him, often in the most appalling conditions.

“It seems fitting that after all this time his papers and medal should return to Britannia Royal Naval College, where he trained, to motivate and inspire the current generation of young people training to serve their Country in today's Royal Navy".