England Rugby star names new Navy gym after WW1 hero

England World Cup winning captain Martin Johnson has opened a new state-of-the-art gym at Dartmouth – named in honour of another rugby hero.

Lieutenant Commander Arthur Harrison, born in nearby Torquay in 1886, played for the Navy and was capped twice by his country on the eve of World War 1 – which cut short his rugby career.

He was killed in the Zeebrugge Raid in April 1918 and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the nation’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

Captain Roger Readwin, the Captain of Britannia Royal Naval College, said: “Arthur Harrison was reported to be a fantastic all-round sports player at school and was selected to represent the Royal Navy at rugby union when he joined the Service. He was capped by England twice, winning the Grand Slam in 1914, and is believed to be the only England rugby union international ever to have received the VC.  When we were looking to name our new gym, Arthur Harrison was a natural choice and we hope his story will go on to inspire our Officer Cadets and Recruits as they go through their training.”

Martin, who led England to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, was the guest of honour at the opening of the Arthur Harrison VC Gymnasium.

It is a real privilege to officially open BRNC’s new gymnasium today. But to do so, in memory of a former England and Navy Rugby player, who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can enjoy our freedom today, is very poignant indeed.

Martin Johnson

He said:  “It is a real privilege to officially open BRNC’s new gymnasium today.  But to do so, in memory of a former England and Navy Rugby player, who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can enjoy our freedom today, is very poignant indeed.  Arthur Harrison’s legacy will continue to be remembered in this fantastic gymnasium, which will develop Naval leaders with the same courage and resilience Harrison demonstrated in 1918. I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to all those serving in the Royal Navy and the support of their families who make such service possible.”  

Warrant Officer Mac McCormick, BRNC’s Physical Development Officer, said:  “This facility is a real game changer and will allow us to deliver 21st century physical training to modern Royal Navy standards.  It has a multi-purpose main hall where the Cadets will undergo the bulk of their training, centring on Initial Military Fitness to instil and develop the command response, coordination, robustness and resilience required for our Naval Officers to operate in any environment around the world. The gymnasium is kitted out for a wide range of sports from badminton to netball. With temperature-controlled gymnasium and activity rooms, we are now able to instruct all year round, regardless of the weather outside.”

During his visit Martin also presented a new cup to Officer Cadet Caoimhe Madini.  The cup, which has been donated in Arthur Harrison’s honour by the Britannia Association, will be presented annually to the winners of ‘Le Crunch’; the BRNC versus École Navale rugby match.

Lt Cdr Harrison’s first posting in the Royal Navy was to HMS Mars as a cadet in 1902.  He went on to be Mentioned in Despatches during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Almost two years later he was in charge of the Naval Storming Parties at the Zeebrugge Raid; an attempt by the Royal Navy to block the Belgian port and prevent German U-boats putting to sea. 

Early in the action Lt Cdr Harrison was knocked unconscious when a fragment of a shell struck his head and broke his jaw as his ship, HMS Vindictive, was coming alongside the stone structure, known as a mole.

Lt Cdr Harrison regained consciousness and took his place in command of his party. They were charged with the important task of silencing the guns on the mole head.  In a fully exposed position Lt Cdr Harrison led the attack and was killed by enemy machine-gun fire at the age of 32. His body was never recovered.  The men serving with him were either killed or wounded.  

In 1967 his family donated his VC, awarded to him for his ‘indomitable resolution and courage’,to BRNC, where it remains today.

Work to build the PT centre started on site last year after extensive consultation, over many years, with numerous interested stakeholders, including the Local Planning Authority, Historic England and Natural England. Construction company Kier were awarded the contract to build the centre by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO).