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The Wolverhampton sailor who stayed at his wireless post to the end in the Great War

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: March 24, 2005

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The plan, in theory at least, was simple. Armed Allied drifters, including the Gowan Lea, Admirable, Jean, Selby, Morning Star, Coral Haven and the Floandi, were to form a floating barrage, blockading the port of Cattaro and preventing the Austrian Navy using the Adriatic Sea during the Great War. However, to coincide with an attack on the Isonzo front, three Austro-Hungarian cruisers were directed to pass through the barrage of drifters at night, supported by destroyers and submarines, and attack them from the south when day broke.

At 8 o'clock on the evening of 14th May 1917, the three Austrian cruisers, the Novara, Saida and Helgoland, stealthily left Cattaro harbour. As they separated, they smashed through the barrage of 49 little drifters, arranged in seven groups of seven.

At the same time as the cruisers were heading for the barrage, Austrian destroyers left the port of Durazzo and attacked a convoy of three merchant ships, accompanied by the Italian destroyer, Borea. One of the ships and the Borea went down, their crew sucked into the swirling Adriatic. Lieutenant Baunton of the Royal Navy was in charge of the drifters, and heard the attack on the convoy. Going to investigate, he was not present at 3.15 am, when an Austrian cruiser hove into view and began firing on the line of drifters.

The drifter in the centre, the Italian boat Floandi, was carrying the wireless, and came under particularly heavy fire. Nevertheless, sitting determined at his post was the ship's young wireless operator, Douglas Morris Henry Harris. Born in Penn, Harris had joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves at an early age, and on this night he was still only nineteen. Harris, however, was a capable lad, and had already attained the rank of able seaman. As he sat at his desk, continuously radioing for assistance, the sea around the drifter boiled and swelled as the cruiser's weapons aimed at their little targets.

The drifters slipped their nets and scattered. Only one was sunk, and the next group, about to retreat westward, was ordered to abandon ship by one of the cruisers. This group, however, which included the Floandi, were not about to turn and run. They began to fight back, although heavy losses were incurred. On one drifter, Skipper Nicholls lost most of his crew of ten, but despite being wounded in four places himself he and the remaining four crew members managed to keep the boat afloat. Others, including the Selby, Coral Haven and the Admirable, fought on against overwhelming odds, until they were eventually sunk.

As the sun rose over the Adriatic, just after five o'clock, British cruisers and Italian destroyers were steaming to the scene, arriving at around half past nine. It was, however, too late. On the Floandi, young Harris had not left his post when the drifter came under withering gunfire. He was found dead, slumped across his desk, still copying messages in the log.

As the raid continued, the leading Austrian ship was hit, the second set on fire, and the Novara hit repeatedly by Allied ships. However, when two heavy Austrian cruisers were sighted Admiral Acton decided to retire to the safe haven of Brindisi. Novara was towed back to harbour, but the success of the attack brought honours for her Hungarian captain, Nikolaus Horthy.

Meanwhile, the British and Italians alike mourned the self-sacrifice of the young Wolverhampton sailor. He was buried with full honours at Taranto town cemetery in Italy, and in their home in Watford, Winsmore Lodge, Harris' parents Leonard and Mabel grieved.

The townspeople of Wolverhampton, too, mourned the loss of one of their brightest sons. In 1919 the sculptor R.A.J. Emerson was commissioned to produce a bronze memorial bust of Harris, which stands outside St. Peter's Church in the centre of town to this day. A plaque on the pedestal shows the young sailor slumped over his post, and a simple panel on the reverse, in Italian, expresses the gratitude of his Italian colleagues to the brave young man. In an English translation, it reads:

"To Douglas Morris Harris AB. The sailors of His Imperial Majesty's 'Libia,' with thanks and admiration. 26th May 1919."

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