Ldg. Stoker W. Cole

Rating Badge of a Leading Stoker

Ldg. Stoker W. Cole

K.11075 Leading Stoker George Wilfrid Coles,
Royal Navy

Hook, near Goole (National Library of Scotland)

Wilfrid Coles was one of the men who appears on the village Roll of Service but had no connection to the village before the Great War began. His parents moved to Pogsons Cottages, at Whinmoor, from Goole during the war, and on his transfer from full time service in the Royal Navy to the Royal Fleet Reserve, in 1920 he moved in with them.

Wilfrid Coles was born in Hook, in Goole on 24th June 1892, and was the third surviving child of Charles Coles, an Army Pensioner, and his wife Mary Elizabeth (née Harper). The couple married in Monk Fryston in 1885, following Charles Coles’s discharge from the Army after 21 years’ service in the York and Lancaster Regiment, and its pre 1881 reform antecedent regiment, the 65th Regiment of Foot. Twelve of Charles Coles’s twenty-one years in the Army had been spent in India. He remained a Private soldier throughout his service, despite a military character assessment of ‘Exemplary’, and being of ‘temperate’ habits.

Of the twelve children Charles and Elizabeth Coles produced, eight died in infancy, leaving an older brother, Charles, born in 1886, an older sister, Rosa, born in 1889, and a younger sister, Maura, born in 1895. The young Charles Coles followed his father into the Army and enlisted into the York and Lancaster Regiment in 1904. On completion of his Regular Service, he was transferred to the Reserve, and went to live in West Hartlepool, where his wife was from. Charles Coles was recalled to the Army in August 1914, but he was no longer fit, and was dogged with ill-health during his Great War Service. Initially he served with his chosen regiment, the York and Lancaster Regiment, but also saw service with the Yorkshire Regiment, before returning to the York and Lancasters. Then, transfers followed which took him to serve with the Northumberland Fusiliers, Durham Light Infantry, and the Labour Corps, before he was finally discharged due to ill health and received a Silver War Badge.

Goole Docks (National Library of Scotland)

Wilfrid Coles worked as a labourer at Goole docks before he joined the Royal Navy. The work could be dangerous, and was poorly paid, and at the age of 19, he decided to leave it all behind him and enlist in ‘Senior Service’. He joined on 7th April 1911, signing on for 12 years’ service as a Stoker. The Royal Navy maintained three manning ports in the south of England, which were responsible for the training of recruits, trade training and the administration of the ships and shore establishments attached to those manning stations. They were Chatham in Kent, Portsmouth in Hampshire, and Devonport, at Plymouth in Devon. Wilfrid Coles joined HMS Victory II, the Portsmouth division that administered Stokers and Engine Room Artificers. His initial training there took three weeks before he was transferred to the Stoker training vessel, HMS Renown for six weeks.

HMS Grafton

His first working ship belonged to the Reserve Fleet, based at Portsmouth, HMS Grafton. The Reserve Fleet was made up of ships that were decommissioned from active service in the Royal Navy but could be quickly brought back up to readiness in an emergency. The ships would not be fully crewed but would be crewed by enough officers and men to allow the systems and equipment on board to be worked and serviced to prevent them from becoming unserviceable. Postings to the Reserve Fleet were generally temporary in nature and used to keep men occupied while they awaited a posting to an active service ship elsewhere in the fleet at Home or abroad.

Wilfrid Coles got his posting to an active service ship in April 1912, when he was sent out to the Far East to join HMS Minatour, the flagship of the China Station. He worked his transfer to HMS Minatour aboard HMS Spartiate as a supernumerary Stoker on a journey that took five weeks. He would remain with HMS Minotaur until March 1918, except for a period of 42 days spent in detention aboard HMS Triumph which was awarded for his ‘Refusing to carry out punishment’. Where there was no shore-based Detention Quarters available for offenders to be transferred to, the sailor awarded detention over 28 days would be transferred to another ship to serve his sentence. This would ensure that he was in the custody of staff who did not know the offender, and therefore could not bring any personal feelings to their treatment of the sailor serving his sentence.

HMS Minotaur

It is not known what the punishment was that Wilfrid Cole refused to carry out, but the 42 days’ detention is likely to be the result of him being reported for some misdemeanour which he insisted he was innocent of. Found guilty at the Defaulters’ Table, a daily parade where those reported for offences had their cases dealt with, it seems he may have continued to protest his innocence and refused the punishment he was awarded and, consequently was awarded a much sterner punishment.

He was returned to HMS Minotaur on 21st April 1914, but three months later, he was awarded seven days in the cells. Amid what looks like a turbulent time for Wilfred Coles, he was promoted to Stoker 1st Class.

At the outbreak of the Great War, the ships working on the China Station were ordered to concentrate at Hong Kong. On arriving there, HMS Minotaur was ordered to Yap, a German colony in the Caroline Islands. Germany had established ownership of eleven island groups in the Pacific Ocean and leased three ports in China for use as coaling stations and wireless broadcasting stations. If those islands, and the Chinese ports could be captured, the Germans would neither be able to communicate or operate in the Pacific Ocean. When HMS Minatour reached Yap, it captured a German collier called Elsbeth, and destroyed the wireless station with gunfire.

HMS Minotaur was then ordered to search for the German East Asia Squadron, the fleet of German ships operating in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The search was unsuccessful, and the ship was subsequently ordered to the west coast of Sumatra to search for SMS Emden, which with SMS Königsburg, had detached from the East Asia Squadron to operate independently in the Indian Ocean shipping lanes. SMS Emden was particularly successful and survived by stopping several ships and taking their coal. Although the Emden respected the rules of war, and released neutrals without undue hindrance, because of the capture of cargoes and sinking of some allied shipping, the British branded the Emden as a pirate. The British were particularly enraged when the Emden slipped into the harbour at Madras and shelled the fuel oil tanks on the docks. HMS Minotaur’s search for the Emden was also unsuccessful.

Cigarette Card showing a Stoker, 1909

The next task, at the end of September 1914, for HMS Minotaur was to proceed to Wellington in New Zealand to provide an escort for a troop convoy that would cross the Indian Ocean. Following the British defeat at the hands of the German East Asia Squadron in the Battle of Coronel on 1st November 1914, HMS Minotaur was detached from the New Zealand troop convoy and ordered to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to reinforce the fleet there. On arriving in South Africa, HMS Minotaur assumed the duties of Flagship of the Cape of Good Hope Station. At the same time, a large force of ships was sent to the South Atlantic to search for the German East Asia Squadron. When the two fleets clashed, off the Falkland Islands on 8th December, and the British destroyed the German squadron, HMS Minotaur was no longer needed at the Cape of Good Hope and was ordered back to Home Waters.

The ship was sent to Cromarty Firth to take up the duties of Flagship of the 7th Cruiser Squadron. In early 1915, the ship underwent a minor refit before being assigned to the Northern Patrol, with which formation it would remain for the rest of the war, except for an attachment to the 2nd Cruiser Squadron for the Battle of Jutland at the end of May 1916. Although the ship was present at the battle, it played no part in it, and did not fire any of its guns.

Wilfrid Coles spent another five days in the ship’s cells during July 1916, but it is assumed the offence was minor, as within a year he was given an acting promotion to Leading Stoker. He was confirmed in the rank after a year.

HMS Britannia sinking

On 31st July 1918, Wilfred Coles was posted to HMS Britannia, joining the ship in Sierra Leone from HMS Africa. Much of the latter half of 1918 was spent patrolling the South Atlantic between Cape Town and Sierra Leone and providing convoy escorts on the same route.

On 9th November 1918, just two days before the Armistice was signed, HMS Britannia was in the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, of Cape Trafalgar when it was struck by a torpedo. The ship took on a list to port. A second torpedo caused a fire in an ammunition magazine, which caused a further fire in the cordite magazine. Because of smoke and fumes below decks, the crew was unable to locate all the valves for flooding the magazines, and failed to properly extinguish the fires, which condemned the ship to sinking roughly two and a half hours after the first torpedo struck. Fifty men died, and a further eighty were wounded. Thirty-nine officer and 673 men were saved, among them, Wilfrid Coles. The sinking made HMS Britannia one of the last ships to be lost during the Great War.

Wilfrid Coles’ next ship posting was to HMS Malaya, which he joined on 15th May 1919. He spent seven months with the ship on the 2nd Battle Squadron of the Atlantic Fleet. He finally came ashore on 14th January 1920 when he was transferred to the Royal Fleet Reserve.

Pogsons Cottages, York Road, Whinmoor (National Library of Scotland)

Following his release from the Royal Navy, Wilfrid Coles came to live with his parents in Whinmoor, and he got a job as a fireman. It is likely that, given he was a stoker in the Royal Navy, he was a locomotive, or stationary engine fireman, rather than a firefighter.

On 29th January 1921, a year after he left the Royal Navy, Wilfrid Coles married Ivy Craig at St Aiden’s Parish Church on Roundhay Road. She was a tailoress, and a daughter of James Craig, a Cleansing Inspector.

Together, the couple had three children, with Joan being born in late 1921, George Wilfred born in early 1924, and Donald, born in 1928. Sadly, George died before his first birthday and was buried in the churchyard of St James’s Church in Seacroft.

Wilfrid Coles later became a manager in a paper warehouse. He lived at Pogsons cottages for the rest of his life, and died in 1965, aged 72 years.