The short life of Albert McKenzie

The Arethusa

At about eleven years of age Albert McKenzie joined the Training Ship Arethusa. She had been launched in 1849 and saw action in the Crimean War. She was the last British ship to go into battle under sail.

In 1873 at the end of her useful life the Royal Navy sold her to be converted into Training Ship for boys and she was moored in the Thames at Greenhithe (between Dartford and Gravesend) 

The ship took in Boys of about eleven years of age from the poorer parts of London. Life on board was tough and the disciplne harsh.

But they were fed and clothed and taught the basic skills and discipline required to be a sailor either in the Royal or the Merchant Navy.

In this tough environment Albert McKenzie excelled at boxing, which would have stood him in good stead for the fighting on the Mole.

At the age of fifteen Albert McKenzie and many of the other Arethusa boys signed up for the Royal Navy and joined HMS Ganges.

Arethusa was finally sent to the breakers yard in 1933, but at least one of her cabins was salvaged

When Sir Clough Williams-Ellis created Portmeirion village (location for the TV series 'The Prisoner') he used the timbers from Arethusa in the Cockpit Bar (above) in the Portmeirion Hotel. The bar was lost in a fire in 1981.






Boy Sailor

In June 1914 at the age of fifteen Albert joined the Boys Service of the Royal Navy

Initially he was stationed at the training depot HMS Ganges, Shotley in Suffolk where he continued to display a talent for boxing winning several medals

and continued his boxing success after joining the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow

where he reached the Royal Navy finals at his weight 


The Battle of Jutland

Having completed his training at HMS Ganges, Albert was posted to the cruiser HMS Neptune, based in Scapa Flow as part of the Grand Fleet.

Neptune was launched in 1905 and was one of the Navy's key capital ships. She had a crew of 750 and carried 8 powerful 12 inches guns.

The Grand Fleet remained in Scapa Flow in the Orkneys waiting for an opportunity to face the German High Fleet. After a two year wait the opportunity arrived and June 1916 the Fleet set sail.

HMS Neptune with Albert McKenzie on board, formed part of the huge fleet formation.



Albert at Zeebrugge

In a letter to one of his brothers Albert wrote this description of his part in the Raid;

 'Well we got within fifteen minutes run of the Mole when some marines got excited and fired their rifles. Up went four big star shells and they spotted us. That caused it. They hit us with the first two shells and killed seven marines. They were still hitting us when we got alongside. There was a heavy swell on which smashed all our gangways but two, one aft and one forward. I tucked the old Lewis gun under my arm and nipped over the gangway aft. There were two of my gun's crew killed inboard and I only had two left, with myself three. I turned to my left and advanced about fifty yards then lay down. There was a spiral staircase which led down into the Mole and Commander Brock fired his revolver down and threw a Mills bomb. You ought to have seen them nip out and try to get across to the destroyer tied up against the Mole, but this little chicken met them half way with the box of tricks, and I ticked about a dozen off before I clicked. My Lewis gun was shot spinning out of my hands and all I had left was the stock and pistol grip which I kindly took a bloke's photo with it, who looked too business-like for me, with a rifle and bayonet. It half stunned him and gave me time to get my pistol out and finish him off. Then I found a rifle and bayonet and joined up our crowd who had just come off the destroyer. All I remember was pushing kicking and kneeing every German who got in the way. When I was finished I couldn't climb the ladder so a mate of mine lifted me up and carried me up the ladder and then I crawled on my hands and knees inboard.'

Albert back at home after receiving the Victoria Cross from the King


Saved by his shipmate

After the fighting on the Mole the injured Albert McKenzie was carried back to the Vindictive by Leading Seaman William Childs;

William Wallace Childs was awarded the DSM for his part in the Raid

and went on the serve in the Royal Navy thoughout WW2

being awarded service medals from both World Wars

serving much of his time on HMS London;

 Childs seen above second from left back row




Comic Book Hero

Albert's story was featured in the Victor comic of March 1964

Page one:

and page two:

To Buckingham Palace

On 31 July 1918 Albert went to Buckingham Palace accompanied by his mother and sister Mary

He was presented with the Victoria Cross by King George V

British Pathe news clip of Buckingham Palace investiture

After his investiture Albert went back to his mother's house in Shorncliffe Road to a hero's welcome

British Pathe news clip of Albert returning to the East End of London

On the doorsteps of his home which was ablaze with coloured flags and bunting he was welcomed by the Mayor of Southwark, who said Albert's honour was unique in a double sense, in that he was the first London sailor to receive the Victoria Cross and also the first to be awarded it by the votes of his comrades. The mayor then thrilled the crowd by holding up Albert's blood-stained uniform and smashed wrist watch


A present of War Bonds and a Presentation Address from his many friends in the Parish of St Mark's Camberwell was given to his widowed mother. 'We are prouder of you than we can say' was the way the subscribers summed up their admiration for their fellow parishioners







Albert Dies

As the WW1 was ending, the World experienced the worst 'flu epidemic of modern times which killed nearly 20 million people

Albert McKenzie was still recovering from his wounds at Chatham Naval Hospital when he caught the 'flu; he developed pneumonia and died on 3rd November 1918 just 10 days after his 20th Birthday

His body was taken from Chatham back to London for the funeral service at St Mark's Church, Coburg Road, London SE (above). After the service Albert was buried in Camberwell Old Cemetery.

Map of Camberwell Cemetery

The plot for his grave was donated by the local council '... in consideration of the gallant services rendered to his King and Country by Seaman McKenzie VC son of Eliza'.

Capt Carpenter VC of the Vindictive was present at his funeral and the following message from the King and Queen was read to the mourners; 

Capt Carpenter added his own tribute to Albert's mother; 'The splendid example which your boy set at Zeebrugge will be accorded a high place of honour in the naval records of the British Empire' 

A headstone was placed on his grave on 4 October 1919 unveiled by the Mayor of Southwark with the words; 'Albert McKenzie died nobly; we perpetuate his name; God bless him!'.

The headstone bears Victoria Cross emblem with the words 'For Valour' the only alteration or addition allowed to an official war grave

War Graves Commission web site, showing location of Albert's grave

The Imperial War Museum's records show that '... he was the youngest of a large and patriotic family several of whom bore arms in the war another of them laying down his life. He was the most distinguished member of what was known in South London as the 'St Mark's Little Army' being the 4286 men from the parish of St Mark's Camberwell who joined the Forces; it gained 81 War Honours and 518 members laid down their lives.