Skipper Charles Alfred Sleeth, Steam Trawler WARREN
A while ago I purchased a single MBE (a medal for a “Member of the Order of the British Empire”) and a certificate for a 1953 coronation medal from an antiques/house clearance shop. I tried reading the name at the time but my university studies got in the way and I popped them in my desk and rather stupidly forgot all about them. Well they languished in my desk for a few years until I had the time to research them properly, and with some help from a friend I deciphered the name from the certificate and from there I found a citation for the MBE (unusual to say the least…….).
The MBE had a civilian ribbon (Military awards have a central stripe to the ribbon to denote this), the reason behind this came later (Merchant Marine were classed as civilians and as such did not qualify for military awards in many cases)….. When I read his citation I had to wonder, how often had Charles stood at a remembrance parade, and his MBE and Coronation medal had got overlooked and possibly plain ignored on parades, thinking it to be just another “good duty” one (MBE’s are now handed out like sweets, and to be honest have lost a lot of their meaning because of it)….. but in this case, how wrong could anyone be…….. this MBE was awarded in lieu of a George Cross in 1940. (The George Cross is the Civilian version of the Victoria Cross, the premier award for Gallantry you can get!)
Charles Alfred Sleeth, Skipper of the steam trawler WARREN (172 tons) was awarded the MBE in the London Gazette on the 20th of January 1942 (probably for an action circa. 1st August 1940) for driving off an enemy air attack.
The trawler was suddenly attacked by an enemy bomber. Fifield, who was already at the gun, was hit by machine-gun fire. Although bleeding profusely, he stayed at his gun, firing steadily. The Skipper meanwhile left the bridge to fetch rockets to warn other ships. By this time the gunner was weak from loss of blood and the Skipper took his place at the Lewis gun. It seems probable that while firing some 300 rounds, Fifield hit the enemy, as part of the fuselage was seen to fall. When at the gun, the Skipper succeeded in piercing the plane’s under-carriage during a very close attack in which three more bombs only just missed the trawler, whose steering was damaged. After being hit in this last attack, the bomber flew away. Fifield showed unflinching bravery in standing to his gun when wounded and his rapid, and probably successful, fire shook the attacker. The Skipper set a fine example throughout, and when he in turn took over the gun, his fire undoubtedly drove off the enemy, enabling him to bring his ship safely home.
Again I was taken back to thinking about this man wearing his MBE on parade, and whether or not anyone knew what it was for, whether he really cared if they did, and how brave these people could be.