Admiral Sturdee (1859 – 1925)
As I was walking through the graveyard of St Peter’s Church in Frimley away from the church a little while ago, my attention was caught by a rather unusual gravestone. It is conventionally shaped but the centre is cut out and replaced with a wooden cross. On further investigation I found that the timbers making up the cross were from Nelson’s HMS Victory – Trafalgar and all that – and what I was looking at was the grave of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Frederick Sturdee, 1st Baronet, GCB, KCMG, CVO no less.
Born in Charlton in 1859, Sturdee joined the Navy as a cadet on the training ship HMS Britannia at the tender age of twelve. He became a career sailor and took part in the bombardment of Alexandria in July 1882 during the Anglo-Egyptian War. Commanding the cruiser HMS Porpoise off Australia he became involved in a tense stand-off with the Germans who were disputing control of the Samoan Islands with the Americans and for his diplomatic skills was promoted to captain and appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1900.
Sturdee rose up the naval ladder to the point that he was made a vice-admiral in December 1913 and Chief of War Staff at the Admiralty in July 1914. At the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile on 1st November 1914 the British navy suffered its first naval defeat since the Battle of Lake Champlain in the Anglo-American war of 1812, von Spee in his famous Scharnhorst surprising the Brits, sinking the Good Hope with the loss of 1,600 hands and forcing the Glasgow and Otranto to flee. The Germans sustained a handful of casualties and entered the Chilean port of Valparaiso to the cheers of the German community there.
Sturdee in his desk role was under fire for the unpreparedness of the British fleet. Reeling at this humiliation Churchill assembled a new fleet and asked our hero to sort out the mess he had created. They sailed off to the South Atlantic with orders to hunt von Spee down.
On 8th December 1914 Sturdee found his target off Stanley in what we call the Falkland Islands and proceeded to attack. The Germans, recognising that they were facing a superior force turned and fled but Sturdee steadfastly pursued them, sinking almost the entire squadron including the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Only a light cruiser, the Dresden, escaped but was finally hunted down in March 1915. For his restoration of British naval pride and for winning the so-called battle of the Falkland Islands, Sturdee was created a baronet in March 1916.
His war didn’t finish there. He commanded a squadron in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and became a full admiral in May 1917, eventually retiring from active service in 1921 when he was made Admiral of the Fleet. He retired to the Frimley area which is why he ended up in the local graveyard.
Sturdee seems to have been a bit of a Marmite character. A biographer penning in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, wrote, “Sturdee was an able naval officer and an effective squadron commander. Despite being an indefatigable student of his profession, however he never grasped the higher demands of war and failed as a chief of the war staff. His vctory at the Falklands was both fortunate and ironic.” Another recorded that Sturdee “perhaps became a trifle conceited after his victory of von Spee”.
Whatever the truth, Sturdee is one of the most famous residents of the graveyard. Sturdee Close is just off Bret Harte Road, just as the Admiral’s grave is to the right of that of the Immortal Bilk.