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Lieutenant Augustus Willington Shelton Agar VC

Suffolk has its share of holders of the Victoria Cross but we have just found another which was awarded to an ‘adopted son’ whilst cataloguing articles on the restoration of Coastal Motor Boat, CMB-4, at the International Boat Building Training Centre at Oulton Broad in the 1980s. CMB-4 was built in 1916 by Thornycroft and saw active service first in World War One and later in a campaign to aid the White Russians against the Bolsheviks.  CMB-4’s operations were so secret in 1919 that when Skipper Lieutenant Augustus Agar was awarded the VC it was known as the ‘mystery VC’ because the citation did not reveal why the medal was awarded.

CMB-4 being restored at the International Boatbuilding Training Centre, Oulton Broad in 1984 (1785/2/5)

Augustus Willington Shelton Agar, to give the Lieutenant his full name, joined the naval cadet force in 1904 and worked his way up through the ranks finding himself at the end of World War One at the CMB base at Osea Island, Essex. Whilst serving at this base he was approached by Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first head of the foreign section of the British Secret Intelligence Service, known to us as M16, to volunteer for a mission in the Baltic.  The mission, which seemed to be a suicide mission, was to bring a British agent back to the England from Bolshevik Russia and here it turns into a tale worthy of any spy novel or movie.

Paul Henry Dukes, MI6 codename ST-25, had in his possession copies of top secret documents, but he was stranded in Petrograd, these days St Petersburg, with no way out.  Dukes was the last British agent in Russia and he had been infiltrating the Bolshevik government for some time, but by 1919 his options had run out and the borders had been sealed.  A succession of couriers who had tried to cross them had been captured; six were betrayed, tortured, and shot in a fortnight; so it was definitely time to get Paul Dukes out of the country and away from the Cheka (the secret police) FAST!  So, a high-speed boat landing at a pre-arranged rendezvous on the coastline near Petrograd was planned to retrieve Paul Dukes.  To do this Agar’s boats had to cross Bolshevik minefields, pass the island fortress of Kronstadt with its 15 forts as well as evading gunboat patrols, submarines, and seaplanes all guarding the entrance to the Bolshevik naval base at Kronstadt and on passing all of these obstacles to continue on to Petrograd to pick up Paul Dukes. To further complicate the process the forts were connected by a hidden breakwater which was only 3ft under the surface and with CMBs drawing 2ft 9in of water there was no margin for error.

3 images of CMB-4 undergoing restoration at the International Boat Building Training Centre. Oulton Broad in 1984 (1785/2/5)

The base for the suicide mission was at Terijoki, a Finnish village on the north coast of the Gulf of Finland and close to the Russian border. Agar however it seems was not content with the James Bond scenario in which he found himself and felt that the small force should be doing more seeing that the Bolsheviks had seized much of the Russian fleet at Kronstadt.  He considered this act a danger to British operations in the area and as there was no prospect of contacting Paul Dukes Lieutenant Agar decided, against orders, to launch an attack on the Oleg which had been hammering the White Russian garrison trapped in the nearby fortress of Krasnaya Gorka.  Six men set out on the night of the 17 June 1919 in two boats with the intention to sink the cruiser and her crew of 565, but one of the boats had to abort with engine failure fairly early in the mission.  Undeterred Agar continued on alone into the bay and with great skill and seaman ship worthy of Nelson and other celebrated naval greats CMB-4 slipped passed three destroyers and launched a torpedo at the Oleq from a distance of about 900 yards.  Then, and only then, did Agar retreat to the safety of the open bay under heavy fire.

As a result of this raid Lieutenant Agar, who was just 29 at the time, was awarded the Victoria Cross.  It also resulted in the Russians putting a price on his head of £5,000 which was why he was not openly acknowledged at the time and why this Victoria Cross became known as ‘the mystery VC’.   His actions also gained him a promotion and on 30 June 1919 Lieutenant Agar was also promoted to Lieutenant Commander.

Early in the morning of the 18 August Agar went out again with six other Royal Navy CMBs and sped into the Russian naval base and at a cost of eight killed and nine captured the ‘team’ managed to damage two battleships – a pre dreadnought Andrei Pervozvanny and a dreadnought Petropavlovsk and sink a submarine depot ship the Pamiat Azova.  Two further Victoria Crosses were awarded for this raid and Agar received the DSO, not bad for ‘two nights work’!

Preparations for transporting CMB-4 from the International Boatbuilding Training Centre, Oulton Broad, to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, 1984 (1176/2/2/2/17)

All this action and the team had yet to fulfil their orders of rescuing the spy Paul Dukes. Various attempts came and went and the 13th attempt to pass the forts when disastrously wrong; so much so that the Russian propaganda convinced Paul Dukes that Agar and his men had been killed in the attempt to rescue him.  At this point he abandoned all hope of rescue by sea and decided to leave Petrograd by land and in an escape worthy of any spy novel/film; jumping from tram to tram to evade the Cheka and escaping through Latvia using a variety of disguises [his nickname was the ‘Man of a Hundred Faces’], Paul Dukes managed to get back to London with his secret documents intact and copied onto tissue paper. For Dukes’ exploits he was knighted and has the honour of being the only man ever to be knighted based entirely on his exploits as a spy.

A century later things are not so secretive and it is now possible to have some idea of the exploits of Lieutenant Augustus Willington Shelton Agar which resulted in the awarding of a Victoria Cross. If you would like to see Agar’s VC it on display at the Imperial War Museum, London 

along with his liquid compass and telescope.  His other medals, papers etc are also held there in storage.  If you would like to hear the man himself oral history tapes of an interview with Lieutenant Agar’s from 1967 are also available at the Imperial War Museum

Alternatively, if you would like to read a more detailed account more about these daring exploits Lieutenant Agar published his memoirs Baltic Episode in 1963.  More recently in 2010,he was the subject of a book written by Harry Ferguson Operation Kronstadt: The True Story of Honor, Espionage, and the Rescue of Britain’s Greatest Spy, the Man with a Hundred Faces

If you would like to see Coastal Motor Boat 4 she was placed on permanent display at the Imperial War Museum Duxford following her restoration at the International Boatbuilding Training Centre at Oulton Broad

So CMB-4 has definite links to Suffolk having been restored here but I hear you cry how is Augustus Willington Shelton Agar, an ‘adopted son’ of Suffolk?  Easy!  He was born in Kandy, Ceylon in 1890 the son of an Irish tea planter, but at the age of eight was sent with one of his brothers to be schooled in England where he attended Framlingham College.  On leaving the college he went straight to Eastman’s Royal Naval Academy to prepare for his life in the Royal Navy.  And what a life!

This ‘tale’ really should be an action movie