Petty Officer Percy Kempster DSM

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Having been researching twelve australian great war soldiers who lie in Portsmouth, little did I expect to come across a Portsmouth-based naval rating who died whilst serving with the Royal Australian Navy.

Percy John Kempster was born in Southampton, on 24 October 1883. Kempster initially joined the Royal Navy at the age of 16, in 1899. In late 1907 Percy married his wife Beatrice, in Portsmouth. After completing his service with the Royal Navy – including service on submarines at HMS Dolphin – Kempster joined the Royal Australian Navy on 24 October 1913, for an initial period of 5 years. Upon joining the RAN he was immediately promoted to Leading Seaman, and passed for eventual promotion to Petty Officer in due course.

It seems that Kempster’s main task upon joining the RAN was to form part of the crew delivering Australia’s first submarines. HM Submarines AE1 and AE2 were built at Vickers, and accepted by the Australian Navy at Portsmouth in February 1914. They finally left Portsmouth on 2 March 1914, escorted by the Light Cruiser HMS Eclipse. They finally arrived in Sydney Harbour on 24 May 1914, an epic voyage on such small, cramped vessels. After his arrival in Australia Kempster came under the command of HMAS Penguin, an ex Royal Navy sloop being used as a Submarine Depot ship.

Whilst Kempster was in Australia the First World War began. Obviously unhappy at being thousands of miles away from the action, after completing such an epic voyage Kempster returned to Britain. How exactly is unclear, but on 1 January 1915 he came back under the command of the RAN’s London Depot, serving in Royal Navy submarines. British and colonial personnel often interchanged on postings. Hence it is not a surprise that Kempster fought in the Royal Navy, even though he was technically an Australian rating.

On 20 January 1916 Percy Kempster was promoted to Petty Officer, and on 10 August 1917 he was appointed a Submarine Coxon – a key job on such small and demanding vessels. For service on HM Submarine G8 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, announced in the London Gazette on 2 November 1917, for ‘services in action with enemy submarines’. Early submarines were much smaller than their modern equivalents – the G Class only having a crew of 31 men.

Sadly, Kempster did not survive the end of the war. On 14 January 1918 HM Submarine G8 was lost in the North Sea. The exact cause of her loss remains unknown. Petty Officer Percy Kempster is remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial. He was 34. At the time of his death his unit was given as HMS Lucia, a Royal Navy submarine ship. His wife Beatrice was living at 180 Fratton Road in Portsmouth.


Filed under Navy, portsmouth heroes, World War One

25 responses to “Petty Officer Percy Kempster DSM

  1. John Erickson

    Good lord, they SAILED those subs from Britain to Oz? I would’ve thought they would tow them, or load them on ocean-going barges, or something. What a horrid job! I’ve seen parts of the US “S” boats, which pre-dated our WW2 boats, and they were horribly creaky and cramped – and they were luxury liners compared to WW1 boats.
    I’m not surprised that the circumstances around his boat’s loss were undetermined. The early boats were a gamble every time they dove – going underwater was just as dangerous as actually getting shot at or depth-bombed!
    A great tale, James. Thank you!

    • James Daly

      They did sail them indeed – quite an epic journey for 1914, considering the first submarine had only sailed a matter of a decade or so before! I believe that they two subs took it in turn to be towed by the escorting Cruiser, but this still meant that they effectively sailed at least halfway around the world – and even being towed can’t have been a picnic.

      They have one of the very early, pre-WW1 subs at the Sub Museum in Gosport, and my god, it’s like a baked bean tin. Incredibly brave men. My great-grandad was on WW1 subs actually, L52 if my memory serves me right.

  2. Percy Kempster was my wife’s grandfather. His daughter May Beatrice died in 2009, aged 98, she always said he was a lovely man as well as being a hero.

    • James Daly

      Hi Norman, it’s great to hear from you. Percy Kempster’s story is a very impressive one indeed. Do you know if any pictures of him survive?

  3. James I have one photo of him which is on my current post ANZAC Day on my blog at or I can send it to you by email.


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  18. Wendy Hughes

    Percy Kempster was my Grandfather as a child in approx 1950 my Dad took me to see the memoriAl by the Guildhall. Now at the age of 73 I am discovering what amazing things he did in his short life.

  19. Wendy Hughes

    My Father was Percy Kempster my Grand father was Percy Kempster who was married to my Grandmother Beatrice. We are very proud to have had such a courageous Grandfather and also very sad that he died at such a young age, leaving a widow and to young children, my Father was sent to a naval school in Kent but ended up in the Royal Air Force

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