Ninety-eight years ago, on 22 May 1920 the former Royal Navy hospital ship and troop transport SS Dongola arrived in England carrying some of the last British and French refugees to flee Bolshevik Russia. Amongst the passengers was also the final batch of British prisoners of war, who had been captured a year before during the operations in North Russia. One of their number was Second Lieutenant Robert Dodds MC, DCM, MM of the Royal Engineers Signal Service.
Dodds was subsequently commissioned into Royal Signals just prior to the Second World War and was made an MBE for his service in North Africa. I came across him while researching something completely different a few years ago and intrigued by his multiple decorations—he was one of only two men to receive this combination of awards—I saved on my computer the London Gazette that recorded his retirement, meaning to return to it later. It became one of the catalysts that prompted my wider study of Royal Signals gallantry awards.
He is an excellent example of a significant number of decorated soldiers whose gallantry awards are, by necessity, consigned to a footnote in this project. It was an aspiration to record the awards made to those who earned them prior to joining Royal Signals but that has proven to be an impossible, or certainly an extraordinarily difficult task. Instead, those awards published prior to the formation of the Corps earned by those who were later decorated in some fashion while serving with Royal Signals will be included in footnotes for completeness.
Nonetheless, the full story of Dodds’ repeated gallantry is worth recounting.
Robert Norman Dodds was born on 25 November 1895 at Lemington, Northumberland (now part of Newcastle-upon-Tyne); he was baptised in the Church of the Holy Saviour in Sugley on 7 January 1896. His father, Thomas, was a clerk at Spencer’s Steel Works and after he left school Robert Dodds joined Spencer’s to work with the mill’s chemist.
In 1912 he enlisted into the Territorial Force and joined the Northumbrian Divisional Engineers. The unit was training in North Wales when war broke out and immediately returned to Newcastle, where it was formally mobilised the next day. Initially engaged in its war role to protect and maintain the industrial infrastructure around Newcastle, most men volunteered for overseas service and the Northumbrian Division embarked for France in mid-April 1915. Dodds, by now a Lance Corporal, disembarked at Le Havre with the leading elements of the Divisional Signals Company on 17 April and two days later joined the Divisional Headquarters at Steenvorde near the Belgian border. The Division’s brigades were soon detached to other divisions and committed to the Second Battle of Ypres. Lance Corporal Dodds was in No. 2 Section, which supported the Northumberland (later 149th) Brigade. The Section’s first casualties occurred on 25 April when the Section Commander, Lieutenant Bainbridge was killed in action and five Sappers were wounded.
By the late spring of 1916 Dodds had been promoted to Serjeant. His first award for gallantry was the new Military Medal, instituted on 25 March 1916 for ‘…non-commissioned officers and men for individual or associated acts of bravery…in the Field’. The first awards, including Serjeant Dodds’, were announced in the Birthday Honours on 3 June 1916. It is not known in which action it was earned but it was one of five gallantry awards to officers and men of the Divisional Signals Company that appeared in this Gazette, and which were recorded in the Company’s war diary. Serjeants Dodds and Jensen were presented with their medals by Lieutenant General Sir William Pulteney, General Officer Commanding III Corps, at a ceremony on the afternoon of 28 August 1916.
Serjeant Dodds’ second award—the Distinguished Conduct Medal—was noted in the Company’s war diary on 20 December 1916 and published in the London Gazette on 26 January 1917. This award was for his gallantry during the attack in atrocious conditions by 149th Brigade against Gird Trench and Hook Sap near the Butte de Warlencourt, north-east of Le Sars, on 14 November 1916. The Signal Company’s war diary recorded: ‘Communications with Brigade maintained throughout operations. Communications with front line lost periodically. Very valuable information sent back by pigeons.’ Dodd’s citation stated:
‘For conspicuous gallantry in action. He organised parties for laying and maintaining telephone cables under very severe fire. He set a splendid example throughout.’
Later in the year Serjeant Dodds was wounded and evacuated for treatment at hospital in the United Kingdom. When he recovered from his injuries he was posted as an instructor to the Royal Engineers Signal Service Training Centre at Haynes Park in Bedford. There he was selected for a commission and joined the Royal Engineers Officer Cadet Battalion; he was commissioned on 23 March 1918.
Second Lieutenant Dodds volunteered to serve with the force being raised for service in North Russia and arrived in Murmansk in the autumn of 1918 to join the Signal Company supporting ‘Syren Force’. A transcription of a letter that he wrote in April 1919 to Captain A E Odell MC, an officer with whom he had served in France, gives some idea of his work.
‘Dear Mr O’Dell,
No I never got the letter you ask about, but your letter of the 2-2-19 was more than welcome. I really was beginning to think you had quite forgotten me in your busy time but as you haven’t I will try & tell you a little about myself though there really isn’t much to tell—Well one is really up against it here because one has no trained men to work with & the shortage of personnel is another great drawback. In fact the only men who can do Morse are the wireless personnel. Then the communications are so extensive (mine being 100 square miles being i/c of Sig’s of one of the forces) My personnel consists of a total of 30 n.c.o’s & men—6 of them being W/T operators, 15 Russians & the rest British speaking men who don’t know anything about the work & who I use as exchange operators—I’ve three exchanges & about 100 phones in use & it takes one going all day to keep things in order—then we often do stunts—quick moving one’s I use sleigh’s & have had made as cable wagon’s & lay about fifteen miles at a stretch. Another tough problem is where we have to keep Comms with a party marching through the woods, we have to wear snow shoe’s & I’ve had two small sleighs made one to run off the cable & the other to carry 10 miles of DII cable. (We find DII best as its very light & when one has to pull it, it’s rather a job) of course we put it on the trees as much as posts & often thank God that we have no ladder lines as I am afraid I would have to do the work myself. Another difficulty is the breaking of the ice well I’ve got to cross a river 300 yds wide twice—but the worse period is when the ice begins to break & when the river is free from ice – as I am afraid submarine cable will get cut to pieces by the ice packing – anyway I am trying three methods. Permanent line, ordinary cable under water & lead covered cable & I am hoping one of them holds good.— I’ve already got the P L across. But I’m afraid the span is too great & I’ve got the ordinary cable under the ice & buried four feet on each bank & wooden piles put in where the cable enters the water to protect the cable & now I’ve only to put the lead covered in—anyhow I hope for the best—But I would give anything to have the old section here then one would be able to cope with difficulties of any kind—still I’m hoping to keep the Commn going as I’ve never lost it yet.
I shouldn’t mind being with you again at Eaucourt l’Abbeye. Just to have the old times over again—though I confess they were pretty hot—but its dreadfully cold here & I need a change.—Re the demobilisation well they have talked a lot about it here—but that’s all—& I may say that I am quitting the army at first opportunity but it may not be to go back to test tubes. I’ll throw them down in disgust—if something more exciting turns up I’ll switch off the test tube’s & take on the exciting hiss.—I wonder if you are out of the army by this time I hear quite a lot are. Trusting you are in the best of health.’
In March and April 1919 at Bolshie-Ozerki British soldiers of 6th Battalion, Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment) and United Sates soldiers of 339th Infantry Regiment faced a much larger Red Army force in a series of bitter engagements in harsh weather conditions. Here Dodds added a Military Cross to his decorations:
‘During the attacks on Bolshee-Ozerki (sic) on 23rd March and 2nd April 1919, he worked unceasingly under heavy fire from the enemy, and, after having established signal communication, continued, at great personal risk, to keep in touch with the different attacking parties. It was his disregard for danger and splendid spirit that inspired his men to keep up communication at all risks when exposed to great danger.’
With word spreading of the imminent Allied withdrawal, in July 1919 White Russian troops in the Arkhangelsk Governorate mutinied. Dodds was part of the Onega River Force, a formation of White Russian units, with a British liaison staff led by Lieutenant Colonel R J Andrews DSO, MC. The headquarters of the force was based at Chekuyevo, near Onega, garrisoned by 5th Regiment, North Russian Rifles. In the most serious of the mutinies, on 20 July the Russian mutineers took prisoner 10 officers and 22 other ranks of the British liaison staff, a visiting staff officer, and their own Russian officers; they then surrendered the Onega front to the Bolsheviks. During the mutiny at Kleshova one officer was murdered—Captain Allan Brown, a British born officer of the Australian Imperial Force.
In his report after repatriation, Dodds wrote:
‘…on the 20 July ’19 at about 12 noon whilst working in my office I heard a commotion in the street – in looking out of the window I saw Col. Andrews and the Russian Colonel with some Russian soldiers – I went outside (without any arms) to see what was the matter & found that the Russian troops had revolted and had taken the two Colonels prisoners and also found myself in the same predicament – I was then taken to the guard room and the same evening handed over to the Bolo.’ 
All of the British prisoners were sent to Vologda, (where a White Russian interpreter, Sergeant I C Siminoff, was shot), and then on to Moscow, which they reached on 10 August and where they remained until repatriation. In Moscow one British soldier, Sergeant E G Blunden, died in September that year.
In early May 1920, Dodds was amongst a party of 16 officers and four other ranks transported by train to Sestroretsk, north-west of St. Petersburg on the Sestra River (then the border with Finland). With 340 British, French and Danish refugees, the released prisoners sailed onboard the SS Dongola from the Finnish resort port of Terijoki (now Zelenogorsk, Russia) on 13 May via Helsinki and Copenhagen; they arrived back in England on 22 May.
Dodds relinquished his commission in August 1920 and was granted the rank of Captain. He returned home and, true to his word, did not return to the steel mill chemist’s shop. Instead he worked as a farmer at Corbridge-on-Tyne, near Hexham. There he married Mary Burdus, a farmer’s daughter, in the spring of 1921.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Dodds was granted an emergency commission in Royal Signals. He served in the Middle East, in Eighth Army Signals, and for his conduct during the withdrawal from Tobruk to El Alamein in June 1942 he was made an MBE.
‘This officer was in charge of the rear parties of linemen who were responsible for keeping all the permanent lines of Eighth Army through till the last moment, destroying them when ordered and then withdrawing. This necessitated a very complete knowledge of all the lines in successive positions, a complete liaison with surrounding units and formations, good positioning of his parties and a very fine judgement in giving the executive order to withdraw at the right moment compatible with the parties not becoming casualties. Major Dodds carried out this duty during the whole withdrawal from Tobruk to El Alamein. His cheerful help and advice and efficient handling of the situation at all time was largely contributory to the efficiency of line communications of Eighth Army throughout the withdrawal.
Captain Robert Norman Dodds MBE, MC, DCM, MM left the Army at the end of the war in 1945; he was granted the honorary rank of Major. He returned to his farm at Corbridge-on-Tyne and in 1946 became the county secretary of the National Farmers Union, a post that he held for 15 years. He died on 21 November 1973, just before his 78th birthday, at Close House residential care home in Hexham.
1. (Back) The other was Major John Joseph Heath MBE, MC, DCM, MM, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who also earned his Military Cross, Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal in the First World War and was made MBE for his service in the Second World War.
2. (Back) Thomas Dodds married Annie Heddon on 20 June 1892 at Heddon-on-the Wall, Northumberland. There were two older children of the marriage: Herbert James and Jane Heddon Dodds. Herbert Dodds served with The Northumberland Fusiliers during the First World War before being commissioned into The Durham Light Infantry in 1917. He was attached to the Corps of Army Accountants in 1919 and relinquished his commission in 1921. In the inter-war years, he established a business as an accountant in Staffordshire. He was appointed to a commission in the Second World War but was dismissed from the Army after being convicted of fraud on 14 July 1944 and sentenced to three years penal servitude.
3. (Back) Dodds was allocated the regimental number 1934 and was renumbered 463188 when the Territorial Force changed its numbering system in 1917.
4. (Back) On 13 May 1915, the Northumbrian Division became 50th (Northumbrian) Division.
5. (Back) The National Archives (TNA). Public Record Office (PRO). (1914-1917). War Diary of 50th Northumbrian Divisional Signals Company. WO 95/2822/1.
6. (Back) Killed in action: Lieutenant Thomas Lindsay Bainbridge, 1/5th Battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers attached Northumbrian Divisional Signals Company; he is buried in Birr Cross Roads Cemetery. Wounded: 1950 Sapper R White; 1929 Sapper A E Bennett; 1945 Sapper F Short; 1931 Sapper H W Brown; and 1946 Sapper W Storey.
7. (Back) London Gazette 5 April 1916. Issue 29535, page 3647.
8. (Back) London Gazette 3 June 1916. Issue 29608, page 5589.
9. (Back) Other awards: Military Cross: Captain Charles Lane Bagnall and Captain Arthur Godfrey Shaw (both infantry attached). Military Medal: 1442 Serjeant N Jensen, and 1360 Corporal W J Rushforth.
10. (Back) Later Lieutenant General Sir William Pulteney GCVO, KCB, KCMG, DSO.
11. (Back) London Gazette 26 January 1917. Issue 29921, page 1023.
12. (Back) TNA. PRO. (5 August 1915-26 January 1917). Gazette of Distinguished Conduct Medal, pages 001 – 074. WO 391/5/1.
13. (Back) For a full account of this action by 50th (Northumbrian) Division see: Wyrall, E. (1939). The Fiftieth Division: 1914-1919. pp 183-191. Bradford: Percy Lund, Humphries & Co.
14. (Back) London Gazette 20 April 1918. Issue 30641, page 4791.
15. (Back) Dodds, R N. (8 April 1919). Letter to Captain A E Odell MC. The Estate of Albert Edward Odell.
16. (Back) Now Shchukozerye, Arkhangelsk Oblast.
17. (Back) London Gazette 15 July 1919. Issue 31456, page 8980.
18. (Back) On 7th July, 1st Battalion, Slavo-British Legion (a White Russian unit trained and equipped by the British) mutinied. Four British officers were murdered and a fifth later died of his wounds: Lieutenant Cecil Francis Ramsden Bland MC, The Princess Charlotte of Wales’s (Royal Berkshire Regiment); Captain Aubrey Malcolm Cecil Finch, Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-shire Buffs, The Duke of Albany’s); Lieutenant Gerald Noel Gosling MC, The Gloucestershire Regiment; and Lieutenant Thomas Comber Griffith, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. All were buried together in a single grave in Semenovka British Cemetery, Bereznik on the southern bank of the Dvina River; all are commemorated on special memorials in Archangel Allied Cemetery. Captain David Buik Barr MC, The East Lancashire Regiment died of wounds on 13 July 1919; he is buried in Archangel Allied Cemetery.
19. (Back) Lieutenant Colonel Richard John Andrews DSO, MC, The Welsh Regiment. Andrews died in an accident in 1923.
20. (Back) Brown, who served during the First World war with the 49th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, at Gallipoli and in France, was buried in Kleshova Cemetery and reinterred in Archangel Allied Cemetery on 3 June 1925. On 22 July, a detached force of 5th Regiment, North Russian Rifles at Kozheozersky Monastery also mutinied and arrested its officers and two British officers and a Sergeant. On 25 July, the Royal Navy monitor HMS M.26, commanded by Lieutenant Commander A C Fawssett, rescued the elements of the British force at Onega that had not been handed over to the Bolsheviks. Lieutenant Commander Arthur Charles Fawssett was awarded the Distinguished Service Order: ‘For distinguished services in command of HMS ‘M26’, and in charge of operations off Onega, 30th July to 2nd August 1919, which he carried out with great skill, courage and coolness. London Gazette 11 November 1919. 31638, p 13745.
21. (Back) TNA. PRO. (1914-1922). War Office: Officers’ Services, First World War, Long Number Papers. Lieutenant Robert Norman Dodds, Royal Engineers. WO 339/116739.
22. (Back) S/436619 Sergeant Edward George Blunden, Royal Army Service Corps. Died in Moscow on 1 September 1919. Commemorated on the Archangel Memorial, Archangel Allied Cemetery, Russia.
23. (Back) London Gazette 18 February 1943. Issue 35908, page 860.
24. (Back) TNA. PRO (1941-1943). Recommendation for Award for Dodds, Robert Norman. WO 373/76/513. Originally recommended for a Bar to the Military Cross, the recommendation was changed to an MBE personally by Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Montgomery, who initialled the change.