Friday, 14 November 2014

Men of Yore: Leo Gradwell

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

Lieutenant Leo Gradwell

Leo Gradwell DSC was born in Chester; a British barrister, a magistrate and a Second World War Royal Navy volunteer, who in July 1942 against orders, led his own RN-adapted Trawler HMS Ayrshire and three merchant ships from the disaster of Convoy PQ 17 into Arkhangelsk, Soviet Union.[1]

Early life
Born Leo Joseph Anthony Gradwell in Chester UK, Gradwell was educated at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire and then read classics at Balliol College, Oxford.[1] By the time he graduated, he spoke six languages, and joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman, serving in the First World War.[1]

At the cessation of hostilities, Gradwell was discharged from the Navy and started a pupillage in Liverpool and was called to the bar in 1925. He entered chambers in Liverpool, then practised as an advocate on the Northern Circuit.[1] During his spare time, he enjoyed sailing in the Irish Sea[2] and gained a coastal navigation certificate.

Second World War
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Gradwell was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Lieutenant.[2] He was given command of the anti submarine warfare adapted 575 long tons (584 t) Middlesbrough-built trawler MS Ayrshire, renamed HMS Ayrshire (FY 225),[3] with a crew of volunteer fishermen.

Attached as part of the defensive net around Convoy PQ17, on receiving the third order to scatter on 4 July 1942, Gradwell concluded that as he was heading north to the arctic ice shelf, he might as well take some merchant ships with him. Leading his convoy of Ayrshire plus three merchant vessels – the Panamanian-registered Troubador, the Ironclad, and the American-registered Silver Sword[4] – he proceeded north using only a sextant and "The Times World Geographic Pocket Book", as his vessel lacked charts for this part of the Atlantic. On reaching the Arctic ice pack, the convoy found itself stuck fast, so the ships stopped engines and banked their fires.[4] Gradwell arranged a defence, formulated around the fact that the Troubador was carrying a cargo of bunkering coal and drums of white paint: the crews painted all the vessels white; covered decks with white linen; and arranged the Sherman tanks on the merchant vessels decks into a defensive ring, with loaded main guns.[5]

After a period of waiting, and having evaded the reconnoitring Luftwaffe aircraft, finding themselves unstuck they proceeded to the Matochkin Strait in Novaya Zemlya.[2] They were found there by a flotilla of corvettes,[2] who escorted the four-ship convoy plus two other merchant vessels to the Russian port of Archangel, arriving on 25 July.[1][2] Appointed Distinguished Service Cross on 15 September 1942, he later went on to command the ASW adapted whaler HMS Thirlmere (FY 206).[6]

London magistrate
After the end of hostilities, Gradwell returned to his career in court. He was made a stipendiary magistrate on the London circuit at Marlborough Street Magistrates' Court in 1951, where he shared an office in a tempestuous relationship with Edward Robey, the son of comedian George Robey.[7] A few months later he contracted polio, and after successful treatment overcame his disabilities to return to his magistrates position.[1] Dealing mainly with licensing cases,[8] during his career Gradwell processed the case of Stephen Ward during the Profumo affair,[1] committing Ward for trial at the Old Bailey in July 1963.[9]

After the British publishing rights to Hubert Selby, Jr.'s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn' were acquired by Marion Boyars and John Calder in January 1966, Gradwell was the judge for the private prosecution brought by Sir Cyril Black, the then Conservative Member of Parliament for Wimbledon. The public prosecutor brought an action under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act, which Gradwell agreed with and ordered that all copies of the book within the Magistrate's Court be seized.[10] Expert witnesses spoke, "unprecedentedly,"[11] for the prosecution, including the publishers Sir Basil Blackwell and Robert Maxwell.[11][12] The order was overturned by a successful appeal issued by the lawyer and writer John Mortimer resulted in a judgment by Mr Justice Lane, which reversed the ruling in 1968.


Leo Gradwell provides us with an example of how a man can act during a time of crisis: by thinking clearly, using the resources available to him, and respecting others.  He and his ship were abandoned by his superiors while he was travelling in a hostile environment (both in terms of weather and enemies).  Despite this he did not follow the example of his superior officers and abandon his own men to the enemy, rather he made the best of a bad situation and used whatever resources and knowledge he had to hand in order to safeguard their safety (including a sextant and newspaper guide for navigation, Sherman tanks for defence).  This shows some personal qualities that we could all do with if we find ourselves in the mire: level headedness, ingenuity, and respect for others.
That mire may be one that our former self dumped us into (such as falling into debt to fund a hedonistic lifestyle), or it may be one that other people have dumped us into (such as Gradwell’s case), whoever is responsible for the predicament there is usually a chance of change for the better.  We always have the opportunity to make the best of a bad situation so long as we keep our head, and make use of the people and resources around us.


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