A rare 1920 ‘Iraq Insurgency’ M.C. group of six awarded to Captain J. M. Roche, Royal Field Artillery, attached Inland Water Transport, Royal Engineers, late Elswick Battery, Northumberland Volunteer Artillery, for his gallantry in maintaining the defence of H.M. Gunboat Greenflyafter she had run aground in the Euphrates, 10 August 1920; it is likely that he was the only survivor of the Greenflyafter her crew mutinied and handed her over to the Arab insurgents
Military Cross, G.V.R., unnamed as issued; Queen’s South Africa 1899-19023 clasps, Cape Colony, Orange Free State, Transvaal (7228 Dr. J. M. Roche, 1st. Nthld: Vol: Art:) rank and initials officially corrected; 1914-15 Star (2.Lieut. J. M. Roche. R.F.A.); British War Medal 1914-20 (Lieut. J. M. Roche); Victory Medal 1914-19 (Lieut. J. M. Roche.) re-impressed naming; General Service 1918-62, 1 clasp, Iraq Capt. J. M. Roche.)
M.C. London Gazette 10 August 1921:
‘For gallantry and devotion to duty as commander of the defence vessel Greenfly. He maintained the defence of this vessel whilst it was aground in the Euphrates, six miles above Khidr, against continual assaults from numerous insurgents, from 10th to 20th August 1920.’
James Michael Roche attested for the 1st Northumberland Volunteer Artillery and served with the famous Elswick Battery in South Africa during the Boer War.
Commissioned Second Lieutenant, he served with the Royal Field Artillery during the Great War on the Frontier Regions of India from 29 August 1915.
Promoted Lieutenant, he served on attachment to the Royal Engineers (Inland Water Transport), with the rank of acting Captain, in Iraq and Mesopotamia in operations against the insurgents from 24 March 1919.
Whilst serving in Iraq, Roche served as commander of H.M. Gunboat Greenfly, one of 16 shallow-draught gunboats that formed the Tigris Flotilla. Like the other ships of the ‘Fly’ class she had a displacement of 98 tons and was 126 feet long and 20 feet in the beam. However, in order to cope with the extreme variations in depth on both the Tigris and the Euphrates, her draught was only two feet. Her armament consisted of one 4-inch main gun, one 12-pounder, one 6-pounder, one 3-pounder, one 2-pounder anti-aircraft pom-pom, and four Maxim machine guns. As Ian Rutledge, in his book Enemy on the Euphrates recounts:
‘The crew consisted of two officers (Captain Roche and Second Lieutenant A. G. Hedger), and 20 infantrymen. Ordered to patrol the Euphrates north and south of Samawa, throughout July and early August 1920 she steamed up and down the river, engaging and destroying insurgent positions and strongholds wherever they were encountered. However, on 10 August, while heading down river to help defend the town and railway station of Khidr, Greenflyran aground on a sandbank six miles from her destination. A sitting target for the insurgents, over the next week intense efforts were made to pull Greenflyoff the sandbank, often in the face of accurate enemy fire, but without success and at the cost of rising casualties. On 20th August, as the insurgents fire became more intense, a final effort was made- her sister gunboat, H.M.S. Greyfly, accompanied by two launches, each carrying a company of Indian troops, managed to reach the Greenflyand made strenuous efforts to try and re-float theGreenfly. However, the mud of the Euphrates, whose water-level was rapidly falling, had closed further upon her, and she was stuck. Not wishing to see the Greenfly captured by the insurgents, the British had two options: to abandon and scuttle the gunboat, or to leave the crew onboard, additional supported by an Indian escort, well equipped with rations and ammunition, ready for a second major rescue attempt as and when the necessary ships and special equipment could be assembled.’
The second option was chosen, and at this point Captain Roche left the gunboat to return to Khidr, leaving her under the command of Second Lieutenant Hedger.
Rutledge continues: ‘By 30th September the situation on board the ship was getting desperate, and Hedger sent the following message, “Food is the great question on board, but if your arrangements are successful I expect that we shall be able to hang on. The condition of the crew is really very good considering the very severe shortage of rations that we have all experienced. Our spirits are still ‘up’ although at times we have all felt very depressed. I have lost one Indian and I have one British Other Rank severely wounded; besides these casualties I have one Indian wounded and 3 or 4 men sick owing to weakness caused by lack of food. Give us rations and we will have the heart and spirit to stick it out to the end.”
It was to prove the last communication from the Greenfly. Precisely what happened to the crew and escort will never be known. Only one body, that of a European, was ever found, and none of the crew of escort were ever seen again. It appears that sometime around 3 October the Indian troops may have mutinied, killed Hedger and the British other ranks, and then handed the ship over to the insurgents. The rebels then boarded the ship, stripped her of her guns and remaining ammunition, and set her alight. Such was the conclusion of the court of inquiry held some months later, although it was stressed that “no absolute proof of this has been obtained”.’
Regardless of this, the crew of the Greenfly were never seen again, and it is likely that Roche was the sole survivor of the gunboat after it ran aground. Roche himself relinquished his commission on 18 February 1921, and was granted the rank of Captain.
The Great War awards re-issues, generally VF