George Gunn was born in Skerray on the 15 October 1891, son of William Gunn of Tubeg and Hughina Mackay. They were married in Thurso in 1889. He was employed as a herring fisherman before the First World War. In the 1911 Census he is at home with his widowed father, 2 brothers, his aunt Angusina Gunn and her son John. His occupation is listed as Fisherman. He and his brother Alexander were both members of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.
He left the R.N.R base in Thurso bound for Chatham in Kent on the 5th of May 1915, he spent sometime on HMS President a drill vessel in London. He also served on armed Merchant Ships called DAMS, Defence Armed Merchant Ships, one of these was the SS Orvieto a Royal Mail Ship which had sailed between Britain and Australia. This ship was requisitioned and was used as an armed cruiser and mine layer in World War 1. George left the crew of the Orvieto on the 24 May 1916.
On his return to Chatham he was promoted to Leading Stoker. He then served on 2 further ships which were sunk by enemy action, one of these the SS Newark was sunk on the 22 July 1917 when George was among the crew rescued from the sea.
He then joined the new crew of H.M.S. Vanguard at Chatham and the advance guard was already committed to its new posting when on the 17 of July 1917 an accidental fire on board H.M.S. Vanguard reached the ammunition magazine; the ship blew up and sank at Scapa Flow. At Chatham dockyard the advance party of 130 men arrived to find that they now had no ship to crew and was placed in the drill hall at the naval barracks.
On the night of 3 September 1917 German Gotha bombers flew s over Eastchurch around 11:00 p.m and began to follow the moonlit River Medway towards Chatham. The raiders continued
their approach unchallenged and found the town fully illuminated and completely unprepared for an attack.
Previously the Germans had only attacked from the air during daylight hours but took the decision to raid at night due to the increasing loss of bombers from daytime raids. The bombing raid of 3 September 1917 was therefore the first of the night or ‘moonlight’ raids and took the Medway towns completely by surprise.
As a result, no anti-aircraft guns opened fire and no British fighters were sent to combat the enemy. The Gotha attack was further facilitated by a dreadful lack of communication between the key authorities:
Owing to a defensive mix-up (practice alert earlier in the evening
meant that telephone warnings of a real raid, which were intended
to notify the electrical department and a power station to extinguish
all lights at once, were not taken seriously and ignored).
Ironically, local people had even been warned to expect the testing of the night air defences and would naturally have assumed that the actual raid was just part of the practice alert:
In one Chatham cinema, just as the raid was beginning, a notice was
flashed upon the screen telling people not to be alarmed. The Gotha was equipped with only ‘primitive bomb sights and the most rudimentary of target locators’ so bombing was, to some degree, indiscriminate. The raiders would go on to drop a total of seventeen bombs in the districts of Gillingham and Chatham; the accuracy of their bombs owing as much to ‘tragic ill chance’ as the skill of the German pilots.
Two 50kg bombs made a direct hit on the Drill Hall, crashing through the glass roof and exploding on the concrete floor of the sleeping quarters. Some reports stated that the bombs did little damage to the concrete floor of the Drill Hall and thus ‘expended all their force upwards’
The hands of the clock in the tower were frozen at 11:12 p.m., giving the exact time the bombs hit the Drill Hall. What followed was truly terrible, as the quarter inch thick glass roof fell in:
There were some terrific explosions, and before we knew what
was happening the roof was lifted sheer off the hut, blown up in to
the air, and fell into a thousand pieces on to the men. It was the
falling glass, which was very thick and very heavy that did the
damage. As most of the men were asleep and wearing only their ‘night attire’ they could do little to protect themselves from the lethal shards of falling glass. The result was horrific.
Ordinary Seaman Frederick W. Turpin went to the scene to help with the wounded. He recorded what happened in his notebook:
'It was a gruesome task. Everywhere we found bodies in a terribly
mutilated condition. Some with arms and legs missing and some
headless. The gathering up of the dismembered limbs turned one
sick….It was a terrible affair and the old sailors, who had been in
several battles, said they would rather be in ten Jutlands or Heligolands than go through another raid such as this.'
Officers and the surviving ratings who were able to ‘tore at the rubble with their bare hands’ in their efforts to find those lost beneath the debris of the shattered Drill Hall. The work of the rescuers continued through the night and was only completed some seventeen hours later on Tuesday afternoon:
Seaman George Gunn was killed whilst asleep in his hammock in the aerial bombing of the Chatham barracks drill hall at the age of twenty-five, his brother Alex who also served on H.M.S. Pembroke survived the First World War and returned home to Skerray. Alexander’s daughter Hughag lives at Clashnastruag in Skerray today.