Brave Sailor's Grave Marked After More Than 70 Years

HMS Devonshire (image courtesy Royal Navy)

Published Jun 1, 2020 1:56 PM by Royal Navy News

More than seven decades after he died, a sailor finally has a gravestone befitting his gallantry. Historians have ensured George Niven is no longer forgotten by marking his resting place in a Birmingham cemetery.

In July 1929, the then 32-year-old was serving aboard brand-new heavy cruiser HMS Devonshire. The ship was testing her eight-inch main guns with a shoot off the Greek island of Skiathos when there was a misfire, causing a tremendous explosion which ripped the roof off the turret The blast killed or gravely injured all but one man working inside.

Together with a midshipman, George Niven was among the first men to respond to the accident, following the junior officer into the wrecked turret, helping to evacuate the wounded, many of whom were badly burned, as cordite explosive charges burned fiercely.

When the officer went further down into the bowels of Devonshire to see if anyone else needed assistance, Niven went with him, vowing: “I am not going to let him go down alone.” When the midshipman had returned to the upper decks, Niven remained below checking if any more shipmates needed assistance.

Eighteen men died in the tragedy – all bar one a Royal Marine – and they are honoured with a memorial plaque at the Corps’ Stonehouse barracks in Plymouth.

George Niven (Royal Navy)

George Niven – originally from Edinburgh and a veteran of the Great War – plus Midshipman Anthony Cobham were awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal for their bravery, a decoration subsequently replaced by the George Cross, second only to the Victoria Cross.

He continued to serve in the Royal Navy through a second world war, settled with his wife Rosie in Birmingham and died in the Midlands city in February 1947, aged just 49.

Niven was buried in Yardley Cemetery – roughly half-way between the city center and airport – and if the grave was marked 73 years ago, it wasn’t when former soldier Steve Davies visited the site as part of an initiative to clean, restore and refurbish war graves.

The unmarked plot prompted the ex-Royal Green Jacket to work with VC historian Mark Green, the VC and GC Association, Birmingham City Council and local stonemasons Loxley Memorials to ensure George Niven’s final resting place is officially marked. Through the research, Steve finally managed to trace a member of the sailor’s family, George Niven’s granddaughter, who lives in Adelaide, Australia. Once the pandemic is over, there are plans to formally rededicate the grave in the presence of serving sailors and Royal Marines.