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Francis Oakeley

The young Francis Eckley Oakeley spent his early years on the Welsh borders with his family. He was born the fifth son of the Reverend James Oakeley, the Vicar of Holy Trinity Hereford, and his wife Frances on 5th February 1891. Educated initially at the Hereford Cathedral School at the age of thirteen Oakeley entered the Royal Naval College at Osbourne on the Isle of Wight before transferring two years later to Dartmouth to complete his naval training. At the time these were essentially specialized boarding schools preparing their students for naval life. Unlike today, parents paid fees for their children to attend as they would at any other boarding school, although the syllabus followed would naturally have been somewhat different with subjects such as seamanship and navigation interspersed with the more traditional disciplines. Oakeley completed his schooling at Dartmouth in 1908, now entering the fleet as a Midshipman at the age of seventeen to gain practical experience to complement his theoretical knowledge.

Although still the most junior of officers Oakeley was soon spotted by the selectors’ of the Royal Navies rugby team, being selected for his first naval cap against the Army on March 4th 1911 at the Queens Club whilst still a midshipman serving in the home fleet. This match was lost by thirteen points to twenty two, but others would follow. In November of this year with his sea training complete Oakeley was promoted to Sub Lieutenant. Even with his new duties as a fully fledged officer in the fleet Oakeley’s sporting prowess, both as a fencer as well as a rugby player, continued to grow as he played scrum half for both the Navy and the United Services. His second naval cap came on 2nd March 1912, this time with a victory against the Army by sixteen points to eight. The match was watched by King, George V and the Prince of Wales and was the first match of rugby that the monarch had attended. Later on 30th October that year Oakeley was again on show, this time for a combined services side fielding the Officers’ of the Navy and Army against the touring South Africans. Staged at Portsmouth the visitors were victorious in a narrow eighteen points to sixteen victory despite a valiant fight back by the services side. In match reports Oakeley was commended for his efforts both in attack and defense as he matured into a well rounded half back.

1913 was an important year for Oakeley. On March 1st he was again selected for the Navy side that faced the Army in the annual fixture at the Queens club. This year the Navy were again victorious winning by eighteen points to eight. So comprehensive was his domination of the Armies scrum half that it is quite possible that it was this match that fixed him firmly in the sights of a new set of selectors, those of England . Just two weeks later he made his debut appearance for his country on March 15th against Scotland at Twickenham. Oakeley’s technical proficience was noted during the three to nil victory that assured England their first grand ever slam, the Times stating “F E Oakeley did the “donkey work” with mechanical accuracy, passing at a nice pace well in front of his partner.” It was also in 1913 that Oakeley transferred to HMS Dolphin and began his induction into the fledgling submarine service of the Royal Navy, and further gaining promotion to full Lieutenant in November that year.

Oakeley continued to flourish on the rugby pitch during 1914. Once more selected for the Army match on March 7th he brought his tally of Naval caps to four, although this time ending the match on the loosing side as the Army won by sixteen points to twenty four. Despite the result Oakeley himself played well scoring a try and as the Times put it “the constant attacks of Oakeley and Davies on the top of their form often disorganized the Army defence.” His form that season was suitably impressive that the England selectors retained Oakeleys’ services behind the scum for most of the season. He was capped against Ireland , Scotland and France as England retained the championship with a second successive grand slam. After the French match the Times said “F E Oakeley got the ball away quickly and did a lot of defensive work.” At four caps Oakeley’s international career was now unbeknownst to all over. All too soon there was work to be done.

Assigned to HMS D2, a “D” class submarine that had been commissioned in 1911 Oakeley left the rugby pitch and entered active service. The D2 was soon engaged in operations as she took part in the battle of Heliogoland Bight on August 28th 1914 just weeks after the outbreak of hostilities. She, along with her sister HMS D8 formed part of an outer cordon off Ems ready to attack any German reinforcements heading towards the action. The battle was a resounding success for the British forces with The Germans losing three light cruisers whilst the British escaped without loss. It also caused the Kaiser to dictate that the German Navy was to avoid further major actions without his express permission effectively, at least for a while, negating the German surface fleet as an entity. Although not directly engaged in this action the wartime patrols for the D2 were to continue.

Three months later whilst operating out of Harwich a double tragedy struck the D2. On November 23rd the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Jameson, was lost overboard in bad weather. Despite the best efforts of Oakeley, his second in command, after two hours of searching it became clear that there was no longer any possibility of his survival in the prevailing rough seas. Reluctantly Oakeley returned to base. The day after their return, the 25th November, D2 was again sent on patrol with a new commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Head joining Oakeley and the rest of the crew on board. She was never seen again. It is believed that she was rammed and sunk by a German Patrol boat whilst patrolling off Borkum on the German Dutch border. Lieutenant Francis Oakeley, referred to as a ‘Warrior Sportsman’ by a contemporary article, was lost along with all hands on board the D2 that day.


"The Complete Who's Who of England Rugby Union Internationals", R Maule,  Breedon 1992

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© D A Hunter, 2008
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