Michael 'Michel' E. T. D. Vlasto, RNVR
World War l, 1914-18 04-2000
This article is based on a few items of memorabilia relating to the wartime experiences of Michael 'Michel' E. T. D. Vlasto, RNVR, who served with the Royal Navy in the Falklands, the Aegean and Mediterranean. These involve two sea battles, a posthumous brush with Rupert Brooke and some unexpected intelligence gathering.
By Christopher Long
ichael 'Michel' E. T. D. Vlasto(1888-1979) was born in Paris, spent his childhood at 7 Rue Lamennais and was educated at the Lycée Carnot in Paris and Winchester College in England from 1901-03. By 1914 he had qualified as a surgeon at University College Hospital, London, and adopted British nationality (1913, with help from Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary).
Above: HMS Canopus firing on Turkish forts in the early phase of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915.
Right: The telegram that instructed Surgeon-Lieutenant Michael Vlasto to leave his post at University College Hospital, London, and to join his ship, HMS Canopus, at Devonport.
Below right: HMS Canopus probably at anchor in the Aegean
This ageing pre-dreadnaught battleship saw action in the battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands in late 1914. At Coronel she had the sad task of taking command of the remains of Admiral Craddock's ravaged squadron and reporting the defeat to the Admiralty.
At the Falklands she had only practice rounds in the breaches of her rear guns when she launched salvoes at German cruisers which threatened to trap and destroy the entire Britsh battle squadron as it lay at berth in Port Stanley. Thanks to her prompt action the British squadron had time to raise steam, pursue the fleeing German vessels and sink them one by one in the South Atlantic.
In this photograph (above right) the presence of an awning over the rear decks suggests that the picture was taken in the Mediterranean or Aegean where she was on station in Spring and summer of 1915 serving as a communications and hospital ship during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
It was from this ship that arrangements were made for the burial of Rupert Brooke on the island of Skyros in April 1915 and that the British handled intelligence communications with agents ashore.
Enclosure No. with letter from "CANOPUS", No.9,
dated th. November 1914.
COPY OF W/T SIGNAL
To Governor, Falkand Islands.
Date 7th. November 1914. 8.30 p.m.
Please send following message to British Minister Montevideo for Admiralty and Admiral, 5th. Cruiser Squadron.
Begins. At 4.40 p.m. Sunday, 1st. November, "CANOPUS" then in latitude 41.20 S., longitude 76.10 W., course N 10 W speed 9 knots, with colliers "BENBROOK" and "LANGOE", and
XXXXXXXXXXX approximately 200 miles south of our cruisers "GOOD HOPE, MONMOUTH, GLASGOW and OTRANTO, intercepted XXXXX signal from GLASGOW to GOOD HOPE that enemy had been sighted.
CANOPUS raised steam full speed and proceeded to northward.
At 8.45 p.m. received first intimation that squadron had been engaged from GLASGOW. Signal read "Fear GOOD HOPE lost, our squadron scattered".
CANOPUS continued course to northward at full speed until 1 a.m. Monday, 2nd. November, in hope of rendering assistance to any ships being chased by superior force, Ship's position being signalled.
At 1 a.m. having had no communication except from GLASGOW since 6 p.m. 1st. November, made rendezvous with GLASGOW who was steering SW, 20 knots, and steered to cut off colliers and order them return to Falkland Islands.
3.30 a.m. Signalled colliers to return Falkland and altered course to southward and gave ship's position to GLASGOW with orders to overhaul CANOPUS and rendezvous Falklands. Reduced speed to 14 knots.
It was blowing southerly gale with heavy sea.
There was systematic jambing [sic] by enemy's ships from 4.30 p.m. 1st. November until 5 a.m. 2nd. November, rendering it most difficult to obtain signals.
GLASGOW passed ahead night of 2nd. and proceeded through Magellan Straits and made rendezvous with CANOPUS in Spiteful Bay, Friday, 6th. at daylight when CANOPUS escorted her to Falklands, she being short of coal and unseaworthy from gunfire and gale from S W.
OTRANTO'S position at 5 p.m., Monday, 2nd. November, was latitude 39.36 S., longitude 78.6 W., course S. 18 W., 17 knots. rendezvous at Falklands was signalled her.
Her position on Friday, 11 p.m., was latitude 55 S. Longitude 63 W., course N.25 E., speed 14 knots. She was ordered Monte Video by CANOPUS.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
Handwritten note by M. E. T. D. Vlasto: Canopus Lat. 51S Long 59.18W Course S72E Speed 12 kt.
Signal above: At 08h:30 on 7 November 1914, this vital signal was made from HMS Canopus to the Admiralty in London (via the governor of the Falkland Islands and the British minister in Monte Video) describing the first contact between British and German ships at Coronel and the disastrous consequences of the subsequent actions. The author's grandfather, Surgeon-Lieutenant Michael Vlasto, kept this carbon-copy of the signal and annotated it with the time, position and speed of Canopus, no doubt aware of the great significance of the battle in which he was taking part. (Author's collection)
Picture above: Journalism has always been unreliable! HMS Otranto was in fact involved in the Battle of Coronel on 1 November 1914.
The poet Rupert Brooke was serving as a Sub Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, a day or so away from joining the Gallipoli Campaign, when he died of blood poisoning aboard a British hospital ship in Tris Boukes Bay, the Aegean, on 23rd April 1915 Easter Sunday. Owing to hostilities, arrangements for Brooke's burial on the island of Skyros were hampered by communication difficulties between the British and Greek governments.
A signal from London was made to HMS Canopus in which Surg. Lt. Michel Vlasto was serving and was also responsible for hospital ship casualties. As the only Greek-speaking officer aboard, Vlasto was asked to translate the message to be forwarded to the Greek government in Athens. However, a small error resulted in him requesting that Brooke's body be 'exhumed' rather than 'buried'.
The two words are rather similar in Greek, though this would have been of little comfort to a man who had grown up in the Greek community in London and spent five years at Winchester College where classics loomed large on the syllabus!
The note [above right] was written by Michel Vlasto's daughter Helen Long (née Vlasto).
Brooke was in fact buried hastily by his fellow officers at night and his grave marked by a stone cairn and an inscription which read: Here lies the servant of God, Sub-lieutenant in the English Navy, who died for the deliverance of Constantinople from the Turks.
Soon after the war his mother laid out his present grave inscribed with his best-known work, The Soldier:
If I should die, think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England. There shall be / In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; / A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, / Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam. / A body of England's, breathing English air, / Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. /// And think, this heart, all evil shed away, / A pulse in the eternal mind, no less / Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; / Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; / And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, / In hearts at peace, under an English heaven. (August 1914)
Poignantly, he must have written the following, Fragment, on board ship and only days before the carnage of the Gallipoli campaign which he was not to see:
I strayed about the deck, an hour, to-night / Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped / In at the windows, watched my friends at table, / Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway, / Or coming out into the darkness. Still / No one could see me. /// I would have thought of them - / Heedless, within a week of battle - in pity, / Pride in their strength and in the weight and firmness / And link'd beauty of bodies, and pity that / This gay machine of splendour 'ld soon be broken, / Thought little of, pashed, scattered... /// Only, always, / I could but see them - against the lamplight - pass / Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass, / Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave's faint light, / That broke to phosphorous out in the night, / Perishing things and strange ghosts - soon to die / To other ghosts - this one, or that, or I. (Spring 1915)
"Nicholas J. Vassilakakis
Grocer & Ship-Chandler
Canéa & Suda Bay Crete
Please inform to the Captain H. S. Grant [captain of HMS Canopus] that last night left Tenedas 10 Turks for the another part at Turks coast (?).
[Message in Greek with additional translation notes written by Michel Vlasto]
The above is one of the few remaining bits of evidence of Surg. Lt. Michael Vlasto's brief foray into intelligence work. Here he was asked to act as an intermediary between the Royal Navy and a Cretan Greek acting as an intelligence agent.
The agent, Vassilakakis, is advising the navy on the redeployment of enemy Turks on the island.
Vlasto was also ordered to pass on approved information for local consumption and press publication [see Gallipoli below] and that HMS Canopus was acting as a signals conduit between London and its spymaster in Athens, Compton Mackenzie. The two men apparently had close and probably fairly frequent contact in 1915.
It is easy to understand how Michel Vlasto, a British naval officer who spoke Greek and was of Greek ancestry, would have been invaluable to Mackenzie. However, it seems that Vlasto's 'recruitment' was an informal arrangement of purely passing convenience.
Sixty years later, in conversations with the author, Michel Vlasto was typically diffident and reticent about what these intelligence activities had involved. But he maintained a friendly and admiring contact with Mackenzie for several years after the First World War, despite the former intelligence officer's notorious prosecution by the British government following his publication of a book of wartime memories.
About forty years later, towards the end of their lives, Vlasto made a last contact with Mackenzie but the shaky reply had all the hallmarks of a very old man who was by now extremely frail.
Compton Mackenzie (above left) had been head of the British secret service counter-espionage section in Athens from 1915 to early 1916. He is now best remembered as a reknowned author not least of Whisky Galore but it was as an intelligence officer that he played a key rôle in organising Britain's espionage services within the Aegean theatre, as well as planning and executing clandestine operations against the Germans in Greece and against others in the region who were considered enemies of the Entente.
For further information, see:
This information, published in the Greek press, was supplied by Surg. Lt. Michel Vlasto, perhaps in return for the intelligence he was asked to collect from Greeks acting as agents and informers for the Royal Navy... [see example above]. It's likely that Compton Mackenzie wanted this information to be fed to the local press for strategic purposes.
"There are missing today from the several anchorages of the [British] fleet the special hospital ships, the special aeroplane ship and the fleet-line battleships. We do not know up till now the extent of their action. In the direction of the narrows can be distinguished thick smoke of vessels in motion but it has not yet been established whether these are warships or other vessels.
A doctor of an English battleship, Vlasto by name, ensures us that a definite undertaking for the passage of the narrows has been decided on by the English but that a day has not yet been fixed.
He also informs us that the Turks have guns within the forts operated by electricity which are hidden within special fortifications after firing."
The 'narrows' referred to above are the Dardanelles and the 'action' is presumably the Allied attack, prior to the Gallipoli campaign, on Turkish gun positions which caused serious damage to British warships. The humiliating Gallipoli episode claimed the lives of over 100,000 on both sides before allied troops were withdrawn later in 1915.
HMS Canopus though powerful, was relatively old and slow. She was presumably moving north, along with her hospital ships, to support the impending attack on the Turkish batteries in the Dardanelles and the massive allied invasion of Gallipoli on the opposite shore.
[The originals of the above documents are the property of the author.]
The Scottish writer Compton Mackenzie was one of the star officers of MI6 during the World War l. He was the an outspoken supporter of Scottish nationalism who once described himself as a Jacobite Tory. Born in 1883, Mackenzie had made his reputation as a writer before joining the ill-fated Dardanelles expedition in 1915. Invalided out of the army soon afterwards he was recruited by British Intelligence in the eastern Mediterranean and was soon in charge of counter-espionage for the Aegean region at Intelligence HQ in Athens. So impressed was 'C' (Sir Mansfield Cumming, head of MI6) with Mackenzie's performance that he proposed that Mackenzie become his second-in-command once the war was over. Instead, Mackenzie returned to writing and in 1932 ran afoul of the authorities for publishing details of his secret service work in the third volume of his war memoirs Greek Memories. Prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, he was tried and found technically guilty at the Old Bailey in January 1933. Like so many others who have been shabbily treated by SIS/MI6, Mackenzie had his revenge. A year later he published Water On The Brain a savage and caustic satire on the absurdities of the secret service!
Meanwhile, in c. 1917 (above right) on the home front, Michel Vlasto's young nephews and nieces were demonstrating solidarity with him and Britain's wartime navy! In the fashion and patriotic spirit of the times the girls are wearing straw hats with HMS (Superior?) written on the bands. The children are: Fanny Zarifi, Theodore Demitriadi, Hélène Zarifi and Georgie Demitriadi, probably outside No. 29 Porchester Terrace, London the home of their grandmother, Helen Vlasto (née Zarifi).
In 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the battles of Coronel and the Falklands, the Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust commemorated these two poignant sea battles with an exhibition at the Historic Dockyard Museum, Stanley.
Items from this page were among the many exhibits used to tell the dramatic and tragic stories of these two battles. Museum manager Leona Roberts says that assembling these exhibits has sometimes been heartbreaking:
"... Wherever I can I am using extracts from letters and postcards home there’s something so special about them... it is just heartbreaking to think of all those sons lost…"
© (2012) Christopher A. Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated.
No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.