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River Pageants and Fleet Reviews

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with Admiral Si...

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with Admiral Sir Alan West on board HMS Endurance at the Trafalgar Fleet Review in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I did find it quite amusing watching the coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Thames River Pageant. A lot was made of how we haven’t had one since the times of Charles II. Presumably, we are led to believe that such an event is incredibly rare and fitting for such an occasion. The reality is, that for virtually every coronation or Jubilee in recent centuries, we have held a Fleet Review, normally at Spithead in the Solent.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was marked by a fleet review, as was the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. George V’s coronation was marked in a similar fashion in 1911, as was his Silver Jubilee in 1935. A Coronation Review followed in 1937 for George VI. A Coronation Review was held for our current Queen in June 1953 (plan of the fleet at anchor), and then another for her Silver Jubilee in 1977 (plan of the fleet at anchor). The first major Royal event for over a century to not be marked by a fleet review was the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 – ostensibly on the grounds of cost, but one suspects because we haven’t got anywhere near enough ships to make a decent review. A Fleet Review was held in 2005 to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (list of ships present), and one suspects that this event was given primacy because international navies were probably more likely to attend a fleet review for this than one for a Golden Jubilee.

Much has been made of the fact that the Royal Navy has shrunk so much in intervening years that we do not have enough ships to form a large fleet review. In the opinion of this historian, it’s just a sign of the changing of times. Britain no longer has an Empire, and thus no need for a navy the size of that that it had in the late Victorian period. I’m sure none of us would like the tax bills – and no doubt the bankruptcy – that would come from maintaining a massive fleet of warships without the finances to do it. Also, a cursory glance down the Royal Navy’s Fleet Bridge Card shows that most ships are either on operations, about to go on operations, have just returned, or are in refit. There isn’t much time for spit and polish in the modern, threadbare operational tempo.

But, as a Portsmouth person, it is a shame that the Solent cannot play its traditional part in marking such a major royal event. For all the wonderful post-modernist rhetoric about the Thames River Pageant, it is a face-saving event, make no mistake about it. Whatever the rights or wrongs about it, it is a sign of change.

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Portsmouth and Jutland: the forgotten battle?

Photograph of British destroyer HMS Spitfire a...

If you had to pick one sea battle with which Portsmouth is irrevocably linked, it would probably be the Battle of Trafalgar. In terms of Portsmouth’s place in the nation’s history, Trafalgar, Nelson and 1805 probably represents the most glorious example of how Portsmouth helped to launch the Royal Navy onto the worlds seas.

Yet 111 years later, thousands of Portsmouth sailors and literally hundreds of ships with Portsmouth connections fought out one of the largest sea battles in history. Almost 9,000 men were killed on both sides, compared to ‘only’ about 1,500 at Trafalgar. Why is it that hardly no-one knows about the Battle of Jutland? Why has Portsmouth’s role in supporting the Royal Navy of 1914-18 been almost completely overshadowed?

HMS Victory at Trafalgar – of her crew of 846, only FIVE men were born in Portsmouth. True, most of the other 841 may well have lived in or at least visited Portsmouth at some point in their lives, but five people still represents only 0.6% of her entire crew. My research has shown that at Jutland, on the capital ships this figure was nearer 10%.

So far, I have found 492 men from Portsmouth who were killed at Jutland. By ‘from Portsmouth’, I mean people who were born here, or were born elsewhere and moved to the town. The true figure of Portsmouth dead at Jutland will in all likelihood be much higher, as many men entered on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission‘s website have no location details, so it would take an awful lot of work to go through each of the 6,000 Royal Navy fatalities to identify if they had any Portsmouth connections. I would guess that the likelihood is that out of a Battlecruisers crew of say 1,000, a large percentage are likely to have either lived in Portsmouth, or been born there. And what about the men who might not have been born here or lived in the town, but spent significant time in the Naval Barracks, or on runs ashore in Portsmouth?

HMS Acasta – Acasta was the lead ship of a class of Destroyers, and was launched in 1912. She was damaged at Jutland, with the loss of six of her crew, one of whom was Chief Stoker George Howe. He is buried in Milton Cemetery, so either he died of wounds or his body was recovered.

HMS Ardent – Ardent was an Acasta Class Destroyer launched in 1913. She was sunk at Jutland on 1 June 1916, by the German Battleship Westaflen. Of her crew of 75, 10 of those killed were from Portsmouth.

HMS Barham – a Queen Elizabeth Class Battleship, Barham has a pretty interesting place in Portsmouth’s history, as possibly the only ship that suffered fatalities of Portsmouth men in both world wars. Commissioned in October 1915, Barham was hit five times at Jutland. 25 of her crew were killed, including her Chaplain, who came from Portsmouth. Reverend Henry Dixon-Wright was born in Wallington in Surrey, but in 1916 was living in Stanley Street in Southsea. He obviously died of wounds, as he is buried in Lyness Naval Cemetery near Scapa Flow.

HMS Black Prince – Black Prince was a Duke of Edinburgh class armoured cruiser launched in 1904. She was sunk at point blank range by five German battleships on the night of 31 May and 1 June 1916. All of her crew of 857 were lost, with 99 of them coming from Portsmouth.

HMS Broke – Broke was a Faulknor class Destroyer Leader launched in August 1914, originally built for the Chilean Navy but taken over by the Royal Navy after the outbreak of WW1. HMS Broke was devestated by fire from the Westfalen, killing 50 of her crew and wounding 30. 2 of the dead came from Portsmouth. After Broke was hit, she went out of control and rammed HMS Sparrowhawk, causing further casualties (see below).

HMS Castor – Castor was a C class light cruiser. She suffered relatively light damage at Jutland, with ten of her crew becoming casualties. One of those killed was from Portsmouth – Chief Yeoman of Signals Daniel MacGregor, aged 38.

HMS Chester – Chester was a Town class light cruiser, launched in 1915 for the Greek Navy, but taken over by the Royal Navy after the outbreak of war. At Jutland she was hit by 17 150mm shells; out of her crew of 402, 29 men were killed and 49 were wounded. Two of the dead were from Portsmouth – Chief Yeoman of Signals William Roy, 38 and from Southsea; and Lieutenant George Walker-Williamson, also from Southsea. Boy John Cornwell won a posthumous Victoria Cross on HMS Chester at Jutland. Photos show that the Chester suffered serious damage, and it is remarkable that so few of her crew became casualties.

HMS Defence – Defence was a Minotaur class armoured cruiser, launched in 1907. At Jutland she was hit by two salvoes from five German battleships, causing her after 9.2in magazine to explode. It is believed that up to 903 men were killed, including 14 from Portsmouth.

HMS Fortune - HMS Fortune was an Acasta class Destroyer, sunk by fire from the Westfalen. 67 men were killed, and only one was rescued. 14 of those killed came from Portsmouth.

HMS Indefatigable – 10. HMS Indefatigable was the lead ship of a class of Battlecruisers, launched in 1909. Shells from the German Battlecruiser Von der Tann caused a catastrophic explosion of her magazines. Of her crew of 1,017, only three survived. Ten of the dead were from Portsmouth, suggesting that she was not, in the main, a Portsmouth-manned ship.

HMS Invincible – Invincible was the lead ship of a class of Battlecruisers, and was launched in 1908. Having fought at the Battle of Heligoland Bight and the Battle of the Falklands, by 1916 she was an experienced ship. At Jutland Invincible was sunk by fire from Lutzow and Derfflinger, a shell from which penetrated the Q turret, and caused a huge explosion of the midships magazine.  1,026 men were killed, including 130 from Portsmouth. There were only six survivors.

HMS Lion – HMS Lion was the lead ship of another class of Battlecruisers, and was Vice Admiral Beatty’s flagship at Jutland. Lion was hit 14 times, suffering 99 men dead and 51 wounded. 8 of those killed came from Portsmouth She had fired 326 rounds from her main guns.

HMS Malaya – HMS Malaya was a Queen Elizabeth class Battleship, and had only been commissioned in February 1916. At Jutland she was hit eight times, and 65 of her crew were killed. One man came from Portsmouth – Cooks Mate Frederick Watts, aged 23. He is buried in Lyness Naval Cemetery near Scapa Flow, suggesting that either his body was recovered, or he died of wounds.

HMS Nestor -HMS Nestor was an M-class Destroyer, launched in 1915. She was sunk at Jutland. Many of her crew of 80 were lost, including one man from Portsmouth – Petty Officer Stoker George Hawkins, 29 and from Harley Street in Fratton.

HMS Nomad – The Nomad was a sister ship of HMS Nestor, and was only launched in February 1916. She was sunk by fire from the German battlecruisers. Out of her crew of 80 only eight men were killed, but two them were from Portsmouth – Able Seaman Walter Read, 30 and from Norland Street in Southsea; and ERA 2nd Class George Willis.

HMS Princess Royal -Princess Royal was a Lion class Battlecruiser, launched in 1911. Princess Royal was hit eight times at Jutland, by Derfflinger and Markgraf. 22 of her crew were killed, and 81 were injured. Among the dead were Portsmouth men Leading Stoker George Daniels, 34 and from Southsea; and Royal Marine Gunner Ernest Gamblin, 36 and from St Helens Road in Southsea. The sight of a seriously damaged Princess Royal returning to Portsmouth after the battle shocked many.

HMS Queen Mary -Queen Mary was a Battlecruiser, the sole ship in her class, and was launched in 1912. Early in the battle she was hit twice by Derfflinger, causing a catastrophic explosion in her magazines. Out of her crew of 1,284, only eighteen survivors were picked up. 124 of the dead came from Portsmouth.

HMS Shark -Shark was an Acasta class Destroyer, launched in 1912. Attached to the Battlecruisers at Jutland, she led a torpedo attack on the German scouting group. She was heavily damaged, and her Captain lost a leg. The ship was abandoned, and only 30 of her crew survived. Among the dead were 15 Portsmouth sailors.

HMS Southampton – A town class light cruiser, Southampton was damaged at Jutland but survived the battle. Out of her crew of around 440, 31 men were killed. Five of them came from Portsmouth.

HMS Sparrowhawk – Sparrowhawk was another Acasta class Destroyer, sunk after a collision with HMS Broke (above). One Portsmouth man was killed, Petty Officer Stoker Albert Jones.

HMS Tipperary – Tipperary was a Faulknor class Destroyer leader. Launched in 1915, she was originally ordered by Chile, but taken over by the Royal Navy at the start of the war. After contributing to the sinking of the German battleship Frauenlob, Tipperary was sunk by Westfalen. Of her crew of 197, 184 men were lost, including 22 from Portsmouth.

HMS Turbulent – Turbulent was a Talisman class Destroyer, launched in January 1916. She was sunk at Jutland by a German Battlecruiser, with the loss of 90 out of a crew of 102. One man came from Portsmouth – her Engineer Lieutenant Reginald Hines, 32 and from Hereford Road in Southsea, an old boy of Portsmouth Grammar School.

HMS Warrior – Warrior was a Duke of Edinburgh class armoured cruiser, launched in 1905. Heavily damaged at Jutland, she sank the next day. 743 of her crew survived, 67 were killed. Two of the dead came from Portsmouth – Officers Steward 1st Class Harold Parker, 23; and Royal Marine Bugler William Willerton.

Looking at the casualty information, several things appear to be clear. Firstly, the loss sustained by Portsmouth was significant. Secondly, many of the men lost were on battlecruisers – indeed, there was ‘something wrong with our bloody ships’ that day. Sadly, the lack of armoured protection in battlecruisers was not rectified in HMS Hood, leading to even more casualties in 1941. Thirdly, although the German High Seas Fleet had given the Grand Fleet a bloody nose, it was nowhere near bloody enough to wrest supremacy of the North Sea.

Much has been written about Portsmouth and Jutland, albeit not in recent years. There are a number of statements that have been made about Jutland and its effect on Portsmouth, that were never substantiated by evidence, and have been perpetuated throughout time. Apparently one street in Portsmouth lost a huge number of sailors killed, it is believed to be 39. Also, it has been said that ‘virtually’ every street in Portsmouth lost at least one sailor at Jutland. It would be interesting to challenge, and either prove or disprove these potential urban myths.

Having said that, we know for a fact that many of hundreds of Portsmouth men were killed on 31 May and 1 June 1916. It was almost certainly the bloodiest day – or days – in Portsmouth’s history. It almost certainly had a bigger impact on Portsmouth than any of the Pals Battalion‘s losses on the Somme did on their hometowns. Yet whilst we know plenty about the Northern working class towns that suffered on the Somme, we know virtually nothing about the sailors neighbourhoods of Portsmouth that had their menfolk decimated at sea, particularly at Jutland. People just don’t seem to think of the Great War as being a naval war.

Jutland has been almost completely overshadowed by Trafalgar and the Titanic as precursors, the Western Front as a Great War contemporary, and D-Day and ships such as the Hood and the Royal Oak as Second World War successors. Yet Jutland saw much heavier losses  than any of these events.

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Trafalgar Day – Historical Irony

Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1758 1805

Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (Image via Wikipedia)

How about this for historical irony? Only two days after the biggest defence cuts since 1945, and the day after a spending review that will change the face of Britain as we know it, Royal Navy warships in harbour are dressed overall in honour of Britain’s greatest ever naval victory.

21 October 1805

On 21 October 1805 off Cape Trafalgar in Spain Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson‘s fleet closed with the combined French and Spanish fleet, commanded by Admiral Villeneuve. Nelson proposed a revolutionary tactic, sailing two Squadrons into the enemy line at right angles, in order to split the French and Spanish into three and engage and defeat them piecemeal. Previous convention had been for fleets to sail in line parallel to each other, pounding away but making a decisive result difficult. But the ‘Nelson touch’, as outlined to his Captains by Nelson prior to the battle, brought about a pell-mell battle where the British crews superior gunnery almost always won out against the French who had been bottled up in port for long periods.

The victory at Trafalgar was the high water mark of British sea power, building on a fighting ethos and reputation that went back to Drake, and other lesser-known figures such as Vernon, Hood, Hawke and Howe. The daring and spirit shown by Nelson on that day in 1805 became a byword for British naval action, and men such as Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham expanded upon this example.

Modern historians and politicians may like to ignore Trafalgar and its significance (mainly given that we decimated the French and Spanish fleets), but it did mark the beginning of the end for Napoleon, a dictator who waged war across Europe and caused the deaths of millions. Trafalgar limited Napoleon’s ambitions, to the point where he was eventually defeated for good at Waterloo in 1815. 50 years peace in Europe was the result.

Whilst the British Empire had its origins far earlier than 1805 – the fleets of Henry VII and Henry VIII, the defeat of the Armada, anti-piracy operations in the West Indies and the growth of British India – Trafalgar heralded a prolonged period of British control of the worlds seas, that lasted arguably until the Second World War. Control of the seas allowed Britain to extend a commerical empire across all four corners of the globe, in North America, the Carribean, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific.

21 October 2010

Only two days ago it was announced that the Royal Navy would be losing one aircraft carrier immediately and one soon after, one major landing ship, one destroyer, four frigates, and an auxilliary landing ship. This will leave the Royal Navy without air cover of its own, paper-thin amphibious capability (which is pointless anyway without air cover to protect it) and woefully short of escort hulls. Essentially, a whole task group is being mothballed.

Ever since 1805 British officers – and indeed sailors – have been brought up and trained that they are the ancestors of Nelson, Collingwood, Hardy and their men, and that even though weapons, ships and uniforms may change, the spirit remains the same. During the First World War Admirals and the public longed for a ‘second Trafalgar’ that would cripple the German fleet. And even though large fleet actions are a thing of the past, the sprirt has still been there – witness the service of officers such as Gerard Roope, William Hussey and David Wanklyn in the Second World War, and David-Hart Dyke, Chris Craig and John Coward in the Falklands. History matters.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the days of the British Empire and Britannia ruling waves are a distant memory, but even so since 1945 Britain has been riding the tail end of the global influence wave, thanks to the manner in which Britain and the Royal Navy are respected around the world. That respect will be a distant memory.

Not only are we talking about global influence and defence. Since time immaterial the Royal Navy has been a central part of British culture – Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column, Rule Britannia, Hearts of Oak, Portsmouth, Greenwich… people who go to see have always been romanticised, whereas soldiers are frequently seen as the scum of the earth.

It’s probably too early to tell, but 19 October 2010 may well be the day on which British Sea Power really did sail into the sunset. There is not much, after all, that you can do with a clapped out Helicopter Carrier, one main landing ship, three auxilliary landing ships and 19 Destroyers and Frigates of varying quality.

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The crew of HMS Victory at Trafalgar




Victory Crew

Originally uploaded by dalyhistory2010

Recently I mentioned the nationality of seamen in the Royal Navy at Trafalgar. Well, at the Dockyard today I snapped this information board about the crew of HMS Victory herself. Its a bit small, so heres the vital statistics again:

515 English, 88 Irish, 67 Scottish, 50 Welsh, 1 African, 1 Brazilian, 2 Danish, 4 French, 2 Indian, 6 Maltese, 1 Portuguese, 2 Swiss, 22 American, 2 Canadian, 7 Dutch, 2 German, 1 Jamaican, 2 Norwegian, 4 Swedish, 4 West Indian, 48 Unknown.

So out of a crew of 820, 720 came from the British Isles, and over 12% came from many other parts of the world. The 100 foreigners would have had all manner of reasons for joining the Royal Navy – many of them not by choice. But its clear that the Navy and maybe even contemporary society were a lot more diverse than is often thought.

Britannia did indeed rule the waves, but only with the help of some friends!

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The untold Battle of Trafalgar

I watched this documentary on Channel 4 on Monday night.

It portrays the crew of the Royal Navy ship of the line HMS Bellerophon and her crew at the Battle of Trafalgar. While I would like to believe that the story told in the programme is ‘untold’, sadly I think that previous research has already made the same points. I’m not sure how the programme makers can claim that it is based on the same research, when a full register of seamen who served at Trafalgar has been available since at least 2005 on the National Archives website here.

It has long been known that the Royal Navy was an ‘equal opportunities’ employer, long before the term was even dreamt up. And a quick glance at the database on the National Archives website shows that a fair proportion of Trafalgar sailors were not English. Many seem to have come from Ireland. Aside from England and Scotland, men onboard the Bellerophon on 21 October 1805 came from… Portugal, West Indies, Ireland, Prussia, Holland, America, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Malta, Canada and India.

I haven’t got my copy of Peter Goodwin’s Nelson’s Victory: 101 Questions and Answers immediately to hand, but I recall that one of the 101 questions was about the composition of the crew. As far as I can remember, a large proportion of the crew was non-British – possibly a larger proportion than the Bellerophon – and was possibly more diverse too.

Perhaps we need to give bygone times more credit for their lack of prejudice? This common wisdom that back in the dark ages everyone was prejudiced against each other, and now we’re striving to some kind of equality utopia, is pretty blinkered. Its just a shame that it takes a documentary based on reycled research that is freely available to anyone and everyone!

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204 years since Trafalgar

The Death of Nelson, Benjamin West

'The Death of Nelson', Benjamin West

204 years ago today the Royal Navy, under Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet, in a monumental sea battle off the coast of South West Spain.

The Royal Navy had been blockading the enemy fleet in port for several years. After the peace of Amiens collapsed in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte hatched a plan to invade England. This would require the French fleet, with the support of their Spanish allies, to gain control of the English Channel, to allow the French Army to invade Southern England. To do this, the French attempted to lure the British fleet to the Carribean.

The plan almost worked. The British were lured to the Carribean, but hurriedly returned and prevented the Franco-Spanish fleet from reaching the Channel. The British then kept them bottled up in Cadiz harbour. Meanwhile, Napoleon had tired of his naval commander, Admiral Villeneuve’s failures, and replaced him.

Before his replacement arrived, however, Villeneuve – with nothing to lose – put to sea, intent on fighting the Royal Navy.

The sides were not exactly evenly matched. Although the French and Spanish outnumbered the British by 33 to 27, the British sailors were far better trained, could produce a far greater rate of fire, and were far better seamen. This countered the enemies superiority in terms of the size of its ships. The Spanish in particular boasted the biggest ship in the world, the 136 gun, four-deck Santissima Trinidad. But the French and Spanish had spent many years cooped up in harbour, and had many inexperienced men onboard.

After briefing his Captains, his famous Band of Brothers, Nelson hoisted his famous ‘England Expects’ signal. The battle plan was ingenious. Dividing his fleet into two squadrons, they sailed parallel towards the enemy line. After suffering heavy damage as they approached the French and Spanish, once they broke the line they inflicted heavy losses. By the end of the battle the British had captured 22 ships, although many of these were sunk in a heavy storm after the battle.

The Death of Nelson, however, cast a sombre mood over the victory. Although he certainly had his faults – his adultery and treatment of his wife, and his excessive vanity – he was the nearest that England has ever come to a secular saint. Nelson and Trafalgar would shape the Royal Navy, and British culture, for centuries to come.

Despite the fact that it confirmed British superiority of the worlds oceans for over 100 years, the battle was perhaps not so important in the overall scheme of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon had already given up the invasion of Britain, and had marched east to the battle of Austerlitz. Although it would be 10 years before Bonaparte was finally defeated at Waterloo, Trafalgar did however mean that no matter how succesful Napoleon was in Europe, Britain would always be free to fight back.

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