Back in early 2011, I covered a fantastic Docu-Drama entitled The Sinking of the Laconia, the story of a liner-cum-troopship sunk by a German U-Boat in the South Atlantic in 1942. Not only is it a remarkable story, but my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard. He survived the sinking, but later died of Dysentery contracted in captivity in Vichy North Africa.
When I reviewed the TV series, the response was incredible. I had more hits in an hour than I normally have in a week. Even in the 18 months since, I’ve had hundreds of comments and emails regarding the Laconia, it really is a story that has captured the imagination of so many people. I can tell when it has been screened somewhere in the world, as hit ratings for the search term ‘Sinking of the Laconia’ go through the roof!
Yet even as incredible as the story of the Laconia is, it never ceases to amaze me that the incident is still able throw up surprises today. Two of the men who visited my blog in the days after the programme screened were John Royal and Tony Large. Both had been sailors onboard HMS Enterprise – by a huge coincidence, my great-uncle had been on the Enteprise too – and were coming home to Britain onboard the Laconia. They were in the Canteen on the Laconia when the ship was torpedoed. Separated in the chaos, they never saw each other again. They never even knew if the other had survived. Yet having both found my blog, they were reunited some 70 years later, with the assistance of Neil Pendleton who runs the Laconia page on Facebook. Even more remarkably, both had emigrated to Australia, and were living not a million miles from each other down under!
They recently met up, accompanied by many of their respective families. I share this photo with their blessing.
I can’t think of anything that I have done as a historian that has humbled me as much as being able to play a small part in reuniting these two fine gentleman, so long after they were separated by war. As I have often said about the effects of war, my grandad and great-uncle might have suffered terrible, but all of the other people affected by war were also somebody elses grandad or great-uncle, or father or son or brother. To be able to contribute to something positive, through the history of war, is so inspiring.
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.