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U3A Writing: A Hectic Fortnight In June

Rodney Imrie recalls a thrilling and right-royal fortnight in June, 1953, when he was serving in the Royal Navy.

It had been a rather wet week in Chatham Dockyard, very different from the weather we had been experiencing when we were on our Station. We had been recalled for a Very Special Occasion. Not that I had any grouse about that, it had given me a chance to get some shore leave in at home.

One of my Fathers cousins had a Television set, and I had been invited with Mother and Dad to see this wonderful new miracle of science. I travelled up from Chatham early in the morning, it was most peculiar to go through London, all was quiet with a lot of streets shut off. I managed to travel to Highgate, in sight of the big tower at Alexandra Palace, to Auntie Muriel's house. Mother and Dad were already there, together with some neighbours, so we all settled down in the darkened room to watch the proceedings.

We saw the whole of the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, what a wonderful day. Richard Dimbleby, with his regal voice switched on, gave a wonderful commentary, but I think the most memorable bit of the day was to see the Queen of Tonga so obviously enjoying herself in the pouring rain.

At the end of this momentous day, I went down the Mall and joined the crowds outside Buckingham Palace, but there was such a crush that I could not get close enough to see very much, but there is nothing like a London crowd on an occasion such as that.

When I arrived back at the ship, it smelled everywhere of fresh paint. As an Electrical Artificer working on the section called High Power, which looked after the main generators, switchboard and power distribution in the ship, my next job was to work out a system to control two fairly large power breakers from the highest point in the ship. As the ship was H.M.S. Superb, a cruiser, the highest point was the main gunnery fire control director. I had to use a long piece of wire from the switchboard, right up through the ship, but, as this was only a temporary arrangement, it had to be removed when not being tested or used. The ship sailed soon after and we had an uneventful trip down the channel to Portsmouth.

When we sailed into Spithead, off Portsmouth, it was like Piccadilly in the rush hour. There were ships everywhere! The water was being churned up by hundreds of small craft, not all of them Naval vessels. There were the very smart Barges of the larger ships, a lot of Skimming Dishes, the very small fast boats, used for taking small items (and Officers) from ship to ship, or ashore on business, and the sightseeing boats. The local fishermen must have made a fortune.

Our captain had to negotiate this confusion and put us in the correct billet, not an easy task with a ship of 11,560 tons, as we were when fully loaded. We were not stopping in Spithead for a long time. The job was not made any easier because, owing to the limited sea room, we had to moor ship. This exercise had been practised at leisure, in a secluded bay, where no one could see the initial hash that was made of it. When a ship rides at one anchor she takes a great deal of room swinging round when the tide turns, because of the long length of cable connected to her anchor, unacceptable in so crowded an anchorage as Spithead. The way to overcome this is to moor ship. One anchor is dropped, this anchor chain is paid out to about twice the normal length required. The second anchor is then dropped. The first anchor chain is then pulled in and at the same time the second is paid out until the two anchor chains are the same length.

Now comes the tricky bit. To stop the two chains becoming hopelessly knitted together by the ship always turning the same way with the tide, the anchor chain on one side has to be captured and brought inboard so that it can be split and a swivel shackle inserted; the other cable is then split and is also connected to the swivel shackle. The second cable is paid out until the swivel shackle is hanging neatly under the bow of the ship. With a cable composed of links about three feet long by one and a half feet and weighing probably about 3 cwt. each, this is not a job that is done every day.

Superb was carrying the Flag of a Commodore, so we were relatively senior and were afforded a good position in the lines. At the head of our line was H.M.S. Glasgow, followed by H.M.S. Gambia, H.M.S. Swiftsure, H.M.S. Sheffield (the "Shiny Sheff.", because all her "brasswork" was Sheffield steel and didn't need loads of elbow grease to keep it looking smart) and then us. There were many more ships behind us, immediately three cruisers, two from Canada and one from New Zealand. In all, in the line we were allocated to there were forty ships, our line was Line E. There were twelve lines, plus all the areas for the Merchant ships. The total number of Royal Navy ships present was one hundred and sixty one. One line was composed of visiting warships, sixteen in all, and that's not counting the Commonwealth navies.

Stands had been erected on the beaches, and special ones for those relatives of serving Forces at Stokes Bay, and I was fortunate to obtain two tickets for my parents for the BIG EVENT. They came down to Portsmouth, and I was able to catch a Liberty Boat and meet them for an evening out in Southsea. Portsmouth was teeming with sailors of all nationalities, even Russian seamen were there, diplomatic relations must have been better then, or perhaps they just wanted pictures of our ships.

Her Majesty the Queen did not have a Royal Yacht, so she was given H.M.S. Surprise to use as her Royal Yacht. She arrived on the evening of the Sunday, 14th June, having come down from London in the Royal Train. H.M.S. Surprise had been brought to the South Railway Jetty to pick her up, something that could not have been done had Britannia been there. Prince Phillip came down later in the evening by car, and had to catch a boat out to H.M.S. Surprise, no hardship in that splendid Barge "Surprise" took her position at the head of Line E.

Dawns the great day! There are so many foreign ships around that the upper deck was cleared, except for the duty Officer, Quartermaster and the Royal Marine Band, and all the National Anthems of the countries represented had to be played, it took ages! At the same time all ships "dressed overall"(bunting was hoisted from the bow, up to the tops of the mast and back down to the quarterdeck). During the forenoon (morning to you landlubbers) there was a great deal of activity, with the smartest Barges of the Board of Admiralty, carrying their charges to see Her Majesty on board H.M.S. Surprise. I can't remember now, but our Captain, Commodore R.G. Tosswill OBE, was probably one of those who had been invited to dine with the Queen, our Barge was certainly one of the smartest and did us all credit.

Round about half past two, there was a flurry of saluting, escort boats rushed around and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, HRH Princess Margaret and other royal dignitaries joined the Queen in H.M.S. Surprise, which had sailed back to the South Railway Jetty to meet them.

The Trinity House Boat Patricia led the way out of Portsmouth Harbour, escorted by the Members of the Board of Admiralty in their ship, H.M.S. Redpole. Upper Deck was cleared again and a 21 gun salute was fired by all ships, those that were capable of firing. Ships from the Reserve had been towed out with a skeleton crew aboard to make the number up. After the smoke had cleared, the crew lined the side of the ship, after being inspected, though I doubt if Her Majesty could see anyone from that distance.

At precisely 3.30 p.m. H.M.S. Surprise entered the line of ships and Her Majesty began her Review of her Fleet. As the Royal Yacht passed each ship the crews were commanded to "cheer ship". We had practised this as well, much to the surprise of a couple of Atlantic sea birds. "On the command 'Ships company will cheer ship, - off caps', ratings will remove caps and hold them at an angle of 45 degrees above their heads. At the command 'Hip Hip', all will shout 'Hurrah' and move their hats in a clockwise direction, coming back to the same position. This will be repeated twice more. On the command 'On Caps', headgear will be replaced, all ratings remaining at attention. You are reminded the word is 'hurrah', not 'hooray'. " That was how the orders appeared on the notice board.

As the temporary Royal Yacht came past, a diminutive figure in a pink coat could just be seen on the upper bridge of the ship, together with a figure in Naval Uniform, with a lot of Gold Braid showing. We all cheered heartily, without too much bidding and more or less in time. The Royal Yacht had passed us on her way out, but she had taken a course which put her on the other side of the carriers, so we had only had a glimpse in between the "big boys". When she returned she passed in between our line and the line of the minelayers and large destroyers so she was a lot closer. We could see that "Surprise" was really looking her best, gleaming from the waterline to the crown on the top of the mast. She went on, past the ships ahead of us and took her place at the head of our line. Hands were dismissed from "cheer ship" station, and the Electrical Department work started.

There was a full programme for the evening, and the first thing to do was to get my switch rigged from the switchboard and take the long length of cable and lead it through the ship to the top of the fire control director. Meanwhile some of the Electricians Mates (E.M.s) rigged the lighting along the side of the ship, up and over the mast, and connected them up to the breakers that I had fiddled with. At the same time, other groups were laying out cables from the Bridge to the banks of fireworks that appeared out of the magazines in the bowels of the ship. These were all controlled from a piece of rough wood, with a lot of light switches screwed to it, care had to be taken with this device as the splinters were lethal. My device was not quite as bad. The view from my position on top of the director was quite amazing with all those ships there. I could, as the ships swung at their moorings, occasionally see the quarterdeck of the "Surprise ".

Her Majesty was holding a bit of a party, officially a Sherry Party, and to see all the official Barges and motor gigs jockeying for position was very interesting. The "Surprise" was too far away to identify anyone in particular, I would not know the Members of the Board of Admiralty, only recognise the armfuls of gold braid. After the sherry, Her Majesty was taken to H.M.S. Vanguard, our one and only Battleship, to be entertained in the admirals quarters, and to watch the show afterwards. From there, the next line to ours, she would have a good view of us (gulp) and the other ships, but not too good a view of the carriers.

Once all this had been done, we had a quiet time until my big moment. This did not come until 10.30 p.m. H.M.S. Surprise was co-ordinating all the evening entertainment by radio signal. The W/T Office (radio room) patched (connected) the signals to the bridge, and I could hear what was going on from my position. It doesn't matter how many times that a piece of equipment is tested, when it comes to the crunch, especially in front of a huge audience, (including Mother and Dad,) one is never one hundred per cent confident. The signal arrived and I pressed the switch. It worked, thank Heaven, the four hundred odd lamps which had replaced the "Dress Ship" bunting and the, over 600, lights outlining the deck level on our ship all came on. We were illuminated!!

Time now to look round the Fleet to see whose lights had failed, luckily, none had.

The next thing, about ten minutes later, was to switch the lights off again and start the Firework Display. H.M.S. Illustrious had a hiccup, the golden rain suddenly started in one section when it shouldn't have done, not particularly noticeable at that moment with all the rockets, but it left a big gap in their display when the side of the carrier should have been a golden curtain. Somebody's head would roll, but not on "Superb".

At the end of the fireworks the ships were all illuminated again, without incident and stayed that way until midnight, when, on the signal from "Surprise", The fleet suddenly vanished in the black of the night. All was quiet, only the anchor riding lights being reflected on the , now, calm and smooth waters of Spithead.

My parents, together with a few thousand other people, headed back into Portsmouth from their elevated seats in the grandstand at Stokes Bay. The amount of traffic was so bad with all the people coming out of Portsmouth away from the spectacle that they had watched from the beaches in Portsmouth and Southsea, that my parents did not arrive back in their Bed and Breakfast accommodation until after 3.30 in the morning, just as dawn was breaking.

On the Tuesday, 16th June 1953, in the morning, after the usual band concert with all the National Anthems at eight o'clock, the ships had "dressed overall", with flags over the highest points of the ship. The Royal Yacht left the fleet with due ceremony and took Her Majesty back to the station in time to catch the 9.20.for London.

As soon as the Royal Yacht was safely round the corner out of sight, the forecastle party went through the routine of sorting out the mooring shackle and anchors. With that done, all was clear to leave with the other leading members of our line, and we set off to take up our interrupted duties on our station. It had been a hectic time, but now we were heading back to show the Flag to the natives, friendly natives for the most part, very friendly indeed. So back to base in Bermuda, and from there forays to the East coast of America, and then down to visit a lot of the Islands in the Caribbean. Ah well!! Back to work. They say "all the nice girls love a sailor". There are a lot of nice girls on the beaches out there, we'll have our work cut out.

My parents had caught a couple of hours sleep, and hurried down to the beach, at about ten thirty, to see the ships sailing, but too late. The anchorage was nearly empty, all the capital ( big ) ships had sailed - including us.

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