This week’s postcard takes us back to the period between the wars and depicts a sailor and marines relaxing ashore in tropical climes, most likely somewhere in the Mediterranean:The rating is wearing the tropical white uniform, with pith helmet and two long service and good conduct stripes on his sleeve:His companions appear to be Royal Marines, presumably from the same ship. They wear KD service dress uniforms with large white pith helmets, bearing a metal badge to the front:On at least one of the helmets you can just make out the brass ball worn on the top:In front of this group sits a small table, laden down with bottles of beer:The interwar period was the era of the Royal Navy cruises, flying the flag. These hugely popular cruises involved taking the fleet around either the Mediterranean, or once famously around the world, and calling it at various overseas ports to show off the might of the Royal Navy and hopefully score a few trade deals as well. For the crews of these ships there were ample opportunities to ‘run ashore’ with relaxation frequently consisting of imbibing the local beer. The Empire cruise was renowned for this, with sailors remarking of Port Swettenham “here the men can obtain beer and refreshments also cigarettes, free of charge”. Whilst for one sailor, Frederick Bushell he wrote of Australia “I think most of the ship’s company are feeling the effects of the late nights and “bonza” times we’ve been having”
This week’s photograph is of HMY Victoria and Albert:This royal yacht was the predecessor of HMY Britannia and served from 1901 throughout the reigns of Edward VII, George V and George VI. Built at Pembroke Dock and launched in 1899, she was completed in the summer 1901, seven months after the death of Queen Victoria.
The vessel measured 380 feet (120 m) in length by 40 feet (12 m) in the beam with a tonnage of 4,700. She was powered by Belleville water boilers, which exhausted through two elegant round funnels:The ship had a particularly elegant prow, reminiscent of late Victorian sloops, the curves implying an impressive turn of speed:The total cost of the ship was £572,000, five-sevenths the cost of the battleship HMS Renown. During fitting-out the yacht had significant extra weight added including concrete ballast and even a large traditional capstan so the Queen could be entertained by watching the sailors work. This extra weight proved to be beyond the original design parameters and resulted in the ship tipping over when the dock was flooded – causing significant damage to the ship.
Victoria and Albert was commissioned at Portsmouth 23 July 1901 by Commodore the Hon. Hedworth Lambton, who hoisted his broad pennant. Nearly all the ship’s company of 230 men of the old HMY Victoria and Albert II were transferred to the new yacht, which with an additional 100 men had a total ship’s company of 336.
King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited their new yacht in early August 1901, and used it for the first time when crossing the English Channel 9 August 1901 to attend the funeral in Germany of the King’s sister, Empress Frederick.
King Edward later used the yacht for summer cruises most years of his reign, visiting various countries in Europe.
Victoria and Albert later served King George V, King Edward VIII and King George VI, and took part in two fleet reviews (in 1935 and the Coronation Review of the Fleet, 1937), but was withdrawn after the latter and decommissioned in 1939. She served as a depot ship during the Second World War; as an accommodation ship to HMS Excellent, and was broken up in 1954. In this painting from the National Maritime Museum we see the old yacht being towed away to the breakers, passing her replacement HMY Britannia:Apparently the officer in charge of HMY Victoria and Albert on this voyage went out to salute the new yacht, and promptly fell through the deck as it was so rotten!
This week’s photographs are a rather sombre pair of images showing the funeral of two airmen in Palestine just before the outbreak of the war. The first image shows the pall bearers carrying two coffins into a graveyard:Each is draped in the Union flag:The back of this photograph has an official Air Ministry stamp and the description ‘Funeral of Sgt Sweeting and A.C.I. Crofts at Ramleh’:There is also a date indicating this photograph was taken in August 1938. Ramleh was the site of an RAF base, now long gone under urban sprawl. My thanks go to Bryan Legate who has provided more information on this. Sergeant Richard Herbert Sweetings and AC2 W H Crofts were killed when the Wellsley they were flying, L2634, crashed after losing a wing when recovering from a dive. The aircraft was one of an allocation of the type on the books of 14 squadron:The 14 Squadron Association website notes:
The Fairey Gordon aircraft were replaced by Vickers Wellesleys in 1938: a monoplane with retractable undercarriage and a variable-pitch propeller, the new type represented a quantum leap in performance and capability over the previous biplanes. These aircraft were soon involved in counter-insurgency operations during the Palestine rebellion of 1938-39.
Odly 14 Squadron were not stationed at RAF Ramleh in 1938, so it seems likely that the aircraft crashed nearby and as the closest aerodrome the men were buried here. The second photograph is taken at the graveside:We can see a chaplain:The pall bearers with bare heads:And other members of the squadron in pith helmets, each wearing a black armband in mourning:Interestingly this was not actually taken in a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery as the CWG did not take responsibility for casualties in peacetime. Therefore the graves of these airmen are not recorded on their website, and the other headstones in the photograph, although very similar, are not the standard pattern we are used to from WW1 and WW2 gravestones:
This week’s postcard is another corker from the age of Empire. In this image, which probably dates from between the wars, a group of soldiers pose in front of a pair of wooden barrack huts:There is no location for this image, but it is clearly in the tropics and it is likely it was taken in India or perhaps somewhere in the South Pacific or China. The figures in the photograph are split into two distinct groups. Immediately in front of the buildings can be seen six men who are most likely other ranks:Note the collarless grey back shirts and stable belts each appears to be wearing. The two seated figures seem to be peeling potatoes into metal dixies:These metal dixies were to remain in use for decades, with stainless steel examples being manufactured well into the 1980s at least. A wooden bridge crosses a water channel in the foreground:Stood on this are three men who I am assuming are officers or civilian administrators:It is interesting to note that whilst the two figures on the left and the six men in the back ground are wearing Wolsley helmets, the man on the left of the bridge has the more modern solar topee- this helmet being larger but lighter and more comfortable to wear. The outer figures again wear military style stable belts.
The buildings in the back ground are made of wood, with pan tiled roves and seem to have corrugated iron attached under the eaves to help deflect rainwater away from the walls. A raised section at the apex of the roof helps ventilate the interior:
This week’s postcard takes us back to the days of Empire and the Indian Raj, with this impressive view of a military parade that I believe was taken somewhere in the sub-continent during the interwar period:The parade ground is cordoned off, with civilians sat on chairs around the perimeter to watch the occasion:The odd British officer, not required for the parade, sits with the audience to cast a professional eye over proceedings:One member of the audience, disregarding the heat, has dressed in British formal wear, complete with top hat:In front of them the main body of troops can be seen marching in formation:Led by a mounted officer:Behind can be seen what appears to be artillery, drawn by mules distinctly smaller than the other horses on show:A pair of mounted officers watch from the side, their chargers looking particularly impressive compared to the smaller animals drawing the guns:Finally a lone soldier stands at attention to one side, holding a standard:Parades were a regular occurrence for troops in India, however in most cases it was merely a display of drill to practice the men, full dress parades such as this in front of an audience were less common.
A regular occurrence in the Royal Navy during the interwar period was a competition to be crowned ‘Cock O’ The Fleet’. This competition was held when large fleets were in harbour and was a rowing competition between various ships. The events normally took place over a week and the fleet was drawn up in two lines opposite each other and boats rowed between them. Smaller ships entered one crew, larger ships like battleships entered a deck and an engine room crew, with each team wearing different jerseys so as to be easily identifiable. The ship with the most wins in the competition was named ‘Cock o’ The Fleet’ and was given a large cockerel to attach to its funnel in recognition of its sporting prowess. This photograph shows presumably the aftermath of one of these competitions:The lengths crews would go to for an edge was legendary and included shaving the hulls of the whalers to be wafer thin, a misplaced boot could go straight through! In this photograph a number of small craft can be seen, in the foreground is one of the whalers with its oar crew:Behind is a larger motor boat, presumably a launch from one of the ships:Clearly seen is the painted cockerel:The ship’s gangway on the left of the photograph indicates that this was probably taken form the deck of one of the ships competing, looking down at the smaller boats below:The officers and men are wearing tropical whites indicating that this is likely to be the Mediterranean fleet at play:I think this photograph probably dates from the interwar period, but the competition was revived after the war and I have come across references to similar activities as late as 1997. Cock of the Fleet was one of the few sporting competitions that sailors were legally allowed to bet on. The following description comes from William Stone’s book ‘Hero of the Fleet’:
The ships would hold regattas, which I particularly enjoyed. A Royal Navy regatta consisted of a number of rowing races using different ships’ boats. Ships would enter teams to compete in each race and at the end of the competition the scores would be tallied up and whichever ship scored the most won. The winning ship was known as the ‘Cock of the Fleet’ and was given a model of a cockerel as a trophy. And there was plenty of swimming, with most ships fielding at least two water polo teams. All this when there was a general strike and major economic depression at home in Britain.
A Lambert and Butler’s cigarette card gives one possible explanation for the origin of the custom:
The term “Cock of the Fleet” has been applied to the leading ship in competitive exercises, regattas etc., for over a hundred years. Its origin dates from the “Battle of the Saints” of April 12th 1782. This is explained in extracts from a letter written by an officer who fought in HMS Formidable that day: “A shot from the Ville de Paris struck a hen-coop that had been left out on the spar deck. Out from the ruins of his home fluttered a little bantam cock and impudently perched himself on the rail of the poop. As every broadside poured into the Ville de Paris, he cheered the crew with his shrill clarion…Admiral Rodney was charmed and gave orders that the bird should be petted for the rest of his life.”
Tonight we are looking at a small booklet issued by Wills Cigarettes for the use of soldiers going to India. This was a marketing ploy by the company to ensure troops remembered their brand and continued to buy it. Despite that it is full of interesting information on soldiering in the Sub Continent in the 1930s. This edition appears to date from 1942, but is clearly a reprint of an earlier publication. The cover has a wonderful piece of 1930s artwork, with a soldier in a pith helmet enjoying his woodbine with the towers and minarets of India behind:The interior covers life as a soldier in India and useful information on money, postage, food and hygiene (as usual click for larger images):
The back cover again advertises the cigarette brand with the slogan ‘The Soldiers’ Smoke’:This is a cracking little book and one I have been trying to track down for a while so i was very pleased to pick up a copy for a very modest sum. A PDF version of the booklet is availbale to download here: woodbines-guide-to-india