This week’s photograph is a magnificent study of a British Army column on the move through rural India between the wars:The column appears to be a light artillery unit and is entirely mounted, the officers leading on their chargers:A small group of mounted troopers follows close behind:Whilst the main column trails behind. There appears to be a succession of guns and limbers, each pulled by four or six horses, with the gun crews either riding pillion or on the limber itself:The column stretches away into the distance, curving round behind the bridge and shrouded in dust from the horses’ hooves:In the background a native village sits next to the road, its peaceful slumber rudely awoken by the passing troops:Behind this column would have trailed a large gaggle of hangers on, everything from cooks and servants to prostitutes and acrobats, all trying to part the soldier form his cash. Marches typically set off early in the morning before the sun became too hot and an advance part was sent ahead of the main column to prepare the following night’s camp. The camp was usually pitched near a small village or town and by the time the slow moving column reached it, hot and dusty, it would be ready for them. Apart for a few sentries, most men were then free to relax and visit the shops if the settlement was small enough. Any large town usually led to an order to remain in camp overnight. The following morning the camp was squared away and the process repeated until the column reached its final destination.
The Festival of Britain was a nationwide event in 1951 that tried to showcase the best of British arts, technology and innovation and provide a boost both to morale and the economy after the ravages of the Second World War. The main exhibition was based in London, however it was felt that there should be some way of bringing at least a flavour of this to those living in other parts of the country. The idea the government hit upon was to convert the World War Two escort carrier HMS Campania into a mobile exhibition centre, the ship’s flight decks and hangars being large and open and ideally suited to this task. The ship toured the country and tonight we have a set of three photographs from her time at Birkenhead. Firstly we have a snapshot taken from the Quay of the ship moored up:The Festival Office’s resident designer, James Holland, considered that the vessel would “not convert easily into a showboat”, but with the massive demand for shipping to help rebuild Europe after the war, he and his colleagues felt lucky to have any ship at all.
Repainted white, the ship was decorated with skeleton masts and bunting. Officially named the Sea Travelling Exhibition, the exhibits were intended to reflect the main London Exhibition. Like the Festival’s Land Travelling Exhibition, they were divided into three sections, the “Land of Britain”, “Discovery” and “The People at Home”. Between 4 May 1951 and 6 October, the ship visited Southampton, Dundee, Newcastle, Hull, Plymouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast, Birkenhead and Glasgow, staying at each port for 10–14 days. The ship was in Birkenhead from 4th to 13th September 1951.
The ship’s white hull and the aforementioned masts can be clearly seen in this view from the water:Pat Kennedy toured the ship in Birkenhead:
Campania was berthed in Bidston Dock, Birkenhead during the Festival of Britain and was open to the public.
At the time, my parents had a boarding house, and we had three of the engine room staff from Campania billeted with us. Mr Owen 2nd engineer, who came from Morfa Nefyn in N Wales, Cyril Ferrier, Chief electrician who I think was a geordie, and a third bloke who I can’t remember. all pleasant chaps, who took me and my brother on a tour of the ship.
The final view is taken from the flight deck and shows the awning set up for visitors along with the park benches for them to sit down and rest:The visiting of this ship to a port was clearly a major local event and the Eagle comic printed this helpful cutaway diagram of the exhibition ship for its readers:Once the festival was over Campania was converted back into a naval role and helped support the early atom bomb testing at Bikini Atoll before finally being scrapped in 1955.
Tonight we have a photograph of the Black Swan class sloop HMS Crane:HMS Crane was launched in 1942 and was to become one of the longest lasting ships of her class with the Royal Navy, only being broken up in 1965. Initially she was allocated the pennant number U23, but post war she was re-designated F123, and it is with this pennant number she appears here:The sloops were designed for convoy duty, but were larger and faster than corvettes. Each ship had six quick firing 4” guns in three twin turrets. One on the stern and two on the bow:Like all small ships of her era, HMS Crane has an open bridge:A tall mast sits behind the bridge with her various radar and communications antennae:By the late 1950s she was very out of date and serving in the far east, as one sailor who joined HMS Crane in 1959 recalls:
The first thing that struck me about my new ship, after the journey from HMS Terror to join her, was how old fashioned she looked and the amount of armament she carried…a Gunnery Ratings dream ship I would have thought!
Having been detailed as to which mess we were to live in, I made my way forward to mine – number 8 mess – only about 20 or so feet long and about 15 feet wide. I believe there were about 17 of us billeted in this space. Down the ship’s side of our mess were a couple of cushioned seats about six feet long. Each of these converted into two sets of bunks. Between them and the other side of the mess was a wooden table of a similar length, bolted to the deck and alongside it a backless cushioned bench running the length of the table, but only about 15 inches wide.
We newcomers were greeted by our Leading Hand Tony ‘Postie’ Derrett; so called because he was the ship’s postman. We were to get on very well and became run-ashore oppos (mates). What neither of us realized the whole time on that ship was that we were the two in the breast stroke race held 6 years previously at HMS St Vincent, and it wasn’t until we met again 50 years later that this came to light!
Being a tall one, I was given the top bunk on the inboard side of the mess deck forward. There were three bunks up and two along on a false bulkhead, and this was the first time I had ever had a bunk on a ship.
The cooling system in the mess, there being no air-conditioning in those days, was a table fan that would be set to sweep across the mess, and one punkahlouvre which could be directed to a particular spot. This directional asset of fresh air, though not cooled, was altered almost every time someone came into our mess, and at night the last person to turn in tried to direct it to his bunk, only to have it redirected by the next bloke. It was extremely hot and humid in Singapore, and this was even more so on the ship. Most of us learnt quickly that the only way to wander about in the mess, and to wear to bed, was to wear a cloth like a sarong around our waists.
After having sorted out my bunk and locker the first thing I had to do was to get to my place of duty in the operations room. Just below and slightly aft of the open bridge, and raised up a couple of steps from the wheelhouse, it was quite small. I did note that it did have a bench seat in it the same size as my bunk down below.
Opposite were the two LOP (local operations plot) tables. These were glass topped tables under which a compass rose was directed upwards, and with an attached scaled motor, meant that the ‘spiders web’ of the light, also to scale, would cross the table in relatively the same course and speed of the ship. Therefore reported contacts from the radar operator could be plotted onto the glass topped table (which was about 6 ft x 4ft) and either plotted on a long roll of tracing paper, or on square plastic sheets that fitted on the table. At the bottom of the forward seat was a the navigational 974 radar. The 293 PPI (plan position indicator) radar screen was stuffed in the corner, and also couple of clear plastic upright screens – one for aircraft plotting or general plots, and the other carrying information such as radio frequencies and their use in the Ops room.
Normally I scan in photographs and postcards with a high resolution scanner for our regular Sunday night spot. Tonight however we are looking at a fine framed print of a Victorian major general that is currently hanging in my entrance hall so you will have to make do with a photograph of the print!The print represents Major General Hector MacDonald, a controversial character from the late Victorian army. He is in his full dress regalia as an aide de campe to King Edward VII:This print was clearly framed around the time it was printed and may have hung in the mess of a regiment, it is an impressive and particularly large picture. He wears an impressive range of medals including the DSO and the aiguillettes of an Aide de Campe to the King. Hector MacDonald’s likeness is seen on a daily basis by millions of people who have no idea who he is. This is because he was the soldier who inspired the label on the famous Camp Coffee brand:Hector MacDonald won the rare distinction of rising from the ranks to major general. The son of a crofter-mason, he enlisted as a private in the Gordon Highlanders at the age of 18. In 1879 Macdonald took part in the Second Afghan War, where he gained a reputation for resourcefulness and daring. By the end of the campaign, he was nicknamed “Fighting Mac” and promoted to second lieutenant. Returning to Britain by way of southern Africa, he saw action in the First Boer War (1880–81). At the Battle of Majuba Hill (Feb. 27, 1881) he was conspicuously courageous.
From 1883 to 1898, Macdonald served in Egypt and the Sudan, taking part in the Nile expedition (1885) as a member of the Egyptian constabulary. Transferring to the Egyptian army as captain in 1888, he demonstrated an extraordinary talent for command during the Sudanese campaign (1888–91). When Kitchener undertook the reconquest of the Sudan in 1896, he placed Macdonald in command of an Egyptian brigade, which he handled so outstandingly at the critical Battle of Omdurman (Sept. 2, 1898) that he became a national hero and was given the thanks of Parliament. As a major general commanding the Highland Brigade in the South African War (1899–1902), “Fighting Mac” contributed much to Boer defeats at Paardeberg and Brandwater. In 1902 he was given charge of the troops in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). Confronted by an “opprobrious accusation” (apparently a charge of homosexual practices), he shot himself in a Paris hotel room.
Modern historians have treated Hector MacDonald more kindly than his contemporaries and it is today suggested by many that the rumours of inappropriate relations were spread by those in senior positions who were affronted that an ordinary man could rise through the ranks and become such a senior officer. Hector MacDonald remains a hero to many in his native Scotland and although his funeral was meant to be a small family affair, 30,000 turned out to pay their respects in Edinburgh.
This framed print appeared on the second hand market last year for just £7 and looks very impressive on the wall. Sadly due to its size my wife has relegated it to the back entrance hall but he now greets all visitors as they enter and leave!
Photographs of crew spaces on board Royal navy ships are rare, especially candid pictures from the days before flash photography was easy and common. Tonight’s photograph is therefore unusual as it depicts crewmembers relaxing in their mess on board a Royal Navy warship in the 1950s or 1960s:The men are clearly ratings, their caps being perched above the seating area:By the 1950s most ships included a number of mess decks for their crews and although hammocks were still in use, more modern ships were beginning to have bunks and central areas with seating and tables where men could sit when off duty and play games, talk or generally relax. This photograph appears to be in the mess of a group of ratings who may have been stokers or other engineering ratings as one of the men is dressed in a boiler suit:It is clearly somewhere in the tropics as two men are stripped to the waist, and at least one is wearing shorts:That might explain why they seem to be enjoying their ice-cream cones so much! Despite the heat, it appears it might be Christmas as a row of cards is hung up on the bulkhead behind them:As one would expect from the date, the men are all clearly smokers and packets of cigarettes and lighters can be seen on the table in front of them:One interesting feature about the table is that it has a series of pull out ashtrays built into the edge of it, one of which can be seen open with a cigarette in it:Life aboard ship in the 1950s, even with a ship’s mess for downtime, could be boring as recalled by Alfred Pickup:
The long evenings sailing across the Indian Ocean were spent mainly reading. I could get through a book a day on average; the odd evening I would spend in the mess with my mates playing cards and listening to the ship’s DJ on the SRE (Ships Radio Equipment). It almost made you wish you were in prison where there were no bouncy floors and you had snooker and pool tables, darts, table tennis, television, gymnasium, library, visit from loved ones, and best of all a whole room to yourself.
Tonight’s photograph is something of a mystery and has generated much enjoyable debate on one of the Facebook collector’s sites. This photograph depicts a piper in Scottish dress:The debate arises from which unit he derives from and the insignia and dress have a number of confusing features. His sporran has two tassels and what appears to be the stag’s head of the Seaforth Highlanders:The cap badge is at an angle that makes it hard to be sure, but the consensus is that it is possibly the distinctive badge of the 5th Seaforth Highlanders:This badge is circular with the wildcat of Sutherland rather than the more usual stag’s head badge of the other battalions of the Seaforth Highlanders. So far then this piper is looking as though he comes from the Seaforth Highlanders, however the 5th Seaforth highlanders had their own distinctive sporran, different from that worn by other battalions and different to the one shown in this photograph. It becomes even more confusing when we look at the cross strap:This is not a Seaforth’s pattern, but rather the same design as used by the Black Watch. The plaid brooch is again more characteristic of the Black Watch than the Seaforths:The belt buckle however is of a generic design that was worn by a number of Scottish regiments in the early twentieth century:All this is very confusing and it thus becomes very hard to pin down which regiment this piper belongs to, if indeed he belongs to any. Many civilian pipe bands of the early twentieth century dressed their members in surplused military equipment and it has been suggested that this might be one of those. Equally in many early territorial and volunteer units there were not official funds for such niceties as a regimental band so they were funded by the men and officers themselves and had to purchase their own uniforms and pipes. This therefore led to a wide variety of semi and non-official uniforms that bore only a passing resemblance to the official dress regulations.
In truth it is probably impossible to say either which unit this man belonged to, or even if he is from a military rather than a civilian pipe band. It does however encourage lively historic debate and is a great little mystery for those who enjoy the intricacies of period uniforms.
Not every image I come across is of the highest quality, and tonight’s is a rather poor but interesting shot of a harbour:Happily for us the original photographer was kind enough to label this so we know that this is a shot of Dockyard Creek on Malta. In the back ground ships can be seen at their moorings:And the buildings of the harbour can be seen on the shore:The dockyards in Malta are in Valetta, the island’s capital and were first founded by the Knights of Malta to service their galleys. When the British took over the running of Malta in the nineteenth century they started a dockyard for the Royal Navy to help maintain their Mediterranean fleet. They centred this around the existing buildings in Dockyard Creek and massively expanded what was there so that by the mid nineteenth century the dockyard boasted storehouses, a ropery, a small steam factory, victualling facilities, houses for the officers of the Yard, and most notably a dry dock which at the time was the first provided for the Royal Navy outside Great Britain.
The dockyard remained in used for over a hundred years, its toughest test coming during the Second World War when the island was virtually under siege. William Andrews was in the Royal Navy and describes being in the dockyard under enemy fire:
I had just arrived from Gibraltar on board HMS Dido a cruiser, I was to join HMS Aurora light cruiser which was unfortunately lying in dry dock No:5 in Malta harbour with damage to her bows. After a few preliminaries I finally went on board Aurora. I soon became part of the crew. Apparently she had run into a mine field after a patrol beyond the Maltese boundaries. HMS Neptune cruiser was sunk, HMS Penelope had been damaged although she managed to make it to the USA for repairs and Destroyer Kandahar was beached. Aurora made it back to Malta but worse was to happen as the enemy were determined to finish her.
The bombing was incessant. Our captain Bill Agneur ordered that all personnel not concerned with the defence of the ship to proceed ashore to air raid shelters within the dock yard area. There was heavy destruction around us, we were trapped in the dry dock with only our guns for defence. Other anti-aircraft batteries were within the area and gave us good support.
One day during a heavy raid, the dock gate received a direct hit and within minutes we were floating as the harbour waters rushed into the dock. Finally the damaged gates were dragged away and we got out into the harbour.
Today the area has been gentrified and is used to moor luxury yachts, a far cry from its time in the Second World War.