This week’s photograph is a very charming World War One photograph of a sailor with a young girl, presumably his daughter:This card was posted in 1917 and it is hard to tell if it was a commercial image in the sentimental style of the day or a genuine portrait of a sailor and his daughter. I hope it is the latter, but of course it is impossible to say now. One item of interest however is the cap tally on the sailor’s cap worn by the girl:The name of the ship has been unpicked, just leaving the outline of the embroidery, whilst the initials ‘HMS’ remain. The reasoning behind this is unclear and again would be dependent on whether this is a genuine sailor’s issue cap or a photographer’s prop. If it is the latter then it has probably been unpicked to allow it to be used in portraits without any obvious connection to a vessel which could have proven awkward to the sitter. The alternative is that this is a wartime expedient for security issues, much like sailors in the Second World War had simple ‘H.M.S.’ cap tallies. If this is the case, which I suspect might be the real story, then the sailor becomes far more likely to be an actual sailor, the girl becomes his actual daughter and this is a sweet picture taken to send to relations- a far nicer story than a twee image taken just to sell postcards!
This week we have an Edwardian picture card of Royal Navy sailors sleeping around a warships gun:This is clearly a posed photograph, but does depict a common event when action was expected, by sleeping next to the gun, a crew could be on hand to fire the weapon within seconds if an enemy ship came into sight.
The gun itself seems to be a small quick firing model, mounted on the waist of the warship:This suggests it is the secondary armament of the ship and was of the light type of weaponry designed to protect a ship from attack by small, fast craft such as torpedo boats. These weapons were designed to fire rapidly and blow these lightly armed attack vessels out of the water before they came close enough to launch torpedoes that could damage or sink the larger ship.
The men are depicted sleeping on the deck covered simply in a blanket each to protect them from the chill of the night:Another sailor stands next to the gun awake and alert. It seems likely that he is representing the member of the gun crew who would remain awake in order to rouse his shipmates if needed:A selection of shells sits on the deck next to the gun:Again these seem to be posed, in reality they would be safely stowed in a ready use locker, far safer than being loose to roll around the deck or be detonated by enemy fire.
Although obviously posed, this is a fascinating and atmospheric image, with a great view of the working parts of the quick firing gun’s breach and elevating gear.
The Royal Navy’s foul weather jackets are excellent at keeping rain and wind out, but are not particularly warm, being just a single layer of Gore-Tex. There were two designs of jacket, one with reflective patches on the sleeves and one without. The plain jacket included a quilted liner that could be worn with the jacket to help keep the wearer warm in colder conditions:The design of this jacket liner is very reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s British Army quilted smock liners, but in dark blue rather than olive green. The liner is a sleeveless design:The quilting is in a diamond pattern, with a cotton tape edging around all the seams:The liner has a zip up the front:This allows the liner to be zipped into the wet weather jacket to hold it secure:And a label is sewn into the rear with sizing, NSN number and care instructions:The jackets these liners were worn now seem to have been dropped by the Navy in favour of one universal pattern with the reflective patches and a hood. The new jackets do not seem to have the facility to add a quilted liner and these now seem to be obsolete.
This week’s postcard is a fine pre-World War One study of a troop ship, the HMT Rewa:HM Troopship Rewa was built by William Denny for the British India Steam Navigation Company, and launched in 1905, completed 1906. This postcard was sent in 1908 by a soldier setting off on board her for India. The postcard is franked on 16th December 1908 in Southampton, presumably just before she set sail:The sender has written
This is the troopship Rewa which is taking us to India
In the days before telephones and instant communications, postcards were a quick and cheap way of sending short messages. This card, posted in Southampton on the 16th at 10pm could well have been delivered to the address in Nottingham the next day.
The ship, named after a region of India, was requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1914 and pressed into service as a hospital ship. She served in this role for a number of years until she was sunk by a German torpedo in the Bristol Channel in January 1918. The Daily Mail printed a letter from a Stoker on board the Rewa indicating the gallant rescue of the ship’s crew and patients:
Sir- At the request of several naval patients form the hospital ship Rewa, torpedoed and sunk in the Bristol Channel about midnight on January 4, I am writing this letter so that our thanks may reach the fleet surgeon and all the surgeons who acted in such a gallant manner towards the helpless.
As regards L lifeboat, we had a very eventful and serious experience. The lifeboat, which contained the black crew and also patients, had been lowered halfway to the water, when the after-fall jammed. The forward fall was let go, and the lifeboat swung upright, with her fore half under water and the after end hanging in the air.
The petty officer- himself a patient- who in boat drill was to take charge of the boat in the event of a disaster, climbed up on board Rewa, we think to clear the after-fall as the boat did not lower. I asked for a chopper, and, thank heaven, one of the coloured men found it. You can understand the awkward position when trying to chop three parts of rope. Being lowered with a bang, the lifeboat, which was already submerged forward, became three-parts filled. We saw no more of the petty officer and an army officer in the boat asked me to take charge and coxswain the boat.
One of the coloured men lost the tops of three fingers. Nobody else was hurt, though everybody was wet. Three patients were hard at work bailing the boat while we got along with four oars. I should like to thank the three Army officers and all the rest of the men, black and white, for carrying out the orders under trying circumstances. There are four men in particular I should like to shake hands with again, and one is a nigger [in the parlance of the time].
I think that during all this excitement I forgot I had a fractured knee till I was taken out of the boat after reaching the trawler three hours afterwards
JOSPEH HEWSON, Stoker
The sinking could have been far worse and in the end just two men died. The ship sits today on the seabed, sadly now collapsed in on itself.
At the very end of the Second World War the Royal Navy introduced a new uniform for wear in combat called ‘Action Working Dress’. This uniform consisted of a mid-blue buttoned shirt and a pair of dark blue trousers. It was designed to offer far more protection in combat than the traditional sailor’s uniform and was heavily influenced by US practice of the time. It saw little service during World War Two, but was to become ubiquitous as the Navy’s working dress for the next seventy years and despite updates to fabric and cut would remain in service until replaced in 2015. Tonight we are looking at the trousers from the final pattern of Action Working dress. Although originally made of cotton to be somewhat fire resistant, these garments were later made of manmade fibres until in the Falklands when some sailors found their uniforms melted into their skin. Following this conflict there was an urgent review and new fire resistant fabrics were developed that saw service right through until the end of the uniform’s service. The trousers are made in dark blue and have a slightly shiny look to the fabric due to this fire resistant coating:The trousers are secured with a button and drawstring. Although belt loops are sewn to the waist, belts were seldom if ever used with this rig:A button and tab is also fitted to offer some adjustment to the waist sizing:A pleated thigh pocket is fitted, the flap of which is secured with Velcro:As is typical, a stores label is sewn to the inside of the trousers:Over the years this uniform has had a number of names, my father’s generation refer to them as ‘No8s’ whilst when I was issued them they were always ‘No4s’. The trousers always had to be ironed with a crease, even though they were for working dress and then folded down to A4 size- not always an easy task due to their shape and the number of tucks inwards to make them fit the size. We also wore them with elastic ‘twisties’ during basic training that allowed them to be bloused over our boots, again this was never done again once training was over!
Since being replaced by the new working dress, the older pattern has been cascaded down to many Sea Cadet units which still use the older pattern of uniform until funding permits it to be replaced entirely, but its days are now numbered and it will soon disappear into history.
This week’s postcard is a fine image of the Embankment in London, looking down the River Thames:The large stone walls of the Embankment can be seen on the left of the image:Of rather more interest though is the sloop, HMS Buzzard, moored a short distance away:HMS Buzzard was a Nymphe-class composite screw sloop and the fourth ship of the Royal Navy to bear the name. Developed and constructed for the Royal Navy on a design by William Henry White, Director of Naval Construction, she was launched at Sheerness Dockyard on 10 May 1887. The Nymphe-class sloops were ideal for service in the far distant outposts of the British Empire, and Buzzard was employed on the North America and West Indies Station. In early April 1902, under the command of Commander L. F. G. Tippinge, she left Bermuda for home waters, calling at Faial Island, before she arrived at Devonport on 20 April. She was paid off at Chatham on 13 May 1902. In 1904 she was converted to a drill ship for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at Blackfriars, London as reported in the Daily Mail:
HMS Buzzard arrived on the Thames yesterday and took up her new station at Blackfriars, there to form a training depot for the Metropolitan Division of the Royal Naval Volunteers, called by the irreverent the “Blackfriars Buccaneers.”
Large crowds lined the bridges to watch the passing of the warship, and thousands were on the Embankment during the mooring operations.
The Buzzard, which was launched in 1887, would in the ordinary course have been sold out of the Navy, but she has now been thoroughly modernised and equipped with quickfirers.
The Captain of the Buzzard described the training on the refitted ship:
In the training given on board the Buzzard each company in turn furnishes a ship’s crew, whose duty it is to carry out the routine of the ship for a fortnight at a time. During this period the men live on board, going ashore daily to their occupations in office or workshop. Thus some idea of life on the lower deck is gained and the men are familiarized with the different parts of a man-of-war. Coming on board after his day’s work, the amateur sailor is taught to man a boat over the lower boom; he becomes familiar with such commands as “Away starboard whaler,” or in the case of an imaginary fire, “Pipe fire quarters,” and last but not least “Stand by Hammocks,” “Clear lower deck,” and “Pipe down,” when your clerk or workshop hand has a chance of learning how to sling a hammock and, with a little practice, how to sleep in one. In the morning comes the least popular command, “All hands lash up and stow,” and the men turn out to “Scrub and wash decks” before going on shore.
In 1911 Buzzard relieved HMS President (formerly HMS Gannet of 1878) as headquarters ship, being renamed HMS President on 1 April 1911. As President she served until 23 January 1918, when she was lent to the Marine Society. She was sold to C A Beard for breaking on 6 September 1921, and was later re-sold to Dutch ship breakers.
In the immediate post war period the British military started reviewing the extreme cold weather clothing it had available and introduced several new garments based on wartime experience. The Royal Navy had found itself gaining much experience of operating in sub-zero temperatures during the convoy runs to Murmansk and Archangel in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Ironically the emerging threat was not the USSR and with this being the case there was the clear possibility that future combat might occur in the frozen wastes of the Arctic. New extreme cold weather clothing was rapidly developed for the RN including specially padded trousers:These are made from a closely woven dark blue cotton and filled with a very thick layer of insulation for warmth. The insulation is indeed so thick that the trousers have special expansion cuts on the knees to allow the wearer to even bend his legs!A single large pocket is seen to the front of the left leg, secured with one black plastic button:The flies fasten with further plastic buttons:The waist is adjustable with cotton straps:And corresponding white metal buckles (as these trousers are unissued they are still wrapped in tissue from when they were made):The end of each trouser leg has a tab and two buttons allowing the leg to be wrapped around the ankle and fastened tight before the wearer slips his feet into boots:The label inside indicates that this pair was manufactured in 1952 and the term ‘Vocab’ shows they were naval issue, this being the RNs store’s code system:It is hard to identify the use of these trousers from period photographs but I think I have found a couple of images where they are being worn. In 1949 the RN undertook Arctic trials on board HMS Vengeance and here we see sailors wearing heavily padded trousers which look to be the same pattern as the set above: