- Bracegirdle, Warwick, DSC, Commander, RAN (Rtd)
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
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- RAN Ships
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- December 1977 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
(This article was the winner in the Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Essay Competition.)
IN COPIES OF QUEEN’S REGULATIONS and Admiralty Instructions under the section Ceremonial is a Table of Gun Salutes, and the occasions when they are to be fired by Her Majesty’s ships. In the past, before blank ammunition was invented, salutes were fired with shotted rounds. Also the personage or country to be saluted was informed beforehand by signal or diplomatic means. The saluting ship was pointed in such a direction that the firing of the salute could not be mistaken for a hostile act. With the advent of blank charges, all salutes were fired with blank ammunition as is the custom today.
The first salute given in the Ceremonial Table is a Royal Salute of 21 guns. But on the Birth, Accession and Coronation of the Sovereign a salute of 62 guns is fired. This is usually fired from the wharf at the Tower of London. On the occasion of the birth of a Royal infant a salute of 41 guns is fired from the two saluting stations in London, i.e. Hyde Park and the Tower of London.
So it was most astonishing to fire, by order, a Royal Salute using 4.7” HE live ammunition on the accession of our beloved Queen Elizabeth II to the throne.
In February 1952 when King George VI died and Queen Elizabeth II succeeded him to the throne, the Admiralty made a General Signal. They instructed Royal Navy and Commonwealth ships on active service in the Korean War to fire a 62 gun salute, and for commanding officers to read the Royal Proclamation for our new young Queen Elizabeth.
On this historic occasion I was the commanding officer of Her Majesty’s ship Bataan, an Australian built 4.7 inch Tribal class destroyer, at anchor in the Yellow Sea just south of the famous Chinampoo river. The sea was all packed ice, yellow and muddy brown. The tide flooded in relentlessly at 8 knots, paused for only five brief minutes of slack water and ebbed just as fast at 8 knots; a formidable waterway winter and summer.
Our little Task Unit of three RN and Commonwealth ships was at anchor between two islands about four miles off the NW Korean shoreline. The coastline was covered with deep snow, which hid the communist batteries of 75 mm and 120 mm guns. It was a raw winter cold that chilled you to the marrow despite woollies, jerseys, duffle coats and gloves. All our bridges were open and gun positions exposed.
The Task Unit comprised HMS Mounts Bay (Captain John Frewen RN), HMAS Bataan (Commander W.S. Bracegirdle RAN) and HMNZS (I think) Taupo, a frigate.
Captain Frewen (later Admiral Sir John Frewen) was a real modern ‘Hornblower’ who ruled his inshore ‘parish’ (our local name for the Task Unit) with an iron hand. He was a very sharp thorn in the side of the Queen’s enemies, a specialist navigator and a very good seaman.
That winter afternoon, when the news of the King’s death was received by Admiralty General Signal, the sky was black and menacing. Snow clouds were in the sky and the yellow ice reflected the last rays of the sun. The setting was like a scene from Hamlet.
The two Commonwealth commanding officers received signals to report onboard Mounts Bay. Our respective motor cutters chugged through slicks in the pancake ice made by Mounts Bay. In turn we were hoisted inboard to the davit-head and duly piped onboard for the conference. The conference was brief and to the point and it concerned the Royal Salute to be fired the next day. Tea with whisky was served to thaw out the cold. We returned to our ships and were hoisted inboard.
Before darkness set in across the ice flow, Mounts Bay signalled: ‘At 1100 tomorrow RN and Commonwealth ships prepare to fire a Royal Salute using live ammunition at the Queen’s enemies.
- Guns 1-21 Mounts Bay. Targets A,B, & C.
- Guns 22-42 Bataan. Targets D,E, & F.
- Guns 43-62 Taupo. Targets G,H, & I.
Ship’s companies are to be at action stations and on completion Commanding Officers are to read the Royal Proclamation. Acknowledge.’
What a signal and what an electric effect it had on three ships’ companies. The wardrooms buzzed and the messdecks hummed with excitement as the selected targets were all known communist gun batteries.
At 1055 the next day (Proclamation Day for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne of England), Mounts Bay hoisted ‘Preparative fire a Royal Salute in order designated’. At 1100 the flag signal was dipped and round 1 of 4″ H.E. was fired. Each single gun salvo, timed by stop watch, and fired at minute intervals, was directed at the communist batteries.
The sharp crack of 4 inch high velocity guns echoed across the ice flow as each shell detonated on impact and re-echoed back from the land. This caused a ‘crack – crump’ noise for each salvo. At minute 22 Bataan commenced using her more powerful 4.7 inch guns which made a larger detonation on the white snow. It looked like red candles on a white Christmas cake with the candles changing to yellow, as the yellow earth exploded upwards from under the snow. At minute 43 the New Zealand frigate took over and fired until the 62nd round of the Royal Salute.
Across the ice flow from the Mounts Bay came the time honoured bugle call ‘Cease Fire’ and the flag signal ‘Cease firing’ was executed. All ships also broke battle ensigns with the first gun in true naval tradition.
‘Secure from Action Stations’ was piped and commanding officers proceeded to read the Royal Proclamation to their respective ships’ companies.
I read the Proclamation to Bataan’s ship’s company on the Forecastle mess deck, this being the warmest place in a Tribal destroyer to house 320 men. We were packed very tight – duffel coats and all. When I had finished I called for three cheers for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The noise nearly lifted the deckhead. The cheers also echoed across the ice flow and must have seemed a little mad to our enemies on the mainland. Before dismissing the ship’s company, I remember looking around this young and very fine collection of young Australians. There was not a dry eye amongst them; this had nothing to do with my eloquence, but the naval ceremonial occasion and the manner in which it had been stage-managed and executed. I thanked them and ordered the First Lieutenant to dismiss the ship’s company and revert to Defence Stations.
As soon as I reached my after cabin, I invited the officers to drink the Queen’s health with me in my cabin and I arranged for a special rum issue to the ship’s company to toast Her Majesty’s health.
The Task Unit then settled down to watchful cat and mouse patrol activities under a young Queen with a fine Prince to hold her hand – His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh.
That evening anchored in our night station Bataan took part in a ‘Parish Smoke Concert’ – our name for irritating the enemy. This took the form of firing all night, explosive shells and star shells, at random targets ashore. This form of torture at irregular intervals was continued until dawn.
It left the enemy’s nerves, and ours, a little ragged by daylight, when one shifted billet to a safer anchorage for breakfast, shave and shower. A twenty day inshore patrol of this nature was broken in sequence every 4 or 5 days to oil from a Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker in some sheltered anchorage, but always in an 8 knot tide.
The tide combined with the ice flow was really more of a menace than the enemy. The weight of the ice flow could rapidly build up on the links of the cable until it held half a mile of surging flow.
The pack ice would crunch and crack as it passed down the ship’s side, and could wear the links of cable near the waterline until they looked like ‘Staybright’ chrome steel. To overcome this, it was necessary to change the nip on the cable every few hours with the watch on deck. The experienced seaman in these waters keeps steam for slow speed continuously on the main engines. Anchor watch and OOW on the bridge. The quartermaster at the wheel is continuously moving the wheel from port to starboard to slip off the pack ice and prevent build-up. This causes more crunching noises as the ice passes down the ship’s side and further disturbs a mariner’s sleep.
Then to make matters worse, the upper deck de-icing party moved around day and night chipping and shovelling off the ice and snow which built up all the time. This build-up, if not checked, formed dangerous top weight. Also hissing steam hoses to de-ice the guns were not conducive to sleep. Winter patrols in such areas were not a bed of roses.
This firing of a Royal Salute using live ammunition may have created a minor record as the first Naval Unit in Queen Elizabeth II’s reign to engage the enemy.
The splendid conception and showmanship displayed by Captain Frewen on this occasion made a deep impression on my young Australian ship’s company. The whole idea that ceremonial, seamanship and action could be merged into a neat operation appealed to them immensely. The then young officers and ratings who, now after 25 years, have risen to higher rank will never forget how the accession of our beloved Queen was most suitably celebrated. Not in Hyde Park nor at the Tower of London, but by a small Task Unit of the Queen’s navies in a cold bleak ice flow north of the 38° parallel. Admiral Sir John Frewen, I regret, is now dead; but for me his spirit and elan will always flout the enemies of our Queen Elizabeth in Her Jubilee Year.
God Bless the Queen.