Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Sanctioned Destruction of our Naval Heritage

Today (12th January) is the 88th anniversary of HMS Victory's move to her dry dock in Portsmouth and the beginning of her restoration. It is amazing to think that this veteran of Trafalgar and the spiritual symbol of Royal Navy was afloat until 1922, after around 157 years on the water. Despite being dry docked she is still the oldest commissioned battleship in the World.
HMS Victory was launched in 1765 at Chatham Dockyard and was commissioned in 1778. She continued in active service for the next 34 years which included her most famous moment - the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 when she was flagship to Vice Admiral Lord Nelson, defeating the Franco -Spanish fleet. In 1812 Victory was retired from front line duty and anchored in Portsmouth Harbour, where for the next 110 years she remained at her moorings fulfilling a combination of practical and ceremonial roles. In 1922, amid fears for her continued survival, Victory was moved into Portsmouth's Royal Naval Dockyard and placed in No2 Dry Dock. Work then began on restoring the Victory to her 'fighting' 1805 condition and continues today.
I have visited the ship many times and always marvel at her size and how she could have held nearly 1,000 people in her cramped hull, including some unofficial passengers such as a few "wives", along with animals providing fresh milk and meat. Victory carried more artillery than the Duke of Wellington had at Waterloo, over 100 guns of varying calibre, including the two giant Carronades on the forecastle which fired a 68lb shot.
That she was rescued for preservation in 1922 is terrific as other  deserving ships have not been so lucky. HMS Warspite a veteran of Jutland in the first World War and a very active player in the Second World War was cut up for scrap (after she seemingly took control over her own fate under tow and beached herself) but in 1947 a real tragedy occur ed when a 74 gun ship, a two decker captured from the French at Trafalgar was sunk in the Channel under the Union Jack and the Tricolour. But this noble sounding act was a disaster for heritage and the preservation of relics from a bygone age. Today the thought of destroying such an important piece of history we hope would not be allowed.
The Implacable started life as a French warship, built at Rochefort in 1797. It was as the Duguay-Trouin that she fought at Trafalgar, part of a squadron commanded by Admiral Dumanoir which entered the fight at a late stage. The Duguay-Trouin was able to engage the heavily damaged Victory with a few broadsides, but Dumanoir soon saw that the battle was already lost, he attempted to withdraw but a fortnight later was intercepted by a much stronger British naval force and battered into surrender.

The Duguay-Trouin was brought back to Britain and renamed Implacable, then sent to fight her builders, the French. In 1842, she was sailed home and discharged from active fighting service, for much of the 19th century she was at Portsmouth as a training ship. HMS Victory and HMS Implacable, as the only two Trafalgar survivors, became famous, but the preservation of “heritage” was not then perceived as part of the state's duties. The cost of conserving cathedrals, castles or old warships was considered to be the responsibility of civil society and to be met by rich individuals or by private bodies and corporations. Nor had anyone appreciated how expensive it is to maintain the complex structure of a large wooden ship, especially one which was already a century old and weakened by heavy seas, extreme temperatures, gunfire and all the other shocks to which a big sailing ship is exposed. The timbers rot, leak, grow insect-infested and warp.

Victory, as Nelson's flagship, had been saved as a memorial to him (and as flagship of the commander-in-chief, Portsmouth), meeting her costs was something the Admiralty could not avoid. But Implacable was another matter. The Admiralty hung on to her for decades while growing ever more anxious about the escalating costs of any repair. During the WW2, Implacable lay at Portsmouth, near Victory - the bombs missed both ships, but Implacable's maintenance was neglected and the hull deteriorated further. The Admiralty now began to claim that her condition had passed the point of no return, and announced that they intended to “dispose” of her.

There were letters to the Times, and appeals (supported  by members of the Royal Family) for funds to save the old ship. But post-1945 Britain was war weary and broke: the Admiralty declined to be moved by patriotic sentiment. In  late 1949, carpenters sawed off the warship's figurehead, then removed the whole ornamental stern - thankfully these are preserved at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. On 2nd December 1949, the Implacable was packed with explosive charges and loaded with 450 tons of iron ballast. Flying the white ensign and the French tricolour she was towed out to sea, escorted by modern warships carrying a party of admirals, sea lords and other senior naval staff, where she was sunk.

This provided a wake up call to those who wanted to save historic ships, who saw that they must organise themselves more effectively. A few years later, they managed (yet again with royal help, from Prince Philip) to save the old tea-clipper Cutty Sark and preserve her in a dry-dock at Greenwich. In 1970 the Maritime Trust was founded, followed in 1979 by the World Ship Trust which is now restoring over 400 historic vessels and has three times as many on its books. The motto of the World Ship Trust is “Implacable – Never Again”.

So we shouldn't take heritage for granted - always be aware of the danger threatening heritage objects, those that are as large as ships to things as small as paintings.

One final personal note about HMS Victory. About 15 years ago I met an ex-Commando who told me of the time he nearly destroyed Victory by mistake during WW2. While heading through the dockyard at Portsmouth passing Victory's dry dock, a satchel of mortar bombs he was carrying broke its strap. As they began to fall onto the dockyard everyone ran for cover and then watched with horror as with a dreadful inevitability they started rolling towards the dry dock and one by one fell in. Wincing at every clang as they hit the bottom the Commandos waited for the explosion that would blow a whole in Victory's hull and possibly break her back. Mercifully nothing happened, apart from a severe punishment dealt out to the Commando!

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