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Royal Navy with a spectacular history: from Admiral Nelson to Sherlock Holmes




 FIXED to the wall of a remote village house some 10km north of Portsmouth is a small sign which is easily missed by passengers in cars unless you know it is there.

It states that it was here Field Marshal Dwight D. Eisenhower and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery met every day for months with their staffs to plan in the greatest detail the invasion of France and Germany as well as all the many deceptions. It was named Operation Neptune (D-Day), scheduled for 6 June, 1944. They had begun to plan in mid-1943.

There were 156 000 soldiers involved in crossing the English Channel, 95 000 naval personnel, 185 tanks, 50 000 coastal guns and 170 artillery pieces deployed from Portsmouth, other coastal harbours and the pebble beaches of Hampshire and Dorset, indicating the immensity of their task. All that as well as intensive previous bombing of German defences by air.

 4 400 men were killed and 6 000 injured during this biggest seaborne invasion in history. There were 13 different nations taking part. Portsmouth harbour was still operational after so much bombing and contained hundreds of ships and boats in readiness for action.

Remnants of the invasion can be seen today in Portsmouth. A popular modern designed attraction for visitors on the nearby Southsea promenade is the fascinating and informative D-Day museum, outside of which is placed a 100 metres long open transportation vessel that ferried 800 men alongside the many others that took troops to the other side of the English Channel.

There are many other memorials centred around Portsmouth and its adjacent resort town of Southsea. The tall, imposing war memorial on the vast common land which separates the residential area from the sea front (where the populace still holds ancient rights to graze their sheep) solemnly lists the 24 600 local area dead from the two World Wars.

Every 11 November the nearby Memorial Service is attended by thousands of residents including a large number of the so-called “hairy bikers” who arrive noisily with their huge bikes and add flavour to the occasion. They then ride off to do charity work in the city afterwards, which has become an annual tradition. 

Nearby is a memorial to the crew of the Chilean ship “Cochrane” which was destroyed in war with 800 crew members lost when it was torpedoed. This memorial also commemorates Lord Thomas Cochrane who was an Admiral in the British navy and he prevented Chile from being invaded by Peru some 200 years ago. There has been a Chilean warship ship named Cochrane ever since. He is buried at Westminster Abbey alongside David Livingstone the explorer and missionary.

 Several museums are available to visit, mainly in the dockyard area – Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Admiral Nelson’s effects, the Mary Rose wreckage and effects, famously raised and shown in detail on television in 1982, the same year as the Falklands conflict.

H.M.S. Victory, Nelson’s flagship in dry dock, a new D-Day landings museum with a massive troop carrier parked nearby. There is also “H.M.S.Warrior,” still afloat, rather ugly but effective in its day as this is the first warship built with steam engines as well as carry sails, a forerunner of the New Age of Steam. There is a Submarine Museum across the harbour at Gosport town.

And right out of context a museum dedicated to Sherlock Holmes, whose detective tales were envisaged by local resident and practitioner Dr. Arthur Conan-Doyle.

The “Victory”, and 26 other warships of the line under Nelson, in 1805 utterly destroyed the mixed French-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, which is close to the southern Spanish city of Cadiz. Nineteen Spanish ships were either taken captive or sunk.

Nelson’s tactics in the battle became famous at the time. He would deliberately suffer the damaging Spanish broadsides by going alongside, then swing round to the rear of enemy vessels in succession, destroy the captain’s and officers’ quarters and smash up the steering rudders. Napoleon had planned to use the fleet to defeat England with an invasion, Portsmouth being a prime target.

The “Mary Rose” was built as King Henry VIII’s personal ship, but on its maiden voyage in 1552, while he stood with pride on the castle walls by the banks of the Solent watching its departure, then in horror as it ran into one of the sand banks and tipped over. The entire crew rushed to the steep leaning side to see what had happened and the extra weight caused the ship to broach and sink with the loss of 92 lives.

 When a decision was eventually made to salvage the wreck at huge cost, the operation transfixed the nation watching it television. It took a very long time but was finally concluded in 1982. After years of restoration the partially rebuilt ship went on show to visitors.

The entrance to Portsmouth harbour can only be approached through a deep water channel which, the nearby shallows, if not known about, has resulted in the downfall of many enemy ships. The channel is maintained by regular dredging and can provide access for very large ships such as the aircraft carriers “HMS Elizabeth” and “H.M.S. Prince of Wales,” newly commissioned at £8 billion each.

They all slowly travel with much caution by buildings only 50 metres or so away from the admiring crowds. Portsmouth is naturally their home port and as of writing they are “at home.” However the carriers have had quite a few teething troubles and in addition to those rather embarrassing problems when these are published, the USA has actually had to supply them with the fighter aircraft they need to do their job.

 The Portsmouth outer harbour (there are two adjoining) is overlooked by a new and splendid shopping centre known as the “Gunwharf Quays” with all the major brand name stores and dotted with cafes, restaurants and offices, plus a complex of 14 cinemas. The skyline is dominated by the “Spinnaker Tower” of about 100 metres with wonderful long views of the city and countryside. It is about the height of the Victoria Falls.

“Gunwharf Quays” has replaced in some style the rubble left behind by WWII air raids. Here is where you will find verandah coffee drinkers watching the busy sea traffic that  include the Wightlink ferries crossing regularly to the Isle of Wight, cruise liners of  monstrous size, billionaires’ yachts and a great many small sailing boats, all the bigger ones careful to stay in the deep water areas. Among these was an impressive American coastguard square rigger sailing ship paying a courtesy visit.

 Just outside the harbour a busy hydrofoil ferry comes noisily powering up the beach and then even more noisily swirls away on departure, back and forth all day to the Isle of Wight, claimed to be the only hydrofoil in the world still in operation (yet I have been on one from Hong Kong to Macau in China, though long ago). Occasionally there is an occasional visit from a Mississippi-style river steamboat built in 1926, which offers tours around southern England and is based in the London area.

 There is also the fast Catamaran and the nearby plodding Gosport ferry easing back and forth to the town across the main harbour, carrying commuters, night revellers and visitors to Portsmouth for shopping.

 Portsmouth got its name from a man called “Ports” who led invading Saxons in AD501. They found the defences of the ancient locals inadequate as being made of only soil and stones. The city is actually an island called Portsea when the tide is in, but a promontory when it is out and is linked to mainland England by a motorway bridge.

Portsmouth has three theatres, the King’s, the New and the Guildhall, each one seating over 1000 patrons and putting on shows such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra, tributes to the Beatles and BeeGees, Riverdance and  the Russian Opera, (before the Russian/Ukraine war), and pantomimes at Christmas-time.

At nearby Chichester there is also the Festival Theatre where the stage is set into the middle of the surrounding audience. During a recent performance of “Macbeth” which I attended, a fake dagger came flying off the stage and landed at my feet. I did not know whether to ignore it or hand it back to Lady Macbeth!

 Portsmouth is served by three railway station and recently the famous “Flying Scotsman” steam engine came through on its centenary tour of Britain. Frequent buses are free for the elderly and students.

 Famous authors in Portsmouth include Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle (whose former clinic is close to where I live) and Charles Dickens, campaigner for the poor. Former Prime Minister James Callaghan was born in the city as was the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who famously designed railways with tunnels that defied warning opinion, bridges and ships throughout the south of England.

 The University of Portsmouth was founded in 1870 and has five faculties. There is a staff of 3 540 and generally 29 000 students. It is well known for important research work in many subjects.

 The professional football team is in a low Division One of the national league (third division). Yet the club won the FA Cup in 2008, beating Cardiff City at Wembley. In every home game their ground is filled to its 18 000 capacity.

 A blot on Portsmouth’s past was its involvement in the slave trade. Three examples: In 1759 the “Hannah” vessel collected 300 slaves in Sierra Leone for transportation to North Carolina. In 1774 the “Hope” carried 80 “healthy” slaves there for sale. And in 1786 there were more taken across the Atlantic in chains to a place called “Shell Castle” where they built roads, houses and a grist mill.

 England was, however, the first country to end the slave trade in 1791, due mainly to the efforts of long-time campaigner William Wilberforce who worked fiercely and tirelessly for the abolition of the world wide slave trade.

The whole of this Portsmouth kaleidoscope is frequently overseen with the unmistakable shape of a Spitfire fighter aircraft that may be 80 years old. Arrogantly it is sent swept swirling with actrobatic movements across the Portsmouth skyline with its easily recognisable throaty Merlin engine, a reminder of the late Jack Malloch who built his own Spitfire to 80% specification but who crashed in a thunderstorm near Marondera.

The Portsmouth one is said to be on hire for £3 000 a time. One of “The Few” to give this story a proper landing.

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