The Last Norfolk

There have been five major warships bearing the name Norfolk, the first was a 3rd rate ship of the line of 1693. At the time of writing, the last in the line was the Type 23 frigate which was paid off a few years ago and sold to Chile. She was first commissioned in Devonport dockyard on Friday 1st June 1990.

The previous October the branch had celebrated its 10th anniversary since reforming by holding a service in the Cathedral and a reception in St Andrew’s Hall. In addition to the many shipmates from other branches in No,5 Area there was a party of about ten who had come up from the ship to help mark the occasion. One was a local, I think from Wymondham. They were led by a Sub-Lieutenant Wainwright and he turned out to be quite a character. He got involved in just about everything at St Andrew’s, especially on the dance floor. There was some talk during the evening about us attending the commissioning which was due in a few months. So we started to build up a relationship with the ship at an early date.

In due course an invitation did arrive but there were only four places available to attend the actual ceremony as guests. In the event there were five because branch secretary Esme Ketteridge went as a special guest of Wainwright. It was thought that the fairest way to allocate the four places would be to draw lots. When the draw was made I was one of the lucky ones, together with Welfare Officer Alan Driver, Membership Secretary Ron Fitt and John Pye from the social committee.

Shipmates Esme Ketteridge, Alan Driver, Ron Fitt, Alf Wiggins and John Pye on the bridge of HMS Norfolk
Shipmates Esme Ketteridge, Alan Driver, Ron Fitt, Alf Wiggins and John Pye on the bridge of HMS Norfolk

We travelled down to Plymouth by coach on the Thursday and at least twenty made the trip. Travel was arranged through Galaxy Travel and I still have my notification of the cost. The return fare from Norwich to Plymouth was £22. It took a fleet of taxis to convey us and our baggage from the bus station to the Sailor’s Club in Devonport where we were to stay. After finding our rooms, having a rest and getting cleaned up it was time for dinner. The service in the dining room was the slowest I have ever known. So much so that some of us did not wait for dessert but made our way to the bar. Had we but known it this was a harbinger of what was to come during our stay. But more of that later.

On the Friday morning we presented ourselves at the appropriate gate where the security was very tight. Names were given, lists checked and bags searched. Those with tickets had to produce them. Coaches took us through the dockyard to where the ship was berthed. On the jetty alongside the ship a temporary stand had been erected for the guests. Everybody else had to watch from behind a barrier. Princess Margaret was the sponsor and guest of honour, she had launched the ship in 1987. The captain was Jonathon Band who many years later became the First Sea Lord.

Once the service had been held, the speeches made and the rest of the procedures done which are required on those occasions, the reception was held on board for invited guests. There were two gangways leading from the jetty to the ship, one on to the quarterdeck and another further for’ard. We sat opposite the one to the quarterdeck so this was the one we used. At the top we were met by a member of the crew and escorted to the wardroom. Here there was gold braid and obvious people of importance everywhere. The thought came to us that perhaps we should not have been there, and of course we were right. Our route should have been up the for’ard gangway and into the senior rates mess. However, nobody said anything and we were plied with food and drink so we stayed.

We did not get introduced to the Princess or the captain but we did briefly meet 2nd Officer Franklin WRNS who was a member of the weapons engineering department and the first female officer to go to sea. Subby Wainwright also had a few words. Sometime previously he had been in America on an exchange with the US Navy. Whilst there he had met a young lady to whom he was now engaged. She and her parents had come over for the ceremony and we had a long talk with them. For them to be at the commissioning of a Royal Naval ship and in the presence of Royalty, life could not have been much better.

Eventually another member of the crew took us on a tour of the ship so we could see all the wonders of a modern warship. The photo on the previous page shows all five us on the bridge. For those members who did not know the other four they are from the left Esme, Alan, Ron and John. The photo to the right shows Alan, John and me on the stern.

Shipmates Alf Wiggins, John Pye and Alan Driver on Norfolk’s stern
Shipmates Alf Wiggins, John Pye and Alan Driver on Norfolk’s stern

After the reception was over we were again taken by bus to the gate and we made our way back to the Club. Matters in the dining room had not changed but we did stick it out this time. The reason for the problem was made clear. The staff were in dispute with the management over pay and conditions and so they were operating a ‘go slow’ procedure.

The Saturday morning dawned fair and warm so Alan and his wife Joy, a friend who was with them and me decided to take a trip on the river Tamar up to Calstock. The route took us past the Torpoint ferry which I remembered well from my time at Raleigh. Then down to the Hamoaze where in the 40’s and 50’s the Devonport Reserve Fleet was moored. Although the battleship Vanguard was still in commission it was also berthed there. I did a little of my seamanship training in her whilst she was there. The large buoys which we passed were probably from that time. Next it was Brunel’s magnificent Royal Albert Bridge. Here memories did come flooding back. I lost count of the times I was part of a crew of a cutter pulling down from the ship, round the central pier of the bridge and back to the ship.

Here I will digress for a moment. In about 1956 the decision was taken to move Vanguard up to Portsmouth so she could become flagship of the Reserve Fleet there. I think it was called Bellerophon. One morning the tugs arrived, we were unshackled from the buoys, the ground anchors were released, and finally released from the Battleship Howe which was berthed alongside. The photo at bottom of the page shows the ships together with Vanguard’s distinctive cruiser stern. We were then towed across to the dockyard. I suppose I can truthfully say that I have ‘sailed’ on our last and biggest battleship!

For whatever reason the dockyard seemed to be rather full. We did of course have a few more ships in those days and a battleship takes up a lot of room. Consequently around tea time when a small Venezuelan frigate arrived for a port visit it was berthed outboard of us. Talk about a contrast! A gangway had to be provided down to them so that they could access the jetty over Vanguard. One evening I did witness what I thought was an amusing incident. I was travelling on a late bus from the city centre and at the front sat two of the young Venezuelan sailors. A few rows back sat one of their officers. By the time we had made half the journey the bus was full and people had started to stand. Suddenly the officer shouted something to the sailors, in Spanish of course, and they leapt up and offered their seats to the locals. Whatever he said certainly had an immediate effect. I did note however that he remained seated.

Back to the river trip. Calstock is an attractive riverside town and we spent a pleasant time there. Towards the end of our stay we were just sitting by the river when Alan decided he wanted another drink. So he went in search of one. Eventually the passengers began to drift back to the boat for the return journey. Alan was still missing so we had to make a search of the locality. He was found supping a pint outside a pub. Joy was not pleased!

Alan’s friend had been a prisoner of the Japanese and on the homeward journey he had some harrowing tales to tell. When we got back to Plymouth we decided not to face the rigours of the dining room and had a meal in the city centre.

When we went down to breakfast on the Sunday morning the situation had fallen to an even lower ebb. Only the Chef had turned up. So drastic measures were called for. Two or three helped the Chef the best they could whilst others busied themselves around the dining area because little was ready. When other guests came down and saw what was going on they thought the situation hilarious. What a modern health and hygiene inspector would have made of it beggars belief. Nevertheless we got through and were ready when the taxis arrived to take us to the bus station. The long journey home was uneventful apart from the change of coach at Victoria Interchange.

During the ship’s all too short a life in the RN we had a good bit of contact with her and her people. Colin Ayden and I once went down to Plymouth for a rededication ceremony and several of us were present when she was finally decommissioned. Parties came up to Norwich to attend various functions and celebrations. The two principal ones being when the ship was given the Freedom of the City of Norwich and the creation of the Norfolk Wall at County Hall. Having Martin Simpson, her last commanding officer, as one of our shipmates also prolonged her memory. Sadly she could never get into Yarmouth harbour. However, of all the contacts, for me the first was the most memorable. Whether or not there will be another Norfolk only time and the Admiralty can tell. With so few ships being built the omens are not good. Another point worth remembering is that there has not been a HMS Norwich since the last one paid off in 1768. Hopefully one day one or both will again grace the Naval Ships List.

RNA Norwich

The Norwich Branch is one of 300+ branches of the Royal Naval Association world wide. It was commissioned in 1979 and today has a membership of just over 90. It is a registered charity in its own right - the Registered Charity Number is: 1068699

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