Just as deciding how to remove the lower mainmast of Victory safely was a matter for the finest calculation, so too was the actual business of lifting itself – because like all sailing ships’ masts, the great ship’s mast does not sit vertically in the ship – it’s slightly off that, raked back to optimize the performance of the vast sails it serves. So the mast had to be drawn out at precisely the right angle, a matter of small degree. When you remember that it weighs 25 tons, a mass of iron and wood which could not be stressed without risk of damage, that calculation became ever more critical. In her heyday Victory afloat would have been brought alongside a ‘sheer hulk’ decommissioned ship to draw her masts out of her. Now it was the task of a massive telescopic crane.
Health’n safety played just about a zero role when ‘Victory’ was built, as you would expect. Indeed, even a century later, during the building of ‘Titanic’ in the Harland and Wolff yard, 12 shipbuilders lost their lives. Which was considered a good result. When you see pictures of those men at work in shipyards across Britain, that’s no surprise, with “safety” gear consisting of a flat cap, muffler and (presumably) stout boots. Often accessorized with imperturbable puffing on pipes. Foremen had the luxury of (equally non-protecting) bowler hats. All involved balancing on foot-wide planks, often lashed to Scotch pines. With ‘Victory’s lower mainmast, another H & S no-no, and a big one too: red lead. Excellent paint for warding off rust – and as toxic as it gets. NMRN conservators will no doubt be decked out like moon landing crews.
HMS ‘Victory’s mainmast has a story of its own to tell, making all the more historically important than its pride of place in the great ship. Though it looks wooden, it isn’t at all – it’s actually iron clad in wood to give it that Nelsonian era look. This mast actually comes from HMS ‘Shah’, which has a distinction all its own, being the first RN warship to fire a torpedo. Nelson looking down must have thought “Now, I and my Band of Brothers cold have made good use of that in the pell-mell battle” (the great Admiral’s characteristically cool description of his relentless, battle-winning tactics.) Of course, combining wood with iron is not the greatest idea in terms of rust and rot, making the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s task in preserving it a real challenge.
When it comes to diversity at The National Museum of the Royal Navy, the sky is literally the limit…or a last a whole lot of feet closer to it. Ellie Pacey is a full-time rigger with the museum – a vital skill given all the ships NMRN has to look after. De-rigging Victory brought with it special challenges, not least the yard (or more) circumference of one of the main stays, which had to be unpicked from the mast by hand, with Ellie and colleagues suspended on safety ropes, swinging above the main deck of the ship after climbing up and up to their “office” in the sky. As usual, quavering enquiries from yours (no head for heights) truly about the challenge met with an “It’s my job” shrug and a smile. Just one key rule, though: don’t drop anything.
…. after you’ve re-supported ‘Victory’. This mighty tree, 10 storeys high, weighing 25 tons (and that’s just the lower part of it) is as much in need of TLC from the team at The National Museum of the Royal Navy as any other part of the ship, and is next in the queue (much more to come) for project leader Andrew Baines; whose other half must by now be feeling about the great ship much as PM Anthony Eden’s wife did at the time of Suez, when she said she felt as if the canal was flowing through her drawing room! Anyway out the mast had to come, drawn from the ship like a giant tooth through four decks, from where it has stood since being replaced in Victorian times. No simple task. First – unpick and remove the rigging…
George Chandler (picture) was a gunner aboard MTB 710 when she was mined and sank, tragically taking many of his shipmates with her. His memories of his time in Coastal Forces in WWII, though, are undimmed, as is his remembrance of that service – especially with Yugoslav forces on the island of Vis, close to Croatia. There, a British cemetery is to be found – for those who fell in the fight against Nazism, including young RN personnel. As we filmed the Coastal Forces Museum, George honoured their memory with his own pitch-perfect rendering of Masefield’s moving verse, inscribed at the cemetery:
“Here dead we lie we, because we did not choose
To live and shame the country from whose bourn we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is. And we were young.”
One visitor to the new Coastal Forces Museum came for a very special reason. Tim Stanton-Fyans’ (picture) great-grandfather was Lieutenant Tim Bone RNVR. Lieutenant Bone was in command of Motor Torpedo Boat 710, returning to Vis on the coast of Croatia, when the MTB was sunk. Sadly, he lost his life along with most of his crew. But as Tim’s sweater tells you, the naval tradition survives in the family – and the Museum works well for him. He told us: “I really love the exhibition. It’s presented really well in the way you can get to understand all the history , and the boats. My great Grandad was on MTB 710 – his ship got blown up by a mine, but George – who’s here today – he survived, and he swam to safety.” More on George in the next blog…
The Coastal Forces Museum pays attention to what will grip the imagination of visitors coming to discover the bravery of those who took the fight to the Nazi war machine, in multi-knot warships, unarmoured, packed with fuel and ammunition. Always mindful of their superb tactician Lieutenant-Commander Hichens’ (picture) dictum: “Hit him hard and quickly – and get out!” There were many fierce boat-to-boat fights in Coastal Forces’ war too – but lying quietly in wait for the enemy, often at night, then getting stuck in was the way to go. The matter-of-fact but courageous ‘Hitch’ (2 DSO’s, 3 DSC’s) fell leading just such an attack, from his favoured position – standing above the bridge holding onto his MGB’s mast. His portrait was painted by leading naturalist Peter Scott, himself a Coastal Forces C.O. It now hangs in the Army and Navy Club, St James’, London.
Rob is a TV producer, reporter and camera operator with 30 years’ experience at the BBC, Channel 4 and ITN, in news, factual and documentary production. He is a four times award winner, whose awards include a coveted Royal Television Society award for his work on Channel 4 News. His association with The Maritime Foundation goes back to 1995, when he won the first Desmond Wettern Maritime Media Award for a series of reports that led to a major documentary on the loss of the bulk carrier Derbyshire.