This is a retrospective of the event, which also draws comparisons with the last Coronation Review, that of George VI in 1937. That was dominated by battleships, in 1953 there is only one – Vanguard, the big beasts of 1953 are aircraft carriers, including Britains latest – Eagle.
It is evident that defence cuts are beginning to bite. It is stated that half the fleet is held in reserve – “mothballed”, and indeed some vessels have been hastily re-commissioned, appearing with guns and other equipment shrouded in vacuum shrunk plastic. In 1937 only the Royal Navy was represented. In 1953, ships from the navies of the Dominions and other Commonwealth countries were present, including significantly air craft carriers “on permanent loan” from the Royal Navy. To make up the numbers ocean liners, merchant vessels, fishing craft and ferries were included in the lines. One of these was headed by Farringford, which if I remember correctly was an Isle of Wight car ferry! Sir Winston Churchill, that “former naval person”, present on board the Trinity House yacht in his capacity as an Elder Brother of that ancient body, must have had very mixed feelings, comparing his memories going back as far as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Review of 1897.
The new Royal Yacht, Britannia had been launched, but fitting out was not complete, so HMA Surprisewas painted light blue, and given a glazed viewing platform in front of the bridge, for use by the Royal party on the day. As an interesting historical footnote, this was the first time that WRNS served afloat, asmall party acting as stewardesses in Surprise during the Review, and in Vanguard during the evening dinner party for admirals and captains.
This booklet was written by Commander Tommy Woodroofe, R.N., Retd., who is perhaps best known for his live radio broadcast from the 1937 Coronation Review, when after a convivial afternoon being generously entertained by former shipmates, took to the microphone, in what can only be described as an “illuminated” condition. Full transcripts are not easy to find, but in the interests of history, this appears to be the fullest available…
“Once again we’re taking you on board HMS Nelson for a description of the scene at Spithead tonight by Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Woodrooffe”.
At the present moment, the whole fleet is lit up. When I say ‘lit up’, I mean lit up by fairy lamps.
We’ve forgotten the whole Royal Review … we’ve forgotten the Royal Review … the whole thing is lit up by fairy lamps. It’s fantastic, it isn’t the fleet at all. It’s just … it’s fairyland, the whole fleet is in fairyland.
Now, if you’ll follow me through … if you don’t mind … the next few moments… you’ll find the fleet doing odd things. At the present moment, the New York, obviously, is lit out … and when I say the fleet is lit up … in lamps… I mean, she’s outlined. The whole ship’s outlined…. In little lamps. Umm.. what I mean is this. The whole fleet is lit up. In fairy lamps, and … each ship is outlined.
Now, as far as I can see is about … I suppose I can see down about five or six miles … ships are all lit up.
They’re outlined, the whole lot. Even destroyers are outlined. In the old days, y’know, destroyers used to be outlined by a little kind of pyramid of lights. And nowadays … destroyers are lit up by … they outline themselves.
In a second or two, we’re going to fire rockets, um, we’re going to fire all sorts of things (indistinct). And.. you can’t possibly see them, but you’ll hear them going off, and you may hear my reaction when I see them go off. Because … erm … I’m going to try and tell you what they look like as they go off. But at the moment there’s a whole huge fleet here. The thing we saw this afternoon, this colossal fleet, lit up … by lights … and the whole fleet is in fairyland!
It isn’t true, it isn’t here! And as I say it …IT’S GONE! IT’S GONE!! There’s no fleet! It’s, eh, it’s disappeared! No magician who ever could have waved his wand could have waved it with more acumen than he has now at the present moment. The fleet’s gone. It’s disappeared.
I’m trying to give you, ladies and gentlemen, (indistinct) the fleet’s gone. It’s disappeared. I was talking to you … in the middle of this damn (he cough’s), in the middle of this fleet … and what’s happened is the fleet’s gone, disappeared and gone. We had a hundred, two hundred warships
around us a second ago, and now they’ve gone, at a signal by the Morse code, at a signal by the fleet flagship which I’m in now, they’ve gone, they’ve disappeared.
There’s nothing between us and heaven. There’s nothing at all… AT THIS POINT, SOMEONE PULLS A PLUG OUT.
For some reason, Tommy was very lucky. Sir John Reith, a tall thin, dour, cadaverous, humourless, Scotsman (Winston Churchill once described him as “That Wuthering Height”) the Director General of the BBC, was a strict disciplinarian. Involvement in a divorce brought dismissal, and radio news readers at night had to wear dinner jackets and bow ties, despite the fact that no one could see them.
Perhaps he did not hear the broadcast, and only had a “censored” version reported to him, but Tommy was only suspended for one week, and went on to do outside broadcasts for many years, with no further lapses from sobriety.