23 Jun Dunkirk Veteran, Massey Shaw, escorts HMY Britannia marking the end of over 330 years of Royal maritime tradition
You see them, don’t you? Fireboats …. enjoying the well-established tradition of throwing water up into the air greeting the odd cruise liner or round the world yachtsman or woman.
HMY Britannia was no cruise liner, but she has certainly returned from a world cruise on more than one occasion. The Dunkirk veteran, London Fireboat Massey Shaw continued that watery tradition, accompanied by other historic craft, when on the 13th of November 1997, Britannia on her farewell voyage returned to the Pool of London for the last time.
Various receptions were held on board for senior political, diplomatic and military figures to bid her farewell. The Queen and Prince Philip’s golden wedding luncheon was to be held on the 20th. The following day saw her sad departure, paying-off pennant streaming, on her final voyage down The London River for decommissioning at Portsmouth.
Stuart White was the rightly proud owner of the tug Golden Cross, found by him on a scrap heap in Portsmouth. His for a mere £15,000 and several large tins of paint and a further £100,000 later, made her up to ship-shape order. Golden Cross tugged Britannia on her first voyage from the Tees in 1956. It was fitting then, that when Massey Shaw from her berth at the London Fire Brigade pontoon at Lambeth joined with Britannia at Blackwall Reach, Golden Cross should be heading the escort fleet showing the way for Britannia on her last voyage, just as she had for her first.
The sight of Britannia passing the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich defied any patriotic man alive not to be moved by both the occasion and history being made. The escort fleet by now included Sun tugs Sussex and Surrey. Dunkirk Veteran Fireboat Massey Shaw and the London Fire Brigade’s fireboat London Phoenix. Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral launch Havengore (remember those dipping cranes?) and Port of London and Harbour Master’s vessels together with Police and rescue launches. Massey Shaw squirted from her main monitor and just about every other outlet, the Royal Marine band played on Britannia’s foredeck, and the Old Royal Naval College fired a three-gun salute. School children and their mums and dads, carers, grandmothers and granddads crowded the shoreline many deep, their flag waving and cheering reciprocated by the flags and bunting and the cheering back from the fleet. The Trafalgar Tavern at Greenwich boasted a choir, which could be clearly heard from the water, fireworks and champagne and a face and a flag at every window and vantage point. Everybody on the water and some on the shoreline got soaked by Massey Shaw, but paid no heed.
This was indeed history in the making, and they knew that they were privileged to have been able to take part in it.
The Royal Yacht and her proud escorts sailed on upstream towards Tower Bridge and the Pool of London. Once there some deft manoeuvring by the Sun tugs in the turning-hole, followed by perhaps a less than gracious stern-first tugging under the bridge. Then more cheering, flags and schoolchildren later, Britannia was secured onto her berth opposite The Tower of London for the very last time. The children congregated on the decks of HMS Belfast the better to see the royal arrivee. To show off to these children, several water-squirting passes by dear old Massey Shaw were made in both directions alongside Belfast. Then, the hearts of oak crew of the Massey Shaw slipped her back under Tower Bridge, stemmed an Admiralty buoy just outside that posh restaurant where the Prime Minister of the day took his pals, and had a jolly good celebratory lunch in the cabin, scoffing Marks & Spencer sandwiches and sticky buns. Yummy!
HMY Britannia was decommissioned on 11th December at Portsmouth in the presence of HM The Queen and other members of the Royal Family, amid scenes of genuine and visible emotion at the ending of an unbroken 337-year tradition of a Royal Yacht. Britannia accounting for 44 of those years in distinguished service to both Queen and country. We wondered where her future lay.
Those that have seen her in her natural element will more fully understand what a wonderful piece of kit she is, and what a testament to British pride in simply being British. How wrong can it be to have pride in your country and the achievements of your fellow countrymen and woman? Oh well, I thought at the time that the “invisibles” would now become even more invisible although HMS Ark Royal did take up the mantle, embarking a delegation of businessmen on the first of hopefully many trade missions, the job that Britannia did so very, very, well. What cost a set of new engines?
Since that sad time, most happily plans are afoot and now well advanced to building a “replacement’ Royal Yacht, variously described in at least one report as a “National Flagship Yacht” and by others as a not wanted vanity project. I wonder if our dear old Massey Shaw will one day soon escort the not wanted vanity project on her first visit up The London River?
This article was submitted by long standing volunteer, supporter and Director, John Furlonger.
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