In 1936 the Royal family and the British Empire faced a huge scandal as well as a constitutional crisis, when the new King, Edward VIII proposed to the American socialite Wallis Simpson. It was not usual for the monarchy to marry someone not of royal birth and it was further complicated as Mrs Simpson had been divorced, remarried and was in the process of obtaining her second divorce.
It was not just the Royal family that opposed the marriage but the government and members of the British Commonwealth. There were also religious objections as King Edward VIII was the nominal head of the Church of England, which did not allow divorced people to marry if their previous spouses were still alive. Despite the widespread International outcry over the prospect of Mrs Simpson as his consort, Edward declared that he loved her and intended to marry her, whatever the consequences.
Eventually Edward had to bow to both family, governmental and public opinion and rather than dissolve his relationship with Wallis he chose to abdicate in December 1936. For the rest of his life Edward was known as His Royal Highness the Duke of Windsor. He married Wallis Simpson the following year and they lived in exile until his death 35 years later.
In part two of my father’s memoirs he talks about his initial training in the Royal Navy, encountering the then King twice, and meeting my mother – not sure which of those was the most memorable…....well perhaps I am…
Naval Barracks in Portsmouth.
I received all my kit, including a hammock and Ditty Box, and spent many hours marching on the parade ground, with and without a rifle. During this period, we were inspected on the parade ground by the new King, Edward VIII. My last memory of this occasion was how very small in stature the King was and a scar he had on the left side of his face. We received lectures on aspects of the Navy, lots of PT, swimming ‑ including a test, rifle shooting on the range and compulsory church. We slept in our hammocks, to get us used to slinging and stowing, and I must say they were very comfortable. On completion of this course, I moved to HMS Vernon, the Navy’s Torpedo and Electrical School.
I spent the next fourteen months learning all about ships’ electrics, torpedoes, torpedo tubes, gun fire control circuits and gyrocompasses.
Shortly after joining Vernon, I was returning late one evening, after visiting a cinema, and had just reached the gate to enter Vernon when a small convoy of cars passed me. Some were police cars and there was one large limousine, which I discovered the next morning, was taking HM the King to the dockyard to join a destroyer to take him to France, and exile.
On completion of all my courses in September 1937 it was up bag, baggage and hammock and across the harbour to HMS Dolphin, the submarine school. This was a temporary move until I could join my first sea-going ship which was HMS Nelson, a Battleship, and which I joined 29th November 1937, as a fully qualified Electrical Artificer.
HMS Nelson was one of two battleships built in the late 1920s, the other being HMS Rodney. During the building, it was decided to reduce the maximum size of this class of ship so they cut off part of the stern, which gave them a very odd appearance, but they were still very large and it took quite a long time to find my way around.
Nelson was the Flagship of the Home Fleet and carried the Admiral and his Staff. The new CinC, when I joined, was Admiral Casper John, the son of Augustus John, the celebrated artist.
The ship’s Company was nearly 2,000 strong and my first job was with the Gun Fire Control maintenance team, followed by responsibility for the 24-inch torpedoes and tubes. These were situated in the bows and during bad weather it was not a very comfortable place to be. I quickly made friends with another EA, Vic Newell, and we always went ashore together whenever possible.
The home fleet followed an annual programme: The Mediterranean for combined exercises with the Med. Fleet in the spring ‑ visiting Malta and Gibraltar; Exercises and visits in Home Waters in the summer and exercises in the North Sea based at Invergordon in the winter. After each cruise, we returned to Portsmouth for leave and maintenance.
It was during one of these spells in 1938 that Vic met Mollie at a dance and eventually had a date to join her at a New Year’s Eve party, at the Savoy in Southsea. Unfortunately, Vic was drafted from Nelson, in December of 1938, to join a destroyer leaving for Gibraltar before the 31st and so he arranged for me to take his place as partner for Mollie. In the event, Vic’s Ship did not leave and we both went to the Party. That was the start of a very beautiful friendship.
Vic finally sailed for Gibraltar early in the New Year in the Destroyer, HMS Bulldog, where he served until well after the start of the war. He eventually transferred to HMS Penelope and tragically died when the ship was torpedoed on 28th February 1944.
I continued to serve in HMS Nelson until after the summer-cruise, on the completion of which, at the end of July 1939, we anchored in Weymouth Bay. I then received instructions to leave Nelson and join HMS Emerald at Chatham.
©Eric Coleman 1994
Next Time – HMS Emerald, Scotland to Iceland and war is declared.