Autumn pilgrimage

Where the Grand Old Lady Lies Still

Each autumn the HMS Warspite Association honours the memory of the sailors and marines who sailed in, and sometimes gave their lives aboard, the legendary battleship during both peace and war across more than three decades.

There was a good gathering at Marazion in Cornwall again this year. Making a pilgrimage to the battlewagon’s last resting place was at least one WW2 veteran from the ship, relatives of those who served in her along with submariners who crewed the Cold War era nuclear-powered submarine HMS Warspite.

Also there were Marazion townsfolk and others from far and wide who wished to pay their respects to both the men and a ship that defended Britain and Western democracy across two world wars. In doing so they all hope that the scale of personal sacrifice and naval-industrial effort needed to safeguard Britain is not forgotten, especially in troubling times such as those of today.

Warspite Marazion memorial

The HMS Warspite Association ensign, carrying the battleship’s many battle honours, is dipped in salute at the Marazion memorial. Photo: Dennis Andrews.

After garnering more battle honours than any other British warship during two world wars, Warspite famously ran aground at Prussia Cove in the late 1940s and then was towed around to Mount’s Bay where she remained for several years to be dismantled.

The battleship lives on along the Cornish shore in more ways than one, not only in the parts of her fabric that remain scattered across the local community but also thanks to the valiant efforts of a fascinating exhibit on Warspite in the Marazion museum. There is also a memorial stone on the shores of the bay, where members of the HMS Warspite Association gather for a Sunday service of Remembrance each year.

A wreath is laid and the association ensign is dipped in salute, kissing the ground where the spirit of the ‘Grand Old Lady’ resides. The battle honours on the ensign tell the story of Britain across two global conflicts in which the battleship played a decisive role more than once. They offer a chronicle of vigilance and courage.

Below, an edited extract from ‘Warspite’ tells how the proud and battle scarred ship came to find her final resting place at Marazion, in the shadow of St. Michael’s Mount.

At the beginning of February 1945 the Admiralty confirmed Warspite would pay off into reserve. She was too old and worn out. It was not worth giving her the major rebuild she needed to be brought back to full fighting efficiency.

Having lain at Spithead for some time, Warspite was brought into Portsmouth Harbour to be stripped of her guns and anything else worth saving for use elsewhere. Despite calls to have her preserved as a museum ship the Royal Navy showed its usual lack of sentimentality and confirmed she would be sold for scrap.

On 12 March 1947, Warspite was towed again to Spithead and the following month the tugs Mytinda III and Bustler arrived. Their job was to tow her to the Gareloch, in the mouth of the Clyde, where Metal Industries would cut her up.

A storm hit the Channel on April 20 when she was off Land’s End and changed her final destination. With the full fury of the Atlantic rolling in, Warspite bucked and struggled so violently the towline to Bustler parted. Digging her bows stubbornly into the sea she began to take on water and became even more unruly. It was clear by the following morning the old battlewagon would get no further while the storm lasted. Continuing would put the lives of eight caretaker personnel aboard the ship at risk.

After a fresh line was put across, Warspite was pulled into Mount’s Bay, where she dropped anchor. On 23 April the violence of the continuing storm saw her breaking free of her anchor and Warspite was carried away to run aground in Prussia Cove. The battleship’s bows were ripped open, compartments flooded and she sank down by her bows. It was time to get the caretakers off.

In a savagely undulating sea the Penlee lifeboat went out for them. In those treacherous conditions the small vessel could easily have been smashed to pieces but somehow the men were plucked off to safety. A newspaper report sagely observed of Warspite: ‘Her oldest loves, the wind and the sea, have helped the Old Lady of the Fleet to cheat the executioner. She is ashore, apparently for good…’

Warspite on the rocks

Even with her guns removed from her turrets, Warspite refused to go to the scrap yard without a fight, running aground at Prussia Cove in Cornwall after breaking the tow of the tug taking her to the breakers. Photo: Strathdee Collection.

One of those who soon made his way to Prussia Cove was Gordon Ellis. Thirty-one years earlier, as a young Surgeon Lieutenant, he had experienced a roller coaster ride through the Battle of Jutland aboard Warspite.

Having eventually reached the rank of Surgeon Captain before leaving the Royal Navy, his family home was in Cornwall, so he was now close at hand. Taking his camera with him, Gordon stood on the storm-lashed shore not far from where the Warspite had run aground and captured her glorious end on film. ‘He always loved the Warspite,’ his daughter Judith recalled decades later. ‘My father said that, as she was a West Country ship, it would be appropriate if she ended her days there as well.’

And this was what happened. Warspite was towed around to Marazion beach by St. Michael’s Mount, where the job of blasting and cutting her apart continued over the next seven years. The seaplane crane, which had recovered Petty Officer Frederick Rice’s Swordfish during the battles of Narvik and Matapan during WW2, was used to lift scrap sections over the side until it too was taken away. The scrap sections were loaded onto trains at a local siding and transported to Wales to be smelted down.

It is said other members of her crew made a last pilgrimage to say a final farewell to Warspite before she was completely gone, walking as close as they dared to her remains on Marazion beach. Flying high over the battleship’s disappearing hulk during the 1950s was former Warspite junior officer John Corbett who had last seen her at Malta in autumn 1943. He served in the Fleet Air Arm post-war and often flew student navigators on training flights from the nearby naval air station at Culdrose.

At the controls of his Firefly he stared down at his old battleship. ‘We used her as a navigation point to mark the departure point of training exercises,’ he recalled half a century later. ‘She was a hulk, hardly recognisable.’ Then, one day, the Warspite seemed to have disappeared and the Culdrose pilots had to use something else as a navigation point.

Actually, there are still some traces left of her in the sand at Mount’s Bay. In the end they couldn’t remove her boilers, fragments of which are still deeply embedded in the beach after being blown to bits.

MichaelMount4

The view across to St. Michael’s Mount from Marazion, September 2015. The spot where Warspite was beached, in order to be broken up, lies to the right of the Mount. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

“Her oldest loves, the wind and the sea, have helped the Old Lady of the Fleet to cheat the executioner. She is ashore, apparently for good…”

 

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