It might seem odd to say that someone was disappointed to miss a funeral, but that was the case for Mike Boynes.
Mike was picked to be one of the crew to haul the gun carriage carrying Sir Winston Churchill’s coffin through the streets of London at his state funeral.
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of that unforgettable occasion and recently I asked if there were any men still living locally who took part. I received one reply from Bob Ralph of which more later.
The day was bitterly cold with a biting wind. All the officers and men lining the parade wore greatcoats but the gun carriage crew had to wear square rig with white fronts, the vest with blue collar lining. It was normal for winter rig to wear a woollen sea jersey under the jacket so the men must have been frozen while waiting for the coffin to be placed on the carriage.
Mike tells me he was a 16-year-old gunnery rating serving in HMS Devonshire and had recently passed out from HMS St Vincent after a year’s training including time at HMS Cambridge Gunnery School near Plymouth.
The news that Churchill had ‘crossed the bar’ on January 24 came through and along with other ratings Mike was thrilled to be chosen to take part in the ceremony on January 30.
Mike and his oppos were sent to HMS Excellent, Whale Island, for intensive drill training which included learning how to pull the gun carriage.
A total of 156 men were given the honour of hauling the gun carriage, undertaken at the slow march, an arduous task for the journey from Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral via Whitehall, The Strand, Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill.
Royal Navy gunnery instructors were famed for their booming voices and Mike can remember the dry humour of one shouting at the men on parade: ‘Buck up you shower, anyone would think you were going to a funeral.’
After several days of strenuous training in freezing conditions on the Whale Island parade ground, Mike was saddened to find that the Devonshire contingent was not chosen for Churchill’s final journey.
They were however sent to London to be on stand-by in case of emergency, so he did play a small part in the event.
The son of one of the men who did take part is Bob Ralph whose late father was Chief Petty Officer GI Reg Ralph. Aged 34 he was located third from the left front row in the gun carriage party.
Although a CPO who wore a fore and aft uniform, he had to wear square rig that day. I asked Bob if his father received anything in recognition. He says as far as he knew the Royal Victorian Medal was awarded, but he didn’t know if his father got one. I will include another story of the service, featuring HMS Ark Royal, next week.
n To see video of Churchill’s funeral go to portsmouth.co.uk.