I have been looking for sailors who took part in Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral 50 years ago and I am glad to say two have come to light.
One lives in the north-east in Jarrow and another at Waterlooville.
Billy McGill was an 18-year-old AB serving at HMS Excellent in the firefighting team and was picked to be in the gun carriage crew pulling the wartime leader’s coffin.
He says all the lads were at least six feet tall. ‘We trained at Whale island and then were shipped to Chelsea Barracks in London for more training.’
Billy was located in the rear drag rope squad, fourth from the left in the back row but one. It was a bitterly cold day and I asked Billy if he wore any extra clothing.
‘I wore a sea jersey under my white front and another pair of trousers under my uniform pair. Someone told me they had on tracksuit bottoms.’
During the service the gun crew had to wait for the best part of an hour standing at ease in the cold outside St Paul’s Cathedral.
After the final part of the march from St Paul’s to Tower Hill the crew was dismissed and the men made their way back to Portsmouth.
‘I watched the service that evening on the mess television and I felt as proud as could be,’ says Billy who was then drafted to HMS Lowestoft where he served until 1967.
Another who was part of the service was former Chief Petty Officer GI David Rolfe, from Waterlooville, a petty officer at the time.
He joined the navy at St Vincent, Gosport, in 1954 and nine years later was rated petty officer the day President Kennedy was assassinated. At the time he was picked for the task he was a gunnery instructor at Whale Island.
The gun carriage was taken to London on a low loader. It was set up outside Westminster Hall and the carriage crew was taken by coach from Chelsea.
David was one of eight senior rates picked and they had to draw square rig uniform from stores.
I also asked David why the crew wore white fronts on such a cold day.
He says: ‘We were offered greatcoats but we refused as we wanted to look like the sailors we were and not like everyone else – smart in square rig with white front, blue collar and white gaiters.’
David recalls the crew trained at Chelsea Barracks for seven days and had to learn new marching tricks. It was special because when leaving Westminster Hall yard the cortege was too wide to pass through the gates. David tells me: ‘The outside men had to close up just before passing through the gates and open up when through them, while keeping in step of course. It all went off without a hitch and I don’t suppose the public even noticed.’
David’s location in the march was on the steering bar of the gun carriage. The formation of the crews was named as ‘front drag ropes’ and ‘rear drag ropes’. The rear contingent also acted as brakemen as they had to hold the carriage back when marching down an incline.
Apart from Portsmouth ratings at the service there were also Royal Marines who marched ahead of the gun carriage – men from Eastney Barracks. Portsmouth and the Amphibious Training Squad, Deal, Kent.
David left the navy after 30 years in 1984.