Serving in Britain’s last battleship

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth boards HMS Vanguard in 1953
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth boards HMS Vanguard in 1953
THEN: Full of life and shops galore  the eastern end of Highland Road in Edwardian days with Kassassin Street on the right.  Picture: Barry Cox Collection

NOSTALGIA: Snapshot of life in Edwardian Portsmouth

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The Royal Navy’s last battleship, HMS Vanguard, retired from service after a refit in 1956.

She was mothballed and placed in Fareham Creek where she idled away her final years until she was towed away on August 4, 1960, to the breakers’ yard at Faslane, Scotland.

Gunnery instructors at Whale Island in 1963.

Gunnery instructors at Whale Island in 1963.

Launched in November 1941 by Princess Elizabeth, Vanguard was not handed over to the navy until 1946 as the war in Japan had come to an abrupt end and there was no rush to finish her.

But what was it like to serve on one of these massive ships?

Vanguard displaced 44,000 tons, carried eight 15in guns as her main armament and 16, 5.25in quick-firing guns as a secondary armament. Her full complement was 1,500. She never fired a shot in anger.

In her time however she served as a flagship, training ship and, at one time, as the Royal Yacht when in 1947 the Royal Family boarded her at Portsmouth and toured South Africa. This was the first time Princess Elizabeth left Britain’s shores for a foreign country.

William Tofts, from Copnor, Portsmouth, had a long naval career which would have been even longer if his first time in the senior service had not been interrupted when he forgot his birthday.

William was born in 1930 and at 14 volunteered for service. He was accepted and off he went to HMS Royal Arthur for basic training.

Some weeks into this part of his naval life he had to take a seaman’s eye test and when the doctor asked when he was born, William forgot to say the date – 1928 – he gave at the recruitment office and smartly told the doctor ‘1930 sir’.

A quick calculation was made and it was realised that even though boys could join the navy at fifteen-and-a-half, 14 was a bit too young and he was ‘dismissed the service’, honourably I’m glad to say.

Four years later William tried again and aged 18 he was on his way. He was seaman branch and served in many ships, one of which was HMS Vanguard.

William said it was ‘the draft of a lifetime’ to serve in Vanguard, Britain’s last battleship, for the final part of her last commission.

He joined her late in 1953 and sailed with her to the Mediterranean and on return to British waters showed the flag around the coast including the Orkney isles.

On another occasion when the Queen was on board a fantastic manoeuvre was made for her benefit.

As Vanguard was steaming somewhere off Portsmouth, 10 destroyers, five either side, ‘charged’ at the battleship and shortly before possibly hitting her they all turned port and starboard and sailed alongside the ship with all the crews giving the Queen three cheers and waving of caps. ‘It was just marvellous,’ said William.

She ended the commission at Devonport Dockyard in 1954 and went in for a refit. She never rejoined the Home Fleet as was hoped but sailed to Portsmouth where she was anchored in Fareham Creek until being towed away.

As we know, when being towed up the harbour she veered first to starboard then to port and ended up embedded in 12ft of mud at Point close by the Still and West pub. She was stuck for 45 minutes but eventually the stay of execution was over and she was towed away past vast crowds lining Old Portsmouth’s hot walls and Southsea beach.

On Monday, William remembers his time working in Vanguard’s gun turrets and as a guide in HMS Victory.