Tim King, a former reporter with The News, lives in retirement locally and I contacted him about the famous 1960 incident when the Royal Navy’s last battleship HMS Vanguard went aground at Point, Old Portsmouth. He was the only reporter on board and he wrote this dramatic account for me. It makes breathtaking reading.
August 4, 1960. The Queen Mother’s 60th birthday, the 46th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and the day our last battleship almost came to an ignominious end.
I had the distinction of being the only journalist on board HMS Vanguard when she ran aground at Point at 10.35am.
My job that day had been to go out to The Nab, come back on one of the harbour tugs and write a nostalgic piece about the Royal Navy’s last battleship for that day’s paper.
All that changed while I was on the bridge with the ship’s CO for the trip to the breakers in Gareloch, Lt Cmdr WG Frampton, and the senior pilot, Mr RD Ottley, when the ship began to veer to port and head straight for the Still & West which was crowded with holidaymakers, who waved back at the skeleton crew of sailors as they frantically gesticulated and yelled at them to run.
What started as a nice easy day out turned dramatically into a looming disaster. One can only estimate the carnage had not the pilot, Mr Ottley, from Waterlooville, taken a split-second decision to order the starboard anchor to be dropped. He’d remembered the chains that ran across the harbour to guide the old floating bridge car ferry had been left in situ when the service was axed.
And he timed the drop immaculately so the anchor flukes caught the old chains.
Normally, of course, it’s not the anchor that holds a ship at moorings but the length of chain attached to it. But in this case it was the anchor that did the trick by not only taking the weight off the 42,000 tons of steel, but also hauling the bows away from where they’d been pointing at the Still & West pub.
She hit the putty just before Customs Pier. A small freighter had been alongside it and I’ve never seen a crew move so fast to get a ship under way.
Vanguard was aground for 45 minutes on a turning tide, and one expert I spoke to estimated that had she not been dragged free, the fast ebb through the narrow entrance would have swung her across to Fort Blockhouse where it was likely she would have broken her back, thus effectively blockading every Royal Navy ship in port for months.
She grounded because the harbour tugs had not been powerful enough to make the tow from harbour, so the ocean-going tugs that were due to take over near The Nab were summoned in to reinforce the smaller vessels. Their combined efforts dragged the battleship clear with just five minutes to spare.
What was I doing all that time? Quick interviews with Mr Ottley and Cmdr Frampton, then I had to think fast.
Remember, mobile phones, Wi-Fi, satellite communications and technology we take for granted today were years away in 1960 and this was a dead ship with no way of communicating ashore except for the navy’s own ship-to-shore radio.
I went down below the bridge to what had been the RT room. It was pitch dark. I fumbled around, found an old naval signals pad, pulled a heavy brass plug from its socket and ripped away some wire cable.
Outside, I sat on a locker and frantically scribbled the story as I’d seen it unfold.
Fine, but I still had to get it ashore.
Then I saw a boat that the Evening News had hired for a photographer. I believe it was Dave Lolley on board, but I couldn’t swear to it. Another photographer, Roy West, was up in a plane capturing the iconic photo that made it around the world and has pride of place in the Still & West.
I hailed the photographer, the boat was manoeuvred under Vanguard’s starboard bow, I wrapped the story around the brass plug with the wire and lobbed it. Luckily, the photographer was a good cricketer and caught it cleanly.
And that’s how my story got back to Stanhope Road, the then headquarters of The News.