Plucked from obscurity for the King’s funeral

The funeral procession for George VI making its way through the Quadrangle of Windsor Castle
The funeral procession for George VI making its way through the Quadrangle of Windsor Castle
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On February 6, 1952, Albert Frederick Arthur George Windsor, George VI, died at the young age of 56. He was the second son of George V and had been the Duke of York.

He had come to rule an empire that saw a seventh of the world under British rule – a job he never thought he would inherit.

Alan Anderson,  front row, third from the right.

Alan Anderson, front row, third from the right.

His older brother, the Prince of Wales, had other ideas and abdicated before being crowned Edward VIII and the duke became a reluctant king on May 12, 1937.

He had to take over an empire that was about to go into a world war and afterwards saw the demise of the British Empire and the introduction of the Commonwealth of Nations. The pressure made him ill and the world lost a much-loved monarch.

Immediately, plans for a state funeral were dusted off and, of course, the Royal Navy would play the major part.

Since the death of Queen Victoria when sailors picked up the traces of horses that had begun to bolt, the Royal Navy was honoured with the task of pulling the gun carriages at royal funerals.

Alan Anderson at his Fareham home.

Alan Anderson at his Fareham home.

The number of sailors called upon for the King’s funeral was staggering by today’s standards. From HMS Collingwood, Fareham, 250 sailors were provided for the occasion. There was also a training platoon from HMS Implacable, the Training Squadron’s flagship.

From HMS Dolphin, the submarine base at Gosport, crews and a chosen few from the base’s establishment were also called upon.

Several lads from the boys’ training establishment, HMS St Vincent, Gosport, were picked including five who had the honour of being in the armed escort.

Three hundred Royal Marines from Plymouth also arrived in Portsmouth to train with a contingent of marines from Eastney.

The certificate presented to Alan Anderson.

The certificate presented to Alan Anderson.

Meanwhile, at Whale Island the home of the Naval Gunnery School HMS Excellent, more then 100 chiefs, petty officers and ratings continued intensive and precise drilling to pull the gun carriage with the King’s coffin from Windsor Station to St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Chiefs and petty officers re-rigged into square rig if they were part of gun carriage crews.

The London gun carriage was manned by men from Chatham then known as The Nore Command.

In all, more than 2,000 ratings from ships and establishments around Portsmouth were used to line the route in London. They were taken up from Portsmouth Harbour in three special 12-coach trains.

The honour of making up one of the gun carriage crews was given to 18-year old Ordinary Seaman Alan Anderson who lived at Burgess Hill, north of Brighton, and was serving in the battle-class destroyer HMS Finisterre. He now lives in retirement at Fareham.

Alan had joined the navy as a boy seaman at HMS St Vincent in 1949 and was in the destroyer for practice firing of her 4.5in guns.

Alan says they had arrived in harbour from the Portland firing ranges and anchored off Whale Island.

All the gunnery seamen were told to collect their hammocks and make their way to Excellent’s drill shed.

They were told the King had died and they were to be part of the gun carriage crew. Alan, 81, says: ‘A chief asked if anyone was not interested in being part of the occasion and someone put his hand up.

‘He was dismissed from the parade. What became of him is not known but you can assume his life was made intolerable for some time.’

For a week the sailors trained, marching up and down the parade ground until the chief gunnery instructors thought they were good enough.

Alan cannot remember how he arrived at or left Windsor. ‘It was all a blur,’ he adds.

The gun carriage crew arrived at Windsor and fell in with the gun carriage outside the Great Western Railway Station.

Like many, I always thought the procession to St George’s Chapel was up the hill, turning left at Queen Victoria’s statue and on through King Henry VIII Gate. But no. It was a 45-minute march through Windsor High Street along Park Street and into Home Park.

They then marched along Long Walk and entered the castle by the Sovereign’s Gate and into the Quadrangle. It was then a steady march around the Round Tower to arrive at the steps of St George’s Chapel.

After the service Alan returned to normal duties but he did receive the Royal Victorian Medal on order from the Queen.

Alan served 41 years retiring as a Chief Petty Officer Gunnery Instructor

He is now the director of Maritime Scene, a company making custom-made clothes and crested goods for the Royal Navy and gift shops.