- Pfennigwerth, Ian
- Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The four Type 15 frigates of the Dartmouth Training Squadron were berthed in Bridgetown, Barbados as part of their West Indies cruise, and the RN cadets and RAN and RN Midshipmen embarked were looking forward to exploring this beautiful member of the Windward Islands. There had been some press coverage of the increasingly tense situation in British Guiana, a colony on the northeast coast of South America some 800 kilometers away to the south, but nothing of this disrupted the slow pace of life in Barbados.
Then on the evening of Wednesday 14 February my ship, HMS Wizard, was brought to four hours notice for sea, and when the hands were called the following morning we were told that the ship would sail at 0800. The ship’s company was supplemented with technical sailors from our three consorts – to form a Technical Landing Party – and then we were off. Although Wizard was no longer the sprightly young destroyer of her British Pacific Fleet days, she had a turn of speed considerably in excess of my only previous ship, HMAS Swan, and away we went in a flurry of foaming ‘rooster tail’ wake to join HMS Troubridge wearing the broad pennant of the Senior Naval Officer West Indies. (How inappropriate, I thought, that they should call the Navy’s boss of the Caribbean ‘Snowy’, until the acronym was explained).
What a silly question!
I can’t recall when it happened, but we Australians were asked at some point – before we sailed, I imagine – whether we wanted to be involved in aiding the British civil power in Guyana. What a silly question! I was a few weeks shy of my 18th birthday and this looked like being exciting; I would have stowed away to have been part of it. En route we were briefed on the origin of the unrest and on what was happening in the capital Georgetown. I might have had second thoughts at that point, but I don’t recall it.
The colony was moving towards independence and had enjoyed a measure of self-government for about ten years. The leader of the ruling left-wing People’s Progressive Party, and Premier, Dr. Chedi Jagan, whose support base was in the rural areas of the colony, had introduced a particularly harsh budget, and this had sparked demonstrations and protests. Some 60,000 people had gathered in the capital to call for the withdrawal of his budget or his resignation. Rioting and looting had broken out; the police and the British garrison – a company of the Hampshire Regiment – had been unable to restore order, and the Navy had been ordered to the rescue.
At 0700 on Friday 16 February, the two frigates rendezvoused off the mouth of the Demerara River out of sight of land to await orders. The bar at the entrance to the river was a real navigational hazard at low water, but the call forward came in the nick of time, and there was just enough water (or liquid mud, at least) for both ships to get across. It was the first time I had ever seen a ship’s wake stream out abeam instead of astern – a sign of imminent grounding! As we pounded upriver between fields thickly sown with sugarcane, the state of affairs ashore was revealed by the huge pall of black smoke which rose over the city and, as we drew closer, the shooting flames of a serious fire showed its origin. Most of the city seemed to be ablaze with the wharf and godown area a special hotspot. We berthed alongside Troubridge a few hundred metres downstream from this conflagration, and began to be detailed off for duties aimed at assisting in bringing the situation under control.
Our landing party was soon ashore, and they had an evident effect in clearing the streets around the blaze. I joined the young officer crew of Wizard’s motor cutter, under the command of my RANC term mate Stuart ‘Tug’ Wilson, which had been ordered to tow burning barges moored alongside the blazing godowns [Bookers No 1. Wharf, for the fastidious], into the river and clear of shipping, including the two frigates. Those readers familiar with the capabilities and limitations of the Royal Navy’s 17 foot motor cutter will recognise that this was a tall order under ideal conditions, which were certainly not in effect that day. We closed the barges until the heat was unbearable, at which point volunteers (of whom I was not one) swam to the barges and attached painters. I suppose our mission was successful as we did manage to drag these accidental fireships clear of the wharf area and into the stream, but it was a close-run thing against a strong current.
‘. . not very much danger . .’
As the fire took absolute control in the godowns, flammable goods started to explode, throwing drums of blazing chemicals into the river. Our task was now to ‘corral’ these or at least to keep them clear of the ships. The blazing barges had been bad (and I never gave a second’s thought to what their cargoes might have been), but these fizzing, spluttering, malevolent barrels were worse. Prodded with a boathook, they would roll over only to resurface to spurt jets of chemicals and pitch at us. We were in our tropical white shorts and shirts, and in stocking feet. The First Lieutenant would have had our guts for garters if we had worn other than gym shoes in his precious boat. So we were all singularly ill-equipped for this task, and at one stage we had to return to the ship to offload a cadet who had been badly burned about the arms by the contents of one of the barrels. Eventually these dangerous packages had all been escorted clear of the wharf area, and we returned to the boom. The motor cutter was in as bad a state as we were, but fortunately there was no lasting damage to either boat or crew. The account of these incidents in my Midshipman’s Journal states that ‘I enjoyed all this work, as it provided the maximum of thrills with not very much danger involved’. But then, at (nearly) 18, we were all immortal, weren’t we?