Penzance has previously suffered disappointment at the hands of the Royal Navy. Disappointment and embarrassment, some might say. Take that time back in 1910 when the Fleet turned tail and headed off to Torbay in search of better weather – although not before Mr Grahame-White had made his dramatic flight, circling above the ships at anchor.
But this morning all that is forgotten. The town has borrowed a mile of bunting from Southend. Rationing has been relaxed, and there will be refreshment marquees in the new Penlee Gardens. The Promenade railings have been painted – a whole line of men put on the job in their white overalls. That’s the way to get a job done all right. And here come 50 ships of the three great Western powers: the Dutch, the French and of course the British. Any little difficulties and misunderstandings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are all forgotten. Don’t mention Trafalgar, and certainly don’t mention De Ruyter burning Chatham. For here we present: the Western Union Fleet.
7.55 am: and the submarine depot vessel Maidstone emerges from the mist over the Lizard and joins the supply ships that have anchored overnight.
9.45 am: and the flagship, HMS Implacable, is heading east across the Bay. The Mayor and a clutch of aldermen are preparing to be piped on board. Food stalls will be setting up, but the Medical Officer of Health for West Cornwall has warned buyers to be on their guard; to use traders of repute, not “occasional hawkers”. Which of these descriptions applies to the firm that’s set up on the bomb site near the Pool is not recorded.
4.00 pm: and the Mayor and aldermen are safely back on dry land and there are 18 British ships at anchor in the Bay. Here is the battleship Anson; there is the aircraft carrier Victorious.
6.00 pm: and the British fleet is in place, waiting for the French to arrive. There will be an exchange of 21-gun salutes, and nobody will mention Aboukir Bay. Not publicly, anyway.
9.00 pm: and here come the Dutch, out of the “evening heat haze”. There will be an exchange of 21-gun salutes, and nobody will mention Camperdown . Not publicly; in fact probably not at all. The Dutch foe not being the French foe; Adam Duncan being so much less of a name than Horatio Nelson.
11.00 pm: the sailors have had two hours more in Penzance than originally planned, but their extended shore leave has now expired. The Mayor will later note their “excellent behaviour” and the “exceptional friendliness between serviceman and civilian; between Dutch, French and British”. The ships are lit so brightly that the fleets and the town seem as one. Only now does the crowd on the Promenade thin.
The naval review of 1949 – success to the Navy, our “Senior Service”. And long may international understanding and co-operation bring peace to our shores.
Cornishman June 16th 1949 page 6 (recollections of 1910, see also July 28th 1910 page 6); June 23rd 1949 page 3 (image of men painting the railings), page 5 (report on the preparations); June30th 1949 page 5 (food story); July 7th 1949 page 5