January 1963 in Deal, a RM Band was formed to serve on the RN's most modern
fast-gun cruiser, HMS Blake. State of the art and pride of the fleet she
was to wave the flag and show that GB's post-war Navy was still a force
to be reckoned with. The Band was chosen to match these high ambitions
by being made up of ex-Royal Yacht, Plymouth Group and Staff Bandsmen,
with the remainder a mixture of steady, reliable musicians and exciting
young talent, and was 20 strong, two more than the usual ship's band by
the luxurious addition of two french hornists. The Bandmaster was David
"Ginger" Wells, (son of the East Barracks "snob"
who did so much to ensure that our "Pusser's 'Onks" had the
studs capable of a good 25ft slide in the New Block corridors!) known
to be a "steady-Eddy" leader, certainly not a fire-cracker like
the Band Sergeant, the talented and much-loved Dave Elliott, universally
admired for his musical gifts and personal charm.
The three Band Corporals were all cornet/trumpet players; Maxie Beare,
the "Gigmaster Supreme", Bert Nicholls and Willy Shears (and
yes....he DID cut everyone's hair....and half the ship's company's as
well!). Ken Richards completed the high brass section. Ex-Yachtie
Willi Watson and George Siviter were the horns, Richard "Bagsy"
Baker euphonium, Big Gerry Miles and youngster Tom "Paddy" Mailey
the trombones, with Guz gigster Dave "Hippo" Simmonds the rock-solid
bass of the band.
The winds were led by Roger Smith with fellow clarinetists Dave Elliott,
"Ginger" Feather, Tony Platts and Rodney Preston, with Rodney's
fellow band sprog John Ware on flute and piano. Peter Ward and John "Slim"
Taylor were alto- and tenor-sax respectively and the band's old salt Bob
"Sandy" Sanders was the hugely experienced drummer. Two buglers,
Bug/Cpl Hillier and Bug. Wilkins completed the set to make 22 bodies on
A LOAD OF OLD MOTHBALLS!!
Cold, snowy weather marked those early months of 1963 but there was a
warm glow within the Blake band as rehearsals exposed the talent amongst
it's musicians and a satisfying, corporate sound emerged from band, orchestra
and dance band. There then came a shock that was to alter the lives of
the band-members in a hugely significant way; the government decided the
whole exercise was too expensive.....and in March, put Blake into mothballs!
As a home was desperately sought for the band, there was another "shock"
to disrupt what had become a tight-knit unit......Dave Elliott was selected
for the next Bandmaster's course and his outstanding talents were lost
forever. Luckily, a like-for-like replacement was found in the person
of B/Sgt Fred Woods, an amiable and good-humoured man who soon "slotted
in" without fuss. But......where to next?
GO WEST YOUNG MAN!
The answer to this conundrum was......ITCRM LYMPSTONE! Being responsible
for the second major stage in a Royal Marine's training and for producing
regular, fresh boxes of young officers, they had been pleading for a band
for years and were now to get one for 6 months before the musicians originally
intended for the Blake embarked on a two year commission as the Band of
HMS CENTAUR. So, after a period of time when they had no idea of what
the future held, our heroes now knew their fate and had half a year to
settle in one place with a proper sense of purpose.
Lympstone loved their band, but no one loved them more than the RSM! They
became his children and could do no wrong in his eyes and this made training
the camp to the standard expected by a RMB (time off, no shouting,
keeping the noise down in the afternoons etc, etc) a very easy task.
1963 was a beautiful summer which necessitated constant after- lunch trips
to Exmouth's beaches. If in the vicinity the RSM would order the raising
of the barrier himself, waving goodbye as he smiled fondly at "My
Band", and seeming not to notice when Roger Smith's car had up to
9 occupants, Willi Watson recumbent in the boot.
It was a happy and rather magical time, with evenings spent in the "Puffing
Billy" pub in Exton drinking scrumpy-tops and playing increasingly
erratic games of darts, before ambling through the lanes back to camp
whilst eating the landlady's beef and raw-onion butties. Outside gigs
were not over-plentiful but always interesting, such as the beach festival
at Woolacombe Bay when, after an air-sea rescue demonstration by a Royal
Navy helicopter, it decided to land next to the band seated in programme
formation, sand-blasting instruments and uniform brassware and scattering
sheet music over half of North Devon.
POMPEY...and CENTAUR, 2nd OCTOBER 1963.
good things must come to an end (as some deranged person once said!)
and in October it was fond farewell to the beautiful South Devonshire
countryside and onward to Pompey Dockyard and the mighty Centaur. The
West-Country element of the band had had six months of being near home;
now it was their turn to do some long-distance travelling to see loved
ones at the weekend. HMS CENTAUR was commissioned on Friday, 15th November
1963 and commenced two weeks Sea Trials the next day. On 22nd November
whilst somewhere in the North Sea the bo'suns whistle sounded over the
ship's tannoy and the officer of the watch announced that the Captain
would make a special broadcast at a certain time. Rumour flew round every
mess deck, the favourite being that the USSR and the West had declared
war on each other, not such a great flight of fantasy in those days. When
the Skipper finally announced details of President John F. Kennedy's assassination
earlier that day there was, ironically, almost a collective sigh of relief
from the listening ship's company.
"... AND THEY SAILED FOR A YEAR AND A DAY..." SATURDAY
(What a way to spend Christmas!).
There was a sombre mood amongst all on board Centaur as she left her berth
at 1100 hours with decks lined and band playing. Passing close to the
traditional vantage points near the High Street and cathedral afforded
the crew a final glimpse of loved-ones waving farewell, a poignant moment
especially for those with young children. There was no time to be lost,
however, as the deadline for the convoy through the Suez Canal had to
be met and an important rendezvous to be made in the Bitter Lakes with
the returning Ark Royal who Centaur was replacing "East of Suez".
So it was through the Bay of Biscay and head for the Straits of Gibralter.
In the hour spanning midnight 22nd/23rd December Centaur's radio came
alive with distress calls from a cruise liner on fire some 180 miles North
of Madeira and she was dispatched to take charge of rescue operations.
THE LAKONIA DISASTER.
Lakonia was a Greek cruise ship 609 feet in length and 20,300 tons. She
had sailed from Southampton on the 19th December bound for Madeira, the
first stop in a cruise round the Canary Islands carrying 1022 on board,
646 passengers, all but 21 British, and 376 mainly Greek and German crew
members. Smoke was first seen coming from the hairdressing salon and fire
spread with ever increasing speed although passengers were unaware that
the quietly-ringing bells heard for just a short time were trying to warn
of the horrors to come.
It was still dark as Centaur arrived at the scene at "dead slow",
making just enough headway to keep her bow into the stream. As the sky
began to lighten on that Christmas Eve, evidence of the shambolic evacuation
of a ship in trouble was spotted in the heavy swell as the first body
was seen in it's brightly-coloured lifejacket. It was decided to launch
the first of Centaur's cutters to search for survivors crewed by a junior
officer as skipper, a stoker/engineer, a coxswain and two medics.......i.e.
Royal Marine Bandsmen! These were Musn Richard "Bagsy" Baker,
euphonium and cello and BR "Willi" Watson, horn player, Neptune
House pals as boys with Baker the elder by just a few months. They were
"2nd Watch" that day and, grabbing their "medical"
kit, they embarked on the pitching cutter and set out into the heavy Atlantic
The medical training received by Centaur's band at Lympstone had been
sporadic and sketchy and geared towards humping stretchers around rather
than any fancy life saving skills. If it was bleeding...stick a bandage
on it and run to someone who really knew what to do...was the gist of
the instruction given! In each bag of medical kit was a tube of morphine,
which seemed to be the "default" treatment for all ailments
bar a nosebleed administered by medics in war films like "Platoon"
and "Band of Brothers". In appearance rather like a tube of
toothpaste,you found a soft bit...stuck it in...and squeezed. Simples!!
Sadly, the most sophisticated first-aid equipment in the world would have
been to no avail on that day.
The first body found and pulled aboard the cutter surprised the two bandies
by how heavy it was. Full of sea-water it took a great deal of strength
to haul it over the gunwale and as they succeeded they heard a loud groan
coming from the victim, raising their hopes that there could be life there.
It soon became apparent that movement and weight exerted pressure that
forced air past the dead person's vocal chords... and they were to hear
this dismal sound many times during the day. There was no time to discuss
physiology, however, as more bodies were spotted and the hauling-aboard
process had to be repeated time after time. Death had been indiscriminate
to the Lakonia passengers and had taken it's toll on all age groups. The
hardest thing for Baker, Watson and the cutter's tiny crew was having
to deal with women and, worse still, children. The young skipper of their
boat was in touch by radio with Centaur and he was told that other merchant
ships in the area had picked up bodies which now needed to be transferred
to the carrier, so he headed for the nearest ship, a tanker.
Eventually they were alongside what appeared to be a huge wall of rust
" pitching up and down like a chest of drawers", as Willi said
later (the words "a chest of...." may be misreported!).
Three or four bodies had to be lowered on ropes down this "cliff"
with the constant danger that the cutter could be smashed against the
hull of the tanker and the crew had to use all their skill to prevent
this. This ship had British officers and an Asian crew. One of the officers
shouted down that the final victim was "not very nice" and they
had done their best by wrapping it in a tarpaulin. Two sailors, each on
a rope, started the lowering process until there seemed to be a problem
which neccessitated lots of shouting from all three parties. Suddenly
one end of the tarpaulin roll tipped violently by 90 degrees depositing
a mixture of sea-water, blood and (what Bagsy Baker described as) "bits"
onto the upturned faces of the two bandsmen below. Not for the first time...or
last...that day, Bagsy and Willi looked at each other...and shrugged!
There was still work to be done.
More bodies from ships and the sea filled the cutter so that it became
increasingly difficult to move around and the sheer weight of it's contents
was making the boat low enough in the sea to start shipping water. More
than five hours had elapsed before they arrived back to the port side
of Centaur and to the task of offloading their grim cargo. The sea had,
if anything, become more lively and the cutter rose and fell by ten or
more feet and there was a distinct danger of smashing into the side of
the carrier. A heavy steel basket was lowered by the port-side crane,
but it's size and weight made manoeuvring it into a position where the
two musicians could place the first body, heavy with sea-water and stiff
in death, inside the framework. The vertical movement was also making
it a dangerous exercise with the basket threatening to brain or seriously
injure someone in the cutter. The first victim was hauled aboard... but
this had taken the best part of 30 minutes to achieve and it was becoming
obvious that the cutter's crew, already cold and tired from their efforts,
would be exhausted before all the dead could be offloaded.
Bagsy and Willi doggedly manoeuvred another body into position with it's
head on the gunwhale, that of an elderly man dressed in a long, black
overcoat. With the coxswain fighting to keep the boat from colliding with
Centaur's flanks, down came the steel basket again, but this time too
fast. The cutter shot upwards with the swell...the basket kept going...and
the two met precisely on the head of the newly-positioned body. It's head
"changed shape" as Watson said later...and the gunwhale splintered
and split with the force of the impact. The two bandsmen looked at each
other...and shrugged! The struggle resumed but not for long as it was
decided to take the boat to the starboard side of Centaur and raise it
and it's contents clear of the sea on davits. A call from above suggested
lightening the cutter's load and a skinny rope ladder was lowered down
the carrier's side. Watson was nearest and grabbed at the ladder, swiftly
pulling himself up and clear of the rearing boat below. As he climbed
above the noise of the cutter's engine and the sound of the sea against
Centaur's flanks, there was an eerie hush. He had been vaguely aware that
hundreds of the ship's company had been staring down from the carrier's
waist and flight-deck at the struggle below and, looking downwards himself,
he could see what they saw...a boat strewn and stacked with dead, women
and children amongst them. These sailors, many married, some with children,
had just said goodbye to their loved-ones...just days before Christmas...and
were looking down helplessly on a depressing scene of horror. It was in
absolute silence that Willi finally hauled himself onto Centaur's deck
and few met his eyes as he looked at the gathered matelots. He was unaware
of who greeted and spoke to him, but registered that his tot had been
saved and awaited him in his mess and that a meal was still available
in the dining galley. Finding that there were TWO tots available was cheering
news and those, and a large meal, helped him sleep dreamlessly for the
next five hours.
were not, however, quite over for Bagsy Baker. Willi had hardly disappeared
from view when the cutter was on it's way to the starboard side of the
ship where, not without difficulty, it was attached to davits and hauled
clear of the sea. Waiting were the members of the band not involved in
the sea searches and they handled the bodies on stretchers to the quarterdeck
for the identification process. Dropped into the ocean again, Bagsy and
crew were asked to pick up another body... and it was then that the cutter's
engine decided to pack up. As the young skipper transmitted this information
back to Centaur... the radio went dead! Bagsy was not amused when the
engineer/stoker confessed that he knew nothing about this type of engine
and it was sheer luck when, after pitching about helplessly in the heavy
swell for some time, the engine roared into life and they were able to
get back to the mother ship.
With Baker and Watson in the first search boat, a second boat was sent
out with Band Corporal Willie Shears and solo clarinetist Roger Smith
as medics. Quite a lot of merchant ships had responded to Lakonia's distress
signals and several ships had spotted and taken on board the bodies of
victims which now had to be collected and taken to Centaur. The second
cutter went about this task, also finding two more victims in the sea.
Roger wrote these words recently: "People just can't imagine just
how harrowing an experience that was. I remember us picking up an old
gentleman. We had just got him inboard when his foot fell off. Something
had been eating him. A young girl still in her nightie ... and so it went
Willie and Roger finally arrived back at Centaur with " ... a large
pile of bodies stacked in the centre of the boat ..." as Roger remembered.
Learning from the efforts of the first cutter, they were hauled out by
davits so that the waiting band members could carry the bodies to join
the others. Centaur was close to the severely damaged and still smoking
Lakonia and, once it was deemed safe enough, had landed men from choppers
to assess the state of play. They found no one alive so, once the cutters
were free, they were used for boarding parties to collect the dead from
the liner, these having died in the fire and suffered horrible injuries.
Once back on Centaur these 22 victims were laid out with the 55 brought
in by the two cutters. A final distressing task now had to be carried
out. Volunteers from senior ratings had been gathered, together with a
copious supply of rum and, under the guidance of the SMO and the dental
officer (Surg. Lt/Commander Ray Radford who had been at the same school
and Boy Scout group as Willi Watson!) dental records were taken,
the bodies were cleaned up and sewn into sheets. Bandmaster Ginger Wells
and Sergeant Fred Woods were obviously involved in this sad and terrible
job as medics and when it was over they returned to their messdeck, both
of them pale and obviously traumatised by the experience and remaining
very subdued for several days.
CHRISTMAS DAY. " ... here we go a-wassailing ...!"
It was a very subdued ship's company as Centaur reached Gibralter on Christmas
morning where she had been ordered to offload the Lakonia victims. Word
had got around that the final body count from the disaster was quite a
lot higher than the 78 unfortunates accounted for by Centaur, but the
final total of 128 was not to be known for a while yet, and nor was the
level of International furore the incident aroused apparent at this time.
There was the meeting with Ark Royal and the Suez Canal to think of and
the ship ploughed Eastwards through the Mediterranian Sea. Tot time came
and in the band mess SOMEONE said something like: "This ship is in
a state of misery and shock, understandably ... we've GOT to do something
about it. What we need is CHRISTMAS CAROLS!" Unbelievably, it was
discovered that there was no suitable sheet music in the band library,
so it was time to go busking. When led by such a great extemporiser as
"Uncle" Maxie Beare and encouraged by a tot of rum and several
cans of beer (illicit hoarding had occurred, blowing wide open the
2 cans a day rule!), the lack of dots was soon overcome and recognisably
familiar tunes flowed down the ships gangways. The band went on the move,
growing in confidence as players found the correct voicings and harmonies
that gave authenticity to each carol. Invitations from one messdeck after
another were proffered and it was soon clear that all the matelots had
stockpiled booze. The band battled bravely on! The spell had been broken.
A mixture of singing comforting old tunes, alcohol and sheer good humour
and bonhommie brought the ship alive again and the band's lead in this,
coupled with their very hands-on part in the Lakonia sea-search and the
aftermath, had made a strong impression on the ship's company that would
be further reinforced the following month. But for now, it was time for
food! Playing suitable music, the band led the way in a conga to the dining-galley,
picking up more and more matelots as they proceeded. Then it was more
carols between mouthfuls of a lovingly-prepared Christmas Dinner, more
beer and messdeck visits ... and the day eventually drew to an end, closing
the first chapter of an eventful year in Centaur's history. No one could
have foretold that in just a few weeks Centaur would be involved in yet
another International incident with it's Royal Marine Band playing an
important role ... and covering itself in glory again!
above images for full view
Retreat on deck of HMS Centaur
Thank you Roger, Bagsy and Maxie for your help in writing this account
and I apologise to you and to Dickie for it's late appearance. It should
have been finished by 25th December but it was harder to write than I
bargained for, arousing strong emotions that took me by surprise, Anyway
... I didn't want to ruin ANOTHER Christmas for us all!
I dedicate this account to my comrades of the Band of HMS Centaur 1963/64
with my love, admiration and fondest memories.
Willi Watson ex RMB 3599. Dersingham, Norfolk.