A TALE FROM THE ISLANDS … Our man on Vella Lavella – and the unexpected guests

(This article was first published in NOCN 85, 1 June 2011.)

Newsletter 84 published on 1 March 2011 contained a review of Patrick Lindsay’s new-release The Coast Watchers: Behind enemy lines, a book covering the story of the mainly-Australian irregular force which stayed behind in parts of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands occupied by Japanese forces from 1942.  These Coast Watchers provided valuable intelligence reports of enemy activity, rescued downed aviators and shipwrecked mariners, helped arrange the evacuation of non-combatants, and many of them later became guerrillas. The book review, though favourable, mentioned that in the reviewer’s opinion Lindsay had omitted several stories about the achievements of this remarkable force that were possibly worth including. This is one of those stories.

 Solomon Islands

The Solomons are a chain of mountainous islands, running south east from their most northerly member, Bougainville. For much of the chain’s 580-nautical mile (nm) length, it is in fact a double chain, with a stretch of deep navigable water between them 35 to 50 nm wide. This is The Slot, which in 1942 became the favoured route for the Japanese logistic supply line to Guadalcanal, the string of destroyers known as The Tokyo Express, in sustaining the increasingly-beleaguered Japanese land forces there.

By July 1943 Japanese forces had been ousted from Guadalcanal, but they were still well established in several places in the central Solomons, mainly in the collection of smaller islands on the southern side of The Slot known as the New Georgia Group. The Tokyo Express continued to operate to sustain these forces, and the waters of The Slot were continually disputed by the naval forces of both sides. No place on earth has seen such a sustained series of naval engagements as The Slot saw in 1942-43, and naval historians recognise 12 or 13 major battles. The allies lost four cruisers in the very first engagement, but soon the Japanese suffered heavy losses too, including two battleships.

 Coast Watchers on station

A handful of allied Coast Watchers were established around and near the New Georgia Group: there was one station on Choiseul, on the northern side of The Slot; on the southern side, one at Segi, in the south-east of New Georgia Group, and one on Vella Lavella, at the north-western end of New Georgia Group.

The Coast Watcher on Vella Lavella was LEUT Henry Josselyn RANVR, an Englishman who was formerly a District Officer in the administration of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. Eric Feldt’s first description of him was “small, cheerful and assured”; later, he described him, with good reason, as “a pirate”. By the time this story starts, Josselyn had already experienced full-on action with the USMC: he was a guide for the Marines in the first wave of landings on Tulagi some months previously, during which action his conduct earned him the Silver Star.

As his deputy, Josselyn had an Australian, SBLT Robert Firth RANVR, a former Burns Philp accountant and ship’s purser. The remainder of the station staff are not recorded in published histories, but were almost certainly all Solomon Islanders to act as carriers, messengers and scouts, numbering probably between 15 and 30. Josselyn had established the station in mid-October 1942; Firth came along several months later.

Incredibly, there was a strong force of Japanese – 300 to 400 troops – spread over various locations on Vella Lavella, with their main base at Iringila about two miles from one of the Coast Watchers’ camps. (Josselyn moved regularly, between about four suitable locations.) It seems almost inevitable that the Japanese knew about their neighbours, and Josselyn certainly knew about his. There was no contact, but Josselyn used to cheekily scout right up to the Japanese perimeter. Once he asked his controlling station for permission to go inside to steal a pair of binoculars, explaining that he lost his in his first landing on the island; permission was promptly refused.

 The poacher

But other targets were available for Josselyn, the would-be poacher. With the number of Japanese ships being sunk by air attack as a result of the Coast Watchers’ reports, there was plenty of flotsam about. Drums of petrol and rice would obligingly float ashore; they were picked up and hidden in the jungle by the scouts. Twice, Japanese ships disabled by air attacks and abandoned by their crews, drifted near the island allowing Josselyn to indulge his flair for piracy. All available papers and documents were first collected for intelligence purposes, then it was batteries, radio equipment and parts, food, cutlery, linen, and small arms and ammunition. His camp became really comfortable, with food stocks that would last a long time. That was a stroke of luck!

 Yet another action in The Slot

On 5 July 1943 USN  TG 36.1 under RADM W L Ainsworth USN — comprising light cruisers USSs Helena, Honolulu and St Louis plus four destroyers — was directed to intercept another mission of the Tokyo Express — 10 destroyers — on its way down The Slot. Contact was made near the volcano of Kolombangara at 0106 on 6 July 1943, and the cruisers engaged at 0157. Unfortunately for Helena, she had expended all her flashless powder the previous night and had to use smokeless. This made her an excellent aiming point for the enemy. Her personal reward was three Long Lance torpedoes; the ship sank in 20 minutes. Helena was not the USN’s only loss that night: PT-109 (LTJG J F Kennedy USNR) which was engaged on a different mission against the same target, was rammed and sunk by an escaping Japanese destroyer in the aftermath. The Japanese lost two destroyers.

Helena’s sinking was within about 20 nm of Vella Lavella. Nearly 750 of her crew were rescued during the night by two US destroyers from the TG, but the rescue was interrupted by the arrival of Japanese destroyers which had to be engaged. With dawn the two US destroyers withdrew under threat of Japanese air attacks from the nearby strip at Munda. Many survivors remained in the water or on makeshift flotation devices. Fortunately the waters around the Solomons are warm, and loss of body heat was not a problem.


The survivors could see that land was a long way off; too far to contemplate reaching it by swimming. They spent all of the day and the next night in the water, except for the lucky few, mostly injured, who had been awarded places in what few rafts there were (including two that survived a drop by a Hudson bomber on 6 July). During their second night in the water, several of the survivors just slipped away or died.

 Dry land at last

Dawn on 7 July saw land much closer, and even reachable. Though most of them were oblivious to the fact, it was the eastern coast of Vella Lavella. In the afternoon, they started straggling ashore. Some were helped by Islanders in native canoes, and some made it on their own. They came ashore along the north-eastern part of the island, in two main groups.

At the time, Josselyn’s camp was at Toupalando, near the north end of the island, and close to the main Japanese camp at Iringila. Word about the survivors quickly reached the Coast Watchers’ camp by runners, and contact was made with the island chieftain, named Bamboo, with whom Josselyn had excellent rapport. Canoes were sent to look for more men in the water; sentries were posted to watch for Japanese patrols; the locals stood by to help with food and housing for the exhausted men. They were coming ashore at two main locations: at Paraso  in the north east, and near Lambu Lambu on the eastern extremity of the island. The Japanese had outposts near both places.

Word was also passed by radio to the Methodist mission station at Maravari, in the south east, where Reverend A W E Silvester remained at his post despite World War II raging all around him. Josselyn walked all night to get to Paraso, and Silvester moved to make contact with the group who had landed near Lambu Lambu. It was imperative to get the survivors off the beach and further into the interior where they would be more secure.

 A village is born

The southern group numbered 104. In dribs and drabs the locals moved them inland to a wooden shack that was the home of a Chinese trader named Sam Chung. It became a hospital for the wounded and injured. Nearby, the Islanders quickly built a roofed dwelling out of native materials that was big enough to provide shelter for the rest. The senior officer of the group, Helena’s CIC officer, was LCDR Jack Chew. He realised that he no longer had a group of castaways; he had a village. He set people to work on domestic tasks, and a daily routine developed. Food was short, but there was enough to get by. Reverend Silvester provided invaluable help with medicines and dressings and dropped by every evening; he quickly developed a close bond with Chew, and soon, with all of them. Security was the domain of Major Kelly USMC, and he selected a security detail known as Kelly’s Irregulars. Two pistols came ashore with the survivors, and Josselyn sent them a mixed bag of rifles and some ammunition; Kelly gratefully accepted them all for his small force. The Irregulars saw action too: a four-man Japanese patrol came too close; three were wiped out in an ambush, and the survivor was reluctantly executed. Later, a 20-man patrol was detected coming up the track from Lambu Lambu. Fortunately it turned back before contact.

   The northen group of survivors

There were 61 survivors in the northern group inland from Paraso. It is not known to what extent Josselyn was keeping contact with them, but it is known that he was also busy trying to co-ordinate arrangements for the pick-up of all the survivors. COMSOPAC would provide two destroyer-transports, but the mechanics of managing it at the island end were a headache. It was not possible to contemplate assembling everybody in one place for the evacuation, and the original plan was to move the groups out independently on two nights: 12 July for the northern group and 15 July for the southern. However the first date kept moving right as a result of the available USN forces having to deal with the unpredictable movements of the Tokyo Express — which was now delivering to Kolombangara, the volcano just 15 nm to the east on the other side of the gulf. Eventually it was agreed that the evacuation would be two pick-ups on one night, with the first being the northern group from Paraso at 0200 on 16 July, and the southern group subsequently.

Josselyn wasn’t told in advance, but the responsible operational authority, VADM Kelly Turner USN, was determined to ensure that there would be no enemy interference in the operation. The destroyer-transports (known as APDs) were very lightly armed. Turner allocated a close escort of four destroyers, and a support force of four more destroyers to deal with vessels coming down The Slot: the evacuation force was 10 ships in total. Turner wanted to ensure that people understood that the US Navy looked after its own.

Despite minor hiccups of late arrival (causing great anxiety to Josselyn and the evacuees) and imperfect recognition signals, the evacuation proceeded almost like clockwork.

 The pick-up at Paraso

The APD’s, USSs Dent and Waters, came as close in to shore at Paraso as could reasonably be expected. Josselyn was there in a canoe, and was the first man on board. The OTC of the two APDs was Commander John Sweeney USN; he knew Josselyn, having landed him with the marines at Tulagi a year ago. But he didn’t know there would be two pick-ups; this basic piece of information had been omitted from his orders. Don’t worry, said Josselyn; I’ll guide you there. It had been a tense few days for him. He had been moving the teleradio after every transmission, and shifting camp every night. He knew that the Japanese were getting close to the southern group.

The Paraso pick-up was from a sheltered river mouth, and proceeded very quickly using Higgins boats — a type of landing craft. There were two extra people, both downed pilots; one of them had flown a P-38 Lightning; the other had flown a Zero. It had been decided that the Zero pilot should be executed, but nobody could be found to do the job. As a compromise he was blindfolded and stripped to his underpants. (One of the gunners from Helena’s crew wore his flying suit.)

 Tense situation at Lambu Lambu

At Lambu Lambu it was also a river pick-up, but further up river; some fine navigation up and down a bendy channel in darkness was needed. Silvester had planned it well: he had Islanders standing up to chest-deep in the water to mark edges of the shallow patches. There were extra travellers here too: Sam Chung, the Chinese trader, with family and camp followers numbering about 10 in all (one report says 16).

Tension prevailed at the embarkation point: the area was subject to random patrolling by Japanese garrison troops. Kelly’s Irregulars maintained patrolling watch between the evacuees and the likely direction of threat; none developed. Gradually, as the crowd thinned, the Irregulars withdrew towards the embarkation point. As they boarded the boats, each passed his rifle and ammunition to one of the island scouts. Kelly watched the last rifle handed over, then boarded himself. LCDR Jack Chew, as senior officer, was last to leave. He conveyed his thanks to Josselyn, who he had just met, then turned to his new and close friend Silvester. He didn’t have words to convey what he felt, so this superstitious old sailor gave the Reverend the most precious thing he had, that had accompanied him everywhere most of his life: his lucky silver dollar. Silvester and Josselyn gave a last wave and faded into the jungle.

 Josselyn’s position

The bulk of this story has come from Walter Lord, who interviewed about twenty of Helena’s crew who reached Vella Lavella,  Sweeney (who commanded Dent in the pick-up), Josselyn and his deputy, Firth. But strangely, Lord’s account says little about what the two Coast Watchers were doing during the time the survivors spent on the island. One can therefore only speculate on the ethical and tactical difficulties which Josselyn had been facing throughout this saga.  He was charged with responsibility for the safety and evacuation of over 160 people from a relatively small island occupied by a considerable number of well-armed enemy troops.  It is hard to conceive that the Japanese did not know that some survivors of Helena had made it to shore, even if they did not know how many or where they were.

The very presence of such a large number of USN sailors on Vella Lavella was a threat to the security of the Coast Watchers’ station, and therefore to its primary role of intelligence collection. But the vast number of survivors must have carried such weight that their rescue became, for the time being, the station’s primary role, with intelligence collection placed on the back burner. Josselyn and Firth probably avoided contact with the survivors as far as possible, while ensuring that their charges were kept well hidden and adequately provided for. How were they fed? The islanders lived on a subsistence economy, and this number of people would have strained supplies to the limit. Perhaps Josselyn was able to dig into the cached gleanings from his poaching expeditions.

However it was that Josselyn managed things, he got it right. He employed the meagre resources at his disposal to achieve the desired result: the 165 survivors stayed secure on Vella Lavella for almost nine days, and were evacuated with none lost.

A dominant factor in the success of the operation was that Josselyn had the total loyalty and co-operation of the Islanders, without which the rescue could never have succeeded. Such devotion doesn’t come automatically: it has to be earned. Josselyn clearly had the right stuff.

Nor was this the only rescue achieved by Josselyn: Lord’s book lists a total of 118 allied airmen rescued by Coast Watchers in the Solomons campaign. Vella Lavella was involved in the rescue of 31 of them – more than any other island.


Lord (from his interview with Sweeney – by then a retired Rear Admiral) reports that as they steamed for Tulagi after the pick-up, Sweeney had wondered what motivated people like Josselyn to do what they did. He had offered him a ride to Tulagi, which Josselyn politely declined because he still had responsibilities on Vella Lavella. He offered cases of canned food to supplement his meagre ration stocks; that was declined too because the cans and packing material could reveal his position. “Can’t we do anything for you?” Sweeney asked.

Josselyn said that he could use two pairs of black socks, some Worcestershire sauce, and some confectionery. Whether he received those items is unknown – but we do know that Josselyn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to go with his Silver Star.



Feldt E. The Coast Watchers. Oxford University Press: London. 1946.

Lord W. Lonely vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons. The Viking Press, NY. 1976.


Picture and graphic captions:

Henry Josselyn 1

Lieutenant Henry Josselyn RANVR

 Vella Lavella map COMPLETE 2

Map of Vella Lavella

 USS Helena

USS Helena, CL-50. The cruiser took three torpedoes, and sank in 20 minutes in the early hours of 6 July 1943. The majority of her crew survived, and 750 were picked up by escorts before dawn.

 Rev Silvester 2

The Reverend A W E Silvester

 USS Dent  110 mm adjusted 2

Destroyer-Transport (APD) USS Dent, which, with USS Waters, evacuated the survivors of USS Helena from Vella Lavella.Two Higgins Boats can be seen on the port side of the superstructure, just abaft of midships.

 Tokyo Express V2

Aerial seascape with clouds; line of four destroyers just discernible only from their prominent wakes. The Tokyo Express on the job

THE WAY IT WAS: Anecdotal reflections on HMAS Nirimba, 1984-1987


Anecdotal reflections on HMAS Nirimba, 1984-1987

By Ralph Derbidge

(This article was first published in NOCN 85, 1 June 2011.)

Around the time HMAS Nirimba, the RAN’s former apprentices’ training establishment in Quakers Hill NSW, closed in 1993, I was invited to contribute about six lines on any particular incident of note that I recalled from my time in command of that great training establishment, for publication in the magazine of a local association of which I was a member.

I replied that there were many memorable moments that qualified, but I found it difficult to pick one for publication. I therefore gave them my compendium of memorable moments, and invited them to make a selection.

 Noise warfare

The first Promotion and Graduation Dance I attended in the Apprentices Dining Hall was on 21 September 1984, when the Kamikaze Kats band forced me to slip out to the CO’s residence and then return after a brief absence with ear plugs firmly in place to prevent further damage to this old Gunnery Officer’s already impaired hearing.

 Off the top of the head

The first Debutante Ball I attended by invitation with my wife was on 21 July 1984 at the Wentworthville Leagues Club when 12 well-groomed Apprentices were the escorts to the debs and where I was introduced during the proceedings, without any prior notice, as the keynote after-dinner speaker.

Similarly, on 24 November 1984, when I arrived at the annual HMAS Parramatta Commemoration Service at the Parramatta Sub-Section of the Naval Association of Australia memorial in that fair city to take my seat among the principal guests and then be handed a programme which, to my surprise,  listed me to give the Occasional Address (ah, the power of ad libbing!).


The lost admiral

One day in 1986 the Chief of Naval Staff arrived by helicopter to open the  Biennial Supply Conference being held in the establishment.  The CO’s car had been assigned to meet the Admiral at the landing zone on one of the old airfield runways but the driver had been misdirected to the Front Gate and then to the Wardroom. I was taken aback, when waiting to greet the Admiral at the entrance to the Training Centre, to find him alighting, obviously displeased, from the First Lieutenant’s rather dilapidated utility truck.

Gamlen sniffers?

One Saturday night I was called from my residence by a very disturbed Officer of the Day to one of the Apprentices’ blocks to find a worrying and eerie situation on the grass surrounds not dissimilar to the Atlanta railyard casualties scene in the movie Gone With The Wind.  There, laid out in various stages of distress, were numerous Apprentices having inhaled toxic fumes which had been generated by an inappropriate Gamlen detergent product used incorrectly that evening to clean up the bathroom spaces.  All of the Apprentices recovered without ill effects.

Pilot training?

Perhaps the most enduring memory of all was being called again at my residence on a dark Sunday night on 10 November 1985 to be informed that a helicopter had just crashed on the playing fields near the Sportmen’s Club.  It turned out to be an historic Sioux helicopter which had been part of a static display at the 1985 Schofields Air Show held earlier that day.  Sure enough, I arrived down at the scene to find the scattered remains of a helicopter strewn across the field illuminated by the glare of vehicle headlights.  There is much more to this story, of course, but it was somewhat alarming to learn at the time that this uncertified, unlicenced aircraft had been started and lifted off the ground by an inebriated and unqualified sailor who was determined to show that the aircraft could fly.  He staggered away from the wreck unscathed.

 The terpischoreans

Then, again, perhaps it was the night of 18 June 1986 when a troupe of 28 Apprentices gave a sparkling interlude of entertainment by performing a specially choreographed and much rehearsed version of the Sailors’ Hornpipe to the excellent accompaniment of the Naval Support Command Band at the RAN 75th Anniversay Ball held in the Town Hall, Sydney.  As a result, I was moved to inform the Apprentice body that ‘whereas a lot of sailors can do most things, Apprentices can do anything and everything!’.

 First lady

I gained significant satisfaction from accompanying the Reviewing Officer around the 93rd Passing Out Parade on 20 June 1986 which was under the command of a female (Apprentice Warrant Officer ETC Kathryn L Carlisle W137103) for the first time in the 30 year history of HMAS Nirimba.

Lady Penrhyn loses buoyancy

Another recollection was the personal loss felt by my wife, Megan, on learning that the Sail Training Yacht Lady Penrhyn of Nirimba (which she had christened) had been involved in a collision on Sydney Harbour with a privately owned yacht Camber on 9 July 1986 and had sunk (fortunately without casualties) in position 090 degrees Robinsons Point Light 4.5 cables.  Her spirits were lifted two days later when the yacht was raised, salvaged and returned to HMAS Nirimba for repairs.

The dark side of the force

Then there was the uncovering of the small misguided coterie of ouija-board-operating and black-ninja-dressed Apprentices who had been catwalking around the rooftops and menacing the WRANS quarters in the dark of night and who broke in twice to the K-Mart store in Castle Hill on successive Saturday nights.  They came unstuck when trying to ‘fence’ stolen electrical goods (stashed in the old deserted pig farm area) to other Apprentices at dirt cheap prices.

 Pilot training: reprise?

On 18 April 1985, when I was absent on duty from the establishment and Dakota C-47 N2-90 (The Last Plane From Quakers Hill!) was taxied on trial out of HMAS Nirimba to Schofields Aerodrome by a couple of ‘cowboys’ from HMAS Albatross and a ‘volunteer’ RAAF Flying Officer as pilot.  The Dakota, a favourite training aid at our Air Engineering School (AES) over many years, had been brought to a flying condition by the patient and dedicated efforts over the previous year by the dwindling staff of the AES under the expert eye of Lieutenant D I MacMillan RANEM.  Without approval, and in an unlicenced and uncertified aircraft, the ‘cowboys’ found that the bird was capable of gathering flying speed, chanced their luck, lifted off and flew the plane to the infant Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Nowra.  I was furious at the time, particularly over the  lost PR opportunity.  Moreover, this was as close to a hi-jacking as you could get, but the incident gained ‘retrospective’ blessing from higher authorities!


The foregoing episodes are just a handful of my recollections of the multi-faceted dimensions and magic of HMAS Nirimba that I had the privilege to experience while in command over the period 1984-1987.

What have you done for HMAS Nirimba today




Naval Swords

Swords “to carry” or not

By Tom Lewis

Naval sword
The naval sword and scabbard.

There seems to be an oft-repeated story about our navy, and perhaps the Royal Navy too, that following some disgrace within the RN, perhaps a mutiny, an order was once given that naval officers could not wear their swords, as they were not gentlemen. Instead, they would have to carry them.

This at first seems a little strange, as there doesn’t seem to have been too many mutinies within the RN where officers disgraced themselves. The Spithead mutiny on 1797 was confined to sailors, not officers, although it might be said that officers’ mismanagement led to that situation. The rumour also suggests that this was a Victorian decision, perhaps made by Queen Victoria herself, which sounds strange coming so long after the famous RN mutiny.

Carried on slings

Officers’ swords within the RAN are “carried” to an extent in that they hang from two material supports or slings. They can be hooked up to a small eyelet on the sword belt, but on parade they are carried. Sailors’ cutlasses, when carried on parade, always are hooked up to a belt.

I also thought there were plenty of regiments within the British Army where officers “carried” swords rather than “wore” them on a belt attachment. Nevertheless a few sailors have told me that they were told in their training that it is especially Navy officers who carry their swords, and for that ancient reason.

The licentious soldiery, here in the uniform of the Fourth Hussars,
hang their bigger and heavier swords from shorter lanyards
attached to their Sam Browne belts.

Swords seemed to have begun their time on board ships since the invention of the weapon. Naturally the higher in status a mariner was, the better weapon he would be expected to possess. In particular, the “mark of a gentleman” for many hundreds of years in British society was the sword, probably dating from the days of knightly vows where the knight’s sword was his most prized and revered weapon. It was the sword that made him a knight, after all, in the ceremony in which he was “dubbed” by tapping him on both shoulders with the naked blade. His honour, therefore was attached to the sword.

Courts martial

Even today at the commencement of a court martial an officer’s sword is taken from the accused, and at the end of the trial it signifies whether the officer is guilty or not, by being presented on a table when the person is brought back into court after the presiding board’s deliberations. If found not guilty, the sword hilt is towards the officer, signifying that one’s honour and duty can be taken up again. If guilty, the point is presented.

The sword in Anglo-Saxon England gives some background to how the weapon is carried, with interesting comments about wearing swords on the back and shoulder and several references to wearing them on the belt, but not hanging.

The wearing of a sword back in days when it was more than a badge, but also a weapon, is fairly well documented. Scabbards can be seen from the days of the Greek hoplite, worn suspended at the waist. Sometimes the weight of a heavy sword was helped by a frog, a leather belt worn over the opposing shoulder from which the belt was supported. Figures in the Bayeux tapestry dating from the 11th century show swords being worn in scabbards on belts around the waist, with a hanging strap preventing the chape, the metal cap at the bottom of the scabbard, from dragging on the ground. Swords, or even a second sword, were sometimes worn over the shoulder down the back, ready for a high-handed draw.1 This is after the fashion of the Roman cavalryman’s weapon, the spatha.

For many hundreds of years then, swords were used for defence, and anyone who could own one would carry it, especially on the road, as a measure to be used against highwaymen and the like. However, a sword needed some training to use, and it was expensive, and so it was the mark of someone better-off than the norm, a “gentleman” by this measure.

Incidentally, we may note that a sword was indeed the preferred method of close-quarter defence, as it is most versatile in the way it can be used for both defence and attack, and is extremely manoeuvrable as well, in the way an axe or spear is not. The early versions of firearms were both expensive and unreliable, and so right up until the days of mass-production of guns, the sword was preferred.


By the 19th century it had evolved into the smallsword, a smaller version of the long pointed blade of the rapier. For those who were lesser fencers, an edged weapon was preferred, and indeed in close quarter fighting the cut-and-slash was the norm.

ornate guard

Some rapiers, such as this swept-hilt model, had exotic hilts.

So the sabre was therefore the weapon of choice for naval officers, with the less decorated and less well-made cutlass the sailors’ weapon.

It may be noted in several illustrations of the time in David Howarth’s The Nelson touch, that officers are wearing their swords in a hanging fashion from slings, but also, significantly, officers are wearing swords suspended from belts. There are further such examples in Dudley Jarrett’s British naval dress.

This perhaps puts paid to suggestions that Victoria ordered naval officers not to wear swords via a casual remark, as one of my oral sources suggests: “they are not gentlemen”, simply because Victoria came to the throne well after Nelson’s day. In summary, there are a variety of illustrations showing officers in all sorts of poses: carrying their swords, or seated with the sword obviously detached from slings or belt, perhaps so they can be shown with their hand on the sword-hilt “a particularly martial posture.”

Unequal slings

In The wearing of swords the authoritative P.G.W. Annis makes no reference to officers being made to “carry” swords. He does make some detailed references to sword belt slings, and notes that after 1780 “unequal slings became the rule—the rear sling being longer (often much longer) than the other,” (Annis p. 80).

Graeme Arbuckle, in Customs and traditions of the Canadian navy, refers to the rumour, giving some idea that it is widespread. He thinks:

…it is doubtful that the Admiralty would recommend any change in uniform that would bring ridicule on the Royal Navy. It is most improbable that trailing one’s sword was a mark of disgrace. It was the great discovery of the seventeenth century that the ‘esprit de corps’ and fighting spirit of a body of troops could be greatly increased by drilling them together and clothing them alike. Any mark of disgrace worn under order would contravene this principle. Moreover, the history of uniform shows that any item of clothing not approved of by those who wear it doesn’t survive.

In discussions on the Maritime Historians’ Internet Mailing List, Bill Schleihauf makes what I think is the right judgement in the question:

The trailing sword was, unquestionably, a sign of pride. In fact, the sword would have been no mark of distinction at all unless it was trailed, for all arms wore the same pattern belt. The cavalry regiments have always been splendidly dressed, with the light horse being the most dashing. To draw attention to themselves while on foot, troopers and officers alike let their spurs jangle and their steel-shod scabbards rattle over the cobblestones. This is the origin of the phrase “sabre rattling”, which denotes a swaggering, bullying attitude.

So the argument goes that everyone wore trailing swords, which had to be carried. So it is the case, perhaps, that all military personnel once wore their swords in a hanging fashion, with the slings as long as possible, so as to draw attention to the wearer. The army personnel of the world have now lifted their swords to their belts, as no doubt soldiers often had to do for practicality’s sake, with their practice of drill, but the navy still carries theirs, perhaps because they rarely wore swords, and therefore never saw a need to change. The air forces, following army traditions, generally copied the soldier’s model. CDRE James Goldrick RAN has also pointed out that having a “detached” sword makes it a lot easier to carry while being transported in a small boat.

King Edward VIIIUSN sword
Not all swords are worn with external sword belts and scabbards in naval dress.
King Edward VIII (left) hows how swords are worn with the belt and most of the
hooked-up scabbard hidden under the greatcoat. The sword hilt and perhaps a
centimetre of scabbard protrudes hrough a slit in the coat, allowing the sword to
be drawn. Another reason for the long lanyards on naval swords is apparent in this
photo of a USN officer in formal tropical rig. In this dress, black swordbelts are worn
under white jackets and long slings permit looking up scabbards to swordbelt hooks
that protrude through the jackets, thus maintaining the jacket’s skirt in an even line

According to Boasanquet’s The naval officer’s sword, there seems to have been a little effort to regulate the trailing of the weapons:

…in 1856 the blade returned to its former width of 1? inches and the scabbard to two lockets, each with a ring. This made necessary a return to the two long belt-slings of different lengths, so that the sword would hang at a slight forward angle. This has continued ever since.

Certainly there were variations made in sword belts throughout the time the Royal Navy has regulated naval uniforms, as they did reasonably firmly from 1748 onwards. After 1856 it seems that officers wore two different types, which evolved to become a full-dress and a “plain” version.2 The former, now confined to Admirals, has gold embroidered acorns and oak leaves, with the usual sword belt for an officer having three gold embroidered stripes. Incidentally, this pattern was worn by captains and commanders from 1832-1939.

If anyone can throw some doubt on the reasoning given above, I would be most interested to hear from them.


1. Davidson, HR Ellis. pp. 88-95.
2. Jarrett, Dudley p.144-145.


Annis, P.G.W. The wearing of swords: Naval swords. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1970.
Arbuckle, Graeme. Customs and traditions of the Canadian navy. Canada: Nimbus Publishing Ltd, 1984.
Boasanquet, Captain Henry T.A. The naval officer’s sword. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1955.
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. The sword in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.
Goldrick, James. Email of 30 November 2000, on the wearing of swords in boats.
Howarth, David. The Nelson touch. Collins: London, 1969.
Jarrett, Dudley. British naval dress. London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1960.
Rodger, N.A.M. The wooden world.  New York: Norton, 1986.
Royal Australian Naval College. Guide to Parade and Ceremonial Procedures. In ABR 1834A. Canberra.
Winton, John. Hurrah for the life of a sailor. London: Michael Joseph, 1977.


Duyfken (Little dove)

by John Ellis

Indonesian spices have been important ingredients in Middle Eastern food and drink for over 3000 years. They were imported to the Persian Empire from as early as 1000 BC and Rome imported Moluccan spices 2000 years ago via the Silk Route that terminated in Constantinople. By the Middle Ages, when many spices were also used in medicines, Venice had evolved as the distribution centre for Europe.

Duyfken races seawards with a bone in her teeth.

The safe carriage of spices through Central Asia deteriorated with the rise of Islam from the 8th century, the annoyances arising from the Crusades and the fall of Constantinople in 1453. By then, the Portuguese were leading the European development of skills in navigation and seamanship. The dwindling of the supply of spices led the Portuguese to seek access to the spice trade by sea, thereby avoiding the difficulties of trading through Muslim-controlled lands. Bartholomeu Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and within 11 years Vasco da Gama returned from India with a cargo of spices. The Portuguese kept their charts and skills to themselves while they could and monopolised the spice trade for the next century, establishing trade with Ceylon, the Moluccas and Borneo.

English and Dutch

The English and Dutch took a dim view of this and looked at ways of accessing the spice trade themselves. The English established the East India Company in 1599. The Dutch, by now the major shipping nation of Europe, sent a fleet to the Moluccas in 1601 and established the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, Dutch East India Company) two years later. The VOC had almost instant success in trading and also in displacing the Portuguese everywhere except Goa, Macau and East Timor. The VOC lasted for 200 years, becoming the largest corporation in the world, dominating European trade with Asia. The reasons for the Dutch success included ownership of shipping by merchants and cooperatives rather than the aristocracy, the quality of their ships and the development of modern systems of credit, insurance and trade.

They also made life difficult for the English, and the East India Company took 20-30 years to establish their trade with the Orient. Even then, the Dutch maintained hostilities with the English for much of the 17th century but one truce led to the exchange of two islands. The Dutch held Manhattan and Ternate but surrendered Manhattan on the condition the English stopped blockading Ternate. The Dutch trading fleets were led by a jacht, a small, sturdy vessel charged with developing a safe sea route for the fleet. One such jacht was the Duyfken, built in Amsterdam in 1595.

Duyfken, all canvas set, on a beam reach in a light wind.

The VOC established their headquarters in Jacatra (now Jakarta) in Java, renaming it Batavia in 1619. In 1605, J.W. Verschoor, Director of the Jacatra factory, commissioned Willem Jansz to search for likely trading ports along the coast of New Guinea, “and to discover the great land of Nova Guinea and other unknown east and south lands”.

Jansz sails 1605

Jansz (aka Janszoon) sailed from Jacatra in the jacht Duyfken, for the Moluccas fleet, in November 1605. He had a crew of 20 men, some of whom were indigenous to the East Indies. Duyfken was armed with six falconets that fired a ball of about 1½ kg. Bags carrying a handful of gravel were invariably sufficient to gain the respect of the locals. The basis of daily meals was salt beef and pork and a ship’s biscuit of flour and water baked hard. In addition there was oatmeal, dried fish and dried fruit. When practicable, they carried fresh meat and vegetables and caught fresh fish.

They carried water in casks but it had a short life before turning putrid. The men depended upon beer that was really preserved water rather than an alcoholic drink. Wine and spirits were also carried. Navigators of the early 17th century used the magnetic compass for direction, the backstaff for distance north or south of the equator, the log line for ship’s speed, the lead line for sounding the depth of water and the Mark I eyeball.

Ship captains of the period depended upon many natural phenomena — clouds forming could indicate the presence of land, the colour of sea water and presence of seaweed could indicate reduced depth of water, observations of sea birds and presence of land birds, the smell of activities ashore and a knowledge of prevailing winds all added to the experience of those seamen.

Jansz made his way east via Banda and the Kei Islands to the south coast of New Guinea. From False Cape, he headed south-east and raised land at the Pennefather River on the west coast of Cape York, about 50 km north of Weipa, then followed the coast to the south. He left for Jacatra at Cape Keer-Weer (Turnagain), believing he had sailed along the continuous coast of New Guinea.

At one point Jansz landed a party to investigate trading potential. A clash ensued and men on both sides were killed, including nine of Jansz’s men. Some references suggest that it is unclear if this encounter was in New Guinea or Australia. Other authorities tell of such an encounter handed down in the oral history of the Aborigines of Cape York.

350 km charted, March 1606

Jansz recorded some 350 km of the coasts of southern New Guinea and western Cape York. Jansz’s chart of this voyage has come down to us and was on display in the Mitchell Library during the first quarter of 2006 together with Hartog’s pewter plate and other Dutch charts and journals from the 17th century. Jansz’s journal has not survived although there are contemporary comments in other diaries and references that give us a broad description of Duyfken‘s voyage.

The time of his coasting down Cape York is thought to be in March 1606. About six months later in 1606, Luis Vaez de Torres, a Portuguese navigator employed by Spain, sailed through the straits that now bear his name. He was en route from Vanuatu to Manila. The nature of Torres’ voyage was suspected by his contemporaries in England and the Netherlands but was not verified until 1790 when his papers were found in Manila.

There has been speculation that Portuguese ships coasted the Australian continent in the 16th century. Such accounts cannot be verified because the Portuguese kept their achievements secret. By sailing in eastern Australian waters they were breaching treaties with Spain drawn up by the Pope and in 1745 an earthquake in Lisbon destroyed their archives. It is now accepted that Jansz was the first authenticated European to land on Australian shores.

Build replica

In the mid 1990s a group decided to build a replica of Duyfken in Fremantle. Sixteenth century shipwrights built ships by eye and rule of thumb rather than referring to drawings. The replica was developed from three sketches of jachts, several scenes of jachts by Dutch masters, a knowledge of 16th century shipbuilding techniques, a wreck discovered while reclaiming land in the Netherlands and an analysis of sailing capabilities.

All went into a computer program to produce drawings for 20th century shipwrights. Duyfken was laid down in 1997 and took three years to build. The timbers used are similar to those used in the original. The hull is of oak imported from Latvia and the decks, masts and spars are of Scandinavian pine. Planks were bent over fires to achieve the desired curves and frames and knees were taken from sections of trees where the grain followed the desired lines.

duyfken construction
A Duyfken construction sketch.
Her rigging is of hempen rope and her canvas is of flax, stitched in 17th century techniques. Duyfken is 24 metres long, draws 2.8 metres and displaces 150 tonnes fully laden. She carries a square sail under the bowsprit, two square sails on the fore and main mast and a triangular lateen sail on the mizzen. (She also has two 150 hp engines and modern nautical navigation equipment.)

Living conditions are basic: two litres of water every other day to wash what you choose. Rudder movement is controlled by a whipstaff, a vertical pole used to lever the forward end of the tiller. This arrangement allows about 5 degrees of rudder either side of amidships. (Wheels to control rudder movement were introduced until about 1703.)

Topweight was reduced by keeping deckhead heights low, requiring the men to stoop when below the upper deck. Hammocks were introduced into some European ships soon after Columbus had seen natives of the Caribbean sleeping in them. In Duyfken, however, the men slept on the upper deck as the space below was reserved for stores, food and any spices they might acquire. In those days 20 kg of nutmeg would buy a house in Amsterdam and pay for servants for a year. The modern crew does sling hammocks because they aren’t carrying spices. The skipper has a small cabin in the poop that he shares with the engineer.

The replica’s first voyage was to Java, Banda, Carpentaria and Port Moresby and she sailed for the Netherlands in 2001 where there was tremendous interest with events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the formation of the VOC. Unable to raise the funds for the return voyage, Duyfken was returned as deck cargo, then spent over three years laid up except for an occasional limited sailing program.

Commemorates the discovery of Australia

Duyfken sails with a permanent crew of six and a voyage crew of ten. Her long 2006 voyage commemorated the 400th anniversary of the 1606 Carpentaria explorations. Sponsorship, in the ratio of 2:1:1, came from the Australian Government, the Duyfken 1606 Replica Foundation and a group called Australia on the Map 1606-2006.

Duyfken under sail in Sydney Harbour.
The voyage started in Fremantle on 6 April, farewelled by the Prime Ministers of Australia and the Netherlands. She called at Bunbury, Albany and Esperance in Western Australia and Port Lincoln, Adelaide and Victor Harbour in South Australia. Maintaining this kind of routine for ports of call, she sailed around the Australian coast to visit Redcliffe, Brisbane, Gladstone, Mackay and Cairns in Queensland.

Duyfken then turned south and called in to Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Newcastle, Wollongong and Sydney on her way to join the February 2007 Hobart Wooden Boat Show.

Duyfken is presently berthed in Cairns. She has sailed 8,683 miles in a total of 98 days under way, averaging 3.7 knots, better than Abel Tasman. She has welcomed 87,000 visitors.

John Paul Jones Letter

John Paul Jones “letter” to the “Naval Committee”

Since about the turn of the last century USN midshipmen training in their Annapolis Naval Academy were encouraged to learn and recite about 500 words from a reputed 14 September 1775 letter sent by John Paul Jones to the “Naval Committee of Congress” listing the attributes required of a US naval officer. Jones is regarded as one of the founders of the USN but it is clear that he penned no such letter. Furthermore, no “Naval Committee of Congress” ever existed in 1775, but a “Marine Committee” was founded a month after the letter was claimed to have been written.

John Paul Jones bust, by Jean-Antoine Houdon.
The following 131-word vestige of the “letter” remained in the 2005 issue of Reef points, the “Plebe’s bible”. It carries no attribution:

It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor. He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval. Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetence, and well meant shortcoming from heedless or stupid blunder.

The 500-word original “letter” goes on to assert that as well as his native language, a naval officer should be well versed in both French and Spanish, be “familiar with the principles of international law” and the “usage of diplomacy” sufficient for him to “act without … consulting his … superiors at home.” The “letter” also claims that while American ships “must fight for the principles of human rights and republican freedom, the ships themselves paradoxically must be ruled and commanded at sea under a system of absolute despotism.”

Who was Jones?

John Paul was born in a little Scottish estate in 1747, the youngest of five sons. He had a short wiry stature, like Nelson, and at a similar age (but 11 years before Nelson), Paul started his seagoing career. He was apprenticed to a shipping merchant at 13 years of age, until 1764, then sailed in lucrative slave-runners as a mate until 1768. He was returning to England as a passenger in the brig John when both the captain and mate died, but Paul brought the ship into safe harbour and the owners retained him as a captain at age 21.

As captain of the Betsy , instead of paying the crew and allowing them shore leave in Tobago in 1773, Paul invested their money in cargo and stopped their leave. This led to a “mutiny” where a “ringleader” died after a Paul-ordered flogging.1 (Some reports suggest Paul ran the man through with his sword.2) Paul escaped the judicial process by scuttling off to his brother’s Virginia property.

At the outset of the American Revolution in 1775 he changed his name to John Paul Jones and joined the new-found Continental Navy as a junior officer. Appointed First Lieutenant of the Alfred, a converted merchantman of 30 guns, he either distinguished himself or advanced himself sufficiently in a number of small actions to gain command of the 12-gun sloop Providence in 1776. In this ship he evaded the 28-gun HMS Solebay and captured or sank a number of relatively defenceless merchant, fishing and whaling ships.

Sent to France in command of the 18-gun Ranger a year later, he pillaged small British coastal villages, captured the smaller 14-gun HMS Drake and established a close rapport with the Paris-based Benjamin Franklin. In August 1779, in command of the French-loaned 40-gun Bonhomme Richard and with five other ships, Paul ranged up and down Britain’s coast, preying on smaller ships and coastal hamlets. His command of this squadron was not strong. Boats and even ships disappeared without orders. The Frenchman Pierre Landais, captain of the new American 36-gun frigate Alliance, was to prove particularly troublesome.

“I have not yet begun to fight”

In his oft-quoted 1779 “I have not yet begun to fight” (another fabrication, probably by historian Augustus C. Buell) engagement, Jones and his squadron chanced upon the 44-gun frigate HMS Serapis and the 20-gun sloop HMS Countess of Scarborough escorting a 40-sail convoy off Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. In light wind conditions Jones lashed his ship alongside Serapis and slogged it out. Late in this 3½ hours-long night action, one of Jones’s fleet, the “friendly” Alliance, finally drifted into the battle. Instead of lashing his ship to Serapis‘s lee side, thereby ensuring victory, Landais fired deliberately on both vessels and fell away. Nearly half the crews of both ships were killed, but Jones eventually boarded Serapis, which was fortunate, because despite determined efforts to save her, Bonhomme Richard sank some 36 hours later.

Serapis (right) and Bonhomme Richard grapple in a lethal night struggle while Alliance gives a slow and deliberate serve to both ships.
(From a 1980 Richard Paton engraving.)
Jones gallivanted around Paris and other European cities for a while, before joining the Russian Navy in 1788 as a Rear Admiral. He distinguished himself in one action against the Turks, but lost favour by bickering over honours and awards. He returned to France in 1790 and died a virtual pauper in Paris in 1792 at age 45. His grave was re-discovered in 1905 and his body finally re-interred in the crypt of the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel, Annapolis, in 1913.

In sum, Jones was born in Scotland but had a somewhat chequered if not mercenary career, serving as an officer in slave transports, the USN and the Russian Navy. His seamanship skills were unquestioned but he rarely displayed exceptional fighting skills and his leadership was certainly wanting. He did not inspire great loyalty. Unlike Nelson, he was frequently beset by insubordination, open disobedience and even mutiny.

The “letter”

Known for his voluminous correspondence and encouraged by luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Jones devoted considerable “angry ant” effort to self-advancement, arguing over “entitlements” and prize money. He was never slow to tell his superiors how to run their navy and train their officers.

Bogle and Holwitt (2004) perhaps best encapsulate the discussions that raged since RADM William S. Sims drew official attention to the “forgery” of the Qualifications of a Naval Officer letter in a memo dated 2 July 1920. In an environment that prides itself on academic honesty and critical thinking, it would be wrong, the highly respected Sims argued, to perpetuate a myth that Jones was the original Qualifications author. Bogle and Holwitt go on to confirm that the entire 500-word quote was a fabrication of one Augustus C. Buell, dating back to 1900.

Others argue that the words are inspiring and if Jones did not write them then perhaps he should have, or in any event he would have agreed with their underlying message. Paradoxically, the quotation inspires its own loyalty adherents, with modern upper classmen, particularly, remaining highly resistant to changing what many call “the moral and intellectual charter of Annapolis.”

All this, of course, is a far cry from the academic honesty to which Annapolis aspires.


1. John Paul Jones. Harpers New Monthly Magazine, Vol 11/62 July 1855. pp 145-170.
2. Naval Historical Center: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq58-1.htm.


Buell, A.C. Paul Jones, founder of the American Navy. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York. 1900.
Bogle, L.L., and Holwitt, J.I. The best quote Jones never wrote. Naval history, 18/2, April 2004.
Reef points, 99th ed. U.S. Naval Academy: Annapolis. 2005.

Passing the Port

The passing of the port

by Ron Robb

This essay was awarded third prize in the Naval Officers Club Literary Prize competition, 2001, and was published in the Naval Officers Club Newsletter Number 47, 1 December 2001.

Ron Robb receives his prize for this essay from Vice President John Da Costa at the 12 July 2001 Members Luncheon at the Royal Automobile Club, Sydney.

The ‘passing of the port’ is a special precursor to a form of toast which will nowadays usually be found only at Defence Force dinners and a few traditional academic or political societies. But why do we call it a ‘toast’? and why do we call it ‘port’? And why some of the arcane rituals that go with it?

We drink a ‘toast’ when we want to wish someone well or accord honour. The custom goes back to unrecorded antiquity, but it is known that the ancient Jews did it (the Old Testament gives instructions for ‘drink offerings’), while the early Saxons and Britons observed it at least as early as the fifth century. The glass is held straight out from the right shoulder and here, right away, we find two traditions involved:

First – it is held in the right hand because to the ancients the right hand was the lucky one; if you held the drinking vessel in the left hand you would be insulting the one for whom the blessing was being invoked. (Generations of mariners have learned a part of their rules of the road by reciting “there is no red port left”).

Second – the arm held straight out showed that there was no concealed weapon, so no risk of some treacherous assassination plot with a friendly gesture being used as a cover. The proper method of holding the glass is by the base, with the outer edge between the thumb and forefinger, thumb uppermost.

Civilian toasts clinkingoften clink glasses together with as many as possible of those nearby. This custom originates from religious practice in the Middle Ages when it was believed that the Devil could not stand the sound of bells; if the glasses were touched together the effect would be like a ringing of bells. Churches having bells in their towers began in the Middle Ages and bells are still rung in some high church liturgies.

We can thank the British for the adoption of the word toast as applied to a drink. The toast of drinking is exactly the same one as applied to the slice of slightly burned bread that most of us eat each morning at breakfast. How come? The British have long been wine connoisseurs but until recently had no significant wine industry of their own. Their forefathers did not have the scientific knowledge that we have today, so continental vignerons and British wine merchants were not too successful at transporting wine over long distances.

Fortified wines (sherry, port, madeira, marsala, vermouth etc.) travelled well, but ordinary ‘still’ wine does not take kindly to moving around; any wine buff will know this and will attempt to leave his cellar slumbering in peace.

French tradition

The British traditionally got their best wine from France, because this was a relatively light disturbance after the short channel crossing. Moreover, at one stage they had hegemony over the Northern part of France so had access to the great wine fields there. However, by about the 17th century, the British and the French were not really the best of friends and to drink French wine required one to be both unpatriotic and friendly with smugglers, the latter being illegal.

Wine was readily available from Portugal and other places but generally it was likely to draw one’s teeth, so the British resorted to an old trick that had been known since late medieval times: if spiced toasted bread is soaked in poor quality wine for a time it will absorb the astringency and harsher flavours. This produced a passably drinkable wine and, as good wishes were usually invoked with a glass of wine, the practice became known as ‘drinking the toast’.

Speaking clubs

Most people are familiar with various public speaking societies and toasting clubs were around in England at least as early as the 17th century. In truth, some of them were simply an excuse for a night on the bottle and some dinners were openly advertised as a ‘drinking match’.

Nevertheleswaiters, Sir Richard Steele in 1709 wrote that a certain lady’s name flavoured the wine like spiced toast when her good health was called for. Originally, a toast was supposed to be short and witty – just the honoured person’s name or at most a short succinct rhyme. This tends to be the custom today as evidenced, for example, with the ‘loyal toast’ when we simply say “The Queen”.

However, between the late 17th and early 20th centuries, and particularly in the latter half of the 19th, the custom of toasting grew to gargantuan proportions and became the occasion for major speeches. In turn, that toast demanded a reply and then another and so it went on.

The American humorist and philosopher Mark Twain is famous for one of his recorded orations “General Grant and the Babies”, which was actually a reply to a toast in 1879 at the 13th reunion of the Army of Tennessee; it was the 15th toast of the evening and was delivered at 0330 in the early morning. Toasting clubs always had a special person responsible for the orderly progression of a dinner and control of the toasts (in naval messes, the Mess President). However, dinners tended to go on for a long time so unless he had a cast iron constitution the toastmaster might lose self-control – let alone control of the proceedings.

In some clubs three bottles of port per diner per evening were known and considerate hosts employed small boys to crawl under the tables to loosen the neckcloths of their guests who had given up the contest.

Toastmaster’s glass

Given this formidable task, how was the poor toastmaster to keep himself under control – let alone the whole dinner? The glassblower’s art came to his rescue and during the 18th century a special toastmaster’s glass was developed, which had a deceptive bowl that made a mere half fluid ounce look like a normal full glass. They’re collector’s items today.

The position of the Vice Toastmaster is also a long tradition dating back to about the 18th century and the term ‘Mr Vice’ was around long before the Navy stylised its mess dinners. Originally, his specific function was to act as a counterpoint for the calling of toasts.

In Service messes, the first toast is always what is often now called the ‘loyal toast’ but in British Commonwealth messes is more properly the ‘royal toast’ – its original name. The U.S. Navy unashamedly takes its dining tradition from its progenitor, the Royal Navy, but obviously cannot have a royal toast so coined the term ‘loyal’.

Sitting for loyal toast

Here, at least, is one part of the toast routine that the navy can claim as its own, and only navies of the British Commonwealth at that: we are entitled to do what would be a blasphemy in any other situation and remain seated during the toast to the reigning monarch. This comes about by virtue of the old wooden men-o’-war sailing ships having low headbeams at the sides and the guests sitting there would have to duck their head when they stood. Charles II was a bit taller than most of his countrymen and is known to have complained about this hazard when aboard the Naseby.

Many years later one of his successors, William lV, also a bit taller than usual, as Prince Regent and Lord High Admiral, cracked his skull against a beam when rising to drink the health of his father and vowed that when he became king he would allow Royal Navy officers to sit during his toast. He was as good as his word and the custom has been approved by every monarch since for all British naval officers (except at one stage, curiously, on board H.M. Royal Yacht).

However, the tradition is not observed if a band is present and the toast is accompanied by the playing of the national anthem. In 1914, the First Sea Lord, who later became the Marquis of Milford-Haven, modified the royal-toast-being-seated privilege by requiring officers to stand if a band played the national anthem. For this reason, some Royal Navy wardrooms used not play the national anthem for the royal toast, even if a Royal Marines band was present.

Impose fines

waitressOne of the customs observed at mess dinners is for the President to impose fines for certain offences. He does this by rapping the gavel, Hence the custom is known as ‘knocking’. However, this too predates naval usage and originally applied only before the royal toast, i.e. while the dinner was still formal and was for three specific offences: making a bet, mentioning a lady’s name or drawing a sword.

When the port has been passed, all await the President’s lead and Mr Vice’s response before partaking the toast. Observant diners will have noticed that the President and Mr Vice replace the stoppers before proposing the toast. There is a specific tradition behind this: originally, the wine provided for the royal toast was of high quality and for that purpose only; when all glasses were full the stoppers were replaced as a signal for the stewards to remove those particular decanters and the royal toast would proceed. If more toasts were to follow then decanters of lesser wine would be brought to the table.

Decanters remain

Nowadays we do not necessarily remove the decanters after the royal toast, but the stopper replacement is a mark of respect to the Queen and, at least up until recently, the RAN steward’s manual still allowed for the practice of removing the decanters after the royal toast. The ‘royal’ toast was not always a ‘loyal’ one to the British monarch. The Jacobites, and also those seditious Scottish who yearned after Bonnie Prince Charlie, could not bring themselves to toast another and so would surreptitiously hold their glass over a finger bowl full of water. In this way they were toasting the one whom they regarded as the true king ‘over the water’ (i.e. in France).

This practice eventually became so blatant that it was seen at the coronation banquet of George III, and for many years thereafter finger bowls were banned at any dinner at which the King was present. As any wine connoisseur will know, it is bad practice to completely fill a glass with wine as this spoils the nose. However, the toasting drink of port for the loyal toast is an exception and it is regarded as good form and practiced skill if one can fill the glass overfull to the extent that there is a distinct meniscus on the surface. Judging the port’s surface tension properly is the trick – too little and it does not have a visible curvature above the glass rim, too much and the tension will shear and the drinker be left with a messy hand and a puddle on the table for all to see.


portA glass so nicely filled is called a ‘bumper’. Why? In pre-Henry VIII England society was predominately Roman Catholic, so the first toast at a dinner would always be to honour the Pope; the glass would be generously filled and the toast would be “to our good Father”. Those who remember their high school French will soon be able to translate this to “au bon pere”. Older editions of the RAN steward’s manual actually drew attention to this protocol. However, if officers toast the Queen with an empty glass, they are, strictly speaking, barred from accepting a round of port from any other officer knocked for an offence.

Incidentally – if teetotallers or those on alcohol-free diets wish to avoid alcohol it is, strictly speaking, improper to partake a toast in water and the toast should be with an empty glass.

Wine quality

Toasts by mere mortals and forms of life lesser than the navy can drink their toasts in whatever wine they like. It could be argued that even for the army any good wine is acceptable. But not in the navy! Port is the traditional navy toast, though madeira was once popular. Madeira is legal as it has the same political background that gave rise to port as the preferred drink for the navy and is in fact a kind of port.

We noted earlier that the word toast came from the practice of soaking spiced toast in Portuguese wines, since it was unpatriotic to drink the better French wines. As Swift wrote:

Be sometime to your country true,
Have ever the public good in view;
Bravely despise Champagne at Court
And choose to dine at home with port.

However, port (and we can include madeira) was one kind of Portuguese wine that was good.

Port keeps well

Port keeps well after it is opened and doesn’t mind being moved around – indeed, one of the classic features of Madeira is that it is moved around. Traditionally, that sweet, smokey dessert wine from the Portuguese island of Madiera is sent south across the equator as ballast and back in the hold of a ship before marketing.

Notwithstanding the patriotic duty of the British to drink Portuguese wines, there were other good reasons for the navy to favour port: we have already noted that it is one of the few wines that travel well, so from the mid-18th century every Royal Navy ship proceeding to the West Indies Station was stored according to its complement with an appropriate number of pipes of port (a pipe is a cask holding about 56 dozen quarts – 168 gallons or 763 litres).

Passing clockwise

The passing of the port always ‘follows the sun’, i.e. it goes clockwise and passes to the left. The origins of this custom are obscure and various authorities have advanced the following possible reasons: At funerals, the ancient Greeks passed a mourning cup to the left as they moved to their right past the grave. The Celts particularly, but many others also, considered the right hand to be lucky. If wine was poured in a clockwise order, the servant would have his right hand towards the centre of the table.

The guest of honour traditionally sits at the right of the host, so if the wine moved to the left the guest could observe its effect on other guests before his turn (the ‘poisoned chalice’). If a decanter is passed to the left the friend to the right of the pourer has his right, i.e. sword-hand, free for protection of the temporarily distracted drinker.

Port origins

It may be of some interest to consider what port is and how it got its name. It is a fortified wine, which means it starts life as an ordinary still wine but at a certain point in the fermentation process has spirit brandy added. This stops the fermentation, so arresting the sugar conversion to alcohol and hence the sweetness. However, although all the sugar is not converted to alcohol the alcoholic content is very much higher than ordinary wine (typically 20 per cent vs 12 per cent), because of the addition of the brandy. The process of fortifying wine was invented in the 17th century, specifically for the purpose of transporting it to England from Portugal and for this reason port used to be known as ‘the English wine’. Reputedly, the Portuguese themselves drink very little of it and this is to be expected; port is better suited to cooler climates whereas Portugal is a hot country in most parts. White Port, however, can be chilled and is a good summer alternative for those who like port at any time.

Vintage port exception

Because of this fortification, port will not spoil when moved around and in all cases, except one, will keep quite happily for a long period once opened. The one exception is vintage port which, unlike all others, is aged in the bottle. Most other ports are made by the solera method whereby they are aged in the wood; the barrels are stacked high on top of each other, pyramid fashion, and the wine gradually siphoned down to the bottom over several years (the more barrel/years, the better – and more expensive) with new stock being added to the top each vintage. It is for this reason that non-vintage solera ports do not nowadays have a vintage year printed on the label (except in certain specially-controlled cases).

grapesTrue port is tightly controlled by Portuguese law; it comes only from the upper Douro River region and even then from a strictly limited area above 460 metres. Only specific grapes are allowed, principally Maurisco. It is moved and handled in a prescribed way and is crushed by treading in the traditional manner, crushers working four hour shifts, to music, in teams of four. Vines are planted on southern aspects of certain hills, which are composed largely of rock; the ground is therefore prepared by blasting so that the roots can find moisture during the blazing Portuguese summer. Maturation is rigidly controlled, the precise time of starting the picking judged to within hours.

After crushing, fermentation and fortifying, the liquid is sailed down the Douro River to the seaport town of Oporto – hence the name. There, it is blended by skilled tasters who have served a long apprenticeship and are specially licensed. Since taste is largely smell, the areas in which these tasters work is shielded by running water to block out any foreign aromas. Port is bottled under armed guard supervision and marketed by licence of the Portuguese Government. Madeira is made and marketed in much the same way as port, including the solera method. However, it comes from the eponymously-named Portuguese offshore island.

Island heavily wooded

When the original Portuguese colonisers went there, the island was heavily wooded, but the new settlers promptly burned most of it down. The resulting richly-ashed soil imparts the characteristic smokey flavour to the wine, boosted also by the unusual process of actually heating then cooling the wine over a period of several months during the fermentation. Originally, this was done by passing the wine through the tropics twice (i.e. out and back) in barrels as ship’s ballast. One surprise that will upset male chauvinists opposed to ladies attending a mess dinner is that the idea of ladies being associated with toasting has some antiquity. In 1780, a highly secret group within the Jacobites elected Lady Williams-Wynn to their dining club and her successors were similarly honoured.

These customs have a significance worth preserving. They remind us of a rich past and a colourful heritage and provide a continuous thread of the principles of comradeship and standing together through both good and bad times. Only to a few organisations, particularly in Australia, is given the privilege of having a strong, continuous, easily identified lineage stretching back beyond our own nationhood; the navy is one such organisation and the traditions associated with a mess night are worth maintaining well.


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Beckett, W., A few naval customs, expressions, traditions and superstitions (4th ed.), Messrs Geives Ltd: Portsmouth.
Bonner, J.T. Sober reflections on a mess night, Proceedings. US Naval Institute: Annapolis, 1973.
Collins, L. A host of toasts, Readers digest October. Pleasantville, NY,1978.
Croft-Cooke, R. Wine and other drinks. Collins: London, 1962.
Customs and etiquette of the Royal Navy, Messrs Geives Ltd: Portsmouth, 1966.
Hall, J. and Bunton, J. Wines. Foyles: London, 1961.
Naval protocol and customs. RAN Chief of Naval Personnel: Canberra, 1981.
Vandyke-Price, P. The taste of wine. Random House: New York, 1975.