Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle

The Great Coat

(All Officers)



Sadly, a young man's chosen career had to come abruptly to an end for reasons of economy. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy looks after her own.  A young Australian on his way to de-mob gets a heroes send off - and some!

It was 1930 and a cold night in Malta's Grand Harbour.   The Mediterranean Fleet had just returned from manoeuvres.   The harbour was packed with ships.   The Officer of the Watch of H.M.S. Royal Oak, a battleship, later to be sunk in Scapa Flow, was pacing the quarter-deck.   He was awaiting the return of sailors from the fleet canteen by the 2200 duty boat.   Walking abreast of him on the quarter-deck was the Midshipman of the Watch.   The Captain's head appeared on the ladder leading down to his quarters:

"Officer of the Watch!!!".


"Could you spare me a moment in my cabin."

"Certainly Sir."

The Officer of the Watch, a tall lieutenant and Navy rugger player, followed his Commanding Officer down the ladder leading to the Captain's cabin.   The Captain was holding a signal in his hand.   His expression was grave.   He handed the typed signal message to the Lieutenant.   The message was headed Confidential and it read:

From:   Australian Commonwealth Naval Board
To:       Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Fleet.
Repeated for Information H.M.S. Royal Oak.

As part of a Treasury decision it has been found necessary to carry out strict economy measures in the Australian Navy.   This includes a reduction of officer strength.   It is much regretted that Midshipman R......, Royal Australian Navy, H.M.S. Royal Oak is to be retired on return to Australia.   It is requested that this officer be informed of this decision and passage arrangements, charged to Australian account, made as soon as possible.

The Captain said:- "I will have to break this most unpleasant news to this officer tonight.   Is he on board?"

The Lieutenant replied:- "Yes Sir.   He is running the duty boat and returning shortly to the ship.  I will send him to your cabin.

"Thank you.   Please ask the Commander to speak to me as well."

"Aye, aye Sir."   The Lieutenant then withdrew and returned to the quarter-deck and sent a message to the Commander.
The Captain paced up and down his day cabin - smoking his pipe.   This was not good news to break to a fine 19 year old young man.   His career to be ended so cruelly.

A knock on the cabin door and the Commander entered. "You sent for me, Sir?"

"Yes, Commander - sorry to disturb you so late - but have you seen a copy of this signal about Mr. R........'s retirement?"

"Yes I have just seen it, Sir.   It's darned bad luck.   To have to start again afresh in a new career.   He is a very good type of young officer.   It will be an awful shock to him."

The Captain replied: "I quite agree.   I have sent for him to break the bad news.   I wish to do it alone.   From now until he leaves for Australia I wish the officers to give him the time of his life.   Will you warn them all to keep him cheerful."

"Yes, of course, Sir."

"Thank you, Commander.   Good night."

"Good night, Sir."

The Commander withdrew.   A minute later another quieter knock sounded on the Captain's door and Midshipman R. entered wearing a long blue great coat.   He was tall and lean as Australians sometimes grow and had sandy, red hair.   He was a very good athlete - a mile runner and mainstay of his Ship's team.

"You sent for me, Sir?"

"Yes.   Do come in.   Park your coat there and come and warm yourself by my electric fire.   Would you like a glass of port?"

"Thank you very much indeed, Sir".

The Captain poured two large glasses from a glass decanter on his sideboard and handed one to the Midshipman.   They both raised their glasses and sipped the warm, red wine.   The Captain then came to the point and gently broke the news.   The Midshipman was considerably shaken and his face went quite white.   His Captain spoke in a calm voice.

"This is not only a terrible blow to you, but to the whole ship.    We all think a great deal of you.   The officers and the men.    I will call and see the Commander-in-Chief in the morning and see what he advises.     Also, I will insist on him sending a priority signal to Australia to ask what  compensation arrangements have been made for you.   There is not another P. & O. boat leaving Malta for a further ten days.   Meanwhile, enjoy yourself.   Don't hesitate to come and see me here whenever you wish.   Let's both have some more port."

The days went by in a flash.   The Wardroom officers and his brother midshipmen took him ashore day after day.   Night after night some light hearted entertainment was arranged for him.   The Captain and Commander-in-Chief in turn asked him to family dinner parties.   He played rugger and hockey.   Visited his friends in other ships.   Gradually the hurt dazed look went from his face.   His picket boat's crew invited him to the sailor's canteen and he returned aboard very, very full of beer.

One evening when R....... was ashore to dinner, a very unusual event happened.   Shortly after 2100, boat load after boat load of midshipmen arrived in the Royal Oak and were all directed to the Captain's cabin.   There was a vast array of sandwiches and beer and representatives from all ships of the Fleet.   Who arranged it nobody knows.   We suspected Royal Oak's Captain.   A lot of quiet talk - suggestions and a plan was made.   The supper and beer disappeared and as if by magic all had dispersed by 2230.  

Next day it was noticeable that the Captain called privately on the Commander-in-Chief and left his office smiling.  A plot had been hatched.

The P. & O. vessel's departure day arrived and Midshipman R...... had to be on board by 2100.   He had a cheerful supper party in the Gun Room and said his farewells.   His baggage had been placed on board earlier that day.  2030 came and the boat to take him away was called. Dressed in his best blue uniform and great coat, he appeared on the quarter-deck for the last time.   To his great astonishment the Battleship's guard rails were manned by sailors in hundreds all quiet and waiting.   The Captain and officers (about 80 in all) were on the quarter-deck.   They said good-bye and also manned the rails. Still quietness.  As Midshipman R..... reached the boat he found it manned by his old crew.   He was invited to take the wheel.   As the boat moved slowly ahead the Captain called for three cheers.   The roar could be heard across the harbour.   Friendly waving came from other ships.

But it did not end here.   Wherever Midshipman R......, Royal Australian Navy looked, ahead or astern, port or starboard, were boats of the fleet manned by his friends.   Some with torches.   He was being escorted like a hero.   The sight was terrific.   Very few admirals have ever received such a farewell.

They formed a line - and in his own boat with this own crew, R...... Went to the P. & O.'s gangway where on board were more of his friends.   The P. & O. liner sailed a little late that night and for a few hundred yards she had a highly unofficial naval escort - the Midshipman of the Med. Fleet.   Some 33 years after the event, Mr. R..... held one of the top civil service posts in Australia.

A Great Coat and a fine young Australian had been honoured.

Previous: The Mess Jackets Gentlemen Cordite Index Next: HMAS Perth wins her spurs

This site was created as a resource for educational use and the promotion of historical awareness. All rights of publicity of the individuals named herein are expressly reserved, and, should be respected consistent with the reverence in which this memorial site was established.

Copyright© 1984/2014 Mackenzie J. Gregory All rights reserved