Sail, Steam and Seaplanes: Captain Vivian Lockyer Wiles
This account, based on letters home by his Grandfather by J.B. Hollingworth was originally published in the 'Sea Breezes' August 1994 Issue and, with permission, was re-published on the excellent MerchantNavyOfficers.com website which ceased operation in August 2014 following the sad loss of its creator Fred Waddington. I have re-published them as part of the Benjidog Recollections website with the agreement of Fred Waddington's widow Bobbie to ensure that they are not lost.
I have included additional images of ships where possible, but it is difficult to find quality photographs of lesser-known ships of the late 19th/early 20th Century.
A shipwreck in the Far East and the loss of luggage on its way back to Britain in the early 1930s deprived us of letters written by my grandfather during his final years at sea; fortunately those he wrote while an apprentice under sail in the 1890s, as a young officer with British India at the start of this century and letters and photographs of his time on the first aircraft and seaplane carriers in the Great War have survived.
Many of these letters provide a vivid pen picture of a maritime age long past and as such seem worthy of a wider airing.
My maternal grandfather, Vivian Lockyer Wiles, was born within the sound of Bow bells in 1878. Although his father was an officer on North Sea steamers, he was not keen that his youngest son should follow in his seaboots so he asked the captain of the Egyptian Monarch to take the boy to sea and actively discourage him from his chosen career. The ploy failed and even after a serious illness the 15-year-old was filling his sea-chest in preparation for his first voyage on the barque Dunard.
This sea-chest is still in the family and inside the lid is a long list of items which includes such diverse articles as two topcoats, three pairs of braces, one straw hat, one pair of white kid gloves, 12 white handkerchiefs, one pair of dancing shoes, one spoon, one fork . . . and one umbrella! Unfortunately, on his first voyage my grandfather was so seduced by the warm climate of Brazil that he sold his warm clothing to buy food and then ended up at Cape Horn stuffing his clothes with newspaper to keep out the cold.
On April 2, 1 894, he sailed on the Dunard from London to Santos, and it was from that port that he wrote his first letter to his sister Grace, describing the port as being a rough place with open hostility towards the British; where the crew would not go ashore alone and when they did they went armed with knives and pistols.
Dunard was a a 3-masted iron sailing barque that had been completed by Dobie & Co of Govan for J. Dunn & Sons of Glasgow on 27 October 1877. She was of length 186.2 Ft, Breadth 31.2 Ft and depth 18.4 Ft. She was damaged by stranding and condemned at Diego Suarez in May of 1901. No photos have been found of this vessel.
The voyage out is best described in his own words:
You would like it here sometimes, but only on fine warm Saturdays when the decks are white and the sailors, some sleeping, some mending clothes, some washing, make it look nice and comfortable and lazy. But when it is stormy and everybody is in oilskins and the waves washing inboard it is not very nice. I was shaved when I crossed the line and it was great fun; all the men dressed up and they stuffed grease in my mouth and tarred my face and then scraped it with a wooden razor. Not very pleasant when they ducked us in the water!
The letter ends with an observation that fever was rife although not as bad as usual; three men were down with it that day and he would have to take his chance with the rest.
Other letters written from Latin America describe washing and cleaning clothing and bedding, patching clothes and in one his appointment as coxswain and the fact that he no longer had to row the ship's boat. When taking the captain ashore they always wore uniform and kept the longboat in pristine condition:
She is a fine big boat, painted white with varnished teak gunnels and two raised flags on her bows so she looks quite flash.
My grandfather was always rather proud of his skill with ship's boats and took a pride in passing others but once, after he had had to fetch the captain from an American vessel, they were chased and caught by river police. After a gift of some grog it was made all right, says my grandfather.
In an undated letter to his mother there is a detailed description of a stay at Santos:
We are all ready for sea. We have only been here a month so very quick. We have had the quickest dispatch any ship has ever had in Santos, so the captain is very pleased. We have two men in hospital and three have run away. The steward is in hospital and his boy has run away so they made me steward and a boy to help me. I had to cook for 15 persons aft and forrard so I had a terribly lively time of it.
The boy could not cook much so I had to do it all. I daresay you think I could not do it but I did. I used my own judgement and got on very well. I had to cook soup, roast a joint and potatoes for aft and sometimes pastry and pancakes and hash for the men's breakfast; soup and meat for their dinner and something for tea aft. I had to make and cook all these things myself and they said I had done awfully well indeed and the captain is very particular and always having other captains for dinner and tea.
We had a jolly lively time of it here. We are laying four miles down river from Santos; it is among the mountains and it is all forest. There are a few soldiers camping here and they are all negroes except the officers. We went down last night and played a concertina and tin whistle we had with us and it pleased the soldiers and they danced and shouted like mad and the officers, a major and captain, came out of their tents and asked us to sing some English hymns. They joined in and brought us cigars and port wine.
After we left the officers we went out to the soldiers and started them shouting and singing and dancing like mad. They put a long sword with a belt and everything on me and a helmet and started carrying me round the square. After a time we made a move to the ship and the soldiers ran after us with a bottle of claret from the officers; then they all shook hands and gave us some cheers because we had given them such a lively time.
On board they wondered what all the row was about and thought it was got up by me and Dan, the boy; but they made for the claret all right. I am good friends with all ashore now and get a warm welcome from the soldiers. There have been a few accidents here lately; we had a man fall overboard but was saved. There was a collision between a sailing ship and a big steamer which had her side stoved in although she did not sink. Also a big Italian steamboat caught fire and was burnt to the water's edge.
The fact that my grandfather had a shock of red hair seems to have attracted the attention of the soldiers.
His notes also record a voyage from London to Santos in 54 days and then being held off Cape Horn for nine weeks by storms; they took on provisions at Tome in Chile and sailed north to Portland, Oregon. For three weeks the Dunard was off the American coast before being blown south again. It seems the vessel's masts had been sighted before she was blown south and in all that voyage lasted seven months, which he noted was reputed to be the second longest passage under sail.
The Dunard was a barque of 734 tons with a crew of 22; a master, two mates, carpenter, sailmaker, steward, cook, bosun, eleven ABs, two apprentices and one boy. My grandfather recounted some of the horrors of the Horn with yardarms almost touching the waves; seeing an accompanying vessel overwhelmed by the seas; the chilling cold; flooded cabins and soaking bedding; and poor rations which were often supplemented by fishing expeditions through the main cabin skylight to hook the captain's tinned butter and marmalade; the inevitable punishment when caught was a trip to the masthead, irrespective of the weather conditions.
On calmer days when the vessel was no more than idling he writes of seeing strange creatures on the surface, something he never saw once he moved to steamships.
In a letter to his mother, dated Sunday, October 21, 1894, he wrote:
We have had a very cold, stormy passage from Santos; we have been six weeks off the Horn and for most of that time have been hove to under a main lower topsail. I am still for the sea in spite of all the rough weather, rows and other hardships. I have been through a lot, being turned out of my bunk, in my watch below, to go and make the fore topsail fast and it freezing and snowing and the wind and sea roaring like thunder. In my watch on deck I have to spend four hours in any weather. It is four hours on deck and four hours below night and day from the beginning of a passage to the end. Then you are not sure of your four hours below and the half-deck (the house) is floating in water all the time and our beds and bunks are soaking wet too.
Many of the letters contain requests for more old clothing; more cash and more letters from home. The old clothes could be all colours of the rainbow as he was only bothered about what he wore when ashore.
There was always uncertainty about when the vessel would next return to Great Britain. Off Tome my grandfather wrote that they had orders for Astoria to load lumber but they were uncertain of where the wood was to be delivered; he thought it could well be another year before he was home again. From Tome he requested that his brother obtain and send him some stout hooks and line as the fishing was very good.
However, from Astoria the Dunard made a winter passage round the Horn and after calling at Sligo docked at Cardiff; so my grandfather was able to get home to London to replenish his wardrobe and larder.
After a spell at home he grew restless and made another passage to Santos from where he wrote:
We have arrived at last, 55 days out of Cardiff, one more day than last time and neither of them very smart passages. We are lying at the bar so I cannot tell you if anything has changed in Santos. I could not write much at Cardiff as the coal dust was one inch thick all over the show. I did not unpack for a week and slept on my chest. The cake and biscuits lasted two days. Percy brought some tinned meat, milk and mustard so we had enough to last the passage. The mates are not too bad; the chief mate is a bit of a prig but the second mate is jolly nice and gets up to all sorts of devilment; very young and only just out of his time.
From Santos the Dunard sailed for Rockingham, taking on ballast at a very pretty little place about five miles clear of Santos.
After arrival at Fremantle the Dunard had to be towed the nine miles up river to Rockingham. Before leaving South America fever had broken out and the ship's boy had died and all but two of the crew deserted; in Western Australia gold fever emptied the ship and another crew had to be found.
For two months the ship lay at Rockingham, discharging the ballast and taking on cargo; my grandfather in his last letter as an apprentice observed that he had to keep the crew's wages to stop them getting drunk; had to work long hours and needed four hands to pull the boat as Rockingham was a very windy place.
After a passage of nearly four months the Dunard docked at London in the late summer of 1896. Here my grandfather joined a sister ship, the Duncarn, sailing to Hamburg, then Calcutta, back across the Atlantic to New York and thence to Java, a voyage lasting 126 days.
I can find no trace of a ship by the name of Duncarn and believe this is a transcription error with the correct name being Dunearn. This was certainly a ship managed by James Dunn & Sons and indeed another steel 3-masted sailing barque completed by Russell & Co. at Port Glasgow in 1894. This vessel sailed from Newcastle NSW on 16 July 1910 bound for Valparaiso but went missing with the loss of the entire crew.
In 1898 my grandfather passed for second mate and in January, 1899, he joined the British India Steam Navigation Co; so making his transition from sail to steam. He passed for his square-rigged Master's certificate in August, 1902; in his own words, proving his seamanship in front of two crusty old seadogs, navigating his pepperpot to a safe harbour under a musty old ledger.
My grandfather's first appointment as a young fourth officer in the British India Steam Navigation Company was to the Clyde built steamship Puralia, making the first of many voyages from the sub-continent to the Gulf and Zanzibar. He remained with British India until 1936 when he retired; a period of service only broken by time in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Great War.
Later in 1899 he was appointed third officer to another Inglis-built vessel, the Pentakota. Having passed his first mate's examination he was then appointed second officer in the Secunda and took part in that vessel's sole trooping voyage to South Africa carrying troops destined for the Boer War. During the first year of the century he served aboard the Byculla, engaged in carrying teak logs from Burma, and the veteran clipper bowed Assyria, a vessel built by Simons & Co. at Renfrew six years before he was born.
In 1902 he was appointed to the modern, 5,000 ton Ikhona and made voyages to Japan and Australia. Fortunately he was not aboard the ship when she was sunk in error by the Russian cruiser Terek in 1905 while on passage from Burma to Japan (it would be another five years before BI received compensation from the Russian authorities). While on the Ikhona he wrote in August 1902, describing his master's examinations:
I have been awfully busy passing for masters. The exam lasted four days and I had to appear before two old seadogs for seamanship. A model ship under full sail was placed on a table, which represented the sea; some books the land and an inkpot a rock. It was quite exciting manoeuvring round the inkpot and trying to keep off the books. For one question they placed the ship in the centre of the `sea' and told me it was blowing a gale, my ship was dismasted and without a rudder and I was to take her safely into port. To tell the truth I wish it had been blowing a gale for in reality it was getting pretty warm. Anyway I got safely into port, or rather under the shelter of a musty old ledger, and was rather pleased with myself when told I had passed.
In December he sent home a photograph of twelve Government elephants on the deck of the Ikhona on passage from Calcutta to Rangoon. On arrival one seven-ton elephant refused to trust the planks and after a great deal of persuasion and force had to be slung out by the fifty-ton derrick in a very undignified position. That month the vessel was again chartered by the Government for a trooping run to Somaliland and carried two field batteries, four hospital units, 200 mules and 1,000 officers and men.
In 1903 he came ashore for a period on the staff at Bombay but before coming ashore two voyages were made to the Gulf, to Shargia and Dubai; two ports on the Oman coast, known then as the Pirate Coast. At one the Sheik of Dubai came aboard with twenty-five fierce looking Arabs who looked as though they would have liked to loot the ship. To quote:
Our steamer was the first steam vessel to visit Shargia and the locals were quite interested. When they boarded the vessel I was smoking a pipe and it seemed to afford them a considerable amount of amusement. Anyway, I gladdened the heart of their chief by presenting him with a briar pipe. Some of their swords and daggers must have been worth a lot of money as the scabbards were all silver and gold and beautifully carved. It appears these are passed down from generation to generation.
Shargia was a good size town although the buildings were in a state of ruin. During our stay the Sheik with 5,000 men went out to fight the Bedawe Arabs who were advancing on the town. We were told the Bedawe often made raids on the coastal towns and looted all the houses. "There are no European residents in either Shargia or Dubai; the only link with the civilised world being occasional visits by native craft called `bugalows'. We were treated very well although our captain was scared that we might get into trouble so were not allowed to go ashore very often.
My grandfather had no love of office life, describing his time in the marine superintendent's department thus:
...the hours are 10 to 4.00 but by 1pm I am covered in ink and the wastepaper basket is overflowing. As a clerk I am a miserable failure.
Back at sea during the middle watch on the night of April 21st, 1903, his short career could have ended rather abruptly with a grounding on Kais Island in the Persian Gulf.
The poor old Chindwara nearly became a wreck. At midnight I took over charge of the ship. It was raining hard and blowing like fury. At 2.30am a sudden flash of lightening lit the land close to on the port hand. Of course I gave the necessary orders to keep her clear but her stern struck the beach as she was coming round. Luckily she only remained fast a few seconds but the shock woke everyone up and there was a great deal of excitement. A tremendous sea was running and had she remained fast the morning would have found her a total wreck. I shall give the explanation to the court of inquiry but they cannot blame me in any way, even if she had been lost. It was caused by an extraordinary set of circumstances; it was impossible to see the land, or get any warning of its proximity or hear the breakers until we were right among them.
By June the court had sat and had delivered its verdict. My grandfather was honourably acquitted and the accident was put down to the storm and the "extraordinary set of circumstances".
By November 1903, he was serving as second officer aboard the mail ship Dwarka on the Bombay-Karachi mail run; in a letter home dated November 10th he commented that Karachi and Bombay were splendid ports for boat sailing. He goes on:
I have got a fine two-masted boat and in the evening when it gets cool I take four or five men for a crew and go out sailing. Sometimes another officer will take out a boat and give me a race. My boat is not much good in a light breeze but with a strong wind blowing it is glorious and she can overtake everything in the harbour.
Life on the Dwarka would seem to have been very social and the officers were able to indulge in sailing, riding and other pastimes; sometimes these dragged on far into the night and after one such party my rather sleepy grandfather and equally sleepy horse set off under a moonless sky to return to Karachi. The next thing he knew was to find himself and the horse stretched on the road, having collided with a ghostly looking camel, which seemed to relish the confusion it had caused. Neither horse or rider was hurt but neither fell asleep again for the remainder of the journey.
Early in 1904 my grandfather received an urgent message to join another ship bound for Zanzibar and the Cape but, rushing aboard, he found she did not sail for a week so, not being keen on revisiting these ports, he managed to persuade the marine superintendent to let him stay aboard Dwarka. He remained on the ship until the middle of 1904, commenting that as the ship was fairly small, in severe weather there was very little to see but the masts and funnel.
July 29th, 1904, found him aboard the Fultala at Port Said homeward bound by way of Trieste, Venice and Liverpool to London. The return voyage to India was by way of Java and Australia ports.
In 1905 he was promoted to chief officer and in this rank served aboard the Fultala, Itola, Elephanta, Malda and Queda which was the first of a trio of turret deck steamers, the largest ever constructed by Doxfords, of Sunderland. The submarine-like hull reduced the deck area and thereby reduced Suez Canal dues; the vessels were the bulk carriers of their day and seem to have had a reputation as good sea boats and rather more so than Malda. On one passage from Calcutta to Chittagong she ran into a cyclone which was so bad it was thought the vessel was going to founder; waves towered over the ship; awnings were ripped away, boats were wrenched off their davits and the bridge reduced to matchwood; water poured through the shattered skylights and tumbled all the furniture into a mess of confusion. At one point a massive sea smashed in the hatches covering the hold and at this point an Indian deck passenger was swept overboard and lost. However, after this the weather improved and the Malda reached her destination only slightly behind schedule.
In 1907 my grandfather joined the Royal Navy Reserve and made one cruise in the cruiser Caernarvon. In 1909 he was married and was appointed to command the two-funnelled paddle steamer Amarapoora that had been built in 1882 in the Government Dockyard, Bombay; for twenty three years she served as HMS Tigris but was bought by British India to serve along the Burmese coast and on ferry runs between Rangoon and ports on the Irrawaddy. During this time my grandparents lived in the Mergui Archipelago in bungalows built on stilts to provide protection from the monsoon floods; there was also a need to employ Chinese guards for protection from robbers, and a mongoose for protection against snakes.
The archipelago of over eight hundred islands fascinated my grandfather and his trips in his little paddle steamer allowed him plenty of time to study and explore, using the launch to survey the inland waterways and making a comprehensive sketch map of the region. The Amarapoora was well suited to weave a way through the maze of sandbanks and mangrove swamps before reaching the deeper water surrounding the islands. A typical voyage would be through the sandbank and rock-infested passage to lie off the fishing village of Kamaw until the tide rose; then on to Bokpyn, described in notes as being one of the hardest places on the run to navigate for the channel twisted in and out and off the village there was little or no room to turn, especially on a flood tide.
From Bokpyn the Amarapoora headed towards Karathuri passing many small islands and high rocks of marble and over the Carnac crossing with its reefs and sandbanks to the Karathuri River; here the small paddle steamer could only steam five miles up the river to rendezvous with the small boats which had come six miles downriver from the town. For those with no reference book, Amarapoora was only some 192 gross, 99 net. Woody Island was the next point of call where the vessel anchored to await daylight to make the passage in between the reefs towards Victoria Point; at the first streak of dawn the anchor was raised and the Amarapoora threaded her way between long, low, ragged reefs and islands to come round into what my grandfather described as the pretty little harbour of the town of Victoria Point; surrounded by low hills and Palui trees with the mountains of Siam, "a scene of much grandeur", on the other side of the waters.
Victoria Point was about eight hours steaming from Karathuri and nearby islands of St Mathew and St Luke formed a magnificent harbour deep enough for the largest of ships; four large Japanese cruisers hid there during the war with Russia to watch the passing of the Baltic Fleet.
After Victoria Point the last port of call was up the Bakchan River to Maliwun; again the vessel could only get to within five miles of the town to where the river narrowed. Once loading and unloading was completed the Amarapoora followed a similar course back to Mergui. After a day in port the ship set out up to the north to Palaw; another town situated six miles up a river full of tortuous bends and rocks and with a tide like a millrace. After this trip the ship returned to Mergui and had six long days of rest when all the excitement and troubles of the voyage could be forgotten.
Owing to numerous sandbanks the vessel's departure had to be regulated by the tides and so at times she had to navigate the most difficult parts at night in order to keep up time and ensure the Royal Mail was delivered on time. If fortunate to have a fine night, with a moon:
..... it was like sailing in a fairy sea but on a dark, rainy nights it gave enough excitement to make everyone feel alive.
Although Amarapoora followed much the same schedule at regular intervals there was time for visits to the more remote areas of the archipelago and to more isolated islands such as Quoin where attempts were being made to breed pearl oysters; at the time this was being kept a great secret.
This way of life continued until the war clouds gathered over Europe in 1914. My grandfather was then on leave and on mobilisation of the fleet he was appointed as lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve to the London class battleship Bulwark.
Although appointed to the battleship Bulwark, my grandfather was not aboard at the Spithead Review, having opted for leave rather than the cost of a new set of "whites". This was to save his life as he was not aboard the vessel when she was blown up by a massive explosion, still unexplained, at Sheerness. A distant relative of my wife was a midshipman on the ship and died in the blast.
His next appointment was to the White Star liner Oceanic or, more correctly, HM Armed Merchant Cruiser Oceanic. This vessel, displacing over 30,000 tons, had been built by Harland & Wolff and launched in January, 1899; she was more strongly constructed than the Titanic but was an elegant and expensively furnished vessel which outstripped other liners on the North Atlantic run at the time of her maiden voyage from Liverpool.
By 1914 the Oceanic's home port was Southampton and it was there that she was taken over by the Royal Navy and transformed from an RMS to an HMS; at the same time the bulk of her peacetime crew were absorbed into the Royal Naval Reserve, into ranks below their Merchant Navy equivalent and answerable to men with less experience than themselves.
In the case of the Oceanic, her master, Capt Henry Smith, became a commander, RNR, and remained aboard the vessel to assist the new captain, William Slayter, RN. In essence there were two crews, one White Star and the other Royal Navy, and into this less than ideal situation came the probable sole British India representative, my grandfather, Vivian Lockyer Wiles.
After a less than satisfactory working-up period the Oceanic was dispatched north to patrol the waters between the Scottish mainland and Iceland.
Arriving at Scapa Flow the vessel still had what could best be described as two crews serving two captains; neither very keen on the other's methods; the Merchant Navy crew being more used to getting on with the work in hand than all the formality of the Royal Navy.
During her short naval career the ship managed a courtesy call to Iceland, a far cry from the Burmese islands; to fire a shot across the bows of a sleepy coaster and capture a German civilian on a sailing ship. At Lerwick the ship took on a contingent of Shetland fishermen, bringing the complement up to 600, and it was from this port that the Oceanic set out on her last voyage; a patrol to Fair Isle.
One of my grandfather's shipmates was Herbert Lightoller, senior surviving officer of the Titanic and on the last voyage it was Lightoller who handed over the watch to my grandfather. At this point the vessel should have been heading for a point well south of Foula, with its treacherous reefs and fast running tides; a course plotted by the ship's navigator, a captain, RN, although it seems no one was happy that the exact position had been plotted correctly and further confusion was caused by fog during the night.
So it was that suddenly Foula was dead ahead and not over 10 miles away as the chart showed. Orders were issued by Smith, the White Star captain, and then countermanded by Slayter, the Royal Navy captain, to avoid the island which, in the misty visibility, was calculated to be four or five miles away.
Unfortunately the change in course was too late and the elegant Oceanic ploughed her way onto the reef known as the Shaalds and there she stuck. Attempts to pull the vessel free by the cruiser Forward and trawler Glenogil failed and the vessel had to be abandoned; fortunately with no loss of life and no doubt to the amusement of the German prisoner released from the brig.
For nearly a month the Oceanic remained on the reef while further attempts were made to free her by the salvage vessel Lyons; then, on September 29, a severe storm blew up and within 24 hours there was no sign of the Oceanic above the surface. Slayter, Smith and the navigator, Blair, were court martialled but only the navigator was given a minor reprimand.
Between the loss of the Oceanic and his appointment as lieutenant and flight observer on the first fleet carrier, HMS Campania, my grandfather's career is a trifle obscure but according to Admiralty records he was appointed to a sloop, HMS Rinaldo, and his own notes record the taking of a German prize, the Itim.
In February, 1915, he joined the Campania at Birkenhead where the vessel was undergoing one of her many modifications to improve her flying and kite ballooning operations. Lightoller was also appointed to the Campania in a similar role.
Like the Oceanic, the Campania was an Atlantic liner, built for Cunard, and for two years she held the coveted Blue Riband. However, before the Great War was declared the vessel had been withdrawn from service and sold for scrap. Originally the Admiralty planned to use her as an armed merchant cruiser but it was then decided to convert the ship into a combined seaplane carrier and kite balloon ship.
This work was carried out by Cammell Laird at Birkenhead and although a hangar and launching platform were built extending from bridge to bow the original two-funnel outline remained. My grandfather joined the Campania in her original state and while she was still in dockyard hands; the one advantage was that he was joined by my grandmother who rented a house in Birkenhead until the ship was commissioned.
Operating with the fleet out of Scapa Flow, various defects and limitations came to light and although the crew proved very adaptable the ship was returned to Cammell Lairds late in 1915. It would seem that the crew under a captain who could also fly, Oliver Schwann (later Swann) set to enthusiastically to get their ugly duckling as efficient as possible; funnels were juggled about; flight decks lengthened; angles increased; hangars opened up; and improved facilities for balloons were installed to facilitate raising and towing.
Consequently a very different ship emerged into the Mersey and sailed to rejoin the Grand Fleet in April, 1916, the most noticeable feature being three funnels; the original aftermost funnel and two slimmer funnels in place of the original forward funnel, joined together by a long narrow bridge standing above a lengthened flight deck.
Photographs in my grandfather's collection show kite balloons being inflated, being raised, with White Ensign, and being towed; deck sports; coaling; aircraft parked in their hangar, being serviced, taking off, being recovered, sometimes whole, sometimes not, by fairly basic booms and getting some towed help from the ship's oared boats. Some pictures were taken from the air and show units of the fleet at anchor in Scapa Flow or at sea on exercise.
In February, 1916, my grandfather was promoted and became the Campania's second in command and executive officer, a post he held until late 1917. Much of the time was spent on anti-submarine patrols and when at Scapa Flow the Campania anchored near the small seaplane base and as this was away from the main anchorage the signals for leaving harbour before Jutland were missed. When it was found that the Fleet had sailed, the Campania tried to catch up but Jellico feared that the vessel sailing on her own was too prime a target for the U-boats and ordered a return to Scapa Flow. As a result, an oversight deprived the ship from the role for which she had been created.
Swann was keen to prove the vessel's worth and proposed that the Campania and her escorts should make a sweep down the North Sea to surprise raiding Zeppelins and attack their bases. This initiative was turned down by Beatty.
Despite the harsh conditions at Scapa Flow, where the kite balloons were liable to escape when the cables snapped, or burst into flames in thunderstorms, there was time for boat racing, deck sports and picnics on shore. One of the more unpleasant tasks was to coal ship, a task from which only the captain was excused, although my grandfather was considered to be pretty efficient in this department.
Once the Campania experienced a dangerous fire in a storeroom and smoke and flames poured through shafts separating the magazine from the balloon deck with its highly inflammable gas; although on patrol at the time the fire was put out by dawn, my grandfather deciding to use water rather than attempting to smother the flames in case the dividing bulkheads became red hot and ignited the magazine.
My grandfather had a great deal of respect for Jellico and there seems to have been no doubt that Jellico encouraged Swann to expand and experiment with this "new" vessel as long as he was Commander in Chief at Scapa Flow. Swann left the Campania towards the end of 1917 followed by my grandfather who went south to take temporary command of HMS Riviera.
The Campania survived the war but during a gale in the Firth of Forth she dragged her anchor and collided with both the Royal Oak and the Glorious; she was holed, foundered and sank.
Involvement with seaplanes must have added a further ingredient to the salt already in my grandfather's veins as he volunteered for the planned first flight across the North Atlantic but, like many others with young families, he was not accepted.
Before the war the Riviera operated as a cross-Channel packet for the South Eastern & Chatham Railway; in 1914 she was acquired by the Admiralty and converted at the Naval Dockyard, Chatham, from a passenger to a seaplane carrier. The ship was initially stationed at Harwich, underwent further modifications on the Mersey and was then stationed at Dover, Dunkirk and Falmouth. My grandfather had only a brief spell on the Riviera and we have a letter, postmarked 2pm, March 1, 1918, describing a voyage down the English Channel. It seems that the ship had been idle for some time and was in poor condition, with a badly set compass and no way of telling her speed. The weather was also very stormy as the letter describes:
I have just turned out after sleeping the clock round and now feel myself again. At 6am on Wednesday morning I went on the bridge and did not leave it for 28 hours, during which time I was fairly soaked with salt spray. It did blow and she was very lively; fortunately I did not feel a bit sick but nearly everyone else was down. To tell the truth, I rather enjoyed it. I took the ship into Penzance and out again, round Land's End and up into the Bristol Channel where it was as thick as a hedge. I feel that I made good, especially as no one knew her speed or the condition of the compasses after such a long spell of idleness.
We did not get through without a little excitement and at one time we were within a few seconds of going; I only had time to swing the helm over; and again on two other occasions it was a very near thing.
In early 1918 the Riviera moved to the Mediterranean; she survived both world wars and was not scrapped until 1957 having spent the remainder of her civilian life on the north Irish Sea. There were no warm seas for my grandfather, however; he was appointed to command the kite balloon ship Canning at Scapa Flow, taking up command on June 13, 1918.
The Canning was a 5,500-ton steamer purchased from the Liverpool, Brazil & River Plate Steam Navigation Co. As well as the Liverpool connection with the name the ship was also converted at Birkenhead. For the early part of her career she was stationed in the Mediterranean and used her balloons in action during the Gallipoli campaign. She then returned to the Mersey and was converted to a balloon depot ship and was then stationed at Scapa Flow, attached to the seaplane and balloon station at Houton.
The Canning was the Royal Flying Corps depot ship and carried a very mixed crew; Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Navy, Marines and Royal Air Force officers and airmen. She was an ungainly vessel which caused some to have minor palpitations, as the following letter recounts:
I am now safely alongside the Cyclops and both the Admiral (Prendergast) and the captain are very worried. I made my number and they said as soon as your windlass is out, captain, you must go away.
Yes sir, but where and what am I to do?
Captain of Cyclops. 'Let go your anchor.'
Captain of Canning: 'Without a windlass, sir?'
(Collapse of Cyclop's captain).
Admiral J will not have such a large ship alongside. 'Why, you are as big as we are and if it comes on to blow what are we to do?'
You do not need to worry, sir. I do not want to remain alongside. Give me a buoy and I will look after my own ship.
They may be admirals and captains but I give way to no one when it comes to seamanship. They were both very nervous. I came alongside beautifully in spite of the narrow passage and large amount of shipping. When I got alongside they asked me to line the ship bow to stern. There was only just room but I did it and I realise they knew it was a good bit of seamanship.
I am not blowing my own trumpet but I feel rather sore at the way Canning is treated as she is no joke; she is a big ship, one screw and very little power.
In fact it would seem that there were many problems over refitting, whether it would be Liverpool or Invergordon or somewhere else. As was the case with the Riviera, there was no news about how long the refit would be. Then a furious rush to get ready to pay-off and report to the Admiralty.
Because of her size the Canning could pose problems when Scapa Flow was swept by severe gales but she was a haven when returning from leave and being met by the ship's motorboat. The Canning remained with the Grand Fleet until mid-1919 and was one of the guardships controlling the interned German fleet, some of the German captains being required to report to my grandfather daily. However, she had sailed before the High Seas Fleet was scuttled.
This period brought the observation:
I never thought that we would be interned along with the Huns, but it seems we are quite forgotten. We might as well be anchored in Plymouth Sound. It is blowing hard again.
At the end of the war the Canning was in a squadron consisting of the Shannon, Vindictive and flagship Minotour. She had been inflating and maintaining balloons so effectively and efficiently for other warships that she was to be the last balloon ship in the Royal Navy. In early 1919 she underwent a thorough survey and was expected to be in dock for four to eight weeks.
When my grandfather left her he was given a silver cigarette box inscribed: "To Lieut-Commander Wiles, RNR. A jolly good fellow whom we shall all miss; good luck and the very best of wishes from his officers, HMS Canning, 2.4.19."
In January his Admiral had said that he would write a personal letter to British India's chairman, Lord Inchcape, telling him about his valuable services during the war. My grandfather hoped that Inchcape would give him a nice shore appointment! After leave my grandfather left England and sailed to India aboard the Chyebassa, a British India cargo ship which had been torpedoed during the war but survived. In 1920 the Canning also left the cold waters of Northern Europe and ended her days tramping for a Greek company.
By August, 1919, my grandfather was in command of the Fazilka, a vessel remembered from her days trooping during the Boer War when her propeller shaft broke and she was sailed home to Ceylon. She had been given up as lost and took 48 days to reach Colombo from the Cape.
On October 31 the vessel ran aground on Great Nicobar Island en route from Penang to Calcutta; there were some odd tales about some of the crew involved in skulduggery and gold bullion but in that same month he was back in command of the turret deck steamer Quedda.
In April, 1920, he was taken ill and had to go into hospital but he made a further voyage with the Quedda to Bombay and then came ashore to become cargo superintendent, first at Bombay and then Calcutta. He remained ashore, becoming acting marine superintendent at Bombay; deputy at Calcutta in 1928; marine superintendent at Rangoon and then Bombay in May, 1929.
I can find no record of a ship named Quedda but there was a BI ship named Quetta and this is likely to be a transcription error.
However, at this point he had a difference of opinion with Inchcape, still the redoubtable chairman of Bl, over a ship; the fact that he was right and Inchcape wrong didn't help and he was "banished" to be marine superintendent at Colombo from September, 1929; a posting which he and the family very much enjoyed and probably stopped him from killing himself with overwork.
In 1936 my grandfather retired after a life at sea of over 40 years; a time that embraced great changes from sail to steam and saw the transition from the power of the heavy battleship to that of the aircraft.
- By courtesy of Allan C. Green - State Library of Victoria - Allan C. Green collection of glass negatives.
- By courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
- By courtesy of the A.J. Smythe Collection
- By courtesy of the P & O Collection
- Source unknown
- By courtesy of the Imperial War Museum - image in the public domain
- By courtesy of World Aircraft Carriers List
- By courtesy of the South Australian Maritime Museum
- By courtesy of the State Library of Queensland
- By courtesy of Illustrated London News