Death of the King – the making of the Queen

Laura White
Laura White

By Tony McCrum RN

I was standing in front of his desk wondering why I had been summoned. This was 1951 at the R.N. Signal School and he was my nice boss, Commander Wells.

“You are not to tell anyone what I am about to tell you until I let you know. Understood?”

“Certainly, Sir” I replied. “You will shortly be appointed to the staff of the Flag Officer, Royal Yachts, and will accompany the King and Queen on their forthcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand.”

Crikey. I wasn’t used to moving in such aerated circles. Just a simple country boy from Dartmoor, me. All I could think of was how expensive it would be fitting myself out with all the sartorial paraphernalia – morning dress, tails for dinner ashore, several suits and the all important bowler hat, possibly a top hat. New uniforms, of course.

Next step to join the Royal Yacht, not Britannia. She had not been built. A White Star liner, Gothic, had been hired by the Admiralty and converted into a super yacht. She retained her full Merchant Navy crew and the Royal Navy provided a Royal Marine Band, a Royal Barge and crew, and a team of telegraphists and signalmen and civilian Post Office engineers to maintain long range radio and telephone communications to the Government and Buckingham Palace. These communications were my special responsibility. Also on board were a number of the royal staff, mostly the second eleven, as the top boys would join us with the Royals at the start of the tour.

There were just four naval officers – the Royal Marine Director of Music, a Doctor, a Navigation Specialist and myself as the senior executive RN officer on board. As we sailed away from the UK we were hit by the bad news that the King had lung cancer and could not visit Australia and New Zealand. Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were drafted in as replacements. The plan was for Gothic to sail round the Cape of Good Hope to Mombasa in Kenya where the Royals would embark, having flown out from the UK. This was a shakedown cruise to practise the royal procedures and communications. As we sailed into the Southern Seas we rehearsed Royal Arrivals and Departures in each port we visited. By the time we reached a steaming hot Mombasa we were all up to speed and rearing to go. The Princess and Prince Philip were due on board the next day and then it would be off to Aussie land.

Now a little slice of history. If history bores you, skip the next few paragraphs. At 15:12 on 6th February 1951 I received an emergency signal from the Admiralty in London. “Telephone communications required now between General Browning and Horsley.”

Browning was one of the King’s top officials at Buckingham Palace and Horsley was the senior official accompanying the Princess. I feared the worst. If Horsley had been on board we could have connected him immediately by means of the high-powered telephone transmitter we carried. But he wasn’t, he was up a tree in a Wild Life Park with Princess Elizabeth. How to reach him urgently? Tree Tops was an adjunct of a nearby hotel where you could watch the wildlife in some comfort, but no one had given us the telephone number, as their visit was so short. Did Kenya have Directory Enquiries? Must try the local exchange.

“Can you give me the number of the hotel in the National Wild Life Park?” “Where you say?” “National Wild Life Park, Hotel?” “OK, OK I know. I will check.” After some delay – “Here is number.” Got through to the hotel. “Is Mr. Horsley there?” “No, he is up at Tree Tops.” “Please send a runner quickly and tell him there is an urgent telephone message for him.”

Long delay – then the message from Browning was delivered to him. We heard no more as Horsley presumably made contact with Buckingham Palace through the International Telephone System. Price Philip broke the news to Princess Elizabeth that she was now Queen and next day she flew home Queen Elizabeth II. Thus was the new reign born.

Within 48 hours the naval team was pitched out of Gothic and she was ‘returned to trade’, her brief moment of glory was over and the Admiralty did not want to pay for one more day’s rent than it had to. The team was split up and the communicators and myself were allocated to a cargo ship, which had room for some fifteen passengers. Arriving on board our cargo boat after the luxury of Gothic was a shock. There were no separate officers’ quarters, just one living room and a bar. We did have separate sleeping cabins. In those days officers were completely segregated from the lower mortals and only met on duty. I could hardly sit all day in my sleeping cabin with my meals passed through the door as in a prison cell. So I thought to hell with protocol. I’m just a passenger on a cruise. Muck in together. My communicators didn’t seem to mind.

Thus it was that in a long, tedious journey home, feeling extremely low and depressed, I became one of the gang. We stopped in ports like Port Said and Aden which gave me interesting ‘runs ashore’, rather more intriguing than the officer-like occasions I was used to. One such was in Barcelona. A small group of us did the sights, then had a pleasant meal in a small café to vibrant music. Wine and music always sets me going and I got up and joined a group of dancers in the middle of the floor, mostly Spaniards dancing a fiery flamenco, and proceeded to perform what I thought was a truly dramatic dance.

After a while I realised I was the only male left on the floor, dancing with a young, dark Spanish girl. There we were happily twirling around and thumping our thighs and stamping our feet in what I supposed was an excellent rendition of the Spanish dance with the spectators clapping in rhythm to the music.

Suddenly one of my sailors tapped me on the shoulder and whispered “Your partner’s boyfriend has a knife and he is reputed to be very jealous. I think we should leave.” I turned round to see a scowling young Spaniard looking daggers at me. I smiled weakly at him, bowed to my partner and mumbled “Buenas sierra” and headed for the door with my gang behind me as a protective screen. How they all laughed at me when we got safely away.
From glory to the gutter, you might say.

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