National Geographic : 1952 Apr
Portsmouth, Britannia's Sally Port From King Alfred to the New Queen Elizabeth, British Fleets Have Fared Forth from This Citadel of Sea Power BY THOMAS GARNER JAMES With Illustrations by National Geographic PhotographerB. Anthony Stewart OUR ex-troopship, eight days out of New York, bore no resemblance to the Narcissus of Joseph Conrad. But as I stood on the wet deck in the half-dawn of that first postwar spring and watched the dark landfall ride over the rim of the Eng lish Channel, I thought of his salute to the "mother of fleets and nations." The Britain I was meeting for the first time needed no better introduction than those full rigged phrases of the Anglo-Polish sailor and novelist: "Guarding priceless traditions and untold suffering . . . The great flagship of the race; stronger than the storms! and anchored in the open sea." * All that forenoon we drove up-Channel like a China clipper with fresh tea in her hold; tiny fishing trawlers bounced from our bow wave. Aboard our transport, still in her war paint, were haggard, homesick Britishers newly freed from Japanese prison camps. The Britain I watched passing to port was like our ship, still in battle gray. Every misty headland bore its Lloyd's signal station or radar tower. An aircraft carrier and two destroyers challenged and blinked us by. The sea air was chilly as a sentry. Sea Watchdogs Guard Approaches At the turn southeast of the Isle of Wight we met Britain's reception committee-a phalanx of sea-bed forts and fighting ships. Like uncounted thousands of vessels before us, we followed the tide into Southampton Water by permission of the watchdogs of Spithead and Portsmouth (map, page 515). That was my first sight of salty old Ports mouth, or "Pompey" as the sailors call it, single-minded base for a maritime power whose heart pulses with the beat of the sea. Since then, as if by a whirlpool, I have been drawn back many times by Portsmouth's har bor and history, its fleet and its tides. In six years of seeing this naval base in all moods and weathers, I have come to respect the Royal Navy's steadfastness in "guarding price less traditions" as one of the few reliable beacons left in a storm-tossed world. On the eve of 1952, when the world still had found no peace, I stood with my friends Lt. Col. and Mrs. Harold Wyllie on the windy balcony of their Ship Tyger Flat at the top of Tower House, overhanging the narrow tide-ruffled entrance to Portsmouth Harbour. Within the circle swept by our telescope I could see all the panoply of centuries of sea power contained in one great panorama. Veterans of Korea and Trafalgar Some three miles to the southwest, down the path of the low winter sun, the light fleet aircraft carrier Theseus, not long returned from battle in Korean waters, lay at anchor 'in Spithead. Near by, black against the somber blue of the Isle of Wight's hills, a big new aircraft carrier, H.M.S. Eagle, was practice-catapult ing her first brood of fighters. A few cables farther on swung the carrier Karel Doorman, once H.M.S. Venerable, pur chased from Britain by the Dutch-Britan nia's foe of old, now long a staunch ally. High above us, vapor wakes from invisible jet planes congealed in the icy air. Fifty feet beneath our balcony, seas broke on the stone parapet as a steel-blue submarine, swinging hard over to cross the tide into Haslar Lake, flipped her wash against the base of the tower. At the Royal Dockyard jetty, a pistol shot to leeward of the harbor entrance, the car rier H.M.S. Warrior had been loading troops and supplies for a fast run to Middle East trouble zones a few weeks earlier. There now lay H.M.S. Indomitable, carrier flagship of the Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet. Between us and Indomitable a constant stream of water traffic eddied in the half-mile triangle bounded by the Dockyard, the harbor entrance, and Gosport Hard (page 524). Cross-harbor ferries ran so uninterruptedly that tars and workmen seemed to catch them on the fly, leaping from quay to bobbing boat like pieces of scrap to a moving magnet. Housewives with their shopping baskets were as nimble as the sailors and workmen. Weaving in and out through the commercial traffic, the little boats of the Royal Navy were using the crowded water to teach han dling and discipline. On even the tiniest, *From The Nigger of the Narcissus, by Joseph Conrad, J. M . Dent & Sons, Ltd., London.