The Gunners Red Flag

"Hat's Off" to the Royal Navy at their Charity Open Day at H.M.S. Cambridge, Wembury, in The South Hams, near Plymouth

On Thursday 23rd. July 1998, an open day of education and fun was arranged by the Commanding Officer of HMS Cambridge, Commander James Donaldson R.N. All proceeds were in aid of the Dame Hannah Rogers School for physically disabled children at Ivybridge near Plymouth, Devon, UK.

HMS Cambridge is a Naval Gunnery School that has been having "Target Practice Seawards" since 1940. It is one of the rare places in the UK where real guns shoot real bullets...or rather "rounds" as they are a teeny bit big out at targets at sea, or towed by special aircraft. Located in the glorious South Hams at Wembury Point on the South Devon Coastline...it is beautiful. When the red flag is flying, it is a no go area as the thunder of naval gunnery tells the casual visitor that "keep out" as in a "keep out" sign, really means it! However this is only for a small fraction of the time, and is well publicised locally. When the flag is down, the falling tide revealed a child's wonderland of mysterious rock pools and sandy coves that await young toes and unspoilt sand beckons a young mind's imagination of castles and caves, islands and moats....of sand. This coast is a marine conservation area, there being an educational facility at close by Wembury Beach, not to mention a decent ice cream, topped with clotted cream, and a cup of tea...this is England! Rock pools team with a myriad of species, blennies, mullet fry, wrasse, crabs, prawns and more. Despite an army of young folks, most are now young scientists, armed with an armoury of nets and buckets they advance close on the hells of the dropping tide, not to plunder but to study. Specimens are captured, carefully so as not to harm them, studied, even touched and stroked....only a child would want to stroke or cuddle a crab, and then carefully returned. It is good that such young minds are so conservation minded. Wembury is unbeatable for educating a young mind as to what secrets hide beneath a flowing tide.

An uninhabited island, The Mewstone is situated close off shore, separated by a rocky reef that all but dries, save for a deep channel on spring lows...The SLIMERS!!! what a name for a child to conjure with. Wembury is well served with buses and on a summer day is a jewel of crystal sea and azure sky, in winter, romance and mystery mix with the crash of a breaker and the call of a gull.

Today the red flag flies! And good it is too! Boom, Boom, Boom, go the guns as children and quite a few adults take time to learn a little of the RN today and raise money for charity. Many people object to the vast sums of money spend by the military. However until the world is completely safe, to me it is money well spent. To see young men and women being so proud of their work in an age when youth is more oft than not associated with vandalism is to me a privilege. Apart from anything else the Navy have an active conservation policy and the fact that the public have somewhat restricted access, does give nature....a chance. Perhaps if the navy were not here, some building speculator would have developed the site. Today we see the military and the National Trust working together with common purpose to ensure that an area of outstanding natural beauty stays just that.

The show started with a display by a Lynx helicopter flying display, with a glorious island backdrop, Royal Marines descended from ropes (fast roping) at lightening speed; shall we say that this was indeed a rather windy display. Youngsters scratch their head at all this technical stuff as they are taught not what was once the art of making war, but what has now become the art of keeping the peace.

3pm. was going to be "BANG" time, or perhaps "rather large smokey BOOM time" as naval staff proceeded to give out ear defenders to a LOT of people standing a big queue. This was to comply with Heath and Safety regulations for those who wanted to get really close...like me! Walking past the naval school of HMS Cossack, which trains the skills of searching and boarding vessels, so vital in these days of fishery protection and arms and drug prevention,...a visitor adjusts his rather tight fitting ear defenders. Others further back held hands over ears! Just before "live gunnery " an RN type explained what was going to happen. All these military open days are tremendously well organised, this being no exception.

I do not know about a "room with a view", but this is a "gun with a view!"

THEN "BOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!

as a 4.5 inch naval gun propelled a shell to a towed sea borne target over 7 miles out at sea. The shell is in the air for 28 seconds before hitting (hopefully) the target and each round costs 642, but that does include VAT at 17.5%! To me a small price for peace and international stability. Even with the ear defenders on you would not miss the boom as 4 rounds went seawards, lots of smoke, but the smell.......that really is something, one RN type looked at me sniffing...as you do, and said "Cordite." What I found intriguing was that after the firing and the crowd began to disperse..that shell was still flying through the air. Targets are towed behind ( a long way behind) boats and are like little ski boats. This is a complete round, the Gunner is wearing cotton anti flash protection to ensure his face and arms are not burnt by the discharge. This round is a RAM round used for testing the guns mechanisms. After firing the spent cartridge case is automatically ejected on to a bed of rope mats.. This is a complete dummy round.

This is the "Ready Use" Magazine,  while here we see the positions of the smaller calibre guns - see "Rat, Tat......." see below.

THEN "RAT, TAT, TAT.....RAT, TAT, TAT, RAT!"

as close range guns of 20mm and 30mm "Gambo" guns open up on aerial targets towed 5,000 metres behind a twin engined plane. Other guns found targets not very far out at sea and the splashes were easy to see as the rounds found their marks. Later on parachute flares were fired to provide close in aerial targets. These rounds cost 32 for a 20mm and 60 for the 30mm. These guns occupy what is best described as a sunny terrace that would suit many a sun worshipper....what goes on here after duty, I wonder? Or is it not allowed....officially?

These 3 inch rocket launchers are now part of Cambridge's history as they are no longer used. Originally they fired 3 inch anti missile "seduction" rockets....that would produce a large cloud of metallic strips "chaff " in order to fool the homing radars of attacking missiles. As I like fireworks I could not but think of their scope as star shell mortars...better than cardboard tubes! Locals tell me that the main reason they stopped was due to prevailing on shore winds blowing the metallic cloud back over land......and spoiling their washing???? Similarly these somewhat more modern rocket decoy systems see little use....I believe one of them is called "Barricade" and the other "Sea Gnat" but I am a little unsure as to which is which.

So the balmy afternoon passed, police dogs displayed, children had their faces painted with camo cream, the local Plymouth Lifeboat did a search and rescue display in teamwork with a sea king helicopter from HMS Culdrose. , the Royal Naval Cadet Field Gun Team did a "run", the Royal Marines rescued some "hostages"....all over tea and cakes....simply splendid. How much did it cost to enter I hear you say....you will never believe it, just the cost of an Official Programme, you'll have to click on this link to find out!!  

N.B. Must not forget the Bouncy Castle, surely now a intrinsic part of a British sunny summer afternoon along with the smell of freshly trampled grass.

P.S. Some years ago I had a friend who had a little girl, Rachel was her name. To help her with her written work at school I taught her a one worded poem. Being a fan of history and black comedy, there was a comedy programme called " Blackadder" set in World War One. Army Captain Edmund Blackadder had a sad and thick companion called "Private Baldrick." Just before "the final push" Baldrick wrote this poem, funny, sad but true, it really says it all. With correct inflexion in it's speaking, never before has one word said so much across the years.

THE GERMAN GUNS

"Boom, boom, boom, ...BOOM, BOOM, BOOM,...BOOM, BOOM,BOOM,.......BOOM, BOOM, boom, boom,...boom, boom, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM,.boom, boom..boom, boom,..boom, boom"

Her teacher was impressed!

POSTSCRIPT: YEAR 2002: HMS CAMBRIDGE CLOSING...(ALL BUT CLOSED ALREADY), NO MORE LIVE GUNNERY, ALL DONE AT SEA, OR IN A SIMULATOR.

R.I.P. HMS CAMBRIDGE AT WEMBURY

NB: SMALL RADAR STATION MAY REMAIN

 

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