Finding George on Portsmouth’s Naval Memorial

Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Southsea CommonA recent visit to Portsmouth necessitated a walk along the seafront – really, it has to be done – and a visit to this enormous monument.  The seafront was familiar from childhood and I remembered the memorial well; I might even have played within its semi-hallowed embrace and fidgetingly attended a remembrance service there. I have no idea when I realised that Portsmouth’s Naval Memorial commemorates some of the Royal Navy’s missing.  What I didn’t know at all, until my recent visit, was that one of the thousands of individual stories represented by the names on its 95 panels is quite close to home.

Portsmouth Naval Memorial , extension, Memorial to the MissingIn centuries gone, little was done to honour the masses that died to satisfy the power or pride of some monarch, or other vested interest; they were remembered only by their loved ones, if at all. By the 19th century, European cultures were coming to terms with humanity, along with the gradual widening of education and democracy and, by the time of the First World War, people’s lives mattered a little more.  One of the legacies of that war is the thousands of memorials to ordinary individuals scattered throughout the nations that participated in the conflict.  It was an unprecedented phenomenon; there are about 100,000 war memorials in Britain alone.

Portsmouth's Naval Memorial, lionsBritain’s imperial past relied on it being a successful maritime power and, in 1914, the Royal Navy was the largest and most powerful in the world.  Many had long thought that a serious reckoning between the Royal Navy and its main rival, the Imperial German Navy, was only a matter of time.  But the First World War needed to be won or lost on land and, ironically, the two navies met just once in pitched battle, at the Battle of Jutland off the coast of Denmark in 1916.  The result was inconclusive: the British Grand Fleet lost more ships and men, but the German High Seas Fleet returned to port without breaking the superiority of the Royal Navy, which continued its successful blockade of German ports, whilst the Kaiserliche Marine resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

Portsmouth Naval MemorialMore than 45,000 people lost their lives serving with the Royal Navy during World War One. By the nature of their trade, sailors who die on service are rarely afforded the luxury of a burial on land and, after the fighting finally stopped in 1918, it was decided to properly commemorate the men and women who have no grave but the sea. So a memorial to the missing was erected at each of the three manning ports in Britain – the home bases from which ships were supplied – Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth.  Each memorial has the same design by the Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer with a central obelisk of Portland stone.  On top of the obelisk, the prows of four ships point in directions of the compass, aided by representations of the four winds round a large copper globe. Each memorial was extended after the Second World War.

Portsmouth Naval Memorial, obelisk The Portsmouth Naval Memorial occupies a prominent position, looking out to sea, on the Esplanade between Southsea Castle and the fun fair at Clarence Pier, and on the southern edge of Southsea Common.  It was unveiled on 15th October 1924 by Prince Albert, the future King George VI, who had himself served at Jutland. The extension was opened by the King’s widow, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, on 29th April 1953. It’s a historic spot; it was somewhere round here that Edward III mustered 15,000 troops before embarking for France in 1346 during the Hundred Years War.  And during the Second World War, Southsea Common was home to anti-aircraft guns; I know that, because my father fired one of the guns.

Portsmouth's Naval MemorialWhich brings me to George.  George Henry Denham was the only son of George Cooper Denham and his wife, Agnes Mary and he was my mother’s cousin.  He died somewhere off Gavdos Island south of Crete on 22nd or 23rd May 1941.  His ship, the cruiser HMS Fiji, had been sent, along with HMS Gloucester, HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston, to assist HMS Greyhound, which was under attack by enemy aircraft.  However, Greyhound went down and Gloucester was heavily bombed and sunk too; 80 lives were lost with Greyhound and another 722 with Gloucester.  Fiji then underwent air attack for the next three and a half hours, during which time her anti-aircraft ammunition was used up, until a bomb falling close on her port side blew in her plates and she began to list. Though still under power, Fiji was virtually defenceless. Three more bombs then hit her, the captain ordered abandon ship and at 2015 hours on 22nd May, HMS Fiji rolled over.  The survivors, many of whom had been blown overboard by blasts, were picked up the following morning by Kandahar and Kingston. Unfortunately, George was not among them.  He was 23 and came from Ryde on the Isle of Wight, just across the Solent from Portsmouth, where his father was a dairyman.  My mother told me that witnesses saw that George had made it into the water, but they didn’t see him again. He was not a strong swimmer and it is assumed he drowned. One of the survivors spoke of remembering one man, clad in a white singlet, sitting on the upturned hull before it disappeared forever beneath the waves.  Could that have been George? We’ll never know.

HMS Fiji, Battle for CreteA few of the 244 men who died with Fiji that day were buried ashore, in North Africa or Crete, but most were lost at sea and the majority are commemorated on Portsmouth’s Naval Memorial.  As a callow, fairly thoughtless, youngster, it had never occurred to me that George might be listed anywhere. But now I wondered, as Mrs Britain and I strolled across Southsea Common, whether we should find him there.  And we did, on Panel 61 – ‘WRITER – Denham GH’. A writer in the Royal Navy is largely an administrative post, dealing with things like pay and correspondence. Seeing his name was a curiously warm moment.  And it also seemed fitting that an information board remembered HMS Fiji too, a grainy back and white photo showing her proudly under way.  She was built on the Clyde and launched only in 1939; a short life. Ridiculously, I like the idea that George is commemorated just across the water from his home; as if his spirit would appreciate the view.

Portsmouth's Naval Memorial, Royal Navy, Memorial to the MissingGeorge was also remembered by his parents, George and Agnes, on the gravestone at Ryde Cemetery where they are both buried; George died in 1951 and Agnes in 1970.  But that’s about it. No one I know now has any memory of George. I am unaware of any photographs and know absolutely nothing of his life – what he was like as a boy, what he did before joining up, what he liked, whether he had a girlfriend, or enjoyed a beer. What would George have achieved if he had lived? If he’d married and had children, they would have been in their 50s, 60s, or 70s now. What would they have done? If he had a sweetheart, did she go on to have a happy life, albeit a different one? Because every small stone in a pond makes a ripple, I wonder what difference George Henry Denham made while he was on this earth, and what impact his absence has had.  We’ll never know that, either.

Portsmouth's Naval Memorial, visit HampshireGeorge, of course, is just one of millions.  It’s another sobering thought that, not only is each of us a statistic, but that we’re also related to one.

Here is a breakdown of the missing commemorated on Portsmouth’s Naval Memorial, and the ones at Plymouth and Chatham.

WW1 WW2 Total
Portsmouth Naval Memorial 9,708 14,956 24,664
Plymouth Naval Memorial 7,291 15,937 23,228
Chatham Naval Memorial 8,557 10,098 18,655
25,556 40,991 66,547

One of the panels at Portsmouth Naval Memorial says:

IN HONOUR OF THE NAVY
AND TO THE ABIDING MEMORY
OF THOSE RANKS AND
RATINGS OF THIS PORT WHO LAID DOWN THEIR
LIVES IN THE DEFENCE OF THE EMPIRE AND
HAVE NO OTHER GRAVE THAN THE SEA

Portsmouth's Naval Memorial, no other grave than the sea

30 thoughts on “Finding George on Portsmouth’s Naval Memorial

  1. Richard Sutton

    Thanks for sharing this about the cost of war involving your own family. Especially relevant.after Remembrance Day. Like others, a relative of mine lost 4 of his sons in Flanders in WW1 and the 5th only just survived after his ship was sunk in the Med. It devastated the family business. Our own son is in the army, having been in Afghanistan twice. My wife runs a monthly prayer group for those serving in the forces. They deserve our fullest support..

  2. Judy@cranberrymorning

    A very moving post, Mike. And I’d think there was something wrong with you if you hadn’t felt a bit of emotion at finding his name and the thoughts you had about his home, his spirit, etc. Sorry if I got too personal. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Again, you might want to ask Mrs. B. 😉

  3. Clare Pooley

    Another wonderful post, Mike. I am pleased you found George, who is living again through your words. I am fortunate in that the sailors in my family all survived the war. My grandfather served in the Navy during WW1 and was torpedoed three times but each time the ship was able to limp back to port.

      1. Clare Pooley

        He was very lucky! His ship had been repaired and refitted after one torpedoing and he had just got out into the Thames estuary when he was torpedoed again. Of course, after being towed back into the port he had to go home again and was greeted by his mother with the words – ‘What, are you back again already?’ He was born in 1898 so he was very young when this happened to him. I don’t know what year this happened or what ship he was on. I hope to do some research soon.

  4. cleemckenzie

    It never ends, does it? There could be millions of monuments to the fallen and governments will still send off young people to fight and perhaps never return. The day I stood on top of the hills at Galipoli, I could barely breathe. All those young people under acres of white crosses. Brits, Yanks, Aussies, Turks, Germans–nationality and politics wiped away by death. Thanks for the touching post. It was perfect for Veterans Day that we just celebrated.

  5. Evelyn C Miller

    Thank you for this wonderful “Bit About Britain”! Although I am an American, I have such a love for your wonderful country and have visited many parts of it on the several lovely visits I’ve made there. For my husband’s retirement celebration, we visited Devon and Cornwall; primarily staying in a beautiful self-catered bottom half of a house in the superb little village of Salcombe in Devon for a month and taking some day trips in a rental car from there. One of our most memorable trips was to Plymouth, where, among many other interesting sights, was the Memorial on the Hoe to the U.S. Military who had fought and died to help save England. It was such a surprise to us and we were so moved by it. During this time of remembrance of our Memorial Day here and your celebration of Armistice Day there, it was, of course particularly appropriate for you to bring this Memorial to your readers!

  6. Kay Guest

    No other grave than the sea…
    Thank you for telling us about George Denham. “Writer”, that is fitting seeing how you are also a writer!
    Once again, you have reminded me of a post that I have been meaning to write for some time!

  7. fun60

    It is hard to focus on a memorial until you bring one of those names back to life as you have done here. Well done for making us all just stop and think about the names listed on the war memorials. Thinking about the impact their loss of life has had on so many other people as you said, the ripples are far reaching.

    1. artandarchitecturemainly

      fun60,
      quite true. Only the parents and siblings of a drowned 18 year old sailor will remember his name, personality and favourite activities. And once the parents are frail and elderly, who will remember the dead sailor after that?? The name, age, home city and photo of each young man can help future generations stop and identify with a real person.

  8. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – yes what an amazing post … story about the Memorial – incredible work of art. But more important a testimonial to the men who lost their lives at sea – who usually cannot be buried and find a place on land … something we so easily forget.

    Your mother’s cousin … I too wonder what would he would have made of his life, as so many others … also his near and dear and friends – it’s interesting to see on the commemoration panel – that their profession was apparently of more importance than their names – I wonder why …

    For now I’ll be off – but I do love the new background … cheers HIlary

  9. DeniseinVA

    This is a magnificent memorial. It reminds me of the one on Plymouth Hoe but is a lot larger. My Uncle Bertie name is engraved on the Plymouth one and I didn’t know that until we discovered him in our genealogy search a couple of years after visiting. A good reason to go back. Thank you for this wonderful history lesson Mike. I thoroughly enjoyed your narrative and photos, as I always do.

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