A 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.
In 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.
Britain’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.
More 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.
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.
Which 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.
A 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.
George 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 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|
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