HMS Vanguard & Loch Ewe
I have received the follwing e-mail which I thought would be of general interest especially as it is associated with HMS Vanguard. As you will see, Mr Andrew Sanders was born in the area and lived there during his youth. His reminiscences of this time are well described in the e-mail and he has very kindly agreed to its publication

From: Andrew Sanders
Sent: 12 February 2005 19:28
Subject: HMS Vanguard

What a good website;  I had always wanted to know something about the "last British Battleship"  and you have not only provided the technical stuff, but also a great deal of the human background.

I did not know that Vanguard was a 47,000 ton ship - (the biggest ever in the RN);   or, that she was so fast;  or, that she was such a good sea ship in rough weather; or, that she was supposed to be a 16" gun ship, but practicalities made it necessary to arm her with 15" guns.  My generation was brought up to be astonished by the superiority of "Bismarck/Tirpitz" as the pre-eminent battleships of WW2 - designed under the Naval Treaty of the 1920`s/1930`s limiting the size of capital ships; and which the Germans cheerfully ignored, whilst the British as usual stuck to the rules.  Hence the Denmark Strait disaster.

That it made no difference in the long run seems to me to be due to the morale and professionalism of the RN.  The Germans may have had better equipment at the time, (so did Napoleon at Trafalgar)  but they were scared of the RN, just as every army was scared of the German army.  For the same reason.  (Good leadership - not always, but most of the time).

I was very interested by the "Diary" for 1953 - particularly the visit to Loch Ewe.

As a child,  I was brought up in that part of the world, and at the age of 11 we knew the personnel at the "Mellon Charles" Naval base very well.  Commander Woolcombe was a good friend of my parents and my brothers and I often went fishing with the members of the base,  particularly the Wiseman family, who were local civilain fishermen employed by the Navy.  Commander Woolcombe used to ring up and say "Saturday - 10.00am - Operation Catch-um Cod"  do the boys want to come?"  A chorus of YES - and we would all set off past Aultbay in the battered Jeep with it`s plywood "estate-car" box body.

At Mellon Charles, the pier would have the MFV ticking over, and we would all clamber down the ladder onto the boat, and off to a day of education at the mouth of Loch Ewe.  We all knew the best "marks" (trig points= landmarks)  for the best places - they were imprinted on our memories.

Then in  June(?)  Vanguard arrived;   the biggest thing ever to happen in Loch Ewe since the Atlantic convoys in the war.  And the biggest thing which ever arrived there.  A week of wonder and pride for all the locals - even the "Wee Frees" who were so sticky about the "Sabbath" - even us RC`s were NEVER allowed to use a boat on the Sabbath - lest we should be noticed and cause a local scandal - it would have been worse than getting pregnant ( if we had been girls, which of course we were not).

The loch was fabulous for the cod. haddock, and mackerel.  One evening at about that time my brothers and I caught 70 mackerel in about an hour, using "Murderers" - a string of crude flies, with a spinner on the end;  the trick was to leave the string in the water after you hooked the first fish - it would attract the others.  That evening, I caught a whole string - eight on the flies, and one on the spinner;  I made up the device myself after studying "knots for nylon" - we were quite progressive, as you will appreciate!  My normal job (at 11 years)  was to be "engine man" and helmsman on our 20 foot lobster boat - with a Kelvin petrol/paraffin engine from about 1910.  My brothers did not like mechanical mysteries, but I loved them, and my father, who was an engineeing lecturer, taught me quickly how to manage the museum piece, which I loved and nurtured.

But on this occasion, we were using the dinghy with  "Seagull" outboard - a modern device which would only do 10 minutes at slow speed without oiling up the spark plug;  then it was to oars.  So, my turn came.

Then we heard that the CPO from Vanguard had taken a boat (unclassified) out to fish the same evening.  And, returned,  with nearly a TON of fish;  the boat had only about 3" of freeboard left;  of course, CPO`s know EVERYTHING about life, happiness, and catching fish.  No doubt he had sensibly taken advice from Tommy Wiseman, who really DID know;  but, that seems to me to constitute good planning and professional reconnaisance.

I wonder whether the CPO`s efforts ever made it into your mess-deck?

It would have been a pity if not, if he had merely bankrupted the local economy;  and I do not think that Commander Woolcombe would have approved of that.  We had Count Sebastian von Arembach (aged 14)  staying at the time - no doubt an anti-Nazi family - his aunt was married to Lord Howard de Walden - who nearly ran over Hitler in 1934 at a cross-roads in Berlin.  One wonders what might have happened if he has succeeded.  Sebastian wore "Lederhosen" which we teased, and succeeded in impaling his finger with a cod hook;  which,  said Woolcombe removed, after a significant tot of rum (on the MFV)  and the application of a penknife;  afterwards, "Operation Remove-um Fishhook" successful!  WELL Done Sebastian!  (Who was by now completely unconscious!

We were five brothers; I was born in 1942.  We lived at Tournaig, which is an inlet off the SE end of Loch Ewe.  It was quite a big house.  During the war it was used as a barracks by the anti-aircraft battery which had emplacements around the south and east sides of the Loch.The concrete foundations and bomb shelters are still there to this day I believe.  The gunners lived in a large wooden hut on the bank above the house - a good place to play on a rainy day.  There was an enormous balloon shed by the shore for barrage ballons.  We kept the sea boats there in winter, when the gales were prodigious.  On the shore was a small concrete jetty, off which lay a summer  mooring for the lobster boat.  The navy had very kindly put in this mooring for my parents - a buoy about three feet long,  with a chain down to a large concrete block on the seabed.  My mother could be quite persuasive,  when she wanted to!

In front of the house to the South was a fresh water loch - Loch nan Dalthein - which was about 2 miles long and a mile wide with a waist half way up.  It had lots of small rather dark trout and the occasional sea-trout, which immigrated up the river running down to the sea.  When the river got to the coast,  it tumbled down a steep rocky bank,  into which was built a "salmon ladder" - a series of small pools stepped down like a staircase.  The drop between each pool was small enough for the fish to jump up on their way from Loch Tournaig to Loch nan Dalthein.

The dam which fed the salmon ladder also provided a crude form of hydro electricity - there was a small generator hut at the bottom with a millrace along the top of the bank, to provide a head of water.  It generated 110 volts for the house about half a mile away. Electricity was turned off at 10.00 pm in the evening. The generator tended to get blocked by eels in the spring.  After a few years we were glad (as was everyone else locally) to be connected at last to the main grid - by the Scottish Hydro-Electric Board, which had built a series of dams and power stations around the Highlands, before the war.

All the same, quite an idyllic place for five brothers to grow up.

The whole anchorage at Loch Ewe was fairly well sheltered for shipping and protected from the worst weather.  It was much further from Norway than the Navy`s main base at Scapa Floe, thus inconvenient for German bombers (who would have been at the limit of their range).  In fact, there was so much bad blood between the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine that I don`t think any attacks ever took place.  This wilful lack of co-operation was a big factor in the sinking of Tirpitz in Norway during the war - she was left largely unprotected, and the RAF and Fleet Air Arm did what the Germans failed to do.  It was said Loch Ewe was big enough to contain the whole Royal Navy.  I don`t know whether this is true - but it was important for the Atlantic convoy escorts. Also, I presume, the Russian convoys, but that is speculation.

One major benefit from a naval presence was the building of a road from the railway station at Achnasheen about 40 miles away - the railway went from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh.  Until the 1860`s there was no road at all.  During the potato famine a track was built to provide local employment.  It was literally a cart track - you can still trace parts where the new road by-passed certain sections.  The new road was "single track with passing places" up the West side of Loch Maree.  It would take cars and small lorries to provide a land access to the Naval base on Loch Ewe.  It had a big impact on the local economy as fish could then be exported to the south.

The local people (mostly Mackenzies) spoke mainly Gaelic;  when I went to school at Poolewe in the early 1950`s, there were a number of children who had no English at all.  They had to learn it from scratch, which may explain why some claim the West Highlanders speak English more precisely than anyone else.  Activities were mainly fishing and sheep farming.  The land was mostly too poor for serious agriculture. 

Tourism was beginning in the 1950`s, but not enough to really help the local economy.  So, in the way of these things, a lot of the younger people left for the East coast.   The coast around Loch Ewe was scattered with abandoned crofts whose inhabitants had emigrated over the previous hundred years.  There has been a lot of nonsense talked about the Highland clearances.  Some Lairds did evict their tenants, but where I was, they had left on their own, and often received assistance with a passage to Canada or Australia.  The problem was that the original economy was based on the "Black Cattle" which were driven down a series of "Chisholm" trails to market in England;  hence "Scotch Corner" on the Great North Road.  When imported beef made these cattle un-economic, the only alternative was sheep.  But they were not an economic replacement.  The people were very poor.

Much of our time was taken up with fishing.  We had a net (illegal) set out from the shore which captured sea trout, mackerel, and the odd salmon.  It also caught a huge number of dog fish, which is like a small shark about 24" long.  The legal salmon nets were up the coast beyond Mellon Charles (the Naval base) near the head of Loch Ewe.  These were operated by the Cowrie family, who had a Royal Licence (!)  It was thought they took far more than their quota, but this may have just been jealousy.  We caught haddock and cod as well as mackerel etc.  Also a large number of lobsters;  one (in the net) was nearly 3 feet long and I believe the 2nd biggest lobster ever taken in the British Isles.  It was too big to go in a lobster pot, which was our normal method.

The base itself was I suppose a reserve base for NATO,  and it`s main function was maintain the "Boom" - That is, the anti-submarine net which was to be installed across the mouth of the Loch in time of war.   There were periodic training exercises to keep the crews of the Boom Defence Vessels up to scratch.  These were small ships of about 150 feet, with a large crane built into the bows. Sometimes they lost a piece of the heavy steel netting.  This cost us an anchor on one occasion as we hooked it, and it was far too heavy to pull up with a small boat.  Eventually we had to cut the rope.

One day we were out with the MFV and an escaped wartime mine was spotted floating about.  Definitely a danger to shippping.  The Commander had a 303 rifle and started taking pot shots at it.  We expected the most enormous bang.  In fact what he was trying to do was sink it.  He was successful in the end, but it was quite scary waiting in case the b****y thing went up!


Andrew Sanders

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