The times I have stood to attention until the White Ensign has been hoisted are so numerous that I wouldn't care to even try to guess the number, but until an incident during my service I wasn't aware of the terrific organisation that goes into the hoisting of colours at O9OO each morning. (Winter Routine).
I happened to be on the flag-deck when the time was nearly ten minutes to nine. The Chief Yeoman of Signals was pacing up and down with a feverish look on his face, biting his nails; and at approximately five second intervals, he gazed at his watch and continued pacing. The remainder of the flag-deck staff, which included two Yeomen of Signals, one leading Signalman three signalmen, two ordinary signalmen and two signal boys, were watching the Chief Yeoman with great intent and then it happened. The Chief Yeoman had looked at his watch and his eyes almost popped out of his head - yes, sure enough, the time was ten minutes to nine, exactly, and immediately, his harsh voice boomed out.."Ten minutes to go", to which, the Yeoman answered, ."Ten minutes to go"......to which, the leading signalman answered.."Ten minutes to go... and so on, until the junior signal boy rushed to the flag locker, and selected a pretty coloured piece of bunting, known as "The Preparative".. Yes the wheels were now in motion, one signalman at the phone to all ships in company "Ten minutes to go"...The Yeoman of signals, standing over one man with a halliard in his hand, another, with the spare end of the halliard, and yet another, holding the flag....the leading Signalman flashing out a series of dots and dashes on his morse lamp which I imagine meant, "Ten minutes to go",and of course, the Chief Yeoman still pacing up and down, biting his nails, and.. glancing at his watch - he reminded me of the men I have seen waiting outside a Maternity Ward.
A deathly silence now hung over the flag-deck. No one spoke and the beads of sweat stood out on the Chief Yeoman's forehead The time was moving on and then to break the strain came the mighty voice of the Chief Yeoman "One minute to Prep" and this was answered by the Yeoman, Leading Signalman, signalman and so on down the line until finally squeaked by the junior signal boy. The morse lamp again went into action and the signalman at the phone to all ships in company, then it ceased. The yeoman stood more stiffly and looked more harsh, the men holding the halliards took a tighter grip until their knuckles showed out white and the man holding the flag held it reverently and stood perfectly still. And then the great moment came - "Hoist!"...shouted the Chief Yeoman "Hoist",shouted the Yeoman, and so on down the line, and the man holding the halliard hauled away, and there it was, the "PREPARATIVE" was actually flapping at the Starboard yard-arm. Again the man at the telephone passed the message to all ships in company... "Five minutes to go! the morse lamp flicked away, the Chief Yeoman stood erect, his chest out to the full extent, his face beaming - he had actually succeeded in hoisting the Prep. at the yard without any faux-pas - what a wonderful feat of organisation, but that was not all, the biggest moment had yet to come. In only a few more minutes it would be here and I could hardly wait with excitement.
Again, that deathly silence, and again the Chief Yeoman waits and watches, and then it comes, "One minute to colours", shouts the Chief Yeoman, "One minute to colours", shouts the Yeoman, "One minute to colours", shouts the leading signalman, and so on down the line to the shrill treble of the junior signal boy. Again, the great wheels turn. A signalman mans the phone and passes the message to all ships in company, "One minute to colours". The Morse lamp flicks out the vital message, "One minute to colours", and every one is tense, ready for the big moment. The Chief Yeoman is now holding his watch up to his eyes, counting the seconds to go and as they tick slowly by he orders, "A quarter of a minute to go", which of course, is repeated by the Yeoman, Leading Sig:, etc etc, and the signalman who is now grasping the halliards takes the necessary action, giving them a terrific shake, the signalman on the Morse lamp again crashes out a series of dots and dashes and again a deathly hush.
The climax is now reached. It is exactly nine o'clock by the Chief Yeoman's watch and now his voice booms out loud and clear, "Down!!" which again is repeated by the Yeoman and company and the signalman holding the halliards hauls down the flag at terrific speed. There it lies in a crumpled heap at the signalman's feet but no one looks at it because by this time the order has been passed by the Chief Yeoman, "Attention on the flag-deck - face aft and salute" and then "Carry on".
Everyone is now in such a good mood. They all shake hands with each other; the Chief Yeoman is patted on the shoulder by the two Yeomen and then he makes his final speech......"Well done my hearties - no slip ups - well done"
Life is just about to go on as it normally does on the flag-deck when a phone rings. The Chief Yeoman answers - "Flag-deck, Chief Yeoman speaking" and a voice says,"Can you tell me the time please Chief?