The passage that follows is the first of many excerpts from the archived editions of the Trinity House in-house magazine Flash, which would later branch out into its public-facing sister magazine Horizon, available to all by subscription via the main website.
This recollection of a Royal Navy warship bringing sailors and officers home to English shores after a two-year absence was submitted anonymously to Flash magazine for its January 1959 issue.
He must, I thought, have been a writer—he had such a descriptive way of talking—a bit of a dreamer too, in a romantic sort of way. Actually, he looked neither. We met many years ago on a train bound for the West Country, and somehow I thought I had seen him before. We shared a carriage, and I put him down as a Naval officer going down to join his ship at Devonport. I was actually fairly near the mark for he told me when we got talking somewhere the other side of Reading that he had been in the Navy but was wounded in the 1st War and had to leave. He had a brother in it now, and stayed with him occasionally on board his ship and elsewhere.
He said he was sold to the sea—spent all the time he could on it—ocean trips in the winter, and sailing out of Falmouth in a boat of his own in the summer.
He said, “Have you ever come up Channel on a calm, clear moonlit summer’s night, with the Scilly lights astern and the Longships, Wolf and the rest of them coming up ahead of’ you? It’s something you don’t forget. Those lights, they are all old friends of mine. And old friends too, I know, to countless sailors. The sailor doesn’t say so”, he said, “takes it all a bit for granted. Not altogether though. Let me tell you a little tale, if it doesn’t bore you. It’s many years ago now.”
“My brother” he said, “was bringing his ship, a cruiser, home from a commission in the Far East, and he asked me if I’d like a passage home from Gibraltar. It suited me very well as I had friends out there who had asked me to stay. So, I had a fortnight on the Rock which I enjoyed very much, before my brother’s ship came in.
“A gallant sight she was, steaming in one blue, sunny morning, with her band playing and the long paying off pennant flying. I had a very happy welcome aboard. They had been 2½ years abroad and, although they held enjoyed their foreign service they were now longing for the first sight of England and their homeland.
“We had a pleasant passage North and, late one evening were running into soundings away down there to the West; the traffic getting thicker; the deep blue of the ocean water giving way to the muddy look of the Channel, and word had got round the ship that we would sight the first of the English lights at 11 p.m. Well, I thought, I’d go up and see this; and what a surprise I got. Up there were Ship’s Officers who could hardly have been on the bridge the whole commission—the Surgeon Commander, Paymaster-Commander, Padre—several others—all hanging out over the port side of the bridge, and down on the fo’c’sle below, I saw the rails packed with sailors, all too looking out over the port bow.
I was privileged and allowed on to the upper bridge, and there I found the Officer of the Watch, the Navigating Officer and the Midshipman of the Watch, all looking out too over the port rails.
“I never saw anything like that before this commission” said the Pilot (as they call the Navigating Officer) to me.
“No” I said, “but they haven’t had this to look for before.”
“You are right” he said. “After all these years, it seems hard to believe we are nearly home.”
And then, suddenly, an excited young voice: “There it is! Look Sir, out there, on that low cloud.” The Midshipman with his young eyes had seen it first.
“I can’t see a thing” said the OOW. “Oh, yes, you’re right—good for you—“ and then, remembering himself, “That’s not the way to report a light.”
“Sorry, Sir—Red 40, the glare of a light.”
And then, a hail from the lookout on the wing of the bridge below us—“Light on port bow, Sir.” And then we all saw it—the glare of a powerful light on the low-lying cloud. “Lizard Light,” I heard the NO say to my brother, who had just come up.
As watched we saw the glare get stronger, and then, up over the horizon came the light itself—what all those eager eyes were looking for—the first sight of England.
I stayed on for some time listening to the quiet talk of those young men on the upper bridge. I heard the Lieut. on Watch say to the Navigator “I remember, I was on watch here when we were outward bound over two years ago. Funny somehow to see that light again, flashing away exactly the same. “Well”, said the other, “there’d be awful trouble if it wasn’t.” “Yes”, said the Lieutenant, “but you know it’s different tonight.” Yes, I know what you mean” was the reply. “Last time it was saying goodbye, now its saying to us, “You’re home.”
My companion stopped there, and we were silent for a while as the train roared through Swindon and out into the open country beyond. I think both our thoughts were back with those young men in that ship coming home to this green countryside.
“That wasn’t quite the end?” I asked.
“No”, he said, “I’ll tell you. The morning found us sliding round the breakwater into the Sound. The King’s Harbour Master came on board to take the ship in and on she went round the bend by the Island until the green hills of the West Country came down and hid her from sight and all that could be seen were the mastheads with that long pennant flying.
But I was up on the bridge, and as we approached our berth I could see quite a crowd waiting—wives, mothers, fathers—waving, laughing, some crying. I watched the ship put neatly alongside, and the Captain ring off the engines for the last time.
I was in no hurry to go down, and on my way I looked into the Charthouse. There I found the Navigating Officer and his Chief Quartermaster packing up the charts and instruments for the last time.
The Navigating Officer had a chart out on the table and I saw he was comparing his estimated position with his fix when we made the Lizard Light away down in the West the night before. I heard him say to his Chief Q.M., “We saw the glare of that Light about 50 miles off last night.” “Did you, Sir?” said the Chief Q. M. “It must be a very good light.”
“Ah, yes” was the reply, “but then, you see, it’s a Trinity House Light.”
“Well, there it is,” my travelling companion said, “It probably sounds a bit fanciful and sentimental, but it is true.”
“Yes,” I said, “I know it’s true. I was the Navigating Officer.”