Since the Second World War the Royal Marines have taken on the elite forces role within the Royal Navy as a small, highly trained commando force. Before that however they were deployed as infantrymen and gunners aboard ships and were not the elite force they are today. They were there to form landing parties and also manned some of the guns on board ship. Today’s postcard dates form the turn of the twentieth century and depicts a group of Royal Marines manning a 6″ gun on the waist of a ship, part of its secondary armamament:
The gun is most likely a 6″ Quick Firing 40 calibre naval gun, introduced in 1892 and used as secondary armament on pre-dreadnought capital ships and the primary gun on some cruisers. These guns were developed to exploit the new “QF” technology, which involved loading the propellant charge in a brass case with primer in its base. The brass case also sealed the breech, allowing a lighter mechanism. This was presumed to allow a faster rate of fire than the older “Breech Loading” system, where the propellant was loaded in cloth bags and then a separate friction or percussion tube fitted into the breech for firing.
The Royal Marine gun team can be seen standing next to the gun, and behind ready to pass shells forward from ready use lockers to feed the gun. They wear a dark blue working dress with matching field service caps:
Marines were still manning guns into the Second World War, as recalled by Aidan Toase who served as a Royal Marine Lieutenant on HMS Exeter:
On the morning of 13 Dec 1939 I was keeping the morning watch in the after control position. My particular job was to keep the lookouts awake and doing their job. It is all too easy to go to sleep sitting on a comfortable seat and leaning against a bracket holding a powerful set of Admiralty binoculars. I was a junior lieutenant in the Royal Marines and was second in command of the Royal Marine Detachment. Humphrey Woods was the Captain of Marines and at action stations he was in charge of B turret manned by the R.M. Detachment. Most cruisers had four turrets A,B,X and Y and the Marines manned X turret. However as Exeter only had three turrets A,B and Y, The Marines manned B turret. I had tried to get charge of the turret myself a few weeks earlier as it would be more interesting than chasing lookouts. But Captain Woods was not having any of it and I had to remain with my lookouts.
At about 0600 the Graf Spee was sighted well down on the horizon and the bugler sounded Action Stations over the tannoy. I well remember my heart went well down into my boots as everyone was hurrying to his position. Very soon two great clouds of fire and smoke burst from the enemy as he fired his first broadside and about a minute later a line of shells landed in the sea about 300 yards short. Our course was set to get within range of the enemy and return fire. The next enemy broadside was correct for range but fell about 300 yards astern. Thereafter we were receiving our punishment but managed to get within gun range of the Graf Spee and scored several hits.
B turret was hit by an 11 inch shell between the guns after firing about 5 broadsides and everyone in front of the breeches were killed including Capt Woods. Splinters from this shell killed several people on the bridge and cut all communications so Captain Bell (The ship’s Captain) came aft to fight the ship from the after control Position. Very soon both A and Y turrets were put out of action because their electrical supplies were cut off, so Captain Bell said within my hearing ” I’m going to ram the ——–. It will be the end of us but it will sink him too”. So off we set.
Fortunately the electricians managed to get Y turret working again so we turned away and carried on firing with Y turret. Normal steering of the ship was not possible due to damage so we organised a chain of seamen to pass steering orders down to the after steering position. Lookouts were no longer required so I went to look at B turret. There was some burning debris on top of one gun loading tray and immediately under it a naked charge ready for loading into the gun. Looked a nasty situation so I removed the charge by chucking it overboard and put out the fire.
I remember Marine Russel with his forearm shot away. He was walking around rallying some leaderless seamen and putting them to useful work. When we got back to Stanley in the Falkland Islands Mne Russel was taken into the hospital and appeared to be making a good recovery. However he needed a minor operation to improve his forearm stump and he died under the anaesthetic. He was buried with full military honours in Stanley on the very day the ship left for UK.
While we were getting our punishment Commodore Harwood in the Ajax and the Achilles were scoring hits on the Graf Spee from the disengaged side. It was clear that the Graf Spee was trying to get into Montevideo so Commodore Harwood signalled us to report the state of the ship and then ordered us to go back to Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Ajax and Achilles followed the Graf Spee until she was interned in Montevideo and waited outside for reinforcements in case she tried to get away. That evening we buried about 50 of the ships company at sea. On 17th December, the Graf Spee sailed out of Montevideo and scuttled herself, thus saving many lives.