(MP122). Frank Watson Wood (1862-1953). Watercolour signed and dated 1920.


Limited Edition worldwide: 25 copies

Standard size: 14.5 x 5.5 ins (36.8 x 14 cms) approx.

Price band (Incl mount/mat): £110 - £140

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It is easy to forget these days, some ten years after the Royal Navy left Portland Naval Base, that it was from here in 1914 that Great Britain’s main battle fleet - as the Grand Fleet - sailed to take up its war stations at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

With the whole of Europe simmering on the edge of war following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in late June 1914, the test mobilisation of the British reserve fleet in July came at a fortuitous moment. Planned many months before the crisis in the Balkans, it had been decided that following the assembly of the Third Fleet’s two squadrons, the entire British fleet would then be reviewed by the King at Spithead.

In that summer of 1914 the core of the RN’s power was invested in the First Fleet, three battle squadrons of modern dreadnought battleships that were kept at the highest state of readiness. The Second Fleet was composed of relatively young but now obsolescent pre-dreadnoughts; and the Third Fleet comprised the remainder of the capital ships, all of them old and obsolete and normally moored in quiet harbours and estuaries around the country, manned with skeleton crews only, and at extended notice for sea. The test mobilisation over and the review by King George V having passed off most successfully on 17 July, brief exercises at sea for all three fleets followed. Whilst the old ships of the Third Fleet then wandered off to their quiet backwaters to revert to their standby role, the First and Second Fleets sailed for Portland harbour where they were due to remain until Monday 27 July before they too would be ordered to disperse. Two days before that, however, and with the international situation now deteriorating dramatically, the C-in-C First Fleet, Admiral Sir George Callaghan, felt the need to remind the Admiralty that unless he was ordered otherwise he would shortly be dispersing his fleet: and the dreadnought BELLEROPHON was allowed to sail for Gibraltar for docking and refit. Twenty four hours later the First Sea Lord, Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg acting on behalf of the First Lord, Mr Winston Churchill who was on a paddling holiday with his family at Cromer in Norfolk, decided the risk was too great and the signal was flashed to Admiral Callaghan in IRON DUKE: “No ships of the First Fleet are to leave Portland until further orders”.

With Churchill returned to London and fiercely worried about the fact that the concentrated mass of warships in Portland harbour now presented a wonderful target for a pre-emptive strike by German destroyers, it was agreed that the fleet should be sailed for its war station in Scapa Flow without delay: “Tomorrow, Wednesday, the First Fleet is to leave Portland for Scapa Flow. Destination is to be kept secret except to flag and commanding officers….”. Churchill described the scene on 29th July 1914 as the great dreadnoughts weighed anchor: “We may now picture this great fleet, with its flotillas and cruisers steaming slowly out of Portland harbour, squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea, like giants bowed in anxious thought. We may picture them again as darkness fell, eighteen miles of warships running at high speed and in absolute blackness through the narrow Straights, bearing with them into the broad waters of the North Sea the safeguard of our considerable affairs….The King’s ships were at sea.”

HMS HOOD was not, of course, even conceived of in 1914 and even 6 years later when this painting is dated, she was brand new. Commissioned on 7th January 1920 on the Clyde where she had been built, she was commanded by Captain Wilfred Tomkinson CB MVO who together with his Executive Officer, Commander Lachlan MacKinnon, had an all too short period to work her up: she was to become flagship of Rear Admiral Commanding the Battle Cruiser Squadron, Rear Admiral Sir Roger Keyes Bt KCB KCVO CMG DSO, only some 10 weeks later. No admiral’s flag is being worn in this painting so perhaps we can deduce that it shows HOOD when brand spanking new, just commissioned but not yet a flagship. Portland Dockyard staff and other ships in harbour would have been excited to see the great battle cruiser, the largest and longest warship in the world about which they had all heard so much. Here she remains slowly underway within the harbour whilst a pinnace does a transfer aft, and a drifter holds off amidships: no sign of a jumping ladder there or a waist party so perhaps the transfer has already taken place. And then it was back to sea for the huge battle cruiser for further exercises and training - Sir Roger Keyes had a fearsome reputation for demanding impossible standards…!