Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Theater Ship and Monkey Purveyor to the Royal Navy

The Royal Navy in World War One had a bit of a problem.  They had built the Grand Fleet, the largest collection of capitol ships the world will ever see.  And all those mighty dreadnoughts had so very little to do.  The German navy simply refused to cooperate and for most of the war these powerful antagonists just glared at each other across the North Sea.

For the British in particular it got boring.  Their main fleet anchorage was a bleak place called Scapa Flow, way up in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.  Oh, they tried to keep busy with gunnery drills, the occasional patrol and lots of polishing of brass, but there are limits to human patience...

So the Royal Navy dispatched an unusual pair of ships to Scapa Flow, the S.S. Gourka and the S.S. Borodino.  Although serving as Royal Navy auxilliaries they kept their civilian designations.  Their mission was to bring cheer to the Grand Fleet, or at least to its officers.

These were identical "sister ships", the Russian names reflecting their original purpose which was conducting a trade in food stuffs between St. Petersburg and Britain.

The Borodino is by far the better documented ship.   Here is a fascinating monograph on its career.

The Admiralty arranged for a private firm called The Junior Army and Navy Stores Ltd. to be named Contractors to H.M. Grand Fleet.  The Borodino seems to have been under some sort of Admiralty control and was made available for the assignment.

In short order the Borodino was plying the waters of Scapa Flow, visiting in sequence the anchorages of individual capitol ships or the common areas for destroyers and submarines.

It was an instant success.  The Borodino stocked everything a smart young officer could desire.  This being the Royal Navy there was of course a large stock of wines and liquors, kept in a special locked bunker.  Foodstuffs, mostly of the finer quality, were to be had as supplement to Navy fare.  The cold storage areas of the ship were particularly handy, although there were problems with spirited midshipmen playing pranks such as positioning the rabbit carcasses so that the paws were held in mock salute.

If you needed your laundry done or clothes repaired, they had it covered.  Mascots could be ordered, usually dogs, birds, and ferrets but on one memorable occasion a destroyer decided they simply must have a large monkey.

The main sales counters inside the Borodino

Borodino kept up its stalwart work from 1914 clear through to the end of the war.  Of course they were not permitted to sell any ardent spirits to the American ships that arrived late in the war to share the boredom, but on the whole it was a great success all around.

The S.S. Gourko is actually a more interesting story but one with maddeningly little detail.  Although it seems to have also retained its status as a store ship it is chiefly remembered - and quite fondly - as "The Theater Ship".

It remained a food storage ship, sometimes being called "a frozen meat ship".  But an area inside was cleared and a stage was set up for theatrical productions.

This was necessary because, while the crews of the warships had no shortage of time and talent for putting on plays, they were also supposed to be ready to make steam and weigh anchor on short notice were there word of a German excursion.  They really could not have an elaborate stage set up on board.

The SS Gourko.  photo courtesy of Stuart Smith
The entertainments put on were of various types.  An American visiting the ship in December of 1917 mentions that films were shown on the deck as weather permitted.  He also describes a review show put on by the crew of the HMS Neptune, featuring "a Jewish comedian", a Charlie Chaplin imitator, and several attractive "ladies" who were no doubt made up sailors.  He also claimed that it was difficult to keep your feet warm because the theater was build directly above the main refrigerated hold.  Taking on the role of theater critic our correspondent for the Racine Journal wrote:

"The first half dozen acts were a rich mixture of sentiment and humor, the humor perhaps richer than the sentiment.  But the sentimental ditties were not badly sung, and their choruses were given by the whole crowd with a wealth of feeling that made the heart of the good ship Gourko shudder."

The link above describing the career of the SS Borodino has at its end a theatrical program from the Gourko, a musical play in three acts called The Secret.  I think we may assume that the performing troupe from the HMS Iron Duke also wrote the features broadly drawn characters such as "Graf Adolph von Splitzentrausen".

Various biographies of officers with the Grand Fleet all speak fondly of the Gourko and their evenings of diversion there.  Probably none would have greater reason to appreciate it than a small group of officers of the battleship HMS Vanguard who were on the Gourko for a night of fun on 9 July, 1917.  In what was felt to be a spontaneous ammunition explosion their ship blew up with only two men on board surviving the catastrophe.

At the end of the war the Borodino and the Gourko were returned to the drudgery of civilian life, their only bit of action a possible challenge of the Borodino by a U-boat one dark night when she was heading back to Scotland for reprovisioning.  But they were both to have their moment of glory, and to be sunk for the British cause.

As the Wehrmacht blitzkrieged across France in May of 1940 the two ships were once again requisitioned by the Admiralty.  The plan was to sink them as block ships in French harbors so as to hinder German use of the ports in an upcoming invasion attempt.  The Borodino in fact was sunk in this fashion, in the Belgian port of Zeebruge.

Gourko, the Theater Ship, went out with a bit more drama.  She was destined to be intentionally sunk off of Dunkirk once the last of the BEF were evacuated.  But she missed her cue by just a little, nearing her final destination she struck a mine and went down on 4 June, 1940, just as the last Tommies were making their escape.


david howse said...


Tacitus2 said...

That is potentially very, very interesting.....please get in touch at

HeavensGremlin said...

My Grandfather was on the HMS Hercules at Scapa and Jutland et al, , and remembered these ships very well.

Tacitus2 said...

It is a story itching to be told. Imagine in a TV/movie setting the drama of a play being interrupted by the explosion of the HMS Vanguard with more or less its entire crew...other than the attendees...perishing.

If I had time, better access and if print media were not on its last gasp I could at a minimum see a very good book coming out of this.

HMS Hercules was an interesting ship. Any truth to the Wikipedia mention of it being a ship where assorted troublemakers were detailed for close discipline? Or its rep as a "pugilists ship" where boxing was a main passtime? Sad irony that it survived Jutland only to be sold post war to a German scrap yard!


HeavensGremlin said...

Tacitus2 ;- My Grandfather was on the Hercules. He always referred to it as 'A Pugilists Ship'. Boxing was very popular - indeed, he told me that if an officer observed a misdemeanour, the response was often - 'You - in the ring tonight...'...! I have many souvenirs of his days on the Hercules. The 'Hawser' punishment was 100% authentic BTW. Quite why the Hercules was used as a repository for troublemakers I have no idea - but I suspect it was rather a case of the proverbial Curates Egg.... My Grandfather was in charge of the Admirals Barge. Sturdee was in the habit of giving extremely generous tips. He would give a Fiver (They were HUGE in those days...) rolled-up like a fag and pop it into the mens uniform with a 'There you are my boy'. If you are interested in life on board the 'Hercules', look out for the Russian book. SPT.

Tim Wolter said...

Marvelous. I am always looking for more info on WWI naval matters. The last era of great navies...