Report on a visit to the French Aircraft Carrier
‘General Charles de Gaulle‘
by Jack Culshaw
Hardly had the effects of a momentous Normandy visit subsided, when, out of the blue the phone rang; it was an old colleague, Charles Kennedy, a veteran of the Marseilles landings. Charles served in North Africa, and for two years in the French Army, and has many tales to tell of his service days.
“How about a visit to see General Charles de Gaulle?
Hey?” I replied, “General de Gaulle has past away some years ago”.
“I know that,” my friend conceded, the French Aircraft Carrier of that name is in the Solent, and I have been invited on an ‘entrant cordial’ visit. My immediate reaction, though weary from a weeks hectic travel, was to accept, and am I glad I did.
An early start assured an ahead of time stroll from Portsmouth Harbour station into the Naval dockyard, and after enquiring from a friendly local boatman, was directed to a landing stage where a horde of press gathered like a pack of restless and hungry wolves. Being eyed as potential noteworthy material, a pair on the outside of the pack slid towards us with a gleam of anticipation in their eyes; cameras half cocked.
“Are you here to board?”
“In what capacity are you taking part?” The bolder one clicked his camera in a professional stance and shouldered the other out of the way. When ultimately they realised we were not the material they were looking for, at once lost interest and returned to the group.
An hour and a half early for the ferry that was to take us out to the great ship, we turned and asked a man who stood in the doorway of a building, “Where can we get a drink?” Waving a masculine arm he directed us outside the dockyard.
“Good walk though’” he said sympathetically, realising we were WW 11 Veterans, and not too sprightly on our feet.
“Why don’t you come in and I’ll make you a cup of tea or coffee?”
Charles and I looked at each other, grinned with relieved acknowledgement, and nodded our ascent.
“Thank you,” we chorused, and followed him into the boatman’s office.
“Sit down, take the weight off your legs,” pointing to a row of armchairs.
“Some of today’s papers there; help yourself,” then disappeared into the kitchen area.
Charlie and I dropped into well worn but comfortable armchairs and quietly relaxed while the kindly boatman behind us clinked mugs and teapots preparing our tea.
After half an hour, we decided to join the gathering crowd of dignitaries instantly recognisable by their well-cut suits and splendidly uniformed officers with their ladies, gathering on the quay.
“Jeeze”, Charlie whistled, “Take a look at all that scrambled egg!” Meaning of course the masses of gold braid on the officer’s caps. Detached stares of disinterest met us two old men, as it was apparent that we did not belong to the upper echelons of the invited guests. However, as Charles had been decorated with French medals of the highest order, including the ‘Croix d’ Garre’, and the ‘Medal of Honour’ for services to France as a veteran, we held our nerve and began queuing to board the ferry boat taking us out in the Solent to where the nuclear aircraft carrier was moored. Because of its lethal nuclear capability, it was not allowed to approach the Portsmouth coastline.
Half an hour later we drew near to the impressive ship, and slowly disembarked. In the tradition of navy’s the world over, a braided French officer saluted the boarding Military officers, whilst the female Bos’n blew her whistle; returning the salutation each boarding officer smartly threw up his arm in response.
Either by accident or, ’playing it safe’ the Officer of the Day threw out his arm and smartly saluted both Charlie and me as we passed by, the female Bos’n blew a loud blast on her whistle as we both acknowledged the customary quarter deck salute.
Charlie, an army man, stage whispered, “Bloody Hell, first time I’ve been piped aboard a ship.” Nudging him in the back, I returned, ”Get aboard quick before they suss us out”.
Entering the massive aircraft hanger, we were met by stewards with trays of drinks and colourful ‘petty fours’. Glasses in hand we mingled with guests from many nations, Attaches from Belgium, and China, uniformed Swedish military, high-profile, British Government Ministers with their departmental Civil Servants in tow, brushed by immaculately turned out French Admirals and their staff officers.
British Admirals, Rear Admirals, Commodores and Captains, majestic in their navy suits and gold rings, gossiped with their French counterparts. Groups of French Pilots stood by their latest model of air power. A British jet stood meekly alongside, but no British pilot was there to flaunt its ‘Britishness’.
The crowds parted as the French Minister of Defence, Madame ---followed by Mr Geoff Hoone, the British Minister of Defence entered the microphone area. Madame stepped on the dais and began her speech whilst Mr Hoone and his ministers stood behind. As Charlie and me politely edged nearer, Mr Hoone spotted the two be-medalled British Veterans on the edge of the crowd; and nodded recognition of his countrymen. An arm from a security man sliding discreetly through the crowed, clasped on to mine, “The minister wants to have a word!” he whispered putting a finger to his lips. Startled, all we could do is nod our assent and speculate.
Mr Hoone delivered his speech, and promptly the individual returned and quickly escorted us to a waiting Mr Hoone. Grasping our hands in turn, Mr Hoone surprisingly said; “Glad to see you here”, and eying our medals he remarked pointedly and to our surprise, “Well done, gentlemen.” With that twenty or thirty press made a semi-circle around us, and with the French Minister of Defence to my right, Charlie to my left, and Mr Geoff Hoone on his, the gathered press began to take both film and pictures. Bright lights and flashing bulbs blinded us for a short time, then suddenly everyone dispersed and there we were, left in standing in amazement wondering what had happened.
A ‘Sky’ reporter approached and said, “Watch the ten o’clock news tonight!”
Scouring the next days morning papers we found nothing; perhaps the advent of President Reagan’s funeral pushed our pictures out of the papers on that day?
The guests were eventually ushered towards the lift from the hanger to the flight deck of the carrier, and in two parties they were transported speedily to the flight deck to watch the fly-past of French fighter aircraft disgorging plumes of red white and blue smoke in an incredible curve, the noise from their engines deafened the watching crowd below twice more as they gracefully curved over the ship.
All too soon it was time to go; first the quests boarded the ferry, for the journey back to Portsmouth and home, watching and listening to the animated conversation on the return journey, it was evident the guests where greatly impressed by the magnificent ship.
Rather than relate the dreadful extended return journey to London by British Rail, let us remain elated and proud to have participated in a most enjoyable day.”