Knighthood on the Quarter-deck

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

On the 4th of April 1581 Queen Elizabeth went down to Deptford where the English galleon Golden Hind had been taken and, after a magnificent banquet on board with Francis Drake as host, she made him kneel before her in full view of the people. She told him that the King of Spain had demanded his head and then continued, “I have a gilded sword with which to strike it off.” Instead, the Admiral received the flat of the blade on his shoulder and rose Sir Francis Drake, Knight.

Admiral Sir George Patey, KCMG, KCVO [by H.S. Power]

Admiral Sir George Patey, KCMG, KCVO [by H.S. Power]

Though it had long been the custom for distinguished naval oflicers to have conferred upon them the high honour of knighthood, either at an investiture at Buckingham Palace by the King, or abroad by their representative at an investiture on shore, it was not without precedent for the ceremony to take place on board one of His Majesty’s ships.

It was a rare distinction indeed, however, to receive the accolade on the quarter-deck.

It would be another three hundred years before a British Admiral was again to kneel on the quarter-deck before the Sovereign. This historic occasion is one of peculiar interest to the Royal Australian Navy because the rare ceremony took place on the quarter-deck of the battle cruiser Australia in the presence of the Prince of Wales, Sir George Reid (High Commissioner for Australia), and the ship’s company.

On 30 June 1913, King George V honoured the Australian Commonwealth by visiting the first flagship of the then newly-constituted Australian Fleet. Australia had shortly before commissioned at Portsmouth and was preparing to sail for Australia with the first HMAS Sydney. His Majesty was received on board with a royal salute, the officers were presented to him and, after inspecting the ship’s company at divisions, the King proceeded between decks to inspect closely the living quarters and internal arrangements of the battle cruiser.

On return to the quarter-deck King George was photographed with the ofiicers and then in the presence of the officers and crew, commanded Rear-Admiral Patey, the first commander of the Australian Fleet, to kneel before him. An equerry handed the King a sword, Admiral Patey received the accolade and rose Sir George Patey, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.

HMAS Australia passing under the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

HMAS Australia passing under the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

As the commander of the Australian fleet, Admiral Patey is remembered chiefly for his part in the Australian occupation of German New Guinea – the takeover of the German Pacific colony of New Guinea in late 1914 – and in the events leading to the destruction of German Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee’s squadron at the battle of Falkland Islands in December 1914.

In September of the same year he received the intelligence that the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had appeared at Samoa. Australia, with Montcalm, was charged with covering Encounter and the New Guinea Expeditionary Force from probable attack by the enemy cruisers, and it was not until this and subsequent tasks had been accomplished that Patey was free to consider the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst his immediate quarry.

Patey made his base at Suva, but when finally he was released to pursue the enemy ships it was too late for, fearing the approach of the battle cruiser, they decided to run for their home port. Passing through the Straits of Magellan they ran into the trap that had been set by the Royal Navy and were destroyed.

Admiral Patey remained in command of the Australian Fleet until 1915. He died in 1935.

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