Hong Kong handover: Navy hauls down White Ensign for the last time

Britain's last remaining naval base east of Gibraltar will finally be de-commissioned today when the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jock Slater presides over the hauling down of the White Ensign for the last time in Hong Kong.

The confusingly named HMS Tamar base is now confined to part of Stonecutters Island, which has been transformed into a splendid new base for the incoming Chinese navy and, thanks to land reclamation, is no longer an island.

It was the Navy which seized Hong Kong for Britain and a naval captain, Sir Edward Belcher, who first raised the Union flag on Hong Kong's soil on 24 January 1841. "Our naval forbears were quite clever", says Lieutenant Commander Cliff Squibb, HMS Tamar's last commander. Fighting off pressure from the colonial government and the Army, the Navy tenaciously clung on to its dock and headquarters site right in the heart of town, occupying what must be the world's most expensive piece of real estate to be used as a naval base.

"The Navy has always been in Central [the name given to the financial district], we consider it our patch", says Commodore Peter Melson, whose book White Ensign - Red Dragon, a history of the Navy's presence in Hong Kong, was published yesterday.

The base started life as a dockyard. HMS Tamar, which gave the base its name, was built in 1863 and was tied up alongside the dockyard and deployed as the naval headquarters. Tamar was scuttled in 1941, in order to prevent it from being of use to the Japanese occupation forces.

By the time the Japanese invaded Britain had moved all but two of the Hong Kong-based naval vessels to theatres of war which were considered to be more important.

As Britain steadily withdrew its forces from East of Suez, the garrison, which numbered some 30,000 troops in the 1960s, was reduced in size.

The dockyard was closed in 1959, after which the base ceased to perform a regional role and concentrated on the defence of Hong Kong.

The rise of piracy in the South China Sea (which had been a pestilence when the base was established) and growing problems with the smuggling of goods and the organised smuggling of illegal immigrants from China, have made the Navy's last years anything but quiet ones.

The naval presence is now reduced to three patrol vessels, which will be sold to the Philippines, and, as from next week, only 85 naval personnel, which will be whittled down to 65 just before Hong Kong is handed back to China on 1 July.

It is a far cry from the days when Victoria Harbour bristled with British fighting ships, which virtually controlled China's southern coastline in the 19th century.

As well as British servicemen, the naval base gave rise to generations of Chinese staff being introduced to the mysteries of English naval cuisine and the unique culture of the British Navy, which is as far removed from everyday Chinese life as the planet Mars.

One of the oldest veterans of service to the Navy is 78-year-old Ng Muk- kam, known by the ratings as Side Party Jenny, because she and a redoubtable band of women colleagues were employed clambering around the sides of ships painting and polishing them.

Her succinct verdict on the state of the Navy is that the older ships were nicer but that the new ones are tidier and easier to clean.

"When I decommission Tamar", says Sir Jock, "in one sense it's very sad, but at the same time I regard it as the start of a new era". He points out that the modern Navy is far more self-sufficient, and no longer requires fixed land bases.

He hopes China will allow Britain to make naval visits to its old home in Hong Kong, though it is hard to believe the outgoing colonial power will be top of the visitors' list.

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