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.

Suggested Topics
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?