- Pfennigwerth, Ian
- Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
With the ships’ landing parties now in control in the vicinity of the port, and power and other services restored by the efforts of the Technical Landing Party, the immediate crisis in the city was now contained. The following morning a few of us were permitted to travel through the streets on the back of a truck to view the damage, which was considerable.
Georgetown must have been a most attractive town, but no longer. Whole rows of shops had been destroyed or ransacked by looters, the streets were awash with debris, and the few locals in view looked most depressed, as well they might be, as the riots had probably cost them their livelihoods. It is one thing to view scenes of riots on TV, but the sight and smell of the reality made a deep impression on me.
But we were not tourists, and the concern now exercising the authorities was the possibility of a reprisal attack on the city by Dr. Jagan’s supporters. It was deemed that the homes of the leaders of the two opposition parties should be provided with an armed guard. My name came out of the hat (or perhaps the First Lieutenant was still smarting over the mess we had made of his motor cutter), and I found myself with a British midshipman guarding the residence of Mr. Forbes Burnham, leader of the People’s National Congress. The ship’s armoury was clearly feeling the strain of the multiple demands on its stock of weapons, because my colleague and I found ourselves, now in Action Working Dress and wearing those RN ‘pudding basin’ helmets, out in the suburbs well away from the ship armed with one .303 rifle. This had been fitted with a Stokes tube to convert it to .22 ammunition. Each round, of the fifty or so in the two small cardboard boxes we had been issued with, would have to be inserted in the chamber individually should we need to use them. Effective rate of fire in daylight, perhaps five rounds per minute; at night, the one up the spout and then we would melt into the darkness.
Mr. Burnham’s house was in a well kept suburb of houses very similar to the traditional Queenslander in design. The streets and verges were wide, and offered no prospect of any strongpoint for defence nor hindrance to people ill-disposed towards our charge. And there were rumoured to be plenty of those – 10,000 sugar workers armed with cane knives, whose political zeal had been fortified with the finest Demerara rum. The odds did not seem to be in our favour. But the recollection I have of the twelve hours we spent on this lonely vigil, visualising those slashing cane knives bringing two quite promising naval careers to an untimely end, is not of being scared but of the attention and affection our presence engendered amongst the locals. They were chuffed and relieved that the long arm of the Royal Navy had reached out to provide them with protection. We lacked for nothing, constantly engaged in conversation by whites and blacks alike as we patrolled our beat, offered a wide range of snacks and cool drinks and, after nightfall, sips of rum – ‘Polar Bear’ brand being one I distinctly remember. Our small numbers and lack of armament did not seem to concern them as much as it did us, and they had more faith in our ability to summon up a larger force should the need arise (with what?) than we did. At last, after midnight, our reliefs arrived and we returned thankfully to the ship.
The following day the remaining ships of the squadron arrived to put fresh parties on patrol in the streets and our burden was considerably eased. The same day, the advance party of a contingent from the Brigade of Guards landed, and the handover of security responsibilities to the Army commenced. Law and order was well and truly restored. On Monday 18 February a general strike by Dr. Jagan’s opponents was called off and most workers returned to work. Wizard went to sea on the following day to fuel from an RFA before returning to Georgetown to recover the Technical Landing Party. And then it was back to the training program – the excitement was over.
I have two abiding recollections of the Georgetown riots. The first was of the sound and fury and the appalling outcomes of a breakdown in law and order of that nature, and the bemusement of the populace that such a thing could have occurred in their community. The mob is truly a thing to be feared. The other is of the successful application of naval power in a civil insurrection situation, and the way in which all involved discharged their responsibilities, even antipodean Midshipmen. The lesson of the flexibility of warships and their companies in taking on such unusual tasking at short notice has remained with me. And I had derided the passage in Callender’s history of the Royal Navy that we had been obliged to study at RANC, where he described the benighted masses of humanity clinging for security and succour to the hem of the White Ensign. Now I had seen the phenomenon for myself. There was a lot to ponder in what I had just experienced.
Forbes Burnham subsequently became Prime Minister of an independent Guyana and served in that position for many years. I never met him, but I was there when his life was apparently threatened, and I shared the first watch in guarding him. But I’m really glad that push never came to shove. Those sugar workers might not have been so impressed with the might of the Royal Navy when called upon to ‘Halt, or we fire!