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Sailor's gunnery skills rewarded nearly 60 years late

31 August 2018
A 90-year-old former sailor has received an award from the Royal Navy six decades after he won it.

Petty Officer Peter Williams, who today lives near Johannesburg in South Africa, passed out as the top student on a course for gunnery instructors held in Portsmouth in 1960.

His success on the course earned him a Herbert Lott Award – presented to sailors who were innovative or excelled in naval gunnery – but the title was never presented before he returned to South Africa.

Fifty-eight years later, he has finally received his citation thanks to the efforts of his family and today’s Royal Navy.

He was so surprised – and a little emotional. He’s just over the moon.

Gayle Defranceski

Peter was born in Norfolk and grew up in Wales. Aged 14 he received a bursary to attend the Royal Hospital School… which led to joining the Royal Navy at the end of World War 2.

After several years’ service – including a draft aboard Britain’s last battleship, HMS Vanguard – his career took him to Cape Town where he met his future wife Sheila.

That prompted the senior rating to switch from the Royal to the South African Navy and a new life half a world away only to be selected to attend a specialist course for gunnery instructors at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth not that long after settling in South Africa.

As Peter had not yet passed the ‘Afrikaans Test’ – demonstrating a basic knowledge of the language – his superiors were reluctant to let him attend, only for Hugo Biermann, one of the country’s most senior naval officers to intervene and say ‘yes’.

With international air travel still in its infancy, Peter Williams was sent to England by boat – a two-week journey – and arrived in Portsmouth half way through the six-week preliminary course; if he failed the exam at the end, he’d be back on the boat to South Africa.

He studied day and night to catch up with course mates, passed and went on to complete the full gunnery instructors’ course, setting a “standard well above that of his peers”, and earning the Herbert Lott Award.

Lott was a London stockbroker, obsessed with naval gunnery – and its apparent poor showing in this art of war compared with the army – and set up a fund in 1928 to reward anyone who improved or exceeded in the subject, putting £250,000 in the pot (today worth more than £11m).

No one in the Royal or South African Navies told the sailor of his reward – it was only when his wife was later flicking through a military annual that she saw her husband’s name and the award he should have received.

Her husband didn’t pursue it – in the pre-internet days it would have been too long-winded and difficult – and he left the navy two years later.

It was only when Sheila passed away in April after 65 years of marriage that Peter told his family about the course – and about the award he never received.

That prompted his daughter Gayle Defranceski to investigate, eventually track down the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity and Pat McCafferty who oversee the award in 2018… which in turn led to a belated citation signed by present-day Naval Secretary Rear Admiral Simon Williams.

Peter’s family held a party for the now-90-year-old retired sailor at which the certificate was presented.

“I managed to get 25 people here without dad guessing anything. He was so surprised – and a little emotional. He’s just over the moon,” said Gayle.

“Even to this day my dad reads every naval book and has even painted a few of the ships that he was on.”

 

 

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