H.M.S. ‘ POWERFUL ‘ HOMEWARD BOUND—ORDERED TO THE CAPE— ARRIVAL THERE —LANDING OF MARINES—BACK TO DURBAN WITH GUNS FOR LADYSMITH—LAND A BRIGADE—RAILWAY JOURNEY TO LADYSMITH.
ON September 22, 1899, just as affairs in South Africa had reached a critical stage, H.M.S. ' Powerful,' homeward bound from the China station, arrived at Singapore. Here, much to the satisfaction of all on board, she received orders to proceed home via the Cape, and, after coaling, sailed on the 24th.
Calling at Mauritius, she found there a half-battalion of the King's Own Y.L.I., thirsting for active service, obtained permission from London to embark them, and with this large addition to her complement thrashed across to Durban and Table Bay, disembarked the soldiers on October 13, and later that day cast anchor in Simon's Bay, where she met her ' relief' and sister ship, the ' Terrible.'
Seven days later, her marines, and two Impounders, with their bluejacket crews, were sent ashore to join the first Naval Brigade landed during the war, formed from all the ships lying in the Bay, and placed under the command of Commander Ethelston, of the ' Powerful’ They left immediately for Stormberg.
Then came Sir George White's urgent appeal for naval guns, and, when it was known that the ' Powerful ' was to carry the guns to Durban and send crews to fight them up country, the delight of her officers and men was unbounded.
The rest of the squadron lent a hand to fill her up with coal once more, and the day after the order was given she shipped two 4.7s from the dockyard with their stores and ammunition, and rushed back to Durban, no one perhaps realising that the fate of Ladysmith depended on her speed. Durban was reached two and a half days later (October 29), and in this short space of time wooden field-carriages were constructed by the ship's own skilled men for three long 12-pounders ; crews, also, for the different guns were ‘ told off,' and two small-arm companies, of fifty men each, were paraded in fighting trim, khaki clothes having been obtained from the military authorities.
By 5 P.M. all the paraphernalia of the Brigade had been safely stowed in lighters, and was on its way ashore.
Then came the hurried good-byes as the men filed down the gangway. 'Good-bye, Bill; shall I bring yer some o' Kruger's whiskers?' says one; 'None o' your carrying on with them Boer girls, Tommy’ is the parting advice of an unfortunate chum left behind. With suchlike chaff and banter they left their ship. The band played ‘ Auld Lang Syne’ the inconsolable ship's company left behind, swarming up the rigging and on the nettings, gave three vigorous cheers, and the ‘ Powerful's' Naval Brigade ' shoved off.'
Directly after landing the work of loading the trains with all the ' gear' was hurried through, and by seven o'clock in the evening all were en route for Ladysmith and that mysterious locality known as the’ front.'
Loyal Durban turned out ' as one man' to watch the landing of the men and their guns, and cheered again and again as the snorting engines steamed slowly away with their heavy loads. Once the open country was reached the bluejackets started singing popular songs, the strains of 'Jolly young Jacks are we,' and 'We've got a long way to go,' waking the echoes of the bleak and rocky hills, round the sides of which the Natal Railway winds its ever ascending way.
Sleep was impossible, for the men, at any rate, so tightly were they packed, so cold the night, and so ‘wobbly' the permanent way. Pietermaritzburg was reached at 1 A.M., and, late though the hour, the harassed Covernor, Sir W. Hely-Hutchinson, met the two trains. He had grave doubts whether Ladysmith would be reached in time for the great and decisive battle, which was hourly expected to take place there, and feared that the railway line might be already torn up.
On went the trains, however, reaching Estcourt at dawn, and Colenso, only twenty miles from Ladysmith, at 8.30 A.M. Here it was found that the line was still clear, and that the big fight was even now proceeding, and an already intense excitement was raised to a still higher pitch by hearing the distant booming of guns.With a full head of steam the remaining distance was run without further incident, though all precautions were taken, and a Maxim gun rigged to fire out of the guard's van, in case it should be necessary to force a way through any small bodies of the enemy.