Sailor in the Desert

Posted on Wednesday 16th October 2013

The WW1 WArship with sails
It is hard to imagine the father of someone living today fighting in a sail powered Royal Navy warship in the First World War. But that was the situation in which Ordinary Seaman Phillip Gunn found himself from 1913-16. The armed sloop HMS Clio, on the China station, had engines as well as sails but frequently sailpower was used alone. Gunn would hear the shrill, haunting whistle of the bosun’s pipe day and night, calling him out with the duty watch to adjust them.
In 1914 Clio was ordered to Mesopotamia, present day Iraq, to cope with the threat from the Turks who had entered the war on the German side. Her job was to support the army in protecting the Royal Navy’s oil supplies which came from South Persia (now Iran). And so began the Mesopotamia campaign, one of the least known episodes of the First World War that started with outstanding success far greater than any enjoyed by the allies
Phillip Gunn left an unpublished account of the campaign and its battles and from these, and conversations with his late father, his author son David has written Sailor in the Desert, just published by Pen and Sword. The true story tells of Clio initially steaming up the River Tigris using her 4 inch guns to bombard the Turkish army. They visit the Garden of Eden and find it anything but pleasant. The Arab tribes in the area, ruled by the Ottoman Turks for four hundred years, pay allegiance to neither side but ally themselves to whichever appears to be winning, showing no mercy to the vulnerable.

The Royal Marine butcher would kill one of the cattle when required, the distressed beast being pulled unwillingly with ropes by the duty watch of seamen towards a chute. It would then be poleaxed with a sledgehammer, the carcass cut up and the blood, offal and other unwanted parts discharged into the sea through the chute, which was designed to keep the ship's side clean.

When the river gets too shallow twenty year old Gunn is cast off in command of a Calcutta river police launch, towing Suez Canal horse boats armed with 4.7-inch guns last used at the Relief of Ladysmith in the Boer War in 1899. They attack the Turks and come under heavy fire themselves. His muslim crew need halal killed meat and so they carry a live sheep on board.

Phil was selected to take charge of a former Calcutta River police launch towing two horse boats from the Suez Canal, each with a 4.7 inch gun believed to have last been used during the Boer War in 1899. They were to bombard the Turks in support of the advancing Army, their fire controlled by an Army spotting officer up a ladder that Phil lashed vertically for him.

Eventually collapsing from malaria having been continually bitten by large mosquitoes, Gunn only just survives the campaign which turns disastrous when an ambitious general tries to capture Baghdad with insufficient forces. The result is sometimes described as the worst disaster for the British army between Yorktown in 1781 and the Fall of Singapore in 1942.
Phillip Gunn, who was decorated with the DSM for his work under fire in Mesopotamia, rose from the lower deck to command ships between the wars and during the Second World War. In June 1944 it was he, then the Duty Captain at the Admiralty, whom Prime Minister Winston Churchill telephoned to find out whether the weather in the English Channel had improved sufficiently for the invasion of Europe to go ahead.

During the retreat from Ctesiphon, and after he was carried ashore unconscious, Phil's launch was sunk by enemy fire. Its entire crew were killed.

HMS Clio. On seeing her for the first time, Phil Gunn thought she looked like a rich man's magnificent steam yacht. But her 4-inch calibre guns could hit hard and accurately. (Author's copyright)

On retirement after that war Captain Gunn, as he then was, became a landscape artist. In the 1970s he completed a set of thirty-four oil paintings of life aboard ship before and during the First World War as he had witnessed it. Some of these, now part of the British National Art Collection, illustrate Sailor in the Desert. There is, for instance, the Royal Marine butcher killing cattle in the dog watches for fresh meat as HMS Clio had no refrigeration. The armed horse boats are shown in a painting with an army officer and a pair of binoculars up a vertical ladder that Gunn had rigged for him, spotting the fall of shot to direct the guns onto the Turks.
'I have found no other First World War book illustrated with colour pictures, which possibly makes this one unique,' says author David Gunn. He was among the last to join the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth as a cadet at age 13 and now lives and writes in the Cotswold Hills, England.

Note: Philip Gunn painted the colour pictures shown here. The author owns the copyright to reproduce them.

Further Reading

Sailor in the Desert
(Hardback - 148 pages)
ISBN: 9781783462308

by David Gunn
Only £19.99

Sailor in the Desert is the personal account of a Royal Navy sailor's experiences during the Mesopotamian campaign of 1915. As an able seaman on an armed sloop supporting the British expedition up the River Tigris, Philip Gunn's recollections give a rare perspective of this ill-fated campaign.

At the outbreak of war, Phillip Gunn was serving on HMS Clio, a naval sloop fitted with sails and guns stationed in China and immediately tasked with hunting the soon-to-be-famous German cruiser Emden, but failed to prevent her escape. Gunn…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...