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Guarding SNOWI

Mick Pinchen, Royal Marine

Between April 1972 and April 1974 I was part of the Royal Marine Detachment of HMS Sirius, (Commander Nolan). The Detachment consisted of Lt Roach, (OCRM); Sergeant Andy Baker, (DSM); 2 Corporals and 20 Marines. The majority of the turret and gun-bay crew was provided by the Detachment, as was a percentage of the Diving Team. We had our own ‘Part of Ship’, and responsibility for the ship’s Boats. Several marines with SQs were attached to various departments such as communications and catering. I joined Sirius, from 42 Cdo, whilst she was in dry dock at Devonport. She was in the latter stages of major maintenance during which the ship’s company were quartered on the upper floor of the Senior Rates block of HMS Drake. Following a vigorous ‘Work Up’ at Portland, and a week away for military training at Penhale Camp, we visited Guernsey; and what a great run ashore St Peter’s Port turned out to be! Then it was off to the West Indies, the reason for my being there. The itinerary included many of the WI islands, including Bermuda, Florida and British Honduras, (now Belize). Flying the Flag and cross training between local defence and police forces also took place, with plenty of  ‘social gatherings’ in many of the ports of call. It was mainly a peaceful commission as I remember it, although one tends to forget the down side, chipping and painting!

During February 73 we arrived in Bermuda for a period of maintenance at HMS Malabar. It was during this time that the Governor of Bermuda, (Sir Richard Sharples), and his ADC, (Capt Hugh Sayers), were assassinated, as they strolled in the gardens of the Governor’s residence one evening after dinner, (they even killed his dog; a Great Dane named Horsa). As a consequence it was feared that the Senior Naval Officer West Indies, (with the acronym of SNOWI), and his family could be at risk. So Sirius was ‘requested’ to provide a guard for the Commodore’s residence on Ireland Island, (Bermuda is a series of islands linked by bridges and causeways). Unfortunately only three ‘Royals’ remained on board that particular evening, I being one of them. We were issued with our rifles, (SLR’s), and twenty rounds a piece and told to muster on the jetty and await instructions. After a short while a blue Land Rover screeched to a halt beside us. The OCRM’s head appeared from the driver’s window and we were told to get aboard. As we drove a break-neck speed to the Commodore’s residence, he informed us we were going to SNOWI’s house. This was a bit confusing at first, as the only ‘Snowy’ I knew was Tin-Tin’s dog, you know of the cartoon fame! On arrival at the entrance to the white colonial building, surrounded by a high wall, breached only by two large wooden gates, we were given our final instruction, “Defend it.” And with that the OCRM drove off. We were a bit bemused at first, however I suppose he was somewhat busy that evening, and in hindsight it was a bit of a compliment to be trusted; so we got on with it.

We reported to SNOWI, who seemed unperturbed, and were told, by his charming wife, to help ourselves to ‘makings’ and whatever we needed from the larder. That was the first mistake.

What was the risk? How much of a threat was there? How many ‘enemy’ were there? What weapons did they have, etc, etc. We did not know, no one could advise us. So the three of us decided to split into two groups, (if you can split three two ways). One of us would stay inside the building as a ‘last ditch’ so to speak. We would use one nominated door to enter and leave, all other doors and windows to be locked. Anyone entering via any other means would probably be an intruder and therefore liable to be shot! We agreed a password for use when entering the designated entrance and because we had no radios elected for ‘the old string and can’ as a means of alerting the person inside. This was fashioned out of two empty larger cans and a washing line, the latter of which was passed through a louver in one of the windows. The other two, which included myself, would form a wandering patrol in the grounds, ‘laying up’ occasionally to ‘listen in’. So that was our plan. SNOWI was informed and he seemed happy with the arrangement. “Cracked it” we thought. That was the second mistake!

During the night the sentry inside the house was caught by the Commodore’s wife eating her finest caviar straight from the pot.

“Well you did say help yourself” he replied innocently to her exasperated enquiry.

Outside things were not going quite as we had envisaged either. Alerted by the sound of a vehicle stopping, we heard the wicket, set in the main gate, opening. From the shadows of the bougainvillaea we observed, silhouetted in the wicket, that the unannounced intruders were a woman and a man. After pulling the ‘alarm’ we crept forward, sweat dripping from our taut bodies, our fingers on the triggers of our rifles.

I jumped out on them and shouted, “Spread em!”

My oppo joined me, and two SLR muzzles pointed at them from just a few yards. To say they were surprised is putting it mildly, however after a stunned silence it soon became apparent who they were. The woman was the Commodore’s daughter! The man turned out to be a naval officer, who insisted, innocently of course, that he was just ‘escorting the lady home’. Neither of them was aware of the current situation and they seemed more in the dark than we were. Then, as we were checking the officers ID card, the woman decided she’s had enough and walked briskly towards the main door, with her key ready for insertion in the lock! I flew after her and grabbed her arm to prevent her entering the wrong entrance! She went ballistic and told me a few things about myself that I had been unaware of up till then. However after explaining my actions and the fact that there was probably a loaded rifle covering the inside of the door she was about to open, she calmed down. With this I escorted her to the ‘agreed entrance’, and suggested that the naval officer ‘thin out’. She agreed. When I told him he seemed a bit ‘put out’. Anyway he left, cursing his luck no doubt. After that first night, the following days and nights were uneventful.

The Detachment continued to provide a guard for the residence, which never numbered more than six at any one time, until we were relived several days later, by a ‘rifle company’ from the Parachute Regiment!

 A few weeks later Sirius played a major role at the funeral, with the RM Detachment forming the Guard of Honour. Alongside at Hamilton the coffins of Sir Richard and Captain Sayers were born on board by members of the Bermuda Regiment and Welsh Guards respectively. They were then taken by sea to St George’s where they were both buried in the old colonial churchyard. The assassin was eventually caught, found guilty and hanged. When I returned home on May 21st I found that the funeral had been televised and my father had been particularly interested, for he had served with Sir Richard Sharples in the 2nd Welsh Guards Armoured Recce Btn during WW2.



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