As the only living survivor of a gun turret explosion aboard her attributed to the drum’s sinister influeace, even 67 years on he would rather not think of himself as having survived a curse.
Today he says: “I was the luckiest man on God’s earth. I don’t remember talk of a curse before the explosion, but afterwards there may well have been. I wouldn’t know you see, because I spent a long time in hospital and was posted elsewhere afterwards.”
But as he lay in a Malta hospital in July, 1929, the messdecks of HMS Devonshire were full of dark mutterings by his shipmates about “the cursed drum”.
Being Devonport Division sailors, the crew was familiar with the legend that Drake’s Drum should never be taken away from Devon, except perhaps in time of war.
But when Devonport built County Class cruiser HMS Devonshire was commissioned into the fleet in Plymouth, in March 1929, Lord Mildmay of Flete presented her with a silver replica of the drum.
By July 1929, she was with the rest of the First Cruiser Squadron on a gunnery exercise off the Greek island of Skiathos.
In those days, Royal Marines routinely crewed guns in the Royal Navy’s surface fleet. The stern mounted X Turret of HMS Devonshire had more than two dozen marines serving two eight inch calibre weapons.
At 10am on Friday July 26 1929, seven of HMS Devonshire’s main guns fired an impressive broadside at a distant target, but disaster struck when a shell jammed in the left-hand gun in X Turret.
“Someone must have opened the breech and air rushed over the hot cordite in the jammed gun, causing it to flare up,” recalled Mr Harkcom. “I was sitting behind the right- hand gun, unaware of the problem because machinery blocked my view. Suddenly a huge fireball engulfed me and, without even half a second’s hesitation, I leapt for an escape hatch.
“I injured my legs quite badly as I hurtled through it and was pretty well alight as we had no flash gear or any other protective clothing.”
As Marine Harkcom crawled away, two huge explosive charges exploded inside the turret atomising its occupants.
“The sides bulged out and the top of the turret blew off, like a lid off a pressure cooker,” recalled Mr Harkcom.
As the stricken HMS Devonshire slowed her speed, and teams of sailors rushed to contain the raging fires beneath X Turret, Marine Harkcom stumbled unaided along the upper deck to the sick-bay.
“My clothes had been burned off and all my hair, eyelashes and eyebrows were gone,” said Mr Harkcom. “I had cuts and bruises, bad leg injuries and I was badly shocked. But, considering what had happened I was very lucky.
Seventeen Royal Marines — all those in the turret except Marine Harkcom — were dead. A further five belonging to the hoist section below decks would die overnight.
Full military funerals took place the following day at Volos on the Greek mainland with crews from all the cruisers in the squadron contributing to the honour guard. Marine Harkcom knew nothing of this.
“I do, however, remember an admiral who had witnessed the explosion came to see me in hospital at Malta, because he found it hard to believe anyone had
survived,” he said. “I heard him but I couldn’t see him as they had bandaged my entire head.”
Ship’s curse lifted when replica was taken ashore.
Between the 1929 explosion and 1935, when the Drake’s Drum replica was removed, there were several more instances of bad luck aboard HMS Devonshire, which fuelled the talk of a curse.
• a fire
• a sailor falling to his death from a mast
• the ship hitting a quay wall
• an officer and two ratings being killed in another explosion in 1935
In 1935, the ordinary sailors decided they would petition for the cursed Drake’s Drum replica to be removed.
After one bad incident the warship’s master-at-arms is reported to have told an officer: “It’s the drum sir. They’re all talking about it on the mess decks”
The captain of the cruiser finally ordered the drum to be taken ashore. It has remained in the chapel at HMS Drake ever since where it can cause no harm.
Certainly, HMS Devonshire was a lucky ship during World War II, surviving the hazards of wartime service and going to the breaker’s yard in 1954.
Perhaps the good fortune had something to do with the return of the man who survived the 1929 catastrophe. Mr Harkcom served aboard the Devonshire again as an NCO, in 1935/36 and in the latter stages of the war.
In military and naval circles, those who cheat death against seemingly impossible odds are seen as human lucky charms.
“I don’t believe in this hoodoo stuff about the Devonshire,” said Mr Harkcom. “She was a good ship.
The following was taken from the Evening Herald circa 1976;
In 1935 George went back to the Devonshire as a corporal, attending the Spithead Review. He was promoted sergeant before moving to HMS Revenge as a gunnery instructor. During his term on the Revenge the Coronation of King George VI took place. “To celebrate the Royal Marines were honoured with providing the guard at the Governor’s house in Gibraltar. I was one of the sergeants selected to be one of the guards,” said George.George, who lived with his second wife, Nancy, at 52 Peverell Park Road, has twin daughters Myra and Audrey, married with three girls and four boys respectively, and a son Maxwell, a foreman with the Admiralty at Bath.
Early in 1939 George joined HMS Newcastle as a gunnery instructor and in 1943 he entered the Royal Marine Barracks where he was promoted colour sergeant. Then came his third commissioning to Devonshire. “I served on Devonshire in all ranks — marine, corporal, sergeant and colour sergeant,” he said.
At the end of the war George and his brother-in-law, Sgt Major Taff Evans, were the two senior NCOs leading the victory march past through the streets of Plymouth.
Since his retirement from the Royal Navy in 1946, George has led a varied life. He spent 16 months in Warsaw as Foreign Office Security Officer, worked at the Dockyard for 17 years and at Tecalemit. He was also a full-time youth leader at Prince Rock Youth Club for three years.
George, who says he is ‘a pretty active man’ is now a convenor of the New Plymouth Forum, a society for retired business and professional people which meets once a fortnight at the Guild of Community Service. “I only wish there were many more people who felt as fit as a lamb’ he chuckled.
Many thanks to the Editor of the Evening Herald (Plymouth) for kind permission to reproduce this article. Also to Nicola Holdgate in the Heralds library for all her assistance.
And not forgetting Georges grandson Ray Bradley who initiated it.
George sadly Died 23/12/1996