Devonport gunners keep the memory of the world’s most dangerous sport alive
The Field Gun competition, the Weapons and guts of the Royal Tournament for over 90 years, considered by some to be the most dangerous sport in the world, lives at the Park Pavilion Café in Devonport – even 22 years after its end.
18 men carrying a gun and a front end, a combined weight of 1,200 pounds, on an obstacle course at a frightening pace against another team, all without body protection. The famous Earl’s Court based race was quite a spectacle.
United by their involvement in the heart-wrenching race, the Devonport Field Gunners keep his memory alive with a weekly breakfast where veterans share friendship and camaraderie.
In the Pavilion’s reception hall, the walls are adorned with photographs and other memorabilia from over 50 years of Field Gun competition and, for a few hours each week, it’s not just a cafe, it’s a time Machine ; dating back to when these men were a separate crew from normal sailors.
Celebrated Field Gunner Merv Cooper said: “We get together every Wednesday, mostly the Devonport crew, but not always. Sometimes there is also a Field Gunner from Portsmouth or the Fleet Air Arm.
“Running at the field gun has been a privilege. I feel fortunate to have been physically fit and healthy enough that I was able to take the opportunity to do so. “
Spinning field rifles in front of a captivated audience at Earl’s Court was no small feat. Overall, the equipment weighed about the same as a family car; difficult enough without having to transport the various components through a rigorous assault course before the opposing team can muster theirs, shoot three times and beat you to the finish line.
Since these sailors competed without any protection, gloves or helmets, serious injuries were not uncommon. Anyone who has witnessed the extraordinary Royal Tournament race in person will almost certainly have memories of competitors requiring staples to their heads, losing all the skin on their shins, or having their fingers smashed by a steel pistol grip. And that only scratches the proverbial surface.
With the lameness and other conditions these men endured, it might be difficult to see them as some of the strongest and fittest people in the military today. But, for Dave “Basher” Bates, the gunners at Devonport share a common bond.
“We all carry injuries and conditions in later life,” he said. “But, if you asked, none of these men would change anything about that.
“Some people wouldn’t understand, but those who entered the Field Gun competition respect it. It means the camaraderie lasts forever.
“Coming to the cafe, you see people you ran with, or others you didn’t know but had the same experience, come together in solidarity and a bit of a joke.”
While the physique of some has changed over the years since the competition ended, the sense of pride has not changed.
‘Dicky’ Davies, a longtime gunner, said: “These weekly gatherings are a chance to visit the past with people I sweat and bleed with.
“It’s always a good thing to meet people who understand each other.”
The link between men and the past is essential, just a few meters from the Café is a memorial to those of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines who fell in action during the Boer War. ‘Doris’, the Maxims machine gun captured during the Boer War (pictured above), is a reminder of the origins of the Field Gun Competition.
In 1899, the Royal Navy landed guns from HMS Terrible and Powerful to support the British Army’s siege of Ladysmith. The naval brigade transported the weapons over difficult terrain before they could be used in battle.
Upon their return to England, the Naval Brigade paraded their weapons to London and the dismantling, moving and reassembly demonstrations have continued since as part of the Royal Tournament, which was last held at the center of Earl’s Court exhibition in 1999.
22 years later, the Devonport Field Gunners have traded a rowdy London crowd for the hustle and bustle of their local park cafe.
With tables occupied by private clients outside, the reception hall has a very unique yet unified atmosphere. Most wear clothing with a badge indicating they are a member of the Devonport Field Artillery Team and the chatter erupts across the room at all times for all to share.
Dave ‘Dusty’ Pittey takes the opportunity to maintain his connection with Devonport Field Gunner.
He said: “It’s a great opportunity to come together and check that everyone is okay.”
“A few years ago we had a Christmas dinner. Without this place, we might only see each other once a year.
Merv added: “I think it’s pretty important as you get older and people move away and you can isolate yourself. [being] here keep your mind active and young.
“This friendship goes back years. We have been through so much together and we are fortunate in a naval town that there are many of us.”
But what does Devonport owner Martin Stevens think of these former boating giants taking possession of a piece every week?
“It’s great to have them here,” he said. When they first asked if they could come here, I said of course this is your house.
“It was magical. We hope to have more associations here.”
And, rightly so, inspired by the energy its regular Field Gunners still have to this day, the iconic Devonport Park Pavilion coffee dish is the ‘Devonport Field Gunner’.
It is double of everything.
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