Royal Navy Flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth Cheer Ship

Cheer ship: How a Royal Navy custom historically meant 'we come in peace'

Royal Navy Flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth Cheer Ship

A Royal Navy tradition that makes for an impressive sight is when all the company of sailors line the deck at the sides of the ship in a ceremony to pay a collective mark of respect.

Manning the rails or cheering the ship is carried out as a special form of salute, often with sailors holding caps in hands, most notably to members of the Royal family, but also other occasions, such as to honour a particular person of rank or pay homage to another ship or fleet.

Ceremonial occasions such as a Fleet Review, which is a formal inspection of the fleet of a navy by the reigning monarch for example, is one such occasion in which an order is given to the ship’s company by the Commanding Officer to line up along the decks at the side of the ship.

Manning the rail and cheer ship ceremonies are carried out by various navies of the world including the Royal Navy, with slight variations on the procedure and the custom dates back to the very beginnings of warfare at sea.

The ship’s company fall in according to instructions set out in the Royal Navy ceremony and drill, which includes instructions on where sailors stand according to their size, a set distance apart from each other and a set distance from the guard rail. This creates an impressive sight as the ship’s company stand in formation before they cheer the ship.

Cheer ship CSG21 led by HMS Queen Elizabeth taking part in EX Noble Union

Ceremony And Drill For Man And Cheer Ship

A ship’s company observe specific instructions in carrying out the ceremony in a long list of guidelines, some of the main points of which are as follows.

Personnel fall in according to their size in the following manner:

Forecastle - tallest forward, shortest aft. Flight Deck - tallest aft, shortest forward. Amidships - tallest at each end of the ranks.

Ships with one continuous main deck man ship with the tallest personnel forward and aft and reducing in size towards the midships position, where the shortest personnel are stationed. Personnel are instructed to stand three feet apart, facing outboard, and one pace from the guard rail.

Officers and Warrant Officers fall in three paces behind the personnel of whom they are in charge.

There are also special instructions for manning different classes of ship.

For instance, aircraft carriers are to be manned six feet from the edge of the flight deck on both sides and across the forward ends, while the weather bays are to be manned but not the bridge super-structure.

On submarines, personnel are to be fallen in on the casing facing the side on which the ‘distinguished personage’ will be passing. Manning takes the form of a single rank from jackstaff to ensign staff, while the commanding officer stands forward of the fin, with officers followed by junior rates.

There are slightly different instructions for manning Landing Platform Dock ships, such as HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion.

The drill for manning ship also includes a set of procedures depending on what distinguished personage is attending and whether or not the Queen’s Colour is paraded.

When the Queen’s Colour is paraded, the alert is sounded by bugle or the ‘Still’ by pipe before the officers and ratings come to attention. Personnel manning the side take one pace forward and grasp the guardrail underneath with both hands, palms upwards, right arm over left arm of the person next to them.

The procedure is modified on aircraft carriers or other ships that have no guardrails.

The order is given for the guard of honour, royal salute “Present Arms’.

The guard gives a royal salute before the Queen's Colour is lowered and the band plays the appropriate National Anthem, timed to end so that ‘three cheers’ may be given to the distinguished personage while still abreast of the ship.

The drill is similar for when the Queen’s Colour is not paraded except that a general salute is given, with an appropriate musical salute instead of a National Anthem among other minor differences without a royal salute.

There is even guidance in the instructions for Royal Navy ceremony and drill on how to pronounce the word Hooray for the cheers, with ‘Hooray’ pronounced as spelled, the accent being on the second syllable.

Commodore (Ret'd) Alistair Halliday, who was in command of three ships from 1995 to 2001, said: “It is a special form of salute – usually to members of the royal family but can be for other occasions too.”

He told how the Royal Yacht was once cheered by every ship in the formation during a fleet review.

Speaking of his own memories of a cheer ship ceremony, he said: “I was in HMS Gavinton, a minehunter coming back from Operation Harling during mineclearance in the Red Sea in 1984, with three other MCMVs, (Mine Counter Measure Vessels) alongside in Piraeus, near Athens, when HMS Fearless, in the same port and leaving before us, did a cheer ship to the four ships who had taken part. Very moving.” He added:

“I was playing the accordion with my CO on fiddle to salute them too.”

Explaining the routine of a cheer ship ceremony, Commodore (Ret'd) Halliday said: “The Ship’s company are lined up and spaced apart properly.

“They stand next to guard rails and put hands on it, it is the only time you should put hands on guard rails. Rig usually number one suit.

“They ‘off caps’ and remove headgear and when ordered at ‘hip hip …’ give three cheers, shouting hooray and waving their caps in a circle – so from afar it looks very effective.”

Commodore (Ret'd) Halliday said he had taken part in such a ceremony many times, sometimes with a gun salute.  He added:

“Some other navies do it in a different form, in HMS Campbeltown, I was once saluted by Russian ships doing “Oorah!” three times, which is very loud and quite menacing.”

A ceremonial 'Cheer Ship' from the upper deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth.

History Of Manning And Cheer Ship

Mentions of cheer ship ceremonies date back throughout seafaring history, with references in the 17th Century and to at least as far back as the 1500s.

It is thought this form of salute originated to a time when all hands on sailing warships would be seen to line the yards and masts to show that the ship had no battle plans and their intentions were friendly - in a sense saying: "We come in peace."

If all hands were seen standing and visible from the waist, they could not be manning the guns at the same time, so manning the rails showed a friendly gesture when meeting ships of other navies.

There are references in the 17th century to warships being ordered to be made ‘neat and pretty’ and their decks, masts and shrouds decked by men.

Cheer Ship ceremonies are thought to have emerged from a similar concept – all hands paying a tribute to honour a distinguished person visiting or inspecting the ship.

Author Nicholas A. M. Rodger, in his book The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain 660 – 1649, notes a report by Dr Roger Marbecke, a physician who sailed with the 1596 Cadiz expedition, and who describes the ceremony of cheering ship, writing: “They presently man the ship and place every one of their companies both upon the upper and middle deck and also upon the waist and shrouds and elsewhere to the most advantage they can make the bravest show and appear the greatest number.

“Then the masters and mates of the ships immediately upon the sounding of their whistles in a pretty loud tunable manner, all the whole company shaking their  hands, hats and caps, giving a marvellous loud shout, consisting of so many loud, strong and variable voices, maketh such a sounding echo and pleasant report in the air, as delighteth very much.

“And this ceremony is done three times by them and three times interchangeably answered.”

There are more modern records of cheer ship ceremonies, such as when HMS Queen Elizabeth, an earlier incarnation of today's ship with the same name, arrived at Portsmouth on February 20 1919 as HMS New Zealand was preparing to leave. A caption of a photograph of this moment notes that the New Zealand manned and cheered ship as Queen Elizabeth passed by.

The current HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier also gave a ceremonial cheer ship to mark the steam past of Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force ships JS Ise and JS Asahi following Exercise Noble Union in August 2021.

This was as the Carrier Strike Group (CSG21) took part in the exercise, which saw Japan, the US and CSG21 integrated and operating together.

Examples of when Cheer Ship honours are paid include during a visit of a sovereign to the fleet, when ships return to port following a victory, and the departure of a ship from a foreign port following a deployment as she sails home.

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