The Legend of the Grass Skirt.
H.M.S. Ramillies, went to New Zealand, as the Senior escort ship, to take the first echelon of Troops, from Wellington, to the 2nd World War, to Port Suez, in 1940.
Having been the first ever Battleship, to visit New Zealand, close friendships were formed, that last to this day. The NGATI'PONEKE MAORI CLUB, Which started in 1937, was invited to attend various events on the ship, and likewise the young dancers entertained the officers and men, and told of aspects of their culture, which then, do not forget, was very different to ours.
The Committee of the club, got together, to arrange the presentation of a GRASS SKIRT (PIUPIU) To the ship.
Captain H.T.Baillie-Grohman, and five senior members of the Ngati Poneke Club, attended the presentation ceremony. The Piupiu, was a sacred item,having been blessed, prior to the presentation.
Eventually, the following verse was coined,to accompany the Piupiu...
IN WELLINGTON THIS SHIP IS BLESSED, WITH FULL MA'ORI TRADITION
SKIRT OF GRASS WAS GIVEN TO HER, TO GUARD HER ON HER MISSION
IN ACTION AND IN BATTLE SWAY, THIS SHIP WILL HAVE NO HURT
PROVIDED THAT THE CAPTAIN WEARS THIS MA'ORI SKIRT.
When Ramillies left Wellington, on 6th January 1940, a large crowd had gathered on the wharf, together with a military band, and the traditional Maori farewell , Po Ata Rau, better known to us, as "Now is the Hour", was sung, as the ship slowly edged away from Pipitea wharf.This was a most stirring event, and no one on board or ashore, will ever forget it. There was hardly a dry eye,left among any of those present.
The good luck charm seems to have held good within a few days, when in the Indian Ocean, as one soldier, who was standing on the guard rail, of one of the ships, in the convoy, fell overboard, and before the "Man Overboard" signal could be hoisted, the following troopship, the "Rangitata", with a remarkable piece of seamanship, pulled out of line, put her engines at Full Astern, stopped, lowered a lifeboat, and managed to pick up the lucky individual. As this was in very dangerous, shark infested waters, one wonders if he realised, just how lucky he was? One wonders also, if his luck held out, for him to return to his native land, after the conflict. We will probably never know.
There are witnesses, to the fact, that certainly, on D-DAY, while bombarding the coast of Normandy, and particularly the enemy gun emplacements, at Benerville The then Captain, Captain Middleton, WAS seen to be wearing the piupiu, and that indeed no harm DID come to the ship, or the men, certainly when the three torpedoes, mentioned elsewhere, narrowly missed the ship, passing one down the starboard side, and two down the port, and sank the Norwegian ship "SVENNER" stationed almost behind the "MILLY" Had the ship not been exercising a going astern, turn procedure, and had been where she was less than two minutes earlier, then it would have most likely, been the Ramillies, that would have been hit.
During the Allied landings in Southern France, where once more, the now battle worn, Ramillies, played her part, she was getting on for 30 years old, after all, the Piupiu was reported to have been worn by the Captain, but there is no clear evidence, as to this. But again no fatalities were recorded.
After the war, the piupiu went missing, and no trace of it has been found.
In 1993, at the 3rd H.M.S. RAMILLIES reunion, it was decided to seek a replacement. Former Lieutenant Jim Pollok R.N.Z.N V.R., who was on board the Ramillies, on D-Day, volunteered to seek a replacement. He succeeded in contacting Mrs Vera Morgan, a member of the original club, who contacted further members, still alive, also original members, one of whom was, Mrs Meri Mataira (nee Black) who actually wrote down an account of the original presentation, and Mrs Riria Utiku, who with her late husband Rangi Katakua Utiku, where performers onboard, the ship in 1940. Mrs Utiku, donated her late husband's Piupiu, as a replacement, as she had no son to pass it on to.
This then, kept a living connection, with the original Piupiu.
After a small Church service of Blessing, at the Ngati Poneke Club, the Piupiu was handed over to J.Pollok, for delivery to the following Ramillies Reunion, 1994.
The replacement Piupiu, is now held in trust, by the Royal Marines Museum, at Eastney, Portsmouth, and is taken each alternate year, in a smart oak wooden case, to the Portsmouth Reunion, and is revered by all.
A legend, or was it good luck?
We know what the Crew believe!
I am indebted to
Jim Pollok and
to the Late Ken Williams,
And all the members of the H.M.S. Ramillies Association, of which I am privileged to be a member, for the information given above.
Original script by : Mick French
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