Military Cargo

When Britain maintained overseas bases the RFA supplied a regular 12 passenger cargo shipping service to supply and maintain these outposts of the British Empire. Commercial companies – Orient/P&O had 99.99% of the traffic.


From at least the mid 1920’s and through to the mid 1970’s a variety of ships set a regular course from H. M. Dockyard, Chatham to the Dockyards in Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria, Trincomalee, Singapore, Hong Kong and Aden. The return leg came back in reverse to Devonport before the ships sailed back to Chatham.

A number of ships were involved which included RFA Fort Beauharnois, RFA Fort Constantine, and RFA Bacchus (1) and (2). In the 1950’s RFA Fort Dunvegan undertook Chatham to Gibraltar and Malta. Towards the end RFA Bacchus (3) and RFA Hebe were also actively involved.

The service passengers, up to 12 at a time, enjoyed a cruise – RFA style (it’s amazing how the Cruise companies of to-day copied our all inclusive service for our passengers!) while the cargo was the usual military materials, victualling, naval armaments, boats and on more than one occasion – animals: –

August 1928 had RFA Bacchus (1) carrying a fully grown Gibraltar ape (or more correctly a Barbary Macaque) from Gibraltar to the UK for the London Zoo. The ape had become a nuisance in Gibraltar leaving his pack and entering homes in the town and the Army was considering destroying the animal when another option presented itself. The London Zoo offered a home in their monkey house. With some difficulty the ape was captured and he was sent on a sea voyage.

November 1950 saw HRH the Duke of Edinburgh as a Naval Officer being appointed to the island of Malta GC and he brought his wife, the then Princess Elizabeth, with him.  RFA Fort Beauharnois, without the Royal party, arrived in Grand Harbour carrying around 40 boxes of their Royal Highnesses personal effects, a green Daimler Consort Saloon and the Duke’s polo pony ‘Ballarin’.  The pony had been given a run ashore in Gibraltar by Mr Birch the Earl Mountbatten’s chief groom who had accompanied the animal on the trip.

In 1961 the Royal Navy shore base in Grand Harbour, Malta – HMS St. Angelo had a mascot, a donkey, which had given birth to a foal and this was named Antonio. It became necessary to find a new home for Antonio and a signal seeking a military establishment which wanted a mascot. This found HMS Excellent on Whale Island was willing to take the animal and had the necessary stabling. RFA Fort Beauharnois was tasked to bring the animal to England and a stable was provided on the deck on the starboard side. Antonio wasn’t very happy with the thought of coming to England and was quite quick in biting any hand which came close to him. Antonio was landed at Devonport and collected by a Naval lorry



RFA Hebe

In August 1967 part of RFA Hebe’s cargo were two 8” breach loading guns of 1885 vintage which had been removed from the barracks on Blakang Mati Island (now Sentosa) off Singapore and were to be conveyed to the UK for display at the Rotunda Museum of the Royal Artillery at Woolwich



One of the guns now on display at Woolwich



The guns display notice


In August 1969 RFA Fort Sandusky was tasked with a carrying a different animal cargo. The Governor of the Island of St. Helena was worried that the single aged giant tortoise on the island – called Jonathan, didn’t have long to live and sought two additional baby giant tortoises from the Seychelles.  RFA Fort Sandusky delivered the animals to St Helena on the 6 September.

In the 1970’s RFA Black Rover and RFA Hebe were used to transport RAF ‘War Dogs’ from Cyprus to the UK

In 1976 a further gun, with mounting, was conveyed from Spur Battery, Gibraltar by the RFA and is now displayed at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, Cambridgeshire. This weapon, which had originally been installed in 1907, is a 9.2” breach loading gun which, with others, controlled the shipping in the Straits and was taken out of service in April, 1973




9.2” coastal gun from Gibraltar
now on display at the
Imperial War Museum, Duxford