A Cornishman named Rick Rescorla

After a notable military career in Vietnam, an ex-patriate Cornishman named Rick Rescorla found himself responsible for the safety of forty floors of the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, New York.  The WTC basement explosion of 1993 caused Rescorla to predict an air attack. He devised evacuation precautions for his forty floors and rehearsed them regularly, to the annoyance of all those whose work he interrupted.

On the morning of 9/11, 2001, Rick went to work – to fill in for an absent colleague. When the first strike happened he left a voice message for his wife : ‘Are you watching TV?’ and then he implemented his rescue plans.  He guided 2, 687 office workers to safety. To keep their up spirits on the long trudge downstairs he sang out some Cornish songs, including ‘Camborne Hill’.

The ‘orses stood still, the wheels went aroun’

Goin’ up Camborne Hill, comin’ down!’

This song celebrates Trevithick’s first steam road vehicle. That first ‘horseless carriage’ was the ancestor of the steam railways.

Now on 9/11 Rick Rescorla sang while he led to safety those 2,687 people. There were stragglers still to come so Rick Rescorla, who was not even on duty that day, re-entered the shaking tower to look for them. The tower fell. He was seen no more.

The ‘Camborne Hill’ song celebrates an adventurous, creative spirit which embraces life wholly and frankly. Rescorla spiced his duty with a wry grin. He was a man all Britain should admire and celebrate. As we should another incident of self-disclipine and cool courage.

Lord Kitchener and the HMS Hampshire.

In 2016, we celebrated the centenary of Lord Kitchener’s death. He is familiarly known to some of us as ‘K of K’, Kitchener of Khartoum. We gathered in St Paul’s under the dome for evensong. We sang, not without tears , ‘O hear us when we cry to thee/For those in peril on the sea.’

You know Kitchener well from the famous poster in which he stares at you over his moustache and pointing finger with the words: ‘Your Country Needs You’.

Kitchener was Secretary of State for War during the ‘Great War’ of 1914-18. Setting sail in 1916 from the Orkneys to visit Russia, his ship, the H.M.S. Hampshire, hit an enemy mine. It sank fast.  Of the full complement of 600 plus men only a few survived. One of those few told of his last sight of Kitchener. Dressed in full uniform, with greatcoat, cap and heavy boots, he was standing on the quarter deck. What was he doing? Talking calmly to two of his officers. Talking!

My mind whirls with supposition. What was he talking about so calmly, with his certain death a few moments away? Was the man utterly mad? Why was he not tearing off his cumbersome uniform, his heavy boots which would act like dead weights and drag him down, down, down? My guess is that he was thanking his men for their past service together. But that is mere supposition. We shall never know: ‘Oh hear us when we cry to Thee / For those in peril on the sea.’

Kitchener had won notable victories, he had seen off the crazed Mahdists at Omdurman, the battle in which the young Churchill had a small part.  But before Kitchener’s 1916 death at sea there were other soldiers, sailors and marines, many of them young, inexperienced and not so privileged, who had shown equal self-discipline and fortitude on a previous sinking ship, the ‘HMS Birkenhead’, in 1852.

Young soldiers, many of them poor Irish seeking respite from the Famine, older men, and also wives and children were on the troopship ‘Birkenhead’ when it hit an uncharted rock off the coast of South Africa. There were not enough lifeboats.  So that a rush would not swamp the few boats there were, it was ordered: ‘Women and children first!’ And that was the origin, they say, of the now famous phrase. It has become standard practice, for us British at any rate.

The soldiers, from many different regiments, stood calmly in parade line. An officer drew his sword. Was he aware that this was his last battle? The nine horses on board were loosed into the sea, to give them a fighting chance. Eight landed safely, evading the hosts of hungry sharks.

The soldiers, young and old, stood firm as the deck canted steeply. All the women and children were saved – over a hundred. Five times that number of men were lost to the sea, which was soon boiling with feasting sharks.

Kipling wrote of this incident, in his poem celebrating the Royal Marines,’Soldier and Sailor Both’ :

‘To stand and be still in the Birkenhead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew’.

Damn right, I respond, ‘A damn tough bullet to chew.’

All these three examples of courage are relevant now, today. Some of us may be called upon to exhibit similar levels of courage and self-discipline. Indeed some already face death threats. You know their names very well.

We have never in my lifetime been in as much need of inspiration from our heroic ancestors as now. I believe we can win against the dark rising tide, win against the cult of death and savagery, win against our own internal enemies and despicable traitors.

So thank you for your example Rick Rescorla, thank you Lord Kitchener, and thank you all, you nameless, gallant men on both the ships I have named.

And thank you, our own present leaders, for putting yourselves in danger, for the truth.

‘A damn tough bullet to chew…’




Revised 05/06/2019.