Captain Rennie Stewart - ex Tay Division

The Times - Obituaries

One of the very few officers to find himself at different times a captain in both the Army and the Navy, Rennie Stewart owed this unusual distinction to wartime service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in India and Burma, and a postwar commission in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. In Burma in 1942 he had led a Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers mobile workshop in the retreat to the Indian frontier with the Japanese in hot pursuit. He later served in General William Slim’s 14th Army as the tide turned, ending the war as a captain.

After the war he joined the RNVR (later RNR), and in the rank of captain he came to command the Tay Division RNR with its headquarters in the 19th-century frigate HMS Unicorn. This appointment was the impetus to Stewart’s campaign to preserve this remarkable vessel through the foundation of the Unicorn Preservation Society.

Launched in 1824, the 46-gun Unicorn was one of the last of the highly successful Leda Class of large frigates that had given distinguished service during the Napoleonic Wars period. Among the celebrated exploits of the class was the capture, during the American War of 1812-15, of the frigate USS Chesapeake by HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813, after a short but internecine duel in which both captains were severely wounded, Chesapeake’s mortally.

But Unicorn had scarcely been launched when it became apparent that in a time of peace she was surplus to requirements. Without ever having masts stepped, she was put into reserve, her weatherdecks covered with a roof. She miraculously survived the demise of the age of sail as first a powder hulk and then as a drill ship based at Dundee, to where she was towed in 1873. There, as an RNVR vessel, during both world wars she served as area HQ of the Senior Naval Officer Dundee. When the reserves were combined in 1958 she became HQ Tay Division, RNR.

After demobilisation Stewart had returned to the management of the family firm of hacklemakers (producing steel combs for dressing flax), Wm R Stewart & Sons, and was instrumental in the company becoming a worldwide exporter of textile machinery parts.

But for part-time military service he decided against the Territorial Army. Instead he joined the RNVR as an electrical engineer in 1946. But he later transferred to the seaman branch and rose to command the Tay Division’s mine-sweeper Montrose. In 1966 he was appointed to command the Tay Division, and was determined that the classic frigate that was its HQ should not be lost to posterity.

With the Unicorn’s future in the balance as the Tay Division moved to a new shore HQ, HMS Camperdown, he lobbied local figures to ensure her permanent preservation. The outcome, in 1968, was the formation of the Unicorn Preservation Society under the chairmanship of the 16th Earl of Dalhousie, then Lord Lieutenant for Angus. Stewart succeeded to the chairmanship in 1986 and held it until 1998. He remained a governor of the society until his death.

Today, without her masts as she always has been, HMS Unicornis berthed in the Victoria Dock, Dundee, as a floating museum.

Stewart, who retired from the RNR in 1971, was appointed OBE (military) in 1964. He also held the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Officers’ Decoration (VRD) and Bar. He is survived by his wife, Irene, whom he married in 1945, and by two daughters and a son.

Captain Rennie Stewart, OBE, VRD and Bar, soldier, sailor and hacklemaker, was born on September 12, 1917. He died on June 16, 2007, aged 89

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