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Christopher Tanner



Born in Cheltenham on June 24th 1908 Christopher Champain Tanner, more commonly known by those close to him as ‘Kit’, attended the nearby Cheltenham College where he doubtless gained his first exposure to the game of rugby. By the time that he progressed to Pembroke College , Cambridge he was already regarded as a resolute running wing. His qualities on the pitch were initially missed by his University, although the ever astute Barbarians were not fooled and following their tradition of selecting at least one uncapped player for each match the young Tanner was duly picked for the Edgar Mobbs memorial match against East Midlands held at Northampton on March 6th 1930. It was perhaps this match more than any other that brought Tanner to prominence during the Barbarians twenty two points to six victory where Tanner scored three tries in front of the England selectors. As was noted by The Times “the strong and determined running of Tanner had been one of the features of play.”

There is no doubt that the selectors were duly impressed by Tanner’s display in the black and white hoops of the Barbarians. Two weeks later he was again selected to play although this time in the white shirt of his country against Scotland at Twickenham on March 15th. The match, played in front of the Prince of Wales ended in a goalless draw with the Scots retaining the Calcutta Cup by default as the current holders. Littered with handling errors and ineffective back play the match itself was far from a classic although “Tanner did his best… and, in fact showed such a power of stride he looked every inch a scorer.” Unfortunately Tanner was adjudged to have knocked on taking the pass, a highlight of an otherwise dismal game.

The 1930 season was a mediocre one for England , which ended surprisingly well with their taking the championship due to their record of two wins, one draw and one loss. Tanner was not selected to play for his country during the 1931 season, although he was to play three more times for the Barbarians that year in the traditional Christmas match held against Leicester as well as Cardiff and Newport on the Barbarians customary Easter tour to Wales. Despite the lack of England honors in this season one gap in his playing career was, perhaps belatedly, filled when he was selected to play for Cambridge against their nemesis Oxford , gaining his blue on December 9th 1930. Again the match resulted in a draw, although by three points each this time in what was considered a fair result for a disjointed match. Cambridge scored when they had largely been on the defensive during the first half and then despite having the better of the play in the second were unable to convert this into further points.

The 1932 season found Tanner back in favor with the England selectors as he returned to Twickenham on January 2nd to face the touring South Africans. England proved poor opposition even though their most avid fan would hardly have expected them to win this encounter. Again Tanner did his best. “[He] got in one run that really raised the rather despondent crowd” but this was of little comfort during the seven points to nil defeat. Things did not improve for England during their next match, a crushing twelve points to five defeat by the Welsh at Swansea on January 16th 1932. Played again in front of the Prince of Wales only the stout defense provided by the English backs, including Tanner, prevented the score line from becoming far more pronounced.

Given England ’s poor run of form with no international victory since 1930 it is no surprise that they travelled to Dublin as underdogs to face an Ireland side undefeated in three seasons. Despite this they managed to edge a scrappy match blighted by several injuries and numerous penalties by eleven points to eight on February 13th. This unexpected victory set the England team up well for the final match of the season with a return to Twickenham a week later on the 19th to play Scotland . In a complete reversal from the early part of the season England dominated the play, particularly in the forwards and were never in any danger of loosing the fixture that was won by sixteen points to three. Tanner distinguished himself with a debut try for his country “… [He] then went at full tilt for the corner, turning in a bit to hand off Macpherson just before he crossed the line.” The win returned the Calcutta Cup to Twickenham and also ensured a share of the championship title in a strange season with this honor shared between England , Wales and Ireland .

The Scotland match, Tanner’s fifth cap was to be his last for his country. He played twice more for the Barbarians in 1933, again with victories against East Midlands and Newport , never being on the losing side during his six appearances for the club. Putting aside the highest level of the game, which had also seen him play for Richmond and Gloucestershire, Tanner now turned to more spiritual matters.

Ordained in 1935 Tanner was initially the Curate at Farnham Royal for two years until 1937. This was also the year that he married to Eleanor Rotherford at St Leonard ’s in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. He returned to his home town of Gloucester as Curate of St Mary de Lode with his new bride for a further two years until his appointment as the Rector at Haslemere in August 1939. His time here was cut brutally short as Tanner elected to serve as a Chaplain with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at the outbreak of war.

Posted to HMS Fiji Tanner by all accounts took the transition from Rector to Military Chaplain in his stride as if he had served in the forces all his life. The Fiji herself was commissioned on May 5th 1940 the first of the crown colony class of cruisers. She, with Tanner aboard, was dispatched to the Mediterranean fleet in April 1941 to support operations to relieve the besieged island of Malta . Tactical imperatives now came to the fore and she was sent in company with the Destroyers HMS Kandahar and HMS Kingston to Crete her mission to prevent a German seaborne landing on the island. Battle was joined on May 22nd 1941 with HMS Fiji soon coming under heavy and sustained aerial attack. Tanner had no direct duties whilst in combat, the role of the chaplain being hard to define in these situations and so he was left to make the best contribution that he could devise. With the Fiji hit by several bombs, possessing only one working anti aircraft gun, little ammunition and heeling badly the captain, Peverill William Powlett, was left with no option but to order all hands to abandon ship. To Tanner his duty was clear and he personally oversaw the removal of some sixty wounded from the sickbay to the last whaler that the Fiji had remaining. Tanner, along with most of the five hundred odd other survivors, was forced into the water. At the time of her sinking the apart from the whaler, now crammed with wounded, the Fiji had only two carly floats designed for twenty men each left, the rest having been dropped earlier to assist the survivors from the sinking of HMS Gloucester. Tanner took it upon himself to minister to those who found themselves in the same peril that he now faced, assisting those who could not help themselves onto rafts and leading the men in song until rescue could arrive. It has been noted that the repertoire owed more to a rugby club bar than Sunday service, but all things considered they were most likely appropriate. After four hours in the water, somewhere after midnight the Kandahar and Kingston were able to return and pick up survivors. Tanner was soon brought on board the Kandahar , but characteristically spurned the comforts being offered to survivors, small though they may have been of a blanket, cup of tea and a cigarette. Instead with no regard for his own personal safety Tanner repeatedly reentered the sea to help those who were too weak to grasp the ropes thrown to them from the deck of the Kandahar . No accurate count can be made of the number of times Tanner repeated this, although it has been estimated that up to thirty men directly owed their survival to him as Tanner resolutely refused all attempts to dissuade him from again entering the sea. Shortly after his last rescue the Reverend Kit Tanner succumbed to his own exhaustion, dying a few minutes after he himself was hauled on board. For his bravery Tanner was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal, a rare decoration in World War Two and is on a par with the George Cross. It was a fitting award for a man of Tanner’s character and bravery who, as his obituary in the Times noted, had the gift of getting on famously with everybody.

Sources

"The Complete Who's Who of England Rugby Union Internationals", R Maule,  Breedon 1992

The Times Online Digital Archive

Wikepedia

www.angelfire.com

© D A Hunter, 2008
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