The following article is taken from a magazine published in the latter stages of the Second World War, it’s year is unknown, but it is from the papers of AB Douglas Mee, who served on RFA Orangeleaf from 1942/43 and reproduced with the kind permission of his family.


The following article is taken from a magazine published in the latter stages of the Second World War, it’s year is unknown, but it is from the papers of AB Douglas Mee, who served on RFA Orangeleaf from 1942/43 and reproduced with the kind permission of his family.

 

Her cargo is crude oil for the big ships furnaces and petrol for the planes they carry, or for the brood of an aircraft carrier. A warship may be stranded without fuel, unable to steam, steer or anchor – a sitting target for the enemy: all its hopes are then placed in the speedy services of one of those handmaidens of the Navy, whose work is described by Captain Frank H. Shaw.

 

There is one type of ship which seldom gets the credit she deserves, although without her the Navy would be to all intents and purposes immobilized. The role played by the Fleet Oiler is unique, for she differs considerably from the coal burning Navy’s colliers. Seldom was the necessary fuel transferred from ship to ship in open sea; Coaling was a laborious, messy and difficult task at anchor; at sea with a wind blowing it was practically impossible.

The oiler has changed all that, by her hardy work she enables the fighting ships to perform exceptional voyages, lengthens their capacity for action, and generally keeps them tended. Her 12,000 tons of invaluable oil is always at the Navy’s service; and if the battleships, cruisers and destroyers cannot break off their duties to come to her, she promptly lifts her anchor and goes – at full speed to them.

Normally, she lies, well-hidden, in some lonely Loch or Fjord with a perpetual brood of hungry vessels nuzzling at her, for all the world like a sow with her litter. She is officially listed as a Fleet Auxiliary, being both Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. And her crew is hand- picked, because specialists are needed to perform the oiler’s enormous tasks. It is a man’s work to bring a laden oiler alongside a towering battleship in a seaway, when both vessels are steering awkwardly under helm and high seas are doing their utmost to frustrate the necessary union.

Yet the warship must have oil – not only heavy oil to feed their furnaces, but high octane spirit to fill all the tanks of the planes carried. Or an aircraft carrier may demand attention. Also the oiler acts to some extent as a general supply ship to the mobile fleet; she serves as a mail-boat, beef-boat, and canteen supplier. Also, possessing as she usually does, a commodious sick-bay with an adequate personnel of doctors and sick-berth stewards, she can on occasion, serve as a useful clearing hospital for casualties which need more specialized care than is obtainable aboard a fighting ship liable to meet hot action every time smoke is spotted on the skyline.

An oiler’s existence when at her moorings in shelter can be prosaic and monotonous. For lonely harbours are usually selected, so that refuelling warships can come and go without interfering with normal traffic; but there is always the variety of some ship, great or small, appearing out of nowhere with a peremptory demand for the precious fluid that is the Navy’s life-blood. And the people of such client-ships usually have interesting stories to tell, of breathtaking attacks from the air, or bombardment of enemy coasts, of sorties on stealthy convoys, of pitched battles between giant ship and giant ship off Norwegian coasts.

The close packed crews of destroyers and corvettes like to clamber aboard and stretch their cramped legs in the spaciousness of the oiler, although her lean, low decks are hampered by countless gadgets designed for quick action in refuelling. Although, when moored, immune from the actual hazards of seagoing, the daily – sometimes hourly arrivals bring the tang of spindrift with them: as often as not they are ice-coated and bleached from constant battling with unfriendly seas, and every man-jack aboard the visitors is eager for mail. So that a friendly atmosphere prevails all around. There is a sort of motherliness about the oiler, offering a cordial welcome home.

There is nothing outstandingly beautiful about these glorified tankers. Indeed with engines and funnels aft, a long expanse of deck, broken only by the midship’s superstructure of the bridge and officers accommodation, she is ugly, looking draggled and sluttish alongside the sleek, razor lined craft that course to her. She is strictly ulitarian, but her crew know their job inside out, by day and by night, for when a warship needs fuel she usually needs it in a hurry. And, as Nelson said “five minutes might spell the difference between defeat and victory”. Lights may not be exhibited; the coupling of oil hose has very often to be done in black darkness, with rain sluicing like Niagara, or snow falling almost impenetrably.

Decks too hot to walk upon

The atmosphere aboard the oiler is close and oppressive, especially below, for as any moment might bring a call for what she carries, the liquid fuel must be kept liquid by the steam-pipes, interspersing the giant tanks. For crude oil such as used in ships furnaces solidifies if not kept at a certain temperature; and it can happen that the decks are actually too hot to walk upon. Refuelling whilst at anchor is a simple matter in many ways; it merely means that the linking hose-pipes must be attached to the warship’s intakes and the pumps set going for as long as is necessary to re-bunker.

There is of course, a constant liability to attack from the air, since the enemy’s reconnaissance aircraft are over quite often. If an oiler can be sunk, it means delay in the movements of the ships dependent on her. And during that delay, commerce-raiders might break through the cordon and escape to open sea, where an infinite amount of damage can be wrought. So the oiler is well armed, though her guns seem as if fitted as an afterthought; they do not blend in to her outlines in the same way as do those of fighting ships. But they are no less efficacious on that account; they have brought down diving raiders wholesale.

It is frequently necessary for the fleet oiler to leave her moorings and steam to a base port to replenish her supplies and be overhauled. She needs to go warily on these voyages, for the lurking U Boat is ever watchful, and she would be a good prize for scurrying E Boats that are always waiting on opportunity. Since he oiler usually has a good turn of speed, escorts are not considered essential; and in case of attack she occaisionally has to fight her own way through such hazards as may offer.

 

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

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