For those familiar with the modern RFA fleet the sight of the two One-stop replenishment ships, RFA’s Fort Victoria and Fort George are an awe inspiring sight, these huge vessels are capable of supplying fuel, food, ammunition and other stores to Royal Navy ships whilst underway, and can extend the operational range of modern warships to allow them to conduct protracted operations anywhere in the world.
Ok, but did you know that the concept of the one-stop replenishment ship is nothing new, you didn’t!!
Well, nearly eighty years ago the first of what was to be a class of five German Navy supply ships rolled down the slip and took to the water and about sixty five years ago one of them actually served in the Royal Navy.
This story starts way back in the 1930’s, when the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) were experimenting with the resupply of naval ships, something that was apparently used for the first time during the Spanish Civil War, and the results of these experiments were incorporated into the design of a class of “Troßschiffe” or Supply ships the first of which were laid down in 1936.
These ships were known as the “Dithmarschen” class and at first there were plans to build nine of these ships. However in the end only five were built “Dithmarschen”, “Nordmark”, Uckermark”, “Franken” and “Ermland”.
“Dithmarschen” class German Naval Tanker
“Nordmark “and “Ermland” were completed with steam turbine propulsion and the other three with MAN diesel engines, though all were around 580 feet long with a beam of 72 feet and a draught of 30 feet. They could carry around 10,000 tons of fuel, 306 tons of lubricating oil, 200 tons of ammunition, plus they had the capacity to carry 29,000 cubic feet of Naval Stores, 4,189 cubic feet of victualling stores and had refrigerated holds of 10,310 cubic feet capable of -8 degrees, 5,741 cubic feet capable of 0 degrees and 35,000 cubic feet of chilled space.
The principal use of these vessels was the support of German Naval ships and submarine at sea in fact it is believed that Nordmark carried 100 torpedoes at one time for U Boat operations. In 1940 Nordmark was tasked with supporting the Pocket Battleship Admiral Scheer as well as a supply ship for U Boats and was fitted out at Gotenhaven enabling her to stay at sea for long periods.
Nordmark refuelling the Admiral Scheer
In October 1940 the Nordmark sailed from Gotenhaven disguised as the American tanker “Prairie” to avoid detection. In November she rendezvoused with U66 in mid Atlantic and carried out replenishment operations between the 14 to the 16 Nordmark then refuelled Admiral Scheer and whilst this was taking place the ship sent some of her engineers over to the Eurofeld to help repair her engines. On December the 14 Nordmark refuelled and re-stored Admiral Scheer in the South Atlantic before taking POW’s off the ship and turning north to rendezvous and replenish the German raider Thor and other ships at a secret location.
On the 4 January the captured Norwegian tanker “Storstad” arrived to transfer her cargo to Nordmark, the next day she took the captured prize “Duquensa” in tow after she ran out of fuel. On the 13 January 1941 she transferred some of her POW’s to the Eurofeld in preparation for a rendezvous with the Admiral Scheer on the 24, when she replenished the capital ship again and took off more POW’s, four days later the ship met the prize “Sandefjord” and transferred her prisoners along with some victualling stores. On 9 February she met the raider “Kormoran” and after replenishing her with fuel and food supplies, took 170 prisoners on board.
On the 18 February the ship refuelled the German raider “Pinguin” and on the 9 March achieved her final rendezvous with Admiral Scheer. Taking off more prisoners who were later transferred to her sister “Ermland” before heading to Hamburg. Nordmark had spent a total of 212 days at sea in which she had steamed 33,664 miles.
Nordmark had done the majority of her refuelling at sea using her astern position; there had been no need for her to refuel a ship travelling alongside. She was always waiting in a known fixed position and the ship or U Boat to be supplied had plenty of time. The ships of the Dithmarschen class carried a small float plane, an Arado 196 which was used as a spotter plane to enable them to see enemy ships and the vessels they were rendezvousing with.
In 1942 after a number of months spent in Hamburg, the ship was allocated for service in Norwegian waters in 1942 where she spent the next three years, supporting German Naval units at various bases along the Norwegian Coast. Following the loss of most of the German heavy ships in Norway, the Nordmark was sent to Trondheim in 1944 as a Training ship for coastal craft. At the beginning of 1945 she was again on the move, this time to Trondheim where she was to become a Harbour Depot Ship, though by the end of April 1945 she was at Copenhagen where she was captured by the allies on the 9th May 1945
Only two ships of the “Dithmarschen” class survived the war, “Ermland” struck a mine and was severely damaged off Nantes in 1942. She was eventually sunk there as a block ship. “Uckermark” exploded whilst tank cleaning at Yokohama in November 1942 and had to be scrapped, whilst “Franken” was bombed and sunk in the Baltic in April 1945. The two surviving ships “Dithmarschen” and Nordmark” were both captured by British troops at the end of the war.
Both of the surviving ships were captured, “Nordmark” at Copenhagen and “Dithmarschen” at Bremerhaven. “Nordmark” was given to Great Britain and “Dithmarschen” to the United States by the Inter-Allied Reparations Commission.
“Nordmark” sailed from Copenhagen on the 6 June with a German crew under RN control in company with the cruiser HMS Diadem and the destroyer HMS Oribi, arriving at Rosyth Naval Base arriving on 8 June finally departing on the 29 June for Palmers Shipyard at Hebburn on Tyne for repairs and conversion to an RFA oiler for service with the British Pacific Fleet Train. Renamed RFA Northmark, the conversion was completed by the end of November 1945. Unfortunately the war ended and the ship left the Tyne in February 1946 for Milford Haven where she was placed in reserve at one month’s notice of readiness
On the 27 May 1946 the ship was moved to Falmouth where she joined the Reserve Fleet there at one months notice, and classified as a “Fleet Attendant Tanker, Class B”.
Back at Bremerhaven “Dithmarschen” became USS Dithmarschen and sailed for the US on the 8 May 1945, arriving at the Philadelphia Naval Yards on the 19 May to be converted to a US Naval ship for use in experiments into one-stop replenishment techniques. She was renamed USS Conecuh on the 1 October with the pennant number AO 110.
USS Conecuh (A0-110)
However because of a funding shortage the conversion was delayed and the ship was put into reserve on the 24th October. On the 4th September 1952 she was reactivated and given the pennant number AOR 110.
RFA Northmark was brought out of reserve on the 7th July 1947 and towed to Portsmouth where the ship was refitted for service with the Royal Navy. She was renamed in July 1947 as HMS Bulawayo, thus becoming a unit of the Royal Navy and ending an all too brief career as an RFA. Interestingly, the ships first Commanding Officer was Captain K. A. Short, DSO, Royal Navy who was appointed at the end of June 1947, he considered that the name “Northmark” was too close to that of her sister “Altmark” and may have caused problems in the future. Captain Short suggested to the Admiralty that the name be changed and that it should somehow be connected to the Commonwealth, he was told that a former resident of Rhodesia, Mr John Austen who had been Mayor of a town called Que Que, had left a sum of money in his will that was to be used toward the provision of a ship for the Royal Navy and that it should be named after the town he was Mayor of.
The Navy did not think that naming the ship HMS Que Que was a viable proposition, and therefore contacted the relatives to ask if the ship could be called HMS Bulawayo instead. No objection was raised and that is how the ship got its name.
The ship was used for Replenishment at Sea trials which began in December 1947 and involved the Battleship HMS Duke of York, the cruiser HMS Superb and the destroyer HMS Dunkirk. There had been plans to include the Aircraft Carrier HMS Illustrious, but manning problems prevented her taking part.
The trials began in the English Channel during mid December 1947. The weather at the start of the trials was quite good, with an easterly wind at Force 3 – 4 and no real swell, though as the trials continued a wide variety of weather was experienced. One the first day HMS Duke of York took the honour of the first set of trials and approached Bulawayo from astern, eventually taking up position off the tankers port side. Bulawayo was using a 7 inch rubber fuel hose and the rig was passed across and pumping began at around 11:00 delivering around 900 tons of fuel to the battleship during a ninety minute evolution.
Interestingly, Duke of York had opened 18 tank filling valves and after 50 minutes she had to shut five valves on the port side as she was starting to list to port, the rest of the tank valves were closed at 12:30 on completion of the exercise. The next day the customer was the Cruiser HMS Superb, who made her initial approach from 600 feet off the Bulawayo’s beam, slowly crabbing in until she was around 150 to 120 feet from the tankers beam, when the fuel rig was sent over.
Again a range of speeds were tried and the Captain of the cruiser recommended that whilst his ship could perform the RAS operation at 20 knots, the most comfortable speed was between 15 and 18 knots for station keeping purposes.
During a seventy minute RAS, some 480 tons of fuel were pumped across to Superb at a rate of around 400 tons per hour. The last ship to come up for the liquid RAS trials was the destroyer HMS Dunkirk, who, approaching from astern for an abeam fuelling station on Bulawayo, immediately experienced difficulties steaming at 15 knots, she reduced speed to 12 knots and experienced an immediate deceleration and had to increase speed to 14 knots, which enabled Dunkirk to come up onto the beam from the quarter to commence the RAS. 360 tons of fuel was passed during a 70 minute evolution, with a pumping rate of around 300 tons per hour.
The next sets of trials were to test the astern method, again using 7 inch hoses with Belfast Floats attached. All the ships tried the first evolution, using a 450 foot length of hose with no problems whatsoever at a speed of 14 knots. Then the length of hose was increased to 630 feet and all three ships had their turn, though it was found that at the greater hose length, some difficulty was experienced when streaming and recovering, this was due to the fact that the hose could not be deployed as a full length. An additional clamp was placed in a convenient position and after the first length had been paid out, it was hung off from the clamp until the second hose could be joined on to it and similarly, the same procedure had to be followed when recovering the rig. It was also recommended that the hose should be inflated with compressed air to improve buoyancy and make life a little easier for all concerned.
Now at this point, a number of you who know about RASing will be saying, so what we know all that, been there, done that and worn the T shirt. What is unusual here is that this took place sixty five years ago. Up until the war in the pacific, the principal method of fuelling at sea was by the astern method, it was only when the British joined our American cousins in the march across the Pacific that we very quickly learned how to RAS abeam as well. The US Navy had learned that this method of replenishment was the most efficient when refuelling underway and operating as part of a fast moving battle group. In fact it was essential to the American advance toward the Japanese homeland.
The third set of trials undertaken by HMS Bulawayo was the transferring of ammunition and stores at sea, or a RAS (S), something that is routine today, but back in the 1940’s this was not at all common. In fact the first jackstay transfer of stores at sea was undertaken again in the Pacific theatre by USS Shasta and USS Wrangle when ammunition was passed between ships. So this was a relatively new procedure.
Bulawayo’s had two cargo lifts fitted during her time at Portsmouth to enable stores to be brought up on deck faster, however as this was a new procedure for the Royal Navy and as the ship only had one dedicated stores derrick, positioned at the forward end of the ship. It became necessary to strip down the fuelling derrick for use as well.
Using the heavy jackstay rig and the fuelling derrick the same three warships each took it in turns to receive loads from Bulawayo. All three of the ships had prepared areas to receive stores, with dump mats fitted to the decks, and all three ships suffered some degree of problems during the manoeuvres, though none of which could not be overcome. The most common problem, especially with the cruiser and destroyer, was the tendency of the loads to swing about in anything of a sea way. It was also found a little difficult to position the load over the dump mat during a lively sea.
A number of ‘items’ were passed across during these evolutions, and as well as the usual ammunition, in various calibres a “Squid” projectile was passed to the HMS Dunkirk as well as an 18” torpedo and a 4 inch gun barrel and 5 rounds of 6” ammunition to HMS Superb.
Whilst HMS Bulawayo had been designed specifically for this type of operation, and although slightly modified for RN operations it was found that a lot still needed to be done to enable ship’s of the Royal Navy to carry out effective underway replenishment at sea operations. The lessons learned from all of these Replenishment trials were used to bring the Royal Navy up to a very competent level of efficiency, though it did take a number of years and modifications to achieve the end result.
Interestingly, the design of Bulawayo played a very important part in these trials. In fact a quote from the trials conclusion sums up how valuable this ship was in helping to develop Replenishment at Sea techniques in the Royal Navy and the RFA, Bulawayo with her fine lines slips easily through the water, she has exceptionally good steering arrangements, can maintain a steady speed and is basically an excellent ship for her present purpose”.
As I have already mentioned, Bulawayo and her sisters were around 580 feet long, with a 72 foot beam and a draught of 30 feet, fine lines indeed. However, what is surprising is that she was built with a bulbous bow. Bulawayo also had two Wagner double reduction geared turbines, two outward turning shafts and two 17 foot propellers which helped her maintain her top speed of 22 knots. What is also surprising is that the ship did not have a traditional ships wheel to steer by; instead she had a three button arrangement on her bridge, which in reality was a more efficient and quicker acting design. From a wartime report, it would also appear that Bulawayo, or Nordmark as she was then, left no appreciable wake behind her.
Refuelling the aircraft carrier HMS Theseus (R64) - note the minimal wake astern of HMS Bulawayo
As well as the ships capability as a tanker, she was also designed to carry solid stores, so let’s look at her capacity again. Around 7,900 tons of fuel, part of which would be Lubricating oil and Water. 970 tons of ammunition, everything from bullets to torpedoes (for U Boats), 800 tons of supplies which included frozen, fresh and dry stores, along with a small range of clothing stores, as well as 100 tons of spare parts. This really was a one stop ship, sixty five years before her time.
In 1948 there was an oil shortage in the UK and the Admiralty decided to use the ship as a freight tanker, she left the UK for West Indies on the 18th February, arriving at Trinidad eleven days later on the 29th February, after spending three days loading her cargo she sailed for Sheerness and after pumping her cargo ashore, left five days later for a return trip. In total Bulawayo made four of these freighting trips bringing in around 36,000 tons of much needed fuel arriving home at Sheerness from the last trip on the 29th June 1948. Discharging her cargo, she sailed for Chatham Dockyard for a refit.
Finishing her refit Bulawayo sailed from Chatham at the end of August 1948, she then carried out refuelling trials and exercises with HMS Vanguard. On completion of the trials, the ship was scheduled to accompany the Home Fleet on their Autumn Cruise to the West Indies, but unfortunately Bulawayo had to be withdrawn as she had developed serious problems with her boilers and was moved to Portsmouth for a long refit.
HMS Bulawayo continued to conduct experimental Replenishment trials right up to being withdrawn from service in 1950 and scrapped at Dalmuir in October 1955.
HMS Bulawayo laid up outboard of two other RN ships also laid up at the Gareloch in 1954
HMS Bulawayo laid up in the Gareloch
Her sister ship which became USS Conecuh (AOR-110) was decommissioned in April 1956 and transferred to the Maritime Reserve where she remained until June 1960 when she was also scrapped.
The fine legacy of these early pioneers can be seen today in fleets around the world, but it was the Royal Navy and the US Navy who pioneered the way for the modern one stop ship.
In HMS Bulawayo’s Wardroom was a painting of the Westerwald Forest in Germany, this was from the time she was a German tanker. During his command Captain Short endeavoured to cultivate closer links with the Government of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), considering the ship was now named after that countries second City, so he contacted the then High Commissioner Mr Goodenough, the result of this long term friendship was a bounty of gifts presented to the ship from the City of Bulawayo, One large and two small silver salvers adorned the Wardroom, in return the ship commissioned a painting of the ship which for many years hung in the Town Hall at Bulawayo.
One of the Bulawayo salvers
RFA Veterans will no doubt remember the “Bulawayo Cup” which was presented to ships on the Mediterranean Station on an annual basis; this trophy was presented to the ship, which in the opinion of the awarding committee had displayed in the previous year, the most conspicuous efficiency in Replenishment at Sea.
The Bulawayo Cup
Ships of the RFA won this prestigious trophy (there were in fact two Bulawayo Cups) in eight of the ten years that it was presented.
1951 – HMS Vigo
1952 – RFA Blue Ranger – The cup was presented to Captain Herbert W. Flint, by the Commander in Chief Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral the Earl Mountbatten of Burma. RFA Blue Ranger had carried out a total of 33 replenishments during 1952
1953 – RFA Fort Duquesne
1954 – RFA Fort Duquesne
1955 – HMS Aisne
1956 – RFA Retainer
1957 – RFA Fort Duquesne
1958 – RFA Tideflow
1959 – Shared between RFA Fort Langley and RFA Fort Duquesne – This was the first time that two RFA ships had been judged to have jointly won the cup, which was presented to the Captains of the two ships, Captain D.A.C. Butler of RFA Fort Langley and Captain W. F. Curtlett of RFA Fort Duquesne by Admiral Sir Alexander N.C. Bingley, Commander in Chief Mediterranean Fleet.
1960 – Shared between RFA Tide Austral and RFA Fort Duquesne
Unfortunately, due to overzealous cleaning over the years the names of the recipients has been erased, but all of these trophies are still held by the Royal Navy.