Life in the RFA
Chris Puxley first went to sea with the RFA in 1964, after completing two years on the training ship “Conway”, he joined his first ship, the old RFA Wave Knight, as an Apprentice or Cadet and he left the service in 1979 as a Chief Officer (X).
This is the story of a life at sea through the recollections of one man and illustrates the work, people and ships of the RFA, from the early 1960’s to the late 1970’s. These memoirs provide a unique insight into another era in the Fleet’s rich and varied history.
We hope that you enjoy reading these recollections, which we will be serialising over the next few months, and we would like to take this opportunity to express our grateful thanks to Chris for sharing his story with us.
Chris Puxley first went to sea with the RFA in 1964, after completing two years on the training ship “Conway”, he joined his first ship, the old RFA Wave Knight, as an Apprentice or Cadet and he left the service in 1979 as a Chief Officer (X).
This is the story of a life at sea through the recollections of one man and illustrates the work, people and ships of the RFA, from the early 1960’s to the late 1970’s. These memoirs provide a unique insight into another era in the Fleet’s rich and varied history.
We hope that you enjoy reading these recollections, which we will be serialising over the next few months, and we would like to take this opportunity to express our grateful thanks to Chris for sharing his story with us.
31st January 1964 to 8th May 1964 as a Deck Apprentice with a Maltese crew.
2nd June 1964 to 2nd December 1964 as a Deck Apprentice with a Maltese Crew.
14th December 1964 to 10th February 1965 as a Deck Apprentice with a British Crew.
11th February 1965 to 15th April 1965 as a Deck Apprentice with British Crew.
After just a few hours home, having just paid off from “Tideflow” at Rosyth, I was away on my travels yet again, this time to the Naval Base at Portland in Dorset, where I was to join one of the sister-ships of my previous appointment. This time it was to be the “Tidereach”, which was lying out at a buoy in the harbour, along with several other warships. My first impressions of this place were that it was a wild open anchorage, with a few lucky smaller frigates and harbour craft sheltering from the wind and rain, at jetties lying under the lee of the Portland peninsular. A small MFV took me and my baggage on the short wind lashed journey out to the ship.
RFA BROWN RANGER
9th August 1965 to 27th October 1965 as a Deck Apprentice with a British Crew.
I joined this small replenishment tanker at Portland Naval Base, where she was standing in for the regular resident, the “Black Ranger”. I was one of two apprentices carried at the time.
Portland Naval Base and the off-lying sea area was the residence and operating area of the Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST). The resident ‘Portland Tanker’ came under his operational control. All British warships and RFA’s, as well as ships from some other friendly navies, were programmed to pass through a ‘work-up’ period with FOST staff. This ‘work-up’ usually followed a new commissioning or a period of ship modification or refit, where all the systems need to be checked over and proved to work. It was also intended to train the crews in all aspects of seamanship, ship handling, warfare, damage control and hopefully to be able to deal successfully with almost any other situation that might arise. On satisfactory completion of this intensive training period, the ship was then released to join the Fleet.
28th October 1965 to 23rd August 1966 as a Deck Apprentice with a British Crew
I was given a direct transfer from one of the oldest and smallest RFA tankers, the “Brown Ranger”, to the latest and largest of a new breed of Fast Fleet Replenishment Tankers. She had just arrived at Portland after having completed acceptance trials from her builders on Tyneside. Her Master was the current Commodore of the RFA fleet and I was to be the senior of three deck apprentices.
Pennant No. A 404 International Callsign GHVE Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 5033454
Builder Henry Robb Ltd, Leith. (Yard No. 483).
Launched 4th June 1962 Completed November 1962
Displacement (Light-ship) 2,740 tons (Loaded) 8,165 tons
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 2,441 G.R.T. 4,823 DWT 5,425
Dimensions Length O.A. 379 ft. Beam 55 ft. Draft 23 ft.
Main Machinery 1 x Swan Hunter / Sulzer 5 cylinder diesel engine. Single shaft. Speed 15 knots
Ships Badge Granted in 1962. Bacchus was the son of Zeus and the God of Wine. The badge depicts an arm reaching up from the sea, holding a gold chalice of wine.
Remarks A general cargo ship and the third RFA vessel to bear this name. She was the sister-ship of, and has identical details to the “HEBE”, mentioned earlier. Both ships were fitted with steel ‘McGreggor’ hatch covers, electric winches and both had air-conditioned accommodation areas. On both ships, speed and distance was recorded by a ‘Walker’s’ “Trident” log. This was a recording clock mounted on the taffrail and driven by a governed rotator, trailed through the sea on a log line behind the ship.
Pennant No. A 480 International Callsign GRFE Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 6717423
Builder Scott’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Co., Greenock. (Yard No. 242)
Launched 11th February 1966 Completed 16th May 1967
Displacement (Light-ship) 13,285 tons. (Loaded) 20,510 tons.
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 8,040 G.R.T. 18,029 DWT 7,225
Dimensions Length O.A. 640 ft. Beam 77 ft. Draft 28 ft.
Main Machinery 2 x AEI (Manchester) steam turbines. 2 x Foster Wheeler water tube boilers.
Single shaft. Speed 21 knots.
Ships Badge The badge was originally granted in 1927, to a Fleet Repair Ship built by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow in Furness. She was the 3rd British warship to bear the name and was scrapped at Inverkeithing in 1954.
The origin of the badge design evolved from the fact that “HMS Unicorn”, which had been captured by the French in 1780, was then retaken in 1781 by the British man-of war called “Resource”, (built 1778). The badge therefore depicts a sea-unicorn, to commemorate this event. The motto, passed on from earlier warships is “Passim ut Olim”, (Everywhere as of yore).
Remarks Along with her sister-ship “REGENT”, the “RESOURCE” was a purpose designed Fleet Replenishment Ship, with a specialisation for the storage and issue of armament supplies. A large range of victualling and naval stores were also carried in the warehouse style cargo spaces below decks. Certain cargo compartments and the accommodation areas were fully air-conditioned. These two ships were the only two RFA’s of their time to permanently carry a helicopter, (Wessex 5), along with a detachment of RN flight personnel, primarily to be used for the transfer of stores between ships whilst at sea. This process is known as “Vertrep”, (vertical replenishment).
When the receiving ship was able to close with the storeship, loads were transferred via heavy jackstays, kept taut by electric automatic tensioning winches. The jackstay rigs were positioned each side of 3 goalpost type gantries. In addition there was a special gantry for the transfer of ‘Seaslug’ surface to air guided missiles, then carried by the County class detroyers The RAS jackstay high-points were modified from time to time, as trials were carried out with new designs of load lifting arms, aimed to reduce handling shocks to sophisticated weapons in a rough seaway. The hull was strengthened for navigation in ice.
“RESOURCE” was finally taken out of service and sold to ‘Harlequin Shipping Ltd, (Electra Marine [London] Ltd), in 1997. Renamed “RESOURCEFUL” and registered in St Vincent, she steamed to Alang, India to be broken up. She departed Devonport on 24th June 1997, arriving at her final destination on 20th August 1997.
21st September 1967 to 4th March 1968
I travelled north to join this new ship at Greenock, on the Clyde, where she had been built and had just completed her sea trials. The “Resource”, along with her sister-ship the “Regent”, had been designed by the Ministry of Defence at Bath. Consequently, both were functional but not the prettiest or most comfortable of ships. They had the appearance of a tanker from a distance, with a large accommodation block amidships and another at the stern to cater for the large complement of personnel. These two accommodation areas were linked by a pair of long alleyways which ran along each side of the ship, immediately beneath the main deck. The alleyway on the port side, with crew cabins, was known as “Union Street”, after a thoroughfare well known to seafarers in Plymouth, and the starboard side alleyway with civilian stores personnel cabins was known as the “Burma Road”. Deck Officer cabins were in the midships island, along with the radio officers, pursers, the helicopter pilot and the senior armament stores officers. The after accommodation held cabins for the ship’s engineers, petty officers, junior armament stores officers and the RN helicopter maintenance detachment. The officers’ lounge and dining saloon were aft, below the flight deck.
In addition to the normal manning requirement of RFA officers and crew for a vessel of this size, these ships also carried a large contingent of armament stores personnel. Their responsibility was to manage the vast amount of naval and aircraft munitions held on board. She also carried a wide range of ordinary naval stores and victualling supplies for transfer to warships at sea. “Resource” was however, principally an armament supply ship, with her dangerous cargo carried in deep holds, with decks interconnected by large electric lifts. When not in use, the lift platforms were stowed at the main deck position and the deck sealed pneumatically, to prevent the ingress of water. Any item of stores held below decks had to be readily accessible, therefore each hold compartment was fitted out like a warehouse and serviced by mini forklift trucks and other specialised handling equipment.
For security reasons, much of the hold space was ‘out of bounds’ to RFA personnel. That was unless they had been ‘positively vetted’. Less painful than it sounds, this meant that the individuals background and character was researched in depth by the Ministry of Defence. This procedure was usually reserved for armament staff and senior RFA officers, (1st Officer and above).
Finally completing builders trials and leaving shipyard hands shortly after I joined, we sailed from the Clyde and carried out a lengthy loading process in Plymouth Sound. All our cargo came out to us by barge from the armament depot at Ernesettle. Armament ships hardly ever went alongside anywhere in the U.K. because of the nature of the cargo. The exception was at Glen Mallen Jetty in Loch Long, which serviced the remote and large NATO armament depot that was built into the hillside of Glen Douglas. As a result, going ashore anywhere else meant taking a long ride in a liberty boat, with the associated and usually infrequent boat routines.
On completion of loading at Plymouth, we sailed the short distance to Portland for our FOST (Flag Officer Sea Training) “work-up”. Because of the new ship design and types of replenishment rigs that had been fitted to the ship, our “work-up” was unusually long and arduous.
As is usual for 3rd Officers, I held the 8-12 watch, with duties much as described in the narrative for the “Bacchus”. Additionally, when in company or on exercise with warships or other RFA’s, there was the added interest, both day and night, of convoy station-keeping, various manoeuvring signals to be de-coded and acted upon and frequent replenishments to keep you busy. Helicopter operations were another interesting distraction.
In port there was no respite from the tedious watch-keeping, as strict gangway and duty watches had to be constantly maintained. I found that gangway watches were a real chore and usually very boring. The one relief from tedium was handling the boisterous libertymen that came staggering up the gangway from the last liberty-boat after a good run ashore. Some were frequently trying to smuggle bottles of spirit on board, which the captain had forbidden to the crew. The situation at the top of the gangway often got quite tense, with the subsequent logging, (not flogging!), of serious offenders the following morning in front of the captain.
Being an armament ship, the Royal Naval Armament Department had acquired a pair of beautiful old brass mortars from some source, which were kept highly polished by the quartermasters and displayed either side of a decorative lifebuoy at the top of the gangway.
Ports of call whilst I was aboard were rather mundane and mainly located around the U.K. coast. These included Plymouth Sound, Portland Harbour and the jetty at Glen Mallen. At these places we frequently carried out load adjustments, to suit the future requirements of ships that we were programmed to meet at sea. Between ports we replenished many ships and took part in many exercises. Our one break from this intensive routine was a trip to Lisbon and on to Gibraltar, before returning again to U.K. waters.
I finally paid off the “Resource” at Plymouth, having by now gained enough sea-time to go to college and study for all the examinations which, if I passed, would gain me a Board of Trade “First Mate (Foreign Going)” Certificate.
The subjects covered to obtain this qualification were:
“Navigation” (3 hours, min. 70% to pass), “Chartwork” (2 hours, min.70% to pass), “Ship Construction & Stability” (3 hours, min.50% to pass), “Meteorology” ( 2 hours, no minimum pass mark but marks do count towards overall average percentage), “Ship Maintenance, Routine and Cargo Work” (3 hours, min 50% to pass) and “Elementary Magnetism, Electricity and the Gyro Compass” (2 hours, no minimum pass mark but marks do count towards overall average percentage.
As with 2nd Mates, the written exams were followed by an “Oral” examination and a “Signals” examination.
Pennant No. A 81 International Callsign MQPK Registered LONDON
Previous Name “London Loyalty” (Renamed 1959). Lloyds Identity No. 5050244
Builder Furness Shipbuilding Co Ltd, Teesside. (Yard No. 454).
Launched 16th April 1953 Completed January 1954
Displacement (Light-ship) Not Known. (Loaded) Not Known.
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 7,042 G.R.T. 12,123 DWT 17,960
Dimensions Length O.A. 557 ft. Beam 71.5 ft. Draft 31 ft.
Main Machinery 1 x North East Marine/Doxford 6 cylinder 2SC SA diesel engine.
Single shaft. Speed 14 knots.
Ships Badge Not granted until 1978, to the next and 3rd Admiralty vessel of this name. The badge depicts a golden sprig of bramble in leaf, with red thorns, on a blue background.
Remarks “BRAMBLELEAF”, and her sister-ship the “BAYLEAF”, (ex “London Integrity”), were bareboat chartered by the Admiralty, from ‘London Overseas Freighter Ltd’ on 22nd May 1959. Other L.O.F. tankers of this class were the “London Victory”, completed in Feb.1952 and the “London Majesty”, which was completed in June 1952.
“BRAMBLELEAF” was a freighting tanker and the second RFA to bear this name. Basic modifications were built onto this ship to enable her to replenish others with fuel oil and diesel by means of a stern hose rig. She was also able to accept and connect to the beam rigs of Fleet Replenishment Tankers, enabling her to transfer her cargo by this method if required.
“Leaf” class tankers were all vessels that became available on the commercial market and were usually taken up on long-term bareboat charters. Their task was to supplement and support the purpose built Fleet Replenishment Tankers, often shuttling between oil refineries or Admiralty oil storage depots and the Fleet Tankers in a Task Group. They were also employed in bringing fuel from oil producing countries to British naval dockyards and bases around the world. Other tankers in this class at the time were the “APPLELEAF”, “BAYLEAF”, “CHERRYLEAF”, the “ORANGELEAF”, (which was equipped with two abeam replenishment gantries, supporting four RAS derricks), and the almost identical twins “PEARLEAF” and “PLUMLEAF”, (both these two ships were later fitted with a single abeam replenishment gantry and two RAS derricks).
“BRAMBLELEAF” was returned to her owners, ‘London Overseas Freighters Ltd’, in 1970.
Sold to subsidiary ‘Mayfair Tankers’ of Monrovia, in 1972 and re-named “MAYFAIR LOYALTY”.
Laid up at Spezia, Italy 9th Sept. 1974. Sold to Ditta Lotti, (Cantieri Navali Lotti) 27th Feb. 1976 and breaking up commenced at Spezia in July 1976.
20th June 1968 to 2nd December 1968
Singapore Chinese Crew
3rd Officer until 11th September 1968
Then promoted 2nd Officer
I joined this ship in Rosyth, after nearly four months ashore on leave and studying hard at Plymouth Polytechnic for my “Mate’s Foreign Going” ticket. I sat the series of written exams and underwent the oral ‘grilling’ at Dock Street in London, all of which thankfully I managed to pass.
After having had a period on replenishment ships I now found myself on a freighting tanker, although it did have the ability to refuel other ships by the ‘astern method’. This involved trailing a 600 ft length of standard 6” x 30 ft sections of flexible rubber hose, the back end of which would then be picked up by the receiving ship.
Designed for commercial freighting around the world, the accommodation was comfortably and spaciously fitted out. Even as a junior officer, my cabin was quite roomy and had an en-suite bathroom. This was sheer luxury after the new but spartan comforts of my last ship, the M.O.D. designed “Resource”.
My duties at sea were similar to those that I had on the “Bacchus”. When in port and loading or discharging the cargo, the 2nd Officer and myself would keep cargo watches. This meant monitoring the loading or discharging process carefully, transferring the flow of oil from one tank to another as they became full or empty. When loading from a refinery, the cargo came aboard very quickly; making a fearsome crackling noise as it raced through the deck manifold. You needed to keep your wits about you so as to change tanks at the precise moment when the oil in the tank reached the required height, usually just a couple of rungs on the ladder from the top of the tank. Often we loaded two or three different products at the same time, requiring the deftness of a one armed paperhanger! If you were not prepared and the tank overflowed, the consequences would be catastrophic. The ship was getting on in years and some of the valves were quite stiff to turn, and especially difficult to close against a torrent of oil.
The Captain was a hard but fair man, who lived on the banks of the Clyde near Dunoon. After a couple of freighting trips to Trinidad and to Augusta in Sicily, bringing oil cargoes back to the U.K., the ship was programmed to go to dry-dock at ‘Cammel Laird’s’ in Birkenhead for a refit. As our last discharge port was the NATO depot at Loch Striven in the Clyde estuary, the Captain asked me to drive his car from his home, down to Birkenhead to meet the ship on arrival. He would then have the use of his car whilst we were there. I happily agreed as it meant a couple of days off the ship and a pleasant drive south in his rather nice car.
It was always interesting to see a ship being brought into dry-dock and lined up with the keel blocks. Cranes then lifted the side timbers into position as ship settled down when the water was pumped out of the dock. As the water level continued to fall, the yard workers got started on cleaning the weed and growth off the ship’s side and eventually moving under the hull as the dock dried out. Overboard discharges would be plugged or piped away from the ship and the anchors and cables laid out on the dock bottom for inspection. On going down into the dock yourself and walking under the hull, you really got to appreciate the enormous mass of your vessel.
Meanwhile, up on deck, the recently smart and orderly ship was turned into what seemed like an absolute shambles of ladders, skips, power cables, scaffolding and all sorts of repair equipment.
Usually, most of the ship’s personnel were paid off for the refit duration of two to three weeks. Those remaining had to move ashore as there was unlikely to be any heating, power or fresh water supplied for the ships normal facilities. Everything that could be moved had to be kept under lock and key and carefully watched, otherwise it disappeared! All valuable and attractive items were put into locked containers, delivered to the ship for that purpose.
I stayed with the ship throughout the refit, during which time I was promoted to 2nd Officer. My new responsibilities meant that I was now the ships navigator and operations officer, understudying the Chief Officer as required.
During my time at sea, I think that being the navigator was the job on all ships that I enjoyed the most. You were at the hub of all the operational information and knew all about what was going in all departments, and of the outside influences that would affect your ship, now and for the foreseeable future. Primarily, you were responsible to the captain for the safe navigation of the ship and its’ timely arrival wherever it was meant to be.
At sea I now kept the 12-4, or “graveyard” watch, possibly so called because it was generally quiet on board the ship during that time as others slept. The day started with a call and a cuppa at about 0900. If the call didn’t wake you the crew with their chipping hammers did! After a slice of toast or similar, (breakfast had long been cleared), there was possibly an operational meeting with the captain, or a bit of day-work to do such as chart correcting, or maintenance to the gyro compass and repeaters. There may even be a bit of work to do on the Chernekeef log that was playing up again. This important piece of equipment, which projected from the hull under water, indicated the ship’s speed. It was probably located in some place that was almost inaccessible, down in the bowls of one of the pumprooms. Lunch would be early, at 1130, before taking over the watch on the bridge at 1200. Quite soon into the watch there would be the noon position to ascertain by measuring the sun’s altitude with the sextant. This gave you your latitude, which was then crossed with transferred position lines of the earlier sights taken by the 3rd Officer, to give you the ship’s noon position. All this business was not of course necessary if you were within detectable range of land. The ‘day’s run’ would then be recorded and various reports written. The navigation watch was handed over to the Chief Officer as he arrived on the bridge at 1600. Time for a period of relaxation and maybe a movie, before a drink at the bar at 1730 and dinner at 1800. After dinner there was time to see the end of the movie, or relax, before turning in at around 2100 and sleeping until going on watch again at midnight. At 0400, the sleepy smiling face of the Chief Officer appeared in the dim lighting of the chartroom. He took over the watch again as you either went below to have a chat and a beer with the 3rd engineer who had also just come off watch, or you went straight to bed.
On sailing from the Birkenhead refit we embarked on a voyage to Trinidad to load a full cargo of FFO, (furnace fuel oil) and diesel oil. The ‘Great Circle’ track across the Atlantic took us past the island of Flores, in the Azores group, with the next landfall being a sight of Barbados, then onwards to Trinidad. As this was my first trip as the navigator, it was very satisfying to make a transatlantic landfall right on the button! Approaching Trinidad, our track took us through the ‘Bocas del Dragon’, (Mouth of the Dragon), which was a channel between the north-western peninsula of Trinidad and the coast of Venezuela. You then entered a large sheltered sea area known as the Gulf of Paria, to the west of the island of Trinidad. Pelicans abounded in this area and could be seen diving into the sea, just like Gannets, to catch fish that ventured too near the surface. Our usual destination in Trinidad was the Texaco oil refinery jetties at Pointe-a-Pierre. From Trinidad we headed for the remote and tiny island group of St Paul’s Rocks, situated in the middle of the Atlantic between Brazil and West Africa. It was off these islands that we waited for a homeward bound and rather thirsty frigate. After filling her fuel tanks via an astern RAS, we made our way north to Gibraltar to discharge our cargo into the naval storage depot.
We next had a pleasant change from the lonely Atlantic Ocean. Our orders took us into the warm Mediterranean Sea, to load from the oil refineries at Augusta, in Sicily. Whilst loading at Augusta, I recall seeing at night the red glow of lava running down the side of Mount Etna, which was about 35 miles away to the north. We then sailed right across to the far north-eastern corner of the Med. and discharged our diesel cargo at the NATO oil depot at Iskenderun, in Turkey.
After Iskenderun, we headed west again, to Gibraltar and then back to the U.K. coast, where we spent a busy period shifting cargoes of oil around between the various naval bases and depots. These included Loch Striven and Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde, plus a cargo to load at Eastham Lock, where there was a terminal facility in a shipping basin, adjacent to the entrance of the Manchester Ship Canal.
I finally paid off the “Brambleleaf” at Yonderberry Jetty, the oil berth situated across the Hamoaze from Devonport Dockyard.
Pennant No. A 329 International Callsign GGVC Registered LONDON
Previous Name “Chungking” (Renamed 1952). Lloyds Identity No. 5293470
Builder Scott’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Co Ltd, Greenock. (Yard No. 197).
Launched 19th January 1950. Completed November 1950
Displacement (Light-ship) 6,500 tons. (Loaded) 14,000 tons.
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 3,984 G.R.T. 9,498 DWT 7,500
Dimensions Length O.A. 477 ft. Beam 62 ft. Draft 25 ft.
Main Machinery 1 x Scott’s / Doxford 6 cylinder marine diesel engine.
Single shaft. Speed 15 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1968. The badge features a golden eagle flying over water, bearing a clutch of three arrows, and thus representing a weapons carrier.
Remarks This ship was a former passenger and cargo liner, operating on routes around the Chinese coast and to Hong Kong and Australasia.
She was purchased from the ‘China Steam Navigation Co’ by the Admiralty in 1952. She was then employed on charter work for several shipping companies for a couple of years. Between the autumn of 1954 and April 1955, she was converted into a Naval Store Ship by ‘Palmers Co Ltd’ at Hebburn on the Tyne.
Further conversion work was carried out by ‘Palmers’ between March and August of 1957, to extend her facilities as an Armament and Naval Store Ship. This included the fitting out of the holds to carry a variety of munitions, as well as the installation of cargo lifts, extra handling gear for replenishment at sea and the fitting of new bridge wings.
“RETAINER” is the sister-ship to the “RESURGENT”, (ex “Changchow”), also purchased from China Steam Navigation Co.
Her replenishment conversion work involved the fitting of heavy jackstay rigs and the associated automatic tensioning winches to locations either side of her foremast and mainmast. A small helicopter winching platform was built over the poop for the transfer of stores by ‘Vertrep’.
“RETAINER” was finally laid up at Rosyth Dockyard in April 1978. Sold to Spanish breakers, she left Rosyth under tow on 29th October 1979, arriving at Barcelona on 19th November 1979. Demolition work began on 19th February 1980.
4th February 1969 to 9th October 1969
I flew by a British European Airways ‘Viscount’ to Gibraltar to join this ageing armament supply ship, arriving at the ‘Rock’ in the late afternoon. The steep turn into the landing strip, so as to avoid Spanish airspace, was quite exhilarating to say the least. It also afforded a good view of the harbour, where there was no sign of my ship. I was met by the local RFA agent, who took me to a hotel and assured me that “Retainer” would be arriving the following morning. Following a good night out on the town, the next afternoon I walked up the gangway of my new home, which was lying alongside the south mole of the harbour.
Although getting on in years and much modified, the “Retainer” still had the pleasing traditional lines of a cargo-passenger liner, which was her original purpose. The cargo lift housings on the upper deck and the helicopter platform down aft were the only real outward clues to her naval adaptation. The ‘officers lounge’ was one of the nicest I had ever seen. It was located at the after end of the boat-deck, with wide concertina doors on the port and starboard sides. When these were opened on a warm tropical evening they presented a wide airy room befitting any passenger ship.
Sailing from Gibraltar, the ship returned to the U.K. for load adjustments in Plymouth Sound. We then sailed up through the Irish Sea to the Clyde and into Loch Long, where we secured to the armament jetty at Glen Mallen. Following further load adjustments we were off to the Mediterranean again, to join up with a British naval task group that was taking part in a wide ranging NATO exercise. Occasionally the group would disband to visit various ports and 'show the flag’. We were fortunate to be allocated visits to Malta, (Marsaxlokk), Villefranche on the French Riviera and we also had a few days in Venice. At the last two places we were in company with the amphibious assault carrier HMS Bulwark.
At Villefranche we secured to a buoy in the middle of the bay and were soon surrounded by dozens of smart looking speedboats and other luxury craft. We were now in the playground of the rich! During our visit and on one of my runs ashore, I took the opportunity to catch a train with a couple of other officers, to see the sights of Monte Carlo, which was just a few miles along the coast to the east.
Rejoining the NATO exercise, our orders directed us to a position in the eastern Mediterranean. Just for a change, we routed ourselves to pass the active and smoking volcanic island of Stromboli and then down through the Straits of Messina. Both were very interesting and impressive sights. Going through the straits, I recall passing several fishing boats looking for tuna. They had unusually tall masts, presumably to enable a lookout to spot a school of these delicious fish.
In Venice, and despite the fact that we were full of munitions, the ship was given a berth alongside the quay, right in the middle of town! After being treated like a leper around the U.K. coast, this was a rare and much appreciated treat, made all the more so when the ‘Bulwark’ had to lie out in mid-stream tied to buoys. On a run ashore, we saw a lot of the main sights like St Marks Square and the Rialto Bridge and explored many of the nooks and crannies of this unusual city. The gondoliers wanted a fortune for a ride in one of their boats, so we didn’t bother and found a nice little bar instead!
A large naval exercise in the Aegean Sea was very interesting and took us close to many of the Greek islands, which looked beautiful in the blue sea and bright sunshine. The anchorage during the amphibious assault and landing phase of this exercise was in Saros Bay, right up in the north-east corner of the Aegean and close to the Dardanelles, an area steeped in history and during this era of the “Cold War”, still considered vital to NATO in order to monitor or contain a part of the Russian fleet within the Black Sea.
On detaching from the exercises, our business in the Mediterranean also included a visit to Cyprus. For a short period we anchored off the then small fishing village of Limassol, where I recall taking a boat trip ashore for a haircut and a shopping run, picking up a couple of goat skin rugs and a cushion. We then moved to anchor close to a tiny dock at the RAF base at Akrotiri, where we discharged a quantity of 500 and 1000 pound bombs. From our anchorage at the eastern end of the main runway, we had a grandstand view of the RAF “Red Arrows” team, who were probably practising for the following season of displays back in the U.K. The RAF laid on a liberty boat service for us during our stay and I remember during one off-watch period finding a wonderful beach for swimming and sunbathing.
I paid off the ship at Cyprus, in order to be home with my wife for the birth of my first son. The flight with the RAF from Akrotiri took me high over Monte Carlo and I could see far below, the bay and swimming pool that I had walked around just a few months earlier.
Pennant No. A 84 International Callsign GRLK Registered WEST HARTLEPOOL
Previous Name “Somersby” (Re-named 23/9/1958). Lloyds Identity No. 5292646
Builder Sir James Laing & Sons Ltd, Sunderland.
Launched 9th September 1953 Completed 4th March 1955
Displacement (Light-ship) 4,447 tons (Loaded) 13,737 tons
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 3,626 G.R.T. 8,460 DWT 9,290
Dimensions Length O.A. 469 ft. Beam 61.5 ft Draft 26 ft.
Main Machinery 1 x Doxford 6 cylinder marine diesel engine. Built by Hawthorn Leslie.
Single shaft. Speed 18 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1971. Depicts a joining shackle in a studded chain cable, over wavy sea, on a blue background, representing the reliable link in the Fleet Train.
Remarks Originally named “Somersby”, this ship was a grain carrier owned by ‘Ropner Shipping Co.’, trading for two years between the Gulf of Mexico and the U.K. Ownership transferred to the Admiralty in May 1957. She became RFA “SOMERSBY” on 11th August 1957 and served as a stores freighter for a few months. In 1958 she was extensively converted at (Smith’s Shipyard & Drydock Co.?), North Shields, to be an Air Stores Support Ship to accompany an aircraft carrier battle group. This conversion work included adding 700 tons of permanent ballast on her tank-tops and the provision of an additional steel deck. Extra accommodation was provided for embarked stores personnel. An improved electrical generating plant, new RAS winches and stores binning facilities within the holds had to be built into the vessel to enable her to carry out her new role. Conversion work was completed by 23rd September 1958, when she was re-named “RELIANT”.
She sailed from Chatham Dockyard on 4th November 1958, bound for the Far East, where she was based for many years supporting the Fleet in that region, in particular all activities involving aircraft carrier operations. She carried a vast range of 40,000 different patterns of aircraft spares and naval stores in her six specially designed holds. She became known within the RFA as ‘The Yacht’, because of her good looks and plush wood panelled officers accommodation complete with sweeping curved staircases. Possibly also because of her relatively easy lifestyle in the Far East.
Two heavy jackstay transfer rigs operated from both port and starboard sides and she was fitted with a helicopter winching pad over the poop. She was also equipped with two Naval Stores Tenders, (NST’s), used for transferring stores in harbour or at an anchorage, (and beach parties!).
“RELIANT” was laid up at Rosyth Dockyard in 1976. She was sold to T.W.Ward, shipbreakers at Inverkeithing and towed the short distance there on 23rd August 1977. Her spare propeller was kept intact and now lies as an exhibit at Chatham’s “Historic Dockyard”. The previous “RELIANT”, (ex “London Importer”), was an RFA Fleet Supply Ship built in 1923 by Furness Shipbuilding and purchased by the Admiralty in 1933. She had a GRT of 7,938 tons and dimensions of 471 ft x 58 ft x 30 ft draft and a speed of 14 knots.
9th December 1969 to 29th December 1969
Singapore Chinese Crew
I was asked to join this ship, which was lying in Portsmouth Dockyard, for a brief period to relieve the ship’s appointed 2nd Officer so that he could get away on compassionate leave. The ship remained alongside throughout my brief stint, as it was approaching and indeed covering the Christmas leave period when the Royal Navy was unlikely to be found at sea. The Captain had himself gone home for a few days and left the ship in the hands of the 1st Officer, Who characteristically smoked roll-up fags to the bitter end, until they practically burned his lips!
There was no doctor on board at this time and the last one had left the hospital and medical stores in a bit of a shambles. I seem to remember that the 1st Officer and I spent a lot of our time trying to sort out the collection of medical bits and pieces, counting tablets and quantities of medicines and putting the details down in a ledger.
Nothing much happened during my time on board, that I can recall, apart from the routine watchkeeping duties whilst in port. I missed Christmas at home with my family but the extra money came in handy for keeping our heads above water. I paid off in Portsmouth, transferring directly to my next ship, which was awaiting me in Portland.
Pennant No. A 163 International Callsign GWKT Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 5045938
Builder Harland & Wolff Ltd, Govan, Glasgow.
Launched 22nd August 1940 Completed 28th January 1941
Displacement (Light-ship) 3141 tons (Loaded) 6,630 tons.
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 1,552 G.R.T. 3,440 DWT 3,489
Dimensions Length O.A. 366 ft. Beam 47 ft. Draft 20 ft.
Main Machinery 1 x Burmeister & Wain 6 cylinder marine diesel engine. Built by Harland & Wolff
Single shaft. Speed 12 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1964. For some unknown reason (to me), only three “Rangers” out of the class of six ships were granted badges. They were the “BLACK”, “BLUE” and “GOLD”. The badge for the “BLACK RANGER” was a vertically mounted salmon fishing fly on a white background.
Remarks A Small Replenishment Tanker. She was the sister-ship of, and has the same details as the “BROWN RANGER” mentioned earlier in this collection of memories.
The large forecastle area of this class allowed for an enclosed and covered ‘garage’ area on the starboard side, originally intended as a stowage for a 9 ton fuel barge. Large water-tight doors would allow the barge to be drawn out onto the tank deck along a short trackway. It would then be lifted overboard by the ship’s derrick and secured alongside, where it would be loaded with aircraft fuel from the ship’s cargo tanks. The barge concept was designed and intended for the refuelling of flying-boats. However, no barges were ever loaded on board or deployed from the “Rangers” and the space was used for storage of drummed oil or other purposes.
After war service with the Russian convoys, “BLACK RANGER” was stationed for most of the remainder of her life at Portland Naval Base, as part of the resident Training Squadron.
She was sold in July 1973 to Greek owners ‘Diana Shipping & Trading Corporation SA, (John S.Latsis), of Piraeus, and renamed “Petrola XIV”. The name was modified in 1976 to “Petrola 14”.
She was finally broken up between May – August 1983, at Piraeus by Chalivdeboriki Ltd.
30th December 1969 to 23rd January 1970
This was to be another brief appointment, but this time rather busier.
“Black Ranger” was the regular ‘Portland Tanker’, carrying out training duties, week in, week out, for the staff of Flag Officer Sea Training, (FOST). The day to day work was described earlier, in the narrative for “Brown Ranger”, during her stint at Portland. Life on board was quite straight forward, with all the crew very competent at their well practised tasks. Many of them had been on the ship for some considerable time and lived in the Portland area. The working hours during the week could be quite long, with exercises lasting well into or throughout the night.
You learnt a whole new language of naval words, phrases and acronyms whilst working at Portland. For example, ‘PIAWPO’, meaning Proceed in accordance with previous orders, ‘NAVEX’, = Navigation Exercise, ‘RAS Corridor’ = the sea-lane through the Portland exercise areas for replenishment serials, ‘PBL’ was Portland Bill Lighthouse, ‘RHOC’ meant Return to harbour on completion, (always a popular one), ‘RASON’ = Remain at sea overnight, (not so popular), not to be confused with ‘RASEX’ = Replenishment exercise and many more that I have now forgotten. Weekends were usually spent alongside ‘Q’ Pier or the ‘Coaling Pier’, with a bit of time to relax.
After just over three weeks of replenishments, being towed hither and thither, boarded and interrogated, being invaded by naval fire parties and numerous other naval exercises I left the ship at Portland for a period of time at home, enjoying the relative peace and quiet of the company of my baby son!
Pennant No. L 3513 International Callsign MVRD Registered LONDON
Previous Name L 3523 / HMS ”Trouncer” (47) / “Empire Gull” (56). Lloyds Ident No. 5103704
Builder Davie Shipbuilding & Repair Co Ltd, Levis, Quebec.
Launched 9th July 1945 Completed October 1945
Displacement (Light-ship) 2,140 tons (Loaded) 4,840 tons
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 2,303 G.R.T. 4,258 DWT 2,700
Dimensions Length O.A. 347 ft. Beam 55 ft. Draft 12 ft (aft).
Main Machinery 2 x Triple expansion steam reciprocating engines. Built by Canadian Pacific Railway Co. 2 x 3 drum Admiralty boilers. 2 shafts. Speed 10 knots.
Ships Badge She was not granted an official badge, but the ship did display one unofficially. It depicted the end-on silhouette of a gull in flight over water.
Remarks The second ship to bear this name, (the first being the ex “Brave Coeur” (built 1919) of surplus and laid up U.S. tonnage, sold to Britain and renamed in 1941, torpedoed off East Africa Dec. 1942). She was the last remaining Landing Ship Tank, LST(3) type of 2nd World War design and was fitted with large hydraulically operated bow doors for discharging her cargo over a beach. Inside these horizontally opening doors was a large ramp door with a watertight seal and hinged at the bottom. This ramp door was lowered on wires and carried an extending section to reach the beach at a reasonable angle to allow tanks and other vehicles to drive ashore through the shallows. She was originally capable of carrying 15 x 40 ton tanks on her lower (tank) deck, and 14 x 3 ton lorries on her upper (vehicle) deck. Vehicle access to the upper deck was by an internal ramp, which also doubled as a hatch cover. She could also accommodate 168 troops in dormitories located on either side of the tank deck. During the ‘Suez Crisis’ of 1956, twelve LST(3) ships, still cocooned in the Clyde, were recalled to service by the War Office, for use as military transports. They were given the ‘EMPIRE’ nomenclature and operated for the Ministry of Transport, by the ‘Atlantic Steam Navigation Co. Ltd’. Those twelve ships were the EMPIRE’s “CURLEW”, “FULMAR”, “GANNET”, “GREBE”, “GUILLEMOT”, “GULL”, “KITTIWAKE”, “PETREL”, “PUFFIN”, “SHEARWATER”, “SKUA” and “TERN”. This company were already operating seven other LST(3)’s at that time. They were the EMPIRE’s “BALTIC”, “CEDRIC”, “CELTIC”, “CYMRIC”, “DORIC”, “GAELIC” and “NORDIC”. In 1961, ten of the batch of twelve vessels from the Clyde were transferred to the management of the ‘British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd, leaving ‘Atlantic Steam’ with their original seven vessels plus the “PUFFIN” and “SHEARWATER”.
In February 1970 the “EMPIRE GULL”, as the only remaining LST(3), all the others having been scrapped, was transferred from ‘British India’ management to the RFA. She continued to operate in the Mediterranean until August 1970, when she was brought back to U.K. waters for a major refit. She was then tasked on the Marchwood to Antwerp shuttle service for the British Army operating in Europe, or occasionally used on the Liverpool to Belfast runs for the troops in Northern Ireland.
She was finally laid up at Portsmouth in 1978 and sold to Spanish breakers, leaving on 13th March 1980 and arriving at Santander on 20th March 1980.
7th February 1970 to 9th September 1970
Hong Kong Chinese Crew
This old tub turned out to be one of my most interesting appointments. She was so totally different to all the other ships that I had been on so far. She was operated by, and to the requirements of, the Ministry of Defence (Army). The cargoes were to be all sorts of military and engineering vehicles, as well as munitions and general freight. The RFA had just taken over this last remaining LST (Landing Ship Tank), as well as six recently built LSL’s (Landing Ship Logistic), which were named after ‘Knights of the Round Table’. All these ships had previously been crewed by a commercial shipping company, but I think the tendency now was to integrate these vessels more into naval and military operating procedures. This was a technique that was common practice with the RFA.
I flew from Heathrow to Cyprus, along with a few other RFA officers, to join the “EMPIRE GULL” which was berthed at Famagusta. She looked very different to the normal RFA’s we were all familiar with. This rather squat vessel had a black hull, white superstructure and a buff coloured funnel. The accommodation inside was very basic, painted pale green and the fittings were fabricated in thin steel plate, rather than the wood or Formica type materials that we were used to. She had two engines and propellers, which made her quite manoeuvrable. Her cargo space consisted of a large rectangular shaped tank deck, with doors at the bow, above which was the vehicle deck which had a ramp that could be lowered to the deck below and a cargo hatch served by derricks mounted on a pair of samson posts. Troop dormitories ran along either side of the tank deck. A stern anchor enabled the ship to haul herself off a beach or away from a landing stage after having discharged or loaded her cargo.
As soon as we joined her, the ‘Gull’ was pressed into service on a shuttle run between Famagusta and Tobruk, Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi was ’liberating’ his country and kicking out the small contingent of British and American forces. We loaded hundreds of tons of air stores and military vehicles every trip, most of which I believe had come from a recently evacuated, joint British and American air base. On one occasion a few of us were able to get ashore under escort, to go inland by landrover and see the British & Commonwealth military cemeteries out in the desert. It was a very moving sight, of row upon row of white headstones laid out neatly in the reddish brown sand. The surrounding desert was still dotted with the scavenged wrecks of 2nd World War military vehicles. The Tobruk inlet itself was overlooked on the southern side by a large monument to the German war dead. On one occasion at Tobruk we were visited by a Libyan military deputation, who were very upset that we were not flying the Libyan courtesy flag. The poor 3rd Officer had forgotten to hoist it as we were arriving! We also called on one occasion into the port at Benghazi, where the British Embassy was being evacuated. A small and ominous part of the cargo was a number of empty coffins that were kept for any British requirements!
During one of the calls at that small jetty in Tobruk, the Chief Officer had the ship’s new pennant number L 3513 painted on either side of the ship’s hull. This number and visual callsign, allocated by NATO when she was taken over by the RFA, was quite coincidentally just one digit different to her earlier LST(3) number of 3523 given to her when built.
As 2nd Officer, my station when arriving in port or sailing was at the aft end of the ship. When sailing from Tobruk this involved controlling the large stern anchor winch, which hauled in a thick wire attached to the anchor and pulled the ship away from the berth. Once the ship started moving astern, the anchor wire had to be hauled in as quickly as possible to avoid the anchor being over-run by the ship. Whilst operating this stern anchor winch, or what ever else I happened to be doing on the poop, I had to be careful not to trip over or stand on one of the several live chickens that had been tethered on pieces of string outside the Chinese galley. No prizes for guessing where they were going to end up!
Famagusta was an attractive port, located on the eastern coast of Cyprus. The walled city was mainly occupied by the Turkish community, whilst most of the port area and the surrounding suburbs were occupied by the Greeks. We used to enjoy our runs ashore into the city or to the nearby beach and I don’t recall any racial problems at that time between the two communities, although there was a small contingent of blue bereted U.N. troops in the area to help keep the peace. This was of course before Turkey invaded and annexed the northern half of the island.
As well as the calls to Tobruk, we also made several voyages from Cyprus to Malta, shipping an assortment of stores and vehicles as required. When steaming into any rough weather the ship visibly flexed, which was a bit disconcerting at times and we usually eased back on the speed to reduce the stresses on this old lady. At anchor she would slew all over the place, threatening to break the anchor out of its grip. This was probably because the hawse pipes were located a fair distance from the stem. Also because she was so shallow drafted the hull almost skittered across the sea in any wind.
At Malta, we usually berthed alongside in Grand Harbour at the ‘Gun Wharf’, close to Valetta, where there was a small military compound. To load or discharge vehicles through the bow doors we moved further into the natural harbour, into one of the creeks where we could lower our ramp onto a public road skirting the waters edge. In this spot we were surrounded by the hubbub of everyday Maltese life, with their flats and balconies overlooking our activity and buses, cars, lorries and bikes racing past our open bow doors! The ship occasionally had to move around the island to a large sheltered inlet called Marsaxlokk. In these more peaceful waters we would load old and unwanted 1000lb and 500lb bombs from barges, which we then took to sea and dumped in deep water a few miles offshore. It would be unheard of nowadays, but the dumping process involved opening the bow doors and pushing the bombs out along a roller conveyor as the ship slowly cruised around the explosives dump area.
At some time during that summer, we sailed to Sfax in Tunisia where we loaded a whole lot of engineers road-making vehicles, including large dumper-trucks and road graders. There was no one available ashore who knew how to drive this stuff so the Chief Officer and I learned very quickly and got it all aboard through the bow doors.
We also managed a trip from Malta to Porto Ponte Romano, at San Antioco in Sardinia, taking some troops and their vehicles for an exercise in that region. There was no pilot waiting when we arrived, so the Captain just steamed right in to the berth, which upset the local authorities a little bit!
When we first joined this ship there was no ‘bar’ as such in the officers messroom. It was just a lounge area with a couple of long tables where we were served our meals. A bit of RFA ingenuity was brought into play and with the help of the Chinese carpenter we built our ‘bar’ and turned the room into quite a cosy and relaxing area.
One luxury we did inherit was an ageing radiogram with a turntable and a few old L.P’s. We must have played them hundreds of times and a few that stick in my mind were by ‘Sergio Mendez & Brazil 66’, a ‘Manhattan Transfer’ album and also Nancy Sinatra singing ‘These Boots are made for Walking’. Whenever I hear that music, which isn’t often these days, I think of that ship.
Eventually the ship was recalled to the U.K., for a major survey and a lot of refit work. We were all very sad to leave our friends in Cyprus and Malta. As we sailed from Grand Harbour for the last time we were escorted by tugs sending cascading jets of water into the air. I guess that over the years, this insignificant little ship had been invaluable to the Forces out there and they were very sorry to see her go.
On our return to the U.K. we arrived at the Army’s military port at Marchwood After discharge of our cargo we proceeded up the U.K. east coast and went into dry-dock in Sunderland. It was here that I paid off the ship, which was never to return again to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. During that refit her accommodation and funnel were painted Admiralty grey. She retained her black hull because the existing paint coating, which was in good condition, was bitumen based and would have cost too much to completely remove it to repaint the hull grey. Following the refit and for the rest of her active life she shuttled between the U.K. and the near continental ports, in support of the British Army in Europe.
Pennant No. A 76 International Callsign GJMB Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 5425607
Builder Hawthorn Leslie (Shipbuilders) Ltd, Hebburn on Tyne.
Launched 11th December 1962 Completed 28th June 1963
Displacement (Light-ship) 8,531 tons (Loaded) 25,931 tons
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 7,411 G.R.T. 14,130 DWT 17,400
Dimensions Length O.A. 584 ft. Beam 71 ft. Draft 32 ft.
Main Machinery Double reduction geared steam turbines. Built by Hawthorn Leslie (Eng.) Ltd.
2 x Babcock & Wilcox water tube boilers. Single shaft. Speed 17 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1963. It depicts a blue tidal pool at low water, in which there are two scallops and two starfish.
Remarks A Fleet Replenishment Tanker and sister-ship to the “TIDESPRING”
Both highly specialised ships, designed for the fuelling and storing of naval vessel at sea, with high performance under rigorous service conditions. They have a cargo capacity of approximately 13,000 tons. They are fitted with a helicopter landing deck, fuelling, maintenance and hanger facilities.
“TIDEPOOL” took part in the 1976 “Cod War” dispute with Iceland.
She was sold in March 1982 to the Republic of Chile, but was retained until August 1982 because of the ‘Falkland Conflict’. When handed over to Chile she was re-named “Almirante Jorge Montt”, with a new pennant number of AO 52. Known simply as the “MONTT”, she has been modified to the requirements of the Chilean Navy, including a larger helicopter hanger, defensive weapons and additional whip aerials for their own communication systems. No further details.
21st November 1970 to 19th May 1971
For a change and as I lived in Plymouth, I didn’t have far to travel to join this ship as she was lying at Yonderberry Oil Fuel Jetty, across the Hamoaze from Devonport.
“Tidepool” and her sister-ship “Tidespring”, were both improved versions of the original “Tide” class built in the early 1950’s. The hull shape was really the only thing these newer ships had in common with their older cousins. They were far more sophisticated vessels, with more modern cargo and pumping arrangements, electrically powered winches for mooring and the replenishment gear and the first RFA’s to be fitted with helicopter landing and hanger facilities. Thankfully, the accommodation was far more comfortable as well.
I thought that this might be a good opportunity to acquaint the reader with a taste of the “home comforts” as provided on RFA vessels.
Officers and crews living conditions were comparatively luxurious compared to those on warships at that time, although possibly rather less spacious and more functional than on many merchant ships, especially commercial super-tankers.
The officers’ accommodation was reasonably comfortable, where each officer had his own air-conditioned cabin with porthole. Cadets were berthed two to a cabin. Cabin spaces, which increased in size with seniority, were furnished with a bunk-bed, seating, a wardrobe and drawer spaces for clothing and personal belongings, a bookshelf, bureau desk with a radio antenna socket, a carpet runner and a wash basin. Senior officers had wider bunks and en-suite facilities, whilst junior officers had community toilet and shower spaces located throughout the accommodation block. Masters and Chief Engineers usually had a suite of rooms. Bedding, towels and soap were provided for officers and crew, changed on a weekly basis. The Catering Department provided a steward service for officers’ cabins. Cadets and crew cleaned their own facilities.
Most UK crewmen had their own cabin space, whilst non-UK crews usually berthed two to a cabin, except the Petty Officers, i.e. the Bosun, Carpenter, Store-Keeper, Yeoman and Donkeyman. “Captain’s Rounds”, a weekly inspection of the officer’s and crew’s accommodation and the catering areas, usually ensured that a high degree of cleanliness and tidiness was maintained throughout.
Most ships had a small laundry of sorts, with a washing machine and ironing board. Larger RFA’s had a more sophisticated laundry and carried a couple of Chinese laundrymen to cope with bed and table linen. They would also launder personal items for a small payment.
The officers’ dining saloon was usually spacious, with table service provided by the catering department stewards. Three cooked meals a day were available, with a choice of hot or cold dishes. The dining saloon was usually located close to the galley for convenience. Larger ships had a small coffee annex attached to the dining area.
The officers’ lounge area usually included a small bar area for liquid refreshments, with drinks served by a steward on the larger ships. Furniture in officers’ public rooms and cabins was fitted with loose linen covers.
All ships were provided with a selection of library books, courtesy of the Seafarers Education Service, which were changed from time to time. Larger ships often had their own quiet library/reading area.
Outgoing personal and business mail from the ship was collected by the purser / ships clerk, bagged and dispatched on arrival in port via the ship’s local agent by air to the UK. Incoming mail to the ship was initially addressed to the UK British Forces Post Office in London, and then bagged and dispatched by air to the ships next predicted port of call. Occasionally the predictions were thwarted by operational diversions, much to the dismay of the ship’s personnel. The mail then had to be returned to the UK and re-dispatched to the next anticipated destination. When in company with warships, the services were somewhat better, with regular deliveries to the task group. This was particularly enhanced if there was an aircraft carrier in the group, which could fly off a fixed wing aircraft, usually a “Gannet”, to a pre-determined airport to collect the mail. The mail was then distributed around the group, either by helicopter or during the frequent replenishments, when ships were able to exchange such items.
Returning to the “Tidepool” narrative and as usual with my rank, I was the 12-4 watchkeeper, with responsibilities for keeping charts and navigational publications up to date and maintenance of the two Admiralty-Sperry gyrocompasses. This ship also carried a Senior 2nd Officer, who was the navigator and operations officer.
The fact that this ship was fitted with a flight deck meant that another of my duties was as the ‘Helicopter Control Officer’, (HCO). This was a new task for me and I had recently been on an HCO course at HMS “Dryad”, a shore establishment near Portsmouth. This aspect of my job, which I really enjoyed, was very similar in many ways to that of an Air Traffic Controller at an airport. It entailed operating a radar set coupled with UHF radio communications to keep track of, and ensure the safe transit of, airborne helicopters to and from and in the vicinity of your own ship. As well as keeping in contact with the helicopter pilots, you were advising both the bridge and flight deck teams onboard your ship of local aircraft activity. It also involved talking the pilot on to and down a pre-determined glide-path to your flight-deck, so that he could land safely in the event of poor visibility. If I recall correctly, the glide path was angled at red 165 degrees relative to the ship’s head. Although the ship did not have to steer directly into the wind to recover the aircraft there were pre-calculated limits of relative wind speed and direction for each class of ship, within which the aircraft could actually land on the flight deck. The helicopter having previously been positively identified by a special radar signal, was directed by course alterations to a position about two miles astern of the ship. Having attained the glide path at a normal operating height of about 400 feet, the aircraft speed was reduced and it was ordered to gradually descend on a course that would bring it along the glide-path towards the ship and flight-deck. At certain distances from the ship the aircraft height was checked with the pilot to ensure that he was descending at the correct rate. In limited visibility the pilot would have been using only his instruments to keep the aircraft on the appropriate compass course and at the right height, until at a distance from the flight-deck of a quarter of a mile when he was asked by the HCO to look up for sight of the deck. Confirming in sight he would then be handed over to the ship’s Flight Deck Officer. If not in sight he was told to overshoot and try again. The ship of course could be stationary or proceeding at anything up to maximum speed during these evolutions. The various aircraft that I worked with included Royal Naval ‘Seakings’, ‘Wessex’ and ‘Wasps’.
Whilst I was on board, the ship was mainly employed around the U.K. coast, with a visit to Bremerhaven in Germany, a run up to the Arctic for cold weather trials and a trip to Gibraltar and back. Some way through my appointment, the ship was sent to dry-dock and a short refit at Falmouth, which was a pleasant enough spot. During the refit I lodged with a couple of other officers at a guesthouse called the ‘Alpenstock’ on the main street. It was convenient for the town and not too far from the docks. Mid refit I caught a train home to Plymouth for a weekend break.
In May 1971, the ship was about to be deployed to the Far East. As I was only a few days short of sea-time necessary to sit my Board of Trade “Master’s” certificate, I applied for a transfer to a U.K. based vessel, to enable me to get those essential few days before going ashore to commence my studies. I paid off “Tidepool” in Portsmouth and had a short 4-day break before joining my next brief appointment, the “Engadine”.
Pennant No. K 08 International Callsign GRBU Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 6800684
Builder Henry Robb Ltd, Leith.
Launched 16th September 1966 (Named the previous day Completed 15th December 1967
but strong winds delayed the launch by a day).
Displacement (Light-ship) 4,480 tons (Loaded) 9,000 tons
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 2,774 G.R.T. 6,360 DWT 4,520
Dimensions Length O.A. 424 ft. Beam 58 ft. Draft 22 ft.
Main Machinery 1 x Sulzer 2 stroke, 5 cylinder, turbocharged 5RD68 marine diesel engine. Built by Wallsend Slipway & Engineering Co. Single Shaft. Speed 14 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1966. The engadine is a species of the edelweiss flower, found in the Swiss Alps. The badge depicts two alpenhorns, surrounded by a chaplet of engadine on a navy-blue background.
This was the third naval vessel to bear the name. The first was a cross-channel ferry which was converted into a seaplane carrier during the 1st World War and seeing service at the Battle of Jutland. The second was the merchantman ”Clan Buchanan”, converted during the 2nd World War into an aircraft transport ship for the Royal Navy.
This “ENGADINE” was a purpose built Helicopter Support Ship, equipped with a ‘two-spot’ flight deck for “Wessex” helicopters and a large hanger space. She was designed for the training of helicopter crews in the technique of operating from small warship flight decks far out to sea. She did not carry her own resident aircraft but embarked helicopters and their aircrews as required. A Royal Naval aircraft maintenance team was permanently embarked.
When built she was fitted with a pair of ‘Denny Brown’ stabilisers to reduce flight deck movement at sea. In 1969 a special hanger was built abaft the funnel and above the main helicopter hangers for the storage and maintenance of Pilotless Target Aircraft (PTA’s). In March 1984 her flight deck was lengthened to overhang the stern. This was in order to extend the two existing “Wessex” landing spots so as to provide the extra landing space required for two “Seaking” helicopters.
Reaching the end of her active life, she was laid up in 1989 and sold in 1990 to ‘Dido Shipping Co SA’ at Piraeus, Greece, being re-registered in Kingstown, Bahamas. She departed from Devonport on 9th September 1990 and arrived at Piraeus on 18th October 1990. She remained laid up at Piraeus until 16th April 1996, when she was sold to ‘Balanced Holdings Ltd, St Vincent, Grenadines, for her final passage to India.
She arrived at ‘Gohilwad Shipbreakers’, Alang, on 7th May 1996 and demolition began on 2nd June 1996.
23rd May 1971 to 6th June 1971
Looking for just 15 days of sea-time to enable me to sit for my “Master’s” (Foreign Going) Certificate, I joined this ship at Portland as a supernumerary bridge watchkeeping officer, taking the 4-8 watch. This released the Senior 2nd Officer from watches and allowed him a few days of day-work, during which he could concentrate on organising the ship’s programme around the busy flying schedules.
The training work for aircrews that this ship undertook, in conjunction with HMS “Osprey”, which was the Royal Naval Air Station at Portland, meant that the ship spent a lot of her time based in the Portland exercise areas. Conveniently for me, it meant that I could leave her and commence my studies ashore almost on the day that I had the necessary recorded sea-time. There were no planned trips to continental ports or deep-sea exercises due in the following couple of weeks.
Whilst I was aboard, helicopter operations were carried out almost continually, both day and night, making the time pass very quickly. The ship ploughed up and down the English Channel between Start Point and the Isle of Wight, with helicopters seemingly swarming around us like angry wasps!
She was a comfortable ship with the transient aircrews mixing happily with RFA officers and seamen. At weekends she usually managed to find a berth alongside at Portland naval base, when some lucky individuals grabbed a couple of days at home whilst others carried on with the planned maintenance schedule. Whilst I was on this ship I somehow picked up a bit of food poisoning, which made me feel really rotten for a couple of days. However, despite a lack of much sympathy, I recovered and paid off at Plymouth. I now looked forward to a long spell ashore but with some apprehension about the amount of work I would need to cover at the Plymouth College of Maritime Studies, in order to be ready to sit for my “Master’s” ticket.
Once again there were a series of written examinations to be passed, accompanied by the dreaded “Oral” examination, which for ‘Master’s’ included a session on compass adjustment. Ship’s magnetic compasses are naturally affected by the steel of the ship on which they are mounted. Compensatory magnets need to be strategically placed around the compass to counter and eliminate the ship’s own magnetic effect. This then allows the Earth’s magnetic field alone to influence the compass. A rudimentary ship model called a ‘deviascope’ is used to teach and examine students on the ‘black art’ of compass adjustment! Lumps of iron are hidden underneath and around the ‘deviascope’ compass by the examiner. The student then, following a recognised procedure, has to compensate for their effect. This varies as the model is swung through 360 degrees or tilted from side to side. Any small residual compass error is called ‘deviation’ and is recorded in graph form on a ‘deviation card’. Survivors of this ordeal then underwent the “Signals” exam, which included a working knowledge of the ‘International Code of Signals’, as well as reading and sending semaphore and Morse code blocks of random letters/numbers and messages.
The written papers for “Master’s” were: “Navigation” (3 hours, min 70% to pass), “Magnetic and Gyro Compass” (3 hours, min. 50% to pass), “Ship Construction and Stability” (3 hours, min. 50% to pass), “Ship Master’s Business” (2 hours, min. 50% to pass), “Engineering and Radio Aids” (3 hours, no minimum pass mark but marks count towards overall average) and “Meteorology” (2 hours, again no minimum pass mark but marks count towards overall average). An overall average of 70% had to be attained in order to pass the examination.
Pennant No. A 486 International Callsign GRMH Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 6712112
Builder Harland & Wolff, Belfast.
Launched 9th March 1966 Completed 6th June 1967
Displacement (Light-ship) Not Known (Loaded) 22,890 tons
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 8,040 G.R.T. 18,029 DWT Not Known
Dimensions Length O.A. 640 ft. Beam 77 ft. Draft 26 ft.
Main Machinery 2 x A.E.I.(Manchester) steam turbines. 2 x Foster Wheeler water tube boilers.
Single shaft. Speed 21 knots.
Ships Badge Originally granted in 1933, to a ‘Proteus’ class submarine, which was lost in 1943 when mined in the Taranto Straits during the 2nd World War.
A ‘Regent’ is an interim ruler of a monarchy. The ship’s name dates from a vessel built during the reign of King Henry VII. The badge depicts the red dragon of the Prince Regent, set under a gold crown, all on a green background. The motto, which is passed on from earlier warships, is “Serviendo Regno”, (I rule by serving).
Remarks Sister ship of, and same details as the “RESOURCE”.
“REGENT” was taken out of service in 1992 and sold to Indian ship-breakers in 1993. For the passage to India she was re-named “Shahzadel” and re-registered under the St Vincent flag. She departed from Devonport on 21st January 1993 and arrived at Alang, India, on 19th February 1993
14th January 1972 to 18th January 1973
Senior 2nd Officer
I joined the “Regent” out in Plymouth Sound, where she was moored to either ‘C-Charlie’ or ‘D-Delta’ buoy. These was her usual moorings at this port, as it was for all loaded armament ships that called there.
Having now passed my “Master’s” ticket, I was slowly moving up the chain of command and on this ship I was the navigator/operations officer, initially keeping the 4-8 watch. As with the “Resource”, the deck officers also had to maintain gangway and duty watches around the clock in port. As the senior bridge watchkeeper, I was also responsible for the bridge team and the quartermasters. These were selected seamen who kept watches on the wheel and as lookouts at sea, as well as security rounds and a shift in ‘HQ 1’ at all times. In port they kept gangway watches along with their security duties.
‘HQ 1’ on this class of ship, unlike other RFA’s at that time, was a compartment that was continuously manned, both at sea and in port. It was the alternative command post to the bridge, located below decks under the midships accommodation and well sheltered in the event of any attack. These ships also had an ‘HQ 2’, a little less sophisticated than ‘HQ 1’ and located deep within the after accommodation block. Within ‘HQ 1’ were duplicate bridge controls, internal and external communication facilities, radar screens, monitors of internal and external conditions as well as wall plans of the ship’s layout. This was the control centre for any emergency, up to and including nuclear war.
Up until June 1972, after a transatlantic voyage to the U.S. Naval Base at Norfolk, Virginia and to the nearby armament facility at Yorktown, we operated mainly around the U.K. There was also a period in the Mediterranean on exercise with “Ark Royal” and various NATO ships, during which we paid a visit to Palma, Majorca. It was a busy and interesting time, occasionally calling back to Plymouth or Glen Mallen to adjust and top up our load. It was always amazing to see how much beer and potatoes the Navy could consume during their time at sea!
In July 1972, another 2nd Officer joined us and for the first time ever, I enjoyed a daywork routine whilst at sea. When the ship was ‘deep sea’ it meant an early start and a late finish, in order to take star sights during twilight and fix the ship’s position, but that was no hardship when you got an undisturbed night in bed.
We sailed independently across the Atlantic to the West Indies, not a warship in sight, cruising past all the lovely looking Leeward and Windward Islands, before arriving at Chaguaramas in Trinidad to discharge some special cargo for the British Embassy. This was a navigator’s dream. To be able to choose scenic routes and cruise amongst these islands, simply because, for once, the ship had time to spare in her schedule.
After two or three days in Trinidad, we headed north towards the Sombrero Channel, between the British Virgin islands and the Leeward Island group, intending to pass out of the Caribbean Sea and into the Atlantic, bound for Bermuda. During one lunchtime and as we were approaching the Sombrero Island lighthouse, a small aircraft circled the ship once before plunging into the sea.
The general alarm was sounded on board and we turned back towards the ditched plane. Our helicopter was scrambled and flew to the floating parts of the wreckage. The two American passengers from the plane were pulled from the sea but unfortunately the pilot was lost, believed badly injured when ditching and drowned when the plane sank. After reporting the incident to the U.S. Coastguard we continued on our passage to Bermuda, where we landed our two elderly guests. They had chartered the light aircraft when moving home to one of the Leeward Islands. Most of their valuables and some of their possessions went down with the aircraft, but they were very lucky that we happened to be in their area when the plane developed an engine problem.
Arriving at Bermuda, we sailed through a narrow channel within the group of islands and the shallows, passing quite close to the reef, which was visible through the clear blue water. We secured alongside at the ‘Cable & Wireless’ depot on Ireland Island, just across the small bay from the capital centre of Hamilton. I was able to get ashore on a couple of occasions to visit Hamilton and one of the nearby beaches. This place was noticeably clinging in many ways to its British heritage, although now very much a playground for rich Americans.
Returning to the U.K., we operated mainly out of Plymouth and in the English Channel and Western Approaches. I recall a trial RAS with our sister-ship “Resource” somewhere off Portland, where we were to transfer back and forth, a “Seaslug” missile cage, containing a dummy surface-to-air missile. We were to use a newly developed jackstay gantry, specially built for this weapon system and as yet never tested at sea. The trial started well but for some unknown reason the jackstay wire parted whilst the missile was between ships and the cage complete with missile fell into the sea. Unfortunately, after that loss, the ships came too close together, touched and sheared apart, causing an emergency disconnection of the other jackstay rig. Both ships were superficially damaged with torn side-rails, but the incident illustrated the fine balance required to keep two large ships close together, (about 100 - 140 feet apart), whilst steaming along at about 12 knots, without them being sucked together, especially in a rough seaway. The damage was soon repaired and the dummy missile and cage were later recovered by a naval salvage team.
For Christmas and New Year 1972-73, we were back in Plymouth Sound again. Having had Christmas at home, I was back aboard again for New Year’s Eve and a bit of a party was being held that evening. Just before midnight it was decided who was going to have the job of sounding the ship’s whistle and who was going to shine the various signalling lamps, etc. I got the job of lighting up the large 20” diameter arc-lamp signal projector. This piece of equipment gave out an intense blue/white beam of light, for communicating with other ships many miles away, and was mounted on a special pedestal above the ‘monkey island’. At midnight I clambered up to this rather dark platform and switched on the light. The whole thing hummed with power. I pointed it skywards, opened the shutters and a beam of brilliant light illuminated the clouds. Because of the way the light was made, it couldn’t quite shine vertically, so I decided to slowly rotate the beam, gradually reducing the elevation whilst all the whistle blowing was going on, both on our ship and others anchored nearby. I must have got about two-thirds of the way round my first circuit when I suddenly dropped through the platform onto the deck below, falling about six feet. Some stupid …. had taken out one of the wooden gratings for varnishing and not roped off the gap! It was jolly lucky that I’d had a couple of drinks that night or I could have been badly hurt!
Soon after New Year, the ship was sent to the Tyne for a refit at Wallsend. I’d had a really good year on board that ship, enjoying the job immensely. However, it was time to move on, and after a good farewell send-off I went home to quite a long spell of leave.
Pennant No. A 122 International Callsign GQKA Registered LONDON
Previous Name “Olynthus” (Re-named in September 1967). Lloyds Identity No. 6418572
Builder Hawthorn Leslie (Shipbuilders) Ltd, Hebburn on Tyne.
Launched 10th July 1964 Completed 21st June 1965
Displacement (Light-ship) 10,890 tons (Loaded) 32,240 tons
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 9,392 G.R.T. 18,604 DWT 22,350
Dimensions Length O.A. 648 ft. Beam 84 ft. Draft 34 ft.
Main Machinery Pamatrada double reduction geared steam turbines. Built by Hawthorn Leslie (Engineering) Ltd. 2 x Babcock & Wilcox water tube boilers. Single Shaft. Speed 20 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1964, when the vessel was originally named “Olynthus”. This was the name of a town in Thrace, hence the Greek pediment mounted on three columns and charged upon a green fig leaf, all on a blue and white wavy background. The ship’s name was changed in 1967 to avoid any phonetic confusion with HMS “Olympus”, an ‘Oberon’ class submarine. Despite the change of name, the ship’s badge was not altered.
Remarks Sister-ship to “OLNA” and the “OLEANDER”, the details of which have been given earlier.
“OLWEN” was still in service in 1997 and expected to continue until replaced by the new “Wave” class tankers in 2001.
25th April 1973 to 20th June 1973
Supernumerary 2nd Officer (Flight Deck)
This ship was about to depart from the U.K. to join a major exercise with the Americans and other NATO forces in the Mediterranean, involving a lot of anti-submarine helicopter work. As I had just completed a “SMAC 18” (Flight Deck Officer) course, I was appointed to assist with and share the duties of flight deck operations with the ship’s 1st Officer. On sailing from Portland, the ship was going to embark a flight of three “Seaking” helicopters from the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose in Cornwall. These aircraft, along with their aircrew and maintenance staff, were going to be based with us for the duration of the two-month exercise. We could see that the flight deck was going to be a cramped and very busy part of the ship for the next few weeks.
The “SMAC 18” course that I have just mentioned was held at “HMS Osprey”, the naval air station at Portland. It was a two-week course, part classroom and part practical work. The practical side of things was carried out on a modified barge known as the ‘Dummy Deck Lighter’, moored in Portland harbour. The barge had been fitted with a flat steel deck, with all the fittings that you could expect to find on a ship’s helicopter flight deck, such as side netting, ring bolts for lashing the aircraft down, deck markings, visually secure floodlighting and a glide path indicator.
The glide path indicator or ‘GPI’, was a stabilised device mounted at the forward end of, and usually about 20 feet above the level of the flight deck. It shone a narrow beam of light out from the ship in the direction of Red 165 degrees, relative to the ship’s heading. The beam was lifted above the horizon so that when the helicopter was approaching down the correct gradient of decent, the pilot saw a green light. If he was too high the light filter changed to amber and if he was too low it turned to red. The pilot was guided onto this glide path by the ship’s Helicopter Control Officer, (HCO), watching the aircraft on radar from a cubicle in the ship’s bridge. When the aircraft was two miles away and correctly positioned on the approach, the HCO would give the pilot a running update on what his decent height should be at his current distance from the ship, and a course to steer to remain on the glide path. At a distance of a quarter of a mile, the control of the aircraft was passed to the Flight Deck Officer, (FDO) for the deck landing process.
During the classroom sessions on the course, we learned all about the various types of helicopters that we were likely to be operating, including their ‘wind envelopes’. These were the operating limits relevant to the type of ship, type of aircraft and the direction and strength of the relative wind over the deck. By altering the course and/or speed of the ship, the relative wind could be adjusted so that the readings on the ship’s anemometer were brought within the parameters, (wind envelope), of the aircraft. The aircraft was able to land facing across the deck or even facing aft if necessary, to get the wind at the right direction or strength for a safe landing. We also learned about helicopter refuelling procedures, as most ships were able to refuel a helicopter, either as it was sitting on the flight deck, or even as it hovered alongside. The latter enabled a frigate, for example, to refuel a helicopter that was too large to land, or it left a bigger ship’s deck clear for a second aircraft to land at the same time as one was being refuelled in the hover.
Out on the barge or ‘dummy deck lighter’, we learned the skills of guiding the pilot, who had limited visibility, down to a position alongside the flight deck, usually abeam on the ship’s port side, then directing him over the deck at a safe height before bringing him down onto the landing spot.
When landing it was important to give the pilot positive guidance, as on a real ship there wasn’t much margin for error. If the pilot got too far ahead the rotors were in danger of striking the hanger structure. Too far astern and the tail wheel would drop off the back of the flight deck. We practised with ‘Wasp’ and ‘Wessex’ helicopters on the dummy deck, both day and night, bringing the aircraft onto the deck and sending out the aircraft handlers who would lash it down or release it using their webbing strops. It was good practice for the pilots as well so they were all quite co-operative. The major difference between the dummy deck and the real thing was the ship motion, which we would soon have to take into account. A pitching and rolling flight deck, especially on a windy night, was going to be a whole new ball game!
Sailing from Portland, we got stuck into some intensive practice with the three “Seakings”. Moving them around the flight deck with their blades folded back was quite an art. They had to be pushed and pulled by hand and steered by a bar attached to the tail wheel. Only two of the aircraft could be fitted in the hanger space at any one time, nose to tail, where the RN maintainers could service the machines under cover and out of the elements. Part of the RFA ship’s deck crew provided the lashing and refuelling party and assisted with moving the aircraft when needed.
Quality control of the ‘avcat’ (helicopter fuel) was most important. A ready use tank near the flight deck was kept topped up from the ship’s cargo tanks. Regular tests for water contamination were carried out, whilst the internal surfaces of the specially coated storage tanks were checked from time to time, for any signs of biological growth.
Throughout the passage to the Mediterranean and on joining the exercise, I spent many hours on or around that flight deck. Apart from a mix of British helicopters from other ships in the fleet, we also landed and fuelled “Sea Sprites” and “Sea Knights” of the U.S. Navy. That exercise took us all over the eastern Mediterranean and into the Aegean Sea. On one occasion our own “Seakings” were involved in a search and rescue of the crew of a sinking fishing vessel.
Throughout that exercise, as with just about every other one that I had taken part in, we were constantly shadowed by a Soviet Bloc spy trawler, known as an ‘AGI’. The Cold War was still in full swing and the Russians and East Germans liked to watch, listen and learn at any opportunity. They would not interfere with any exercise activity but usually followed our progress from a distance of a mile or two. The seemed to concentrate their snooping on aircraft carrier and replenishment activities, both of which at that time they lacked in western expertise. When they saw either of these actions taking place the spy trawlers closed in to less than a mile to watch. We knew at that time that the Russians were building their first aircraft carrier and were probably anxious to learn as much as possible from us. Also at that time they had not perfected a form of fast underway replenishment. I had been on RFA’s that had passed Soviet warships at sea, refuelling from their tankers whilst stopped or whilst towing or being towedslowly, with the fuel hose being passed along the towline. This must have been a vulnerable, lengthy and laborious process and was a method that had been used by the British before the 2nd World War.
No doubt throughout the exercise, the spy trawlers were also monitoring all our radio traffic, via their vast array of aerials.
We only called at one port during the whole deployment and that was to an anchorage off Piraeus. Due to work commitments I was unable to go ashore but I did manage a couple of hours sailing in the ship’s ‘Bosun’ dinghy. I also managed an extended flight in one of our “Seakings”, which was sent to Iraklion Airport in Crete to collect mail for the British ships in the exercise.
On return to the U.K. I paid off at Rosyth, having learned an awful lot about flight deck operations.
Pennant No. A 269 International Callsign GYXM Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 6923163
Builder Swan Hunter Shipbuilders Ltd, (Hebburn Yard), Hebburn on Tyne.
Launched 17th April 1969 Completed 10th April 1970
Displacement (Light-ship) 4,700 tons. (Loaded) 11,522 tons.
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 3,185 G.R.T. 7,509 DWT 6,822
Dimensions Length O.A. 461 ft. Beam 63 ft. Draft 24 ft.
Main Machinery 2 x Ruston & Hornsby 16 cylinder marine diesels. Because of vibration problems these were later replaced with 2 x Pielstick 16 cylinder marine diesels. Single shaft. Controllable pitch propeller. 400 H.P. Bow thruster. Speed 19 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1969. The badge depicts a greylag goose in flight over water, on a light blue background.
Remarks GREY ROVER was one of a class of initially three Small Fleet Tankers. Two more were built a year or so later. The others of the original group were “GREEN” and “BLUE”, with the “BLACK” and “GOLD” making up the final pair.
These ships were all designed to replenish warships underway with various fuels, lubricants and fresh water, as well as a limited amount of dry and refrigerated stores. A helicopter landing platform and aircraft refuelling facility was provided abaft the accommodation. Heavy jackstay store rigs were mounted port and starboard on a goalpost gantry abaft the funnel, served by a stores lift from a dry cargo space below. They were fitted with a single fuel replenishment gantry amidships, supporting a pair of abeam replenishment derricks. The ship could also supply fuels via stern hoses. The hull was strengthened for operations in ice.
The “BLACK” and “GOLD” were built with a foremast, whilst the other three had theirs fitted during a convenient refit period around 1980. This mast did little more than provide a stable platform for the forward masthead steaming light.
“GREY ROVER” was struck underwater by the submerged Canadian submarine “Okanagan” on 28th July 1973, during an exercise in the Clyde estuary. For details of this collision with numerous images please click HERE
She took part in the 1973-74 ‘Cod War’ off Iceland.
“GREY ROVER” was still in service in 1997.
17th July 1973 to 12th March 1974
I joined this ship where she was lying at anchor off the tiny harbour of Campbeltown, on the Mull of Kintyre, following a marathon 24-hour journey from my home at Plymouth. It all began with a four-hour train journey from Plymouth to London, to catch an overnight sleeper to Glasgow. The following morning I caught a local train down the north bank of the River Clyde to Helensburgh, from where I got a taxi to take me to the submarine base at Faslane. After a couple of hours delay and a bite of lunch, a ‘tilly’ (utility van), took me the last 103 miles to Campbeltown, driving through glens, past mountains and along the western coast of the Mull. It was all extremely scenic. A final boat trip took me out to the ship, which was anchored in Campbeltown loch, where I gratefully dumped my heavy suitcases in my cabin, in time for the evening meal.
As 1st Officer here, I was the senior bridge watchkeeper, on the 4-8 watch at sea. My duties were as the navigator/operations officer, sharing a bit of flight deck work with the Chief Officer.
We were employed initially by “Comclyde”, the Flag Officer responsible for naval activity in and around the Clyde area. This activity consisted mainly of exercises and trials involving nuclear and conventional submarines, operating out of their specialised base, “HMS Neptune”, at Faslane on the Gairloch. Our frequent role was to act as a target ship for their training exercises and the commanding officer qualifying courses known as ‘Coqexes’ or ‘Perishers’. The ship would be asked to steam up and down the Firth of Clyde in zig-zag patterns or on a straight course, whilst the submarine would lay in wait and simulate torpedo attacks. If the sea was calm enough it was possible to detect the periscope on radar or even see it visually. If within the rules of the exercise, we were then free to steer towards our threat, to try to narrow the target profile or force the submarine to abandon the attack and go deep. Clearly these exercises did not involve the large strategic missile boats, who were not normally expected to attack shipping but remain hidden at all times.
Just eleven days after joining this ship I was involved in my only collision at sea, which involved a Canadian conventional submarine called “Okanagan”. She was an ‘Oberon’ class diesel powered boat built at Chatham Dockyard in 1963. On this occasion she was going through her ‘passing out’ inspection with “Comclyde” staff, prior to returning to Canada and rejoining their fleet.
We had been with her the previous day, carrying out all the high-speed exercises where we were her target for several torpedo attacks. Overnight we had sailed around the back of the island of Arran, northwards through the Kilbrannan Sound, around the top of the island and east through the Sound of Bute. In the gathering dawn we were moving at a steady four knots on a south-easterly course down the Clyde estuary, passing about four miles off Brodick Bay. Somewhere in this area, “Okanagan” was to sneak up on us and film our underwater fittings through her periscope. At about 0730 and whilst I was still on watch, I spotted a periscope, still some way off, coming towards us out of Brodick Bay. I maintained a steady course and speed as required by the exercise orders and watched the tip of the periscope pop up every now and again as it got closer.
The Captain had come to the bridge for his morning stroll and I pointed the periscope out to him as it approached from just forward of the starboard beam on a steady bearing. It seemed to me that the submarine was getting quite close and from an unexpected angle. My thoughts were that it would have approached from astern, diving deeper in good time to take whatever pictures were required. Still it kept coming and at the same angle. The Captain and I went out onto the starboard bridge wing and we could actually see the dark shape of the submarine under the water as it came right up to us.
Suddenly there was an almighty thump, as the conning tower of the submarine struck our hull, almost below where we were standing. The stern of the “Grey Rover” was shunted round a few degrees to port and the bow to starboard. On the bridge we were in shock for a few moments with the realisation of what had happened. The propeller was quickly declutched from the engine and I took a position of our ship. The engineers below, who must have had an awful fright, were told what had happened and checked that we had not been holed.
A couple of hundred yards away, the “Okanagan” rapidly surfaced and we could see that she had lost a large piece of her conning tower. After getting in contact with her it appeared that her periscopes and other top sensors were a write-off but otherwise she was O.K. Fortunately her conning tower was made of glass-fibre, which had taken the brunt of the impact and we had not been holed.
We both proceeded directly back to Faslane naval base, where there followed a Board of Enquiry. At the end of this investigation we were absolved completely of any responsibility for the collision. A couple of days later we were ordered to take the ship to a dry-dock at Govan, where we underwent repairs to a massive indentation in the shell plating on the starboard side of the engine room and replaced a blade on our controllable pitch propeller. We were so lucky not to have been holed. Had the conning tower of the “Okanagan” been made of something more robust than glass-fibre it could have been a very different story.
When we returned to Faslane the “Okanagan” was still there and looking a rather sorry sight. We invited the officers across to us for a few drinks and a bite to eat. It was then that they presented us with a piece of their conning tower as a memento of the event!
Other duties on the Clyde involved escorting submarines operating in the exercise areas north of Ireland, where they conducted their deep-diving trials. Our bridge was equipped with an underwater telephone, with which we could talk, albeit sounding rather bubbly, to the mariners below. We also carried, near our flight deck, a portable decompression chamber for use in any submarine emergency. The North Atlantic swell could get extremely high in this area in bad weather, with enormous mountains of water rolling in from the west. I recall on one occasion trying to measure the height of these monsters whilst we were hove to and head to sea, sitting over a submarine many hundreds of feet below. The horizon was frequently lost to view from the bridge which was sixty feet above the waterline, as the ship fell into the deep troughs of the sea. The submariners below were completely oblivious to our roller coaster ride on the surface.
Our own professional skills were also tested from time to time by “Comclyde” inspections, blind pilotage drills in the confined waters around the back of the Cumbraes, emergency exercises and the occasional RAS with a passing warship.
Towards the winter of 1973 we were tasked to proceed north to the Icelandic fishing grounds, where the second so-called “Cod War” was about to erupt. We cruised around in those inhospitable waters for several weeks, replenishing the two or three unfortunate frigates that were on station in support of the British trawlers and their escorting deep-sea tugs. The frigates were only kept on station for a couple of weeks before being relieved by others, I think because the sea conditions were often severe, giving the crews a rather rough ride. We assisted our trawlers by keeping a lookout for any Icelandic gunboat activity in our area, which tended to be to the south and east of Iceland. Occasionally we ventured up to the north to meet and refuel a lone frigate in company with a scattered group of busy trawlers.
The weather was nearly always bad and the sea rough. During these winter months it was very cold outside and nearly always dark. Replenishments were particularly arduous. On a few occasions we were forced to rendezvous with frigates in the lee of the Faroe Islands, some distance away from the fishing grounds, where the seas were less violent. Mail was dropped to us every week or so by an RAF ‘Nimrod’ aircraft when weather conditions allowed. We would heave to close by the floating mail canister and launch our crash-boat to recover the all-important cylinder. Mail for the warships would be passed on by their helicopter, or when we next met them for a RAS. I remember on one occasion that it was too rough for one of the frigate’s “Wasp” helicopters to land on our flight deck, so it hovered a few feet above. Our deck was rising and falling as the ship pitched and rolled in the swell, with the pilot mimicking our movement with great skill. The helicopter crewman in the back was so busy hoisting up the bag of goodies that he lost his footing and fell out of the aircraft. Fortunately he only dropped as far as the length of his safety strop and managed to scramble back into the aircraft. It gave me a nasty turn for a moment and must have shaken the crewman up a bit too!
I was glad, along with the rest of our crew, when we were finally released from this duty and headed back to the more friendly waters around the U.K. After another spell in the Clyde area I was paid off in March of 1974 and left the ship at Faslane for some well earned leave.
3rd June 1974 to 7th January 1975
It was my second appointment to this ship, although now with greater responsibilities. As well as understudying the Chief Officer by assisting with replenishments and operating the RAS rigs, my own ‘part-of-ship’ was the flight deck with our own permanently embarked ‘Wessex 5’ helicopter. I was also the ship’s ‘NBCD’ officer.
‘NBCD’ encompassed all aspects of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence, as well as damage control and firefighting. All modern RFA’s were built with defence from modern types of warfare in mind. It was anticipated that RFA’s may well be in close company with warships in a conflict and so were fitted with the best available protection. This ship could pre-wet her outer surfaces by use of a fixed system of water sprayers. When activated, the whole of the ship’s outer surface would be sprayed with seawater. Any contamination falling on the ship when passing through a nuclear fallout area, or any residue on deck or elsewhere outside, as a result of being hit with biological or chemical weapons, would be greatly reduced by the spray and be washed overboard. These ships and other RFA’s of the 1960’s and 70’s were built with a means of sealing off the accommodation areas by gas-tight portholes, doors and ventilator flaps. The only air inlets were small vents leading to an air filtration system, which filtered and ‘scrubbed’ the air before allowing it into the ‘citadel’. The incoming clean air built up a positive air pressure within the citadel. Any small leaks in the sealed citadel were vented outwards. The accommodation citadels could only be entered or left through an airlock system of doors. After the ship had left a danger area, which was detectable by remotely mounted sensors, teams of specially dressed crewmen were then sent out to look for ‘hot-spots’ of remaining contamination, using hand held detectors. Other similarly dressed teams then set about scrubbing these areas clean. On returning into the citadel airlocks, those men were then stripped of their protective and under garments, thoroughly washed down, tested and finally allowed into the citadel with fresh clothing.
There was a recognised system of shutting down the accommodation and other areas by stages, depending on the severity of the threat. Both this and the decontamination process had to be practised, so that each person on the ship knew what he had to do and where to go. Whilst around the U.K. coast the crew were almost constantly changing for one reason or another. It was a real headache trying to keep on top of the training requirements. Contracted men who knew the RFA ways were few and far between at that time.
My limited knowledge of ‘NBCD’ matters was acquired on a two-week course at “HMS Phoenix” near Portsmouth, where a lot of time was taken up in very realistic firefighting and damage control situations. At the “Phoenix” complex there was a specially constructed steel structure simulating the inside of a ship. You were put into small teams given a set of breathing apparatus each and a fire hose whilst they set fire to the structure. The teams then had to enter this black and smoke filled hell, to find and extinguish all the fires. It got extremely hot in that steel jungle and visibility was just about zero. If anything went wrong in there during an exercise, huge sections could be opened out very quickly by the staff to allow your escape.
There was another steel building built to look like the inside of a warship, which could be tilted in all directions by hydraulic rams to simulate rough seas or a developing list. Water could be forced through distorted hatches and splinter holes, chilling you to the bone and slowly filling the compartment. You were expected to work as a team to plug all the holes, shore up bulkheads and close hatched with jacks and sections of timber and rig emergency power supplies, all before the whole place flooded. It was an awful course to go on in the winter months!
Whilst at sea, as well as the afore-mentioned ‘NBCD’ procedures, which were particular to warships and RFA’s, we underwent the regular weekly ‘Board of Trade Sports’, as fire and lifeboat drill was affectionately known. Trying to keep all these drill interesting, and not just another bloody chore for those on board, was quite hard going even though this was a munitions ship, with the inbuilt potential for a major emergency.
In the “Regent” narrative, I mentioned the purpose of ‘H.Q.1’. This was now my kingdom during ‘NBCD’ and firefighting drills. All incident and progress reports came into this compartment and were logged and displayed on the control boards. Countermeasures were planned and ordered from here.
When I wasn’t teaching or exercising ‘NBCD’ activities, I could be found working on the flight deck during flying operations and ‘Vertreps’, managing a RAS rig during replenishments or looking after the Deck Department stores administration. During my time on board we plied mainly around the U.K. coast but managed a trip to the Mediterranean, visiting Gibraltar, Villefranche and Barcelona, during yet another NATO exercise.
It was during the period on the U.K. coast that I had my first brush with ‘Royalty’. “Resource” was at Portland and secured to one of the buoys in the harbour area. We were scheduled to take part in an “Anti-sabotage” exercise with “HMS Fife”. She was to send across to us, under the leadership of a RN officer, an armed guard of seamen to protect us from underwater swimmers or frogmen. When they arrived, the members of the guard were posted around the upper deck to keep a lookout for swimmers, or the tell-tale bubbles on the surface of the water, coming from divers working under the ship. As duty officer that evening I was walking around the upper decks just checking that all was well. Rounding a corner I found a bunch of these so-called guards chatting and smoking cigarettes. Smoking on deck was strictly banned on armament ships, with notices to that effect posted everywhere. After getting the guards to put out their smokes I stormed up to the bridge to give the RN officer in charge a piece of my mind for not briefing his men properly. I was getting stuck into my comments when I thought that the naval officer’s face was a bit familiar. It was Prince Charles! (He was a Sub-Lieutenant with the RN at that time, serving on “HMS Fife”). Having started my little rollicking I had to finish, but he was O.K. about it and I wasn’t sent to the “tower” the following day.
A few months later I had completed my six-month appointment, plus a few weeks, as you never got relieved on time. I paid off at Plymouth when the ship called there for cargo adjustments, to prepare stocks of armaments and other stores for her next deployment.
Pennant No. L 3505 International Callsign GVMA Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 6704373
Builder Hawthorn Leslie (Shipbuilders) Ltd, Hebburn on Tyne.
Launched 12 December 1966 Completed 14th September 1967
Displacement (Light-ship) 3,270 tons (Loaded) 5,674 tons
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 2,179 G.R.T. 4,473 DWT 2,404
Dimensions Length O.A. 413 ft. Beam 59 ft. Draft 13ft aft.
Main Machinery 2 x Mirrilees National Ltd 10 cylinder marine diesels. 2 shafts. Bow thruster.
Speed 17 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1971. Sir Tristram was a knight born in a forest and famed as a musician and huntsman. His colours were gold and red. Legend states that he saved Palomides from death. The badge depicts a gold hunting horn and a harp, a pair of trees and a hunting spear, all mounted on a red background.
Remarks “SIR TRISTRAM” was one of a class of six Landing Ship Logistic, (LSL’s), all named after Knights of the Round Table. The prototype, “SIR LANCELOT”, had minor differences to the remainder of the class, consisting of Sir’s “GALAHAD”, “GERAINT”, “BEDIVERE” and the “PERCIVALE”. All were transferred from the British India Steam Navigation Co. to RFA manning, between January and March 1970.
They were fitted for loading or discharging vehicles and armour over bow or stern ramps, with drive through facilities and access to the upper “vehicle deck” by internal ramps or by ship’s crane. The two internal vehicle ramps served as hatch covers for the vehicle deck and could be slid clear for crane access to the “tank deck” below.
Helicopters could be landed and refuelled from the vehicle deck and the flight deck by day or night.
“SIR TRISTRAM” was fitted with 1 x 20 ton crane at the rear of the vehicle deck and 2 x 4.5 ton cranes at the forward end. She could carry up to 16 x 50 ton main battle tanks below, plus 34 mixed vehicles on the upper deck, plus fuel and ammunition in a small cargo hold located below the forward end of the tank deck. She had dormitory facilities for 402 troops either side of the tank deck.
“SIR TRISTRAM” was severely damaged and “SIR GALAHAD” lost, both with heavy casualties during the 1982 “Falkland Conflict”. “SIR TRISTRAM” was carried home on a barge, rebuilt and lengthened between 1983-85. She was still in service in 1997. “SIR GALAHAD” was replaced by a new vessel of the same name.
An earlier “HMS Sir Tristram” was an armed trawler, (4” gun), of the Round Table class, built in 1942.
5th April 1975 to 28th October 1975
Hong Kong Chinese Crew
Promoted Temp. Act. Chief Officer from 18th September
I joined this ship at Devonport, just as she was about to be deployed by MOD(Army) to operate a shuttle service between Liverpool’s Seaforth Dock and Belfast. As 1st Officer I was the 4-8 watchkeeper with responsibilities for navigation and operations.
Our job on this shuttle service was to load the troops and their vehicles which were being drafted to Northern Ireland for peacekeeping duties between the Protestant and Catholic factions of the community. For this unenviable task the allocated regiment would be convoyed through Liverpool to our isolated berth in the docks, located between the container terminal and the timber storage area. We loaded them during the late afternoon and evening, sailed and arrived at Belfast early the following morning. Discharge would be a quick business, no shore leave was granted and we loaded the homecoming troops in the afternoon. Sailing late afternoon, we were back in Liverpool in the middle of the night for discharge the following morning.
The differing moods between the soldiers on the outgoing and homecoming trips were very noticeable. Definitely subdued whilst heading for the unknown and then intense relief to be getting away from that troubled region. They certainly let their hair down once we sailed out of Belfast and on more than one occasion we had to claim damages from units that had got a bit out of hand.
These vessels were classed as passenger ships for Department of Transport purposes, with accommodation and facilities for more than 400 troops. All the appropriate safety drills and instructions had to be completed for our passengers on every trip. On arrival at the destination port, a full inspection was carried out in all the troop’s dormitories and messrooms to make sure all was clean and in order before they were allowed to disembark.
Whilst on this duty we had two or three round trips, then spent a week or ten days alongside before another series of crossings. Time alongside in Belfast was kept to the absolute minimum for safety and security reasons. The ship had been the target for snipers on one or two occasions as she moved in and out of Belfast in the past. If time allowed we were sometimes diverted south to Marchwood Military Port at Southampton, where we loaded military vehicles and troops for a crossing to Antwerp, Ghent or Rotterdam. From these ports they joined up with the British Army on the Rhine (BAOR). There was always plenty of old or battered vehicles awaiting a return journey.
Vehicles were loaded and unloaded either through the bow or stern doors, or craned on and off. The upper ‘vehicle’ deck hatches could either be slid open for crane access, or one end of each of the hatches could be lowered like a ramp to the ‘tank’ deck below. This then enabled vehicles such as Landrovers and trailers or 3 tonne lorries to be driven from deck to deck. The ramps were quite steep and although studded for extra grip, the unwary driver often got himself into difficulties at some point on the way up, especially if he lost his nerve or stalled, or his vehicle was heavily loaded or towing a heavy trailer. The vehicle would then have to gingerly reverse down to the lower deck again, (difficult with a trailer in tow), and have another run at the ramp.
Our stevedores at all ports in Europe and the U.K., when operating with the Army, were units from the Royal Corps of Transport (RCT). They were hard working and willing teams of men, usually led by a bullish sergeant. If deployed on an exercise we often carried a small team with the ship, to supervise the movement, stowage and lashing of vehicles, all under the watchful eye of the ship’s Chief Officer. We also carried a resident Warrant Officer from the RCT, who acted as the liaison between the embarked troops and the ship’s staff.
After a period on the Liverpool-Belfast run we handed this duty over to another LSL and went down to Devonport to load “3 Commando Brigade” for a major exercise in the Mediterranean. Joining up with other landing ships and warships on passage, we proceeded towards Sardinia where a landing was to be made on the southern coastline.
Our embarked force were to be the referees for the landing exercise, so as we arrived in the waters off Sardinia we detached from the main group and docked at the small harbour of Porto Ponte Romano, near San Antioco, in the south west of the island. The brigade and their vehicles were put ashore, where they took to the hills and set up their encampment. We stayed alongside for a couple of days, where I managed to get ashore to stretch my legs and have a look around. I was also able to visit the brigade campsite, which was about an hour’s drive away in a Landrover, on very bumpy road and tracks. We were well entertained, staying for a good meal cooked in their field kitchen. I found out that army jerricans don’t always carry what you would expect. A resourceful marine had used a clean one and filled it with local wine, which we drank with our meal!
It was during this exercise that the Chief Officer had to be flown home on compassionate leave and I took over his duties. I thoroughly enjoyed this new responsibility on the ship, and working closely with the Army and Royal Marines. The loads were always varied and interesting, including operating with helicopters and the “mexiflote’s” which were lashed on either side of the ship. These were large floating pontoons made up of several inter-connected buoyant sections. One side of the pontoon hooked onto a ledge built onto the side of the ship and the outer side was hoisted vertically so that the pontoon sat flush to the ship’s side. When needed they were either dropped or lowered to the water and fitted with a pair of large “Mariner” outboard engines. They could then be used to either ferry vehicles from the ship to shore, or be linked together to form a floating bridge to span the water between the ship’s bow door and the beach.
Eventually the exercise ended and we returned to the U.K. Our next task was the ferrying of military equipment between Marchwood and the Continent. After a couple of runs I paid off in Marchwood for a bit of leave.
Pennant No. L 3004 International Callsign GSRE Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 6617154
Builder Hawthorn Leslie (Shipbuilders) Ltd, Hebburn on Tyne.
Launched 20th July 1966. Completed 18th May 1967.
Displacement (Light-ship) 3,270 tons. (Loaded) 5,713 tons.
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 2,179 G.R.T. 4,473 DWT 2,443
Dimensions Length O.A. 413 ft. Beam 59 ft. Draft 13 ft aft.
Main Machinery 2 x Mirrilees National Ltd 10 cylinder marine diesels. 2 shafts. Bow thruster.
Speed 17 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1971. Sir Bedivere was the knight who flung the sword ‘Excaliber’ into the lake at the behest of King Arthur, following the King’s mortal wounds at the Battle of Camlann. The badge depicts an arm with the sword, rising from the lake.
Remarks “SIR BEDIVERE” is a Landing Ship Logistic (LSL). She was a sister-ship and had the same details as the “SIR TRISTRAM”.
As with the others of her class, she was able to carry two ‘Mexiflote’ pontoons, one on each side. They weighed 39 tons each and were made up of nine sections, having an overall size of 60 ft x 24 ft x 4 ft. Their loaded draft was about 2ft.
During the Falklands Conflict of 1982, “SIR BEDIVERE” was hit by bombs from Argentinean aircraft, which fortunately failed to explode.
In July 1994, she was taken in hand by Babcock’s Shipyard at Rosyth, (the old Navy dockyard), for major re-constructional work, intended to extend the life of the vessel by another 15 years. This work included lengthening the ship by 12 metres, complete re-engining and major alterations to the accommodation and flight deck areas. Many problems were encountered during this modification, involving massive extra costs. By January 1998 the ship was still in shipyard hands, although the work is expected to be completed in the near future.
26th January to 21st February 1976
Hong Kong Chinese Crew
I joined this vessel, another Landing Ship Logistic, when she docked at Marchwood Military Port. Once again I was the 4-8 watchkeeping navigator, with some interesting destinations to come. We sailed around to Plymouth where we embarked a full load of Royal Marines and their equipment for winter exercises in Norway. Their specialised snow and ice warfare gear included ‘snowcats’, which were articulated troop carriers with rubber tracked wheels, ‘bobcats’, which were like scooters with skis, as well as the usual vehicles such as Landrovers, 4 tonne lorries, 150mm artillery pieces and various trailers. All this equipment was painted white and wheels were fitted with studded tyres for grip in icy conditions.
For working in cold Norwegian conditions we were supplied with extra warm winter clothing. The voyages to various destinations in Norway took us firstly to Koppervik, a port in the south west of the country, off which we embarked the Norwegian coastal pilot. He then guided us through the inner coastal leads, which gave shelter from the North Atlantic swell and sometimes stormy weather. He also guided us up the twisting fjords to destinations such as Andalsnes, Ulvik and Ardal, which were many miles from the open sea.
‘Beautiful’ is the only word I can use to describe the scenery as we passed through this magnificent countryside. All around were sheer snow-covered mountains, dotted with tiny and remote villages clinging to the rocky edges of the fjord. Occasionally we passed frozen blue waterfalls, decorated with long icicles and waiting for the summer sun to bring them back to life. At night the little churches were beautifully floodlit, in a country where hydro-electric power provided a cheap source of energy. Our destinations varied from proper quays in the larger towns, to ramshackle timber pile jetties in some of the more remote villages. There was usually plenty of deep water for us to get close to the shore to discharge all our passengers, vehicles and associated cargo.
The passages to and from Norway across the North Sea were sometimes quite rough in these winter days. The LSL's were shallow drafted, flat-bottomed scows, which could roll quite happily on damp grass! This often meant that our passengers didn’t feel like eating a great deal at meal times. As our Purser received a feeding allowance for each man carried, it meant that he could often save quite a bit of the allowance if the weather was rough. The ship’s officers and crew later fed like kings on the unused allowance that had been saved.
After a rather brief appointment I paid off again whilst the ship was back in Marchwood.
26th March 1976 to 28th September 1976
This was my second appointment to this ship, this time with responsibilities for NBCD, damage control, firefighting, flight-deck operations and assisting the Chief Officer with cargo work and replenishment operations. I also looked after the quartermasters and administered the Deck Department stores.
Having just joined the ship in Rosyth, we were straight away tasked to support frigates that were being diverted to Icelandic waters. Iceland had just broken off diplomatic relations with the U.K. over her decision to extend territorial waters and fishing rights out to 200 miles from the Icelandic coast. Consequently another “Cod War” had started and Icelandic gunboats began harassing British trawlers in those rich fishing grounds.
My first duty was to attend a briefing, along with the Captain and navigator, at the Northern Command Centre near Dunfermline. This was a vast underground complex that looked very much like a “James Bond” film set. It was obvious to us that the planning staff were not going to get cold and wet down there! Our job in this conflict was to provide support for the three or four frigates that would be deployed to the Icelandic sea areas. Their job was to shadow the gunboats and advise the fishing fleet of their positions. This was important information, as the Icelanders had now developed cutting gear which they trailed astern to destroy the trawlers nets as the gunboats crossed over the trawlers wake. The trawlers would hopefully be given enough notice to be able to haul in their gear before the gunboats got close.
As part of our support duties we were allocated our own Wessex helicopter, which would be used for spotting trawler and gunboat activity as well as any ‘Vertrep’ requirements within the British vessels in the area. Our helicopter contingent, called “Oscar Flight”, included the necessary maintenance crew to support the aircraft and aircrew.
(Vertrep, short for vertical replenishment, was the transfer of stores and equipment from one ship to another by helicopter. Very useful in high seas or when ships are necessarily kept some distance apart).
Before sailing, we loaded cold weather clothing for the ship’s personnel, as well as a lot of extra ‘damage control’ stores which were stowed near the flight-deck ready for transfer to the frigates if required. Support tugs for the trawlers were already in Icelandic waters and they reported that the gunboats were not afraid of very close-quarters activity. There had been a few minor collisions already. The frigates were relatively thin skinned and would probably come off worse in a contact situation. Later in this dispute, frigates were arriving in the area having had a protective wooden sheathing fitted to the forward hull plating as added protection.
On sailing, our helicopter embarked and we headed north to join the fray. This was going to be a much tougher confrontation than the previous dispute in 1973. The gunboats meant business and were cutting up rough with the trawlers whenever they saw an opportunity.
The British frigates frequently had to try and dive in between a gunboat and trawler to try and deflect the aggressor away. Our helicopter was in constant use, keeping an eye on the situation. I was able to get a ride with the pilot on one sortie, where we were searching for a gunboat suspected of being in a certain area. Having covered a lot of water we found him and went to the nearest trawlers and warned them of his presence. The fishermen were always friendly and the helicopter often came home with a mailbag full of fresh cod!
Replenishments were tough in the vile weather. I remember working down on the tank-deck during one RAS, probably dipping a cargo tank or operating valves, when a huge sea swept across the ship as she rolled. I managed to hang on but got a good drenching in freezing cold seawater.
This sort of activity went on until June, when the respective governments reached an agreement to allow a limited number of British trawlers within the 200 mile boundary, with a maximum total annual catch of 50,000 tons.
Returning to U.K. waters we said goodbye to “Oscar Flight” and resumed more mundane replenishments, with occasional calls into Devonport to reload. During one of these period alongside, and I think it was on a weekend, calls went out to those personnel ashore to get back to the ship immediately. We had received orders to raise steam and sail as soon as possible. The Russians had recently built and deployed their first proper fixed wing aircraft carrier, equipped with their own version of the “Harrier” jump-jet. This carrier had been reported steaming in the Western Approaches and was currently being tailed by a British frigate which was getting low on fuel. Having got most of our crew back on board, we sailed and joined the frigate. Although visibility was not good, we got a fairly close look at this new beast. Much like other Russian naval vessels she was bristling with weapons and communications antenna. The size of her was impressive and she looked very modern compared to our own ageing carriers. The jump-jets on deck looked similar to our own but slightly longer in the body. Unfortunately we did not see any flying activity before we were detached.
After six busy and interesting months I left the ship in Portsmouth to enjoy some late summer leave.
Pennant No. A 339 International Callsign GSPE Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 6706888
Builder Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd, Wallsend on Tyne. (Yard No. 2016).
Launched 7th April 1966. Completed 22nd December 1966.
Displacement (Light Ship) 8,668 tons. (Loaded) 16,500 tons.
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 4,717 G.R.T. 12,372 DWT 7,832
Dimensions Length O.A. 523 ft. Beam 72 ft. Draft 25 ft.
Main Machinery 1 x Wallsend-Sulzer 8 cylinder RD 76 marine diesel, built by Wallsend Slipway & Engineering Co. Single shaft. Speed 20 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1968. The badge relates to the “Lyness” being a victualling supply ship. Lyness was formerly a Naval Base for the Home Fleet during two World Wars, located on the Orkney Island of Hoy. It is now just a small hamlet. Lying close by, on the shores of Scapa Flow is the isle of Butta. Butter was originally carried at sea in old rum casks. And so in a round about way we come to the badge, which depicts a butter cask on a green isle surrounded by the sea!
Remarks. “LYNESS” was a Fleet Supply Ship, designed to meet specific fleet replenishment requirements. One of three in her class, the others were “STROMNESS” and “TARBATNESS”.
Lifts, mobile appliances and powered roller conveyors were provided for the handling of stores, which were made up into pallet sized loads and brought from the holds and storerooms, up to the individual RAS points as required. All movement of stores was monitored from a Replenishment Control Room, “RASCO”.
She was fitted with the latest design of RAS jackstay systems, a helicopter landing and refuelling platform and the main machinery could be controlled from the bridge. The ship was fully air-conditioned and the hull strengthened for operating in ice.
“LYNESS” was considered excess to requirements and transferred for one year on a bareboat charter to the U.S. Military Sealift Command, departing from Devonport on 1st December 1980.
She became a Combat Stores Ship (T-AFS 8) and was renamed “SIRIUS” on 17th January 1981. Deployed with the U.S. 6th Fleet to the Mediterranean, she was sold to the Americans on 1st October 1981, who then carried out several modifications including increased communications arrangements and the fitting of a helicopter hanger forward of the flight deck.
Still in service (1998) and reported to be operating in the Arabian Gulf.
5th January 1977 to 5th July 1977
I joined the “Lyness” as she was finishing a refit period on the Tyne at South Shields. The ship was about to be sent out to the Far East, to be the central exhibition platform for a “British Military Trade Mission”. During the refit period, extra fittings had been added in the main ‘clearway’ and on the upper decks, for the various trade stands and display equipment yet to be loaded.
The ‘clearway’ was the name given to the uppermost continuous deck, which on this ship was mostly under cover and where stores from the cargo holds were first brought by lifts before being taken by fork-lift trucks to the various replenishment points.
As 1st Officer, I worked alongside the Chief Officer, managing the Deck Department. Additional responsibilities included NBCD, firefighting and helicopter operations. This trip was going to be a bit special, helping to sort out all the many requirements of the various companies who would be exhibiting their hardware. We were not expecting to be involved with any normal RFA activity until we returned to the U.K. after the forthcoming ‘Sales Tour’.
The “Lyness” was one of three sister-ships, built as a victualling and general stores supply and replenishment ship. She was smart, fast and capable of replenishing a ship on each side as well as operating helicopters for Vertrep, all at the same time. As well as the RFA personnel who managed the ship, she carried a contingent of civil servants from the RN Supply Department to manage the vast array of naval stores on board. These people were responsible for providing and making up into pallet loads, all the requirements of warships seeking stores replenishment. These requirements would be brought up from the holds and taken to the jackstay transfer positions or to the flight-deck. RFA seamen would hoist the pallets on jackstay wires linking the ships and haul the loads across with winches to the recipient ship. On the flight-deck RFA seamen, who were also trained in helicopter operations, worked under hovering helicopters to hook on the pallet loads to lifting strops, before the loads were whisked away to some nearby or distant warship. The “Ness” class also carried a pair of Naval Store Tenders, (NST’s), which were small self-propelled barges, used for transferring bulky loads of stores at an anchorage or in harbour.
Having sailed from the Tyne, we proceeded to Portsmouth where we loaded all the trade display equipment as well as the military hardware itself. This included “Spartan” light tanks, “Scimitar” personnel carriers, Landrovers and other vehicles of various sizes, mobile anti-aircraft missile batteries, all kinds of weapons and small-arms, rolls of razor wire, an assortment of boats and raiding craft, bombs, shells and a hundred ands one other items used in modern warfare.
When we arrived at our display ports, the tanks and other military vehicles would be discharged ashore, driven by a team of British Army personnel to a nearby military area and displayed to their full potential in front of the host country’s military Generals, etc. The display boats that we carried were to be lowered over the side and the various builders’ coxswains would then put on a show for the visiting naval representatives. The numerous trade stands would be laid out, “Expo” fashion, in the ship’s ‘clearway’ and invited guests then allowed to wander freely around and talk to the trade representatives, who would fly out to join the ship at the host ports.
During the displays on and around the ship, there was to be a large and sumptuous buffet laid on for the many guests. As the senior ship’s officers were expected to mingle with and look after the guests, I took great delight in helping myself to this wonderful spread. It was laid on by the ship’s purser, who had additional RFA catering staff on board for this voyage, especially selected for preparing and laying out this feast.
There was a lot of organising, careful loading and programming to be done at Portsmouth, but is was soon all sorted and off we sailed. Our first port of call, where we stayed for two or three days, was Alexandria. This was our first go at the display routines and all went fairly well. In addition to the Egyptian armed forces, we were visited by the British Consul and his staff. I was amazed to meet up again with an old acquaintance, who had previously been the RFA agent at Rosyth. (The ‘agent’ is the liaison between the ship and the port authorities. His job is to sort out the ship’s domestic and other problems by use of his numerous local contacts). This acquaintance, who’s name I have regrettably forgotten, invited me and a couple of other officers to his home, where we had a few drinks and a barbecue. On the way back to the ship the following morning, he drove us around the city to see the local sights. There were still a few traces of British influence and affluence from past times, although it all now looked rather faded and run-down.
Sailing from Alex. We headed for the Suez Canal. On the way there we had a lifeboat drill during which one of the lifeboat davits got damaged during a malfunction. The lifeboat had to be temporarily lashed into place until we could get the davit repaired in a shipyard later in the voyage.
After passing through the Suez Canal we headed for Singapore to pick up fresh provisions prior to the next stage of our ‘Sales Tour’. It had been quite a while since my last trip to the Far East and it was wonderful to approach the northern end of the Malacca Straits again and detect that pungent but pleasant smell of jungle vegetation. If the breeze was in the right direction you could smell the approaching land when the ship was still a hundred miles or so away from the coast.
Berthing at the old British Naval Base at Singapore, we stayed for a few days to pick up fresh supplies and get the damaged lifeboat davit repaired. The Naval Base was now owned by “Sembawang Shipyard”, a commercial shipbuilding and repair company, but part of the yard, including the old ‘Stores Basin’ was leased to the Royal New Zealand Navy. It was nice to re-visit all the old haunts again, although Sembawang village had suffered when the Royal Navy closed their Dockyard. Many of the bars had closed but the Indian merchants still kept going, as did the little Chinese eating houses and roadside stalls. Whilst there, at a party on board the ship, I met up and became friends with a New Zealand naval officer and his Scottish wife. We had several meals and nights out together both on the ship and ashore. I recall one evening when they took me and the Deputy Naval Stores Officer into Singapore city, when we had a wonderful time seeing the sights followed by a superb Chinese meal.
Sailing from Singapore, our next stop was at Hong Kong, where we secured alongside at the Naval Base “HMS Tamar” and discharged some stores from the U.K. I had not been to Hong Kong since I was eight years old, when my father took the family there for a short holiday whilst we were living in Singapore. Because of my duties I only managed to get ashore one evening for a meal, but the sights and activity of the place were fascinating.
From Hong Kong we sailed to the Philippines and the capital. Manila. This was one of our ‘display’ visits and again all went well. The captain, purser and I were entertained ashore by the British Military Attaché at his residence, where a cocktail party was being held in support of the ‘trade mission’. It was a smart affair, followed by an evening at a display of local culture and all most enjoyable.
On a free afternoon whilst we were at Manila, the local agent took the purser and myself to visit a nearby dormant volcano. It was a beautiful day and the view from the crater rim was fantastic. Down in the bowl of this huge crater was a lake that had an island in its centre. From a roadside stall at this popular viewpoint we bought delicious coconut icecreams to cool us down and quench out thirst. On our return journey back to the ship we stopped at a bamboo craft museum and also had a tour of the city. The cars and buses were all highly decorated with bright colour schemes and masses of shiny chromework. Flashy jeeps, called ‘jeepneys’ were very popular and raced around everywhere. I’m not sure which side of the road they drove on in Manila. It was hard to tell!
The next port of call was Djakarta, on the island of Java and part of Indonesia. I don’t have too many memories of this place, apart from the fact that it rained a lot and there was much poverty to be seen, especially in the suburbs. I was with a couple of ship’s officers who were entertained by a local Dutch businessman and his wife. On a drive around the city they pointed out a large modern hospital which had recently been built by the government, but it stood as an empty shell as there was no money available to furnish and fit it out. Nearby stood a huge and grand monument to President Surkano, whilst all around lay a shanty-town and poverty.
After a couple of days doing our stuff we set off again, this time for Bangkok, Thailand. We berthed alongside in the city, with the main river, brown and bustling running past our port side. It carried waterborne traffic of all sorts, from slow, ponderous barges and junks, to high speed water taxis. These taxis were long and narrow open boats, propelled by an outboard engine that had a very long shaft on the end of which was the propeller. Market style trading was being carried out all around us and looking over the side was like stepping back in time.
“Anzac Day”, a remembrance day for Australia and New Zealand, occurred during our visit. The captain, myself and about half a dozen other officers got smartly dressed up in our ‘Number 10’ tropical uniforms, (white trousers, shoes, jacket with brass buttons done up to the throat and a cap), and set off in a coach to go to the military cemetery near the infamous bridge over the river Kwai. Once there we were joined by several other colonials, who had come to pay their respects and take part in a small service of remembrance. It was a very moving experience, to stand with your head bowed as the bugle played the ‘Last Post’, and to contemplate the awful events that took place in this area just thirty or so years in the past. From the cemetery we went to the bridge which now stands on the site of the structure built by the prisoners of war. This place had not then been commercialised, as I believe it is now. The only visible relic was an old steam engine, used on the completed section of the railway by the Japanese. The coach journey to and from the river Kwai took us through beautiful tropical scenery. We passed through areas of dense jungle which opened out to paddy fields on level ground or on terraced hillsides. Occasionally we passed small villages and from time to time an elaborate temple, capped with a shining golden domed roof.
Whilst in Bangkok it was my 31st birthday. Several of the officers and myself were taken ashore by the ship’s agent and treated to a slap-up Thai dinner, followed by a few beers. A good night was had by all!
Having re-loaded all our display vehicles and boats, we set sail again, heading south to Singapore, where this time it was a business visit. We were putting on the show for the Singapore armed forces. We berthed again at the old Naval Base in the Jahore Straits and set to work on our now well-practised routine. The Chief Officer was relieved here by an old shipmate of mine. It was good to see him again. In the evenings I was able to look up my friends, the Carter’s. As this was going to be our last call at Singapore, we threw a big party on board on the last night and invited all the friends we had made. There followed some emotional farewells.
The last visit on our ‘Sales Tour’ was to Port Klang, near Kuala Lumpar in Malaya. One minor hitch here was that one of the display boats, which had always put on a good show for our guests at other ports, failed to turn away from the ship’s side at the last moment on a high speed run in, and crashed into the ship. No damage was caused to the “Lyness” of course, but one wrecked raiding craft was quickly hoisted inboard, carrying a very embarrassed Royal Marine coxswain!
I was surprised and delighted to find on arrival that my friends from Singapore had driven up to Kuala Lumpar for the weekend and came on board to say hello. A couple of us went ashore in the evening to go ten-pin bowling with them and we invited them back aboard afterwards for one last farewell bash. I think that given half a chance, they would have stowed away for the trip back to the U.K.
Sadly it was time to wind up the tour. Sailing from Port Klang and up the Malacca Straits we had an uneventful journey homewards, finally docking at Portsmouth. We discharged all the display gear and equipment and said goodbye to the exhibition teams. They had become good friends over the past few months. We had all worked well together and had lots of laughs during the tour.
Life didn’t quite get back to the usual RFA routine though, as we now prepared to take part in the Queen’s “Silver Jubilee” Review. A large gathering of British and foreign warships, as well as some RFA’s and a few selected British merchant vessels, was to be assembled at Spithead to commemorate the event. The ships began to gather at their allotted anchorages on 24th June 1977 and the event climaxed with the Royal Review of the fleet on Tuesday 28th June.
Our ship’s task, and that of RFA’s “Sir Geraint” and “Sir Tristram”, was to embark V.I.P. guests during the morning of the 28th at Southampton Passenger Terminal. The three ships the proceeded to an anchorage close to the Royal Yacht. At 1430 hrs, the review column weighed anchor and began the procession up and down the long lines of ships. The column was led by Trinity House Vessel “Patricia”, followed by the Royal Yacht “Britannia”, HMS “Birmingham”, RFA “Engadine” with the world’s media embarked, then RFA’s “Lyness”, “Sir Geraint” and “Sir Tristram” with all the V.I.P’s embarked.
There is absolutely no doubt that it was a splendid sight, especially from our viewpoint. During the review, we were overflown by a display of aircraft and helicopters of the Fleet Air Arm.
On completion, at about 1630 hrs, the “Sir Geraint”, “Sir Tristram” and ourselves detached from the Royal Yacht and steamed back to Southampton as fast as we safely could, through the vast armada of small spectator craft, to get our passengers ashore to their trains. We stayed alongside overnight and then all ships dispersed throughout the following day.
Shortly after this we returned to the River Tyne, to strip out all the remaining welded fittings for the ‘Sales Tour’ and return the ship to her normal working condition. No long after arrival at the Tyne I paid off for a couple of months leave. What an appointment that had been!
Pennant No. A 77 International Callsign GGHA Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 5272593
Builder Blythswood Shipbuilding Co. Ltd, Scotstoun, Glasgow.
Launched 15th October 1959. Completed 15th January 1960.
Displacement (Light-ship) 6,400 tons. (Loaded) 24,900 tons.
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 7,051 G.R.T. 12,353 DWT 18,500
Dimensions L.O.A. 568 ft. Beam 72 ft. Draft 30 ft.
Main Machinery Doxford 6 cylinder marine diesel, built by D.Rowan & Co. Ltd. Single shaft.
Speed 15 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1959. It depicts a golden pear and sprig of dark green leaves on a white background.
Remarks “PEARLEAF” was a freighting and fleet support tanker. She was modified in the late 1960’s with a single goalpost gantry, supporting two abeam replenishment derricks. She had a limited capacity for dry stores and drummed lubricating oil, which could be transferred from two light jackstay positions. She had the capability to replenish ships with fuel oil and diesel via stern rigs.
“PEARLEAF” and her sister-ship “PLUMLEAF” were originally built for and owned by Jacobs & Partners Ltd, London. They were both taken over on completion by the Ministry of Defence, on a 20 year bareboat charter.
Having served with the RFA for 26 years, the “PEARLEAF” was returned to her owners on 8th January 1986.
She was then sold to ‘Petrostar Co. Ltd’ of Saudi Arabia, where she was re-named “NEJMET EL PETROL XIX” and served as a static fuel storage facility.
In 1993 she was sold to shipbreakers ‘Nasir Trading Co.’ at Gadani Beach, Pakistan, where demolition commenced on 8th March 1993.
The previous “Pearleaf” was an RFA oiler built by W.Gray & Co, West Hartlepool and launched in 1917. She was a sister-ship to “Brambleleaf” and other “Leaf” class oilers of that time.
28th September 1977 to 21st March 1978
Hong Kong Chinese Crew
My new appointment took me up yet another step on the ladder of promotion. I joined the “Pearleaf” at Gosport where she was lying at the oil jetty opposite Portsmouth Dockyard. A connection of trains from Plymouth had got me to Portsmouth Harbour Station, from where I got a taxi and liberty boat across the water to my destination.
“Pearleaf” was sitting high in the water as she finished off a full discharge of cargo. After a quick look-around with me the outgoing Chief Officer grabbed his bags and left. So that was me now, in at the deep end! I finished off the discharge with the duty officer, getting as much oil out of her cargo tanks as possible with the main pumps. I then switched to the stripping pumps, which had smaller pipe-work and ‘elephants feet’ suction heads located right at the bottom of the tanks and usually in an aft-end corner. The stripping system usually managed to slurp out just about all the dregs in the tanks. After loading some seawater as ballast we sailed for Curacao in the Caribbean for a new cargo.
Like the “Brambleleaf” that I had sailed on as a 3rd Officer, “Pearleaf” was originally a commercial tanker, which had been chartered by the RFA on completion of building. She had been run for several years in a freighting capacity, with just the ability to replenish other ships via a stern hose. More recently, she had been fitted with a gantry amidships on which were mounted two abeam replenishment rigs. In her main cargo tanks she carried a cargo of FFO (Furnace Fuel Oil) and diesel oil. She also carried cargo fresh water and drummed lubricating oil for issuing to other ships.
As Chief Officer I was responsible for the Deck Department, ship and equipment maintenance and of course the cargo. To stop me getting bored I also kept the 4-8 watch! This watch was normally kept by the Chief Officer on commercial ships and RFA’s with smaller complements such as this ship.
At sea, the day started with a call at 0345hrs, to be on the bridge to take over the navigation watch at 0400hrs. After a cup of tea with condensed milk, a sandwich and a few minutes to familiarise myself with the situation outside I began to prepare for my dawn star sights. Come twilight I would need to be ready to take sextant readings of up to six stars, or a mix of stars, planets and the moon, all in rapid succession. Through navigational tables and maths calculations it was necessary to establish the rough location of the six selected stars, which would then give the best crossing of position lines. When twilight arrived it was all go for about half an hour. Whilst the stars were still visible and the horizon was clear enough to see, the exact altitude (angle between star and horizon) of the stars were taken with the sextant, whilst at the same time noting the precise time of the reading using a stopwatch and the ship’s chronometer. That process took about ten minutes at the most, after which it was twenty minutes of rapid calculations. If all went well, within half an hour you had plotted the results of the calculations on the chart and obtained a good cross of all the position lines. That was the ship’s position QED!!! How the hell John Wayne did it by just looking at his sextant, no other navigator will ever know!
Whenever warships and RFA’s were in company, the navigators of each ship would pass their ‘star’ and ‘noon’ fixes to the senior ship, just as a confirmation of accuracy for the senior ship’s navigator. It was quite satisfying to pass my fix to the accompanying ‘senior’ warship sometimes many minutes before they had worked it out and confirmed it for themselves.
Once the early morning navigation business was out of the way, it was time for a cup of tea and those welcome slices of fresh toast. The stewards had probably been up and about for a little while and the smell of toast and cooking breakfast would waft up the stairs to the wheelhouse. It was time to be sorting out the day’s work for the Bosun and crew, before he arrived on the bridge for his orders at 0730hrs.
At 0800hrs the 3rd Officer took over the watch and it was time to go below to freshen up and have that long-awaited cooked breakfast. When on the 4-8 watch I reckoned that it was the best meal of the day!
During the morning, or ‘forenoon’, it was time for checking maintenance progress, the cargo and fresh water situation, to have a chat with the Captain on forthcoming events and dealing with the multitude of other things that keep a ship running.
At 1200hrs it was time for a beer or gin & tonic in the bar before lunch. This was a very social time and was where a lot of liaison work was conducted between the various departmental officers. The 2nd Engineer had a similar job to mine but in the engineering department. He and I became good friends, along with the Radio Officer and the Purser.
After lunch and if nothing was pressing, it was time for a nap before going back on watch at 1600hrs. The 3rd Officer came up at 1730hrs for half an hour whilst I got an early dinner. Going back to the bridge it was time to prepare for those star sights to be taken at dusk, followed by calculations to find the ship’s position. The watch finished at 2000hrs, with a bit of time to relax or watch a movie before going to bed.
The above routine was fairly standard for un-interrupted deep-sea passages. Coasting did not involve the celestial navigation procedures, but introduced more navigation hazards and of course more work in port if cargoes were constantly being loaded or discharged.
Arriving at the Dutch colony of Curacao, we discharged ballast water and loaded a full cargo of FFO and diesel oil, bringing it back for discharge at Devonport. We then got involved in a bit of freighting around the U.K., with calls to Thameshaven refinery, Portsmouth and Portland. Constant loading and discharging on top of watchkeeping and other work was very hard going and very tiring. Some of the officer’s wives and children, including mine, joined us for a while during this coastal period.
After a month or two we were packed off again to the West Indies to load. This time, however, we had an important customer en-route. The Royal Yacht was also on passage out to the West Indies, where the Queen would join her for a Royal Tour.
Having met up with the “Yacht” in mid-Atlantic, we refuelled her with FFO via our stern hose. During this replenishment the Royal Marine band played requests which we could hear coming from her forecastle! Afterwards we both stopped so that her doctor could come over by boat to examine our 3rd Officer who was ill. At that time we were part way through a ‘beard growing competition’ and the doctor must have thought he was boarding a ship crewed by a band of cut-throats!
Departing from the “Britannia” we set off again for Curacao to reload. Our new task was to support the “West Indies Guard Ship”, a British frigate stationed in the Caribbean to look after British interests there. The frigate, which at this time was HMS ”Antelope”, would also be escorting the Royal Yacht during her cruise and both would need the occasional top-up but did not need us in company all the time. Left pretty much to our own devices, we worked out our own “West Indies Tour” between the replenishments.
Our first call was to Tampa, on the west coast of Florida. From here, a few of us were able to get a ‘greyhound’ bus to Orlando where we spent the day at “Disneyworld”. I think a week would have been more appropriate as there was so much to see and do, but we had a good time anyway.
Following Tampa we had a cruise around the British Virgin Islands, anchoring off a couple of the smaller and uninhabited islands where we put one of the lifeboats over the side and went ashore for a swim and a barbecue. We also managed visits to Miami, where we berthed amongst the cruise ships at the top of the long port channel. Using this channel between the shipping, we saw several flying boats landing and taking off. A call to New Orleans was also squeezed into our tour where we were well entertained by the local US Naval Air Station. I had an interesting run ashore and saw the French Quarter and listened to the live jazz bands that were playing in almost every bar. Replica paddle-wheelers carried passengers up and down the river past our berth.
A call to Freeport in the Bahamas was where I experienced the most wonderful rum punches. Another stopover was at Bequia, a small island in the Grenadines, (Windward Islands). This is where we anchored in a small bay in company with the “Antelope”. They threw a cocktail party for us which was good fun. Arriving back at our ship in our lifeboat after the convivial party, the Captain stepped from the gunwale of the lifeboat onto the pilot ladder, but somehow slipped and fell into the water. We were all in our white tropical uniform with caps and as he dropped into the pleasantly warm and calm water, all we saw for a moment was his cap floating off in the breeze! He was quite alright and regained the ladder but what a laugh we had. He looked like a drowned rat and his blanco’ed white shoes left soggy white footprints all the way back to his cabin! We had accumulated several empty 40-gallon oil drums on board over the past few weeks which we gave to the local school for their calypso band. I remember them being towed ashore by one of our lifeboats, with the drums all strung out behind us like following ducklings!
During a visit to Port of Spain, Trinidad, we were entertained ashore by a group of ‘ex-pats’, who took us to a party with fantastic calypso music. The band sold us a music tape which frequently got played during the following weeks. A large US Naval Base on the island of Puerto Rico called ‘Roosevelt Roads’ is where we stopped a couple of times. We played the Americans at football once and I recall getting half bitten to death by the insects living in the grass. This is probably why we lost the match. Absolutely nothing to do with our lack of skill or fitness!!
It was a few hours after leaving Roosevelt Roads on one occasion that we had rather a bad accident on board. One of my Chinese seamen, who was working aloft on the RAS gantry, fell about 30 feet to the deck. He was busy painting from a ‘bosun's chair’ suspended by a length of rope. For some reason the rope parted causing him to fall. At the time I was working on the foredeck with the pumpman, consolidating some cargo oil from the part empty wing tanks into a centre tank. When I got to the injured seaman he was being tended by the 2nd Officer and it seemed that he might have some broken bones. We immediately put out a call for medical assistance and fortunately there were two Canadian frigates within helicopter range. They airlifted our injured seaman back to Roosevelt Roads for medical attention and he was later repatriated to Hong Kong. I later heard that he was making steady progress towards a full recovery.
Meeting up with the “Yacht” on one occasion later in mid Caribbean, our Captain was invited across to join the Queen for lunch. Quite an honour for him and it left me the ship to play with for a few hours!
Whenever a replenishment of the Royal Yacht was programmed, it was very important beforehand to pressure test the hoses in the rig to ensure that there were no leaks in the hoses or the couplings. “Britannia” burned black FFO, therefore any leak of oil would soon become very conspicuous. I religiously carried out tests before each RAS, which involved inflating the hose with compressed air and watching for any reduction in pressure over a period of time. During one replenishment however, it was not my lucky day as about five minutes before the RAS was about to finish a pinhole leak appeared towards the far end of the rig. It began blowing minute black spots of oil down the side of the “Yacht”. We stopped pumping immediately and disconnected. After both ships went their separate ways I dismantled the whole rig and reassembled it using up my stock of spare hoses. I never wanted that to happen again.
I had now had two brushes with royalty and neither of them had covered me with roses. No MBE for me I’m afraid!
During this deployment we called two or three times at Curacao to top up our tanks. The harbour entrance at Willemstad was quite interesting. The ship had to pass through a narrow canal to enter the harbour area known as the Shottegat. Spanning this canal was an old floating pontoon bridge which carried a lot of the local traffic. When a ship approached, the pontoons were hauled around to one side of the canal to allow the ship to pass. The houses on the waterfront of the canal were prettily painted and of traditional Dutch design. High above the canal there was a modern suspension bridge, over which the majority of the road and rail traffic passed. Having entered the harbour we usually berthed at the large Dutch “Shell” refinery to load our cargo. Once or twice we also went to another loading facility at Caracas Bay, just along the coast.
I paid off “Pearleaf” whilst she was still in the Caribbean. We called into Kingston, Jamaica, to take on some fresh provisions prior to the ship joining an American naval exercise. I stayed at a rather nice hotel in Kingston for a couple of days whilst a flight was sorted out and eventually came home with British Airways on a half empty Jumbo Jet.
3rd June 1978 to 14th October 1978
This was my second appointment to the “Grey”. I joined her in Portland, where she was under the operational control of Flag Officer Sea Training, (FOST). She was standing in for the “Gold Rover” which was normally the resident ‘Portland Tanker’ at that time.
Once again I was involved in the busy schedule of working with ships of British and foreign nationalities, as they laboured through all their “workup” drills. Most weekends however, we were able to go alongside the old ‘Coaling Pier’ or the newer ‘Q’ Pier. Once alongside we would reload cargo and carry out planned maintenance to the ship. There was also repairs to be carried out to our replenishment rigs, which often got rough treatment from the receiving ship’s crews as they went through the training process.
Rather unfortunately, on this ship, we had a Captain who had some unusual ideas, one of which was to not allow wives and families on board when the ship was alongside for weekends. This was possibly not too much of a problem for him or other officers who were either unmarried or could go home for a short break. As he always went off as soon as the ship was alongside, I needed to remain aboard as the senior officer. I was usually busy during the day anyway, loading cargo for the following week’s exercise programme. But during the evenings and any free time however it was very frustrating, especially as my home and family were just a few miles along the coast at Plymouth. This somewhat selfish attitude of the Captain fertilised a small seed of unsettledness that I had begun to feel over the past couple of years. I was missing my family growing up. Anyway, I just had to get on with it for the time being and Portland kept me very busy.
In August of 1978, we were one of the ships at Portland that was open to the public for “Navy Days”. A bit of preparation was necessary to make sure that the ship was looking her best and there were access routes for the visitors to be sorted out. We lowered one of the RAS rigs over the side so that it was suspended above the quay, in order to show how it would look during replenishments. The small ship’s swimming pool was filled with water and a ‘man-overboard’ dummy in a lifebuoy floated in the water. Members of the public were invited to throw coins into the pool in aid of the RNLI.
After a strongly worded complaint to the Captain, the officers wives and families were allowed to stay on board for one night and I brought my family along to take advantage of this generous offer. I remember one funny incident involving my youngest son. He had recently had a plaster cast put on one of his feet following a minor cycling accident with his brother. When the family and I went up to the flight deck I noticed that gradually white marks were appearing all over the place. It then dawned on us that the abrasive surface of the special flight deck paint was slowly wearing away at my son’s plaster cast as he ran around on the deck!
Shortly after “Navy Days” the ship was sent up to the Clyde to join a group of NATO frigates and destroyers that made up the task group known as “STANAVFORLANT”, (Standing Naval Force Atlantic). This was a multi-national group of ships, which at the time consisted of the British frigate “Bacchante”, the West German destroyer “Bayern”, the Dutch destroyer “Limburg”, the Norwegian frigate “Narvik”, the Canadian frigate “Huron”, the Portuguese frigate “Almirante P. Da Silva”, and the American destroyer “Tattnall”. The “Grey Rover” was tasked to be their support tanker for a couple of months as they carried out their joint exercises and manoeuvres and made courtesy calls to various European ports. The group had normally been used to meeting up with a tanker every now and then as required, but were now obviously delighted to have their own dedicated support ship, giving us a very warm welcome.
Places visited during our short deployment with them included Glasgow, Den Helder, then around the Skagerrak and Kattergat and through the Kiel Canal to Bremerhaven. We also went to Zeebrugge then up to Scapa Flow and down through the Inner Hebrides, passing through the Kyle of Lochalsh. This latter transit was a bit narrow for us but all went well. In all these ports there was much socialising between ships and many “RPC” signals were passed. (Request the Pleasure of your Company). These were usually replied to by “WMP” (With Much Pleasure), or very rarely with “MRU” (Much Regret Unable). ‘Boney M’ was the popular band of the day and their hit song ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ was often blasted out through loudspeakers during parties and replenishments at sea!
Cocktail parties were sometimes hosted by one of the warships for local VIP’s, to which a small group of officers from each ship attended in order to share the host functions. The American destroyer was at a slight disadvantage during these social events as no alcohol was carried on board. However, they more than made up for it by way of laying on enormous cooked breakfasts that followed on after the events on other ships. These feasts started at about midnight and went on into the early hours until everyone was full to overflowing!!
At the end of September we were regretfully detached from “STANAVFORLANT” and were called back again to Portland and Portsmouth, working with our own warships in the English Channel.
The simmering problem between the Captain and myself, which was probably no more than a clash of personalities, was not getting any better and so I eventually requested a transfer to another ship. This was eventually granted from Head Office and I paid off in Portsmouth.
Pennant No. L 3036 International Callsign GVTA Registered LONDON
Previous Name N/A Lloyds Identity No. 6728642
Builder Hawthorn Leslie, (Shipbuilders) Ltd, Hebburn on Tyne.
Launched 4th October 1967 Completed 23rd March 1968
Displacement (Light-ship) 3,270 tons. (Loaded) 5,674 tons.
Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 2,179. G.R.T. 4,473. DWT 2,404.
Dimensions L.O.A. 413 ft. Beam 59 ft. Draft 13 ft aft.
Main Machinery 2 x Mirrilees National Ltd 10 cylinder marine diesels. 2 shafts. Bow thruster.
Speed 17 knots.
Ships Badge Granted in 1971. Sir Percivale was the brother of Sir Lamorak and guardian of the Holy Grail. He was presented with a lance dipped in blood. His shield displayed a fleur-de-lys. The badge depicts the lance, a gold cup and a fleur-de-lys.
Remarks “SIR PERCIVALE” was a Landing Ship Logistic, (LSL) and the last to be built in the series which included, and has the same details as described for, “SIR TRISTRAM” and “SIR BEDIVERE”.
The “SIR PERCIVALE” was the first British ship to re-enter Port Stanley after victory in the Falkland Islands conflict of 1982.
She was still in service in 1997 and is expected to be replaced by a new class of vessel in 2001-2002.
14th October 1978 to 6th March 1979
Hong Kong Chinese Crew
I joined “Sir Percivale” in Liverpool following a direct transfer, at my request, from the “Grey Rover”. She was doing a stint on the Liverpool to Belfast shuttle service, taking troops and their vehicles to and from that troubled Province. The routine was much the same as it had been on the “Sir Tristram”, with periods alongside in Seaforth Docks, between the runs across to a ferry berth in Belfast.
Getting in and out of Seaforth Dock at Liverpool was always a difficult time. On most occasions we took a ‘preferred pilot’, who was experienced in handling these ships, which were shallow drafted and susceptible to drifting in the wind. It was always tricky manoeuvring through the Gladstone Lock system, which lay between Seaforth Dock and the River Mersey. The accommodation section of the LSL’s, which flared out from the hull at the after end because of the flight deck, was constructed of rather vulnerable aluminium. This was in order to reduce top weight and maintain the stability of the ship. However, it tended to buckle like paper if it touched a quay wall. As the ship dropped within the lock system the flight deck edge and safety netting could easily be damaged by the lock walls. To reduce the risk of damage to vulnerable areas, we carried special large inflated fenders to try and keep the ship in the centre of the lock. This meant extra work for the lock staff so we were never very popular with them!
Following a period on the Belfast run we moved down to Marchwood and did several trips between there and the Continent, usually to Antwerp or Ghent in Belgium. We had to go through several lock systems for these Continental ports, but as they were so much larger we rarely had a problem.
Into the New Year, we were tasked to take the Royal Marines from Plymouth to Norway for their usual winter exercises amongst the mountains. This was familiar and beautiful territory, with voyages taking us through the inner leads to Andalsnes, Trondheim and Narvik. We had a couple of scares when the steering gear mysteriously failed, just as we were passing through narrow leads, but otherwise they were busy and interesting trips. Obviously the weather was very cold outside, but we had extra protective clothing for arctic conditions which kept us warm enough out on deck during the discharge and loading phases.
During one of the first calls back to Plymouth I was shown an advertisement from the local newspaper, the “Evening Herald”. The British Transport Docks Board at Millbay Docks were looking for a suitably qualified mariner with a ‘Master’s’ certificate, to take on the post of Assistant Dock Master. This looked very interesting and I wanted to find out more. Good jobs ashore for seafarers, especially from the Deck Department, were few and far between, and yet here was one advertised in my own home town. Although I was becoming a bit unsettled, I knew that my job at sea was fairly secure, with the possibility of a Captain’s job maybe sometime in the future. It was a hard decision to make but I decided to try for the interview and take it from there.
The interview was arranged for a Monday, following a weekend off between trips to Norway. I was surprised and delighted to find that immediately after the interview that I had been accepted. Now I faced an even harder decision – Should I actually accept the post and make the big leap ashore.
Weighing things up, I considered that it might yet be several years before I got a command. For one reason, the RFA fleet was not growing any larger, in fact the opposite looked a possible future trend. This would result in “waiting for dead men’s shoes”. Another reason was that in my opinion the RFA was becoming more and more like the R.N. in the way it was being managed. The impression of being part of a ‘family’, managed by friendly staff in an office who dealt with people rather than just numbers, was slowly being eroded. With so many overseas bases closing down and the British influence abroad being curtailed, I envisaged that more and more time was going to be spent wallowing around the U.K. coast. There would be fewer deployments overseas involving fewer ships. If my job meant that I had to be away from home, I would much prefer being somewhere interesting and warm. On the other hand, coming ashore could mean less job security and certainly a big reduction in my salary.
I decided in the end to take a calculated risk and go for the job in Plymouth. Another chance may never come my way and if it all went pear-shaped I could always go back to sea again. I wrote to Head Office and handed in three months notice. As I had already accrued three months leave due to the time served on both the “Grey Rover” and “Sir Percivale” I would be able to pay off as soon as a relief could be arranged.
My relief arrived after we had completed the Norwegian tasking and I was pleased to see him as we docked at Marchwood Military Port. After a couple of days to hand over the reins to my successor I finally left the RFA on the 6th March 1979.
Thus ended a mostly enjoyable career spanning just over 15 years. During this time I probably travelled hundreds of thousands of nautical miles and visited many interesting parts of the world. I took the opportunity to serve on board a broad variety of ships with widely differing capabilities and tasks. At the same time I was privileged to work alongside all sorts of characters, mostly good and just a few not so good, from many differing nationalities.
Whilst on my travels around the world, I worked in virtually every climate and in all sorts of weather. I’ve experienced deep ocean storms, witnessed the power of waterspouts and sailed on seas of glass. I saw unbelievably beautiful sunsets, experienced the chill of an arctic winter and sailed through antarctic ice. I’ve seen the exceptional visibility from refraction, which lifts distant ships out of the water, I’ve clawed a safe course slowly through clammy blinding fogs and dry dusty sandstorms and smelt the electricity of spectacular lightning displays nearby. At night I’ve seen the aurora borealis and the aurora australis (S. hemisphere), the brilliant phosphorescence from plankton in our wake and night skies so dark and clear that every star was visible, along with a few of those early satellites as they slowly moved across the heavens. I have sailed through seas teeming with flying fish, been escorted by vast schools of dolphins, altered course many times for blowing whales and been circled by menacing sharks whilst at anchor. In mid ocean I’ve seen albatross skimming the waves and exhausted tiny swallows hitching a ride towards the sun. Closer to land I’ve seen squadrons of pelicans and gannets, plummeting into the sea for fish.
All the above are of course natural wonders of our world that I have been privileged to witness. Man-made experiences include very close encounters with other ships in the line of replenishment at sea, and physical contact from a submerged submarine! I’ve stood by a large commercial oil tanker in mid ocean, badly holed after having been involved in a collision, (nothing to do with me!), and rescued the occupants of a light aircraft which ditched close by my ship. I’ve witnessed at close hand, the risky business of fixed wing flying operations aboard an aircraft carrier, flown with some crazy helicopter pilots and worked on the fringes of political unrest. I’ve seen many natural and man-made landmarks and tasted strange food from exotic places. My time at sea was a fascinating period of education, which could never have been achieved by working ashore.
However, I was now about to embark on a totally new career, but coincidentally it was one that took me back to exactly the same place where I had begun my seagoing career all those years ago, to Millbay Docks at Plymouth. It was fifteen years and one month since I had first stepped on board a small boat that took me out to my first ship, the old “Wave Knight”, as she lay quietly at anchor in Plymouth Sound.