(This story was originally written for a non RFA/RN audience)

After the "shake-down" it is fairly usual to nip into Devonport or Portsmouth for a few days to do whatever needs doing.


On arrival at Portland, more often than not, an RFA is stuck on a buoy. Most RN ships are given an alongside berth. Well, I suppose it is "their" harbour! I think I mentioned some time ago that the RN define the seasons strictly by date and totally ignore what the weather is actually doing. A good example of this pottiness is the mooring to a buoy. If you are going to a buoy before the 20th of May then you have to have 2 anchor cables attached to the buoy...even if the weather is sub-tropical.

B.O.S.T. Portland - Part 2

 

 

(This story was originally written for a non RFA/RN audience)

 

FOST being FOST, he is not paid to trust the training given by any other establishment but his own. Alas, he doesn't do any of it himself....or even come to see us. He "may" pop aboard for a drinky-poo and a sticky bun with the Captain, but he certainly does not address the masses. Perhaps when the TV cameras are there. He has Acolytes to do the dirty.

Portland trains naval ships from all over the world. Please, again, read this in the past tense. Even the USN do it now and again. For all my vitriol, I admire the system and its reason for being...but not some of the people.

I could be wrong here, but perhaps not. I think the whole idea started off during WW2 when the RN was huge and had recruited thousands of undertrained officers and ratings. Sure, they all went to shore based establishments to learn the basics, but doing it all in practice aboard a real ship is different. Portland then was very much a front-line base. Some clever and farsighted politician or naval officer decided that real on board training should be provided. Tobermory in Scotland was chosen...and what a superb job they did. It was only natural that the programme should continue post WW2, and the programme was moved to Portland. Portland is a very odd place. It is so odd that I think it should be re-classified as a foreign country.

During the period of one of our many spats with the Spanish I did once muse in public (only half tongue in cheek) that it may be a good idea to give Spain Portland if they left Gib alone. The two places have much in common...including their own language. Although the citizens of Weymouth would not care to be likened to those in La Linea.

Portland Harbour

 

Portland Harbour


Portland harbour is huge. I guess you really have to see it from the air to appreciate its true size. Look at some of the old wartime photos with uncountable numbers of major ships at anchor (and many more smaller vessels) and there is still room for another fleet. Mind, it doesn't feel all that big when coming in to a precise anchorage on a dark and stormy winter’s night! Portland has 3 entrances. North, East and South. The South entrance was blocked (deliberately) with an old battleship. The ESC (East Ship Channel) is the one most commonly used for entering and leaving. The NSC is more often used by ships doing a "blind pilotage" or some other evolution that requires a bit of "privacy". The NSC is also prone to interference by uncaring fishing boats and cross-channel ferries that don't give a "xxxxx" even if you are the Royal Yacht. Many an emergency "full-astern" in this area.


In all the years I "passed through" Portland I always thought how "WW2" it looked. Not that it was ramshackle or anything, well, not all that much. It was just the style of everything. And having a small Moss Bros shop just outside the main gate seemed to give the place a "Dads Army" sort of feel. Having a socking great lump of rock so close to the water meant all the buildings and so on were compressed into a long ribbon. Nothing ergonomic about this place. Turn right and you will reach the main gate and then on to “Town" or Weymouth. Turn left and you are confronted by a paved route up the North face of the Eiger. God, that hill is steep (and long!). Unfortunately, half way up this hill was the Portland Fire School. Lordy, not again! Not too long ago this country had numerous car scrap yards. (Bear with me). These yards were often on oil saturated ground. So was the Portland Fire School. When the "sadistic ones" lit their fires all sorts of miniature oil wells used to sort of explode...usually very close to important anatomical bits and pieces, to the glee of the "ones" who knew where to stay out of trouble. Another dirty and wet day for all "pupils".


By now I had graduated from being a helicopter controller to being a fully fledged Flight Deck Officer. (Another course done during a leave period), but my big mistake here was not to know or realise that the London to Weymouth train got cut in half at Poole. I don't need to tell you which half I was in. There is something sort of world changing when you sit on a train, see the engine pull away but you don't go with it. Such is life.

 

The FDO course was pretty good fun apart from that went on long after the pubs had closed. We "students" were offered the chance to be a front seat passenger in the rattly old Wessex that was our training aircraft. For some reason most of the RN guys declined. I loved it. As the "circuit" was very tight, the aircraft had to bank very steeply, so the pilot asked me to hold the old instrument panel in a position where he could see it. All lends to the romance of the occasion. During a lull in proceedings he took us out over Portland harbour and asked if I would like to try and "drive the thing". What a hoot. So I got it to go up and down, I went sideways, I went backwards, In fact I could get it going anywhere but in a straight line forwards. Many years later I surprised a Sea King pilot by actually doing it, but the Sea King was easier to fly. During this course our digs were in La Linea, and so I became sort of acquainted with the wonderful sea front clock. I shall come back to the clock.


One of the oldest tricks in the book that the "sea-riders" (as the sadists like to be known..makes them feel superior or something) do is to either smuggle or post a pretend bomb on board. If the ship missed it then we would be marked as a "security failure" and in need of remedial training. What some of these morons never twigged was that many of us RFA types had more experience of Portland than they did. Our normal response was to quietly search until "it" was found. Re-package it and send it back whence it came. We sent one back that sat in an office for 3 weeks until it was discovered. Naturally this infuriated the sadists as "we" were not supposed to be free-thinkers. But we won that moral battle.


Every Friday evening the WPP came out. The Weekly Practise Programme. This can be quite a complicated document. It covers all ships running out of Portland (and there could be a dozen or so), what they should be doing at any one moment and where they should be...especially important if you were to be doing flying ops or a RAS etc with another ship. Sorting this out is a real headache for the Nav. This part is not training; it can stretch some poor guys to a sort of breakdown as every single point has to be perfect. From the ships speed, tidal considerations, the ships position in "the box" (more later on that), where to finish so the next "serial" could begin on time. Doing that and being "ready in all respects" was probably the most difficult and taxing jobs I ever had to do as a Nav. One of my pals (who later left the RFA) was a Nav on another ship, and through tiredness or whatever failed to spot a misprint in the WPP the said (for a particular time) "No calls on Fost". So he didn't. Only when it was too late did he remember that it should have read "NO calls on FOST" (i.e. Nav.Off calls on FOST"). He got a right bollocking for that one.


Another "tradition" with the RN is that some snooty young RN officer is designated to do a "walk around" (in our case a "sail-around) on a Sunday morning. Near us was moored the nuclear submarine HMS Sceptre. The little oik doing the inspection complained that the RFA in question (us) did not give a suitable salute to mark his passing. (I'd probably miss his funeral as well), and that our main radar aerial was not aligned absolutely athwart ships. (An impossible task with our radar set-up). I just knew I was going to have fun with this one! Sceptre was accused of "looking like a midden". What, pray, can a submarine look like apart from a submarine?

 

 

Sceptre

 

HMS/m Sceptre


The CO of Sceptre invited me and a few of our officers over for lunch and a bit of mutual commiseration. And a very merry afternoon it was. Now we return to the Weymouth Clock. During my guided tour of this fantastic machine...the sub, not the clock..my host asked if I would like to play with his periscope (the metal one). We were perhaps nearly 3 miles from Weymouth beach. I had also never really thought how high these periscopes can go. But when you think how deep these subs are I should not have been surprised. After a good look around he showed me how to zoom the thing. "Try the Weymouth Clock Tower"....ZOOM. The poor girl probably still doesn't know that her surreptitious copulation was being carefully observed and commented upon by a bunch of guys 3 miles away.

 

Made my day.


As far as the little oik was concerned I made sure he and his CO were invited to lunch on another day, during which the error of his ways were pointed out to him, and to put it mildly, saying he left with his tail between his legs and a further "chat" with his CO.


Round 1 to us.

B.O.S.T. Portland

(This story was originally written for a non RFA/RN audience)

 

 

Every ship loves to see another one cock things up. I think it basically alleviates despair. So to lighten the mood a little.


At one time the Brazilian Navy were quite regular "customers" at Portland, working up their new Niteroi class frigates.

 

 

BNS_CONSTITUICAO

 

BNS Constituicao – F42

Brazilian Niteroi class frigate

 

They looked like large versions of our "Amazon" type frigates. I can never remember type numbers, preferring names. But what a wildcat bunch they were. Every one a Grand Prix driver. It was glorious to watch "Niteroi" doing a "rapid departure" evolution. A pity that the order to let go the ropes first wasn't given. Snapped ropes everywhere and even a couple of bollards uprooted from the quay. FOST response to this was a bit more measured than it would have been if the ship had been RN. Something on the lines (no pun intended) of "Enthusiasm when leaving harbour is to be commended, but attention should be given to preparations" But the Brazilians had one more surprise in store. Due for an early morning final departure many, many people in the Portland area awoke to find their bicycles missing. Never to be seen again.

Now and again an RFA Chief Officer is appointed to Portland as senior "sea rider". Often to the annoyance of the RN. One guy I knew quite well tells a nice story about a German destroyer. He was "riding" this ship during a Thursday War", and one of the pre-programmed evolutions was a Man Overboard exercise. The ships "swimmer" was briefed and kitted up, and at the appointed time he "fell" overboard. The ship was hammering down the Channel on a "war" footing. No action was taken about the man overboard. Our man attempted to prompt the Commander into action. His response was "Ve are at Vor,Ja? OK, Ve go on"...leaving the poor swimmer stuck all alone in the middle of the English Channel. He was eventually picked up by another ship. This particular Commander was obviously intent on playing things for real and also sticking it to the RN big time. During his harbour week the local employees at the base decided to go on strike for some reason or another. In the late 70s it didn't take much effort to get "the lads" out on strike. This strike also forced the local power station to shut down. German answer? An armed platoon who "interned" the strikers pickets and his own engineers restored power. This was NOT an exercise! Now’t wishy-washy about that guy.

A "naughty" about the RFA. For those not familiar with the main passage into Portland / Weymouth, there is a very large and awkwardly sited sandbank which helps define the infamous "Portland Race". It is well marked with buoys, but the tides can be unforgiving. One lunchtime the watch keeper on RFA "Olwen" was trying to make up for lost time and got it wrong. On a falling tide to make matters worse. Nicely aground. The National dailies loved it. Alas, at the time the RFA was running a national recruitment drive that said...in essence..." Join the RFA and visit places other ships do not normally go". Good timing!

The RN/RFA used standard Admiralty charts with overprinting for their own purposes. One of which is (was) to make the Portland exercise areas a quite unique bit of ocean. Naturally, the real geographical points were left "as is" (stupid not to), but the overprinting included things like make-believe sandbanks and other hazards. These were treated as "real" by working up ships as part of the navigational training and woe betide those who treated them as "less than real". These "hazards" were printed in more or less the same way as found on a standard chart, but it was always pretty clear as to what was "real" and what "wasn't". The charts themselves were always treated as genuine and were kept as up to date as the real ones. In fact, it was very rare for a "non-Portland" chart to be used except during a real emergency.


Another, and perhaps more important set of overprints were the "boxes". The Portland exercise areas covered an awful lot of liquid real estate, from well to the East and West of Portland and to about half way across the English Channel. The Channel in these areas was, of course, always open to normal shipping...how could it be otherwise...which could make things "interesting" at times. The entire area was divided into "boxes" printed in various colours and occasionally even overlapping each other. Boxes came in many sizes from quite small (perhaps a couple of square miles) to huge. Apart from the submarine areas that do not concern us here the biggest was the RAS Corridor. This was an E-W area of maybe 40 miles by 5. A RAS would generally be carried out at 12 knots...although if operationally required it could be increased, with a consequent rise in the danger level. I think the fastest one I was involved in was done at 18 knots. A bit scary. The corridor is E-W for two reasons. Prevailing weather and tides, and the impracticality of going in any other direction. An upwind course is generally preferred but downwind is pretty common. Portland being Portland a wind from the N or S or any point between had to be expected and dealt with. The worst case would be an arranged RAS with a frigate which had to spend a fair while preparing, and then the wind would change...as would the sea. The last thing a little frigate would want would be to stuck on the windward side of a large replenishment ship. Changing rigs was perhaps a 30 minute job, but a heck of a lot longer for a frigate...especially if they only had one probe. "Probe"?. A very sexual beast.

 

probe

The refuelling probe crosses over from the tanker

 

 

The supply ship is equipped with a large male appendage, and the receptor has a large "bell mouthed" "female" part. When the connecting jackstay between the 2 ships is connected the "male" part slides down the jackstay, slams into the receptor and begins pumping. A RAS takes as long as it takes..hence the length of the corridor. (In real operations, we could do a "pump over" from one tanker to another that could take up to 12 hours....all at 100ft apart). But as indicated in the previous Views from the Bridge the ships have to be in the correct box, at the correct time, on the correct course and at the correct speed and positioned in the right part of the box by "start-time". The Navs and Ops officers cannot collude against this FOST dictat. It is workable, if done correctly. Hence a lot of stress, which is precisely what Portland is all about. And none of these evolutions is done in isolation. Ships transitting to an R/V point can have a galley fire, an aircraft crash on deck or even (a rather popular one) the Commanding Officer has a heart attack..and so structures and responsibilities have to be re-jigged "on the hoof". And the show would have to go on.....because we are being trained for a war at sea, and THAT is a hell of a lot different from chugging from point A to point B.
All these evolutions start quite slowly for a "newbie" ship, and build up pretty quickly over the following 2 or 3 weeks. During their (hopefully) final week they are full participants in the "Thursday War". To make up the numbers of participants the "not quite ready" ships are co-opted, but at this stage are not required to be on a "war footing", although they will still have to deal with FOST engendered "problems" (no easy ride here!). The experience also gives the "newbies" a bit of a taste of what to expect when they are promoted to the "first team".


Portland in summer can be quite benign. Stressful, sure. But winter is another thing altogether. Still the stress, but add a lot of weather induced misery on top.

 

Horrible.


Next is the "Thursday War".

B.O.S.T. Portland

(This story was originally written for a non RFA/RN audience)

 

It is not unusual for the "ship" to be preparing for the "war" while the poor Nav. is doing his ultimate test. The "Blind Pilotage" entry into Portland harbour via the NSC. All done on radar using parallel indexes and so on. No chance of a quick peep out of the windows. This navigational test is a killer and needs many hours of preparation. Using the Portland charts, there is a large and irregular shaped sandbank/reef between the natural entrance and the FOST entrance. This is laid out as a narrow channel. The Navs job is to get from the "start point" to between the breakwaters within one minute of the stipulated time. At the same time he is doing this he is required to maintain a running commentary on what he is doing. The winding course will take the ship within yards of disaster, and so all wheel orders and engine rev. counts have to be done with regard to the ships size, her "pivoting point" and sideways movement...and with regard to the position of the radar aerial being used. Very easy to forget the 400 odd feet of ship trailing along behind the radar. It is quite nerve wracking. I failed miserably on my first attempt, but after an entire night trying to sort it out I passed the next time. Makes no difference if it is day or night...but a heck of a lot of difference to the rest of the ships company who may have been looking forward to an evening ashore. Sorry, chaps. FOST Rules!


While the Nav is doing his "thing", the rest of the ship has been preparing itself for war. One of these preps is the destruction of your living space (cabin). According to FOST all (and I mean ALL) moveable items in your cabin have to be bundled up into a large heap in a corner and lashed down with rope. This is a megga inconvenience. Come back to your cabin for a kip and then remember that all your bedding including the mattress is part of the heap. Rats. Lie on the floor. I never really got my head around this thinking. If a shell, bomb or simple fire hits or impinges, does it really matter if everything is in a heap or not. Just another example of the Marquis de Sade at work again.

 

A bit like (much later) an idiot CO during the Falklands thing trying to ban smoking during an air-raid...but there we go.


So the ship is now ready for war. We are all dressed up in our blue or white boiler suits, anti-flash gear (very fetching, and all carrying our "survival kit". Enough to fill a suitcase and be too heavy to hoist into a locker on a tourist flight to Majorca (or wherever).

 

  1. Not knowing what we may encounter, we have to tote around:-
    A personal self contained compressed air breathing set. This gives about 20 minutes of air. Excellent. Heavy. Large bright orange bag.
  2. A Gas Mask. A term hated by the military (so that is what we call it). "Personal Respirator" is the PC term. This is "fitted" to your own facial shape by RN "experts" (hah!).

 

  1. A "Once Only" survival suit. A lightweight all enclosing "pak-a-mac" designed to delay the onset of hypothermia. But if you don't tie the cords correctly all the air will go to your feet and so make you float upside down.

 

  1. A Lifejacket. Standard RN issue. Tightly packed into a pouch worn around the waist. Pretty good things really....except that you can never get the damn things back into the pouch. In general usage they are worn on an almost daily basis during RASes etc. Years ago we used to just hang them around the neck uninflated (they are not auto-inflating for many reasons...another type is) until tests in a pool proved that the human lungs are insufficiently strong to inflate the jacket when in the water, so now they are worn "semi-inflated".

 

  1. And all sorts of other bits and bobs depending on the threat. When all this lot is hung, strapped and carried then doing any sort of work or anything requiring mobility is both tedious and difficult. This gets even worse if the ship may encounter a Nuclear, Chemical or Biological hazard. But I won't get into that stuff.

 

Sorry to have to do this, but I must backtrack a bit. Front-line RFAs are built with "citadels" enclosed within (usually) the superstructure. RN and RFAs are liberally endowed with "vents" of all sizes ranging from a few square inches to many square feet. All have distinctive markings. Generally indecipherable to an RFA crew, but it all boils down to where they go and what they do. Some suck, others blow. Some that are normally shut have to be opened, and vice versa when the ship is entering a "hostile environment"...nukes and chemicals and that sort of thing. When all the vents etc. are correctly opened/shut the AFUs (Air Filtration Units) are powered up to give the citadel a positive pressure. Entrance and exit for personnel is via double air-locks. The AFUs are really noisy beasts and this only increases the tension level when they are running. A citadel test is always carried out at the end of a refit. This is when you find out which cabin(s) have had a little hole drilled somewhere so an aerial can be fed out. Naughty.

 

The presence of these holes is normally indicated by a whistling from the little hole. The internal pressure build up (or lack of it) is measured by a simple manometer. (A "U" shaped glass tube partly filled with a liquid, pressure from the inside forces the liquid down on the high pressure side. Not all that unusual to see the thing going backwards...must be a leakage somewhere). Eventually somebody decides "that is as good as it's going to get".
Then we must do pre-wetting trials. As if sucking and blowing isn't enough it now seems as if we will have to wear incontinence pants. "Pre-wetting" is a spray system that supposedly keeps off - or washes off - "contaminants”. When we had nice green decks and the ships were reasonably new seeing this system working well was akin to watching a nice lawn being watered. But over the years and given the average sailors ability to lose all sense of reason when given a paint brush a lot of the spray heads get choked. So instead of a good spray it now looks more like the system has a prostate problem.

 

More money spent.

B.O.S.T. Portland

(This story was originally written for a non RFA/RN audience)

 

By 7a.m. the ships company have been fed and watered. Dressed in full "wartime" regalia, toting "ditty bags" and strung around with all the "survival" gear we are "ready". Even with names/ranks printed on the boiler suits the crew are as identifiable as a team of Daleks. Except for our Captain, who is "of short stature" and has an Olympic size belly. Nice to recognize the one who makes the decisions.


This is (as usual) to be a "co-ordinated" departure. That is all the ships have to leave the harbour entrance in a pre-determined sequence, at a pre-determined time and be 1000 yards apart, and be in line astern. This is a doddle for the war canoes, but can be bloody difficult for a 30,000 ton replenishment ship that is on a buoy and invariably pointing the wrong way. OK, we are on a "slip-rope" and the buoy jumpers and their boat are safely back on board. But we still have to turn around and slot into our allocated place in the procession. And assuming we manage that, there is a hard right turn immediately on clearing the entrance piers. Again, a doddle for frigates and destroyers but a tad awkward for a 660 foot long ship. By the time our stern can swing clear of the stonework we are hopelessly out of line. But until hinges are fitted to the hull we have no option.


As soon as this armada is clear of the main channel entrance buoy the game begins. Naturally, there are 2 sides. "Us and Them". Blue and Red in those days, but now are probably deemed to be Pink and Eau-de-Nil or something. Our "opposing" forces include one or more submarines, FPBs and aircraft. There may be other surface units also tossed into the mix. But the aircraft are worthy of a mention as they are probably the main "threat". Designated "Falcons", they are in fact ex RAF Hawker Hunters (now owned by a private company) and flown by "geriatric" ex RAF pilots (probably about 40 years old of so). And these guys really know what they are doing.

 

 

 

Hawker_Hunter

Hawker Hunter

 

 

 

Some of them even flew with the Red Arrows...probably when they used the Hunters. By now all the ships are at "Action Stations". Guns and decoy rockets manned...guns not loaded, but the decoys may be. Naturally enough the first attack is from the air. For a "first timer" on deck seeing a Hunter screeching in very low at over 400 knots with vortices swirling off its wing tips it is a bit of an exciting heart stopper. And this goes on (and off) for a few hours. Of course we get hit. People get injured; killed or worse (they might miss their "action snacks"). You will realise by now that the Corps of Sadists have a team on each ship intent on making life as awkward as is inhumanly possible. (On good authority, I hear that on leaving the RN many of them get jobs with local councils and are in charge of wheelie bins and car parking).


All the evolutions and exercises done during the previous weeks in more or less isolation now come all at once. Fires, Damage Control (shoring up bulkheads and stuff), medical teams treating the wonderfully and realistically (and overacting) casualties. Lose electrical power, steering gear breakdown. Bridge team decimated (Captains love this as they can toddle off for a brandy or something). All this chucks the ships organisation out of the window. Although nowadays the job of NBCDO is the province of the Chief Engineer (now Captain (E)), in those days it was the 1/Off(X) who was the NBCDO. Me. It was always impossible to not get carried away with the tension and "realism" of all this. Totally and utterly knackering for everyone on board (except Capt. Pugwash).

 

 

Thursday-War

RFA Black Rover

under attack in a Thursday War

 

All the courses and shore training do not prepare you for your first exposure to a Portland War. Anti-submarine zig-zags (timed to the second to avoid collisions), anti-torpedo evasive manoeuvres, blah, blah, blah. And then it is all over, and we have to revert to normal behaviour before entering harbour for "wash-ups".

 

These de-briefings are done in front of the entire ships company (except those who really have to be someplace else). No-one, of whatever rank is excused having their shortcomings (or, indeed, good points) made public. Can be quite humiliating. But with a few reservations we come out of it all with a "Sat" (satisfactory), which is OK. I have only ever been on one ship that got a "Good", and that was really because the ships company had been together for a few months rather than a couple of weeks.


I'm sure I have inadvertently left a lot out here, but I hope you got "the feel" of it.

 

(This story was originally written for a non RFA/RN audience)

 

My life at sea – the RFA. At first equally traumatic as I hadn't a clue how the RN/RFA worked. Big learning curve, and not always nice. So some of my recollections may sound a little humourless, but that is the way it was. Humour came later when I had a vague idea as to what I was doing.


After leaving C&W cable ships I was at a bit of a loose-end. Being recently married and with raging hormones the sea-faring life lost a lot of its attraction. As it has done to many a poor soul. I will gloss over the jobs I had as I still cringe a little. Managed to pay the mortgage and so on, but my life and training (?) was as a seafarer. Increasingly unhappy with shore life after a year of pettiness and the "money, money, money" attitude of the people I had to work with eventually eroded my soul. Had to go back to sea. All kinds of options were open to me, but I also had an awareness that the British Merchant Navy was in decline (1967). I had many interviews and many high paying job offers, but there was always a mental "niggle" of doubt about the long term future. When I was a pre-sea cadet the RFA was not an option.

 

The ships of the RFA we could see at Smiths Docks etc. on the Tyne always looked old, somewhat seedy and (shall I say) a little "down-market". A bit like "Hungry Hogarths" or some such. Little snobs as we were then. But P&O wouldn't entertain kids from South Shields. They wanted Pangbourne, Conway and so on. So us clever little grammar school sods had to slum it in little known outfits such as "Blue Funnel", "BI", Ben Line", "Elder Dempster", "Royal Mail" and all of the other "second rate" concerns. Many companies in those days were aggressively advertising for cadets. The biggest one was "Shell Tankers". Promised the earth. Very few of my pre-sea classmates returned to take their 2nd mates "ticket". No-one had told them that their lives would be lived in a smelly environment, and the only "ports" they would encounter would be seen at a distance from the end of a long jetty in some of the most awful places on earth. I wanted more out of life than that.

 

When I was in "CS Mercury" I had noticed a lot of activity in the Portland area. Helicopters buzzing, fast jets screeching, ships in close proximity and so on. Naturally most of the vessels were RN, but I noted that more than a few were RFAs.

 

 

CS-Mercury

 

 

Cable Ship Mercury

 

These things were a lot more enticing than the rust-buckets I had seen during my pre-sea training days. So I rejected the high paying jobs and applied to join the RFA. I asked, and was given a ship to join to see if I liked it. No duties, just a familiarisation run. Nobody told the ship that, but I stuck to the terms I had been offered and was given a "free-run" to browse and observe. The ship was the then almost new RFA Olmeda, a fleet (liquid) replenishment ship (read "tanker") that could also operate 6 anti-submarine Wessex helicopters. (one in the hangar and 5 ranged on the "parking deck").

 

Olmeda

RFA Olmeda

 

I had a very short introduction to the Captain who really only wanted to know if I had a bow tie. In those days officers had to "dress" for dinner. (c--- though it was). Those who had been "in the service" for a long time had blue "mess-jackets" (White on other occasions), whereas us plebs would wear our usual "day to day" doeskin uniforms.....with a bow tie. All very odd. Even doing the 12-4 night watch meant being in full uniform. But I put it down to being a quirk of nature.


Prior to this new building programme for the RFA they were generally regarded by the mainstream Merchant Navy as a sort of "cloth cap and muffler" brigade. Some justification in that, which I am not going to get into. I may be entirely wrong here (although I don't think so), but the new re-building of the RFA was to be compatible with and an adjunct to the new aircraft carriers to be built in the mid 1960s. The height of the "cold-war". These new carriers would have their own "fleet-train". Supply ships and so on.

 

HMS_Bristol_D23

 

HMS Bristol

 

They would also have the added protection of the "Bristol" class cruisers and the Sea-Slug capability of the new "County" class destroyers... plus all the "Leander" class frigates. I will only give you one chance to guess what happened. The carriers were axed. (Ringing any bells?) But by then the "Fleet -Train" had been built. "Resource" and "Regent" were anachronisms from the start without the new carriers. The "Ol" class tankers proved to be very versatile and went on to give 40 years of superb service to navies all over the world. The "Ness" class were a bit constrained in although having a landing deck there wasn't anything else. But that was the RFA I was joining. At that time I hadn't really noticed that some of the really old, worn out and cruddy ships were still in service. No matter. Next one... my first "proper" appointment in the RFA.

B.O.S.T. Portland

(This story was originally written for a non RFA/RN audience)

After the "shake-down" it is fairly usual to nip into Devonport or Portsmouth for a few days to do whatever needs doing.


On arrival at Portland, more often than not, an RFA is stuck on a buoy. Most RN ships are given an alongside berth. Well, I suppose it is "their" harbour! I think I mentioned some time ago that the RN define the seasons strictly by date and totally ignore what the weather is actually doing. A good example of this pottiness is the mooring to a buoy. If you are going to a buoy before the 20th of May then you have to have 2 anchor cables attached to the buoy...even if the weather is sub-tropical.

 

This is a real work out for the deck crew. But if you moor after the 20th of May then one cable will suffice, even though the weather may be Arctic and blowing a hooghly. "Rules is rules". The same applies to which uniform you wear. But one quickly gets to realise that a certain amount of pig-headed sadisticness pervades the minds of (some of) the FOST teams...especially those who delight in the public humiliation of senior officers. They say it is all "character building"..but then, they would say that, wouldn't they.


Many RN personnel only ever do one "work-up" during their entire time in the RN. Could be because a lot of them are not "in" for a full career. The RFA crews are much more "permanent", and so yet another work-up is just another 3 weeks of hassle. Mind you, I agree with all this "in principle"....it is just that one can get too much of it. Another damn silly arrangement is the RFAs penchant for relieving those who have done the refit and work-up with new joiners. So many of the new crew will not be "up to speed". Even the FOST teams used to think this a bit of madness.


The 1st week is the "harbour week", and the FOST staff really do inspect the ship extremely thoroughly...not just for physical cleanliness, but procedures, accounting and so on. This is good as it often shows up areas that have been allowed to slide a little. A bit like taking a driving test after 20 "safe" years on the road. It can be a pretty tense time even for those who are on their 6th or even 10th work-up and who know "the system". We will also have at least 2 "harbour fires", when a proportion of the crew are ashore (or told not to partake). This requires a totally different organisation to the more usual "at sea" scenario. It could also involve shore based authorities. But more on that later when I discuss ammo ships.


One of the reasons that the RFA ships have much smaller crews than the RN is because (particularly) the RFA officers do a lot more multi-tasking than their RN counter parts. A simple example here would be the general spread of nautical knowledge imparted to MN officers during their training to pass their "tickets". RN people are much more specialised. So to my mind a MN officer getting further RN training gains a heck of a lot. The RFA traditionally had a very high officer to rating ratio. This has changed drastically. The ratings and POs now have a much more structured career path, and the officer complement has been able to be reduced. Long overdue.


And from what I hear on the grapevine a lot of decent RN ratings subsequently join the RFA when their time in the Andrew is up.
But I am talking about the 1970s and 80s here. RFA training for officers was always carried out in Service establishments for obvious reasons, but this has been extended through all ranks. Good. Even though all RFA personnel remain firmly "civilian".


During our leave periods it was more or less expected that we officers would be called away from the lee of bum island to do one or more courses. Mainly on the South Coast. Lots of 1st class train travel! (Even by air now and again). 2 weeks at HMS Phoenix for yet more (filthy and cold and wet and hot) fire fighting training. Back to the same place for the nuclear, chemical and biological aspects of war. Aldermaston for more of the same...except this time we had to dress up and behave like soldiers! Yeucch. On to RFA HQ (London) for a week doing "Alcohol and Drug Abuse Training". Never did really work out what the course name meant...but as the drug councillor (sorry, lecturer) was in re-hab or something the alcohol bit was mainly conducted in a pub. As a 2/O , 2 or 3 weeks training as a radar helicopter controller...RN style, with perhaps 4 aircraft in the circuit simultaneously. A couple of weeks at HMS Cambridge learning how to fire, maintain and control "defensive" weapons. (Good training for when the Falklands thing came up). Off to the SBS base at Poole to learn about "security". Somewhere else to learn more about things that go "bang", and how to deal with undesired "leakages" from same. A rather stupid Radar Nav Course at somewhere in Hampshire that wasn't half as good as the standard MN stuff at any MN training college. A dangerous cargo course at Warsash (waste of time, but the local restaurants are good). Naturally, all these courses were spread over more than one leave period. Leave periods were extended to cover the time spent away. I was even sent to the civil service college at Sunningdale to learn about PR. A waste of time for me as I am not by nature a "spin doctor". To the chagrin of those who sent me! Thankfully a lot of these courses are now attended by POs and Ratings. I guess you could say that "we" got a pretty good post-graduate education in subjects well away from the general mainstream sort of stuff. By far my favourite venue was the old Staff College at Greenwich. Steeped in history. To walk through the tunnel connecting the 2 wings and emerge into the Painted Hall for dinner was like being royalty.


But the real world would beckon. Portland, and back to the realities.

(This story was originally written for a non RFA/RN audience)

 

My first "real" appointment was to RFA Resource.

 

 

RFA Resource

RFA Resource

 

 

She was at Glenmallen. Where? Get a train to Helensburgh and we will have a car to meet you.

 

The first of many lies told to me by MoD. No car. No money. Wait for 4 hours. Get a taxi and managing to break the local language barrier got him to understand that he would be re-imbursed and, bless him, he took me on the short tour of the Scottish Highlands.

 

For those of you who don't know Loch Long, it's a very interesting place up from Faslane. A very scenic road up the eastern side of the loch, but you could be in for a big surprise. Come around a bend and you may well be confronted by a rather large grey ship that really has no business being there.

 

Welcome to the Glenmallen ammunition and explosives jetty.

 

 

Glenmallen

RNAD Glenmallen

 

One of the (very) few places in the UK where the RFA ammo ships can actually get to tie up. Not that it makes a blind bit of difference as getting from there to anywhere else takes dedication. But I suppose siting a major ammo depot in a populated area for the convenience of a ships crew may give rise to a few complaints.

 

Loch Long was once used as a torpedo testing area. Nice and straight and long.. hence the name?. I also recall watching dinghy fishermen hauling in 5' long cod. To get to anywhere else (unless you had a car) the RN laid on a sort of bus a few times a day into Helensburgh via Garlochhead (a good pub was there), then catch a train to Glasgow and then onwards. It took forever.

 

So this is really where my "career" in the RFA began. Up a Scottish creek with not many ways out. Although there was always a Mod-Plod presence on the compound gate there never seemed to be much thought given to the "water" side of the ship. Although I had had a brief introduction to the RFA aboard "Olmeda", this ship blew me away. Absolutely and totally different from anything I had ever seen before. (Remember the RFA is a civilian manned organisation). But it was the on-board organisation, jargon and effectively having 3 crews ..and so many people! The jargon may as well been in Chinese for all the sense I could make of it. The entire ships company seemed to converse in TLAs. Also, although she was a dry-cargo vessel (a very loose term here), she had no hatches. All the decks were flush and the 5 decks of "holds" were served by lifts of varying sizes and capacities according to what particular whizz-bang was to be put in there.

 

The "holds" and their contents were "looked after" by a civil service crew (CS from now on). The ranking structure of this bunch was also confusing. Can you really imagine a structure that would encompass the rating of a "Skilled Labourer"? Surely that is an oxymoron. These "dockyard maties" would spend all day whizzing around the decks on fork-lift trucks and really chewing up the nice green deck paint. And they had a habit of bumping into things (like bits of the ship) that would have been funny if it wasn't for the nature of the "stuff" they were carting around. The gap between the amidships block and the back bit were joined by a passageway on each side of the ship that was probably 400' long. The ships ABs had the port alley (Burma Road) and the CS had the starboard (Union Street). Each crew was responsible for the cleaning of their own alleyway. The ABs had to fit the job in between other tasks. The CS employed a "specialist skilled labourer" whose sole task was to trog up and down their alleyway with a polishing machine and a souji cloth. 7 days a week. (Overtime at weekends, see?). The then rank structure was a bit bizarre also (been cleaned up a bit since then). Captain. Chief Officer, First Officer, 3x2nd Officers, 2x3rd Officers. 4X Radio Officers, One "writer" (a sort of purser) and a Chief Steward who never really knew which camp he belonged in. Too many engineers to shake a stick at, 3 Electrical Officers, 2 Refrigeration Officers and possibly a cadet training unit...12 of them with their own training officer. And I'm sure I have missed out others. One helicopter pilot (RN). The POs bar was just as crowded. Bosun and 2 bosuns mates. A Yeoman of Signals (and he had 2 signalmen below him). Engineers a bit similar with the Donkeyman at the top of the heap. The CS bunch had maybe 8 officers and a dozen POs. One of their junior officers had a very strange remit. His "day-job" was to oversee the large garage that fixed the busted fork-lifts, re-charge the batteries and so on..but his other "job" was to look after and "test" (not figuratively) some of the ammunition. All his "superiors" were pen-pushers. Tell you anything? With any luck you will now be as confused as I was.

 

Every now and again a MoD ship has to undergo "cold weather trials". I think that this is a euphemism for "make the poor sods suffer while we have another cup of tea". I mean, lets face it, if the sea has a layer of ice on it, it doesn't mean that the sea underneath the ice was frozen....otherwise it would be. But the suits had decided that in this particular year that RFA Resource" would do it.

 

Off we trogged (I was the 12-4 watchkeeper) looking for ice. Just heading North ought to do it. Well, how far North do you have to go before you are heading South again. No ice. Scoot over to Iceland. That must be good. Nope. And this was in the middle of winter. Like January. My argument that we should wait until March fell upon deaf ears. Stuff'em. So, burning up lots of fuel and getting the whole crew seriously miffed we eventually found some off Greenland. All this time we had been in the "land" of everlasting night. Big ammo ship full of whatever steaming around aimlessly must have confused the hell out of the "Red" team.

 

All the time the weather was fairly nasty. One gets tired of being bumped around 24 hours a day and never knowing if it was breakfast or dinner time...the cooks didn't either as they just seemed to cook on a whim. But we found ice. The sludgy sort. This was a blessed relief as the ice flattened out the sea to a nice gentle swell and let everybody get a good night (day) sleep. We trudged through this stuff for days getting very bored until one lovely morning the SUN actually popped a little over the horizon. The colours reflecting off the grey ice were amazing and led to the lightening of 200 troglodyte hearts. They say that Norwegians have a very high suicide rate during the winter. I am not surprised. As one Norwegian put it to me, "In Summer there is fishing and f......  but in winter there is only f......"  Much as I love Norway I am not surprised.

 

As an aside, Tromso and Port Stanley (Falklands) have one thing in common. They are the only 2 places I have ever been to that have their satellite dishes pointing downwards. Even though Port Stanley is about the same latitude South as Leicester is North. Point to ponder.

 

Until I joined the RFA I had never been on a tanker in my life. I had always preferred to see the cargo coming in (or out) rather than taking it on trust. But the RFA is not just tankers. There were ammunition ships, general stores ships, and an aviation ship, landing ships/troop carriers, a survey ship and various others, a big fleet that stayed out of the limelight as much as possible. So the personnel moved around a lot between the various classes. It was one heck of a good education in all things nautical.

 

Pearleaf

RFA Pearleaf

 

My first tanker was a freighting one called RFA Pearleaf (actually owned by Blue Funnel, but none of us knew this until after the Falklands thing and MoD decided that she was redundant. At the time (1970) her main job was to ferry fuel oil from Iraq (and elsewhere) to Singapore. Good training for a new 2/O Nav.

 

Tankers are smelly things. To my dying day I shall remember standing over a 6" sighting port trying to gauge the ullage when the oil was coming into the tank at 1000 tons per hour. Awful!

 

Before I joined Pearleaf I told MoD that I had no experience maintaining Gyro Compasses (the 2/Os job then). The standard bit of kit then was the "Sperry"...about the size of an old fashioned dust-bin. The gyro itself was a 56lb wheel that whanged around at 36,000 rpm. Not a toy to be played with, but as all the main electrical contacts were open mercury filled "tubs" a fair amount of maintenance was called for. A few years later I had one that ran amok and nearly destroyed a steel compartment...but that's another story. Anyway, MoD took pity on me and sent me on a "course". I have been on many courses but this one was special.

 

 

Ditton-Park

Admiralty Compass Establishment

Ditton Park

 

 

The venue was Ditton Park castle near Windsor/Slough. This place was the Admiralty compass establishment. I was the only student. All the civil servants who worked there would go home at "close of play" leaving me the only inhabitant of an ancient castle complete with ramparts, battlements, a moat and a drawbridge. Absolute magic!

 

After learning all I could about the Sperry thingy I was stuffed into a backward facing seat on an RAF VC10 to go to Bahrain. As luck would have it my seat neighbour was a Harrier pilot (then called a Kestrel) who had been the pilot of the aircraft that famously took off from a coal yard in London as part of a transatlantic race. That passed the time away.

 

 

harrier

Harrier from No 1 Squadron, RAF taking off from St. Pancras Station in the Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race 4 May 1969

Not having a visa or anything I was whisked away by "somebody" and sent off for miles and miles in the darkness of a Gulf night to Allah knows where. Wherever it was we eventually got there. I was greeted by a Chinese QM who immediately took me to the officer’s bar. He must have had second sight, but there was more to this than altruism. Just about every officer on board was there...not to greet me, of course, but it sure set the tone for the next 9 months.

 

The guy I was relieving had already left the ship which was a bit of a "downer". But I was made very welcome by a wizened Welsh dwarf who was wearing a tatty old vest, baggy shorts that may once have been white and a pair of ""xxxxx"-quicks" (flip-flops to you land lubbers). He was also chewing a matchstick and playing a banjo. He turned out to be one of the most professional and caring Captains I ever sailed with in the RFA. I was told to get a beer and come to see him at "O-Crack-Sparrow-Fart" next morning. My first surprise was that the "meeting" was to be held in his bedroom. No problems. His first question was to ask if I played table tennis. I thought it best to say yes, although I was pretty cr-- at it. A big grin and I was ushered into his dayroom. Which was filled by a full size table tennis table. He was now wearing a cleaner pair of baggy shorts and chewing a new match. Me, in "meeting new Captain for the first time" dressed in immaculate whites. Five minutes after he had lobbed a bat at me I was as rumpled as he'd been the night before...and all the playing time he taught me about the ship and how he ran it. But one thing he never told me. After about an hour of being hammered by a master (in both senses) he suggested I might like to get the courses etc. to Bandar Mashur laid off. It was with some trepidation that I said "OK, but can you please tell me where we are now, as I really need a start-point". Everyone on that ship loved him to bits. Not long after joining I realised why the rather swish wood panelling in his dayroom had cracks, splits, dents and holes in it. You guessed. Bat damage. There were three public rooms on that ship. The officer’s bar / lounge, the dining saloon and the table tennis room. Happy days. Funnily enough the ship was run to a very high standard (with the exception of a few bits of wood panelling). The Chinese crew were loyal to a "T" (whatever that means), the ship was immaculate and everything was done well...and soberly. In retrospect I cannot recall anyone abusing the "system".


The main task for the ship was to keep Singapore Naval Base topped up with FFO, Diesel and Avcat; running between various Gulf ports and Singapore....with the odd excursion to do something else. She was RAS capable with 2 beam rigs and a stern RAS capability. So nothing outstanding about the job, but life still had its "moments". This was my first job "on my own" as it were. Smashing.

 

Even the gyro held no terrors after "my course". But no-one had told me that this ship had 2 different sorts of gyro. The Sperry 1005 I could handle, but a Browns I had only vaguely heard of. The Sperry was a monster of a machine that really needed a cabin of its own, and looked as if it could withstand a near miss from a 6" shell. In other words, typically American. The Brown was British, and therefore smaller and more "elegant". Both relied on Mercury for electrical contacts. But the only thing they had in common was the spinning wheel. The Sperry compass "card" twitched permanently from side to side, and the Brown pumped up and down. Eventually I cracked it and came consider the Brown a better machine, but not as robust as the Sperry.

 

Being bog ignorant in those days I was not aware that mercury digests gold. So it ate my rather new wedding ring. I guess both the gold and the mercury still lurk somewhere within me, but SWMBO has never been totally convinced of that story. 

 

After finding my way around the Persian Gulf (on paper) I got the ship back to Singapore, but coming back into the Gulf was odd. I had never actually entered the Gulf and just assumed I would turn North(ish) for a bit and then turn East(ish). Nope. There is a moving boundary line of temperature and humidity in the area of the Hormuz strait. It is invisible, but just as sharp as a line drawn on paper. At around 2am we must have crossed this line as we suddenly encountered thick fog. So I did all the necessary, called the Captain, put the Engine Room on "stand-by" and began blowing the whistle. That's when the (huge) Mongolian quartermaster left the wheel, shoved me to one side and began wiping off the heavy condensation from the inside of the bridge windows. One of life’s more embarrassing episodes. That cost me more than a few beers.

 

Our "old-salt" Captain later told me that he was waiting to see my reaction and that I was by no means the first to be caught out. Since then I have done the same to Gulf "newcomers" and so regained my lost beers.

 

Another day in the life of a simple sailor. Still aboard RFA "Pearleaf".

 

Our Radio Officer (only one in this class of ship ...four of them plus a Yeoman and signallers on the "bigger" ships) came across a tin of luminous paint. I think it must have been meant for touching up the many luminous dials we had then. Quite radio-active I believe, but we didn't know that at the time. (1969/70).

 

He decided to paint a human skeleton on to the front of a dark blue boiler suit. A "test-run" in his darkened cabin proved satisfactory. You may recall that I had a little score to settle with our 6'6" Mongolian quartermaster....so the scenario was set.

 

On a very dark, moonless and cloudy night in the Indian Ocean at around 3am the R/O donned the suit and made his way to the fo'c'sle. I turned off the mast nav. lights, and that was his cue to turn around and dance. The QM screamed and ran off the bridge.

 

If I hadn't known what was going to happen I would have joined him. I just left the auto-pilot on, switched the lights back on and continued until the end of the watch.

 

The QM was quite nice to me after that.

 

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

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