PORTSMOUTH ROYAL DOCKYARD HISTORICAL TRUST

 

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History 1914 -1984

 

During the Great War, 1658 ships were docked for refit or repair. Personnel numbers increased to 23000 and for the first time women were employed and performed a vital role.

After the war, the construction programme continued but was limited to cruisers and smaller ships. By 1937, numbers had again declined to 15000.

During the Second World War, the yard docked 2548 ships but, during the blitz years, massive bomb-damage was sustained and it was considered too risky to dock the larger strategic ships. During later years of the war though, Portsmouth played further key roles including for example manufacture of the “PLUTO” oil line and elements of the Mulberry Harbour. Numbers employed rose to a record 27000.

After WWII, Portsmouth built only destroyers and frigates – these pictures show RHYL in 1960, and SIRIUS in 1964 which was similar to HMS “ANDROMEDA”, a “LEANDER” class frigate, the last ship ever completed - in 1967. In total the Dockyard had built nearly 300 ships for the Royal Navy.

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 Latterly parliamentary questions were asked on several occasions about the cost of dockyard- built ships compared with those from the private sector. There was some room for concern, but MPs for the hard-pressed private shipyards could hardly be expected to be disinterested. It is ironical that in the time of Pepys, he favoured the Royal Dockyards because the private yards were seen to exploit the King!

By 1963, Portsmouth Dockyard was employing about 12000 people. It was one of the four remaining home yards, alongside the slightly larger Devonport, with 14000, and the smaller yards at Chatham and Rosyth. The Navy and therefore the industry was contracting very quickly and it is always more difficult to manage a declining business efficiently than one which is enjoying the pressures of expansion. During the next 20 years numerous official and ministerial studies were commissioned into future management of the Dockyards but all were destined to gather dust on shelves. By 1981, numbers at Portsmouth had been reduced largely through natural wastage down to about 7500, notwithstanding the completion of some very large projects during an era when modernisation of ships was often chosen in preference to new construction. Projects included the enormous refit of HMS VICTORIOUS, in which the ship was effectively re-built from the waterline upwards.

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 The effect of this rundown on the local economy was substantially cushioned by the growth of other defence-related industries along the A27 corridor.

However, in 1981 came the landmark defence review by John Nott. As Secretary of State for Defence, he decided that the prime thrust of the future Navy would be around confrontation with the Soviet Union and submarine warfare. (Portsmouth had been excluded from the new industry of refitting and refuelling nuclear submarines because of the nearby residential and commercial areas.) John Nott also decided that henceforth no more modernisations of surface ships would be undertaken and consequently that, of the four home Dockyards, we could afford to close both Chatham and Portsmouth. After some months of argument, political pressure and bargaining with Trade Unions, Portsmouth (but not Chatham) won a small concession. The yard would not close entirely but a reconstituted naval base would incorporate a new organisation for maintaining and repairing (but not refitting) ships called the Fleet Maintenance and Repair Organisation (FMRO). This would be jointly manned by civilian as well as naval personnel, with senior management posts shared between the navy and civil servants. It was a modest reprieve that still required issue of redundancy notices to all but 1800 civilians. No sooner had this been done than the yard was called upon for a huge contribution to preparations for the Falklands war.

Portsmouth dockies worked miracles during the crisis, delivering everything that was asked and more, despite the uncomfortable notice of redundancy which was stuffed into their back pocket. A huge amount of work was done - 16 warships and RFAs were prepared for Operation "Corporate"; refit and repair work on 6 warships was completed ahead of schedule; 19 Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) were converted or fitted with special equipment; and 3 warships were repaired following serious damage incurred during the Operation. Afterwards, a commemorative booklet was given to every person who had worked in the Dockyard during this time.