A Fitter apprentice entry in January 1964 and eventually seeing the real dockyard 2 years later, I already had a developed interest in ships spawned by watching the great luxury and not so luxury liners that passed in view of my local beach through the Solent from the mid 1950s.
For all this interest as a kid, being on a warship for only the second time (the first being the Russian Visit of 1956; Buster Crabb RIP) the disarray when under refit was frankly alarming, and I wondered how they would ever get her ready to return to sea. On HMS Leopard I would learn in the passing months that there was a place for everything and that everything did find its place.
With the gradual restoration of fit for sea came a greater sense of purpose with the crew. As an example the relaxed and jovial attitudes of chief changed to busy, with a real purpose. There was always a frantic work up before the true work up at sea.
The slender almost dieted lines of a warship always impressed me and to be honest whilst the relatively new kids on the block lead by the Leander’s it was a Battle Class or similar which looked the real, albeit cluttered war like part for me. The rolled edged decks of the 1960s smooth looking hulls did not seem to shout business even though undoubtedly they would have more overall sting than their predecessors.
The county class destroyers whilst not the roll deck look had funnels that would have graced any cruise liner for goodness sake. The aft end (Seaslug launcher deck) looked as if the swimming pool was missing. Briefly working on HMS London the funnel look certainly transferred to the stark, free of clutter companion ways (dummy panelling to hide the usual myriad of pipes and wiring I was told) below decks but the machinery spaces I thought were cramped and apparently this was the users view of crew accommodation too, dependant on where you were in the pecking order of course. So used to traditional innards it seemed cycling or a game of cricket was quite possible in these civilian looking passages.
Top sides there were many differences between classes but in the dock the differences quickly dwindled as did my ability to keep warm during a winter change of props to HMS Glamorgan; so moving right along.
Being part of a section which primarily worked on larger ships, aircraft carriers were frequently my workplace a couple of them like HMS Albion (God it was cold those nights grinding her island chaff launcher pads, but great to see a warship that had been used for its purpose on her return from The Falklands) and Centaur were pretty functional and well laid out to my mind.
Whether you loved or hated her HMS Victorious spun me out a bit with what I thought was a strange internal arrangement. This was in stark contrast to another aspect of my opinion. From the outside she was the smartest looking thing that ever graced a flight deck, and an angled one at that! They must have fitted it wrong! She had a pretty smart cocoon looking radar too.
I forever recall that flashed up alongside and climbing the vertical rung ladder to exit one of her boiler rooms, the necessary oxygen in the heat under the deck was in pretty short supply. This was of particular interest to me as an Asthmatic, because good quality air is always useful.
And whilst I think about it, ‘The Vic’ probably gave renewed vigour to the lazy docky label being as she was rebuilt, rescheduled re-updated a few times in the 8 years under Pompey hands in the 1950s. You can imagine the uninformed conversation,‘What! 8 years to refit an aircraft carrier?! That’s bloody typical of those dockies!’
Not a typical docky thing was to work on a flat top which had never been used or even finished. Enter HMS Leviathan which after being an impressive monument for years opposite Gosports Priddy’s Hard and the old Powder Pier finally came alongside for a group of us 4th year apprentices to remove much of her steam plant for the Dutch Navy. An empty cold soulless all steel structure is the only way I can describe her and naturally devoid of the historic mental echoes that are clearly heard inside a laid up used ship. Adding to the strange was the fact (I know now) she was built to regular shipping standards and not those of Navy, hence a shared 2 storey ballroom space for steam and propulsion plant I never did get my head round. Who pinched the bulkhead!?
Naturally going from the biggest I have to think about the smallest (I worked on) which was HMS Blackwood in 12 dock. An emergency night and a couple more followed in which time, and before, I decided I liked them for their low lean look, and for its relatively small hull there was pretty generous space in the boiler and engine rooms. I have to qualify that by saying for once my job card did not take me below the floor plates. One thing which stands out today from word of mouth of a crewman then, related an event on her way into Pompey when she had heeled over far enough to float her ships boat, had it not been lashed in its davits!
My time on her was an enjoyable few days, and apart from the shock of my Emergency night i.e. go home after a day’s work at 4pm and return at 7.30pm then work till 7.00am, it was well worth the extra in my pay packet.
I liked the Blackwoods but the Daring class to me was awful top heavy looking with twin gun placements up front, one at the stern and who came up with those weird funnels, the aft one looking like 2 stacked garbage bins which, as built, I thought they could have done a lot better. Never worked on them and never wanted to even though I had to look at Daring herself everyday for quite a while parked in 3 basin opposite my amenity centre between 13 and 14 docks during a spell on HMS Whitby.
There were advantages to being on a worked up ready for sea grey funnel. I could get a feel for the way this family of men operated, from the formal to the familiar relationships between them and not always dependant on rank separation, though ‘sir’ always followed conversation between the blues and the gold. It is true to say that a ship has to be a she being as it was all men who strove often to understand the ‘why has that happened’ to ‘what did I do wrong?’ to keep her happy. I began to grasp why some ships were a company of souls with a single cause and others that seemed like you were barely tolerated let alone needed. A mix of focussed men and good officers does not have to work well if the generated dynamic does not contain the right ingredients. In ships staff I witnessed fatigue, the results of ‘I didn’t want this posting’ (our ECR run pyrometers destroyed overnight) and minds elsewhere to know these were all part of the equation.
As a stand out of goodwill and unity between uniforms and brown overalls HMS Whitby was a prime example. At the head of the brow to her 15 dock allocation was a blackboard with the words (roughly remembered); Welcome aboard all Dockyard workers. We trust your stay with us is a good one and pleased to have you make us well and fit for sea once more.
I really appreciated that. The re-tube of her boilers was the major task as I contributed to the lesser job of underwater valves and the engineering staff could not have been more helpful in helping me locate them all. Even the first engineering officer was very approachable.
A working relationship between an ex navy dockyard man and crew was always a good one since they exchanged in the same ‘Jack Speak’ language. For the most part mine was not too bad since I adopted a respect for a sailors floating home that I was allowed into.
In general all warships to me were pretty good looking but there are exceptions. I am not going to rub salt into my own visual wounds but HMS Blake after her Pompey conversion was plug ugly! I remember her in 15 dock I think it was sporting the ‘reach for the sky’ banana frame work from her fine tapered cruiser stern and thought…..No surely not! Add a double shoe box and an open flight operation sort of aft bridge and the unbearable is complete. I am not going to continue other than to suggest giving an E Type Jaguar the top sides of an Austin 7.
In a special place comes The Reclaim; oh sorry HMS Reclaim. She was an old plodder in the triple expansion way, graceful with lots of rivets to cap off the simple endearing hull and for me my first and only chance to watch the almost extinct (by then), rivet crew. She lay in 12 or 13 dock and from atop the Caisson I watched the rivet boy take each one from the portable forge in the dock. He threw it aloft above her stern as the second team member took it from the air in his tongs and prescribed a perfect arc into the waiting hole and the riveter’s gun followed in minimal seconds.
As a 3rd year apprentice I was made aware that most dockies and just about every sailor revered her for her diving achievements.
Achievements come in many guises and as a young permanently hungry man the galley of a ship alongside almost got me to sign up some times. We talk of fining dining today but the navy cooks had all that beaten with their superb array of hot foods which sometimes I recognised as magazine images. Will power and, look the other way, were the denial tools that helped me walk past a galley flat. Now that was an achievement!
My other special boat; sorry for that slur to ex submariners but every vessel afloat was a boat to us as, ‘are you going back to the aircraft carrier or radar picket frigate’ was too much of a mouthful. Anyway I never worked on her or saw her insides and no doubt she was not a Pompey boat anyway, but in a flooded A lock, HMS Manxman had me just about spell bound! Someone whispered in my ear that she could do 40 knots! I had no doubt having found out she also had 4 boilers and looked like a water born missile. Very long with the beam of a rowing boat it was tempting to look for the stowed wings. Maybe with a bit more development they could make these Mine Layers…crop sprayers!
I suppose being longer than a Leander with the same beam plus of course the minor detail of having nearly 2 and a half times the Giddee-up (which would not disgrace a light cruiser) then something had to happen on the, going places a bit quick scale. That class were amazing vessels.
Staying with amazing then who could deny that The Brave Class was anything else. They carried the typical Vosper look of that time and like all Vosper products went like that stuff off a shovel. My view of one was in 7 dock in the late 60s where Brave Borderer was parked and a real credit to her crew. For the first time in close up I could see what was creating a plume of white on the horizon as company to the second annual Daily Express Power Boat Race which I saw from the side of Fort Gilkicker, Gosport in 1962. Just to prove that Vosper could make fast hulls like the Brave, Tramontana II was going passed whilst many hundreds of metres astern there appeared to be a separate race going on? She was the easy winner.
Anyway at the time the Brave was probably the only thing afloat that was manoeuvrable enough and could keep pace. From my dockside view the gas turbine exhaust outlets gave her the ultimate aviation look to match her speed!
I suppose because I have used HM Ships in the title of these words it would be unfair not to mention HM ship No. 1!
Wearing new overalls he doffs his cap with a bow
HM Royal Yacht Britannia was one of them boats what John Brown made on the Clyde and as a nipper I remembers her being brung into service!
In 12 dock (which I think was her usual refit home) she always seemed to shine,from the royal blue hull aided by the obvious gold leaf band, to her white topsides and that creamy funnel. Even though I had no business to be on such a vessel yours truly decided to tread the brow and see how ‘them with a few bob’ get to travel around. I had no intention to go below the weather deck and this alone was a visual feast. I think apart from the sun kissed teak laid decks (probably scrubbed to within an inch of their lives) the hand rails also shouted luxury offering a gentle top curve in their huge girth with possibly a Honduras mahogany look. Let me name the rooms at that level as state rooms, not knowing better and the presence of candelabra and other embellishments were a marked reminder that this was no ordinary ferry or house boat. Before very long I decided to quit the scene before I was politely approached. The most lasting impression was watching painters rubbing down a layer of paint on her hull at the stern, by hand, using what we then called ’crocus paper’ (very fine wet and dry), Yes, you read that right.
Whatever we might think of that special vessel today there can be no denying that her hull was the epitome of classic in an empathetic progression of her former gracious Clydebank sisters.
And if you have got this far then let me make the correction to Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia. Bit bloody big for a yacht though wasn’t she?
My only regret in writing these words is not having been old enough at the time to look over or work on HMS Vanguard and to be honest I prefer to recall my sights of her from Gosport Ferry Gardens and The Hard rather than her ‘refusal to leave’, wedged at Old Portsmouth on route to her end. She had become in my young mind a figure of wonderment and power.
Taking things a league higher, the many who have served on (lived and breathed part of her life) and perhaps even witnessed the paying off, or seeing her towed out to the inevitable end will know the feeling of loss. To the uninitiated the thought is irrational for something that is of material origin.
For me the Vanguards last trip was disbelief. For the RN it was inevitable, as was the closure of an era which for the perceived future HMS Vanguard marked the very sad, proud end to battleships. At least that was, and is, my lasting impression.
Copyright Doug Seymour June 2019