HMAS Hobart in Vietnam

HMAS Hobart in Vietnam

by Harry Daish

Part 1 of 2

This tale started as a story for grandchild­ren eager to learn details of their grandfather’s service in a destroyer in Vietnam.

In late February 1967 I was a senior Lieutenant of 16 years service, having just returned from three years exchange service with the Royal Navy, where I qualified as a Direction Officer. This course trained me as an Air Intercept Officer and Operations Room specialist. On completion of the course I served for two years in the RN aircraft carriers HMS Centaur and Victorious, where my primary duty was the control of jet fighters.

Joins Hobart

After a brief leave period in Australia I joined HMAS Hobart, just in time to sail for Vietnam for a six-month deployment as Australia’s first naval unit to be committed to that conflict. My feelings towards my profession at that stage were lukewarm because very long periods of separation during sea duty had made family life difficult. This feeling was offset to a degree by the excitement of finally going to war, having missed out on Korea in the early 50s and the Suez War in 1956. This was, after all, what the interminable years of training in mock warfare were designed for. As for Vietnam and its history, I was totally ignorant.

Hobart II (DDG-39) was a Charles F Adams class guided missile destroyer that displaced 4526 tons (full load) on a 133 x 14 x 4.6 metres (437 x 47 x 15 feet) hull. Two steam turbines provided 70,000 shp, which drove the ship at 33 knots. Commissioned 18 December 1965, her complement varied from 310 to 333 and armament included one SAM launcher, two 127 mm (five-inch) guns, one Ikara ASW launcher and two triple ASW torpedo tubes.

Like most of the ships company I swallowed the Menzies spin that Vietnam was a domino and bastion against the encroaching “Red Tide of Communism”. As it fell, so would Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia and finally it would be our turn. At this stage public sentiment in Australia was decidedly pro-war, much more so than the divided manner in which the Australian people greeted Howard’s foray. In fact our reasons for entering both the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts most likely stemmed from the need to appease our American allies. That, and the delight that political leaders from all persuasions seem to get from committing their countries to war, as long as they don’t have to suffer the hardships and dangers involved. And let’s face it, John Howard in a slouch hat would not deter many enemies.

vietnam“Sea Dragon”

After briefings in Subic Bay in the Philippines, Hobart sailed to the Gulf of Tonkin to join a Destroyer Task Unit as part of the US Seventh Fleet. We were mainly assigned to “Sea Dragon” operations, attacking North Vietnamese targets north of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) on the17th parallel of latitude. Operations south of the DMZ were code-named “Market Time”. These provided gun-fire support to allied forces in their actions against the Vietcong (VC) primarily, but also some regular North Vietnamese Army units. The allies comprised US,  Australian, Republic of Korea (ROK) and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units.

During our very first night on station we were given a very clear example of the “fog of war” and the trick that nervous and overactive imaginations can play on those new to war. During the night, the Task Unit’s (TU’s) radar operators detected small fast-moving contacts homing in on us. No doubt with the Tonkin Gulf incidents firmly in mind, the TU went to Action Stations and opened fire in unison. After some 300 rounds of five-inch ammunition were fired, we finally twigged that our “dangerous” targets were really flocks of birds. The prevailing radar conditions were abnormal with a low atmospheric layer trapping their transmissions, creating highly spurious contacts. Since then, I’ve always thought that a similar condition occurred with the destroyers USS Maddox and Turner Joy, triggering the second Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964. Everything that I have read subsequently on the subject seems to bear this out. (“From little acorns do large oaks grow.”)

Busy deployment

Under the command of CAPT Guy Griffiths DSC (later RADM, AO DSO DSC) our first six-month deployment passed very rapidly. We operated mostly off North Vietnam and came under fire from North Vietnamese coastal batteries as we closed the coast for gun firings on a number of occasions.

Ed note: Fairfax (1980, p. 45) says Hobart, the first warship to carry the new Australian white ensign into action, came under fire nine times, fired 9204 rounds on 1050 targets and steamed 52,529 miles in her first deployment.

The enemy fire never hit us, although on occasion their fall of shot was close enough to litter our decks with shrapnel. As my action station was Action Officer of the Watch on the bridge I had a grandstand view of proceedings. The drill on spotting enemy fire was to alert the Operations Room, order full speed ahead and put the wheel hard over to clear the scene as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the enemy’s fire control systems were fairly primitive and so the accuracy of their shot rapidly fell away.

Counter-battery fire

Any damage the ship suffered was usually caused by the concussion of our mount 51 forward gun, trained as far aft as possible to carry out counter-battery fire against the enemy guns. Our primary concern was that we might come under attack by North Vietnamese MiG aircraft or even land-based or seaborne Styx Surface-to-Surface Missiles (SSMs) that our Intelligence indicated they possessed. Fortunately for us, they were never used against us, which proved somewhat ironic in view of later events.

The reason that I find it hard to remember exactly just how many times we were under fire (perhaps strange when it seems somebody is definitely trying to take your life) is because most of the time I operated like a zombie. Our gunline tours lasted about six weeks. Throughout that period we kept watches six hours on and six off. On top of that, the whole crew went to Action Stations, sometimes several times a day, whenever the captain assessed the ship was standing into danger and always when closing the North Vietnamese coast. I reckon that our efficiency levels dropped 50 or 60 per cent and stayed there. This sort of stress is no doubt partially responsible for some of the mistakes that occur in warfare, sometimes with fatal results.

To compound matters, whenever we did get the opportunity to recharge our batteries, during visits to such exotic ports as Subic Bay, Singapore, Hong Kong or Kaohsiung, we usually partied instead, snatching what sleep we could on transit to or from the gunline. It was never enough. Strangely perhaps, we never set foot in South Vietnam during my two tours of duty there. The closest we ever came to that was while operating inside Da Nang Harbour, firing at targets in the surrounding hills.

Market Time

When assigned to “Market Time” operations, we supported allied units in all four military regions of South Vietnam, from the US Marines in I Corps in the north to mainly ARVN units in the southern area, IV Corps. Our offensive activities usually consisted of gunfire support ordered by a spotter aircraft which would also report our fall of shot to improve our accuracy. We could also be called upon by local army commanders for gunfire support on an ad hoc basis. These were usually daytime activities. At nighttime we were frequently ordered to carry out H and I firings (Harassment and Interdiction). Provided with lists of pinpoint targets where Intelligence thought the VC might congregate, we fired a single five-inch shell at different targets throughout the night at intervals of about 20 minutes. I have grave doubts as to the effectiveness of this procedure in successfully prosecuting the war, but it sure harassed the hell out of those of us who were trying to sleep at the time.

The targets we attacked were seldom seen by us and were usually several miles inland. We would be ordered to fire at targets such as truck parks; VC in the open; enemy trenches or tunnel areas; VC structures; sampans and even enemy animals, which I always presumed were water buffalo and many others. The Gun Damage Assessments that were later released often seemed fairly feeble: “50 metres of trench and two bamboo structures” for instance, balanced against sometimes hundreds of rounds of ammunition expended often didn’t seem to quite add up in my mind. Sometimes the targets seemed a bit suspicious and I recall on at least one occasion when the Captain refused to engage them. This was not a problem with the USS Boston, a heavy cruiser on the gunline during our second deployment, if an email from one of the officers that I read recently is accurate:

On June 16, Boston was steaming up from Hue to the DMZ and got clearance from the lst Marine Division to take target practice at a Buddhist pagoda (suspected NVA troop shelter). This bad karma must have made the gods angry because that night (or early Sunday a.m.) we were attacked by one (or more) jets near Tiger Island.

Some might say, serves you bloody well right!

One memory I have is an incident that occurred while on bridge watch one brilliant Sunday morning off the South Vietnamese coast. It was a peaceful and idyllic scene. Suddenly the peace was shattered by the loud sound of bombing nearby, accompanied by the sight of high water spouts among a group of South Vietnamese fishing boats, peacefully plying their trade. High overhead two USN A4 fighter-bombers streaked back to their carrier on Yankee Station, having offloaded their unexpended ordnance. Of course I do not know whether a vicious attack had been carried out on those boats or whether it was some kind of accident, but it is not too difficult to imagine the former when you recall the absolute contempt that many Americans held for the Vietnamese, southern as well as northern. The fishing boats suffered no damage that I could ascertain.


Forrestal fire

Another vivid memory also involves a US carrier. We received news that the USS Forrestal CVA-59 had suffered a serious fire to seaward of us at the carrier operations area called “Yankee Station” so we proceeded at high speed to render assistance. She presented a horrible picture with the after part of her flight deck a smoking ruin of destroyed aircraft. The tails of some had melted and were drooping over the ship’s side. It transpired that an air-to-ground missile had accidentally cooked off during the engine start operations that were taking place and slammed into the drop tank of another aircraft, creating a raging inferno of exploding bombs, planes and fuel that engulfed the after end of the carrier and caused a large loss of life.

Forrestal fire.

Tragically many young sailors were trapped in a messdeck just under the after end of the flight deck. About 134 died in the fire and another 161 were injured. I also remember that the prominent US Republican senator and presidential candidate John McCain, then a Lieutenant Commander, was sitting in his aircraft when flames engulfed it and he escaped by leaping off the nose of the aircraft. He was later shot down over North Vietnam and incarcerated in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton”. He is a prominent part of the jail’s pictorial history. The man has surely led a charmed life.

Ed. note: The fire was caused by a Zuni five-inch rocket firing as a Phantom pilot switched from ground to aircraft electrics during a routine startup, but random electromagnetic radiation cannot be excluded as a cause. Contrary to RN and RAN procedures, all safety clips had been removed and the rockets plugged in “to save time.” The Zuni had insufficient travel to arm the warhead, but it had enough kinetic energy to knock the 300-gallon centreline drop tank off  LCDR McCain’s Skyhawk and the rocket’s burning motor ignited the burst tank’s fuel.

Replenishment at sea

The (mostly) monotonous life on the gunline was broken by the frequent need to restock our supplies of fuel, ammunition and food. Commander, Seventh Fleet (COM7THFLT) provided a large number of Underway Replenishment (UNREP) ships for this purpose and the opportunities to leave the gunline, relax for a while and witness the close manoeuvres with the friendly supply ships was always a highlight of the week. It was also a welcome opportunity to obtain movie swaps and to receive mail.

I didn’t spend our R & R periods entirely on partying (as previously stated). Early in our first deployment I took the opportunity of searching out books on modern Vietnamese history and among these I discovered the works of a remarkable French writer who wrote several books about the French Vietnamese War against the Vietminh from the late 1940s until the fall of Dien Bien Phu mid-1954. The author’s name was Bernard Fall and his best book, in my opinion, was Hell in a very small place, about the disaster of Dien Bien Phu which led to the French withdrawal from Vietnam in ignoble defeat.

“Impregnable” forts

The Vietnamese “slopeheads” (as some Americans called them) had humbled the mighty French Empire. The French, having chosen a battlefield to suit themselves, which would enable them to resupply their forces with their vastly superior air power whilst forcing impossible supply problems on their enemy (or so they thought), proceeded to build an “impregnable” group of forts.  Dien Bien Phu’s Second-in-Command, a gunnery expert called Colonel Charles Piroth, bombastically predicted that “No Vietminh cannon will be able to fire three rounds before being destroyed by my artillery”.  A few days after hostilities commenced and after two of his three artillery bases had been destroyed, “he pulled the safety pin out of a grenade with his teeth and blew himself to bits, having said the evening before, ‘I am completely dishonoured’” (Karnow, 1983).

Towards the end of the battle there were some 20,000 French troops (mainly North Africans) who had “deserted” and were living in caves and humpies in the middle of the battleground. When the battle ended, 10,000 French Foreign Legion troops who surrendered were marched several hundred kilometres across the top of Vietnam to captivity and eventual release. Only 2,000 survived. They later fought in Algeria with a certain degree of ferocity (the symmetry of history?). Bernard Fall, whose writings may well have beneficially influenced the reporting of the “American War” in Vietnam, was regrettably killed in the early days of that war when he trod on a landmine.

Armed with my newfound knowledge I used my ample spare time as an Operations Room watchkeeper to read a large amount of the signal traffic that crossed the Ops Desk. This is not just hindsight, but I really did form a view that the Americans were repeating the mistakes of the French in the earlier war. We displayed the same hubris; how could these “slopeheads” possibly defeat a mighty power such as the US? So we tried to defeat the lowly communist cadre carrying supplies on his bicycle down the Ho Chi Minh trail with B-52 bombers. Apart from anything else, the economics were lousy and sure to defeat us in the end.

Hearts and mind

Having decided that we needed to get the local villagers “onside” to deny supply and shelter to the VC, we started the “Hearts and Minds” program. US Marines immediately vowed to “grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.” The program was not a great success. The allies discovered in Vietnam what the Russians discovered in Afghanistan and what we will discover in Iraq.

A determined people, willing to fight a protracted guerilla war at all costs, will frequently prevail against mighty nations or coalitions. We frankly just don’t have the will to bear the bloody costs involved. Why should this surprise us? Would we just lie down and meekly submit if invaded; would the Americans? Why should the Vietnamese for that matter? They have resisted invasions for two thousand years and still retain their unique culture. McDonald’s may have a better chance of changing them where armed conflict will not.       

My enthusiasm for my profession, already at an ebb when I began my Vietnam odyssey, rapidly waned as my distaste for warfare grew. I submitted my resignation, which was denied by the Naval Board on the reasonable grounds that I owed them a number of years service for the exchange time I had spent with the Royal Navy.


Second deployment

So March 1968 saw me back in Vietnamese waters in Hobart for our second deployment, this time under the command of CAPT K.W. Shands RAN.  Apart from the “friendly fire incident” that I will cover later, the tour of duty was rather undistinguished. More of the same, but less so. We mainly operated in the waters off South Vietnam, although we did come under enemy fire on three occasions during our sorties to the north. Our second deployment ended in mid-October 1968.

In June 1968 Hobart was engaged in Operation Sea Dragon as Task Unit Commander of  TU 77.1.2, with USS Theodore Chandler (DD-717) in company. During 13 and 14 June the Task Unit (TU) carried out successful gun firings on targets just north of the DMZ and in the process were fired on by North Vietnamese coastal batteries, fortunately without damage to either ship.

This was the third time during the deployment that Hobart had evaded enemy fire. The TU then moved northwards.

Tiger Island

Having been informed by the gunline commander, USS Boston, that enemy helicopters were re-supplying the garrison of Tiger Island, a small North Vietnamese outpost about 25 miles to the east of the DMZ, we returned south to patrol in that vicinity.


USS Boston CA-69 (ex CAG-1) was a Baltimore class heavy cruiser, first commissioned in June 1943. Reclassified after modernisation in 1952 as the world’s first guided missile cruiser, Boston became the lead ship of a new class that included USS Canberra. The ships displaced 13,600 tons (17,000 tons full load) on a 205.2 x 21.9 x 8.2 metres (673 x 72 x 27 feet) hull. Armament included six eight-inch (203 mm), 10 five-inch (127 mm) and 12 three-inch (76 mm) guns plus two twin-rail Terrier SAM launchers. Boston carried 1142 crew and her maximum speed was listed as 33 knots.

Another destroyer, USS Edson (DD 946), was detached from Market Time (ship and air patrols interdicting coastal traffic south of the DMZ.) They joined us and a patrol was established by the afternoon of 16 June. Prior to this, we had heard that a USN patrol boat had been attacked and sunk in the vicinity of the DMZ. The assumption was that the attacker was a North Vietnamese helicopter.


USS Edson (DD-946), was a Forrest Sherman class destroyer, first commissioned on 15 December 1965. Displacing 4050 tons (full load) from a 127 x  14 x 6.7 metres (418 x 45 x 22 feet) hull, her four 1200 psi boilers fed two turbines that drove the ship at 32.5 knots. Complement was 233 and the ship carried three 127 mm (five-inch) and four 76 mm (three-inch) guns, as well as two Mark 10/11 Hedgehogs and two triple ASW Mark 32 torpedo tubes.

Ops Room Evaluator

I went on watch as the Ops Room Evaluator (basically the senior watchkeeper in charge of the ship in the captain’s absence) at 2200. I felt uneasy about the situation, operating so close to the coast in a “hot” air defence situation. I woke the captain and advised him that my reading of the Rules of Engagement prohibited us from firing on a suspicious aircraft until it had actually attacked us.

Due to the scant warning we would receive of an attacker coming off the shore, the opportunity of identifying friend or foe and actually engaging it would be nigh impossible. I helped the captain draft a signal to the Commander Seventh Fleet (COM7THFLT) suggesting a change to the rules of engagement. This was despatched but failed to elicit a response.

My other major concern was the air defence situation in the area. The previous watch had tried to establish an Air Defence Net with the USS Boston, whose group was operating some 50 miles to the south of us, but had little success, as did my watch.

We were aware that a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) was overflying us but we had no communications with them. During the watch the CAP gradually drifted to the south of us.


Missile hit

Just after 0300 on 17 June the TU was positioned between Tiger Island and the North Vietnamese coast, heading northwest in line ahead with Hobart in the rear. At about 0315 a fast moving aircraft was detected leaving the coast in the vicinity of the DMZ heading seawards before turning towards the TU. My assessment was that it was a CAP aircraft. It approached our starboard quarter and then all hell broke loose as it hit us with a missile. I immediately brought the ship to action stations and turned the TU to seawards away from the threat direction. No attempt was made to contact the aircraft because the very last thing I expected the attacker to be was a US aircraft.

A USN F-4 fires an AIM-7 Sparrow. (Boeing photo)

Initially we were hit starboard side amidships by a single missile. The missile was a Sparrow AIM-7 (air-to-air missile). This weapon, manufactured by Raytheon in the US, was a semi-active homer. Put simply, the attacking aircraft “painted” the target with its radar and the missile flew down the reflected beam.

The warhead was a proximity type with a small explosive encased by a compressed ring of high tensile steel. On detonation, the ring was designed to fly outwards cutting through soft targets such as aircraft fuselages. The missile was not designed for anti-ship use but I did hear that the weapon had been evaluated for such use a year or so before our unfortunate introduction to it, but rejected as unsuitable.

As the warhead exploded, bits of high-tensile steel sliced through the upper deck and aluminium superstructure. Moderate damage was inflicted to compartments below deck. The worst damage (from an operational point of view) was to electrical cable runs in the superstructure. This deprived power to our gun and missile fire control systems and damaged the gyro stabilisation of our radars.

Effectiveness impaired

In short, we could still steam at high speed but our effectiveness as a fighting ship was minimal. The body of the missile ended up inside the forward funnel casing. Most regrettably, parts of this missile killed one sailor, a lookout at the after end of the bridge superstructure, and wounded two other junior sailors.

About three minutes after the first attack, Hobart was attacked again and this time was hit by another two Sparrow missiles. The first missile entered the transom, just below the main deck. The warhead did not detonate but caused some damage in two compartments before piercing the after bulkhead of the After Seamen’s Messdeck and coming to rest beside a sailor’s bunk. (Fortunately, he was at his action station by that time.)

A second missile homed in amidships onto the after end of the Ikara ASW missile magazine, detonating and causing severe damage to the magazine and adjacent compartments. Parts of the missile pierced the upper deck and killed a Chief Petty Officer and wounded four other junior sailors as they were running to action stations.

Fired in local control

During this attack one of our gun crews spotted a swept-wing fighter aircraft and fired five rounds of five-inch shells while in local control.

About 15 minutes after this attack our consort Edson was also attacked but suffered no damage. At some stage during this brouhaha the heavy cruiser USS Boston was also attacked, and suffered damage but no fatalities.

Hobart’s bridge, closed up at action stations.

When the action had subsided, our TU joined up with Boston to form a screen around USS Enterprise CVAN 65. She used her Medivac helicopter to transport our wounded to Da Nang. We were relieved as TU Commander by USS Edson and steamed to Subic Bay for repairs, which took about six weeks to complete.

On our way back to Subic Bay we cleaned up the ship as much as possible and in the process found parts of the missiles that positively identified them as American. I recall that we were able to trace our missiles back to the 432nd Tactical Fighter Wing which operated out of the Royal Thai AFB in Udorn, Thailand. Boston claimed to trace her missile debris back to the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, out of  Da Nang AFB. Both units operated F4 Phantoms.


Command and control problems

There is no doubt that USAF aircraft were responsible for at least most of the attacks that occurred on the night of 16/17 June, although one lengthy piece of internet correspondence tries to implicate UFOs.


TPCF 19 was a  “Swiftboat”: 50 x 13.5 x 5.9 feet (15.24 x 4.1 x 1.8 metres) displacing 23.5 tons and constructed mainly of aluminium. Powered by two 480 hp GM model 7122 marine diesels, they had a separate six-kW 120V AC generator.  Maximum speed varied considerably, according to the sea state. In still water they might reach 32 knots. The boats carried radar, radio, and a searchlight. Armament included twin .5 inch machine guns above the cockpit. Another dual purpose .5 inch machine gun and an 80 mm mortar/grenade thrower was mounted on the centreline aft.

There may be some doubt in the case of the sinking of PCF 19, which “disappeared in a flash of light” after reportedly engaging enemy helicopters the previous night. One main question to be solved is whether PCF 19 was sunk before or after Boston’s alert that Tiger Island was being re-supplied by enemy helicopters. Whichever way it went, somebody in the military hierarchy gave the green light to USAF Phantom Squadrons to hunt for enemy helicopters in the vicinity of the DMZ and Tiger Island without providing adequate procedures to ensure the safety of allied naval units.

USAF Phantom

Unfortunately, while I have had one joy-ride in an F-4, I have not seen its radar picture in a night time operational setting. Like many others, I find it inconceivable that Radar Intercept Officers (RIOs) in a Phantom could confuse a 3000 ton destroyer, a 35000 ton destroyer and a 17,000 ton heavy cruiser with helicopters on their radar screens. But that is just what they did. They didn’t fire AAMs to cripple surface vessels, they fired them thinking that they were firing at air targets. The nights around 16/17 June were pitch black with no moon, which may have prevented visual identification, but surely they must have seen something on the sea surface.

Ed. note by Fred Lane:
After initial contact in those days, fighter aircraft radars were deliberately adjusted to give the smallest practical echo size, thus tuning out nearly all target size information. There are frequent night conditions when even the best-trained aircrew see no difference whatsoever between sky and sea.  Some ship lights stand out but Australian ships tend to take their blackout very seriously and show little or no aircrew-useful light.  Ship anti-collision lights, if switched on, look just like a helicopter’s. By contrast, nearly every tiny boat in an Asian fishing fleet shows much more light, including at least one very big bright white floodlight. A Sparrow attack requires the pilot to concentrate on cockpit instruments and Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) directions.  RIOs typically give 100 per cent attention to their radar. When attacking a target below 1000 feet at night, pilots dare not spare more than a fleeting glance outside.  At typical Sparrow firing ranges, say between 10 and 20 miles, a blacked out RAN warship is invisible during a deliberate search at night, never mind a fleeting glance.

The essential problem here was that the action took place in an area where two separate operational areas joined and three different arms of the military were involved (four if you include the US Marine Corps).

No local area tri-service commander

There was no single overall command and control and even our small efforts to bring some order to the air defence situation failed. Why weren’t we informed that USAF Phantoms were operating aggressively in our area? Why weren’t they informed of our presence? I shall never know.

As the Evaluator in Hobart, with an intimate knowledge of the events surrounding the attack on us, I was required to scribble a few observations on a scrap of paper the next morning, and that was the end of it. I believe that some sort of inquiry was held in Da Nang subsequently, but we didn’t participate and I never saw any findings. The incident was essentially covered up, which has permitted nonsensical stories to be posted on the web concerning UFOs and ghosts in the “Green Ghost” (Hobart’s Vietnam nickname). And still we wonder!

Revisit:  2004

In April 2004 I visited and set foot on Vietnamese soil for the first time to enjoy the genuine friendliness and hospitality of the people, to be seduced by their beguiling culture, to eat my fill of their wonderful cuisine and, in the process, to lay a few old ghosts to rest. It was a humbling experience to meet a people on whom we had inflicted so much grief and evil but who held few grudges for the greater good of building a new Vietnam.

One day as we drove through the forests of the Central Highlands of South Vietnam I was admiring the lush forested hillsides until I noticed something amiss. The forests were composed of imported fir and eucalyptus trees, planted in a nationalistic frenzy of superhuman activity in the years following the end of the war, to replace the trees destroyed by the defoliant, Agent Orange.

The forests were quiet. The birds had not returned.


Fairfax, D. Royal Australian Navy in Vietnam. Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra, 1980.
Fall, B.B. Hell in a very small place: The siege of Dien Bien Phu. DaCapo Press: Cambridge, 1966.
Karnow, S. Vietnam – A history. Viking Press: New York, 1983.

Part 2: Hobart in Vietnam – the Follow-up Letters

Liberty Ships

Liberty Ships

Disaster loomed. The RAF had blunted Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring’s blitz, but by September 1941 VADM Karl Dönitz’s Type VII U-Boats were regularly decimating Atlantic convoys. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the German submarine offensive was maintaining its horrifying 1940 record and even increasing the rate at which it sank the merchant ships that were so essential to Britain’s war effort. Local shipyards could not keep pace. It was decided that UK ship builders would concentrate on warship construction. Meanwhile, America would be asked to help with the construction of new merchant ships.

The museum Liberty Ship John W. Brown, is based in Baltimore, MD.

In 1940 the British Government ordered 60 tramp steamers from the USA and the first of these, the Ocean Vanguard, was launched 16 August 1941.

This basic design evolved into the highly successful Liberty and Victory classes. One Liberty ship even fought back and sank a German Armed Merchant Cruiser.

The original design, by J.L. Thompson and Sons of Sunderland, UK, dated back to 1879. It was a simple tramp, cheap to build and operate, and therefore popular with the shipowners. It had an obsolete but reliable 2,500 hp triple expansion reciprocating engine fed by two coal-fired boilers. In a 135 x 17.3 x 8.5 metres, 7,200 tons hull. The ships carried a good-sized cargo of 9,000 tons at a steady 11 knots. The American order specified a displacement boost of 800 tons and 18 inches (457 mm) more draught. The design was further modified by the United States Maritime Commission to include oil-fired boilers, welding instead of rivets and prefabricated modules to speed construction.


The ships were expendable in that they had a planned life of only five years. Even so, some were still plodding their salt-caked smoke stacks around the ocean 20 years later. They sailed chiefly under British and American flags but also under many others, including Canada’s, during World War II. Two have been preserved as museum ships. One is based in Baltimore MD, the other in San Francisco, CA. Another survives as a floating cannery in Alaska.

A conglomerate of six shipbuilders responded to the original work order. These were headed by Henry J. Kaiser, who had a great reputation for building infrastructure such as roads and massive dams on time and under budget, but he had no shipbuilding experience. Under his general direction, early ships spent nearly 230 days on the stocks, but he steadily reduced this to 42 days. By 1943, three Liberty ships were being launched every day. One ship, the Robert E. Peary, was constructed and launched as a publicity stunt only four days and 15.5 hours after its keel was laid. Concomitantly, Australian shipyards required 12 to 18 months to build an 800-ton Bathurst class corvette.

liberty sectioned
Liberty Ship, sectioned.

 The first 14 Liberty ships were launched on what President Roosevelt decreed “Liberty Fleet Day”, 27 September, 1941. Roosevelt himself launched the Patrick Henry, named in honour of the eloquent “give me liberty or give me death” Virginian attorney and Declaration of Independence signatory. Between 1941 and 1945, a largely unskilled workforce numbering 7000,000 (including 30 per cent women), produced 2,751 of these ships in 18 American shipyards. This made the Liberty easily the most prolific of any major ship class ever built.

steam engine
This obsolete but reliable 2500 hp triple expansion steam engine, originally designed by the North Eastern Marine Engineering Company, Sunderland, powered most of the Liberty Ships.

Although any ship can be damaged through stormy weather or bad load distribution, nearly 1500 Liberty ships reported significant brittle hull fractures. A total of 19 ships broke in half without warning, some after grounding or being subjected to similar mistreatment. Inexperienced shipyard welders were blamed, but Cambridge University research suggested the cold weather experienced in the North Atlantic was more likely, in that it enabled an “embrittlement” process of the particular grade of steel plate used in construction. This was akin to the then little understood metal fatigue problem associated with the January 1954 Comet jet airliner disaster over the Mediterranean.


Nevertheless, the welding process did contribute to the problem, in that it permitted cracks to pass unimpeded from one plate to the next. The ship’s stiff frame also contributed to cyclic stress building up in critical areas, such as sharp cargo hatch corners. Various modifications were incorporated during construction and the succeeding Victory class was built stronger and less stiff. Hull frames, for instance, were spaced at 914 mm in the follow-on Victory class versus 762 mm for the Liberty class.

In early 1942, plans were commenced for a 15-knot Victory class ship and the first of this 534-strong class, the United Victory, was launched on 28 February 1944. Based on the general layout of the Liberty ship, it was a little larger (139 x 19 x 7.6 metres), it had a steam turbine engine that developed 6,000 hp (AP2 version) or 8,500 hp (AP3) and its cargo capacity was 10,850 tons. Variations included one with diesel propulsion and others built as tankers, attack transports and aircraft transports.

American Liberty ships carried a crew of about 44 plus 12 to 25 “Naval Armed Guard”. The size of the naval party depended chiefly on the armament fitted, which might comprise a single three- four- or five-inch gun aft with sometimes a similar weapon forward. These might be supplemented by six to ten 20 mm cannon plus two 37 mm anti-aircraft weapons. About 200 Liberty ships were lost due to enemy action during World War II, and this included the Luckenbach Steamship Company of New York’s Stephen Hopkins, Liberty Hull number 247, launched by the Permente Metal Corporation, Richmond, CA, on 14 April 1942.

Surprise encounter

Under the command of CAPT Paul Buck, 13 days out of Cape Town, at about 0900, Sunday 27 September 1942, in ballast for Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, Hopkins stumbled upon the 7800-ton tender Tannenfels replenishing the 4778-ton German auxiliary cruiser Stier in the South Atlantic.

The smart German trader Cairo (left) was converted into the armed commerce raider Stier in 1941.
Launched in 1936 as MV Cairo of the Deutche Levante Line, Stier (aka HSK VI, Schiff 23, and Raider J) had been converted into a commerce raider and fitted with six concealed 5.9-inch (150 mm) guns, a central fire control system, two 37 mm and four 20 mm cannon, as well as two 21-inch torpedo tubes. Stier was commissioned on 9 November 1941. Her hangar deck sheltered two very rare Arado 231 reconnaissance seaplanes.
Stier probably carried two of only six Arado 231 seaplanes ever built. They had a six-cylinder 160 hp engine and measured 10.16 x 7.8 x 3.12 metres. Designed for submarines, the Ar231 folded into a tidy package (left) but it had limited utility. It required calm seas to operate, it had a maximum speed of only 91 knots and could barely fly 270 miles without refuelling.

Stier measured 134 x 17.3 x 7.2 metres and her seven-cylinder 3750 hp two stroke MAN diesel drove her at 14.5 knots. Her 325 well-trained crew worked well together and since fighting their way clear of the British blockade around her home waters in May, Stier‘s crew had sunk four British and American merchant ships.

Jammed RRR

All three ships were equally surprised when Hopkins suddenly emerged from a heavy rain shower less than one mile away. Third Mate Walter Nyberg, on Hopkins‘s bridge, ordered the helm hard over to port and called the Captain who sounded the general alarm and steadied with his stern to the enemy. His radio officer broadcast the RRR alarm, but this was jammed by Tannenfels. Within six minutes, Hopkins was receiving well-directed and systematic 150 mm broadsides from about 1000 yards range, while Stier‘s 37 mm and both Stier‘s and Tannenfels‘s 20 mm cannon kept peppering away.

Ensign Kenneth Willett had been severely wounded on his way to his action station, but he responded gallantly with Hopkins‘s single four-inch gun. He stuck to his post, firing over open sights in gale force winds, driving rain and rising seas. Others swung Hopkins‘s twin 37 mm and six 20 mm cannon into action.

Boiler room hit

It was not long, however, before a 155 mm shell exploded in Hopkins‘s boiler room, smashing major steam pipes and killing men. MIDN Edwin O’Hara, driven from his engine room by fire, joined Ensign Willett at the stern gun. As she lost speed, another shell destroyed Hopkins‘s steering gear.

Helpless before a vessel with vastly superior firepower, Willett and O’Hara were rewarded by seeing, through the driving rain, their shells smash home. They destroyed Stier‘s generators, which led to total engine, steering, fire pump and armament direction failure. As Hopkins was being reduced to a blazing wreck, Willett and his crew scored a total of about 35 hits on the equally aflame Stier, 15 of them below the waterline. Meanwhile, Stier‘s guns maintained rapid fire in local control.

About 0950 a shell hit Hopkins‘s after magazine, killing most of the gun’s crew. However, the gun still functioned, so MIDN O’Hara single-handedly loaded and fired the last five shells he found in the ready use locker. By now, Hopkins‘s forward 37 mm guns had also been destroyed. CAPT Buck, with his ship sinking and aflame from stem to stern, ordered abandon ship around 1000.

Landfall Brazil

One lifeboat carrying 19 men cleared the wreckage. They eventually sailed 1860 miles due west until they made landfall in Brazil, 31 days later. By that stage there were only 15 emaciated survivors left of the original 56 aboard Hopkins. They did not include CAPT Buck, Ensign Willett or MIDN O’Hara.

Stier fared a little better, but not much. About four hours after the action her captain ordered abandon ship before scuttling.  The tender Tannenfels rescued all but three of her crew.


Edwards, B.E. Salvo! Classic naval gun actions. Brockhampton Press: London, 1999.
Lane, F.C. A history of shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2001.
Morison, S.E. History of the United States Naval operations in World War II. Vol 1. The Battle of the Atlantic, September 1939-May 1943. Little Brown and Company: Boston, 1950.
Sawyer, L.A. and W.H. Mitchell. The history of the “emergency” type cargo ships constructed by the United States during World War II. Cornell Maritime Press: Cambridge, 1970.

Titanic followup letters

Titanic followup letters

Titanic cutaway
Cutaway sketch of Titanic. Note the “smoke” from number four funnel.

Tom Fisher writes of the Last Log of the Titanic: book review (Newsletter 54 September 2003):

The stated fuel consumption of 650 tons of coal an hour must be in error. Southhampton to New York is some 3000 miles. At 22.5 knots the ship would have to consume some 86,000 tons of coal. She displaced only 46,000 tons. I would suggest that the ship would have consumed less than 850 tons of coal a day and even this figure would have kept the 270 or so stokers very busy.

Of poignant interest is that not one of the engineer officers survived the collision. The electric lights, however, were still burning as the ship plunged to her doom. This was possible because at least some of the 17 massive Merchant Navy Scotch boilers, each of which held probably 20 to 30 tons of water, had enough stored energy to keep up steam as the ship slowly flooded.

(Ed. Note:Tom is correct and reviewer John Ellis agrees. The “per hour” figure was an egregious typo. It should have read “650 tons … per day.”)

Ron Robb contributes to the Titanic discussion:

Browsing over Tom Fisher’s comments re John Ellis’ review of David Brown’s The Last Log of the Titanic stirred some half-forgotten observations about the seemingly never-ending fascination with that ill-fated liner and brought to mind a few other stories, both mythical and real, about other maritime disasters. It’s also worth noting that horrific disasters at sea still occur today. It may also come as a surprise to know that the “golden age” of liner travel was less in the 1920s than it is today so the opportunities for disasters are as present as ever. A few comments follow.

Photo showing smoke from Number three, but not number four funnel.

The first thing I noticed about the cutaway illustration of the legendary ship at the top of Tom’s letter was that it has a very common error in non-photo pics of Titanic: smoke coming from the after smokestack. In fact, that structure was there mainly for show but was used as a ventilating trunk, as John mentioned.
The public of the day equated power and speed with multiple funnels so the White Star line went along with the fad. The Last Log of the Titanic has a painting on the front cover actually showing smoke coming from No 4 stack (p 10 Newsletter No. 54 and here). John picked up a few errors and contradictions in David Brown’s book and this one appears even before one opens the cover.

The Riddle of the Titanic (Gardiner and Van der Vat, Orion: London, 1995) has good photos of both Titanic and Olympic (first of the class) with a big head of steam and plenty of exhaust smoke, but with No. 4 stack showing none; that book also notes that No. 4 was for ventilation only .

Fitting-out photo

Titanic (Leo Marriot, PRC Books: London, 1997) specifically describes the three boiler rooms exhausting into funnels 1, 2 and 3. It also shows a photo of her fitting-out with only the three active funnels in place at that stage and specifically draws attention to the fact that the dummy fourth was to be fitted later. Moreover, it shows a number of famous paintings of Titanic, all correctly showing smoke from the first three stacks only (and also a painting of Brittanic, the third and last of the class, likewise showing no smoke).

Perhaps the most famous artist’s painting of the ill-fated vessel is Simon Fisher’s The Last Sunset, viewed from the port quarter and depicting Titanic sailing west after leaving Queenstown, having worked-up to to full speed to meet Lord Ismay’s determination to break all records, with voluminous smoke belching from the first three stacks, but nothing from the fourth.

Titanic contemporary RMS Lusitania did have a number four funnel chimney.

Tom Fisher was right about the coal usage, as was John Ellis’ subsequent correction: The Last Log of the Titanic does indeed state that she was fed 650 tons of coal per day, and that was by human muscle and shovels. Each stoker shifted five tons of coal per watch, of which there were two of four hours per twenty-four.

Also confirmed is Tom’s note that not one of the engineer officers survived. According to Brown there were 35 of them under Chief Engineer Joseph Bell. Gardiner and Van der Vat list 32, though if deck engineers, electricians, carpenters and boilermakers are included then the number is greater than either. Whatever, the main two investigative enquiries did not manage to elicit much about the last hours of the Marine Engineering/Electrical Department but what evidence there was indicated that those who survived the first engulfment stuck to their posts right to the end.

No doubt most of them would have eventually been overwhelmed in the flood as it began to overtake the lower regions, with menacing inexorability once No. 5 bulkhead at boiler room No. 6 gave way, having been weakened to the point of red heat by the just recently extinguished ten-day old bulk coal fire.

Bunker fires were common in those days, due to the unstable coal dust atmosphere and, rather than the bulk explosives cargo claimed by the German Government, a likely reason for the mysterious second explosion after the single torpedo that went into the Lusitania. (However, that point is still to this day being hotly argued).

Press on regardless?

The whole confluence of events was all the while being rapidly exacerbated by Ismay’s insane determination to press on regardless and CAPT Smith’s reckless disregard for caution after the impact.

Of Bell’s enlisted engineering department, comprising 271 firemen, trimmers and greasers, only 47 survived. Probably only NOC members of a bygone age, such as those who worked in boiler/engine rooms of the big warships like the County class cruisers, the carriers and other such big steamers, can imagine what the last hour or so down there in Titanic must have been like.

As an ex-birdie I sometimes used to go down into those spaces and to me they seemed like a precursor of Hell. At least ships soon after Titanic were oil-fired but even then life in the bowels was no picnic. When one considers conditions where 650 tons of coal per day had to be shovelled by hand I must confess I have a mental picture something akin to those terrifying orcs working in that ghastly middle earth in the Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings movies – an erie half light, punctuated by blazes of angry firelight from roaring furnaces, suffocating heat, black dust everywhere, sweaty bodies covered in grime.

Why no engineer survivors?

I sometimes wonder why at least some of the Titanic engineers didn’t survive, as there would have been plenty of time for them to climb the ladders out of the partitioned compartments (which were open at the top but with the watertight doors now closed). Marriot in Titanic actually draws a comparison between Titanic‘s uncapped compartments and the contemporary Cunarders Lusitania and Mauretania with their independently compartmentalised watertight integrity (warship style). Tom Fisher and John Ellis were both steam plumbers so they may care to elucidate.

Tom also noted that the ship’s electrics continued right to the end. People often remark on that and sometimes assume that it was artist’s or film director’s licence. We know that in fact there was a good head of steam available right to the end because launching of the lifeboats quite some time after the accident was made all the more difficult by the deafening roar of venting steam.

The sudden extinguishing of all that light and hideous grinding-and-shearing noise as the vessel finally broke up and plunged must have left a dramatic contrasting silence and a terrifying switch into starlit darkness. At that point the horror of their position would have become starkly obvious to the survivors, many more of whom were yet to perish.

Notwithstanding the errors by Brown in The Last Log of the Titanic as pointed out by John Ellis, in my opinion the book does make a good case for what happened during those few critical moments and suggests that the vessel grounded rather than collided with the iceberg. The initial damage was not all that great. Many passengers and crew were unaware of the impact and Brown goes to some length to explain what a grounding feels like, as opposed to a collision, and how different a vessel behaves in each case. He convincingly reconstructs the technical aspects of the accident to show that the first damage probably amounted to just a few metres of opening-up and that not more than a few centimetres wide.

The damage, he claims, was more a gentle crushing and rupturing of the rivet integrity rather than the than ice acting as a can-opener.

Near success

First Officer Murdock attempted to “port” the ship around the iceberg and came within a whisker of pulling it off. He had successfully executed a similar manoeuvre in another ship and he understood the dynamics of multiple screw/single rudder ship handling. Brown seems confident that no “full astern” order had been given and that is consistent with Murdock’s skill.

If Brown’s reconstruction of events is right, a “full astern” order would have been counterproductive. I would be very interested to read a fish-head’s review of Brown’s book and would be happy to lend both that book and my Gardiner and Van der Vat’s The Riddle of the Titanic, which gives a scathing review of Lord Ismay and CAPT Smith for that purpose. Brown examined two aspects of the Titanic disaster in great detail: the technical aspects of ship design (including the current state of metallurgy) and the seamanship attitudes and actions of CAPT Smith and his duty bridge officers.

If Ismay had not been so obsessed with getting under way again, and CAPT Smith had exercised his better, and legally obligatory, judgement, the ship might well have survived what was almost certainly a manageable situation for which, after all, she had been designed. Murdock achieved a fair salvaging of the situation but his superiors squandered the chance to recover.

The Riddle of the Titanic is a damning review of the cavalier attitude within the whole of the White Star top management. A disaster by Titanic or some other White Star liner, seems inevitable. There had been plenty before, including CAPT Smith’s collision in Olympic with an RN cruiser, HMS Hawke, for which he was found culpable. He had grounded another liner at least once before and one wonders how he rose to be Commodore of the White Star line.

Even as Titanic departed Southampton, Smith’s gung-ho attitude nearly caused a collision with the New York. The British Board of Trade was uneasy about White Star’s record, even though safety-at-sea regulations were appalling by today’s standards. White Star must have been a right slap-dash outfit.

To give them some due, White Star never claimed Titanic was “unsinkable”. The company quite reasonably trumpeted her superior construction but the “unsinkable” adjective was a media beat-up that took wing. In fact, the “unsinkable” description had virtually no currency until after the fact.

Why the fascination?The Titanic seems to cast a never-ending fascination over the lore of the sea and various theories have been put forward why, since it was by no means unique in terms of circumstances or numbers of fatalities.

It had, in fact, nearly faded from the scene until the 1953 movie A Night To Remember came out and then, more recently, Dr Robert Ballard finally found her so it leapt back into the public’s imagination. After the 1953 movie there was a rush of Titanic movies, the most fanciful being Raise the Titanic, of which one critic remarked that the movie was so expensive and such a flop that it would have been cheaper to drain the Atlantic.

One theory on the saga’s fascination is that it signified the end of the era of innocence and brought everybody up with a round turn to the realisation that mankind was not as smart and invincible as had been imagined towards the end of the golden Victorian age. My own guess is that, because many of the professionally qualified-to-comment officers perished and the log was lost, little evidence of what really happened was available to the two Boards. Additionally, uncorroborated stories by terrified and confused survivors who were unskilled in maritime affairs were accepted at face value.

The enquiries thus generated more heat than light and mystery still surrounds much of the case. The loss of the log raises some interesting questions since its impounding and preservation should not have been difficult, given the time available and the number of bridge officers who survived.

Suffice to say that Lord Bruce Ismay emerged from the enquiries with a less-than-glowing reputation and went into seclusion (he died in 1937 bearing the shameful epithet ‘Brute’ Ismay).

The pathos of survivors’ stories add an overtone of fascinated horror. All of these things are ingredients for a gripping yarn, as indeed A Night to Remember and the more recent Titanic were.

Titanic trivia

One positive effect of the heightened interest in the sinking of the Titanic is some very interesting research. For instance, Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian, who was the only convenient scapegoat that the British Board of Enquiry could dredge up, is now being steadily exonerated and reinstated as a sensible officer who acted in a professional manner after all.

Closer to home, a local researcher in the Morling College Archives discovered a postcard reference from a Rev. John Harper, who declined a Sydney ecclesiastical post. Instead of sailing to a new job in Australia, he became a Titanic passenger headed for America. He perished after heroically giving his lifeboat place to a young mother and child.

The last purported Australian survivor from the Titanic, William Hall, lived in Sydney, perhaps Castle Hill, but he died in 1997 and some doubt has been cast on the authenticity of his claims.

Australia is the only place known to have monuments to the band that played as the Titanic went down. The three bands of Broken Hill erected a pillar in December 1913 and people of the silver city claim it is the world’s only such monument.

However, it is not so well known that a bandstand memorial to the Titanic band was built at the lower end of Sturt St, Ballarat, in October 1915 The funds were raised by the Victorian Bands Association and the people of Ballarat but the plaque engraver got it wrong and listed the sinking date as 1913.

Music played?

Speaking of bands, popular legend has it that the ship’s band played the hymn Nearer My God to Thee as she went down. It’s doubtful that they did and while some survivors claim to have heard the hymn being played, reliable eyewitnesses such as Second Officer Lightoller, passenger A.H. Barkworth and retired U.S. Army Colonel Archibald Gracie all aver that the band was playing cheerful ragtime music. Moreover, the band had long since abandoned their instruments before the ship began her final plunge.

However, the band did achieve a later record that takes its place amongst the “biggest” in the Titanic corpus. The body of band leader Thomas Hartley, of Colne, Lancashire, was recovered and returned to his home town. His funeral, a symbol for all the ordinary working class people lost in the sinking, was held on the 18th May. Colne’s population was only 26,000 but some 40,000 people lined the procession route and packed around the Methodist Chapel. It was therefore the biggest single event, by far, then or since, that commemorated the tragedy.

One Titanic coincidence was a Morgan Robertson 1898 story, The Wreck of the Titan, published originally as Futility. Although a good fiction yarn, some precognition and similar psychic believers find it startlingly prescient in its detail for the Titanic. Robertson was a former Merchant Navy officer responding to a perceived disregard of the danger posed by icebergs to the new steamships, with their rapidly growing size and speed. A similar story is claimed to have been published by an even earlier author, W.T. Stead in 1892.

There are poignant stories aplenty arising from the Titanic. One concerns stewardess Violet Jessop, who survived both the Titanic and Britannic disasters. However, the most determined survivor would have to be Fireman John Priest, who served in all three Olympic class ships and who also outlived the loss of both the Titanic and Britannic.

There are also amusing anecdotes. An American naval historian, Kit Bonner, recounted in a recent USNI Proceedings how he had been engaged as a technical adviser by the producers of the recent Titanic movie (starring Kate Winslett and Leonardo di Caprio, directed by James Cameron).

Titanic movie

The producers painted some rocks black to simulate coal. It was heavy stuff and was really tiring out the burly extras who had been hired. Bonner suggested that they use real coal because it was much lighter, but the company declined on the grounds that painted rocks looked more realistic.

John Ellis (Newsletter September 2003, p 10) drew attention to the gap between reality and life aboard Titanic as depicted in that movie. One example given by Bonner was his advice that having a “scantily clad” Kate Winslett at the prow of the ship enjoying a gentle breeze was silly. “My remark that the windchill factor in the North Atlantic at that time of the year was probably 15 degrees (F) went ignored,” he said.

On the other hand, his young granddaughter solved one vexatious problem. “My contribution to this film pales in comparison to my seven-year-old granddaughter Sarah’s,” Bonner proudly reports. “She accompanied me one day to Skywalker Sound Studios, where she suggested that we use the dinosaur foot stomps from Jurassic Park to emulate the rhythmic thump of the Titanic’s engines.” So next time you watch machinery space scenes in a Titanic re-run, think Jurassic Park.

The rest of the class

Titanic‘s two sister ships went on for some years. Britannic was the last of the three Olympics and on completion was requisitioned as a hospital ship for WW I. A German mine sank her on her sixth voyage in the Mediterranean on 21 November 1916.

Interestingly, she received almost identical damage to Titanic and her Captain Bartlett made the same mistake as Titanic‘s Smith. He attempted to move on again although, in fairness, he aimed to beach her on a nearby island. However, as with Titanic, the forward surge was too much for the damaged plates and rivets. They gave way so she, too, went down by the head. Only 21 lives were lost in the Britannic sinking, and those mostly by lifeboats tangling with the still-turning propellers. The warm Mediterranean water was also much more forgiving than the Atlantic’s icy grip around Titanic.

Robert Ballard has dived on Britannic and regards her as one of the best preserved wrecks he has ever seen. Underwater pictures show her lying on her starboard side with the bow and stern sections generally in good shape.

RMS Olympic served at Gallipoli and as a passenger ship until broken up in 1936.

The Olympic actually completed a full service life until eventually broken up in 1936. Of interest to Australians is that she took part in the 1915 Gallipoli landings.

The class were actually well-designed ships and the two that were lost could almost certainly have withstood their damage if they hadn’t been driven so hard immediately after the disasters.

Brown makes a good case in Last log of the Titanic for her being not terribly wounded and he concludes that she should have survived if Ismay and Smith had not been so impatient. The ships were the epitome of their day for sound design and excellent workmanship. In fact, some marine engineers have remarked on the White Star line’s ships being sleek and “right-looking” compared with Cunard’s propensity to build bulky “top-heavy-looking” liners.

A really big myth

Titanic by no means holds the record for number of fatalities, at an estimated 1523 or so. There have been a number of ships, both merchant and naval, that lost as many and in some cases far more souls, some in recent years, even with safety standards and navigational equipment far superior to that in 1912. The Lusitania disaster (some 1,198 fatalities) just a couple of years after Titanic was just as spectacular and to this day is surrounded by many unanswered questions.

Empress of IrelandNorstad
The Empress of Ireland (left) sank after colliding with the Norwegian collier Norstad (right, showing her damaged bows.)

On the 29th May, 1914, the Empress of Ireland was struck by a collier in the mouth of the St Lawrence. She was especially designed for superior watertight integrity and boasted 24 watertight bulkheads. Nevertheless, she sank in 14 minutes within close sight of land and 1,014 people went down with her. In December 1987 the super-ferry Donna Paz (mentioned by John Ellis) collided with a small tanker in the Philippines and somewhere between 4,341 and 4,500 lives were lost, well eclipsing Titanic.

However, the greatest sea disaster of all time, in terms of loss of life, could be the Wilhelm Gustloff, 25,484 tons, sunk in the Baltic by a Russian submarine on 30 January 1945, evacuating German civilians from Gdansk (Danzig) towards the end of WW II. The actual number of people who perished remains in doubt because of an unsubstantiated number of refugees aboard, but Robert McAuley conservatively records a loss of 5,200, Irwin Kappes says 5,348 and Mark Weber reports 5,400. A more recent work by Gunter Grass claims 9,000 lives lost, mostly women and children, but all agree that only about 1,239 survived.

The ship was one of Hitler’s “Strength through Joy” workers’ cruise ships built in the late 1930s but requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine in September 1939 as a hospital ship. She was designed to carry fewer than 2,000 passengers and crew but was grossly overloaded, maybe by a factor of more than five, in a desperate attempt to evacuate civilians from the advancing Russian Army. Heaven only knows how close her metacentric height was to the C of G.

Near-freezing Baltic

At that time of the year the Baltic temperatures were even worse than Titanic‘s Atlantic. Many people were lost after skidding across the ice-covered sloping deck, while a number of lifeboats could not be lowered because they were frozen to their davits.

Wilhelm GustloffCape Arcona
The German ships Wilhelm Gustloff (left) and Cap Arcona sank with great loss of life in WW II.

Other German ships to sink with great loss of life about that time include the 14,666-ton General von Steuben on 10 February 1945, with the loss of 3,500 refugees and the 5,230-ton Goya on 16 April with perhaps 7,000 refugees and soldiers killed. The 27,000-ton Cap Ancona sank on 3 May with perhaps 5,000 concentration camp prisoners perishing in Lubeck Harbour after a British aircraft attack. The 2,800-ton Thielbeck was also sunk in the same 3 May raid, killing another 2,800 prisoners. Only 200 survived.

Grass is a well respected German-Polish writer. His work appears to be well researched, particularly on the Wilhelm Gustloff topic. He was born in Danzig, now Gdansk, in 1927 and was a member of the Hitler Youth. The Wilhelm Gustloff tragedy was kept quiet by the Germans for a long time and only recently are the circumstances being slowly rediscovered.

The Pacific War also saw its share of tragedy. The Toyama Maru, 5,400 tons, was torpedoed by USS Sturgeon on 29 June 1944, with the loss of 5,400 troops and POWs. On 18 September 1944, HMS Tradewind torpedoed the Junyo Maru, 5,065 tons, killing 5,620 POWs and slave labourers.

The new Golden Age

Finally, we tend to think of the 1900s to the late 1930s as the golden era of great liner travel. In fact, more people are travelling by ocean liner and recording more ocean liner passenger miles right now, in 2004, than ever before in history. In 1999 some five and a half million people travelled by sea but by 2002 this figure had increased to more than seven million. About 250 large liners are in operation, filled to 90 per cent or beyond capacity. More than 40 others are building or on order from mainly European yards and orders stretch out for some years ahead. (The Finns, French, Italians and Germans have the game sewn up. The British have evidently lost their manufacturing, marketing or government support skills.) It is sobering to realise that Great Britain, once the world’s leader in mega-liner construction, now has its flagships built by others.

The P & O Star Princess was a big ship but the new Queen Mary 2, launched at St Nazaire in March 2003 and commissioned in January 2004 is now in service. She weighs in at 150,000 tons and carries over 3,000 cruise passengers.

However, even larger vessels are on the drawing boards with tonnages of a quarter of a million under consideration. That equates to a large town with all its infrastructure.

The ocean cruise is the main reason for this shipbuilding surge and evidence of this may be found in any recent photo of any of the bigger Caribbean ports. There will be several giant liners alongside. The Mediterranean and Alaskan cruises are also big business and many Australian ports are used to cruise ships coming and going.

Harland and Wolff

The Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast that employed 30,000 in its heyday is still building big tankers and freighters, but it is hardly a household name today. Wistful reminders are the twin slipways where the Olympics were built. They’re still there, unused and derelict alongside an equally unused and derelict car park.
With these new behemoths regularly plying the oceans in large numbers it may be confidently forecast that it will be only a matter of time before one of them faces a disaster. That won’t happen in this age of sophisticated technology? Think again of Andrea Doria and recall Queen Elizabeth 2 ripping her bottom open in December 1975 on a Nassau reef. Technology is no guarantee. Consider the latest super-technology in aircraft where sometimes the technology itself was actually the cause of disaster. Never mind the destruction of the mighty New York World Trade Centre by terrorists wielding nothing more lethal than Stanley knife box cutters.

A Cunard spokesman at the 2003 launching of Queen Mary 2 was asked if he saw any similarities between Titanic and the first voyage of the new luxury monster setting out on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. The Cunard man grandly asserted that no such thing could happen these days. Queen Mary 2 is double hulled, with the latest in construction methods and metallurgy, 21st century navigation gear, Iceberg Watch, and so on. He actually declared the new Cunarder “unsinkable”. There are also plenty of lifeboats, that are well fitted-out, self righting, seaworthy and enclosed.
But pay close attention to the life jacket and abandon ship drills as you leave harbour.


Brown, David G. The last log of the Titanic. Maine International Marine: Camden 2001.
Bonner, Kit. Behind the Titanic – way behind. USNI Proceedings 124/4/34 April 1998.
Ellis, John E. The last log of the Titanic. Book review, Naval Officers Club Newsletter 54/10 September 2003.
Grass, Gunter. Crabwalk. Tr. K. Winston. Harcourt: San Diego. 2003.
Kappes, Irwin J. The greatest marine disaster in history. www://
Miller, William H. and Rob McAuley. The liners: A voyage of discovery. Boxtree: London. 1997.
Robertson, Morgan. The wreck of the Titan (alt. title: Futility). Virtual Books: Los Angeles. 1898. (Reprinted 1912). Also the_titanic_1.shtml.
Weber, Mark. History’s little-known naval disasters. The Journal for Historical Research. 17/2/22, March 1998.

More on the Titanic here


Titanic (Book)

Titanic book cover

The sinking of Titanic

Book review by John Ellis
Brown, D.G. (2001) The Last Log of the Titanic. Maine International Marine: Camden. 234pp $36 (used).

The many closet Titanic aficionados out there will be fascinated with David Brown’s re-creation of the ship’s deck log for the first watch of 14 April 1912. Brown holds a US Coast Guard master’s licence and teaches professional level USCG licensing courses. He also writes monthly columns for Boating World and Offshore magazines and is a regular contributor to many other marine-related publications.

Brown leapt to his keyboard following the Hollywood spectacle that he saw more concerned with period costume and a fictional romance than fact. He seeks to debunk many of the myths from that and other feature films, documentaries and stories and to establish just what did occur on the bridge and record these events in his “deck log”. He has used the reports of the British and American investigations into the tragedy, 30 books and several websites as references as well as discussions with the Titanic Historical Society.

One of his website references argues, though not convincingly, a quite different sequence of conning orders associated with the collision. Indeed, the websites visited by this reviewer seemed to be a jumble of “facts” submitted by self-proclaimed experts, often in such appalling prose that it led to questioning the value of any of the information.

OOW watchbill

Bridge watchkeepers will be interested in the anchor clankers’ watchbill. After the master there was a chief officer and six officers. The chief, 1st and 2nd officer kept one in three while the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th officers were watch about, ensuring three officers on watch at any one time. The junior officers kept conventional watch hours, but the senior officers changed half way through a watch so that 2nd Officer Lightoller, the senior survivor, went on watch at 1800 and was relieved by 1st Officer Murdoch at 2200. Lookouts stood two hours on and four off and quartermasters were watch about with two hours at the helm and two hours as OOW’s runner when on watch.

Three propellers, 17 kettles

The description of the propulsion system is minimal, not quite correct and will disappoint engineers. Titanic had three screws and one rudder. The outer screws, 7.2 m diameter with three blades, were driven by triple expansion reversible steam engines that had one high pressure, one intermediate pressure and two low pressure cylinders. The centre screw, 5 m diameter with four blades, was driven by a steam turbine fed from the exhaust of the two reciprocating engines. It had no astern capability. All were coupled directly to the propeller shafts so that 75 rpm achieved 22.25 knots, the speed reported at the time of the grounding.

Full power delivered 80 rpm. There were four 400 kW generators and two refrigeration compressors. Saturated steam at 200 psi came from 12 double-ended and five single-ended fire tube cylindrical boilers that together consumed 650 tons of coal per hour. There were six boiler rooms, an engine room for the reciprocating engines, another for the turbine and another for the auxiliary machinery. All this required 30 officers and 271 men.

Brown is critical of the findings of both the American and British investigations. The American report, chaired by Senator W.A. Smith, demonstrated his panel’s lack of seafaring experience and Lord Mersey, the British Wreck Commissioner, was mindful of current rivalry between Great Britain and Germany on the Atlantic passenger run and tension leading up to World War I.


Neither report found Mr J.B. Ismay or Captain E.J. Smith to blame but found a live scapegoat in Captain Lord of Californian for failing to react to distress signals. Brown lays the blame with Ismay and Smith.

Ismay was the general manager of both International Mercantile Marine and its subsidiary, the White Star Line. He was aboard Titanic. He sought to attract passengers to his ships and indeed had secured finance for the three super liners, Olympic, Titanic and Britannic, to be built at Harland & Wolff. He also saw to Smith’s appointment as master, seeing him as compliant to business-oriented outlooks that sometimes overrode good seamanship. This led to Titanic sailing with a smouldering bunker fire and maintaining near top speed into seas reported to contain field ice and icebergs. Brown maintains that because of First Officer Murdoch’s skilful conning of the ship on sighting the iceberg, the ship could have remained afloat until assistance arrived, even though the bottom was holed. Ismay’s desire to proceed to Halifax after the grounding aggravated the flooding beyond the capability of damage control facilities, and the rest is history.

For an account that seeks to correct others, a few errors seem to remain. He refers to ships in the current politically correct neuter although his contemporary quotations use feminine participles. For one who gives an excellent appendix of nautical terms and is at pains to explain the nuances of terms less familiar to landlubbers, Brown seems to be one who is on, not in, a ship. This reviewer’s divisional officer would squirm.

The cover depicts the ship going down with smoke coming from all four funnels. In fact, only the first three exhausted boiler flue gas while the fourth improved symmetry and ducted ventilation exhaust. The cover also portrays Captain Smith with an “unknown” officer. One of Brown’s references identifies the officer as Purser McElroy.

Prop blades?

When discussing engine vibration, Brown states that all three propellers had four blades. In fact, from photographs and descriptions of machinery in his references, the arrangement was as described above. Brown gives output from the three engines at about 45,000 hp. One of his references clearly states there was 15,000 hp available from each of the reciprocating engines and 16,000 hp from the turbine. He also suggests that Murdoch did not order full astern for fear of snapping propeller shafts, yet another of his references states that during builder’s trials, Titanic did apply full astern from 20 knots ahead, stopping in just over 780 m.

Titanic props
The Titanic propellers

 Interestingly, Brown calculates that the iceberg was 835 metres ahead when the lookouts rang down the warning to the bridge and then compliments Murdoch’s ship handling to avoid a head-on collision. In a summary of key survivors, Murdoch is ranked second officer instead of first and fifth Officer Lowe is recorded as dying in 1964 aged 61. This suggests that Lowe was aged nine when Titanic went down. In fact, Lowe died in 1944 aged 61.

Harland & Wolff

Brown describes Thomas Andrews, travelling aboard, as a representative of Harland & Wolff. His other references all have Andrews listed more specifically as managing director of the shipbuilding company.

Nevertheless, anchor clankers who are Titanic buffs will find much of interest and value. Of course, the loss of Titanic would be named by most people as the worst peacetime maritime disaster of all time, with over 1500 of the 2200 souls on board lost. Yet in 1987 a ferry went down off the Philippines with a loss of over 4,000 pilgrims. Would Hollywood see box office potential in that story?

Read more in Titanic follow-up letters

HMS Rattler

HMS Rattler

by John Ellis

The development of the steam engine for locomotion was a challenge taken up by engineers in the late 18th century. Richard Trevithick demonstrated his steam carriage at Cambourne in Cornwall in 1801 and three years later his locomotive, on an existing tramway in Wales, hauled ten tons of iron ore and 70 men at eight kph.

Many other engineers entered into steam locomotion, but it was the Rocket built by George Stephenson that conclusively won the Rainhill trials in 1829, heralding the age of the railway. During these trials the Rocket averaged 22 kph and reached 46 kph.

William Symington

William Symington built the first successful steam-propelled vessel that he demonstrated in 1802 in Scotland. Two years later, Robert Fulton, an American, demonstrated his steamer in France. From those early trials, my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty also saw the potential for steam propulsion. Initially the concept was to develop tugs to get ships of the line in and out of harbour and the Admiralty put their toe into the pool of this new technology in 1815 with the order for a sloop named Congo. Something went amiss in the project office because the engine proved too heavy for the vessel and the engine was eventually commissioned for use ashore. The Navy’s first steam propelled vessel, then, was the Comet, built in 1819. Comet was a tug with a length of 35 metres a beam of 6.4 metres and a draught of 2.7 metres. Each of her twin engines was rated at 40 NHP(1). The Monkey and the Active, with two engines of similar output, followed in 1820 and 1822.

HMS Lightning, 1823

The first steam-powered vessel in the Navy List was HMS Lightning. She was built in 1823 but did not appear in the Navy List for another five years.

The first armed vessel propelled by steam was HMS Dee, completed in 1832. Dee was 51 metres long with a beam of 9.3 metres with two engines developing 200 NHP. One officer of the period who championed the use of steam was RADM J. Ross, who made his name as a polar explorer and also wrote a steam navigation treatise in 1828, setting out tactics for sea warfare using auxiliary steam propulsion.

The admirals began to stroke their beards following the success of steam packets, introduced from 1830 for external mail services operated by the Navy. Now, side-mounted paddlewheels propelled all these early steam vessels and for warships there were two main limitations. The wheel box on a ship’s side reduced space for mounting guns and the boxes and paddles were extremely vulnerable to enemy gunfire. Nevertheless many years of experimentation and debate passed before the Admiralty eventually cast aside the paddlewheel.

propellor evolution

Evolutionary designs for the propeller.

Some early screws were just that, with the appearance of a short auger. Others were more recognisable as a screw propeller. In 1837 Ericsson used his screw steamer, Francis B. Ogden, to tow an Admiralty barge up and down the Thames.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Great Britain

The big leap forward for the screw propeller came in 1839. Ten months after Brunel laid down the Great Britain, the Archimedes visited Bristol where Great Britain was being built with paddlewheels. Archimedes was propelled by Francis Smith’s screw propeller and her performance was convincing. Even though Smith’s patent was similar to an Archimedean screw, Brunel converted the propulsion system of Great Britain to utilise a six-bladed screw propeller. This decision was vindicated in 1843 when Great Britain clearly demonstrated the advantages of screw propulsion during her crossing of the Atlantic.

The Admiralty, possibly motivated by Brunel’s courage, moved in 1842. The sloop Ardent was then under construction in Sheerness and the Admiralty directed the propulsion system be converted to screw propulsion. She was commissioned as HMS Rattler in 1843 and displaced 1078 tons. Rattler tested six different propeller designs, with six modifications being made to three propellers. The propellers ranged from 2.5 – 3.0 metres in diameter with a mean pitch around 3.4 metres. From these trials a propeller was selected. It was 3.01 metres in diameter with a pitch of 3.4 metres.

The famous trials with HMS Alecto were conducted in March – April 1845 over the 78 nautical miles between the Nore and Yarmouth Roads. Alecto was a paddlewheeler sloop of the same engine power as Rattler although she was 3.8 metres shorter. Rattler completed the course in 8 hours and 34 minutes. Alecto took a further 20 minutes.

(Ed note: There are persistent minor variations in the data reported arising from these trials, e.g. 78 versus 80 miles, 23½  versus 20 minutes, etc. See “Screw versus paddle” note, below.)

Rattler propellor


Where it all began. HMS Rattler‘s propeller, as displayed in the RN Museum, Portsmouth.

The plate on the display (above ) of HMS Rattler‘s screw propeller, displayed at the RN Museum, Portsmouth, says:

Screw versus paddle. Here displayed is the screw or propeller of the former sloop HMS Rattler, a vessel of around 800 tons (2) and 200 HP. This sloop in 1845 decided the future of propulsion of British warships in a series of experiments against another sloop, HMS Alecto, of similar displacement and horsepower but propelled by paddlewheels. On an 80-mile course in calm weather the Rattler defeated the Alecto by 23½ minutes. Later over a 60-mile course against a head sea, the Rattler again defeated the Alecto, this time by 40 minutes.
Finally, in the most conclusive experiment of all when the two vessels being fastened stern to stern and both steaming at their best, the Rattler towed the Alecto away at a rate of 2½ knots. In consequence from 1845 onwards new warships were driven by propellers.


rattler vs alecto


The screw-driven HMS Rattler (left) wins the 1845 tug-o-war with the paddlewheeler Alecto.

Over a 52 nautical mile course in heavy seas and strong headwinds, Rattler averaged 7½ knots whilst Alecto averaged seven knots. The tests culminated with the two sloops secured stern to stern. Alecto worked up to full power with Rattler‘s engines stopped. Once Rattler started her engines ahead, she gradually overcame Alecto and eventually towed her astern at 2½ knots.

HMS Niger trials

Although the Admiralty declared the superiority of screw propellers in 1845, further tests were conducted in 1846 between the paddle-driven HMS Basilisk and the screw-propelled HMS Niger. The outcome was the same.

Despite the tests, some ships were equipped with paddlewheels for some time; the last major ship built for the Navy with paddlewheels was the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert II, launched in 1855. By the end of that decade the Navy List included 463 steam-powered ships of which 351 were propelled by screw.

Much of this information has been drawn from The Naval Steam Reciprocating Engine, by Norman Rivett, and he includes a copy of Admiralty Circular No 347/58:

Precautions to be taken against accidents when men are in them. Accidents of a serious and even fatal character having sometimes occurred on board Her Majesty’s Steam Ships and Vessels, by the Paddle Wheels being turned when men are in them. My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty are pleased to issue directions, with the view of effectually guarding against such accidents in future, that men are on no account to be permitted to go into, or remain in, the Paddle Wheels, except when they are effectually secured by a bar being passed through them, by a secure lashing, or by some other simple mode, the efficiency of which can be judged of by any Seaman.

Main engine

HMS Rattler was fitted with two Maudslay and Field Siamese engines, that is, four cylinders of 1019 mm diameter and a stroke of 1234 mm. The nominal horsepower was 200 and the engine developed 437 IHP (3) at 26 rpm on a single shaft. This output was geared up to 104 rpm with a belt drive that was replaced with a spur gear drive. The boiler pressure is not known, however many boilers operated at five psi with some as high as 14 psi. HMS Alecto was fitted with a Seaward and Capel Gorgon engine of 200 NHP. The output of the engine was connected directly to the paddlewheels.



A proposed super cavitating propeller design.


1. NHP (nominal horsepower) was an 1840s standard adopted by the Royal Agricultural Society, comparing the power of a steam engine with that of a horse. There has been, and still is, a great deal of confusion about NHP and its relationship to actual horsepower. NHP is related to the size of the cylinder bore and the speed of the piston. Horsepower (HP) is a measure of the power produced. One HP is equivalent to 550 foot-pounds per second or 745.7 watts. It is not possible to convert NHP to HP or vice versa.
One measure of NHP is found by dividing the square of the cylinder diameter in inches by ten. So for a nine-inch bore engine: NHP = 9 x 9 / 10 = 8.
Another NHP formula is to multiply the square of the diameter of the cylinder in inches by the cube root of the stroke in feet, and divide the product by 47.

2. This 800 tons figure is a builder’s measure, based on hull volume, independent of weight. It is a lesser figure than displacement tonnage. In the Middle Ages, most cargo, dry or liquid, was carried in casks, the largest being the tun. A ship’s carrying capacity, or burthen, was given by the number of tuns she could carry and was known as her tunnage. Until iron allowed major changes to hull shapes and design, the tunnage (tonnage) was calculated for taxation purposes by multiplying length by breadth by depth below the main deck in feet, then dividing by 100.
The wooden ships tonnage formula varied from the above in the 18th century, but with iron and steel ships the tonnage was once more established by calculating the volume of the hull in cubic feet. One gross register ton equalled 100 cubic feet. Nett register tonnage, based on the volume of a ship’s cargo carrying capacity, is the figure used for determining fees for harbour dues, insurance, salvage and towing. To ensure confusion, bulk carriers nowadays use deadweight tonnage, or the tons weight of cargo, that takes them down to their Plimsoll mark.

3. IHP (indicated horsepower) is a theoretical power assuming complete efficiency. Actual power output may be only 70 to 90 per cent of this figure.


Rivett, Norman. The Naval Steam Reciprocating Engine. Naval Historical Society: Garden Island, ISBN 0 9587456 0 9.
Ross, J. A treatise on navigation by steam. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green: London. 1828.

RNEC Manadon

The rise and fall of the Royal Naval Engineering College 

by John Ellis

 RNECManadon House
The Royal Naval Engineering College complex (left) trained thousands of engineers. Historic Manadon
House (right), purchased in 1938, became an extension of the college.

Steam brought painful change to the training of Royal Navy officers. Finding a place for the engineers in traditional RN ranks demanded considerable time and effort. The first RN vessel to have a steam-powered propulsion system was the 1819 tug Comet. In 1828 the Navy List included its first steam-powered ship, HMS Lightning, built in 1823. HMS Dee, completed in 1832, was the first steam-powered fighting ship. By 1840, the Navy List named 70 steam-powered vessels. They were all paddle-wheelers and were mostly employed towing ships of the line in and out of harbour.

Izambard Kingdom Brunel

In 1840 I.K. Brunel concluded that a screw would propel Great Britain, then building in Bristol. The Admiralty accepted Brunel’s wisdom and fitted HMS Rattler with a screw in 1842. Rattler, in trials in 1845 with HMS Alecto, a paddlewheeler sloop, demonstrated the superiority of screw propulsion. With the dawning of this new technology came the requirement for technical support to operate and maintain the machinery. Machinery suppliers provided civilian “engine-men” to operate and maintain the new equipment until 1837, when the RN gave warrant rank to ships’ engineers.

The year 1837 was a milestone for the engineers in the navy. The Admiralty first established the Steam Department and followed up with the Engineering Branch Afloat. Ships’ engineers were warranted and equated with other civil officers, such as masters, surgeons, pursers and chaplains.

In 1843 the Royal Dockyards established schools for the education of dockyard apprentices and some of these “engineer boys” entered the Navy on completion of training. Some engineers were commissioned from 1847 and all were commissioned after 1862. From 1863 the “engineer boys” became “engineer students” with examinations for all ranks to chief engineer, a rank equivalent to lieutenant commander today.

That year also saw engineer students educated separately at the new Royal School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineers in Kensington. Engineer students joined at the age of 14 for the four-year course. It was also 1863 when civil officers introduced distinctive colours between their gold stripes, although only “real” officers had the curl in the upper stripe. The four colours introduced in 1863 were blue for navigators, red for surgeons, white for paymasters and purple for engineers.

Main entranceKeyham College
The main building entrance (left) and the dockyard-facing facade of historic Keyham College.

In 1873 the RN transformed the 18th century Royal Naval Hospital buildings at Greenwich to accommodate the old Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth and the Kensington engineer students. Between 1876 and 1886 the students had yet another home, HMS Marlborough, an old wooden screw-driven battleship in Portsmouth, while the navy built a permanent naval engineering college near Devonport Dockyard. The Devonport Training School for Engineer Students opened in 1880, but it soon became known as Keyham College.

Dating from the introduction of heavy machinery in ships, engineering personnel were regarded with disdain from the bridge. Many naval officers viewed the new steam engines as a menace, not only to their ships but their way of life. “Their Lordships feel it is their bounden duty to discourage to the utmost of their ability the employment of steam vessels, as they consider the introduction of steam is calculated to strike a fatal blow at the naval supremacy of the empire,” wrote Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty in 1828.

The pride of the Royal Navy was the sparkling appearance of warships that were cleaned and scrubbed from morning till night. Showers of sparks and soot blew out of the engineer’s funnels and settled everywhere, entailing much extra cleaning and scrubbing to keep ships sparkling. An Admiralty Fleet Order of the 1860s directed that the practice of firing muskets up the funnels to dislodge the offending soot be discontinued.

Sunday DivisionsEngine test
Young naval engineers in their Sunday Divisions best uniforms (left) also work in the Engine Test Shop (right).

By the 1860s there was an increasing gulf between the status of engineers and military officers of supposedly similar rank. Not only were the engineers seen as workmen in uniform, they were not accorded wardroom status.

Uniforms of this period for non-military officers were less elaborate than those on the bridge. While the military officer wore double-breasted coats, the civil officers wore theirs single-breasted with buttons in distinctive groupings. Engineers, for instance, had eight buttons in two groups of four and all non-military uniforms lacked the curled upper stripe. Even the introduction of engine-room artificers in 1868 as skilled tradesmen and the abandonment of separate wardrooms in 1875 did not eradicate the disparities. In the 1890s, when 50 per cent of the complement of a warship might be the engineering department, military officers continued to view engineers as lascars with oilcans. Until 1910 engineers trained quite separately from their anchor-clanking colleagues.

During the 1890s recruitment of engineer students fell markedly and in 1903 the First Lord of the Admiralty and the First Sea Lord, the Earl of Selbourne and Admiral Fisher, introduced the Fisher-Selbourne scheme to see the complete coalescence of officers. Cadet midshipmen aged 13 would enter the new Royal Naval College at Osborne then progress to Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth for common training until promoted to lieutenant at age 22 when they would specialise in navigation, gunnery, torpedo or engineering. Engineer officers were no longer known as Engineer Lieutenants, but Lieutenants (E) and were deemed military officers. The purple stripe disappeared but they could wear the executive curl. Engineering became a major part of basic training and the two colleges incorporated big laboratories and workshops.

Few volunteers

The first engineering specialists entered the Royal Naval College, Keyham, in 1913. Special entry cadets, aged 18, supplemented the dangerously thinned ranks of engineer officers. The Fisher-Selbourne scheme ended in failure. The average officer could not cover the scope of the training and in any event only six per cent volunteered for engineering.

Even at the time of introduction of the Fisher-Selbourne scheme, engineers were advising that the study and practice of engineering demanded the lifetime devotion of an officer. The scheme was abandoned in 1921 and the following year the Long Engineering Course of four years started. In addition to meeting naval requirements, this course conferred full exemption from the corporate membership examinations of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. The course was taken by officers who had been selected for engineering when promoted to midshipman after a year as a cadet in the training ship. It was concerned almost entirely with the theoretical and practical aspects of marine engineering. The course evolved into one of the longest-running courses in modern naval history. Apart from some modification in detail and a slight reduction in time in 1935, it continued running until early 1951.

In 1925 the question of non-executive officers was reviewed in some detail and from this came 12 categories of officer that saw, at last, the abandonment of the 18th and 19th century concept of civil officer. With this, the distinguishing colours were reintroduced and all officers wore the curl. Engineers continued to be classified as Lieutenant (E); nevertheless they claimed betrayal, alleging the new purple to be more maroon than the former purple.

Boiler cleaning
Young Midshipmen learn how to refit a boiler.

 During the 1920s and -30s Keyham developed a formidable reputation as an engineering college. Space limitations kept student numbers to about 120 but by 1936 it was clear that Keyham was far too cramped for the increases envisaged as war loomed. In 1938 Manadon House and 43 ha of the estate were purchased and in May 1940 Manadon was opened as the extension of the college.

In 1937 there were 112 officers under instruction. By 1941 there were 322 and in 1945 there were 771. Every available piece of property was put to use accommodating these extra students. For much of WW II and afterwards they lived mostly at Manadon in dormitory huts and messed in four converted tin-roofed Nissen huts.

The transfer from Keyham to Manadon progressed slowly but was virtually completed during the 1950s. It was not, however, finished until 1962 when the electrical laboratory and the Jock Russell were finally closed down. The Keyham buildings stayed unused until the Devonport Dockyard Technical College moved in about 1959, but all the remaining buildings were finally demolished in 1985.

In 1956 ADML Mountbatten introduced the General List of officers that coincidentally saw the disappearance of distinguishing colours for non-seaman officers. He also laid the foundation stone for the new wardroom at Manadon and the Duke of Edinburgh opened the buildings two years later.

Major changes

This new RNEC saw major changes to engineering courses. The Long Engineering Course continued in various forms through the 1960s; however in 1962 some students started a BSc course from London University. RNEC was granted the right to award its own BSc degrees in 1966 and in 1971 the Advanced Marine Engineering Course, or Dagger Course, moved to RNEC from Greenwich. In 1976 the College gained approval to award Masters degrees and this replaced the Dagger Course. In addition to these basically theoretical courses there were several application courses for RNEC graduates and direct entry engineer officers.

The first RAN officer at Keyham was the late CAPT E.S. Nurse, RAN, who graduated from RANC in 1916 and attended RNEC in 1920-4. The last RAN officers to complete the full engineering courses at RNEC graduated in 1973 and some RAN officers continued with the application courses until 1978.

Last RAN students, 1991The last RAN students at RNEC were LCDR T.N. Jones, RAN, and LEUT I.A. Rawlings, RAN, who graduated with MSc in May 1991. The number of RAN officers to train at RNEC is not known, but it is believed to exceed 270. By the mid-1970s the RAN had markedly reduced the numbers of all personnel training abroad. Before the opening of the Australian Defence Force Academy in 1982, selected RAN midshipmen studied at the University of NSW for a BE. Nevertheless, as early as 1970 the clouds were darkening over the long-term future of RNEC as less costly options of officer training and alternatives for the provision of various services for Defence were being investigated. RNEC constraints on the RN’s budgets in the late 1980s and early 1990s were aggravated by marked reductions in authorised manpower.

When the new RNEC opened at Manadon in 1958 the strength of the RN was 121,000 and the RAN was one tenth of that. By 1995 the RN had fewer than 60,000 men and women and the RAN and other Commonwealth navies were not training engineers abroad. The CO of RNEC put forward proposals in 1992 to keep RNEC in commission but the college was closed in August 1995. Coincidentally, the OOD on that day was LCDR G.J. Irwin, RAN. He was on the staff even though there were no RAN students while he was there. Those still under training completed their degrees at Plymouth University. These days, RN engineer officers attend classes at Southampton University to obtain their degrees.

Formal celebrations

The RNEC’s centenary was celebrated with a series of dinners in 1980. Broadly, there was a dinner for pre-WWII graduates followed by a dinner for graduates from each decade to 1981 thereafter. Another final year series of dinners attracted over a thousand former mess members. Their years of attendance ranged from the 1920s to 1994 with the old Commonwealth nations represented. The final graduation of 72 students in July 1995 went with a bang, not a whimper. Both the First and Second Sea Lords attended cermonial divisions. Their presence was recognised with a 17-gun salute and a fly past of modern naval aircraft and a WWII-era Swordfish.

The closure was celebrated in Sydney with a cocktail party at the Australian Maritime Museum attended by 150 former mess members and their partners. The organisers, CDRE C.J. Elsmore and CAPT D.H. Blazey, presented a commemorative medallion to all who attended.

Following Manadon’s closure the facility was offered to Plymouth University but they could find no use for it and the establishment was put up for sale. Manadon House and the Chapel had long term heritage classification so they were excluded from the contract. Manadon House was built about 1680 and the Chapel, built as a tithe barn, was listed in the Doomsday Book. Those who were at RNEC in 1962 will remember the magnificent copper font made for the Chapel by Frank Chew. That, thankfully, is now in the Chapel at BRNC, Dartmouth.

A developer purchased the establishment, erected a cyclone wire fence around Manadon House and the Chapel and demolished the rest to turn it into suburbia. When visited in May 2000 the only recognisable structures remaining were the flag mast and the sports pavilion that had been torched by vandals. Curiously, the spire had been removed and was in some “come in handy” pile. The spire and the imposing stone figureheads of Marlborough and Thunderer will be used to decorate the estate’s entrance. It was indeed a sad return to one’s alma mater.

Manadon web site

Manadon’s slow but comprehensive web site is at Log on with “guest” and “hms”. The site contains photographs and loads of other interesting data.