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With the Fleet at Sea

A first-hand account of a trip in the English Channel and North Sea in a battleship engaged on peace-time manoeuvres


THE NAVY GOES TO WORK - 4


H.M.S. Exeter is one of the finest modern British cruisers


































COMPLETED IN MAY, 1931. H.M.S. Exeter is one of the finest modern British cruisers. Her standard displacement is 8,370 tons overall length 575 feet, beam 58 feet, and draught 17 feet. She carries six 8-in. guns, four 4-in., four 3-pounders, and has six torpedo tubes. The absence of wings to her bridge and her searchlight arrangements resemble those found in ships of the Nelson class.




ALTHOUGH fighting ships do not remain continuously at sea, but spend a good deal of time in port, it is none the less true that the sea is the Navy’s natural element, in which it lives, moves, and has its being. If we wish, therefore, to acquire a real knowledge of the Navy, to discover what it is and to appreciate what it does, we must accompany it to sea. Let us, then, imagine ourselves on board a battleship of the Home Fleet, which is to be our home for the next two months or so, according to the duration of the autumn cruise which is about to begin.


Our battleship, a unit of the Queen Elizabeth class, is moored in Portsmouth Harbour. For the past fortnight she has been busily taking in provisions and stores of all kinds, sufficient for a three-months’ cruise, and some 3,000 tons of fuel oil have been pumped into her tanks. As we near the ship we notice two ammunition lighters alongside, each flying a red flag. Huge 15-inch shells, all nearly five feet high and each weighing the best part of a ton, are being hoisted on board and thence lowered to the shell-rooms deep in the ship. The cordite charges go on board in metal containers, and every conceivable precaution against mishap is taken while the ship is loading ammunition.


Our ship, which belongs to the Portsmouth Division of the Home Fleet, is due to leave harbour at eight o’clock the next morning, immediately after the flagship Nelson. Cruisers and destroyers will follow us, and in the course of the day we shall rendezvous off the Isle of Wight with the ships of the Davenport Division. Twenty-four hours later we shall meet the vessels of the Chatham Division in the southern part of the North Sea, and then the Home Fleet, at full strength, will shape a course for Scotland.


The night before sailing is a busy time for all on board, but especially for the Commander; as chief executive officer, he is responsible, under the Captain, for seeing that everything is in apple-pie order for the cruise. Once we are at sea there will be no time for anything but the drills and exercises for which the cruise has been organized. The ship must therefore be fully equipped to the last detail before the anchor comes up and the turbines begin to revolve.


Next day, before dawn, the great battleship is a hive of activity. Breakfast in the wardroom (officers’ mess) is a hurried affair, and as we go on deck we see that the Nelson is already under way, in charge of dockyard tugs. It is a tricky business to manoeuvre these giant vessels through the narrow fairway of Portsmouth Harbour, with its strong tide-rip and hidden sandbanks, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief when the stately flagship is reported clear of the mouth. Our turn comes next. On the navigating bridge are the Captain, the navigating officer and the dockyard pilot. The pilot is nominally responsible for taking the ship out, but if anything should go wrong the captain will have to shoulder the blame. Fortunately our ship belongs to a class which is easily handled in narrow waters, and in a short time we have left the harbour astern and are passing Spithead.


HMS Queen Elizabeth
































LAID DOWN IN 1912. H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, the first of a class of battleships of that name. This ship was completed in 1915 and has since become one of the most famous vessels in the Royal Navy. After the war of 1914-18 considerable reconstruction was carried out in her. She now carries eight 15-in. guns, twelve 6-in., two torpedo tubes, and a number of smaller weapons. She has an overall length of 639¾ feet, a beam of 104 feet, and a speed of 25 knots.




A few hours later, when we are well out in the Channel, steaming at a steady twelve knots - the peace-time cruising speed dictated by considerations of fuel economy - a bugle sounds the “Alert”, soon followed by the longer blare announcing “Action Stations”. The decks thunder under the flying feet of hundreds of men rushing to their fighting posts, but in two minutes an uncanny silence has descended on the ship, broken only by staccato orders transmitted everywhere by loudspeakers. What is happening? We soon know, for we hear from afar the voice of a look-out high up on the mast: “Two periscopes sighted, one directly ahead, the other four points on the starboard bow”. If it were war those words would unpleasantly thrill all who heard them. Even though we know that the torpedoes which may soon strike our vessel will have their “war-heads” filled with nothing more lethal than water, instead of 300 lb. of high-explosive, most of us experience a mild shudder of excitement. We are told that the submarine training flotillas from Portsmouth and Portland have prepared an ambush into which we have steamed.


Sharp words of command come from the bridge; the ship trembles as the helm is put over, and looking astern we see our hitherto straight wake transformed into a graceful arc. We are turning sharply to starboard - and just in time, for there, crossing the very patch of water where our bows would have been had we not turned, are two foaming tracks of air bubbles, denoting the passage of two torpedoes. Another touch of the helm and we swing back to port, while a third torpedo, aimed to catch us amidships just before we turned, streaks past our stern.


A Direct Hit


It looks as though we are clear of the trap, and so we are, but our next astern, a big cruiser, is not so fortunate. Having successfully dodged two “tin fish”, she is just straightening out when another of those sinister white tracks is seen to be making straight for her. There is no time for the helm to act, and a few seconds later those on the cruiser’s deck feel the bump and jar which means that the dummy-headed torpedo has struck fair and true. Through our glasses we catch a glimpse of the “fish” as she bobs up to the surface, the collapsible practice head crushed flat by the impact. A calcium flare - automatically ignited when a spent torpedo comes to the surface after its run - burns as a guide to the destroyers detailed to pick up the torpedoes, each of which are worth £2,000. In real warfare this submarine attack would probably have been less successful, for our line of great ships would have been screened by at least twice as many destroyers as we have with us now. At the first sight of a periscope, too, our escorts would have put down a barrage of depth charges which, detonating with terrific force well below the surface, would have given the lurking intruders an uncomfortable time.


As it is, we look astern and see a conning tower rise from the sea, followed by the dark, glistening hull of a submarine. Men appear on her deck, and from the conning-tower bridge an officer gives us a friendly wave. Three more submarines emerge from the depths, but they soon dive again in the hope of catching other ships which may be following us far astern. These submarine attacks are always made when the Fleet is leaving its home ports or returning to them, and they afford valuable experience to the submarine captains, who like nothing better than to stalk a moving target, preferably a full-size battleship.


The day has turned out gloriously fine, though a stiff breeze is blowing from the north-east. We see the captain in consultation with a young lieutenant who wears on his sleeve, above the two gold stripes, a pair of miniature wings. He is the pilot of the Fairey III seaplane which at the moment is snugly housed on its catapult, mounted on one of our after 15-in. turrets. The conference over, the lieutenant salutes and hurries below, while a party of artificers and bluejackets gathers round the catapult. Evidently the pilot is about to make a flight.


ANTI-AIRCRAFT PRACTICE being carried out with dummy shells







ANTI-AIRCRAFT PRACTICE being carried out with dummy shells on board H.M. aircraft carrier Furious. The photograph shows an “enemy” ’plane coming within range. The vessel was built under the Emergency War Programme, laid down in June, 1915, and completed in 1917 as a fast light battle cruiser Since the war of 1914-18 H.M.S Furious has undergone considerable alterations in design.











Accompanied by his observer - a lieutenant-commander - and a warrant telegraphist as radio operator, he climbs with his companions into the seaplane. The turret is revolved until the catapult is pointing into the wind. There is a muffled thud as the powder charge which actuates the catapult is touched off, and the seaplane roars away from the ship. We see it climbing steadily, and know that bomb practice is about to take place.


A flat wooden target in the shape of a ship, but of no great size, is dropped into the sea to be towed astern of us at the end of a long cable. Meanwhile the crews of the four four-inch anti-aircraft guns mounted on our shelter deck have fallen in. The opportunity of practising with live shells at an aircraft in flight is too good to be missed. There is, however, no danger to the machine or its occupants, for the shells are fused so as to burst well below the target.


By now the seaplane has reached a great height, so great, indeed, that it seems impossible to drop bombs with any degree of accuracy. But let us wait and see. Suddenly there is a whistling sound, and a small practice bomb strikes the water with a vicious smack and gives out a puff of white smoke. It has fallen some distance from the target, but the next bomb is much nearer. This is followed by a salvo of three which “straddle” the mark, two splashing to the right and the third to the left. Evidently the observer officer who is working the bomb trap in the seaplane is an expert at the work; he may also be using a particularly efficient form of bomb-sight.


Attacked from Above


By now our anti-aircraft guns open tire. With a flash and a roar No. 1 gun recoils, the breech opens automatically, a long cartridge with shell attached is flung in, the breech-block closes with a clang, and a second later the gun fires again. With four guns in rapid fire there is plenty of noise on the shelter deck; but with ear-drums throbbing we keep our glasses trained on the seaplane and watch the balls of black cotton wool that suddenly appear in clusters below but well in line with her. Good shooting. Were the shells fused to burst at full range the seaplane pilot would probably find it expedient to give us a wider berth. As it is, he dives for us at full speed, lets go a salvo of bombs at what seems point-blank range, and then rockets up again to escape our machine-guns. There is little doubt that one or more of the bombs would have struck the ship, for two fell close alongside the small target, the area of which is only a fraction of the area of our deck.


Now the exercise is over. The seaplane descends, and as the battleship, with her screws going astern, loses way, the pilot makes a perfect landing alongside. Five minutes later our electric crane is hoisting the machine inboard on to its catapult and we are under way again, putting on speed to catch up with the rest of the squadron which has drawn ahead. In war conditions a big ship would probably not stop to recover its seaplane for fear of being torpedoed by a lurking submarine. The seaplane would therefore have to make for the nearest shore base or be picked up by some other, less valuable, vessel. It is probable that in war certain auxiliary ships would be assigned to the duty of salving aircraft flown from warships other than aircraft-carriers.


Aeroplanes taking off from H.M.S. Furious for exercise






LEAVING THEIR FLOATING BASE. Aeroplanes taking off from H.M.S. Furious for exercise. This photograph was taken on board the aircraft carrier during a spring cruise to the Canary Islands. The carrier was accompanied by H.M.S. Rodney and H.M.S. Sturdy. The aeroplanes when not in operation are kept below the take-off deck. H.M.S. Furious can carry as many as thirty-three aeroplanes










As the cruise proceeds the Fleet carries out tactical exercises in obedience to signals from the flagship. The cruisers are ordered to scout ahead in search of an imaginary enemy. The battle squadron changes from line ahead to line abreast, and then forms a line of bearing. These various movements, unexciting in themselves, call for skilled navigation and seamanship. The smallest error of judgment may lead to a collision between two battleships, each carrying 1,200 men and worth millions of pounds. The destroyers are told off to make an anti-submarine screen, and then to carry out an attack on the cruiser squadron as it returns from its mission. All day long, and often through most of the night as well, these evolutions continue with the object of forging the Fleet into a highly efficient instrument.


Gunnery plays a big part in the training programme, but the fascinating story of how the modern Navy shoots must be reserved for a later chapter. Even while the Fleet is engaged in a “P.Z.” (tactical) exercise, the individual ships are constantly performing one or other of the score of drills laid down in the training manual. In one ship a third of the crew are told to become “casualties”, certain guns and controls are deemed to be “out of action”; then “heavy waterline damage”, “so and so many compartments flooded”, and “fierce fires raging on stokers’ mess deck” are reported. When such orders are given the routine must be instantly changed to what it would become if the ship really were half-crippled in action. Reliefs must be provided for “fallen” officers and ratings; emergency circuits must be used for all controls; fire parties must rig hoses, and collision parties go below to stop leaks, or to shore bulkheads. No make-believe is tolerated when an exercise of this sort is in progress. “Wounded” men have to be placed in special stretchers and lowered from control top, turret, or bridge to the sick bay or nearest dressing station. Sometimes the main lights “fail” and the work of the ship has to be conducted with emergency lighting.


On another occasion a battleship may be ordered to take in tow a consort which has been “disabled”. This is a long and difficult operation even in fine weather, and one in which practically the entire crew of each ship has to take part. “Out paravanes” is yet another signal often made when ships are at sea.


The paravane is an ingenious apparatus for sweeping up submarine mines and rendering them harmless. In appearance it resembles a short, squat torpedo, fitted with large fins, and also with serrated steel jaws which cut through the mine’s stout mooring cable as if it were packthread. When the order is given the two paravanes are placed on trollies and rushed to the forecastle, there to be triced up on davits at either side in readiness for dropping. Once in the water they dive to and remain at a depth of many feet, while the action of the fins causes them to stream out away from the ship. If the taut paravane wire makes contact with a mine the mine’s cable is deflected into the toothed jaws and instantly severed. The released mine then bobs up to the surface and, being visible, is no longer to be greatly feared, even if it is not forthwith sunk by gunfire.


Thus proceeds the strenuous sea training by which the Navy keeps itself fit and ready to meet any crisis. A brief description may now be given of the daily routine on board each big ship. The “hands” are called at 5.30 a.m. and have half an hour for dressing, washing and drinking their cocoa ration. From 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. decks are scrubbed and swept, after which breakfast is “piped”. At 8 a.m. (9 a.m. in winter) the colours are hoisted with impressive ceremonial. A few minutes before the hour signalmen bend the White Ensign to the halyards of the ensign staff, while others go forward in readiness to hoist the Jack Marine bandsmen have already mustered on the quarter-deck and are tuning their instruments. Eight bells are now struck (four double strokes) on the ship’s bell, and at the final stroke the bugles sound “Attention”. Every person on deck now faces aft, the officers stand at the salute, the colours climb slowly up the staff, and the band plays the National Anthem.





IN HEAVY SEAS. A remarkable view of H.M. destroyer Sturdy during manoeuvres is shown on the opposite page. This vessel of 905 tons, with an overall length of 276 feet, is now without armament and is used as a tender to the aircraft carrier Furious. Propelled by geared turbines, she has a designed s.h.p. of 27,000, and a speed of 36 knots.





Just after 9 a.m. the ship’s company musters on deck by divisions for inspection. This is followed by a brief religious service of prayer and hymns. For the next three hours all hands are hard at work above or below deck. The boys and young seamen undergo instruction in the schoolroom. Dinner at noon is preceded by the famous ritual of grog-serving, a rite which has lost much of its impressiveness since a large percentage of the Navy’s personnel went “dry”. More than an hour is allowed for dinner. The menu is varied from day to day, and the food, prepared in hygienic surroundings and cooked in electric or oil-fired galleys, is plentiful and of excellent quality.


At 1.15 p.m. “out pipes” is sounded and the afternoon’s work begins. By teatime - and the Fleetman of to-day is much addicted to his cup of tea - the ship is spotless alow and aloft. The decks are as clean as water, holystone, and elbow grease can make them;

every touch of brightwork sparkles in the sun, and even the guns, lovingly tended by their special servitors, are redeemed from utter grimness by their highly polished muzzles and snow-white canvas “nosebags”.


From 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. (the first and second dog watches) is the bluejacket’s favourite period of the day. True, he has work still to do, but in those hours a general air of tranquillity settles on the ship, and time passes quickly till supper is served at seven o’clock. Two hours later the Commander makes his rounds to see that everything is in order for the night, then visits the Captain to report “All correct, sir”. At ten o’clock comes the order to “pipe down”; hammocks are slung, and hundreds of healthily tired men turn in, some to fall asleep at once, others to enjoy a brief spell of reading in bed.


Ceaseless Vigilance


Although the greater part of the ship’s company is asleep, the ship herself is by no means at rest. All through the night watches are set and relieved, whether at sea or in harbour. Every few hours a small party of men, carrying safety lamps, descends into the powder magazines and shell rooms to examine the thermometers installed there. For when hundreds of tons of powerful explosives are stored in a confined space it is necessary to maintain a constant temperature. Were this allowed to vary there would be danger of decomposition or of other chemical changes which might end in spontaneous ignition and overwhelming disaster.


The routine here described is that of most weekdays. There are, however, welcome variations. On Saturdays only the most necessary work of the ship is done after the midday meal. The afternoon is consecrated to “make and mend”, when, in the original meaning of the phrase, the bluejackets overhaul their wardrobe. Except to the ship’s tailors, however, and the amateur practitioners of needle and sewing-machine, it signifies no more than a general “stand-easy”. Nearly everybody but the licensed “grousers” - of which every King’s ship carries her full complement - is happy and contented. If the day is fine the forecastle will be crowded with recumbent figures having what they call “a spot of shut-eye”, or smoking, yarning, reading or listening to the wireless. Sunday, too, is observed as a day of rest in so far as the exigencies of the service permit.


In small ships, such as destroyers, gunboats and sloops, discipline is less formal than in battleships and cruisers, and ceremonial is not so much in evidence. For this reason the average officer or rating frequently welcomes a transfer from a big ship to a little one, despite the lower standard of comfort which he is likely to find there.


THE FIRST BATTLE SQUADRON performing tactical exercises





THE FIRST BATTLE SQUADRON performing tactical exercises. The Fleet when cruising at sea carries out tactical exercises in obedience to signals from the flagship. The various movements ordered call for skilled navigation and seamanship. While the Fleet is engaged in such exercises the crews of individual ships are going through special drills, and carrying out the duties that a naval action would necessitate.








[From part 13, published 5 May 1936]



You can read more on “Battleships and Cruisers”, “Floating Aerodromes” and “In the Royal Navy” on this website.