Category Archives: Royal Navy

King George V in Admiral’s Uniform Commemorative Plate

We have discussed the craze for commemorative china before. In the years between 1880 and 1930 many people collected china with various designs on it in simple transfer prints. Some pieces were made by the big companies, with their logo emblazoned on the bottom and were pitched at the better quality end of the market. Cheaper, unbranded products also existed that were affordable enough for nearly all in society. For the purposes of this blog, the transfer designs we are most interested in are those with a military connection and tonight we have a handsome plate with a transfer print of King George V in naval uniform:imageThis style of plate is known as a ribbon plate as pieces of brightly coloured ribbon could be woven in and out of the cutouts around the plates circumference. These could be used just for decoration or tied into bows to allow the plate to be hung on a wall. Apparently it was also popular to attach them to a heavy curtain, which to me at least implies a high rate of breakages!

The design in the centre of this plate depicts a youthful king George V in his Royal Naval admiral’s uniform, complete with a healthy array of medals and honours on his chest:imageFrom his age here and other examples of the same design we can determine that this plate was produced for his coronation in 1911 and the transfer design was possibly copied or inspired by this portrait of the king:imageThere is no maker’s mark on the rear of the plate, indicating that this was probably produced for the lower end of the souvenir market. Despite that, and the wearing off of the gilding around the edges, this remains a handsome plate and like so much royal memorabilia it was a very cheap piece: I picked it up for £2 in a charity shop. It is now hanging on my living room wall, just as it was designed to be used 108 years ago.


HMS London Postcard

This week’s postcard is a lovely pre-WW1 image of the Battleship HMS London still in her Victorian naval colours rather than battleship grey:SKM_C284e18070313140 - Copy (3)HMS London was a pre-dreadnought of the Formidable class and had been laid down in 1898, being completed in 1902. She displaced 15,000 tons and had a top speed of 18 knots. She was driven by two vertical triple expansion engines fed by water tube boilers. These vented through two central funnels:SKM_C284e18070313140 - Copy (3) - CopyHer armament consisted of two twin 12” gun turrets, one fore and one aft:SKM_C284e18070313140 - Copy (4) - CopyThese were supplemented by twelve 6” guns of secondary armament located in a belt along the side of the shipSKM_C284e18070313140 - Copy (6) - CopyShe was still very Victorian in design and had two slender masts fitted:SKM_C284e18070313140 - Copy (5) - CopyHMS London commissioned at Portsmouth Dockyard on 7 June 1902 for service in the Mediterranean Fleet, She left Portsmouth in early July, stopping at Gibraltar, and arrived at Malta on 14 July. While in the Mediterranean, she underwent refits at Malta in 1902–1903 and 1906.

In March 1907, London transferred to the Nore Division, Home Fleet, at the Nore, then to the Channel Fleet on 2 June 1908, serving as Flagship, Rear Admiral, Channel Fleet. She underwent a refit at Chatham Dockyard in 1908, and paid off there on 19 April 1909 to undergo an extensive refit.

Her refit complete, London commissioned at Chatham on 8 February 1910 to serve as Second Flagship, Rear Admiral, Atlantic Fleet. Under the fleet reorganisation of 1 May 1912, she became part of the Second Home Fleet at the Nore, reduced to a nucleus crew and assigned to the 3rd Battle Squadron. She collided with the merchant steamer SS Don Benite on 11 May 1912. She transferred to the 5th Battle Squadron and was used in experiments with flying off aircraft from May 1912 until 1913, employing a ramp built over her forecastle which had been transferred from the battleship Hibernia.

Upon the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the 5th Battle Squadron was assigned to the Channel Fleet and based at Portland. Their first task was to escort the British Expeditionary Force across the English Channel. A number of experimental paint schemes were tried during the first month of the war but these were quickly abandoned in favour of battleship grey.

It was briefly planned to deploy the squadron to replace the ships lost during the Action of 22 September 1914 but the orders to transfer to the Medway were rescinded.

The squadron transferred to Sheerness on 14 November 1914 to guard against a possible German invasion. While there HMS London was present when HMS Bulwark exploded and London’s crew joined in the attempts to rescue survivors. The enquiry into the explosion was carried out aboard HMS London. The squadron returned to Portland on 30 December 1914.

On 19 March 1915, London was transferred to the Dardanelles for service in the Dardanelles Campaign. She joined the British Dardanelles Squadron at Lemnos on 23 March 1915, and supported the main landings at Gaba Tepe and Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915.

London, along with battleships HMS Implacable, HMS Queen, and HMS Prince of Wales, was transferred to the 2nd Detached Squadron, organised to reinforce the Italian Navy in the Adriatic Sea when Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. She was based at Taranto, Italy, and underwent a refit at Gibraltar in October 1915 during her Adriatic service.

In October 1916, London returned to the United Kingdom, paid off at Devonport Dockyard to provide crews for antisubmarine vessels, and was laid up. While inactive, she underwent a refit in 1916–1917.

In February 1918, London moved to Rosyth and began conversion to a minelayer. The conversion included removal of all four of her 12-inch guns and her antitorpedo nets, replacement of her after main-battery turret with a 6-inch (152-mm) gun, and installation of minelaying equipment on her quarterdeck, including rails for 240 mines, and of a canvas screen to conceal the entire quarterdeck from external view. The conversion was completed in April 1918, and on 18 May 1918 London recommissioned at Rosyth for service in the Grand Fleet’s 1st Minelaying Squadron. Before the war ended on 11 November 1918, London had laid 2,640 mines in the Northern Mine Barrage.

In January 1919, London was reduced to reserve at Devonport as a depot ship. As part of a post-war fleet organisation, she was assigned to the 3rd Fleet there. London was placed on the disposal list at Devonport in January 1920, and on the sale list on 31 March 1920. She was sold for scrapping to Stanlee Shipbreaking Company on 4 June 1920. She was resold to Slough Trading Company, then again resold to a German firm. She was towed to Germany for scrapping in April 1922.

Naval Action Ration Tin

When sailors were at action stations they were expected to remain at their posts for extended periods of time, snatching sleep when they could but ready to man their positions at a moment’s notice. This was known as being ‘closed up’ and could last for several days, especially if entering contested seas such as the Mediterranean where there was a constant threat of enemy attacks. Keeping men fed and watered in this situation was not easy and simple food such as stews or sandwiches was provided along with cold tea, lime juice or oatmeal water to prevent dehydration. It was found though that men tended to lose their appetite when in these situations and what was needed was concentrated nutrition that did not take much eating but provided energy to men for short periods of time. In spring of 1943 a supplementary ration known as a Naval Action ration was introduced, housed in a small 3 ¼”x1 ¾”x5/8” airtight tin:imageThis tin was made of metal and had ‘NAVAL ACTION RATION’ printed on the lid in grey:imageThe lid was hinged at the rear:imageInside the tin contained six Horlick’s tablets, four barley sugar tablets and a pack of chewing gum. These were very tightly packed into the tin as can be seen here:3b22639197553ee2bcd65422c3a69c6216504d7dEach tin was considered sufficient supplement for a single day, with ships carrying supplies for the whole crew for three full days. This was very much designed to sit alongside conventional rations rather than to replace them and helped keep men’s energy levels up. The tins themselves were made by the Metal box company and in tiny letters on the rear of the tin, above the hinge can be seen one of their factory codes 6MB:imageThe rations were carried on battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, landing craft and any ships escorting convoys for long distances. These tins are easily found today, although normally with their contents long gone.

Oiling at Sea Photograph Sequence

One of the most dangerous operations at sea is refuelling one ship from another by means of a flexible fuel pipe. This is a manoeuvre the Royal Navy has been experts in for many decades and during the two world wars smaller ships such as Destroyers were regularly refuelled by capital ships with larger fuel tanks such as battleships. It was however more common to take on fuel from small tankers, with both ships having to maintain station whilst fuel was transferred from one vessel to the other. Tonight we have a series of snapshots taken by a sailor aboard a Royal navy warship as she refuelled form a small tanker at sea. The image quality isn’t brilliant, but it is rare to have such photographs and even from these hurried snaps it is clear how dangerous this activity would have been:SKM_C284e18051511411 - Copy (2)SKM_C284e18051511411 - Copy (3)SKM_C284e18051511411 - Copy (4)SKM_C284e18051511411 - Copy (5)SKM_C284e18051511411 - CopyThe fuel lines can be seen snaking up from the tanker, supported by a derrick and then coming down to the warship where they would be pumping fuel straight into her tanks. The sea looks very calm here, but even a mild swell makes this task far more hazardous and anything with cables under tension at sea can be potentially lethal as if they snap they whip back and can cut a man in half instantly.

Eric R Wilkinson was aboard HMS Euryalus in 1944 and describes how she was oiled at sea:

This is the time to write about oiling at sea. Ship’s companies in cruisers and destroyers were used to a life in which it was always necessary to visit a port to take in oil fuel every few days. The time between refuelling varied with all sorts of factors — the speed we sailed at (as I recall we used at least twice as much oil per mile at full speed as at cruising speed) and how low in fuel it was acceptable to be in the circumstances of the place and time. But every week or so, and often more frequently, we put into a port to refuel. This brought respite from the monotony of watch-keeping at sea, at least for the few hours it took to refuel.

But such frequent visits to port would obviously not be possible in the Pacific, and therefore we learned to refuel at sea. This had been part of our working-up programme at Scapa. An oil tanker steamed at constant speed while the ships being fuelled kept station on her, on each side or behind. Flexible hoses were hoisted from ship to ship, and the fuelling proceeded. It was a fraught period for many in the ship. The shipping of the hoses was difficult at the best of times and almost impossible in poor weather. Occasionally the hoses disconnected and fuel gushed everywhere. Keeping station imposed continual strain on the bridge personnel who had to steer and adjust the ship’s speed very precisely.

It was also stressing for the men in the engine rooms who had to adjust the big wheels which controlled the throttle valves which admitted steam to the engines, as orders were telegraphed from the bridge. The engine designers had not envisaged this sort of close speed control being necessary, and the tachometers fitted to each engine gave only rough readings. Fine adjustments had to be made by repeatedly clocking the rev counters. Finally, the engineer officer in charge of taking in oil fuel had to be released from his watch-keeping duties in the engine room so the other engineer officers had to take over his watches

Wings Over the Navy Sheet Music

Tonight we have another piece of sheet music form the Second World War to look at, this one though has one of the nicest covers I have seen on a piece of music with a wonderful illustration of planes flying over a fleet of battleships:SKM_C284e18053008200‘Wings Over the Navy’ was a song written for an American propaganda movie about naval flyers called ‘Wings of the navy’ this film was released before the US entered the war and the song became instantly very popular in the UK, its words very much reflecting the mood of a nation at war. What is interesting however is that the words themselves were subtly rewritten for a British audience to reflect the Royal Navy rather than the US Navy. Comparing the words in a section of the piece line by line shows the changes made to the lyrics:


If you ever come to town

And Uncle Sammy offers you a job

Pick out the aviation

When you put your moniker down

Wings over the Navy, wings over the sea,

We’re top o’ the service,

The Navy’s cavalry

High over the oceans

Flying wide and free

The soldiers, sailors

And marines are demons

At eating pork and beans.

Or posing in the magazines.

But we’re the Navy’s eyes.


A sailor is a guy they call a tar

A tars a guy who sails the seas afar

But listen all you country boys, if you ever come to town

And if you want some pips up or a star

Pick out the aviation when you put your moniker down

Wings over the Navy

Wings over the Sea

We’re top of the service

The navy’s cavalry

High over the ocean

Flying wide and free

The soldiers, sailors and marines are demons at pinching all the scenes

Or posing in the magazines

But we’re the navy’s eyes

The Admirals fireflies

We’re sky high riding aeronautical guys

SKM_C284e18053008210SKM_C284e18053008211The film the song comes from is today regarded as a middle of the road piece for its era, with some excellent footage of US Naval aviation of the period. Seton Margrave reviewed the film for the Daily Mail in March 1939 when it came out and his comments on the movie were generally favourable:

Now we go up in the air with “Wings of the Navy” at the Warner Theatre.

For the Air Force attached to the American Navy this is a magnificent propaganda and it is also good film drama.

Probably British producers will say again that if such a film were made of the British Fleet Air Arm nobody in the united States would have seen it. Again they will tell us about the apologetic way in which British films creep into the United States and the Anschluss by which American films are shown in Britain.

But the truth is the British film industry has not yet developed a national conscience.

Wings of the Navy is not a big picture, it offers George Brent and Olivia de Havilland perhaps the most harmless parts they have played to date.

The story is the very old one about a nice girl being engaged to one young man and at the same time being in love with his brother. Not that I dislike this story. On the contrary, I have a special grievance against British film producers for not having made it into, what I know, would be the only serious rival in popularity to ‘Smilin’ Through’ by filming Francis Brett Young’s “My Brother Jonathon”.

Wings of the Navy still leaves the way open.

The production is reasonable enough in all respects, but the best of it is the performance put up by the men of the American Naval Air Service.

American naval stations at Pensacola and San Diego have contributed brilliantly to the making of Wings Over the Navy and once again we have a tale of heroism on the part of American airmen without any corresponding film of British airmen in sight.

RNVR Group Photograph

This week’s photograph is a splendid image of a group of Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve seaman, taken at around the time of the Great War:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (4)The men can be identified as RNVR by their cap tallies which read R.N. (Anchor) V.R.:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (5) - CopyThe RNVR was a reserve made up of men who were not sailors in civilian life, the RNR by contrast had its ranks filled by fishermen, tug boat crews etc and were consequently natural seaman who needed different training to the more ‘amateur’ RNVR. The men in this photograph where the white cotton duck working uniform:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (4) - CopyAlthough it looks like a tropical uniform, this particular design was used on the UK as a heavy duty uniform for use during tasks that would damage the traditional dark blue serge uniform. And all seem to have the high laced anklets typical of the RN at this period:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (6) - CopyMore information on these anklets can be found here. It is interesting to note that in the photograph above at least one man clearly has hobnails in his boots. At the time hobnails were not routinely fixed to RN boots unless the sailor was undergoing instruction or based ashore. Hobnails would have been dangerous on board a ship where they would make it very easy to slip on a wet deck. Ashore they were essential to help prevent the boots form wearing out very quickly.

The men are stood in front of a mast, the top of which can be seen above their heads, one rating holding the halyard to steady himself:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (7) - CopyThese men are probably on a training course ashore, either as part of their annual training commitment or if the photograph was taken in wartime then before being deployed to a ship for service.

Recovering a Torpedo Photograph Sequence

This week we have a series of photographs, all from the same page of a photograph album, entitled ‘recovering a torpedo’. Ships needed to practice firing torpedoes to ensure crews knew what to do in a real life situation. The problem was that torpedoes were very expensive, containing motors, gyroscopes and other instruments to ensure they steered a true course to their targets. To practice torpedoes were fitted with dummy warheads, weighted to give the correct weight, but devoid of explosives. These practice torpedoes were often painted bright colours to make them more visible and once they had been fired and completed their run, every effort was made to recover the torpedo so it could be repaired and reused. These photos show the crew of a destroyer recovering a practice torpedo, with a small whaler used to recover the weapon and then a davit used to bring it back on board ship. The photographs are not dated, but I suspect the images were taken in the 1950s.SKM_C284e18051511410 - Copy (2)SKM_C284e18051511410 - Copy (3)SKM_C284e18051511410 - Copy (4)SKM_C284e18051511410 - Copy (5)SKM_C284e18051511410 - Copy (6)SKM_C284e18051511410 - Copy (7)SKM_C284e18051511410 - Copy (8)SKM_C284e18051511410 - CopySKM_C284e18051511410It was not always possible to recover every torpedo fired and often fishermen dragged them up with their nets. In these cases salvage money was paid. Others have remained undiscovered until the present day and when they are found the question then has to be asked as to whether they are live or not. In 2011 Royal Navy divers were called to a torpedo found near Beachy Head:

Southern Diving Unit 2 (SDU2) responded to an urgent call by Dover Coastguard after the five-metre-long section of a torpedo was seen by the crew of the Royal Sovereign fishing boat at around 1430hrs on 8 February 2011.

Photographs sent by the sailors to SDU2 in Portsmouth confirmed that the section did not contain any explosives and was in fact the pressure vessel and engine part with the warhead and propeller completely rotted away.

Once the Portsmouth-based squad arrived at 1800hrs, the divers made a further inspection of the torpedo, which had been tied to a buoy by the Royal Sovereign fishermen, and at 0600hrs the following morning they towed it to the beach.

Officer-in-Charge of SDU2, Lieutenant Commander Alan Nekrews, said:

The important thing is that there was no warhead attached so it didn’t have any explosive elements – we could see this from the images we were sent and then we certified the fact that it was safe when we made an inspection.

It was then handed over to the Coastguard who decided they wanted to keep it.

Although SDU2 would normally dispose of the section, the torpedo is now on display at Sovereign Harbour Marina.