Exercise Mariner



John Pettitt


In September 1953, RFA WAVE VICTOR commanded by Captain Frank C. Holt was tasked with replenishing NATO warships during “EXERCISE MARINER,” the largest NATO exercise ever held. It was a massive 19 day air-sea training operation in the North Atlantic near Iceland – in not so clement weather! In fact, storm force (force 9) winds prevailed. Ships involved included Britain’s last battleship HMS VANGUARD and the aircraft carrier HMS EAGLE. The US battleship IOWA was also in attendance. According to the press, the exercise involved nine Atlantic Treaty nations. Nearly 300 ships, over 1,000 aircraft and 500,000 servicemen took part in the exercise which ranged over five million square miles from Iceland to North America.



In howling winds RFA WAVE VICTOR dug its prow into the huge icy North Atlantic swells and bucking like a bronco refuelled a succession of NATO ships. Often, we had a ship abreast on the port side; another on the starboard side and a third being replenished astern.

It was bitterly cold. The stylish standard issue duffel coats relying on toggles for closure were no match for the icy biting wind even with “oilskins” on top. As a nineteen year old senior RFA cadet, I was manning the ‘phone on the poop deck, relaying orders from the bridge. One refuelling session, combined with signalling duties, lasted 26 hours non-stop. Maybe to simulate war conditions, some of us had no breaks – except to dash to the loo. The catering staff brought us sandwiches and coffee or hot chocolate. Strange as it may sound, the sandwiches for every meal tasted gourmet!

All seemed to be going well despite the atrocious weather. The battleship HMS VANGUARD was approaching to refuel from astern. She was trying to place her bow off our port quarter within range so that we could fire a line across it. (In those days a line was fired from a WWII vintage Lee Enfield .303 rifle using a blank. A rod was inserted in the barrel attached to a line, made of nylon if I remember correctly, skilfully flaked in an open box.) During this initial attempt to establish physical contact with the battleship, RFA WAVE VICTOR buried her bow into a rogue wave possibly slowing her down and causing her stern to swing to port. The VANGUARD’S bow seemed to veer to starboard and lifted menacingly as if about to “crush its prey.” Whatever were the reasons, to us on the poop deck it looked like a “This is it!” moment. Anticipating impact, survival instincts kicked in. I and the crew on duty beat a hasty retreat. Remember Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics, “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail”?

But we were lucky; there was no crunching sound or sparks flying from steel on steel. Some 15 to 20 feet of frigid air had separated us from a deadly “kiss” by the mighty 51,000 ton battleship. Phew! It was a close call.


Near collision2


To see a video of the close encounter, click HERE look for a short clip near the end of the SECOND video showing the near collision photo above with vertical motion.

Soon after HMS VANGUARD had settled down, maintaining her station a safe distance astern and was guzzling up our “liquid gold,” the HMS EAGLE joined us on the port side for both fuel oil and avgas for its Attackers, Fireflies and other aircraft. Then the destroyer HMS DECOY arrived on the starboard side for her share of the “goodies.” From then on, it was plain sailing – so to speak!