Memoirs of G. R. Stuart – Radio Officer on RFA Prosperous 1948




RFA Prosperous 1948





GRS Portsmouth with hook


Portsmouth 1948 showing towing hook




During my time onboard RFA Prosperous back in 1948 she was under the control of the Boom Defence Officer, Gosport.



God bless him, he got us out of a nasty scrape when, off St Catherine’s Point I.O.W., the fuel oil burners stopped working, i.e. the fire went out, the combustion chamber was flooded with fuel oil and all attempts to relight the burners failed.  We were drifting and not under control.


The ship’s main engine was a triple expansion steam engine powered by an oil fired boiler.


The captain, who was an ex employee of the United Towing Company Hull, and who had been through WWII, bombed, torpedoed and suffered all sorts of experiences and indignities, asked me, 18 years old and as green as a cucumber, what we should do because the engine had failed and we were drifting helplessly towards St Catherine’s Point.


“Should we send a distress message?” he asked.


“Are we in distress?” I replied.


NOT YET” he said.


“Who owns the ship?” I asked


“The Boom Defence Officer Gosport” he said.


Not quite accurate but near enough, and I suggested that he send a message asking for help, whereupon he required me to send a radio telegram to B.D.O. Gosport.

The captain instructed me to send the telegram on R/T (via Niton Radio/GNI) because he believed that the press monitored morse transmissions and he did not want our predicament to be reported to the public.   I don’t know what gave him that idea, but he must have had his reasons.

The telegram brought timely assistance in the form of RFA Earner, which towed us back safely to Portsmouth.This was early in January 1948, and I had a few days unofficial leave while the bunkers, filters and combustion chambers were cleaned and refurbished.


Later in 1948 RFA Earner, our sister ship and rescuer while off St Catherine’s Point, jointly with Prosperous, towed HMS Ajax to the Clyde for lay-up. HMS Ajax was scrapped in 1949 in Newport.



RFA Earner from RFA Prosperous towing HMS Ajax


RFA Earner from RFA Prosperous towing HMS Ajax


HMS Ajax on tow

HMS Ajax under tow



These were not “comfortable” ships – before we sailed from Portsmouth, on my first trip as the one and only R/O, the captain told me to make sure that anything moveable was lashed down or secured because “She jumps about a bit.” ……So she did.


If my memory serves me right we made about 14 knots without a tow, 4 to 5 knots towing a destroyer on our own and about the same towing a cruiser as a pair. For a big tow there were 100 fathoms of coir (weighing four and a half tons,) for elasticity I suppose, on the spring loaded hook coupled to 100 fathoms of steel wire rope attached to the tow, the whole 1200 feet being designed to cope with the average North Atlantic swell in bad weather.


With smaller tows the steel rope only was used – we lost an MTB which we were towing to Torquay for the Sea Scouts when the wire broke and we watched until the MTB ended up on Start Point, and then we went back to Portsmouth – Worse things happen at sea.


On another occasion the coir broke when we were towing the destroyer HMS Jervis – the crew managed to retrieve the broken end of the coir and took a few turns round the capstan in the stern, and we towed her into Devonport


This resulted in the capstan shaft being bent and a few more days of unofficial leave for me while it was being repaired. (Fourteen hours of bum numbing train ride from Plymouth to Manchester – I should have stayed in Devonport, down in Devon in the breeze, where tiddy oggies grow on trees, especially Ivor Dewdnie’s near the dockyard gate in Devonport.)


We towed all sorts of things from MTBs, landing craft, spud pontoons, destroyers, cruisers, (including HMS Scylla and HMS Ajax,) to a German heavy lifting vessel “Ausdauer” being taken, I believe, as War Reparations from Hamburg to the UK.


RFA Prosperous alongside ausdauer


The Ausdauer was later used to raise a sunken submarine in the Thames estuary, but I forget the details.


I have these occasional bouts of nostalgia (usually, I must say, assisted by a tinnie or two of Carlsberg Special Brew) but as I never kept a diary of any sort and at this distance in time events and the sequence of events are somewhat vague. The “highlights” tend to predominate.


For example there was an occasion when we were sailing South in the Irish Sea headed for Portsmouth towing a large bit of hardware (I forget exactly what) and making about 4 knots when we encountered thick fog.


The original plan was to sail between the Scilly Islands and Lands End, but not having radar the Captain decided to go outside the Scillies – our only means of navigation was by medium wave Direction Finder taking bearings in groups of three from synchronised radio beacons on both sides of the Channel.


Although we were making something like 4 knots through the water, due to currents and tides there were times when we were actually standing still, or perhaps even going backwards.



This went on for about 72 hours taking sets of bearings about every 20 minutes. As we approached Spit Fort (which had a radio beacon) and the signals became very loud I had to ask the navigators to steer off a couple of degrees to avoid hitting it, and suddenly the fog lifted and there was Spit Fort.  The DF receiver (Marconi type 579 in conjunction with a Marconi-Bellini-Tosi DF aerial) however was well screened in a metal enclosure, and a great piece of kit, but it was susceptible to interference from the galley fan, so before taking a set of bearings I had to go down below and turn off the galley fan.


Marconi Direction Finder 579


I was told, although I did not experience it, that the ship had once, in the teeth of a South-westerly gale, spent three days passing Start Point.


(That’s another thing – there was, and possibly still is, a BBC medium wave transmitter at Start Point. My communications receiver then was an obsolete Marconi 371 “communications” receiver with plug in coils for wave changing, housed in a wooden box – a four valve battery operated receiver, and anywhere in the vicinity of Start Point any other signal was drowned out by the BBC Home Service, or Light Programme, or whatever it was.



Marconi 371



RFA Prosperous was well equipped with radio gear, although most of it was somewhat dated.

In addition to the main receiver there was a 0.5 kilowatt  medium wave cw/icw transmitter, a short wave transmitter and a medium wave radiotelephone transmitter, plus an  emergency spark transmitter.

The transmitters were powered by one of two heavy duty 24 volt lead acid batteries via a Mackie motor alternator with a hand operated starter switch.

The receivers were powered by one of two 120 volt lead acid batteries.

There was also a Collins transmitter/receiver which I never had occasion to use.

I assume that there was an echo sounder, but I cannot remember.

No radar, no vhf.

As regards the accommodation only the Captain, the Mate and the R/O had cabins above the main deck. The R/O’s cabin was originally designed to accommodate three men for H24 watches, so that was a plus for a solo R/O.

During my 6 months aboard Prosperous we were based in Portsmouth, but we towed all sorts of vessels and visited Sheerness, Hull, Cuxhaven, Hamburg, Rosyth, Greenock, Pembroke Dock, the river Fal, Devonport, Harwich, and set out for, but for some reason or other, did not overtake several other places.





When I joined the RFA Prosperous I became aware that several members of the crew were apprehensive in that I was young and inexperienced, and that occasions could arise when their lives might depend upon my efforts.


Bear in mind that a fleet tug was usually hampered by a towed vessel and only made about 4 to 6 knots through the water and was subject to wind, tide and currents and it was not possible to navigate accurately by dead reckoning.   In poor visibility celestial navigation was not possible.


We had no radar and no vhf, and of course in 1948 no GPS, so that under some conditions the R/O (me) was the only person who could help to determine the ship’s position and if necessary summon help.


I did not know what their previous experience had been, but I gathered that they had been in some hairy situations.


I also knew that at some time, as well as theirs, my life might be in my hands, but with the arrogance of youth I envisaged no problems.


As it turned out I think I managed well enough. As of today, Sunday 19th July 2009, I am still here.