RFA Remembrances

The Apprentice – September 1961 – September 1963


I joined the RFA as an Engineer Cadet in September 1961 and spent two years at Kingston upon Thames College of Further Education with 12 other cadets (2 RFA, 4 Shaw Saville, 2 BP, 4 Esso) studying for an OND in Marine Engineering – quite strange really as most of the other college classes were studying aeronautical things with Hawker Aviation being a major employer in the town.

Kingston College


When the college shut for the summer holidays in June 1963 we were sent by our various shipping companies to experience heavy industry and ship building etc. – I was sent to Portsmouth Dockyard for 3 months, my colleague went to Devonport.


I was assigned to “Fitters Afloat – West” signing in by 0700 in No 4 Boathouse and went on to work day (and night) on all sorts of ships and boats assisting in solving problems on prop-shaft alignment (HMS Rampart), problems with the paddles on the diesel electric paddle tug (HMT Grinder), deck steam pipes and winches on PAS “Freshford”, Main throttle valves on HMS Victorious, sea and engine trials on the tribal class frigate (HMS Eskimo), engine trials on HMT Brigand, re-rigging miles of lifting cables on a 200 ton floating crane 100 feet up in the air and much more including replacing some of the stern cabin timbers of the great cabin of HMS Victory in No 1 dock.


Wave Knight – 1st October 1963 – 1st February 1964

At the end of September I was assigned to my first ship, the war time built steam tanker “Wave Knight” (A249), and duly travelled by train to Rosyth Dockyard arriving about 1600 with another Engineer and two Deck cadets only to find that the ship had sailed early and would be docking in Invergordon at about 1400 the next day. We stayed overnight in a local hotel and travelled the 200 miles to Invergordon the next day by car and van.

RFA Wave Knight

We duly reported onboard and then had the problem of how to “sign on”. Invergordon was not a normal signing on point and to comply with the Merchant Navy regulations we had to be signed on by a “shipping master” who was out and about his other jobs as coast guard, inspector of lobster pots, postman etc. He was eventually found (long before mobile phones) and all four of us formally “signed on”. The ship was made ready for sea and sailed about 1700.


The ship headed due east out of the Cromarty Firth and we cadets expected it to turn south for warmer climes and warmer women. But no, a north turn occurred and we headed for the coast of Norway for a NATO exercise. The ships involved included 4 aircraft carriers (Eagle, Hermes, Bonaventure (Canadian) and Karl Doorman (Dutch) both ex British. Each had their own escorts of 3 to 6 destroyers as well as cruisers etc, etc. The RFA tanker force was represented by Tidespring, Tidepool, Wave Prince and Wave Knight.


I note in my letters home that we RASed 109 times in just over 3 weeks in all sorts of times, weather and black outs. The ship had been de-manned to second line “freighting status” with only a Chief, second, third, fourth and three junior engineers and 2 Eng Cadets, there would have normally been another third and fourth engineer and 3 cadets and extra deck officers to facilitate RASing but she was due to go to the Falkland Islands in the spring of 1964 on her last freighting run. In the engine room it was normal when RASing to have the senior of the watch double up for 2 hours before his watch and the junior of the watch to do 2 extra hours after his watch and the cadets run the turbo pumps in the pump rooms at all hours of the day or night supervised by the Second engineer.


The 4 RFAs formed a convoy protected by 9 escorts and the submarine Dreadnought attempted to sink us – I don’t know who won.


When I joined Wave Knight I was given a daffodil bulb, a flower pot and some peat and was told to grow the bulb the best way I could and it would be judged on Christmas Day. The Mates on the bridge had gimbals made and with mirrors ensured that any sun there was directed onto the bulbs whilst the engineers discovered that the foam making chemical for the fire fighting system contained hydrolyzed oxes blood which was a very good organic fertiliser and sprayed that onto their growing bulbs which were being nurtured in the dark warm recesses of the engine room. The Second Mate (almost a doctor) grew his with an ultra violet lamp in the hospital and it was as big as a triffid. Unfortunately someone got into the hospital on Christmas Eve and swapped the ultra violet lamp for an infra red lamp and by morning he had the biggest lolly stick in the world.


The prize for all these growers was a large two gallon glass sweetie jar filled with prunes and topped up with a gallon of rum from a broken rum jar (what a shame) that we carried for issue in cases of arduous service. It really did not matter who won as the taking part was most important.


By the end of October we were in Portland topping up oil and stores and preparing for another exercise “Silver Tower” to the west of Ireland initially with sea so smooth it could have been a film set.


We finished the year up around Iceland and Norway supporting ships looking after the fishing fleet before the formal cod wars started. About the middle of December we suffered ice damage when we shipped a large chunk of ice over the bow which bent the warping drums on the windlass and smashed the tank heating coil steam supply pipes forward of the bridge making a total of the 9 forward tanks of FFO un-pumpable due to the low temperature. The rivet heads on the bunker tanks were also damaged by the ice or the ships movements and we started talking in seawater to the bunkers so that when the fuel settling tanks were pumped up with 50 tons of fuel oil about 5 tons of water had to be drained out each time. We had to rush into dry dock to have repairs undertaken. To ease our entry into dry dock we were virtually pumped dry and only had a little oil and water ballast left on board which made us roll a lot as we came down the North Sea.


No Navy dry docks were available so we had to dock rapidly in Southampton on New Years Eve. I can still remember a small rowing boat going round the ship with a man knocking wooden bungs into missing rivet holes as the water went down in the dry dock and the oil started to come out. The fore peak was also filled with concrete as it was found not to be water tight.


We sailed on the 4th of January in thick fog for Plymouth and moved up to Yonderberry the next day to take on fuel and then back into the sound. We sailed from Plymouth on the 12th January into dreadful weather in the SW approaches.  The Salonometer warning alarm kept going off in the engine room indicating the ingress of salt into the boiler feed water system. We initially suspected leaking rivets again but the feed tanks were clear when tested. All the engineers were “turned to” find how salt water was getting into boiler feed system. After many hours of grovelling in the bilges a big roll at the right time showed a crack in the “Y” shaped gunmetal extraction pipe under the main condenser in about 18 inches of working space. The vacuum in the condenser was sucking in sea water from the bilges through the crack when the ship rolled heavily. The sea temperature was about 34 degrees F (2 degrees C) and it was wonderful working in the bilges of a heavily rolling ship. We cleaned the “Y” piece and repaired it using an epoxy resin bandage called “Thistlebond”. The Thistlebond Company must have made a fortune out of the old ship (and all the other Waves and Tides) as every service and pipe had repairs made this way as we were not allowed any welding equipment.


The electrical system was two small single cylinder steam dynamos working at only 110 volts dc and the Third Engineer was expected to look after this system in his spare time as there was no electrician. The cables were mainly paper insulated, lead covered and had work hardened or corroded due to the salt water and a constant job was to wrap exposed breaks of insulation in self amalgamating rubber insulating tape to stop short circuits.


The bad weather continued and I noted in my diary that on the 16th January the weather was so bad we were unable to RAS at all although some of the escorts were short on fuel. The weather was so bad the film projector fell over and broke the top spool arm which was duly mended with Thistlebond. We had about 2 or 3 films per week and begging, borrowing, stealing and exchanging films amongst the ships in company was almost a full time job.


We used to endeavour to be south of Iceland about midnight on Saturday to steam southwards to melt the ice on the ships masts and structures that had accumulated during the week. The benefits of this manoeuvre was that the ship was within range of Scottish TV to watch Pinky and Perky on the TV late on Sunday afternoon.


At the end of January I was informed that I was to join RFA Hebe in early February. Because Wave Knight was going tropical (with no air conditioning) to Trinidad, Falklands, Simonstown, up the Red Sea, Suez and then to pay off and lay up in Malta, one of my last jobs was to locate, repair and place in each cabin an electric table fan but I could only issue these after I had changed the existing 100watt lamp bulb in each cabin for a 60watt lamp to give enough power to run the fans as the old 110v dc system was at the end of its life.


HEBE – 2nd March 1964 – 10th September 1964

I left Wave Knight at the end of January and was informed to join the Hebe at the Milford Haven Mine depot (an unusual location for Hebe) on the 20th of February. I travelled by the first train from Paddington to get me to Milford Haven about 1400 and found that Hebe had sailed for Gibraltar and I had missed her but she would be back in Devonport on 2nd of March. I eventually joined Hebe on the 2nd of March and found that the reason for her strange antics was that she had been fitted with bridge control of the main engine and the trip to Gibraltar was to undertake adjustments and Deck Officer training.

RFA Hebe

The normal run for Hebe was Devonport, Chatham, Gibraltar, Malta, Aden and Singapore and return taking about 3 months and start again delivering new stores and spares on the way out and returning reparable items on the way back, the usual deck cargo being vehicles and chacons (early type of Chatham designed wooden container and pre loaded by shore staff).  We also could carry frozen food out bound and spoiled or contaminated food being returned to the UK for analysis which was kept in a special deep freeze in the wings of No 4 hold.


I was introduced to a special problem inherent on most modern ships that transit the canal, namely the Suez Canal Projector. The projector was a special search light designed to have two diverging beams of equal size and intensity. The idea being that at sometime in the transit of the canal it would be dark. The light would be switched on and the ship steered to keep the two beams the same distance down each bank and the ship would therefore be in the middle of the canal. The problems of lamp failure was easy to control, station a cadet in a deckchair in the fo’casle near the lamp to lever into position a second bulb if the first failed. Fine as far as it went, but the lamp attracted every known (and some unknown) 2 and 4 engined flying beetles in Egypt to visit the deck chair reclining cadet.


Hebe (and Baucus) were best described as “Lively and Spirited Vessels” in a sea way and they were never loaded down to their “Marks” as the cargo was volume rich and not heavy. This could test ones resolve to the limit as they pitched and rolled.


As Chris Puxley relates in his description of hitting the monsoon storm soon after leaving Aden on Sunday 12th April 1964, and I can add a few more technical bits. Whilst the deck cargo of Bedford buses and dust cart lorries were waltzing around the deck with the Chacons as partners the plump Maltese carpenter was only prevented from being washed overboard by being trapped between the deck and the differential gearbox under a dust cart. The engine room was also suffering. Due to the twisting and rolling in the short choppy seas the main exhaust expansion bellows (three feet diameter and six feet long) fractured and collapsed allowing exhaust gases into the engine room. The ship was stopped and a sea anchor streamed to keep her headed into wind whilst repairs were carried out which took 14 hours.


The repairs consisted of constructing and fitting a new section of square exhaust trunking over the outside of the existing round bellows made from the checker floor plates of the engine room held together by long studs found in the stores and with the edges, top and bottom packed with asbestos rope and fire cement.  All this was undertaken at high level in the engine room with the use of sky hooks and sheer bloody mindedness whilst swinging about like a pendulum.  We were able to work the speed back up to about 12 to 13 knots (instead of 15 knots+) without gassing everyone in the engine room.


It took till the next day to get past the storm and inspect the damage. As Chris said, most of the deck cargo was written off, No 1 hold had drummed lubricating oil that had wandered round a bit and split the lower drums leaving several feet of spilt lub oil in the hold bottom. No 2 hold had a Buccaneer fighter for HMS Eagle secured on a bed plate surrounded by steel dustbins in the hold wings held in place by steel netting which had split allowing the dustbins to bounce onto the aircraft.


No 3 hold had general cargo and did not suffer too much but No 4 hold held some guns and ammunition for the army and because their rubber tyres made it difficult to securely fasten the guns they had moved and stoved in the doors on the cargo deep freezer and allowed all 50 tons of frozen food to go off. The fo’castle had been flooded and ropes washed out onto the deck when the hatch shielding the Suez Canal Projector search light sprang open slightly.


In the engine room, most things were alright except that we had two 50 gallon drums of special hydraulic oil left over from the bridge control alterations on the engine room floor plates secured to the frames at the ships side. One of these drums came adrift and all the engineers in turn had a waltz with it until it finally fell into the well in front of the stern gland where it lay panting for a couple of weeks.


We reached Singapore on the 21st April and discharged cargo as normal in the stores basin in the navy base and then went to the civilian repair yard at Kepple Harbour in Singapore Town to have repairs undertaken. The stainless steel bellows was beyond quick local repair so a round telescopic expansion piece was manufactured and fitted in a couple of days and Hebe went to the scrap yard with this modification. We sailed from Singapore for Aden on the 1st May, and motored back up to the normal 15.5kts.


Second trip to Singapore was quite normal until we returned to Devonport in September.


On the 9th of September I had been asked to change five non-return air valves in the scavenge space of the Sulzer 5RD 78 main engine. I had changed three and was working on the fourth. The valve plates were located on a large steel plate held in place by 12x 25mm studs and nuts and I was using a 25mm drive socket set with a length of scaffold pole over the end of the handle to give me increased purchase. BANG – the socket broke and the scaffold pole pinioned the palm of my hand against the metal enclosure of the engine and cut through the palm like a pastry cutter. I extracted myself from the innards of the engine and went to see the Second Mate on the bridge who was the nominal doctor. Between us we phoned for an ambulance and I went to Freedom Fields Hospital, still in my filthy boiler suit, boots and cap.


I waited my turn in casualty, dripping a small amount of blood and leaving filthy foot prints as I moved nearer to the enquiry desk who was staffed by a “jobsworth”. Yes, I could be treated, but I had to sign a chit to say I was a visitor to the area. It was of course my right hand that was damaged so I got the next chap in line to sign for me- simple ha!


Having got to the front of the queue I was summoned to a cubicle by a “Rosa Kleb” lookalike who examined my hand and told me I had many broken bones and had severed two tendons. Picking my hand up to have another look, she severed a third tendon by which time I was leaving footprints on the ceiling. She gave me a shot of something take the pain away and cleaned the outside of my hand with what looked very like a large scrubbing brush. Satisfied she had caused the maximum amount of pain she informed me that as I had had tea and tab nabs at 1000 I could not be operated on until about 1400, so would I go for a walk in the gardens till then. This I did, still leaving oily footprints every where.


At about 1345 I was back near the Emergency Dept when the sister saw me and said they were ready to do the operation, would I walk into the operating theatre. This I did, still in the boiler-suit etc, would I lie down on the operating table, everybody in green scrubs except me. Mask over face, count backwards from 10, don’t remember 6 or below.


Sometime after I remember waking slowly and I could not move my right arm. Remembering old stories of people with limbs amputated still being able to feel them it took some time to look at my arm. It was in plaster from the tip of my fingers to elbow and worst of all they had cut the sleeve off my boiler suit.


The sister came in and said the Chief Engineer had been on the phone to inform me that the ship was sailing early for Chatham and could I get a shift on please. So at about 1730 I was driven back to the ship which sailed about 1830.


Hebe only had four engineers and the 3 apprentices acted as the junior of the watch. So, at 2000 I went down on watch with my arm in a polythene bag. I was given a helping hand in the shape of a fireman/greaser to do anything I wanted in the way of opening valves etc. Within a short space of time I began to sweat and this started to fill my bag and the plaster started to itch. Hacksaw blades and welding rods poked down inside the plaster won’t get rid of itches I discovered. When I came up at midnight and showered I found that my steward had packed my bags as I was to leave in the morning. But where do you put your plastered arm in a small coffin like bunk?


My colleagues covered for me the next morning and I fetched up on Chatham station in the bar being seen off and after a few jars got on the train to Victoria in a sleepy way. How I got from Victoria to Waterloo and on to Sunbury on a local train I just don’t know, and I had everything with me. When I got in Mum was a bit tearful – she had had a telegram from MOD informing her that I had a severed hand – not just severed tendons.


Several weeks later I went to the local hospital where the plaster was cut off with tin-snips by an Australian Body builder who swore under his breath. He turned my hand over to show me some 80 stitches which he then went on to remove. I later found out that I had been operated on by a senior Navy surgeon who happened to be visiting Freedom Fields hospital.


Physiotherapy was normal to start with but after a week I was given a pass for the local bowling alley using the child size balls to build up my strength.


Tidespring – 16th November – 25th January 1965


I joined Tidespring in refit in North Shields with all the attendant problems that you get – like where to live, how to travel, how to get money etc. The refit was almost finished when I joined and I think we sailed within the week to Portsmouth to load stores and some fuel and then to Portland for 10 days work up with FOST (flag officer sea training) for the ever popular Thursday war.

RFA Tidespring

We passed enough of the required tests so that we would not come to too much harm, loaded more stores in Devonport and set off for the Far East via the Suez Canal and Aden where we loaded more FFO and into Little Aden for Avcat (Jet aircraft fuel) and set off to play with the big boys.


The Far East Carrier at that time was HMS Eagle and her four escorts and RFA Reliant (the yacht) which was specially fitted out for aircraft spares and always worked with the Far East carrier. We RASed many times during pirate chasing operations up to the Gulf before were detached with a couple of Destroyers to Mombasa for Christmas.


The usual round of parties ensured and a few merry promises were nodded to which became a reality on Boxing Day when several busses turned up at 0430 to take as many people as possible on safari to the Tasavo National Park. Initially we were as green as the grass we drove past but as the day wore on we saw lots of animals and had a great day.


Back to sea and to the Seychelles for New Year. We were made very welcome by the Seychelles Club based on the only large pier suitable for liberty boats etc. The monthly “British India” boat was also in port on its regular run from Mombasa to Bombay as this was long before the days of air travel to the islands with the only sign of modernity being the American radar golf ball atop the highest peak.


The capital Victoria was a strange mixture of old French culture and British colonialism for example in the main square was a scaled down cast iron version of Big Ben which chimed the hours twice in case you missed them the first time. I also remember houses with walls constructed of bottom outwards empty beer bottles cemented in to give light inside and be cheap to build and recycled the bottles – Heineken usually.


We sailed from the Seychelles and headed for Gan. Gan was an RAF station and staging post in the middle of the Indian Ocean and was about the southernmost island or atoll in the Maldive Islands. Wave Victor was a permanent attraction and acted as a floating fuel store for the RAF. It had a Second and Third engineer who looked after all the bits and lived ashore in the Officer’s Mess. The steam reciprocating pumps only were used to pump the Avcat etc. but were driven by diesel air compressors mounted on deck instead of steam from the boilers.


We arrived in Singapore on the 23rd January 1965 and I left on the 25th to fly back to the UK


How good the two “improved” Tides (Tidepool and Tidespring) were I did not appreciate at the time until I joined Tidereach sometime later.



The flight was In a British Eagle Britannia aircraft, seated facing backwards, 8 hours to Bombay, 8 hours to Ankara and 8 hours to Heathrow. A short, leave then on to commence the final element of my apprenticeship at the Stow College of Engineering in Glasgow.


GLASGOW February 1965 – March 1966


The course started in very early February and was a new course located in the old head quarters of the North British Locomotive works in Springburn, NBL having gone bust the year before. Across the road was the huge construction shops still complete.

NBL Works Glasgow

We had large workshops on the ground floor in which were located many types of marine machinery donated by shipping companies which we duly stripped and rebuilt and actually ran and tested if we did not have too many pieces left over after the rebuild. Classrooms were upstairs and there were even girls!!! who worked in the local ship yards as tracers  and order clerks (clerkesses in Scotland). Before photocopying and CAD computers were the norm, a master draughtsman would scheme bits of ship and engine layouts and the tracers would copy these to add details and dimensions etc. onto working drawings for issue to the constructors.


The College was the site chosen for that years International Apprentices Competition and we spent several weeks taking out and storing the old imperial lathes and milling machine and installing brand new metric replacements. One of the tests was to construct a metal football from 5 sided pieces of metal but the sections had to be completely welded as the work progressed (i.e. no tack welding for adjustments etc.) and the final piece had to just be laid on the top to show the accuracy of setting out and construction. The Japanese seemed to win almost every part of the competition.


After the competition we took out the new machines and reinstalled the old.


All too soon we had spent a very enjoyable year in Glasgow with its strange customs and even stranger lager beer called Dryborough Keg which required the bar staff to scrape the froth off the top of a pint with a knife or plastic ruler. We also a enjoyed many a “Horf and Horf” (half and a half – a half pint of heavy (bitter) and a  small whisky to follow.


My apprenticeship ended at the end of March 1966, was promoted to Junior Engineer and set off to join RFA Tidereach which was to be my home (and hell) for the next 13 months.