Truth is Stranger than Fiction


Truth is Stranger than Fiction



James Smith

1st Officer (X) Retd


Anyone reading through the June 1939 edition of BR 875 – the RFA “Bible” – in conjunction with amendments made in 1950, will come across a detailed section headed Special Instructions for His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Maine which makes  very interesting reading, particularly to anyone who has commanded a ship.


C 1941

The Hospital Ship RFA Maine (3) 


There has always been a certain amount of rivalry – and on occasions even outright conflict – between Royal Navy and Merchant Navy personnel, with the former apparently thinking themselves far superior to the latter and in cases where the 2 disciplines are thrown together on the same ship this could perhaps lead to some confusion as to who is actually “in charge”. In an effort to remedy this, these Special Instructions referred to were issued, some of which could have resulted in a measure of  antipathy. The following extracts from BR 875 are a case in point:

“The Master is responsible under the Merchant Shipping Acts for he navigation and working of the ship and control of the Crew with the exception of the Permanent Naval Staff (embarked) and all sick persons on board who are under the control of the Medical-Officer-in-Charge” but no indication is given as regards the rank of the Medical Officer who in theory could have been far junior in rank than the ship’s Master, many of whom were long-serving RNR Officers.

“The Master is responsible for the ship’s movements and all sailing orders will be sent to him, with a copy going to the Medical-Officer-in-Charge at the same time but the Master is to conform to the Medical-Officer-in-Charge’s requirements as far as the safe navigation of the ship permits. Signals affecting the ship’s movements are not to be replied to without the Medical-Officer-in-Charge first being consulted. When the Master (the term Commanding Officer is not to be used) and the Medical-Officer-in-Charge are in uniform and going aboard an H.M. ship, the Medical-Officer-in-Charge is to be regarded as the Senior and he is to take precedence”

Some of the above instructions must have been very irritating to the ship’s Master as he could rightly be assumed to be somewhat confused at times as to who was the cart and who was the horse. Why a medic with no knowledge of running a ship needed to be given his own copy of the sailing orders and despite their contents still had the authority to order the Master to deviate from them seems very strange as is the fact that he needed to be consulted before signals affecting the ship’s movements could be replied to.

A classic example of how friction between a Naval Captain and the Ship’s Captain largely resulted in disaster is the case of the large White Star liner OCEANIC which, while serving as an Armed Merchant Cruiser, ran onto an underwater reef off Foula in the Shetland Islands on the 8th September 1914, and despite all efforts to save her, she was smashed to pieces in a North Westerly gale.





The Naval Captain countermanded an order given by the ship’s Captain, but the resulting Courts Marshall of the 2 Captains cleared them both in what was seen to be a cover up by the Admiralty to avoid the embarrassment of washing their dirty linen in public