Views from the Bridge – 1

B.O.S.T. Portland

(This story was originally written for a non RFA/RN audience)

After the “shake-down” it is fairly usual to nip into Devonport or Portsmouth for a few days to do whatever needs doing.

On arrival at Portland, more often than not, an RFA is stuck on a buoy. Most RN ships are given an alongside berth. Well, I suppose it is “their” harbour! I think I mentioned some time ago that the RN define the seasons strictly by date and totally ignore what the weather is actually doing. A good example of this pottiness is the mooring to a buoy. If you are going to a buoy before the 20th of May then you have to have 2 anchor cables attached to the buoy…even if the weather is sub-tropical.


This is a real work out for the deck crew. But if you moor after the 20th of May then one cable will suffice, even though the weather may be Arctic and blowing a hooghly. “Rules is rules”. The same applies to which uniform you wear. But one quickly gets to realise that a certain amount of pig-headed sadisticness pervades the minds of (some of) the FOST teams…especially those who delight in the public humiliation of senior officers. They say it is all “character building”..but then, they would say that, wouldn’t they.

Many RN personnel only ever do one “work-up” during their entire time in the RN. Could be because a lot of them are not “in” for a full career. The RFA crews are much more “permanent”, and so yet another work-up is just another 3 weeks of hassle. Mind you, I agree with all this “in principle”….it is just that one can get too much of it. Another damn silly arrangement is the RFAs penchant for relieving those who have done the refit and work-up with new joiners. So many of the new crew will not be “up to speed”. Even the FOST teams used to think this a bit of madness.

The 1st week is the “harbour week”, and the FOST staff really do inspect the ship extremely thoroughly…not just for physical cleanliness, but procedures, accounting and so on. This is good as it often shows up areas that have been allowed to slide a little. A bit like taking a driving test after 20 “safe” years on the road. It can be a pretty tense time even for those who are on their 6th or even 10th work-up and who know “the system”. We will also have at least 2 “harbour fires”, when a proportion of the crew are ashore (or told not to partake). This requires a totally different organisation to the more usual “at sea” scenario. It could also involve shore based authorities. But more on that later when I discuss ammo ships.

One of the reasons that the RFA ships have much smaller crews than the RN is because (particularly) the RFA officers do a lot more multi-tasking than their RN counter parts. A simple example here would be the general spread of nautical knowledge imparted to MN officers during their training to pass their “tickets”. RN people are much more specialised. So to my mind a MN officer getting further RN training gains a heck of a lot. The RFA traditionally had a very high officer to rating ratio. This has changed drastically. The ratings and POs now have a much more structured career path, and the officer complement has been able to be reduced. Long overdue.

And from what I hear on the grapevine a lot of decent RN ratings subsequently join the RFA when their time in the Andrew is up.
But I am talking about the 1970s and 80s here. RFA training for officers was always carried out in Service establishments for obvious reasons, but this has been extended through all ranks. Good. Even though all RFA personnel remain firmly “civilian”.

During our leave periods it was more or less expected that we officers would be called away from the lee of bum island to do one or more courses. Mainly on the South Coast. Lots of 1st class train travel! (Even by air now and again). 2 weeks at HMS Phoenix for yet more (filthy and cold and wet and hot) fire fighting training. Back to the same place for the nuclear, chemical and biological aspects of war. Aldermaston for more of the same…except this time we had to dress up and behave like soldiers! Yeucch. On to RFA HQ (London) for a week doing “Alcohol and Drug Abuse Training”. Never did really work out what the course name meant…but as the drug councillor (sorry, lecturer) was in re-hab or something the alcohol bit was mainly conducted in a pub. As a 2/O , 2 or 3 weeks training as a radar helicopter controller…RN style, with perhaps 4 aircraft in the circuit simultaneously. A couple of weeks at HMS Cambridge learning how to fire, maintain and control “defensive” weapons. (Good training for when the Falklands thing came up). Off to the SBS base at Poole to learn about “security”. Somewhere else to learn more about things that go “bang”, and how to deal with undesired “leakages” from same. A rather stupid Radar Nav Course at somewhere in Hampshire that wasn’t half as good as the standard MN stuff at any MN training college. A dangerous cargo course at Warsash (waste of time, but the local restaurants are good). Naturally, all these courses were spread over more than one leave period. Leave periods were extended to cover the time spent away. I was even sent to the civil service college at Sunningdale to learn about PR. A waste of time for me as I am not by nature a “spin doctor”. To the chagrin of those who sent me! Thankfully a lot of these courses are now attended by POs and Ratings. I guess you could say that “we” got a pretty good post-graduate education in subjects well away from the general mainstream sort of stuff. By far my favourite venue was the old Staff College at Greenwich. Steeped in history. To walk through the tunnel connecting the 2 wings and emerge into the Painted Hall for dinner was like being royalty.

But the real world would beckon. Portland, and back to the realities.