Views from the Bridge – 5

B.O.S.T. Portland

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


By 7a.m. the ships company have been fed and watered. Dressed in full “wartime” regalia, toting “ditty bags” and strung around with all the “survival” gear we are “ready”. Even with names/ranks printed on the boiler suits the crew are as identifiable as a team of Daleks. Except for our Captain, who is “of short stature” and has an Olympic size belly. Nice to recognize the one who makes the decisions.

This is (as usual) to be a “co-ordinated” departure. That is all the ships have to leave the harbour entrance in a pre-determined sequence, at a pre-determined time and be 1000 yards apart, and be in line astern. This is a doddle for the war canoes, but can be bloody difficult for a 30,000 ton replenishment ship that is on a buoy and invariably pointing the wrong way. OK, we are on a “slip-rope” and the buoy jumpers and their boat are safely back on board. But we still have to turn around and slot into our allocated place in the procession. And assuming we manage that, there is a hard right turn immediately on clearing the entrance piers. Again, a doddle for frigates and destroyers but a tad awkward for a 660 foot long ship. By the time our stern can swing clear of the stonework we are hopelessly out of line. But until hinges are fitted to the hull we have no option.

As soon as this armada is clear of the main channel entrance buoy the game begins. Naturally, there are 2 sides. “Us and Them”. Blue and Red in those days, but now are probably deemed to be Pink and Eau-de-Nil or something. Our “opposing” forces include one or more submarines, FPBs and aircraft. There may be other surface units also tossed into the mix. But the aircraft are worthy of a mention as they are probably the main “threat”. Designated “Falcons”, they are in fact ex RAF Hawker Hunters (now owned by a private company) and flown by “geriatric” ex RAF pilots (probably about 40 years old of so). And these guys really know what they are doing.





Hawker Hunter




Some of them even flew with the Red Arrows…probably when they used the Hunters. By now all the ships are at “Action Stations”. Guns and decoy rockets manned…guns not loaded, but the decoys may be. Naturally enough the first attack is from the air. For a “first timer” on deck seeing a Hunter screeching in very low at over 400 knots with vortices swirling off its wing tips it is a bit of an exciting heart stopper. And this goes on (and off) for a few hours. Of course we get hit. People get injured; killed or worse (they might miss their “action snacks”). You will realise by now that the Corps of Sadists have a team on each ship intent on making life as awkward as is inhumanly possible. (On good authority, I hear that on leaving the RN many of them get jobs with local councils and are in charge of wheelie bins and car parking).

All the evolutions and exercises done during the previous weeks in more or less isolation now come all at once. Fires, Damage Control (shoring up bulkheads and stuff), medical teams treating the wonderfully and realistically (and overacting) casualties. Lose electrical power, steering gear breakdown. Bridge team decimated (Captains love this as they can toddle off for a brandy or something). All this chucks the ships organisation out of the window. Although nowadays the job of NBCDO is the province of the Chief Engineer (now Captain (E)), in those days it was the 1/Off(X) who was the NBCDO. Me. It was always impossible to not get carried away with the tension and “realism” of all this. Totally and utterly knackering for everyone on board (except Capt. Pugwash).




RFA Black Rover

under attack in a Thursday War


All the courses and shore training do not prepare you for your first exposure to a Portland War. Anti-submarine zig-zags (timed to the second to avoid collisions), anti-torpedo evasive manoeuvres, blah, blah, blah. And then it is all over, and we have to revert to normal behaviour before entering harbour for “wash-ups”.


These de-briefings are done in front of the entire ships company (except those who really have to be someplace else). No-one, of whatever rank is excused having their shortcomings (or, indeed, good points) made public. Can be quite humiliating. But with a few reservations we come out of it all with a “Sat” (satisfactory), which is OK. I have only ever been on one ship that got a “Good”, and that was really because the ships company had been together for a few months rather than a couple of weeks.

I’m sure I have inadvertently left a lot out here, but I hope you got “the feel” of it.