Views from the Bridge – 6

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


My life at sea – the RFA. At first equally traumatic as I hadn’t a clue how the RN/RFA worked. Big learning curve, and not always nice. So some of my recollections may sound a little humourless, but that is the way it was. Humour came later when I had a vague idea as to what I was doing.

After leaving C&W cable ships I was at a bit of a loose-end. Being recently married and with raging hormones the sea-faring life lost a lot of its attraction. As it has done to many a poor soul. I will gloss over the jobs I had as I still cringe a little. Managed to pay the mortgage and so on, but my life and training (?) was as a seafarer. Increasingly unhappy with shore life after a year of pettiness and the “money, money, money” attitude of the people I had to work with eventually eroded my soul. Had to go back to sea. All kinds of options were open to me, but I also had an awareness that the British Merchant Navy was in decline (1967). I had many interviews and many high paying job offers, but there was always a mental “niggle” of doubt about the long term future. When I was a pre-sea cadet the RFA was not an option.


The ships of the RFA we could see at Smiths Docks etc. on the Tyne always looked old, somewhat seedy and (shall I say) a little “down-market”. A bit like “Hungry Hogarths” or some such. Little snobs as we were then. But P&O wouldn’t entertain kids from South Shields. They wanted Pangbourne, Conway and so on. So us clever little grammar school sods had to slum it in little known outfits such as “Blue Funnel”, “BI”, Ben Line”, “Elder Dempster”, “Royal Mail” and all of the other “second rate” concerns. Many companies in those days were aggressively advertising for cadets. The biggest one was “Shell Tankers”. Promised the earth. Very few of my pre-sea classmates returned to take their 2nd mates “ticket”. No-one had told them that their lives would be lived in a smelly environment, and the only “ports” they would encounter would be seen at a distance from the end of a long jetty in some of the most awful places on earth. I wanted more out of life than that.


When I was in “CS Mercury” I had noticed a lot of activity in the Portland area. Helicopters buzzing, fast jets screeching, ships in close proximity and so on. Naturally most of the vessels were RN, but I noted that more than a few were RFAs.






Cable Ship Mercury


These things were a lot more enticing than the rust-buckets I had seen during my pre-sea training days. So I rejected the high paying jobs and applied to join the RFA. I asked, and was given a ship to join to see if I liked it. No duties, just a familiarisation run. Nobody told the ship that, but I stuck to the terms I had been offered and was given a “free-run” to browse and observe. The ship was the then almost new RFA Olmeda, a fleet (liquid) replenishment ship (read “tanker”) that could also operate 6 anti-submarine Wessex helicopters. (one in the hangar and 5 ranged on the “parking deck”).



RFA Olmeda


I had a very short introduction to the Captain who really only wanted to know if I had a bow tie. In those days officers had to “dress” for dinner. (c— though it was). Those who had been “in the service” for a long time had blue “mess-jackets” (White on other occasions), whereas us plebs would wear our usual “day to day” doeskin uniforms…..with a bow tie. All very odd. Even doing the 12-4 night watch meant being in full uniform. But I put it down to being a quirk of nature.

Prior to this new building programme for the RFA they were generally regarded by the mainstream Merchant Navy as a sort of “cloth cap and muffler” brigade. Some justification in that, which I am not going to get into. I may be entirely wrong here (although I don’t think so), but the new re-building of the RFA was to be compatible with and an adjunct to the new aircraft carriers to be built in the mid 1960s. The height of the “cold-war”. These new carriers would have their own “fleet-train”. Supply ships and so on.




HMS Bristol


They would also have the added protection of the “Bristol” class cruisers and the Sea-Slug capability of the new “County” class destroyers… plus all the “Leander” class frigates. I will only give you one chance to guess what happened. The carriers were axed. (Ringing any bells?) But by then the “Fleet -Train” had been built. “Resource” and “Regent” were anachronisms from the start without the new carriers. The “Ol” class tankers proved to be very versatile and went on to give 40 years of superb service to navies all over the world. The “Ness” class were a bit constrained in although having a landing deck there wasn’t anything else. But that was the RFA I was joining. At that time I hadn’t really noticed that some of the really old, worn out and cruddy ships were still in service. No matter. Next one… my first “proper” appointment in the RFA.