When a Royal Yacht trumped a new RFA


When a Royal Yacht trumped a new RFA




On 11 December 1950 an interdepartmental meeting was held at the Admiralty to discuss the urgent replacement of the fleet hospital ship RFA MAINE (formerly HMHS EMPIRE CLYDE). It was generally agreed that a new ship should be a ‘modernisation’ based on the 1939 design which itself stemmed from a 1904 proposal to the Committee on the Naval Medical Service. Owing to prevailing conditions in the Far East (Korean War) and the poor material condition of RFA MAINE there was some urgency given to this proposal. By 30th January 1951 the Admiralty Board sanctioned her design and construction. Cost estimates were at £1.75m (excluding Admiralty supplied equipment) later revised up to £3m; time to build was given as 2 to 2½  years.

RFA Maine 5 2


An artist’s impression of the 1951 hospital ship, presumably the after funnel being the dummy referred to in an Admiralty statement of requirements. [author’s collection]

On 16th March 1951 a contract was placed with Barclay Curle & Co Ltd for design and construction. Interestingly the design was said to be an update of Barclay Curle’s 1939 design yet there is no previous reference to any design submitted before the withdrawal of Admiralty plans on eve of World War Two. On 31st January 1952 she was laid down at No 3 berth as yard number 730. Completion was expected by end of 1954. However by 4th July 1952 an instruction was issued indicating that the Admiralty Board had reversed the previous decision deciding to cease all work on the hospital ship. The reasons can be summarised as austerity, a strict economy and steel shortages within the shipbuilding industry. The money and material saved was redirected into the construction at John Brown’s Clydebank yard of the new Royal Yacht-cum-Hospital Ship BRITANNIA.

   No name had been announced for this new hospital ship; however, DNC’s Statement of Requirements provides a range of interesting information. This fleet hospital ship was to be capable of accommodating 350 patients in peace and up to 500 in war.

Intended to be a twin-screw vessel, 500ft long between perpendiculars, a moulded breadth of 66.5ft and a displacement of around 10,600 tons, on a draught of 19ft. For service in both tropical and arctic conditions her steam turbines of 10,700shp was to provide a maximum speed of 18 knots. Range was to be in region of 6,000 n.miles at 12 knots. This would enable her to trail a fleet train or replenishment group.

   The contractor was to have been responsible for the general design within the Admiralty’s specification and it was understood that a starting point would be an update of the previously abandoned 1939 design. The ship was to be built to classification society rules and supervised by the Society’s surveyors and the Warships Production Superintendent. Watertight integrity to be two compartment standard and underwater hull to be shockproof and fore end, at the waterline, appropriately stiffened for service in arctic waters. Accommodation and wards were to be fully air-conditioned with crew cabins to the latest Ministry of Transport (MoT) standards. Facilities were to include the fitting of lifts appropriate for moving cotted patients, stores, baggage and food, up-to-date electric galleys, self-contained ward pantries, a modern laundry and a cinema. Lifesaving appliances and fire fighting protection were to meet the 1948 Convention for Safety of Life at Sea requirements (SOLAS 1948). The lifeboats, davits and winches were to meet MoT requirements and be made of steel or light alloy – one was to be a motor lifeboat. Additionally the Admiralty were to supply two 25ft fast motor boats, a 32ft general service motor cutter and two 14ft sailing dinghies.

   Arrangements were to be made, included jackstay for the ‘transfer-at-sea’ of patients, light stores and fuel; interestingly 65ft of the after end of the boat deck was to be specially stiffened for use as a helicopter landing deck a requirement that did not become regular within the Navy for another decade. A bridge controlled stabiliser system was to be fitted and the Admiralty were to supply a Sperry type gyro compass. She was to have a marine radio outfit complying with the Merchant Shipping Radio Rules plus a Naval pattern VHF and commercial type radar.

   Her passive defence was to include that all wards were gas tight, air filtration units to be fitted in each watertight sub-division and the means of crash stopping of fans. Degaussing arrangements were to be fitted and a raked stem capable of taking the latest paravane equipment. Interestingly the requirement refers to ‘the dummy funnel’ and that it should be used for air intakes and exhaust purposes.

   Records refer directly to ‘a galley and messing arrangements for the RFA Petty Officers and ratings, and there is reference to RFA deck, engineering and catering complement of up 173 and a medical complement of 91. Therefore it is logical to assume that she would have been worked as a Royal Fleet Auxiliary. It is, therefore, unthinkable that she would have carried any name other than MAINE – fifth in an illustrious series.