- Feasey, Geoff
- History - general, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Has technology been used to the best effect during postwar years to make sailors’ lives easier? Not always. One of the most enduring RN myths was that helmsmen would fall asleep unless controlling the powerful steering machinery was made to be hard work, performed standing. The result: inefficient steering and exhausted Cox’ns when trying to steam at high speed before a heavy following sea, and a need for telegraphmen because helmsmen were fully occupied with a heavy wheel. What a contrast to the German destroyer, designed in the 1940s, which became known as HMS Nonsuch. Or, for that matter, with the simple tapper gear used in RN submarines by seated sailors to control hydroplanes and rudders. Fortunately, this myth now appears to be dead and buried.
Learning from the past?
Is all well now? There’s no simple answer to the question. Some good news is in Admiral Sandy Woodward’s book on the Falklands War “One Hundred Days” publicised the shortcomings of some ships’ weaponry and the unreliabilities of some missile systems. A healthy sign, I believe. But some classes of ship were at increased risk during that war because their designs concentrated virtually all the electrical conversion machinery in one compartment. That’s very recent history. Three years before the Falklands war, one of my last jobs in the RN’s underwater weapons research and development establishment involved reviewing 1940s files on the design philosophy for siting the electrical conversion machinery which was then becoming increasingly important. The 1940s is not such recent history. But the outcome was the same then: in essence, the less risky solution was thought too difficult so machinery was to be concentrated. It was left to another navy to prove that a better solution was practical.
It’s generally regarded as “bad form” to refer to “my last ship” but I left it thirty years ago, so I suggest it qualifies as history and I can allow it to provide two examples of relatively recent attitudes. The good news was that my very competent Captain was able to laugh when my wife asked him at a party whether the ship, which was having weapon system troubles, would be going to sea the next day: “Don’t ask me, ask Geoff” was the reply. I had a great respect for his attitude. Technology demands patient application, not wishful thinking. The bad news came in the Caribbean. After we had been on station for months and at the end of some weeks of crises, which involved frequent races from one end of the Caribbean to the other, the Admiral commanding the Home Fleet’s small ships arrived. My poor Captain was reproached by the Admiral, whose attitude was not too far removed from that complained of by Commander Scott, because the ship was not freshly painted. Fortunately, my Captain was able, after a bit of research, to point out to the Admiral that we had in fact steamed much further than his Flotilla, which had merely crossed the Atlantic. In due course, I’m glad to say, my boss got his “fourth” and later his Flag.
I have deliberately introduced descriptions of different levels of technological and attitudinal shortcomings in a somewhat discursive manner. A more rigorous analysis would require more time than is available to me. My intent is to suggest that, historically, in the case of the RN there has been room for improvement, during design and in operations, ashore and afloat, in harbour and at sea, affecting all levels from domestic comfort through fighting efficiency to actual survival of ships.
New technologies and ‘getting it wrong’
It is easy to criticise and to pontificate with hindsight, but the fact is that decisions on the adoption and use of technology are rarely, if ever, easy and the consequences of getting it wrong can be far reaching One of the most daunting examples was the choice of reactor technology for the world’s first nuclear submarine. Should pressurised water, or sodium, be the primary coolant? We may never know the inside story of the decision making process but references in the books about the USS Nautilus hint that it was a close thing. The outcome however is well known. Nautilus was given a pressurised water reactor, proved a great success, new strategic weapons options became feasible, and world history, for better or worse, set off in a particular direction. The second submarine was given a sodium cooled reactor. Does anyone remember the USS Seawolf? Little effort is needed to imagine the consequences had the first nuclear submarine proved a flop!