- Thomson, Max
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1989 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Logically, Naval history focuses on ships of the fleet and drama on the high seas, especially in times of war. Equally important for preservation in the chapters of our Naval heritage are records of the memories of the lifestyle aboard those ships for the men who served in them. One aspect of that lifestyle shines out above all others, even if the term ‘shines out’ is a complete antithesis in every sense.
For it was the night-time blackout (Darken Ship) in our warships that gave Navy men a lifestyle that was uncanny in so many ways. Only men who served in ships in wartime can even begin to comprehend what it was like living and working in a warship under strict blackout conditions from dusk until dawn — night after night, for months on end. With deadlights clamped tight over scuttles and blackout curtains draped at every exit onto upper decks, Navy men in these ships settled down to an existence which, in retrospect, was unique.
They developed a sort of extra sense usually acquired only by blind people. These men came to know specifically how many steps there were in every ladder in their ship. They were aware of precisely what obstacles were located on the upper decks, and where they were located; and only wartime Navy men know just how many such obstacles lay strewn on the decks of ships with all the paraphernalia of war, emergency gear, additional anti-aircraft weaponry and the like.
Men knew where to locate gear and equipment without the use of torches. They knew how to move about in rough seas in a way that would minimise the possibility of tripping in the darkness, knowing that to go overboard under wartime blackout conditions was fatal.
Gun crews benefited from endless hours of training and practice, knowing confidently and automatically every requirement and movement in receiving shells from ammunition hoists to loading, firing and then re-loading their guns in complete blackout. Equally automatic were the reactions, of the depth charge crews, the torpedomen and others.
Low-intensity red lamps between decks during the night hours gave bridge and deck lookouts, gun crews, signalmen and others a chance to adjust their eyes reasonably quickly when they turned out to go ‘on watch’.
So many of the warships of our fleet operated with open bridges, which meant that officers of the watch and navigators were obliged to use bridge chart tables fitted with blackout curtains through which the head and each arm could be extended enabling the ship’s progress to be plotted over a chart safely illuminated inside; eliminating the need for frequent visits to the ship’s full charthouse. After a period on watch under blackout conditions, even the low illumination on the binnacle compass seemed to take on an unnatural glow.
Smokers exercised a degree of discipline that probably amazes them to this day, knowing just how far the glow of a burning cigarette can be seen at sea at night, much less a match struck in the darkness – said to be some three miles.
Engine room crews were ever-conscious of controlling engine movements in a way that at least minimised the possibility of sparks or glow from a ship’s funnel. In emergency, well-trained seamen knew full and well how to launch a whaler, motor-cutter or liferafts in blackout conditions.
Completely blacked out
Few sights are more memorable than that of a sleek warship gliding along at night completely blacked out yet silhouetted faintly against the night sky – a sight etched forever in the memory of Navy men as awesome, almost frightening in some ways. This sensation can be multiplied many times over when applied to the great wartime convoys with extensive lines of lumbering ships, heaving and pitching as they progressed in an orderly pattern under the ever-watchful eye of the Navy escorts that zig-zagged out front, astern and on the convoy flanks.
At most, those lumbering vessels in the convoy lines burned only a solitary dim blue light on the stern to give the ship immediately next astern at least something on which to position itself. For the risk of a convoy ship running into the vessel ahead or falling back on the ship astern — or of straying into columns to port and starboard — represented horrendous possibilities with ships loaded deep with troops, war supplies, ammunition or fuel or patrol.