Daily Archives: 28 June, 2010

How to build a nuclear Submarine

I watched this documentary on BBC2 last night. It followed the building of the Royal Navy’s new class of Astute attack submarines. Aside from the usual PR feel of the programme, it was an interesting look behind the scenes at what goes into building a nuclear submarine.

What I found really interesting was the emphasis on how important shipbuilding is to the town of Barrow. The launch of Astute came 10 years after the launch of the last nuclear submarine, and in those intervening years most of the shipbuilding skills had been lost, and apprentice schemes had to be started up from scratch. And thus we follow 19 year old Erin Browne as she works on one of the subs wiring up the electrics.

We get to see how the submarines are built in sections, which are then moved – by road! – into the shipbuilding hall and welded together. We see how the command section is built and then slotted into place. We get a rare close up look at the living conditions on a nuclear submarine, and the process of getting a nucler sub ready for sea – its not every day, after all, that you get to see a nuclear reactor switched on!

What has to be worrying is the likelihood that orders for new ships will be few and far between after the current Defence Review, leaving towns like Barrow facing mass unemployment and all of the social problems that come with it.

How to build a nuclear submarine can be seen on BBC iplayer until Sunday 18th July 2010.


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Portsmouth’s WW2 dead – the Royal Navy (Part 3)

Officer Rank

108 Commissioned Royal Naval officers from Portsmouth died during the Second World War. This represents 8.37% of the total amount of Portsmouth sailors killed during the war:

1 Admiral of the Fleet
5 Captains
10 Commanders
20 Lieutenant Commanders
32 Lieutenants
20 Sub-Lieutenants
3 Midshipmen
17 Commissioned rank

Clearly, Officers consisted of less than 8% of the Royal Navy’s manpower. But given that many officers settled in Portsmouth, and a significant number of older officers serving ashore seemed to die of natural causes, its not surprising that officer fatalities were so high. Around half of officers killed were seagoing officers, and the other half were shore-based, including a not insignificant number of older officers who were serving as instructors and administrators. Given that the Navy was so large, its not surprising that older men were recalled to free up younger officers to serve at sea.

Commissioned ranks were senior ratings, usually in their 30’s or 40’s, who were commissioned as officers due to their experience and expertise. Very few midshipmen were killed during the war – it seems that young men who joined as officers were promoted to Sub-Lieutenant, so there were very few Midshipmen.

However, it is perhaps surprising that so few senior officers of the rank of Captain or above came from Portsmouth. Obviously, hundreds of Captains must have served in the Royal Navy between 1939 and 1945, and given how many ships were sunk, how come only 5 Captains came from Portsmouth? Does this suggest that senior officers did not tend to settle in Portsmouth? Only one officer over the rank of Captain – Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes – came from Portsmouth, and even then, his Portsmouth connection was serving as MP.

Naval Ratings

Enlisted men in the Royal Navy were known as Ratings. The following numbers of men died, representing 91.63% of all naval casualties from Portsmouth:

64 Warrant Officers (5.39%)
265 Chief Petty Officers (22.3%)
322 Petty Officers (27.1%)
187 Leading Seamen (15.74%)
299 Able Seamen (25.17%)
41 Ordinary Seamen (3.45%)
10 Boy Seaman (0.84%)

As we can see, a significant number of Portsmouth sailors who were killed were Chief Petty Officers or Petty Officers. This is not surprising, as Portsmouth was Britain’s premier naval port, long-serving seamen were bound to settle in Portmouth. Also, Portsmouth men were bound to look to the Navy for employment. We would normally expect the rank struture to look something like a pyramid – with the amount of men in each rank halving as we go upwards.

Do these proportions of casualties by rank reflect the bigger picture? To tell that I would have to look at the overall losses suffered by the Royal Navy. Or, perhaps, look at the losses suffered on one ship as a case study. But one thing is for sure – cleary, Petty Officers did not represent 27% of all Royal Naval Seamen, and Able Seamen did not account for only 25%.


We’ve looked at ranks, but from what departments of the ships crews did the men come from?

General Seamen 427
Stoker 231
Engine Room 151
Fleet Air Arm 30
Electrical 49
Cooks 42
Telegraph 37
Steward 33
Signals 28
Supply 27
Engineer 26
Shipwright 25
Mechanic 19
Ordnance 14
Gunnery 14
Writer 10
Medic 9
Wrens 8
Regulating 8
Artisan 6
Canteen Service 4
Coder 2
Patrol Service 2
Photography 1
Wire 1

Several immediate observations can be made. Losses were highest amongst General Seamen, Stokers and Engine Room ratings. On the one hand, these were among the largest branches of the Royal Navy, requiring the most men. ‘General Seamen’ is also a term used to describe ratings serving ashore in non-specialist roles, of which there were many, so many of these casualties may have been men who died of natural causes.

Another factor that may have led to the loss of so many Stokers and Engine Room men may be their location onboard ship. Boilers and Engine Rooms were of course dangerous places, vulnerable to explosions, either caused by accidents or enemy fire. And when a ship was damaged or sunk, it would have been very difficult for men deep in the bowels of the ship to have escaped to safety.

The roles listed above show the wide range of skills and professions in the wartime Royal Navy. Although some technology was coming into service, in the form of telegraphy, signals and various electrical advances, serving at sea was still very much a physical job.

If anyone is unsure about any of the roles above, there is a very useful section on navalhistory.net about Royal Navy ranks and roles during the Second World War. But to cover just a few common roles, Writers were clerks and administrators, and Regulators were responsible for discipline. ‘Artisan’ describes roles such as Painter, Plumber, Joiner etc.

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