A Fleet in Being

Notes to Chapter V

by Alastair Wilson. The page and line numbers refer to the 1898 Macmillan edition of A Fleet in Being.

[Page 51, line 5] Britannia Naval officers received their first training as cadets in the Britannia, which consisted of the hulks of the Prince of Wales of 1860 and the Hindostan of 1841.

[The Prince of Wales had replaced the original Britannia in 1869. A decision to move the college ashore was made in 1896, but it was not until 1902 that building of the present college was started, and it opened in 1905. The old wooden hulks remained in use until that time, and Kipling made a visit to them when he was living at Torquay in 1896. A.W.]

[Page 51, line 10] dignity balls “A dignity ball is a ball given by the most consequential of the (Barbadian) coloured people, and from the, amusement and various other reasons, is generally well attended by the officers both on shore and afloat.” (Marryat, Peter Simple, chapter xxxi, which gives an entertaining account of one.) They continue to figure in reminiscences of the North America and West Indies Station throughout the century.

[Page 52, line 2] Herman Melville has it all in `White Jacket’ Melville (1819-1891), American author, now remembered chiefly for Moby Dick: or The Whale, spent a year on the lower deck of a United States frigate about 1845 and described his experiences there in White Jacket: or The World in a Man-of War. A white jacket of his own fabrication had led to his being so named by his shipmates.

[Page 53, line 12] the torpedo Lieutenant because we do not carry those fittings One 14-inch torpedo tube each side was not considered to require a torpedo lieutenant in a small cruiser. In his absence, the Gunner was responsible. Torpedo work (meaning mines – a torpedo was originally what we would today call a mine) was originally a branch of Gunnery. (A separate branch and school was formed in 1872 when Whitehead’s locomotive torpedo was bought for the Royal Navy.) Torpedomen were also responsible for such electrics as a ship had. At this time, although Pelorus would have had electric searchlights, illumination below decks was almost certainly still by candle and oil lamp

[Page 53, line 20] conning-tower a small armoured control position, near or under the bridge. One trial in action convinced most captains, if they did not already hold the view, that they were too confined and isolated to enable the ship to be handled properly from inside the tower.

[Page 53, line 22] Haslar the Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar, near Gosport in Hampshire, in the Portsmouth Command. [Now (2003), a largely National Health Service hospital, and under threat of closure. The original buildings, still adapted for modern days, were erected in 1742. A.W.]

[Page 53, line 31] fanoodleums predecessors of “gadgets”.

[Page 53, line 32] even with our boats out of the way It was intended, to land most boats on the outbreak of war. A great many wooden fittings landed or disposed of in 1914 were later much regretted.

[Page 54, lines 6-24] those beastly deck torpedo-tubes … unless they’re submerged The risk of a torpedo being detonated by enemy gunfire was frequently discussed. In the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, the Chinese took the precaution of expending most of their torpedoes long before they could endanger anyone. It would be interesting to know whether it was the memory of this passage that made Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1912, demand that light cruisers should have submerged tubes.

This proved difficult in a small ship and not very satisfactory when achieved. Actual experience in two wars showed that the safety arrangements incorporated in the warhead had made the risk of above-water tubes inconsiderable.

[Page 55, line 3] Mahan Alfred Thayer Mahan, Rear-Admiral, United States Navy (1840-1914). As Captain Mahan, he had a great reputation as a naval historian and thinker. His early books,

The Influence of Sea Power upon History

, 1660-1783 (1890) and The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812 (1892) had themselves an influence upon history, in that they strengthened and supported the Kaiser’s desire for a strong German Navy, and gave the British public a much clearer realisation of all they owed to sea power than any British writer had succeeded in doing. (“An expert is a guy from out of town” – American wisecrack.)

[Page 55, lines 3-5] broadside fighting is going to pay with our low freeboards, because most shots go wrong in elevation Mahan was generally considered sounder as a strategist than as a tactician or, according to the legend of his own Service, as a practical naval officer. This is contested by his biographer and may reflect a more than British distrust of the theorist. It is also quite probable that Kipling merely brought Mahan in to show that he and the Pelorus were aware of him, since Mahan at this date dealt mainly in broad principles.

From the point of view of a ship seeking a decision by gunfire, a more important advantage of broadside fire would be that it enabled more guns to bear on the enemy. The long ranges normal in 1914-18 invalidated many preconceived ideas. It was often necessary to engage the enemy as best one could, and if he was taking evasive action, to keep on hitting was not easy, whether he was broadside or nearly end-on. Freeboard is the height of a ship’s side above the water-line.

[Page 55, line 16] “I believe in beaking”. (That belief, by the way, is curiously general in the Navy) The history of the ram itself is also curious; it is surprising that its history, from say 900 BC. onwards, has not been written. However general the belief in it may have been in the Royal Navy in 1898, it was on its way out. The Dreadnought (launched 1906) was the first battleship without one.

[Dreadnought did, in fact, have what was known as a ram bow, though it was not specially strengthened as were those of Arrogant and Furious. And in 1915, she sank a U-boat by ramming. A.W.]

[Page 55, Page 56, line 9] sponsons gun positions projecting from the, ship’s side, to give broadside guns a better arc of fire.

[Page 57, line 3] the torpedo has sheered away to the left in 1898 gyroscopic steering was just being fitted in British torpedoes. Without it, the torpedo was kept on its intended course only by inertia and two small fixed vertical rudders, so a directional failure was hardly remarkable. Even with a gyroscope, an occasional rogue torpedo might bite the hand that fed it.

[This author can confirm the last sentence – in HMS Superb in 1956, one of our practice torpedoes turned on its heel, and passed underneath the ship – luckily it was only a practice torpedo without a warhead, and did at least run at the depth set. But HMS Trinidad, in 1942, was hit and seriously damaged by one of her own torpedoes. A.W.]

[Page 57, line 5] its garlic-scented Holmes light the Holmes light was fitted in a practice head to assist in locating a torpedo floating barely awash after a practice run. It gave off a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, and its main component, calcium, did smell remarkably like garlic.

[Page 57, line 16] gun-cotton supplied for both general demolition and underwater explosive purposes.

[Page 57, line 17] grapnels and batteries A grapnel is an arrangement of large hooks upon a common stem, dragged along the bottom to locate submerged objects, here a mine mooring or cable. The batteries would be secondary batteries used to fire the detonators of the gun-cotton charges.

[Page 57, line 18] “sweeping” and “creeping” Sweeping is minesweeping; creeping using the grapnel, grappling.

[Page 58, line 9] bare feet remained a common day-time wear for seamen for a surprising number of years.

[Page 58, line 10] falls the ropes used for lowering and hoisting boats carried at davits.

[Page 58, line 11] blocks sets of pulleys in a frame through which the falls are led.

[Page 59, line 23] blue and red blue for seamen, red for the then Royal Marine Light Infantry – the “Red Marines”, as opposed to the “Blue Marines”, the Royal Marine Artillery, who would probably be retained on board to man guns for bombarding. The R.M.L.I. and R.M.A. were amalgamated as the Royal Marines after the Great War of 1914-18. [In 1923. A.W.]

[Page 59, line 31] certain MS. books known as Watch and Quarter Bills.

[Page 60, line 13] the executive curl this is the circular loop on the upper gold stripe on a naval officer’s sleeve. (In the Royal Navy; the United States and German Navies, inter alia, had a star above the stripe. The German Navy adopted their star after 1918; before that the Imperial German Navy had a crown instead and awarded it to their Engineers some years before 1915.) It was originally confined to the Executive Branch, the present day Seaman Specialists. About 1915 it was granted to Engineer Officers and in 1918 extended to all officers with stripes, in recognition that a distinction between “military” and “non-combatant” officers in a ship in action was unrealistic.

[Page 60, line 19] the officers the distinction which Kipling makes here between the Warrant Officers and “the officers” shows a lack of understanding of the position of the Warrant Officers likely to wound the more sensitive, in spite of the generous and well-earned tribute in which it is embodied. Confusion, by no means confined to Kipling, was often due to the entirely different status of the Warrant Officer in the Army. The latter was a superior Non-commissioned Officer, the equivalent of a naval Chief Petty Officer, whereas the “Queen’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions” laid it down that “officers” included “commissioned officers, warrant officers and subordinate officers” (i.e., midshipmen and naval cadets) and the Gunner and Boatswain ranked with but before a Second Lieutenant in the Army.

Since 1898 various changes have been made to clarify the status and improve the conditions and prospects of naval warrant officers. Their successors today are Sub-lieutenants, Lieutenants and Lieutenant-Commanders on the Branch List.

[Shortly after Admiral Brock wrote these notes (which, on the evidence of this remark alone, must have been prior to January 1956), they became ‘Special Duties List’ officers. Since 1946, they had held their rank by Commission, rather than by Warrant’, and thus were entirely on the same footing as their brother officers in the Wardroom. In 1998, the distinction of Special Duties List (the erstwhile Warrant Officers) and General List (the former ‘little tin gods’ of the Seaman/Executive branch, to whom had been added the Engineers and Supply and Instructor Officers) has been abolished. All officers of the Royal Navy, however entered, are all on the same list, and theoretically have the same chances of promotion to the very top. A.W.]

[Page 61, lines 7-11] we’re practically a Training Squadron … a lot of new ones this continued to be a complaint of ships in home waters until very recently.

[Admiral Brock refers to the fact that, in 1956 or so, the RN introduced what were called General Service Commissions, where a ship’s company were to be kept together for the length of the commission (18 months, of which not more than 12 months would be spent abroad). This lasted for about ten years at the most, and “the exigencies of the service” demanded that men should be transferred away for promotion courses, higher training, etc., as and when the opportunity offered. The Navy is still struggling today (2003) to find a satisfactory answer. A.W.]

[Pages 62 and 63] a tale worth telling few naval officers have not been in such a situation at some time and will not sympathise.