Near Disaster To A New Ship
By Sam Watson, R.N.
HMS Falmouth was a 2,800 ton Type 12 Rothesay class (improved Whitby) Anti-submarine frigate, built in 1960/61 by Swan, Hunter & Wigam Richardson on the Tyne. She was commissioned on July 27th 1961.
I joined the ship on June 13th 1961 she was still in the shipyard at Wallsend, I had just completed a six month long course and joined the ship as a confirmed Chief Petty Officer Electrical Artificer (First Class). My responsibilities were the sonar systems, the two Limbo anti-submarine mortars on the back end the Sperry gyro compass and the gyro-magnetic compass.
Following final corrections and additions to the ship, we steamed down the Tyne, did a left turn to the north, another left turn through the Pentland Firth then down the west coast to the port of Falmouth. There the townsfolk had the opportunity to visit the ship and for our Commanding Officer, Commander Roderick McDonald to pay his respects to the Mayor. A few days later we left for the naval base at Portland to start our six weeks of sea training.
On board HMS Falmouth, the ship's company was becoming more familiar with the ship as each day passed. Working from Portland, we put to sea each morning early and throughout the whole day both ship and men were subjected to the most thorough of training schedules, controlled by the onboard FOST (Flag Officer Sea Training) team from Portland.
Before dawn each morning, special sea duty-men closed up, the ship slipped her moorings alongside the harbour wall and headed out into the English Channel. Of all the many experiences on that ship, that is one which remains vivid, my special sea duty was on the bridge whenever entering or leaving harbour and thus I was able to take in all that went on. I would take up my position at the rear of the bridge just inside the port wing and adjacent to a telephone console, primarily connected to sound powered telephones from various parts of the ship.
The weather in December is invariable rough and the ship began to pitch very violently as soon as we left the shelter of the harbour, when she was clear of the harbour and well established on course, special sea duty-men were stood down and the normal sea watch took over, the hands were piped to breakfast. The FOST exercises appeared to go well during the day, later, the wind increased in strength, heavy clouds moved quickly across the sky and sea state increased. December evenings are not good any where particularly at sea, the 5th of December 1961 was not an exception. Falmouth had moved up Channel to the west to join a convoy of other vessels in a war exercise out into the Atlantic. As darkness fell, the convoy formed up, watch-keepers straining to see nearby ships through the rain each endeavoured to keep position, heavy seas broke over the foc'sle.
Onboard Falmouth supper had been served to those who could hold it down and the ship settled into the evening watch. The ship was closed up to damage control state A1 the highest state of readiness, in two watches one below turned in or resting the other closed up on their respective stations, guns, A/S Mortars, ASDICS and plotters.
AT 2200hrs, the ship closed onto the large fleet oiler Tideflow to take on oil fuel, we came up astern and established position 100 feet or so on her starboard side; heavy seas pouring down between two ships close together tends to draw them together, station keeping is imperative and hands are closed up in the steering gear compartments to maintain position in the event of a remote steering failure from the bridge. Special sea duty-men closed up and the large derrick supporting the oil fuel hose reached out from the tanker, on Falmouth the hose was hauled across and brought into line with the upper deck down riser to the fuel oil tanks and secured. Pumps on the tanker then started the oil fuel transfer.
With great skill the watch-keeping Officers on both ships maintained position, calling out a constant stream of orders to their respective quartermasters on the wheel. Within half an hour, the transfer of fuel was completed the hose disconnected and winched back to the tanker, we dropped astern and pulled clear to join the screen again.
Onboard Falmouth the ship settled back to her escort role at the edge of the convoy and armament and underwater systems were back on the alert, submarines were involved in the exercise but no sign of them was evident. As the late evening wore on, the weather appeared to noticeably deteriorate, the seas became much steeper and the howling of the wind through the open mast and signal halyards increased, the ship's broadcast announced that storm force winds were to be expected toward midnight, all loose gear was to be lashed down, deadlights secured and access to the upper deck was prohibited. In Falmouth's operations room, the air warning systems expected nothing in the steadily worsening conditions and they stood down. The radar watch-keepers staring into their screens could make out very little immediately around the ship. Wave clutter was out to at least a mile although all the ships in company were painted quite clearly sometimes missing a “paint” as the seas steadily increased in size and the ships disappeared from the radar's scan into a trough.
On Falmouth, the lookouts on the wings of the bridge were brought into the enclosed bridge and the screen doors secured, the seas were already breaking over the foc'sle and were washing down the upper deck with an enormous roar then up and over the bridge, the window wipers unable to clear the mass of water. At 2330 or so, I left the mess to do rounds of the equipment in my charge, the forward Chief 's mess was well forward on the starboard side immediately abaft the diesel alternator room which itself was immediately below the foc'sle, I could hear the heavy seas hitting the deck above and rushing through the breakwaters either side. The two diesels driving the alternators were thundering away through the closed watertight door as I struggled aft against the violent pitching of the deck beneath my feet.
It was possible to walk from forward to the after end of the ship under cover, our predecessors had no such comfort, the exposed upper deck was the only route to engine rooms and boiler rooms across the iron deck.
Some weeks before, during early sea trials, I experienced for the first time, the idiosyncrasies of the new ship and for the first time in my naval career, felt very queasy. Seasickness is most debilitating and reduces one's will or indeed ability to do anything to virtually nil. Fortunately for me, a fellow mess member, the ships Cox'n, introduced me to Avomin, given to expectant mothers for morning sickness. This did the trick, one tablet on the evening before an early sailing was sufficient, I slept well, ate a good breakfast and was ready for anything. They never failed to work and during my time on Falmouth I used them before we put to sea.
Thus fortified, I started my rounds I stuck my head into the gyro compass room, all was well, a quick glance around the compartment was all that was necessary to confirm that the gyro was running and the transmission systems were in order. When the gyro compass was running the gyro compass room was always very warm and had a smell quite unlike any other compartment in the ship. I watched as the compass apparently swung in its gimbals, in reality, the ship was rolling around the stable compass accentuating the already pronounced movement of the ship.
As all was well, I shut the door behind me and mounted the ladder which gave access to the bridge superstructure and the operations room. I entered the Op's room, in darkness except for the orange glow of instrumentation, the colourful Decca Navigator dials and the edge lighting of the plots. Behind the transparent plots the plotters, writing backwards, updated their plastic screens using coloured china-graph pencils, nearby, the radar plotters were peering into their horizontal screens, identifying the ships in the convoy, marking their position then passing the information to the plotter.
A quick glance around was sufficient to locate the Officer of the Watch below, he told me all seemed to be in order and I passed through the compartment and into a narrow passageway between the Captain's sea cabin and the ASDIC'S (sonar) Operations room. The Op's room was to my left as I moved aft, I slid the door open entered and closed the door behind me. It was at this moment, I suddenly felt very sick, much to my annoyance having had such success up to that time.
The ASDIC op's room was dimly lit, instruments were the only source of light, the operators huddled up to their displays and controls. It appeared that we had located a submarine because I could hear the characteristic "ping" and recognised the returning echo. A quick glance at the plotters was sufficient to see the track of the submarine as we closed on her and the information transmitted to the bridge operations room.
The on-watch ASDIC'S officer told me that the “passive listening” equipment was not working, would I go and sort it out. I settled into the corner of the Op's room where the control panel was located, put the headphones on and listened, one would normally expect to hear HE (hydrophone effect), the noise which underwater machinery makes, propeller noise, submarine electric motors and so on.
The time was just past midnight, I had decided that there was no alternative it would have been necessary to go down to the sonar instrument space, situated well forward in the ship and below the waterline, do some checking at the passive listening receiver equipment.
I had barely time to stand, get my balance on the heaving deck, when there was the most tremendous crash. All the lights went out. Seconds later there were ominous scraping, rasping and banging noises, every agreed, we had collided with the submarine amidships and steamed over the top of her, the returning target echoes had stopped.
A second or two later the air was rent with high pitched whistling and screaming noises coming from the several intercom loudspeakers, positive feedback due to damaged cables. By this time, the emergency lanterns had come on and offered a feeble but reliable light. I heard above all the noise a pipe from the bridge ordering everyone to their special sea duty position, the ship has been in collision, damage unknown, damage control parties close up and report to damage control headquarters and report local damage.
I hastily left the Op's room, my sickness gone. Opposite, where a few minutes earlier had been the Captain's sea cabin was simply a mass of twisted steel, seawater was pouring through the wreckage onto the deck and was running over my feet. Through the wreckage I saw the foot of a camp bed which had been placed there for the SNO of the Portland team, he was turning in when I had passed but fifteen minutes earlier.
With very little effort, I was able to crawl through the mass of tangled timber, steel, cabin furniture and carpet, to reach the bed. It was empty. The sheets and blankets soaking wet and with the deck head above, but a few inches away. I could see the dark sky and clouds above my head. Deciding that the occupant was clearly not there, I crawled backwards into the passageway and continued up toward the bridge.
On the bridge, it was all too clear what had happened. The RFA tanker Tideflow, had rejoined the ships in convoy, but unknown to anyone other than the Tideflow, her radar had failed, in the prevailing weather conditions, she had no idea of the positions of ships around her.
The course which she tried to maintain brought her onto a collision course with Falmouth, she was first spotted by our port lookout, apparently he had sufficient time to shout a warning before Tideflow struck amidships, it must have been an awesome experience seeing the enormous bow of the approaching tanker suddenly appearing out of the murky sea.
The main-switchboard reported that many circuit breakers had automatically opened on overload and power supplies to the port side of the ship had been lost. There being little else to do on the bridge, the electrical officer and his runner stayed, I went below to see what was going on. Two decks down, the main passageway was awash with a mixture of oil fuel and seawater and the unique smell of navy rum, it transpired that the spirit room had been hit. All the lights were out but the emergency lanterns were on, bright points of light in an otherwise darkened passageway.
The bows of the tanker had penetrated well into the ship, the compartments directly below where I stood were flooded, bright blue flashes indicated that severed electrical cables were hanging in the water and as the sea water sloshed around in the heavy rolling of the ship, they lifted clear and great sparks were produced.
The flooded compartments below were open to the sea. Already, one of the large portable salvage pumps was pumping the water out and over the side through an open scuttle.
The only known casualty was an officer trapped in the officers accommodation. As far as could be seen, the ship's side had come inboard and split vertically, the deck-head had come down. The man was still in his bunk, but pinned from the side and above with steel work. He had had a remarkable escape. The local damage control section cut their way into the compartment and pulled him clear. The ship was still under weigh, steaming slowly into the heavy seas, rolling and pitching, the decks dangerously slippery with oil fuel.
One of the major problems confronting the electrical damage control party in the main switchboard was that of trying to isolate electrical power from the damaged section of the ship so that damage control parties could work in reasonable safety. It was discovered that although cables were cut, fuses had not blown, despite the fact that severed cable ends were in sea water. By a process of elimination, circuit breakers were tripped, fuses removed and the circuits thus isolated.
It was much later that we became aware of exactly what had taken place. Back on the bridge things had sorted themselves out a bit, the damage was restricted to the port side amidships, the ship was split from the upper deck down to the port bilge keel. The main officers accommodation was flooded, the spirit room below and the diesel fuel tank on the port side were open to the sea and flooded. The boiler room was taking in water, but continuous pumping kept the water in check, we still had steam.
Shortly after my return to the bridge, the engine room reported that all was well and we set course for Portland, we were accompanied by two frigates from the convoy, they had closed on the ship should they be needed, as it turned out, the seas were running so high, no transfer would have been possible.
Reports came up from below that timber shoring which had been placed to support the ship's side and the deck above, had collapsed, the collision mats had been washed away and the compartment was flooding. The ship was put about and took the heavy seas on her undamaged starboard side and we headed out toward the French coast. After an hour the shoring was replaced, the flooding controlled and despite the heavy seas, the shoring on the damaged ship's side held. The ship turned toward Portland.
By dawn the weather had moderated considerably, we made a modest 8 knots, our escorts just off our beam, thus we made it to Portland and some still water, strangely, it was all a great anticlimax I remember.
The ship was in a dreadful state, below decks oil fuel was everywhere, the smell pervaded everything, clothes stank of the stuff. Emergency cables were draped along the main fore and aft passageway restoring electrical power to essential services. The fire hazard was extreme and no smoking was allowed onboard. Once alongside the harbour wall at Portland, the extent of the damage could be seen, an enormous split from just abaft the bridge down below the waterline. The port sea-boat had been pushed through its davits and hung forlornly in three pieces, the propeller shaft and engine holding the centre and after section together. The very substantial davits had been twisted through 90° the heavy deck plating that ran forward to aft along the main deck beneath the davits had been pushed upwards. The guard rails and stanchions on the port side were gone, all the fittings on the upper deck were either bent or gone.
The next few days following the collision were spent in preparing the ship for the passage to Devonport Dockyard. The damaged area was cleared of debris and temporary shoring replaced where necessary, an awning was rigged over the damaged area and thus we made our way to Devonport, tended by a tug, but under or own steam.
Within a matter of a day or two, a dry-dock had been prepared and the ship, emptied of fuel, ammunition, stores and un-necessary gear, steamed up the Tamar and into the dockyard. Boiler rooms were cold by the time the ship was warped into the dock and the caisson closed behind us, pumping started immediately and within the hour Falmouth had settled onto her keel blocks and the breast shores were in position.
As soon as the gangways were in position I went ashore for the first time and walked forward to the damaged area. The hull was open to the sea below the waterline to the bilge keel and the compartments in the area exposed, the heavy riveted deck plating at the point of impact was pushed up but had not split, in contrast, the welded seams on the ship's side plating appeared to have torn. Whilst sorting out some of the wreckage on the port wing of the bridge I noticed the remains of the Captain's refrigerator just a few inches wide and wedged in the remains of the pantry of his sea cabin.
The sequel to the collision between Falmouth and Tideflow was an enquiry and a Naval Court Martial. The officers attending the Court Martial were the Captain, the navigating officer and the two watch Officers, one on the bridge, the other in the operations room at the time of the collision. All but the Officer of the Watch in the operations room were effectively exonerated from blame, although the Captain was reprimanded.
The evidence showed that the RFA entered the ground wave of Falmouth's radar, but despite wave clutter, was accurately tracked by Falmouth's radar plotters, but the operations room watch officer inexplicably chose to ignore the report despite repeated warnings of the closing tanker. It was established that the RFA hit the ship immediately abreast the bridge, but at the moment of the collision, the engines of the RFA were in the full astern position.
With great presence of mind, the Officer of the Watch on the bridge ordered full port wheel and Falmouth pivoted on the bows of the tanker. The tanker dropped astern before disappearing into the heavy seas. The President of the Court recommended that the Bridge Officer be awarded a commendation for his presence of mind and great seamanship in avoiding a potentially catastrophic loss of the ship.
The damage to Falmouth was very serious and resulted in a major dockyard repair, the split had passed below the bilge keel and the area had been flooded to the waterline. The upper deck was badly distorted and side plating was disrupted over a large area, other superstructure was badly damaged. When the under water repair work had been completed, the dock was prepared for flooding, I recall the event very clearly. During the course of the repair work, large amounts of material was removed which would normally have been carefully weighed and position noted to ensure that compensation could be made to maintain the ship in trim when the dock was flooded.
This clearly was not the case because the ship rolled most violently to port at the instant she lifted clear of the keel blocks as the dock flooded. I was in the one of the auxiliary machinery control compartments at the time and had just reached for the remote control for a motor-generator set, when the ship rolled, I lost my balance and slid to the port side of the compartment.
There followed, a series of crashes and bangs overhead, my immediate reaction was that I had been electrocuted, but soon realised that the ship was listing very heavily to port. I picked myself up from the deck and quickly made my way onto the upper-deck, where once again, peace reigned. The noises that I heard had been caused by large drums of cable on the foc'sle, rolling to the guard rail, over the top and into the dock , the brow had gone, fallen into the dock with lots of other loose bits of gear.
The mast and funnel were just clear of the dock side, debris floated on the surface of the water, a crowd had gathered on the dockside. The rest of the day was spent bringing the ship upright and onto an even keel by counter flooding redressing the imbalance of top weight.
I left Falmouth before she re-commissioned, but I understand that all was successful and she completed her training period and joined the Fleet. I have reflected upon the events of December 5/6th 1961. It was clear that nobody could have survived had the ship gone down, the seas were so enormous no boats could have been launched and ship's company taken off by our escorts. At the time I did not think of such things, the ship appeared to me to be stable and upright it was certainly still afloat, the fact that we got underway afterwards, was an indicator that things were not too bad. I remember the rest of that awful night, I spent most of it at the telephone console on the bridge and witnessed the slow and cautious passage back to Portland and the security of the harbour.
The night was not without humour. At one point, a young seaman working in the galley came up from below with a fanny of hot soup for us, he tripped over the hatch coaming as the ship rolled very violently and suddenly. He and the soup went flying across the deck. He stood up, said "f--k" picked up the fanny, slithered cross the deck and disappeared, to re-appear a few minutes later with some more soup.
The Captain had sat in his "high chair" for the whole time until the ship entered Portland Harbour and he rang down "Finish with main engines". One could imagine what thoughts must have been going through his mind, a brand new ship, now in the most precarious position, filthy with fuel oil and an enormous split in her side. He must have felt as if his world had come to an end. I recall his telling me when I first joined the ship “I expect my senior staff to give of their utmost” We certainly did that.
As it turned out, Commander McDonald ended his career as a Rear Admiral.
-Sam Watson, R.N.
© Sam Watson all rights reserved
Page published Mar. 6, 2013