Thursday, June 15 2023
This article was written by Stephen Bradley, a Naval History MA student, for the Learning from the Past programme, on the theme of exchange of learning about safety at sea between the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy.
The starting premise of the research which this blog post introduces is that we learn most about survivability and safety at sea from disasters and from military conflict. It results from collaboration between the University of Portsmouth, Imperial War Museum and Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage & Education Centre (LRFHEC) and contributed towards a master’s degree in Naval History. The focus is on the two major shared learning experiences in the mid to late twentieth century: the Second World War (WWII) and Operation ‘Corporate’ in 1982, the undeclared war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, in both of which the Royal Navy (RN) and Merchant Navy (MN) were mutually dependent in extremis.
SS Atlantic Conveyor © Imperial War Museum, IWM FKD 161
Louise Sanger of LRFHEC guided initial literature search, starting with the library of the Heritage & Education Centre, and an excellent blog post by a former HEC intern, Laura Hurford, entitled Fire at Sea.  The history of Lloyd’s Register by Nigel Watson edited by Barbara Jones provided an extensive overview of the larger subject of ship safety over the 250-year period to 2010. Paris Agar at the Imperial War Museum provided links to oral histories of survivors from shipwreck in both the Second World War and the Falklands, which were supplemented with further oral histories archived by the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) and the National Maritime Museum. The Wellcome Collection online archive had some fascinating medical research material on survival at sea. Dr Mike Esbester of University of Portsmouth provided wise counsel on the broader context of safety management.
Social histories of the RN provided insight into education and training of sailors,  and I researched the safety aspects of the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship and its post-war amendments. I found ample historiography on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), the civilian service providing fleet supply service to the RN and supporting amphibious warfare,  and read narrative accounts of the Falklands Conflict and of convoy service in the Second World War that provide insights into the challenges of survivability from abandonment of ships at sea.  I found journal articles and blog posts on safety of life at sea: some technical, some social and some covering the development of sea safety conventions, rules, and legislation. An important report by C J Brooks for the Government of Canada provides an invaluable resource on the history of medical research work into hypothermia (previously known as ‘exposure’) from ship abandonment, and the development of liferafts, lifejackets, and survival suits.
At the NMRN in Portsmouth, I gathered further material on the development of RN Damage Control training and life safety equipment. To get greater understanding of the multiple dimensions of the post-war history of safety at sea, I conducted a series of interviews. Commander Graham Hockley, a Falklands veteran and alumnus of the Naval History MA course at the University of Portsmouth, introduced me to Commodore David Squire and Lt. Commander David Carter, both Brethren of Trinity House.  At the NMRN, I had a very useful conversation with Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, who introduced me to Commander James Stride of Carnival UK, also ex-RN. Louise Sanger connected me with Dr Jonathan Earthy, a human factors expert at LR, and to Vaughan Pomeroy, a former Marine Technical Director of LR. I am indebted to all these interviewees who gave very generously of their time and wisdom and the benefit of their personal experience. They all suggested further aspects to research as well as explaining much about the culture and practice of RN, MN and RFA. Following their suggestions, I investigated major maritime disasters of the period 1940s to 1990s and researched online copies of Board of Inquiry reports into Falklands ship losses, as well as further research into organisational learning and Ship Safety Management.
This series of blog posts will provide general interest for all those interested in naval and maritime matters, and the full bibliography and supporting database of research references, available online from the LRFHEC, should provide stimulus and resources for other historians of safety culture and technology
The next blog post in this series summarises safety culture and training in the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy as it developed from the Second World War onwards.