Safety Culture and Training in the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy

Part 2/7 of the Blog Series: Life Safety and Survival at Sea: Learning between Royal Navy and Merchant Navy, 1940s-1990s

Thursday, August 24 2023

Safety Culture and Training in the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy

“We only really learn when things go wrong”, says David Carter, the Royal Navy’s current Merchant Navy Liaison Officer - only then are deficiencies in procedures, checklists, skills and equipment found and rectified.[1]

This second blogpost of the series reviews how radical improvements in safety culture and training in the Royal Navy (RN) have stemmed from learning from critical incidents at sea during the Second World War (WWII) and Operation ‘Corporate’, the British expedition to recapture the Falklands Islands in 1982.  

Enhancing Safety Training: The Impact of the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship

In the early years of the Second World War, RN sailors were not systematically instructed in damage repair to keep ships afloat. [2] The 1941 sinking of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal provided a systemic shock that inspired new watertight compartment discipline and Damage Control (DC) procedures. [3]

The Admiralty Manual of Seamanship, in two volumes revised and simplified between 1932 and 1937, was found not fit for purpose in wartime service. Consequently, a distilled version of the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship was produced in late 1943 as a pocketbook ‘primer’ for a large influx of Hostilities Only (H.O.) servicemen [4]. Its section on Ship Safety was designed to inspire reverence for the dominant principle of preserving the ship. [5]

RN safety training following the Second World War continued to centre on fighting fire and flooding. Damage repair and firefighting training from 1945 through the 1980s was conducted at shore establishments near Portsmouth and Plymouth, with very realistic but noxious oil fires. Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, whose RN service extended from 1967 to 2009, refers to a longstanding RN ethos of “every sailor a firefighter”.[6]

Educating Seafarers for Improved Survival Skills

Both the Second World War and the Falklands Conflict in 1982 exposed the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy (MN) to the relative merits of regulations, procedures, and training then current in each service but the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) provided merchant seamen with only grounding in RN disciplines. [7]

Oral histories from survivors of the disastrous PQ17 Convoy from Iceland to Russia in 1942 witness a cursory Merchant Navy approach to survival training in the first part of the Second World War, [8] contributing to heavy loss of life in the Battle of the Atlantic, with seafarers dying for lack of skills to escape from sinking ships. In response, the ‘Outward Bound’ organisation was founded in 1941 to educate young seafarers in survival skills. [9] Following major advances in RN medical research and life-saving equipment in the 1950s, the 1964 edition of the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship contained instruction on equipment and organisation for abandoning ship, survival, and rescue, with equivalent instruction for the Merchant Navy included. [10]

Convoy PQ 17 sailing in Hvalfjord

Photograph of Convoy PQ17 sailing in Hvalfjord.

Fire Safety and Human Factors in the Falklands Conflict

The collaboration between RN and MN in the task force to recapture the Falklands in 1982 generated important fire safety and human factors lessons, notably from the catastrophic fire damage to both the RFA Sir Tristram and the RFA Sir Galahad landing ships, and subsequently improved training, procedures, and equipment for firefighting, ship abandonment, and survivability.[11]

There were more Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) and requisitioned civilian ‘Ships Taken Up From Trade’ (STUFT) than there were warships,[12] and most of the STUFT had RN liaison officers or an RFA advisor embarked.[13] Nearly 300 men were killed as a direct result of damage to these ships, including on the RFA landing ship logistics vessels Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram, and the Atlantic Conveyor. Nine people were lost in the water from abandoning the Atlantic Conveyor, including the ship’s Captain Ian North, mostly through exhaustion and difficulty of entry to the 25-person RN-issued liferafts, exacerbated by “push-pull” effects of waves against the hull. [14]

Survivor accounts note how important was the strong relationship between the ship’s captain and the RN Liaison Officer in managing the abandonment of the ship consequent on the catastrophic fires.[15] Tragically, some died because of using equipment incorrectly.[16] [17] [18] [19] Howard Ormerod, a civilian survivor, recalls conflicting instructions on whether or not to jump from height wearing an inflated lifejacket. [20]

Wake-Up Call: The Falklands Experience and Its Impact on Systems and Training

James Stride, who used to command mobile sea training in the RN, emphasised that the Falklands experience in 1982 was a “wake-up” call leading to substantial revision of systems and training. [21] Admiral Lord West, who commanded HMS Ardent in the Falklands, comments that training beforehand had underplayed the effects of loss of communications when a ship has been badly damaged. [22] Graham Hockley, aboard HMS Antrim in the Falklands, recalls how learning was shared between ships during the campaign that smoke was more easily blown than extracted from compartments. [23] The Phoenix firefighting training facility with fire and smoke simulation at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth now comprises compartmented facsimile ship’s accommodation over three decks. [24] The current Havoc Damage Repair Instructional Unit (DRIU) facility at HMS Raleigh near Plymouth has a purpose-built, heelable, floodable multi-deck facility, [25] and DRIU training still draws on lessons learnt in the Falklands, validated by successful DC experience in the 2002 grounding of HMS Nottingham.[26] 

The next blog post in this series looks at the history of how wartime experience has led to radical improvements in equipment for life-saving and survivability of shipwreck at sea, particularly in cold water. 

  1. [1] Lt. Cdr. David Carter, conversation on 16 Mar 2023. The Royal Navy's Merchant Navy Liaison Officer, Master Mariner, and LNG carrier Master with 34 years’ experience at sea of which 16 in command; member of Maritime Advisory Board (MAB) of CHIRP, the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme.
  1. [2] Lavery, Hostilities Only, 263. A prototypical Damage Repair Instructional Unit (DRIU) was initially established in West London and then in Nissen huts at the four main RN bases, for the purposes of training how to stem the flow of water through penetrations in hull and bulkheads.
  1. [3] Last accessed 01 March 2023
  1. [4] The Admiralty Manual of Seamanship was first published in 1908 to 1909 in two volumes; revised and simplified in 1932 to 1937 still in two volumes; after WWII up to 1964 in three volumes (covering introductory, intermediate, and advanced seamanship); and after 1964 when the Admiralty was dissolved, being issued by HMSO for the Ministry of Defence;[1] (the 12th edition was published in 2015).
  1. [5] A Seaman’s Pocketbook: June 1943, By Authority of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty (London: Conway, 2006). It also contained with short subsections on personal safety, anti-flash precautions and first aid. In the introduction to a current re-edition of this (publicly available) Royal Navy Book of Reference 827, the social historian Brian Lavery explains that the Admiralty of Great Britain started to train its own seamen in the 1850’s, having formerly generally recruited ready-trained seamen from merchant service.
  1. [6] Admiral Sir Jonathon Band GCB, DL, conversation on 07 February 2023. Past First Sea Lord, who served in the RN 1967 to 2009 and subsequently as a non-executive director of Carnival Corporation & plc, owner of P&O Cruises and Cunard, and as past Chair of Trustees of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
  1. [7] R.W.H. Elsden, oral history IWM 16597. RNV(S)R merchant seaman officer serving on converted trawler HMT Ayrshire on Convoy PQ17 in July 1942. Imperial War Museum oral history archive. Accessed 30 January 2023. At the start of WWII there was no significant training for merchant seamen transferring to the RFA or RN, other than a basic Merchant Navy Defence Course, and short training for officers at the HMS King Alfred shore establishment
  1. [8]DLS Hood oral history IWM107086 Engineer on RFA Cairndale in North Atlantic 1939-40, sank May 1941 and RFA Gray Ranger in North Sea and Arctic 1941-42 sank Sept 1941. RW Crees oral history IWM10717 Merchant navy apprentice on SS Paulus Potter on Convoy PQ17. AE Clayton oral history IWM 10801 British merchant seaman who served aboard SS Copeland Convoy Rescue Ship in North Atlantic, 1941, and SS Zaafaran Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship (DEMS) 1942. GT Nye oral history IWM10764. JF Aylard oral history IWM 16673 RNR Acting sub-lieutenant on HMT Ayrshire on PQ17 in July 1942. All from the Imperial War Museum oral history archive. Accessed 30 January 2023.
  1. [9] Accessed 20 January 2023. Founded in 1941 at Aberdyfi in Wales by the innovative educator Kurt Hahn of Gordonstoun School and Lawrence Holt, of the family merchant shipping company which owned the Blue Funnel Line.
  1. [10] Great Britain Admiralty, Admiralty Manual of Seamanship (H.M. Stationery Office, 1964). Several types of lifejacket are described and illustrated, besides the general service lifejacket, and clear instruction is given on the use and maintenance of inflatable life rafts.
  1. [11] Board of Inquiry Report: Loss of RFAs Sir Tristram and the RFA Sir Galahad. 1982. Accessed 01 March 2023. The Atlantic Conveyor Board of Inquiry report noted both similarities and differences between RN and MN in firefighting and damage control organisation, primarily the lack of opportunity to test and recharge fixed firefighting systems, and shortcomings in broadcast and telephonic communications systems.
  1. [12] John Johnson-Allen, They Couldn’t Have Done It without Us: The Merchant Navy in the Falklands War (Woodbridge, UK: Seafarer, 2011).
  1. [13] Commodore David Squire, CBE, FNI, FCMI, conversation on 23 February 2023. Past Chief Executive of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary served 1963 to 1999 and subsequently Secretary of the Marine Accident Investigator’s International Forum and a Fellow of The Nautical Institute for whom he edited Alert! the International Maritime Human Element Bulletin, sponsored by Lloyd’s Register.
  1. [14] ‘Board of Inquiry: Loss of SS Atlantic Conveyor’, 1982, The National Archives, Annex F. Accessed 01 Mar 2023. The BoI report has been in the public domain since declassification in 2007.
  1. [15] 08 October 2022
  1. [16] J. Matthews RNM 2001/76 Oral history of Falklands abandonment of HMS Coventry in 1982, National Museum of the Royal Navy. Accessed 19 January 2023.
  1. [17] S. Overall, oral history about Falklands experience in HMS Coventry. Legasee project website. Accessed 16 February 2023.
  1. [18] S.A. Macfarlane oral history IWM16817. RN PO Artificer on HMS Coventry in Falklands conflict 1982. Imperial War Museum. Accessed 30 January 2023.
  1. [19] Dr Chris J. Brooks, ‘Survival in Cold Waters: Staying Alive’ (Ottowa, Canada: Transport Canada, Marine Safety Directorate, 2003), 68-69. The report illustrates the very simple and compact RN issue ‘once-only’ suit with a hood and drawstring neck closure, worn in a pouch round the waist and put on over ordinary clothes and lifejacket.
  1. [20] H. Ormerod, oral history of Falklands Atlantic Conveyor disaster, Royal Museums Greenwich Accessed 06 February 2023.
  1. [21] Commander James Stride RN ret’d., conversation 06 March 2023. Stride was Commander Mobile Sea Training for the Royal Navy in 2015 and is now Head of Maritime Governance at Carnival UK, the owner of Cunard and P&O Cruises.
  1. [22] Falklands40: The loss of HMS Ardent Accessed 20230109
  1. [23] Conversation with Commander Graham Hockley RN ret’d. LCVO, 19 Jan 2023. He served as a Marine Engineer lieutenant aboard HMS Antrim in the Falklands. After leaving the RN, Graham became Technical Director for the Institute of Marine Engineering Science and Technology (IMarEST), and subsequently Secretary to the Corporation of Trinity House until 2019.
  1. [24] Accessed 20230214 and Accessed 20230214
  1. [25] Accessed 6 May 2023
  1. [26] Sir Jonathon Band, conversation as noted above.
Stephen Bradley