The oiler PEARLEAF was launched in October of 1959 from the Scotstoun yard of the Blytheswood Shipbuilding Company for Jacob's & Partners of London. She is seen above on charter to the Royal Navy in the early seventies.
Above, an impressive aerial view of a Replenishment at Sea, featuring (left to right) HMS Euryalus (F15), RFA REGENT (A486), HMS Ark Royal (R09), RFA OLMEDA (A124) and HMS Galatea (F18). HMS Euryalus paid off in March 1989 whilst HMS Galatea was expended as a target in 1988.
Above, a pilot's eye-view of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service's 'OL' Class tanker RFA OLWEN (A122).
Affectionately known as the 'Grand Old Lady of the Fleet', the Royal Fleets Auxiliary Services' veteran tanker OLWEN enjoyed a distinguished career since her completion in 1965.
RFA personnel, together with their Royal Navy counterparts, are in no doubt as to the role performed by the service. With it's ships sailing under the Blue Ensign, and manned by civilians, the RFA is the specialist front-line support force for the Royal Navy, replenishing warships at sea with fuel, stores and weapons.
The practice of supplying the nation's warships with essential stores goes back almost as far as the Royal Navy itself. Vessels known as 'pinks' accompanied the squadrons of Drake and Frobisher in Elizabethan times and, during Hawke's siege of Brest in 1759, beer and bullocks were supplied from Plymouth. Throughout Nelson's Mediterranean campaigns his ships were supplied with stores brought by vessels from Gibraltar.
The idea of supplying ships at sea, while under way, gained importance as soon as sail gave way to steam. The first practical plans for coaling vessels of the fleet at sea were put forward by two R.N. officers in 1887. The method most favoured by the Admiralty was by means of a cableway which ran from the collier to the warship while the collier was being towed. The United States were the first to carry out under-way coaling experiments in 1899 and the first British trials took place in 1902. These involved the collier MURIEL and the battleship TRAFALGAR. The collier was towed by the battleship at speeds between 8 and 9 and a half knots while 30 tons of coal an hour was passed between the ships. This form of cableway was known as the 'Lidger-Miller' system.
The WAVE PRINCE (above,) ex Empire Herald, was typical of the 11,900 dwt. "WAVE" class as they appeared at the time of the Korean War. Note the twin goalposts supporting the long refuelling derricks. This ship and the WAVE BARON were refitted and modernised 1961-2. The last of the class, WAVE CHIEF, was broken up in 1974.
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1911 but it was not until 1913 that the term'Royal Fleet Auxiliaries"
actually appeared in the Navy List. Up to that time they had simply been designated "Fleet Auxiliarie". This Order
in Council defines the Merchant Navy status of the R.F.A. which still exists today and all R.F.A. vessels are manned by Merchant
Above, the RFA tanker GOLD ROVER refuels the frigates HMS Hardy (abeam) and the Exmouth (astern)
The 40 plus freighting tankers with which the R.F.A. ended WW1 were put out to commercial management afterwards and they did not return to Admiralty control until 1936. A large number of these vessels were sold or disposed of and, by 1921, the fleet consisted of 56 vessels plus the hospital ship MAINE. Little progress was made in re-equipping the fleet until the mid-thirties when a committee was set up to investigate and report on the future requirements of the service. The committee's report was presented in 1938 and in it they recognised that in a future emergency Britain's overseas bases might become inoperable and we would have to rely on mobile support afloat. In 1936 the merchant freighter LONDON IMPORTER was purchased and re-named RELIANT. She was used as a Naval Stores Issuing Ship. The store carrier BACCHUS came into service in 1937 as did the first of a new class of 11,500 dwt tankers which eventually became the 'Dale' class (ABBEYDALE, BISHOPDALE etc.) There were 8 vessels in this class at the outbreak of WW2.
The first acquisitions during the early WW2 years were a further ten "Dale' class tankers. Three of these were converted to gantry landing ships and saw service in the North African, Sicilian and Italian landings.
Six 3,000 dwt tankers of the 'Ranger' class were built in 1941 and the last of these went to the breakers in the late sixties. Replenishment at sea (RAS) had come a long way since its early years and most of the 'Leaf' and 'Dale' class tankers were fitted for under-way refuelling by both astern and abeam methods.
In 1937 experiments had led to the derrick method of abeam refuelling by which tha tanker and the warship would steer parallel courses and refuelling would be carried out by means of a three and half inch bronze fuelling pipe supported by a light steel line carried by a derrick sited in the waist of the tanker.
RFA OLWEN is seen here refuelling two US warships during NATO exercises in the Atlantic in September 1979. On the left is the 'Charles F. Adams' Class destroyer USS Tattnall and on the right is the 'Garcia' Class frigate USS Brumby
One of the principal problems in abeam refuelling was the suction effect caused by the interaction of the bow waves of the two vessels. This caused the vessels to be drawn together. In 1942 two German tankers, whose task was to replenish the battleship Bismarck, were captured with all their equipment. These were closely studied and the Admiraly was greatly impressed, especially by the use of rubber hoses which were found to be vastly superior to the bronze hoses the R.F.A. had used up to then. However, due to the shortage of materials, the changeover could not be undertaken immediately.
A number of commercial tankers were taken over at this time to act as escort tankers for the convoys and these were fitted for replenishment operations. Those that employed stern refuelling with rubber pipes were the most successful and the complete operation could be carried out in the comparitively short time of two hours in adverse weather conditions. Gradually the bronze pipes were replaced with rubber hoses and various other improvements made. These included the fitting of new derrick posts which enabled much longer derricks to be supported. With extra block & tackle the pipe could be held in two or more troughs, greatly reducing the risk of broken hoses. Another advance at this time was a self-tensioning winch which made the task of replenishment as sea much safer and easier.
Above - Diagrammatic representation of the abeam fuelling method using a jackstay rig. This is typical of earlier arrangements of the rig which was developed after WW2 and used in the late 40s and 50s. The main advantages over the earlier derrick method were that the ships could steam further apart and the hose could be held in more troughs.
Above - The main method used in the late 40s and 50s for transferring sstores was the heavy jackstay rig. It could transfer loads of up to a ton. Another heavy jackstay was used for loads up to 2 tons. The stores were transferred in slings or cargo nets. Note that all the winches are in the supply ship. The light jackstay rig, for loads of up to 500 lb., is very similar.
During the 50s the RFA service began to take on the form and role that it has today. In 1957 it operated 113 ships, compared
with 8 vessels in 1914.
SELF DEFENCE OF RFAs.
Two new Fleet Replenishment Ships were built in 1976 which replaced the RETAINER and the RESURGENT. The first, the FORT AUSTIN was launched in December and the second was named FORT GRANGE. Deadweight tonnage was around 7,200 tons and they had a service speed of about 20 knots. The ships carried supply ammunition, food and naval stores using both jackstay and vertical replenishment methods.
The Rover class of small fleet oilers is the oldest class of tanker still in service with the RFA. Designed in the mid to late 1960s, the original five Rovers were built between 1969 and 1974 by what was then Swan Hunter of Tyneside. Each vessel was designed to provide 'replenishment at sea whilst underway services' such as fuel, fresh water, dry cargo plus a limited amount of refrigerated stores.
'Rover' Class RFA tankers have a certain lofty style, this being well captured in the above view of RFA BLUE ROVER (A270/1970) leaving Portsmouth on January 13th 1992.
The Rover class served with distinction in the Falklands War of 1982, with some vessels ferrying fuel and supplies from the UK to Ascension Island. RFA BLUE ROVER entered the conflict zone and came under attack from Argentine aircraft in San Carlos Bay. Following the Falklands War, the class was refitted with two 20mm anti-aircraft guns mounted on the bridge wings alongside Corvus chaff launchers. The Rover Class is now quite aged. Already two of the class have been decommissioned and sold overseas for further service, with GREEN ROVER being sold in September 1992 to Indonesia. There she took on the name of ARUN and, in addition to providing tanker duties, also became the flagship of the Training Commander in the Indonesian fleet. Sister ship BLUE ROVER was sold less than six months later in March 1993 to the Portuguese navy and took the name of BERRIO. GREY ROVER, GOLD ROVER and BLACK ROVER will soldier on with the RFA until they are replaced by newbuilds or contracted ships. However, there are currently no plans to replace the three remaining members of the Rover class of replenishment tankers before 2007.
The official web site for the RFA may be found at www.rfa.mod.uk
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