The core part of the RFA’s work has always been and always will be the supply of fuel, stores and ammunition to ships of the Royal Navy, more recently whilst underway, or by what is termed a RAS or Replenishment at Sea. It is also true that the RFA, has over the decades taken on additional responsibilities and duties that make it today one of the most potent force multipliers in the world, but the core of our activities remains the all important RAS.


The core part of the RFA’s work has always been and always will be the supply of fuel, stores and ammunition to ships of the Royal Navy, more recently whilst underway, or by what is termed a RAS or Replenishment at Sea. It is also true that the RFA, has over the decades taken on additional responsibilities and duties that make it today one of the most potent force multipliers in the world, but the core of our activities remains the all important RAS.


The first RAS or as it was called then Oiling at Sea occurred in November 1905, shortly after the RFA had been formed, and was probably the first such operation in the world, though this was not to be for long, prior to this the Royal Navy had been a coal burning fleet and in the early years of the century was in transition from coal to oil.

In November 1905 the newly acquired RFA Petroleum, which had originally been built by Swan Hunters for Petroleum United Agencies of London and purchased by the Admiralty in March 1905, was converted so that she could carry bronze fuel hoses and the fittings necessary to deploy them. In the February of 1906, RFA Petroleum began oiling at sea trials with the capital ship HMS Victorious, the battleship towed the tanker, whilst a steel cable was passed from the tanker to the battleship, along this cable were a number of stirrups and suspended from the stirrups was the 5 inch bronze hose, unfortunately on this first occasion only water was passed along the fuel hose as HMS Victorious was not equipped to burn oil.



Oiling at Sea

Nothing else seems to have been done with oiling at sea until around 1910, when RFA Petroleum and RFA Kharki were both fitted with equipment that would allow them to tow, as well as be towed by another ship whilst transferring fuel, and in 1911 RFA Kharki conducted trials with the destroyers HMS Mohawk and HMS Amazon using the stirrup method, and this time a small amount of oil was transferred to each ship.

In the autumn of 1911 though the Commander in Chief Home Fleet reported that in his opinion “the use of tanker vessels for oiling destroyers at sea was unlikely to be of service and further trials were unnecessary”. This though was by no means the end of the story, if anything this is the beginning.

The equipment in the early years of re-fuelling was the Admiralty pattern 5 inch bronze hose, which was a spiral wound tube, not very flexible and prone to splitting, this was bad enough in harbour when the oiler was alongside her customer, but even worse at sea during these early trials when the hose was streamed out from the tanker to the receiving ship, usually around 450 feet away, added to this was the state of the sea and the ability of the quartermasters to keep the ships on a straight course, so it was no surprise that disasters occurred.

In April of 1915 the Admiralty again decided to try oiling at sea trials, this time using a commercial oiler ss Ottawa (2,742 grt, 1888) of the Anglo American Oil Company, with the destroyer HMS Beaver, this was repeated the following month with the destroyers HMS Hind and HMS Hydra using the stirrup method and seems to have been successful as small amounts of fuel were passed to the receiving ships.



ss Ottawa


HMS Beaver

There does not appear to have been much work done to advance oiling at sea techniques during the First World War, and after 1919 and peace in Europe a large number of RFA ships were either being sold off, laid up or placed on commercial charter. It was not until 1921 that the oiling at sea trials began again in earnest, this time between RFA Francol and the cruiser HMS Cairo, two years later RFA Prestol and RFA Carol conducted trials and in this experiment RFA Prestol towed RFA Carol, both of these used the stirrup method, with the ships being towed by or towing the receiving ship.

During 1926 the fast ‘Leaf’ class RFA Brambleleaf undertook trials with the battleship HMS Ramillies using the stirrup method, then RFA Belgol took over and this time used the abeam trough method, it seems that from this latest series of trials came the decision in 1932 to hold an extended series of trials across all Fleet commands using both methods to ascertain the most efficient method of oiling at sea which would be adopted as the standard.

From this series of trials came the following recommendations for a standard method of refuelling at sea: The stirrup method using a hose and hawser was to be abandoned, the trough method of abeam fuelling was to be adopted as the method used when fuelling destroyers from larger ships at sea, or in exposed anchorages. All gear used in the stirrup method was to be stripped down and the equipment used to supplement the gear on board the oiler.

The trials had also found that it was possible for two or more ships to be fuelled at the same time using the abeam method, and it was also possible to use two hose on one ship, this would prove advantageous when fuelling larger ships that required more fuel or multiple fuels like aircraft carriers.

Whilst all this was going on, our friends across the pond had been quietly working on the problem of oiling at sea and had developed techniques that would enable them to deploy large fast fleet tankers, capable of replenishing all manner of warships whilst underway. This was to become very important during the course of the Second World War, when the US Navy operated huge battle groups, often far from support bases in the Pacific, these battle groups were able to stay at sea far longer than their British counterparts, due in most respects to the fact that they had overcome many of the problems the Royal Navy was still facing, the all important underway replenishment.

The problem of fuel hoses had been looked at in the 1930’s, when it was proposed to purchase buoyant hoses, unfortunately the finances needed to develop the necessary equipment was not available and the idea was shelved. Surprisingly, the first buoyant rubber hoses in use with the Royal Navy were captured from German tankers the Gedania and Lothringen, which were captured in 1941, the oiling at sea gear from Gedania was landed at Greenock in October 1941 and placed on board RFA Gray Ranger for trials.

The British problems still hampered their ability to conduct operations far from home as the oiling at sea techniques they employed were still largely in the rudimentary stage, for example look at the technique employed by the oiler RFA Olynthus when refuelling the cruiser HMS Ajax after the Battle of the River Plate. The tanker had to employ hurricane hawsers to complete the operation, whilst being protected by HMS Achilles and Exeter which could have proved disastrous if there had been enemy U Boats in the area and given that all of the cruisers had sustained damage during the battle.

During the Second World War the standard method of refuelling was by the stirrup method over the stern, though on occasion the abeam method was used as necessary, especially when RFA tankers were engaged as convoy escort oilers, these ships used derricks from which the fuel hose was suspended. RFA crews had some experience of the crude 1930’s system but the ships available were too few, small and slow for the work they were required to undertake, so a considerable programme of adaption of commercially owned vessels had to be undertaken. The plan was to supply commercial tankers with adequate towing gear; flexible hose and adapted pipe work onboard these ships to deliver fuel to the stern of the tanker, which was not the normal position for discharging fuel in these vessels.

As the war progressed and the convoy system became more intense, a number of RFA Tankers found themselves acting as escort oilers, especially in the Atlantic and the convoys to Russia. Refuelling a convoy escort was not an easy task, especially in the waters of the North Atlantic, and the success of the operation depended on the tanker having the fuel pre-heated in the tank to ensure a free flow, a competent crew able to stream the hose to the receiving ship and room to manoeuvre in. Provided these ‘ideal’ conditions endured, then it was possible for the receiving ship to obtain the fuel they needed at a reasonable rate to ensure they received an adequate supply to keep them on station.

As we have already discussed, the stern method was the normal method of refuelling and it became the practice for escort oilers to be stationed in the central column of the convoy, with an empty space astern, usually the escort oiler would be the second ship in the column, with the next ship in the fourth position. An alternative was to place two tankers in the second position of two columns of three, with the central column consisting of the leading ship only. There would then have been adequate space for the receiving ship to then steam up the empty column and for the tanker to move outward from its position in the convoy, into the clear area for the refuelling operation.

Right up to the war in the Pacific in 1944/45 the US Navy was able to deploy large, fast purpose built fleet tankers that could keep up with a battle group, refuel them whenever they required in a combat situation to keep the fleet at the peak of readiness. The American Navy had been developing this system for nearly twenty years and the ships in the Pacific theatre in World War 2 bore testament to this. Two classes of ship that were on active service were USS Ashtabula, an Ashtabula Class Fleet Oiler, and USS Neosho a Cimarron Class Fleet Oiler both around 25,000 tons, 550 feet long with a beam of 75 feet and a draught of around 30 feet, these ships were heavily armed and capable of 18 knots, through their double reduction geared turbines and twin shafts.



USS Neosho

In contrast, the Royal Navy’s newest tankers in the Pacific Fleet Train were the Wave Class oilers that had been completed prior to being deployed to the far East, they were only capable of 15 knots and had relatively untried crews, to add to this they were still using the old astern method of refuelling, or if they did use the abeam method, this was usually in an anchorage in calm conditions. The US Navy kindly loaned some of their tankers to ensure that the British Pacific Fleet was always ready to operate wherever they were needed, which overcame the problem in the short term, but a more long lasting solution was needed.



Fleet Train RAS

Lessons learned from the US Navy in the Pacific and the oiling at sea gear captured from German Tankers gave the RFA much needed practical experience of abeam refuelling methods, which was quickly adapted as the standard method of RAS and the RFA very quickly became proficient in this technique, in the second part of this article we will explore the development of RAS techniques since the end of the Second World War.




Things we do Part 2 - Coming Soon


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