I joined the RFA as an Engineer Cadet in September 1961 and spent two years at Kingston upon Thames College of Further Education with 12 other cadets (2 RFA, 4 Shaw Saville, 2 BP, 4 Esso) studying for an OND in Marine Engineering – quite strange really as most of the other college classes were studying aeronautical things with Hawker Aviation being a major employer in the town.


By Peter Maddison


Clearing out some draws prior to moving I came across the enclosed menu card from the Hong Kong Bar and Restaurant near the Sembawang gate of the Singapore Naval Base. Given that the price of anything from the 1960’s seems almost unbelievable these days it still makes interesting reading.


During the 60’s the MOD/RFA fed all their officers on 5 shillings and 8 (old) pence per day, ‘5/8d, which is about 28 pence in modern money. For this we got well fed, and if the Catering Officer was worth his mustard it was good grub as well. Not all Catering Officers were brilliant, this was a new post in the 60’s as before that a PO Chief Steward used to do all the catering, and still did on smaller non front line ships (Hebe, Bacchus, Harbour Oilers, Rangers etc)

menu2  menu3  


Fourth Engineer - RFA Olwen 17.07.1968 to 12.07.1969


Having had a good time for 9 months on Olna in the Far East and Australia I was a little bit reluctant to join Olwen when I found out that she was to be the home fleet tanker based in Rosyth. Gone were the warm humid days in Singapore to be replaced by wet and cold Scotland.

As mentioned in my remembrances as a junior engineer on the Tidereach all of the old Tide boats (Reach, Flow, Surge and Austral) where designed by a committee incorporating all the experience learned from the second world war. This in particular led to unusually complex ships with a steam version and an electric version of just about every pumping system on the ship except the main turbo feed pumps and the main turbo cargo pumps. The layout was determined by the technology then available and the limitations in metallurgy for control valves etc.

A Junior Engineer - March 1965 – May 1966


My apprenticeship came to an abrupt end when I joined RFA Tidereach in refit at Birkenhead. The original Tide boats (Reach, Flow, Surge and Austral) were very much ships designed by a committee, just like a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The committee, I’m sure, had the best of intensions of incorporating war gained experience into the overall design and overcoming the limitations of technology available in the early 1950’s when they were designed.


I had earlier spent about three months on the Tidespring which was altogether a much newer (1962) and perhaps a more commercial design which went on to be developed into the “Super Tide” design in the even bigger, better and later (1965) “O” boats (Olna, Olwen and Olmeda). This short time on the Tidespring in no way prepared me for what I was to find in the Tidereach.


I joined Tidereach in late March 1966 when the ship had just started a much needed refit in Cammel Lairds’ dockyard at Birkenhead on the Mersey. A whole group of us joined on the same day and we could only find reasonable digs in the MN Officers Hotel (Plimsol House) across the water in Liverpool. No problem, it was a nice walk to the underground station to catch the train under the water to Hamilton Square station in Birkenhead and a short walk to the docks.


In the ship we were allocated cabins (proper cabins with steel bulkheads and rivets between each one not like current construction using MDF or chipboard between cabins) but we couldn’t move in readily with all the chipping and painting going on inside and outside the accommodation, new cables being run etc.


The ship was in a dreadful state and had just returned from 14 months in the far-east. Although just over 10 years old seemed to have suffered a tremendous amount of problems and defects. Some of these were electrical and the importance of correcting them we did not appreciate at the time.


To summarise, there had been major boiler tube problems with soot blockage and tube fouling due to defective soot blowers. The main gear box bearings were running hot (160 degrees f+). Problems with the tubes inside the giant de-superheater in the boiler room and just about everything else required attention. No problem, out it all came onto the dockside and into the workshops for repair/overhaul and we could see there would be great improvements in our lot when we sailed in several weeks time –how wrong could we be, it was now mid April and most of the kit was ashore.


We became aware of a grave problem, a National Seaman’s strike, was being proposed for sometime towards the end of the month of April, (the official strike actually started 16th May and lasted until 1st July).


The National Union of Seamen wanted a reduction in the working week from 56 to 40 hours for ratings and PO’s (note - not including Officers who worked 56 hrs on just watch-keeping duties alone) but the collective ship owners turned this down flat. The MOD was determined not to have Tidereach trapped in dock with no crew for the foreseeable future at the end of its refit.


Everything that had gone ashore to be repaired was returned to the ship as was, defects and all, and reinstalled whence it came. Any engineer will tell you that disturbed machinery is likely to be a worse performer because of the disturbance than it was before –even in its defective state - and so it was.


The main boilers were in the process of some partial re-tubing and de-scaling and this continued day and night until complete with scant regard to the rubbish that fell into the bilges from the hundreds of manhole door joints that had to be removed and then replaced after removing and expanding the tubes. Preparations were made to flash up the boilers to refloat the safety valves in the presence of the Lloyds insurance surveyor after a successful water pressure test to one and a half times the working pressure of 450 psi. Feed water was taken on from shore and small tipped oil sprayers made ready for the initial start up.

This picture shows the boiler room crew about to flash up No 2 boiler while his colleagues look on pensively



The main gear box bearings had been removed to investigate the overheating problems and it was decided to re-machine the bearings in a most extraordinary way and convert them into “Cammella” bearings with the bearing metal bored eccentrically in 3 different planes, 120 degrees apart, along its axis. This would increase the oil flow, and hence cooling, whilst holding the shaft in the same relative position as before.


The majority of the electric motors were reunited with their pumps and fans but in some cases would only work in slow or the slowest, speed.


Problems had been experienced with the stern gland and the propeller was removed, the tail shaft drawn inboard and the lignum vitae wooden strips replaced, the prop shaft was then “bedded in” on to the lignum vitae, inspected again, and on completion pushed out again. The stern gland was repacked and the propeller reinstalled. A new bearing was fitted to the bottom of the rudder stock, new zinc sacrificial anodes were welded to the hull, new antifouling paint applied and off we went.


Well not quite.


The engine room crew was made up of a mixture of hard men from Liverpool and Newcastle, who realising that a strike was imminent had decided to ship out rather than wait for the strike to be settled (the official strike lasted six weeks and unofficial action several weeks before and after that). Most of the men were very good with the odd one who liked a drink. They were mostly non-RFA contract (i.e. from the MN shipping pool in Liverpool) and had not been on an RFA ship before. The following picture shows me and two of the greasers amid some of the chaos on deck.

Me and two of the “hard men” greasers who became good friends over the next 14 months


After a good deal of coaxing we started the diesels, cast off the shore electricity supply and then fired up the scotch boiler which took 24 hours to warm through. We still lived ashore and did 12hrs on and 24hrs off as the cabins still were not ready. The next day we flashed up the No 1 main boiler and the first Indications of the problems ahead began to manifest themselves. There were 8 engine and boiler room ventilation supply fans, but only one fan in the boiler room and one in the engine room would run at full speed, two each in each place would only run at slow speed and one in each place would not run at all. As the pressure went up in the boiler, so did the temperature in the boiler room. The de-superheater, a pressure vessel 3ft diameter and 12 ft long was completely un-insulated as the long stranded glass fibre insulation had been removed to get at its innards. The Pipes and the steam/steam generators had insulation missing etc., etc. The temperature got up to 130 degrees F (50 degrees C) at the boiler fronts on a cold day in March in the UK with frost and snow on the deck.


The boiler steam safety valves were floated by the ship yard staff and witnessed by the Lloyds man but this must have woken everybody for miles and the muck and dust in the boiler room were indescribable. This had to be repeated twice more for the two other main boilers as they were water tested and then flashed up.


Valve glands leaked, steam rose from strange places but eventually the boilers were connected to the steam range and steam admitted gingerly to the engine room. A few more leaks and drains were found left open but we could then run the main turbo generators, well one anyway as the other one was nearly complete after re-jointing the HP inlet manifold.


In amongst all these problems we managed to sign on in front of the shipping master on the 27th April with a full crew of seamen, stewards, firemen and greasers.


By this time, leaks and draining steam lines etc. had caused the bilges to rise in the boiler room so it was decided to start the steam bilge pump in the engine room (better suction then a rotary pump) but it was found that the strum boxes became blocked almost immediately. I can remember lifting the floor plates over the strum box wells and sitting on the tank tops up to my armpits in warm dirty water with my feet dangling into the wells removing the square and oval hand hole door joints discarded from the boiler fronts, fibre glass insulation and all the other detritus of a refit before we could pump out the bilge (through the oily water separator naturally!).


We had to sail before the end of April as once we had signed on and sailed the crew were thought to be exempt from participating in the strike.

The photo shows one of the Fourths having a blow after a mind and body building exercise of opening the feed and main steam valves (and the auxiliaries and double isolators of each) on No 1 boiler.


Eventually some semblance of order was achieved, proper watches set and preparations made to sail to Devonport to take on fuel and stores. Although everyone had been to sea before on steam ships it took some quiet watches before we sailed to trace pipes and valves, controls and whatnot to ensure that we could operate safely and securely.


We sailed before the end of the month and found our first major problem, No 1 & 2 boiler forced draft fans were satisfactory and ran up to full speed as we got “full away” but No 3 fan kept tripping off the electrical switch board when full fan speed was asked for. As we could still manage 17 knots on two and a half boilers it was not critical but an unwanted problem.


We docked at Yonderbury and loaded FFO, Diesel, Mogas, and some Avcat, water, drummed and bulk lubricating oil of various types and then across to the dockyard to load everything else from food to cordage, engine spares to fridge gas, clothes to cocoa powder, beer to brasso etc, etc.


Most ships in this state then proceeded to Portland for a work up with the nice gentlemen from FOST culminating in the traditional Thursday war. I don’t remember there being much of a work up and I’m sure it was limited to just one RAS with Blue (or Black) Ranger from each RAS rig to prove it worked and train the new seamen and off we went to the Azores area for work up – anywhere but away from the UK.


The auto tension winches were tested and worked reasonably but lots of work had to be done on all the other winches (about 25) by the Day-work third, the 3 day-work Juniors, the three Engine room Apprentices and the Second Engineer on packing glands, scraping and refitting the white-metal bearings .


It was believed that sometime after construction of the early Tides that some (I say “some”) thought was given to nuclear fallout and contamination and how to shut down for NBCD issues in the event of an atomic war. The simple way out was to extend all important valve spindles by rods and gears into a special hot steel “wardrobe” called the engine control centre built into the bulkhead between the engine and boiler room in the hottest place on the ship and lock the engineers in. It was an impossible dream, it was hot enough to kill you as no air could be used to cool the room in case it was contaminated and the valve rod drives would have given hernias to one and all – cooked first and strained after.


The photo above shows the Second and Daywork Third Engineers discovering the wonders of the auto tension winch. The state of the deck should also be noted as most ships received lick of grey and green paint before leaving refit, but not Tidereach due to the rush. The triple expansion steam reciprocating engine driving the auto tension winch is under the square cover to the right of the engineers and some of the five steam winches surrounding each of the five RAS stations can be seen. The blue painted end covers behind the engineers are filters for diesel or avcat fuel prior to delivery to other ships.


The deck crew had a similar galling time renewing much of the standing and running rigging on each RAS position and then trying to train the deck crew into RAS procedures. There were no enclosed winch control rooms, just dirty, noisy, open steam winches controlled by a man on each for the three troughs that supported the hoses and the topping winch to lower the RAS rig outboard and one for the hose retrieval.


Painting ship came along way down the priority list but I’m sure it broke the Chief Officers heart to see the ship in such a state.

This picture is looking aft and amongst other things shows the small swimming pool bolted on deck.


The ship was dispatched to the Azores area to work up on the edge of a major fleet exercise giving the minimalist work up ever. After a few days progress was made in all things RASing and we made for Gibraltar and moored to the detached mole to prevent any absconders jumping ship. The idea was that we should then make for Aden (missing Malta) and there undertake an assisted self maintenance period to bring us up to scratch!!!!!!


We set off through the Mediterranean for Port Said, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. It got hotter every day with more and more complaints of lack of air conditioning and air flow generally both amidships and aft. As one of the watch keeping Juniors I was given the additional task of investigation the problems with the A/C in my time off watch.


On the face of it the system seemed to indicate it was working well. There was a refrigeration compressor on the after side of the mid-ship’s accommodation that seemed to be taking the correct amperage, making the correct noises (loudly) and indicated the correct pressures. The fans had drive belts and were taking the correct amps. Where next?


I found in the stores an old manometer that would indicate air pressure when filled with water and I started at the furthest end to find any air pressure within the A/C trunking. I was looking for dropped fire dampers etc. but the results were to say the least, disappointing. The air pressure was rising slowly as we approached the fans. We eventually got to the fans themselves which also incorporated the cooling coil from the refrigeration compressor. One side the air pressure was about 1 inch water gauge, the other side it was more than 24 inches and it blew all the water out of the manometer. The problem was blocked and dirty refrigeration coil/fins. At sometime in the dim distant past a fibreglass/paper filter bag had burst and the pieces had blocked the majority of the airflow through the cooling coil fins. We spent many hours cleaning out the pieces and soon achieved full cooling everywhere midships with good airflow.


I had been helped by the daywork greaser who then asked that we should look at the similar system in the aft accommodation. We duly went straight to the plant room with the fan in and found exactly the same problem. We were able to clean the cooling coils in a reasonably short time and push some chilled air round the after accommodation where it was badly needed due to the heat coming up through the deck from the Engine and Boiler rooms. A greaser fried an egg on the deck of his cabin, in front of the Captain, during Saturday Rounds to indicate the heat, cut down oil drums were poking out of the ports in each cabin aft, hardly suitable in NBC condition one.


Both A/C systems ran for some months before we got to Singapore and were able to fit new filters and have the coil system steam cleaned for even better results. We even got free beer for a few days.


I don’t want to give the impression that everything was doom and gloom but it was hard work for those first few months. The assisted maintenance period in Aden passed very quickly and we only had limited assistance from ashore for some of the electrical rewinds that were found to be absolutely necessary, i.e. the ventilation fans and the fire and bilge pump motor and starter. I think Aden was chosen to stop for a refit as nobody in their right mind would jump ship there to join the strike back in the UK.


We had about 2 weeks in Aden and set off to meet the ARK. Ark Royal was the far-east carrier that year and had about four escorts most of the time.


Bum boats in Aden sold everything electrical


RAS with Ark Royal in the Gulf of Aden


Pump-over and beer/spares exchange with the homeward bound Tidesurge


Drummed (or dammed) lube oil being transferred


Tidesurge’s dog “George” being transferred to the Tidereach in the Gulf


“George” in the arms of a seaman and safely on Tidereach


Top up pumpover with Pearleaf

The following are high or low lights taken from letters home which I found my mother had kept when she moved house, not comprehensive (would not write it all home anyway) but indicative of our trip.









Liverpool - Plimsol House


Train to Birkenhead, found digs



Liverpool - Plimsol House


Refit, Flashed No1 Blr



Liverpool - Plimsol House


Refit, Diesel Generator running



Liverpool - Plimsol House

Signed on




Liverpool - Plimsol House

on watch, living ashore, 12 on, 24 off

Testing Systems



living on Tidereach

May sail tomorrow, 12 - 4 watch for next 3 months, no work up in Portland, to Azores area for workup





With Wave Chief acting as submarines in exercise off Gib. On to Port Said and Aden

Loaded bunkers only and 2000tons avgas for Aden




aircon not good, 147deg f in boiler room, 3 firemen flaked out.

discharge avgas, load FFO, Dieso



Beira Patrol

Next 8 weeks on Beira patrol in Mozambique Channel

RASing and pump over with Pearleaf



near Seychelles

Due 3 hrs in Seychelles and then Mombasa

RAS Carysforth, Leander, Eskimo, Mohawk, Fort Charlotte



At Seychelles





near Mombasa

past 36 days at sea.

RAS Eagle in Mombasa harbour, sail to Aden load then Muscat to escort HMS Maxton to Cochin, RAS Albion, escort Maxton to Penang and then due Singapore 20th Aug for self maintenance



Sailed Mombasa

36 days at sea, off Beira.




Off Beira

Pump over with Bayleaf,7500 tons FFO, 3000tons dieso, 2500 gall avgas, 3000 tons avcat

RAS Moorhen, Mohawk, Ghurkha, Troubridge and Carrisforth




Escorting Maxton to Cochin

Not more than 150 miles from the coast at any one time. 10 kts max.

Special 3” hose rigged to refuel



off Cochin

RAS Albion

Due Singapore 10 days time



at Singapore

Self maintenance

May go to states via NZ and Fiji with Victorious






off Borneo

Tawau, New Guinea/ with Ghurkhas to collect or destroy boats and they blew up ammunition dump

Prisoners on board in aft rope locker being looked after by Ghurkhas

RAS Tidespring and Tidepool




Total blackout exercise with Americans, along side pump over with Appleleaf

Back to Borneo, back to S'pore for boiler clean etc about 23rd




R & R in Penang for 4 days





RASed fleet returning from trip to Australia

15 RASes



Pala Pangkor

R & R on our own, RN and RAN in Penang

Sailing, BBQ ashore, all very good




Problems with soot blower and are using F.O.S.S. Treatment to clear tubes




Singapore area

Visit Olynthus before she left for South America via Pacific




Hong Kong

At Stonecutter's island, back in "blues"

RASed 10 ships on the way




Due to sail 11th Jan. for Mombasa, relief ship Tideflow has had fire. May delay us home





Programme :- Sail Mombasa 24th, Beira Patrol, 26th Feb Mombasa, sail 8th March, Beira Patrol, till 18 April, Aden 24th April, Plymouth 9th May

mail collected by Tidesurge



Mozambique Channel

Dispatched Lynx to Capetown am today. Mail via Beira and Lisbon in sealed bag - first time

RAS Lynx, Diana, Falmouth and Sirius



Mozambique Channel

Mail drop by plane from Nairobi




Mozambique Channel

near Mombasa, Pearleaf on station while we are away. Due to sail Mombasa 7 March then 71 days at sea, 60 down the Moz. Channel and then up the Gulf to load

RAS Relentless, Nubian Minerva



Mozambique Channel





Mozambique Channel

Should be relieved by Plumleaf on 21st and start our way home, calling/loading Aden




Mozambique Channel

Leaving Moz. Channel tomorrow, Plumleaf on Station, due 97 days leave





Signed off

Home at last



The engineering problems continued without let up. I noted stern gland failed, had to transfer cargo for’d to get pressure off prop shaft and allow us to attempt to repack stern gland. Evaporator cooling pump seized, found black and yellow sea snake wrapped round impellor – sea inlet strainer had dissolved.


Soot blowing became a major issue with leaking soot blowers and defective seals around the boiler fronts. The junior of the watch used to blow tubes and had to find any protective sacking or rags to cover face and hands whilst blowing tubes. Some soot blowers were located in the hottest part of the boiler room (160 degrees) and when it was finished I used to stagger out into the crews accommodation for a blow on deck for a few minutes. I can still taste the sulphur all these years after. The soot blowers became so ineffective either due to defects or less than diligent operation that the superheaters became blocked and the steam temperature fell causing very inefficient working of the main engine and turbo generators and cargo pumps. Fuel consumption increased alarmingly. FOSS fuel treatment was tried by adding it down the sounding tube in the air-conditioning flat above the bunker tanks. This additional task was undertaken for the rest of the trip. The 25ltr drums of thick white liquid were bulk loaded to us in Singapore.


In Hong-Kong an emergency was declared as following a serious accident there was not enough blood in the blood bank. The Australian Red Cross in Hong-Kong were tasked with getting blood out of us stones and did so by sending around all the ships in the harbour the most stunning tall girls you could wish to see with the added inducement of a bottle of beer for each pint of blood donated. It didn’t take long for us to realise that no real check was been taken of who had given blood and had beer, so round we went again, pint for pint. Straight to the head it went. I had been given the task of freeing off the internals of the ships siren (the rotating innards had seized) – I’m sure it was tested more than it should have been and I’ve still got two stickers for my blood donors card issued on the same day


During our time off Borneo I was on day work and had just rebuilt one of the ships lifeboat engines and it was decided that we needed to test it and run it in. Several cases of beer were obtained and four of us juniors and apprentices took the boat away to a local island for a banyan and drink. We reached the shore and decided we would all run up this little hill and play whose the king of the castle (really) which we did until we found the hill was a hornets’ nest and we were chased back to the boat by angry hornets. One of the other juniors was stung quite badly as we set off back to the ship. He felt it would be better if he went for a swim. He duly dived in to the sea – straight into the biggest pale purple jelly fish you could think of and as it was the size of a dustbin he went right into it and out the other side adding even more stings to his body. We got back to the ship very quickly and he was hospitalised by the doctor who arranged a helicopter from Victorious to get him back to Singapore hospital and eventually back to the UK.


During our time on the Far East station problems were encountered with a type of fungus that seemed to grow on the air/liquid interface in the avcat tanks. It was thought to have been the cause of several Buccaneers either crashing or nearly so. It was thought that the growth was in our tanks so special filter packs were shipped out to us and we then proceeded to change all of our avcat filters. Each filter was about 10 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter and had thousands of filter packs inside, all of which had to be changed for a much finer grade of filter which slowed down the throughput greatly.


I noted in my diary the following incident which would only happen somewhere like the Beira Patrol – miles from anywhere:-


All the pipes that went across the tank deck (air, steam, condensate, fire main, pre wetting, etc.etc) were collected at the forward port side of the boiler room and rose vertically in a trunking to the deck where they turned 90 degrees in a housing about 6ft sq and 10 feet long. A watertight door was provided, which, when opened allowed the hot fumes from the boiler room to escape.


The junior on watch reported zero fire main pressure and the recip. pump going mad as there seemed to be no resistance. The fourth came running into the engine room to inform the third that we must have struck an iceberg (seen too many Titanic films) as water was pouring in from behind No 1 boiler. It transpired that the 6” fire main had ruptured either in the pipe trunking or in the housing on deck and was cascading into the boiler room.


Well, all hands turned to and the first job was to rig a temporary connection from the firemain in the engine room, up through the accommodation and out to a connection on deck using rubber RAS hoses. The deck storekeeper was asked for flange connections to fit the threads on the hoses, which he did although the flanges themselves had to be drilled out to a different PCD. This system worked but it was a little untidy as engine room access doors and accommodation doors had to be left open.


It was decided to strip out the defective pipe in the trunking and replace it with a shorter length of rubber RAS hose so making the job much neater.


The Tidereach, like all other ships of her time (before computer assisted designs) was built on the “Olympic” system. The fastest pipe fitter who ran from the dock gate to the job put his pipe in straight, the rest had to bend their pipes round the first one. That is just what we found when we tried to take out the defective pipe, it was like a snakes wedding in the trunking. It took over a week just to get the pipe out (no gas cutting gear or welding sets). The day workers split into two shifts doing 6 hrs on, 6 hrs off with the watch keepers providing 2 hrs assistance either before the start of their watch or for 2 hrs after their watch and the greasers and firemen did likewise.


The pipe was duly trimmed back to a suitable flange in the boiler room and the RAS hoses inserted in the trunking and up to the deck where it left the housing via the watertight door (with a suitable hole chain drilled into it to take the hose and coupling) out onto the deck and reconnected to the existing fire main using only 3 lengths of hose as against 7 or 8 for the temporary hose previously rigged.


The engineers celebrated after the completion of the fire main replacement by having a yard of ale drinking contest for the day workers “on the house” so to speak using Tiger beer which was nice and gassy. We all seemed to do quite well although some were more messy drinking the yard than others.


During the various stints in on the Beira patrol beer and spirits ran short and consequently minds turned to other ways of obtaining alcohol. The Engine Room storekeeper seemed to have the simplest idea to produce “White Lightning” rather than the complex operation of home brewing using rice or currents that was being carried on. All it took was a loaf of bread and a couple of dozen tins of shoe polish (where they came from nobody ever knew). The polish was melted and poured through the loaf of bread that had had the ends cut off. The bread filtered out the black colour and imparted some yeast into the colourless liquid. It had the qualities of raw vodka and never left the PO’s bar. It was only for serious drinkers and I only partook of a small glass once.


I think it was on this last Beira patrol that we were asked to come up with ideas for a ships crest. It seems strange to think that Tidereach was 10 years old and had no crest (unsure whether other old Tides had them or not, Tidepool and Tidespring did). All sorts of drawings were proposed but the engineers came up with the rolling dice motif as it was a gamble if we would get home or not given the state of the kit. As the engineers outnumbered everyone else their view on life prevailed and the rolling dice became the motif of the crest for Tidereach.


The ship eventually arrived back in Devonport in May 1966. Most of the ships company paid off but some engineers who had only recently joined had to stay on. The Tidereach would normally have a 3 week commercial refit each year but remained in the dockyard at Devonport over the next three months and underwent a major refit where a lot of the pipework was replaced and the soot blowers sorted at last as well as the electrics. Tidereach went on to serve until the mid 70’s and was laid up in the mid 1970’s before disposal in 1979, the last of the UK Tide Boats. Tide Austral went on till 1985 following a 15 month refit in the late 1970’s


I went on leave with a heaviness of heart in-case I was posted to another old Tide, but there was a God and I was posted to the good ship OLNA (O Lord, Never Again) which is another story for another time.

The Apprentice - September 1961 – September 1963


I joined the RFA as an Engineer Cadet in September 1961 and spent two years at Kingston upon Thames College of Further Education with 12 other cadets (2 RFA, 4 Shaw Saville, 2 BP, 4 Esso) studying for an OND in Marine Engineering – quite strange really as most of the other college classes were studying aeronautical things with Hawker Aviation being a major employer in the town.

Kingston College


When the college shut for the summer holidays in June 1963 we were sent by our various shipping companies to experience heavy industry and ship building etc. – I was sent to Portsmouth Dockyard for 3 months, my colleague went to Devonport.


I was assigned to “Fitters Afloat – West” signing in by 0700 in No 4 Boathouse and went on to work day (and night) on all sorts of ships and boats assisting in solving problems on prop-shaft alignment (HMS Rampart), problems with the paddles on the diesel electric paddle tug (HMT Grinder), deck steam pipes and winches on PAS “Freshford”, Main throttle valves on HMS Victorious, sea and engine trials on the tribal class frigate (HMS Eskimo), engine trials on HMT Brigand, re-rigging miles of lifting cables on a 200 ton floating crane 100 feet up in the air and much more including replacing some of the stern cabin timbers of the great cabin of HMS Victory in No 1 dock.


Wave Knight – 1st October 1963 – 1st February 1964

At the end of September I was assigned to my first ship, the war time built steam tanker “Wave Knight” (A249), and duly travelled by train to Rosyth Dockyard arriving about 1600 with another Engineer and two Deck cadets only to find that the ship had sailed early and would be docking in Invergordon at about 1400 the next day. We stayed overnight in a local hotel and travelled the 200 miles to Invergordon the next day by car and van.

RFA Wave Knight

We duly reported onboard and then had the problem of how to “sign on”. Invergordon was not a normal signing on point and to comply with the Merchant Navy regulations we had to be signed on by a “shipping master” who was out and about his other jobs as coast guard, inspector of lobster pots, postman etc. He was eventually found (long before mobile phones) and all four of us formally “signed on”. The ship was made ready for sea and sailed about 1700.


The ship headed due east out of the Cromarty Firth and we cadets expected it to turn south for warmer climes and warmer women. But no, a north turn occurred and we headed for the coast of Norway for a NATO exercise. The ships involved included 4 aircraft carriers (Eagle, Hermes, Bonaventure (Canadian) and Karl Doorman (Dutch) both ex British. Each had their own escorts of 3 to 6 destroyers as well as cruisers etc, etc. The RFA tanker force was represented by Tidespring, Tidepool, Wave Prince and Wave Knight.


I note in my letters home that we RASed 109 times in just over 3 weeks in all sorts of times, weather and black outs. The ship had been de-manned to second line “freighting status” with only a Chief, second, third, fourth and three junior engineers and 2 Eng Cadets, there would have normally been another third and fourth engineer and 3 cadets and extra deck officers to facilitate RASing but she was due to go to the Falkland Islands in the spring of 1964 on her last freighting run. In the engine room it was normal when RASing to have the senior of the watch double up for 2 hours before his watch and the junior of the watch to do 2 extra hours after his watch and the cadets run the turbo pumps in the pump rooms at all hours of the day or night supervised by the Second engineer.


The 4 RFAs formed a convoy protected by 9 escorts and the submarine Dreadnought attempted to sink us – I don’t know who won.


When I joined Wave Knight I was given a daffodil bulb, a flower pot and some peat and was told to grow the bulb the best way I could and it would be judged on Christmas Day. The Mates on the bridge had gimbals made and with mirrors ensured that any sun there was directed onto the bulbs whilst the engineers discovered that the foam making chemical for the fire fighting system contained hydrolyzed oxes blood which was a very good organic fertiliser and sprayed that onto their growing bulbs which were being nurtured in the dark warm recesses of the engine room. The Second Mate (almost a doctor) grew his with an ultra violet lamp in the hospital and it was as big as a triffid. Unfortunately someone got into the hospital on Christmas Eve and swapped the ultra violet lamp for an infra red lamp and by morning he had the biggest lolly stick in the world.


The prize for all these growers was a large two gallon glass sweetie jar filled with prunes and topped up with a gallon of rum from a broken rum jar (what a shame) that we carried for issue in cases of arduous service. It really did not matter who won as the taking part was most important.


By the end of October we were in Portland topping up oil and stores and preparing for another exercise “Silver Tower” to the west of Ireland initially with sea so smooth it could have been a film set.


We finished the year up around Iceland and Norway supporting ships looking after the fishing fleet before the formal cod wars started. About the middle of December we suffered ice damage when we shipped a large chunk of ice over the bow which bent the warping drums on the windlass and smashed the tank heating coil steam supply pipes forward of the bridge making a total of the 9 forward tanks of FFO un-pumpable due to the low temperature. The rivet heads on the bunker tanks were also damaged by the ice or the ships movements and we started talking in seawater to the bunkers so that when the fuel settling tanks were pumped up with 50 tons of fuel oil about 5 tons of water had to be drained out each time. We had to rush into dry dock to have repairs undertaken. To ease our entry into dry dock we were virtually pumped dry and only had a little oil and water ballast left on board which made us roll a lot as we came down the North Sea.


No Navy dry docks were available so we had to dock rapidly in Southampton on New Years Eve. I can still remember a small rowing boat going round the ship with a man knocking wooden bungs into missing rivet holes as the water went down in the dry dock and the oil started to come out. The fore peak was also filled with concrete as it was found not to be water tight.


We sailed on the 4th of January in thick fog for Plymouth and moved up to Yonderberry the next day to take on fuel and then back into the sound. We sailed from Plymouth on the 12th January into dreadful weather in the SW approaches.  The Salonometer warning alarm kept going off in the engine room indicating the ingress of salt into the boiler feed water system. We initially suspected leaking rivets again but the feed tanks were clear when tested. All the engineers were “turned to” find how salt water was getting into boiler feed system. After many hours of grovelling in the bilges a big roll at the right time showed a crack in the “Y” shaped gunmetal extraction pipe under the main condenser in about 18 inches of working space. The vacuum in the condenser was sucking in sea water from the bilges through the crack when the ship rolled heavily. The sea temperature was about 34 degrees F (2 degrees C) and it was wonderful working in the bilges of a heavily rolling ship. We cleaned the “Y” piece and repaired it using an epoxy resin bandage called “Thistlebond”. The Thistlebond Company must have made a fortune out of the old ship (and all the other Waves and Tides) as every service and pipe had repairs made this way as we were not allowed any welding equipment.


The electrical system was two small single cylinder steam dynamos working at only 110 volts dc and the Third Engineer was expected to look after this system in his spare time as there was no electrician. The cables were mainly paper insulated, lead covered and had work hardened or corroded due to the salt water and a constant job was to wrap exposed breaks of insulation in self amalgamating rubber insulating tape to stop short circuits.


The bad weather continued and I noted in my diary that on the 16th January the weather was so bad we were unable to RAS at all although some of the escorts were short on fuel. The weather was so bad the film projector fell over and broke the top spool arm which was duly mended with Thistlebond. We had about 2 or 3 films per week and begging, borrowing, stealing and exchanging films amongst the ships in company was almost a full time job.


We used to endeavour to be south of Iceland about midnight on Saturday to steam southwards to melt the ice on the ships masts and structures that had accumulated during the week. The benefits of this manoeuvre was that the ship was within range of Scottish TV to watch Pinky and Perky on the TV late on Sunday afternoon.


At the end of January I was informed that I was to join RFA Hebe in early February. Because Wave Knight was going tropical (with no air conditioning) to Trinidad, Falklands, Simonstown, up the Red Sea, Suez and then to pay off and lay up in Malta, one of my last jobs was to locate, repair and place in each cabin an electric table fan but I could only issue these after I had changed the existing 100watt lamp bulb in each cabin for a 60watt lamp to give enough power to run the fans as the old 110v dc system was at the end of its life.


HEBE – 2nd March 1964 – 10th September 1964

I left Wave Knight at the end of January and was informed to join the Hebe at the Milford Haven Mine depot (an unusual location for Hebe) on the 20th of February. I travelled by the first train from Paddington to get me to Milford Haven about 1400 and found that Hebe had sailed for Gibraltar and I had missed her but she would be back in Devonport on 2nd of March. I eventually joined Hebe on the 2nd of March and found that the reason for her strange antics was that she had been fitted with bridge control of the main engine and the trip to Gibraltar was to undertake adjustments and Deck Officer training.

RFA Hebe

The normal run for Hebe was Devonport, Chatham, Gibraltar, Malta, Aden and Singapore and return taking about 3 months and start again delivering new stores and spares on the way out and returning reparable items on the way back, the usual deck cargo being vehicles and chacons (early type of Chatham designed wooden container and pre loaded by shore staff).  We also could carry frozen food out bound and spoiled or contaminated food being returned to the UK for analysis which was kept in a special deep freeze in the wings of No 4 hold.


I was introduced to a special problem inherent on most modern ships that transit the canal, namely the Suez Canal Projector. The projector was a special search light designed to have two diverging beams of equal size and intensity. The idea being that at sometime in the transit of the canal it would be dark. The light would be switched on and the ship steered to keep the two beams the same distance down each bank and the ship would therefore be in the middle of the canal. The problems of lamp failure was easy to control, station a cadet in a deckchair in the fo’casle near the lamp to lever into position a second bulb if the first failed. Fine as far as it went, but the lamp attracted every known (and some unknown) 2 and 4 engined flying beetles in Egypt to visit the deck chair reclining cadet.


Hebe (and Baucus) were best described as “Lively and Spirited Vessels” in a sea way and they were never loaded down to their “Marks” as the cargo was volume rich and not heavy. This could test ones resolve to the limit as they pitched and rolled.


As Chris Puxley relates in his description of hitting the monsoon storm soon after leaving Aden on Sunday 12th April 1964, and I can add a few more technical bits. Whilst the deck cargo of Bedford buses and dust cart lorries were waltzing around the deck with the Chacons as partners the plump Maltese carpenter was only prevented from being washed overboard by being trapped between the deck and the differential gearbox under a dust cart. The engine room was also suffering. Due to the twisting and rolling in the short choppy seas the main exhaust expansion bellows (three feet diameter and six feet long) fractured and collapsed allowing exhaust gases into the engine room. The ship was stopped and a sea anchor streamed to keep her headed into wind whilst repairs were carried out which took 14 hours.


The repairs consisted of constructing and fitting a new section of square exhaust trunking over the outside of the existing round bellows made from the checker floor plates of the engine room held together by long studs found in the stores and with the edges, top and bottom packed with asbestos rope and fire cement.  All this was undertaken at high level in the engine room with the use of sky hooks and sheer bloody mindedness whilst swinging about like a pendulum.  We were able to work the speed back up to about 12 to 13 knots (instead of 15 knots+) without gassing everyone in the engine room.


It took till the next day to get past the storm and inspect the damage. As Chris said, most of the deck cargo was written off, No 1 hold had drummed lubricating oil that had wandered round a bit and split the lower drums leaving several feet of spilt lub oil in the hold bottom. No 2 hold had a Buccaneer fighter for HMS Eagle secured on a bed plate surrounded by steel dustbins in the hold wings held in place by steel netting which had split allowing the dustbins to bounce onto the aircraft.


No 3 hold had general cargo and did not suffer too much but No 4 hold held some guns and ammunition for the army and because their rubber tyres made it difficult to securely fasten the guns they had moved and stoved in the doors on the cargo deep freezer and allowed all 50 tons of frozen food to go off. The fo’castle had been flooded and ropes washed out onto the deck when the hatch shielding the Suez Canal Projector search light sprang open slightly.


In the engine room, most things were alright except that we had two 50 gallon drums of special hydraulic oil left over from the bridge control alterations on the engine room floor plates secured to the frames at the ships side. One of these drums came adrift and all the engineers in turn had a waltz with it until it finally fell into the well in front of the stern gland where it lay panting for a couple of weeks.


We reached Singapore on the 21st April and discharged cargo as normal in the stores basin in the navy base and then went to the civilian repair yard at Kepple Harbour in Singapore Town to have repairs undertaken. The stainless steel bellows was beyond quick local repair so a round telescopic expansion piece was manufactured and fitted in a couple of days and Hebe went to the scrap yard with this modification. We sailed from Singapore for Aden on the 1st May, and motored back up to the normal 15.5kts.


Second trip to Singapore was quite normal until we returned to Devonport in September.


On the 9th of September I had been asked to change five non-return air valves in the scavenge space of the Sulzer 5RD 78 main engine. I had changed three and was working on the fourth. The valve plates were located on a large steel plate held in place by 12x 25mm studs and nuts and I was using a 25mm drive socket set with a length of scaffold pole over the end of the handle to give me increased purchase. BANG - the socket broke and the scaffold pole pinioned the palm of my hand against the metal enclosure of the engine and cut through the palm like a pastry cutter. I extracted myself from the innards of the engine and went to see the Second Mate on the bridge who was the nominal doctor. Between us we phoned for an ambulance and I went to Freedom Fields Hospital, still in my filthy boiler suit, boots and cap.


I waited my turn in casualty, dripping a small amount of blood and leaving filthy foot prints as I moved nearer to the enquiry desk who was staffed by a “jobsworth”. Yes, I could be treated, but I had to sign a chit to say I was a visitor to the area. It was of course my right hand that was damaged so I got the next chap in line to sign for me- simple ha!


Having got to the front of the queue I was summoned to a cubicle by a “Rosa Kleb” lookalike who examined my hand and told me I had many broken bones and had severed two tendons. Picking my hand up to have another look, she severed a third tendon by which time I was leaving footprints on the ceiling. She gave me a shot of something take the pain away and cleaned the outside of my hand with what looked very like a large scrubbing brush. Satisfied she had caused the maximum amount of pain she informed me that as I had had tea and tab nabs at 1000 I could not be operated on until about 1400, so would I go for a walk in the gardens till then. This I did, still leaving oily footprints every where.


At about 1345 I was back near the Emergency Dept when the sister saw me and said they were ready to do the operation, would I walk into the operating theatre. This I did, still in the boiler-suit etc, would I lie down on the operating table, everybody in green scrubs except me. Mask over face, count backwards from 10, don’t remember 6 or below.


Sometime after I remember waking slowly and I could not move my right arm. Remembering old stories of people with limbs amputated still being able to feel them it took some time to look at my arm. It was in plaster from the tip of my fingers to elbow and worst of all they had cut the sleeve off my boiler suit.


The sister came in and said the Chief Engineer had been on the phone to inform me that the ship was sailing early for Chatham and could I get a shift on please. So at about 1730 I was driven back to the ship which sailed about 1830.


Hebe only had four engineers and the 3 apprentices acted as the junior of the watch. So, at 2000 I went down on watch with my arm in a polythene bag. I was given a helping hand in the shape of a fireman/greaser to do anything I wanted in the way of opening valves etc. Within a short space of time I began to sweat and this started to fill my bag and the plaster started to itch. Hacksaw blades and welding rods poked down inside the plaster won’t get rid of itches I discovered. When I came up at midnight and showered I found that my steward had packed my bags as I was to leave in the morning. But where do you put your plastered arm in a small coffin like bunk?


My colleagues covered for me the next morning and I fetched up on Chatham station in the bar being seen off and after a few jars got on the train to Victoria in a sleepy way. How I got from Victoria to Waterloo and on to Sunbury on a local train I just don’t know, and I had everything with me. When I got in Mum was a bit tearful – she had had a telegram from MOD informing her that I had a severed hand – not just severed tendons.


Several weeks later I went to the local hospital where the plaster was cut off with tin-snips by an Australian Body builder who swore under his breath. He turned my hand over to show me some 80 stitches which he then went on to remove. I later found out that I had been operated on by a senior Navy surgeon who happened to be visiting Freedom Fields hospital.


Physiotherapy was normal to start with but after a week I was given a pass for the local bowling alley using the child size balls to build up my strength.


Tidespring – 16th November – 25th January 1965


I joined Tidespring in refit in North Shields with all the attendant problems that you get – like where to live, how to travel, how to get money etc. The refit was almost finished when I joined and I think we sailed within the week to Portsmouth to load stores and some fuel and then to Portland for 10 days work up with FOST (flag officer sea training) for the ever popular Thursday war.

RFA Tidespring

We passed enough of the required tests so that we would not come to too much harm, loaded more stores in Devonport and set off for the Far East via the Suez Canal and Aden where we loaded more FFO and into Little Aden for Avcat (Jet aircraft fuel) and set off to play with the big boys.


The Far East Carrier at that time was HMS Eagle and her four escorts and RFA Reliant (the yacht) which was specially fitted out for aircraft spares and always worked with the Far East carrier. We RASed many times during pirate chasing operations up to the Gulf before were detached with a couple of Destroyers to Mombasa for Christmas.


The usual round of parties ensured and a few merry promises were nodded to which became a reality on Boxing Day when several busses turned up at 0430 to take as many people as possible on safari to the Tasavo National Park. Initially we were as green as the grass we drove past but as the day wore on we saw lots of animals and had a great day.


Back to sea and to the Seychelles for New Year. We were made very welcome by the Seychelles Club based on the only large pier suitable for liberty boats etc. The monthly “British India” boat was also in port on its regular run from Mombasa to Bombay as this was long before the days of air travel to the islands with the only sign of modernity being the American radar golf ball atop the highest peak.


The capital Victoria was a strange mixture of old French culture and British colonialism for example in the main square was a scaled down cast iron version of Big Ben which chimed the hours twice in case you missed them the first time. I also remember houses with walls constructed of bottom outwards empty beer bottles cemented in to give light inside and be cheap to build and recycled the bottles – Heineken usually.


We sailed from the Seychelles and headed for Gan. Gan was an RAF station and staging post in the middle of the Indian Ocean and was about the southernmost island or atoll in the Maldive Islands. Wave Victor was a permanent attraction and acted as a floating fuel store for the RAF. It had a Second and Third engineer who looked after all the bits and lived ashore in the Officer’s Mess. The steam reciprocating pumps only were used to pump the Avcat etc. but were driven by diesel air compressors mounted on deck instead of steam from the boilers.


We arrived in Singapore on the 23rd January 1965 and I left on the 25th to fly back to the UK


How good the two “improved” Tides (Tidepool and Tidespring) were I did not appreciate at the time until I joined Tidereach sometime later.



The flight was In a British Eagle Britannia aircraft, seated facing backwards, 8 hours to Bombay, 8 hours to Ankara and 8 hours to Heathrow. A short, leave then on to commence the final element of my apprenticeship at the Stow College of Engineering in Glasgow.


GLASGOW February 1965 – March 1966


The course started in very early February and was a new course located in the old head quarters of the North British Locomotive works in Springburn, NBL having gone bust the year before. Across the road was the huge construction shops still complete.

NBL Works Glasgow

We had large workshops on the ground floor in which were located many types of marine machinery donated by shipping companies which we duly stripped and rebuilt and actually ran and tested if we did not have too many pieces left over after the rebuild. Classrooms were upstairs and there were even girls!!! who worked in the local ship yards as tracers  and order clerks (clerkesses in Scotland). Before photocopying and CAD computers were the norm, a master draughtsman would scheme bits of ship and engine layouts and the tracers would copy these to add details and dimensions etc. onto working drawings for issue to the constructors.


The College was the site chosen for that years International Apprentices Competition and we spent several weeks taking out and storing the old imperial lathes and milling machine and installing brand new metric replacements. One of the tests was to construct a metal football from 5 sided pieces of metal but the sections had to be completely welded as the work progressed (i.e. no tack welding for adjustments etc.) and the final piece had to just be laid on the top to show the accuracy of setting out and construction. The Japanese seemed to win almost every part of the competition.


After the competition we took out the new machines and reinstalled the old.


All too soon we had spent a very enjoyable year in Glasgow with its strange customs and even stranger lager beer called Dryborough Keg which required the bar staff to scrape the froth off the top of a pint with a knife or plastic ruler. We also a enjoyed many a “Horf and Horf” (half and a half – a half pint of heavy (bitter) and a  small whisky to follow.


My apprenticeship ended at the end of March 1966, was promoted to Junior Engineer and set off to join RFA Tidereach which was to be my home (and hell) for the next 13 months.




OLNA             19/08/1967 to 16/04/1968

Following on from my 13 months on Tidereach with its mixture of excitement of the Middle and Far East and the absolute boredom of many months on the Beira patrol and all the hot engineering graft that went with it I went home for a well deserved leave on the 19 May 1967. The first question most people asked was “when are you going back”!!!!.

Copyright © 2008 – 2018 Christopher J White

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