Ships are more than just statistics – people count

ships are more than just statistics
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Matthew Wright

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I'm a New Zealand historian with a life-long interest in matters military, particularly naval engineering. My books have principally been published by Penguin Random House. I'm a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.
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The recent collisions and other incidents with the US 7th Fleet – and the look the US Navy is taking at the fleet’s practises – underscore a point well understood for centuries by naval commanders. People count. Training counts. And morale is part of the mix.

ships are more than just statistics
Bismarck down at the bows after suffering hits from HMS Prince of Wales. Public domain, NH 69732, U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command

History is littered with stories of ships surviving – or not – on the back of this subtle combination of human factors. On board Bismarck, for instance, there was a failure of command morale – starting with Admiral Lutjens – once she suffered rudder damage. Baron von Mullenheim-Rechberg, one of the survivors, has described the mood on the bridge afterwards. It wasn’t good, and it always leaves a question mark over how far that leadership failure then affected what followed?

That was true of all navies. One of the challenges the British faced in the Second World War was poor damage-control practises. That was rectified on board HMNZS Leander, by one man – Stephen Wentworth Roskill, the Executive Officer. Leander was one of two British light cruisers operated by the RNZN during the early war years, mostly crewed by New Zealanders but with a largely British officer cadre.

Roskill’s nickname was ‘The Black Mamba’ – because he was a stickler for damage-control readiness, and had a sharp edge to his tongue. He constantly pushed the crew – training them to a high level of expertise. It was constant: even if somebody encountered him by chance he was likely to stop them, point to some item of hardware and demand to be told what it did, or where it should be set. Woe betide those who did not know.

people count
Commander of the Crete defence, Major-General Bernard Freyberg, VC, DSO (2 bars), and Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham (on right) on board HMS Phoebe, before the battle for Crete. Provenance unknown, believed public domain, from

This attitude stood against the relaxed Kiwi view, and he was universally hated. But his zeal paid off. In mid-1943, at the Battle of Kolombangara, Leander was hit by a 24-inch ‘long lance’ torpedo, killing 28 men and ripping out the side abaft ‘A’ boiler room. Leander had no anti-torpedo protection.  Left drifting and with ‘A’ boiler room flooded and ‘B’ boiler room fast filling, she should have sunk. But she survived – thanks largely to Roskill’s efforts. When the crisis came, the men knew exactly what to do – even to the point of being able to find emergency equipment in the dark after power failures. The key action was taken by Stoker Petty Officer A. Fickling and Acting Leading Stoker (Temporary) John R. Halliday, who led a small party into ‘B’ boiler room and struggled through darkness,  heat and waist-deep water to plug the holes in the bulkhead.  Others shored bulkheads and found ways to restore power. The men struggled through the night to keep the ship afloat. She reached Tulagi after an 18 hour journey.

One of the best examples of the importance of the human side in any naval war came in Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet in late May 1941, under Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham. He was Britain’s best fighting commander of the war, and his spirit infused the men. Towards the end of the emergency sea-lift to pull the army off Crete, the decision was taken to extend the effort by one day. The only available ship was the cruiser HMS Phoebe. She had just returned to Alexandria from Crete and her crew were exhausted. Cunningham offered to replace them with a fresh crew. They declined; they were not going to let the army down.  Their enthusiasm reflected Cunningham’s determination to prosecute the war by whatever means, whatever it took, right through to the bitter end.

The contrast between this mood and the one created around Bismarck’s officers by Lutyens, just a few days earlier, could not be greater.

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The lesson is clear: people count. And perhaps one of the greatest stories of this kind comes from the First World War – the story of SMS Seydlitz. More on that in the next article. Meanwhile, if you want the full tale of HMNZS Leander‘s remarkable survival, it’s in my book Blue Water Kiwis, available on Amazon. Click to buy.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017


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