Royal Fleet Auxiliary

(Source: Royal Fleet Auxiliary by Captain E. E. Sigwart.
Royal Fleet Auxiliary by Tony James)


Fuelling at Sea

A solution to the problem of burst and fragile hoses was made by sheer good fortune when two of Bismarck’s supply tankers were captured intact in the Atlantic. Knowing full well that they would be using raiders as in the First World War German ingenuity had perfected a rubber hose that was inflatable, light and easy to use. However due to wartime shortages, believe it if you will, it wasn’t until the end of the war that hose was made available to the Navy, in the meantime current hose had to be used. Excuse the scepticism but I would have thought that realising its importance more effort would have been made. After more extensive experiments it was decided to increase the length of the derricks and use more rope blocks doing away with ropes and manila springs, in effect the only connection being the ships hoses themselves.

At the outbreak of war work was in hand to fit out tankers for both the stirrup method and trough using drawings previously completed in advance. Additional bridges, work platforms, spar decks and extra fuelling connections were all added to the tankers with the latter being added to the warships as well. Trials began in March of 1942 using manufactured hose utilising the Germans design, in fact with the much improved design it was possible to float the fuelling hose down to the ship astern without the encumbrance of stirrups, RFA Eaglesdale was the ship chosen to participate in the experiment.


Built: 1942 by Furness Shipbuilding Co. Ltd., Haverton Hill-on-Tees.
Tonnage: 8,030 grt.
Engines: Twin screw, Triple expansion by Richardsons, Westgarth & Co, Ltd., 11.5 Knots.

A totally unsatisfactory design of ship due to high fuel consumption, severe racking when underway, cracking of frames and leaking rivets, which led to high repair bills. Various modifications were tried though it was discovered that if the engines were run at maximum revolutions the problems eased considerably. She served with the Eastern Fleet and at the Cape between 1943 through to 1946. Sold out of the Fleet in 1959 to MISR Tankers of Egypt and broken in Germany a short while later.

As the fear of a rubber shortage lessened in 1943/44 so the production of the German styled hose commenced allowing for the equipping of Aircraft Carriers to refuel lesser-sized warships from their sterns, the removal of the stirrup rails from tankers and the fitting of deck rollers to carry the hose. Stern chutes were abandoned in favour of a large five-roller fairlead and the steadying wires could therefore be abandoned. RFA Broomdale was the first ship to be fitted with the new experimental gantry type kingposts equipped with two of the net defence derricks formally used for torpedo protection. Eventually the same arrangement was fitted to a number of Wave class ships before much improved versions were placed on the Tide and Olna class vessels. Trials after the war spent much time on standardizing the equipment, simplifying it and devising ways that would allow for more latitude to be allowed as to the relative positions of the ships. Even when using a seventy foot derrick with ships as far apart as 165ft accidents occurred, more so in bad weather, threats of spillage were limited by the fitting of self sealing couplings.

Operation Neptune

At the D-Day Landings RFA had two ships present during the assault period; they were the Robert Dundas and Rapidol who’s primary task was to replenish the landing craft but due to some of the ships arriving off the beachhead short of fuel due to being continually in service provision had to be made for them also. Rapidol also refuelled the bombarding warships but due to her deep draught was replaced by the Dutch flagged Shell tanker Juliana.

There were also ten supply and repair flotilla’s each comprising ten dumb headed Thames barges which had been equipped with motor engines giving them a service speed of four and a half knots. Each flotilla contained six LBO’s capable of carrying 35 tons of fuel and the barge’s carried varying grades of petrol and diesel, two LBW’s, Landing Barge Water, one Landing Barge Emergency Repair and finally the Landing Barge Kitchen which supplied food to the barge crews and those others employed in ferrying troops. The flotilla of barges were headed by three Fuelling Trawlers, all ex minesweepers that were also fitted with thirty five ton fuel tanks, due to their deep draught not much use for refuelling the landing craft but were used mainly in shuttling the barges around. Six of the flotillas were assigned to the British Beaches whilst the other four attended the American, the Americans initially viewed the concept with some scepticism but after they observed the flotillas in action demanded more of the same!

The beach craft were refuelled by a shuttle service of coastal tankers that bunkered in southern UK ports whilst five 12,000 ton tankers carried the water, two always at the beachhead with the remaining three in transit. From the two tankers at the beachhead other smaller tankers then shipped the water to depot ships and warships they also replenished the LBW’s. This method of replenishment was in operation until D-Day plus forty when it became possible to use the captured channel ports. Their respective peacetime crews manned the Store and Replenishment crews of all the ships and barges albeit dressed in naval uniform; the ten CHANTS (Channel Tankers) were allocated to the Beach services of the Royal Navy. The bulk of these ships came under the Ministry of War Transport and carried oil to the storage tanks at Port en Bessin, others under control of the Royal Navy carried diesel, petrol and water, all destined for the advancing armies. This particular class of ship was not renowned for its stability and when loaded had to carry lots of ballast, as well as cargo in their tanks they also carried up to ten tons of lubricating oil on deck and were well armed considering their vulnerability. On D-Day plus three Chant 60 turned turtle when manoeuvring under full helm, fortunately her entire crew were rescued later, carrying a full load of petrol she was towed away from the beach and sunk by a British destroyer. Chant 69, this time carrying water performed a similar evolution a short while later. It was then decided to bring all the class into the confines of the gooseberry shelters until a Royal Navy Constructor could carry out stability tests. Others carried out sterling service, Chant 23 lying off Sword Beach had been hit by an enemy shell in her engine room and disabled but still continued to fuel anything that came alongside. Chant 7 was driven ashore after capsizing during the gales of 18th/20th June when loaded with petrol and Chant 26 drove ashore on the crest of a wave, straight up the beach, through a hedge and landed in a field the right way up. After discharging her precious cargo to army bowsers she was dragged back to her natural element and towed home, the author Captain E.E. Sigart made the observation that Chant 26 was the only British Merchantman to fly proudly the Red Ensign and discharge her cargo, literally in a foreign field! Chant 24 beached at Le Hamel carrying 200 tons of oil fuel for the RAF needed for the building of runways previously LBO’s had carried out this duty with the muscle power supplied by the infantry on their hand pumps. Finally some of the Chants were used as accommodation ships as there uses diminished and after the landings had been completed most returned to the UK and after the war were sold on to commercial operators.


Built for the Ministry of War Transport at various British Shipyards.
Tonnage: Circa 402 grt.
Engine: Single screw, motor.
Length: 142ft.

After the war experiments continued with the implementation of the Jackstay Rig that allowed for greater latitude. The rig was positioned on a specially reinforced part of the warships deck, with a slip, the wire was tended from the tanker with the fuel hose being suspended by three light troughs on wheeled blocks, a fourth trough in the tanker held the make up hose. Initially experiments were carried out using HMS Bulawayo ex German supply tanker Nordmark, but were abandoned eventually in favour of self tensioning winches both for the jackstay method still used for dry stores and the long derrick method used in refuelling. As time has passed there have been a few minor improvements but in general both those methods are still in use today.



Built: 1939 by Schichau, Elbing
Tonnage: 10,847 grt.
Engine: Turbines, 21 Knots.

Served in the German Navy as a Fast Fleet Attendant Oiler ex Nordmark and ex Westerwald. Captured by the Royal Navy early 1945 and renamed Northmark but renamed HMS Bulawayo in 1947. Served in the Fleet Train 1947/8 before going into the Reserve Fleet in 1950, scrapped at Dalmuir in1955 arriving on the 4th of October for work to commence.

Description of Vessels by Captain E.E. Sigwart

Registered Royal Fleet Auxiliaries are vessels belonging to the Crown, and registered under the Merchant Shipping Acts and the Order in Council of 22nd March 1911. They are subject, apart from any special modifications necessitated by war conditions, to those Acts, as modified by the Order in Council, and are manned by Mercantile Marine officers and men. Exceptionally, certain Registered Royal Fleet Auxiliaries at the Home Ports may be manned in peacetime by crews on Yard Craft Agreement, as an economy and convenience arising from the employment of the vessels in the immediate vicinity of the Dockyard Ports only.

Royal Fleet Auxiliaries are divided into the following categories:

Fleet Tankers.

A Fleet Tanker's primary role is to attend the Fleet at sea to replenish either fuel or water when underway, when not on these duty’s they can be used as freight tankers.


©Crown Copyright MOD

Built: 1963 by Hawthorn, Leslie SB & Co. Ltd., Hebburn, Newcastle.
Tonnage: 14,130 grt.
Engine: Single screw, Steam Turbine, 18 knots.

She supported the Beira Patrol in 1966 and the Cod War Patrols in 1976 off Iceland. Her only mishap was in 1975 when she ran aground in the Firth of Clyde. She was sold out of the Fleet to Chile in 1982.

Support Tankers.

This class of ships primary role is for the transfer of fuel from refineries to Naval Storage facilities, certain of their number were modernised for replenishment at sea as and when required.


©Crown Copyright MOD

Built: 1960 by Blythswood SB Co. Ltd., Glasgow.
Tonnage: 12,353 grt.
Engine: Single screw, 6 Cylinder Doxford, 15 Knots.

Taken over on the stocks whilst being built for Pappadakis & Co. Ltd, her registered owners were J.I. Jacobs & Partners Ltd. Bare boat chartered to the Admiralty for twenty years and was still serving in 1985. During her trials she attained a speed of 15.65 knots when fully loaded with 18,500 tons of fuel.

Fleet Attendant Tankers.

For fuelling warships in port and attendance on the Fleet. Subdivided into Small Fleet Tankers and Harbour Tankers.


Harbour Tanker. Captain E.E.Sigwart

Built: 1951 by Caledon Shipbuilding Co. Ltd., Dundee.
Tonnage: 2,157 grt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion by Lobnitz & Co. Ltd., 12 Knots.

Were capable of lifting 1,800 tons of cargo fuel plus 50 tons of lubricating oil also had a 363 own bunker capacity. Spent most of her career in the Mediterranean based at Gibraltar though did travel as far afield as Port Said. During a severe water shortage at Gibraltar she made daily trips to Ceuta making the return journey with full ballast tanks of fresh water. Sold out of the Fleet in 1964 to the Greek Shipping Company of Piraeus and became Mykinai.


Small Fleet Tanker Captain E.E. Sigwart

Built: 1940 by Harland & Wolff, Belfast.
Tonnage: 3,313 grt.
Engine: Single screw, Burmeister & Wain by builder, 14 Knots.

This class of six ships had a larger carrying capacity than that of the Harbour Tankers, 2,600 tons of fuel oil, 550 tons of diesel and 90 tons of petrol, Black Rangers own bunkers were 300 tons and at 14 knots gave her thirty days steaming. The first Admiralty designed tankers since the 1917 Leaf class. Their petrol storage tanks had an armoured protection deckhead and were totally surrounded by water ballast tanks. The engine room was surrounded by a cofferdam for the full depth of the compartment and was fitted with an oil recovery plant with suitable storage facilities. Black Ranger served out the war based at Scapa Flow and was escort oiler on all the Russian convoys save the last one due to damage sustained when accidentally rammed by a destroyer when off the west coast of Scotland. After the war she was based at Portland as the Training Oiler and accompanied the Royal Yacht to the West Indies for the Royal visit. In 1948 she saw service in the Arctic with the Fishery Protection Flotilla based at Tromso. Sold to the Greeks in 1973. The other five ships of the Ranger class were Blue, Brown, Gold, Grey and Green.

Fleet Replenishment Ships.

Primary duties are underway transfer of ammunition but also carry certain items of Naval and victualling stores for aircraft carriers.


©Crown Copyright MOD

Built by the Victoria Machinery Depot, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Tonnage: 7,285 grt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion by Allis Chalmers, Canada, 11 Knots.

Assigned to the Admiralty as an Air Store Issue Ship and placed under the management of Blue Funnel. On completion she loaded stores at Victoria with both British and American aircraft spares and sailed to join the Pacific Fleet Train. Transferred to RFA manning in 1954 becoming an Armament Store Issue Ship and served as such until scrapped at Bilbao in 1970.

Victualling Store Issuing Ships/ Fleet Replenishment Ships

Vessels fitted out for the supply of store to the Fleet. Could be either administered by Director of Stores, Director of Victualling or Director of Armament Supply. When not required on Fleet duties could be used as freighters to bases abroad.


Built: 1967 by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd.
Tonnage: 12,359 grt., 7,832 dwt.
Engine: Single screw, 8 Cylinder Sulzer by Wallsend Slipway Co. Ltd., 17.5 Knots Service Speed.

Designed as a refrigerated Naval Store/Victualling Ship, also carried Air Stores on a fully integrated basis. In this instance integration meant that all the various departments worked and messed together, each head of department coming under the leadership of a coordinating Stores Officer, obviously the Captain was still in overall Command. The ships manning was 24 Officers, between four to six Cadets of mixed disciplines and 78 Petty Officers and ratings which included the two Chinese laundrymen, a must on any ship. Directly under the control of the Stores Officer were another 50 or so personnel that comprised industrial and non-industrial civil servants of the Royal Navy Supply & Transport Service. The ship would have carried over 40,000 different items of general Navy stores and could victual 15,000 men for a month, in all 2,000 tons worth, interestingly the afore mentioned included some 1,000,000 cans of beer and 10,000,000 cigarettes. A clearway deck space 320ft long and 38ft wide was serviced by 13 fork lift trucks and 9 powered roller transporters with all the stores being palletised. Watertight side doors allowed for easy access to enable replenishment at sea and on the centre line were seven lifts for easy movement of stores to both the clearway deck and the helicopter pad. Either pallet or nets would have transferred the stores to the receiving ships via the jackstay from up to four points simultaneously. All store movements were controlled and observed by a closed circuit television system. This class of three ships were sold to the U.S. Sea Lift Command with Lyness going in 1981 closely followed by Stromness and Tarbatness.

Store Carriers

Used for the transference of stores from depots to Fleet bases or other store depots.


©P&O Collection

Built: 1962 by Henry Robb Ltd, Leith.
Tonnage: 4,823 grt, 2,441nt, 5,218dwt.
Engine: Single screw, 5 Cylinder Sulzer by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd., Newcastle, 5,500 BHP, 15 Knots service speed.
Launched 7th March 1962, completed 18th June 1962, Yard No 482.


©P&O Collection

Built by Henry Robb Ltd., Leith.
Tonnage: 4,823 grt, 2,441nt, 5,218 dwt.
Engine: Single screw, 5 Cylinder by S.H. & W.R., Ltd., Newcastle, 17.56 Knots at Trials.
Launched 4th June 1962, completed 8th November 1962, Yard No 483.

Built and designed in conjunction with the Admiralty by British India Steam Navigation Co., Ltd., chartered for nineteen years and manned by the RFA. Bacchus was designated A404 with Hebe designated A406. Both ships served trouble free for the next sixteen years serving as far afield as Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, Singapore, Muscat and Oman. Hebe rescued British Nationals in Zanzibar in 1964 during a revolution. After BI was absorbed by P&O the charter continued and remained as such until Hebe was severely damaged by fire in 1978 and she was handed back to P&O. She was later sold as is to be repaired for further trading to Greeks the following year becoming Guardian after repairs. Scrapped at Famagusta in 1987. Bacchus saw out her full charter and was handed back on the 6th of November 1981 and was immediately sold for further commercial trading becoming Cherry Lanka. Scrapped at Gadani Beach, work commenced on the 1st of January 1986.

Hospital Ships

None after the third Maine as Maine 4 was not commissioned and 5 was never completed as such. Since 1900 all RFA hospital ships had been called Maine.


Built: 1906 by D&W Henderson & Co. Ltd., Glasgow.
Tonnage: 4,688 grt.
Engine: Single screw, Triple expansion by builder, 12.5 Knots.

Built for Harris & Dixon & Co. Ltd., as Heliopolis and purchased by the Admiralty for conversion in 1913 at Pembrokeshire Dock. Initially called Mediator but on the wrecking of Maine off the Isle of Mull in 1914 was renamed Maine. She proved unsuitable for the work required and was sold back to her previous owners in 1916.


Come under the control of the Director General, Dockyards and Maintenance, Marine Services Division.


Seen here assisting Birchol at Plymouth. ©Captain E.E. Sigwart.

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