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- December 2014 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Des Miller
Most generations can look back upon significant changes but in our modern naval history there have only been two revolutionary changes, from wood to iron and then from sail to steam. The passing generation has, however, seen another subtle but dramatic change in the widespread use of electricity and computerisation, leading to significant improvements especially in detection and guidance systems. This has also brought about a new branch structure with the formal introduction of the Electrical Branch.
This article by Des Miller, who joined the RAN as a recruit Radar Mechanic, outlines much of the history of the introduction of electrical and electronic maintenance into the RAN. Des was one of the first entries into the RAN Electrical Branch and retired many years later as a Commodore.
Electric Lighting and Torpedos
In the 1870s, three developments in the Royal Navy (RN) ushered in the need for a new type of sailor, the forerunner of those who, some 70 years later, would form the Electrical Branch. These new developments were the searchlight, electrical lighting installed between decks, and the Whitehead torpedo. In particular, the torpedo required a new kind of maintainer. Initially, seamen gunners who did well in their training courses were selected for additional training as seamen torpedomen. When so qualified, a torpedo was included in their branch badge. Dockyard artificers were trained to carry out the more intricate maintenance of torpedos.
The next step on the ‘Electrical’ path was the introduction in about 1900 of Morse code telegraphy. Initially, maintenance of Wireless Telegraphy (W/T) equipment was by seamen torpedomen and artificers which later became the responsibility of W/T operators themselves. Similarly, when anti-submarine equipment entered service in the 1920s, maintenance was carried out by Submarine Detector Operators. Simple electrics in the engine rooms and boiler rooms were tended by specially trained stokers. Electric motors, generators and gyro compasses were maintained by Electrical Artificers. There was also a Wireman rating formed from volunteer torpedomen who became ‘Electricians’ after training at HMS Pembroke (Chatham Dockyard) and the Torpedo School at HMS Vernonin Portsmouth. Their rating badge was a horizontal torpedo with one star above and one below. In 1922 the first Electrical Artificer Apprentices were being taught at Vernon and some of these would later qualify as Warrant Electricians. Additionally, at about the same period the Long Torpedo Course began to include six months training in electrical theory at the Royal Naval College Greenwich.
Responsibilities for the maintenance of electrical equipment
At the outbreak of WW II, the maintenance of electrical and electronic equipment was spread between branch operators and electrical specialists as follows:
- Simple electrics – the Torpedo Branch
- Generators, heavy switchgear, gyro compasses, torpedos – Electrical Artificers
- Wireless equipment – Telegraphists
- Anti-submarine equipment – the Submarine Detection Branch
- Simple Engine Room and Boiler Room electrics – specially trained Stokers
- Wiremen – whose duties crossed most of the above boundaries
During WW II most large ships (cruisers and above) had a dedicated Electrical Officer, who could also be a senior Torpedo Officer. In destroyers these duties were filled by an Electrical Warrant Officer or a Gunner Torpedoman and, in smaller ships, usually by Electrical Artificers. The tragic loss of HMAS Sydney provides a detailed list of all personnel onboard in November 1941 which gives evidence of an embryonic Electrical Branch. The department was under the overall control of a Lieutenant Commander (T) with an Electrical section responsible to a Warrant Officer (L) who had charge of seven Electrical Artificers and ten Wiremen. In addition there was a Torpedo section under the control of a Gunner (T) with an unspecified number of Torpedomen. A similar structure was evident in her slightly smaller sister HMAS Perth with the same overall number of Wiremen but three of these were Leading Wiremen and it is likely that some of Sydney’s were also leading hands.
Electrical Training Schemes in the RAN
However the war quickly brought a change to one strand of the electrical maintenance load. A substantial increase in wireless traffic, the introduction of new equipment and the need to train large recruit intakes, plus the maintenance role, proved too demanding for Telegraphists. To address this problem in 1941, a new rating was introduced, the Wireless Mechanic.
Wireless Mechanics were trained at the Melbourne Technical College (later named the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology). The basic course was six months and recruits generally had secondary school education to the Leaving Certificate (now Year 12), with good passes in mathematics and physics. Approximately 340 Wireless Mechanics undertook the Melbourne Technical Course. The introduction of Wireless Mechanics had barely bedded down when a new, major technical innovation emerged to challenge the maintainers of black boxes – originally called Radio Direction Finding, then Radio Direction and Ranging, and finally Radar had arrived.
Radar was not simply an evolutionary step forward from Radio Telegraphy. It was a quantum leap into a revolutionary use of radio waves. In the late 1930s, successful trials had been carried out in the United Kingdom, using both shore-based and ship-borne experimental equipment. The emphasis in those days was on early detection of aircraft and ships. Basic radar began to be fitted in RN ships at the start of WW II and came into more general use by 1941. HMAS Hobart was fitted with USN radar in early 1942 and later that year Australian designed radar was fitted in HMAS Yandra, a small requisitioned coastal steamer. The equipment had been produced as a joint effort by Amalgamated Wireless Australia, Standard Telephone & Cables Australia and the Postmaster General’s Department. The sets in Yandra were used to train both users and maintainers. The maintenance task fell naturally to the recently introduced Wireless Mechanics, some of whom, in 1943, were re-trained and re-categorised as Radio Mechanics. They could not be called Radar Mechanics because the word ‘Radar’ was classified Secret. As a branch badge, all ranks wore the simple unadorned Mercury’s wings of the Seaman Telegraphist.
Until the advent of radar in the RAN, black box maintenance and the maintenance of electrical equipment were split between various user branches. No officers were designated specifically for the oversight and coordination of installation, training and maintenance. The need for specialist officers was however recognised. Enter the ‘Bailey Boys’.
The Army and Air Force had also discovered similar problems and had arranged with Professor Bailey at the University of Sydney to conduct a suitable radar course. The Navy joined the six month programme whose students were mainly university undergraduates. On completion of the course, they were posted to HMAS Cerberus for a four week officer training course, followed by twelve weeks radar training at HMAS Rushcutter and at South Head, Sydney. They were then commissioned as Specialist Sub-Lieutenants RANVR with subsequent employment as seagoing Radar Officers, Port Radar Officers, Instructors, Dockyard Officers and Installation Officers. Most were discharged in 1946.
In early 1945, the Naval Board began planning for a post-war Navy. One of the personnel problems was that almost all of the sailors trained to maintain radar equipment were ‘Hostilities Only’ ratings. One study showed that only five would remain post war and just as the installation of radar equipment was increasing the Navy would have nobody to maintain it. The Navy Board quickly approved a scheme to recruit 150 (later increased to 240) new entries to be trained in a new radar mechanic programme, and approximately 180 completed the course.
This course was a significant departure from previous navy training procedures. Recruit entry training of only six weeks was carried out at Cerberus. Recruit Radar Mechanics were then posted to HMAS Torrens (South Australian naval shore headquarters) to undertake a six month course at the Adelaide School of Mines and Industry (now the University of Technology). The course taught basic electrical and radio theory and was quite intensive comprising five days per week, two evening sessions and compulsory study on Saturday mornings. There were progress tests every two or three weeks. Only one fail was allowed and two failures meant discharge or re-categorisation. The School of Mines course was followed by six months at HMAS Watsonwith practical training on radar equipment.
Because of the high educational standards required by Recruit Radar Mechanics and the length and complexity of the course, successful recruits were given special conditions of service. They received accelerated promotion to the ranks of Leading Seaman and Petty Officer and, as Leading Seamen, messed with the Petty Officers.
The Electrical Branch is born
The need for an Electrical Branch had first been considered by the Admiralty in the 1920s but with widespread reductions in ships and men the timing was not considered propitious. The introduction of more complex electrical equipment had however boosted training during this period and the Gunner (T) and Warrant Officer (L) became highly proficient. However an immediate post-WW II analysis of battle damaged ships highlighted many shortcomings which included the need for a dedicated Electrical Branch.
In the Royal Navy, seamen had been around forever, Pussers since Samuel Pepys, and the Black Gang since the 1830s. For over a century these three disciplines co-existed, not always happily, but they formed a tightly structured and conservative organisation. In 1946, with the stroke of an Admiralty Fleet Order the Electrical Branch was grafted to this long established system. The RAN followed suit at the end of 1947. The new branch was to be responsible for the maintenance of all electrical and electronic equipment fitted in ships, aircraft and submarines. All Electrical Artificers and all Radar Mechanics, selected Seamen Torpedomen and Leading Torpedo Operators, and some senior Wireless Telegraphists formed the rating structure. The old Torpedo School at Cerberuswas renamed the Electrical School and the Radar Mechanic course at the Adelaide School of Mines and Industry was terminated.
Officers of the new branch were also a mixed lot – some Anti-Submarine Branch officers, some Warrant Telegraphists, direct entry university graduates, ex-RN officers and RN officers on loan. For many years there was a shortage of electrical officers and this was exacerbated by the introduction of the Submarine Branch and the Fleet Air Arm (FAA). Measures taken to improve numbers included a number of initiatives; selected Midshipmen undertook university Electrical Engineering courses, sailors were encouraged to attempt the examination for Upperyard (Electrical) in the UK, a continuing effort to attract ex-RN Electrical Officers and the conversion of some RAN Instructor Officers to Electrical Officers. Eventually, new entry graduates began to swell the numbers.
When the branch was created the identifying colour worn by officers between their gold sleeve stripes was green. Hence the universal name ‘Greenies’ was given to all members of the branch. The basic Branch badge for sailors was crossed ‘lightning’ flashes.
Aircraft and Submarines
The introduction of submarines and the FAA brought significant challenges to the Engineering and Electrical Branches. General Service officers and sailors undertook training in appropriate RN schools and returned to form the nucleus of the new branches. Once again ex-RN officers and sailors were encouraged to join the RAN. Loan and exchange RN maintenance personnel were important contributors during the early days of these new branches. In due course schools at Cerberus and Nirimba met most of these needs.
The career paths of General List Air Engineer Officers and Electrical Officers took different directions. The Air Engineers tended to spend the bulk of their time in FAA appointments. Air Electrical Officers regularly moved between General Service and FAA appointments. As an example, in my early and middle years as an Electrical Officer I had six General Service appointments mixed with four FAA appointments.
United States Naval Influence
The introduction of Guided Missile Destroyers (DDGs) was a major change of direction for the RAN, in particular for the Engineering and Electrical Branches. Trained in and familiar with RN equipment and procedures, there were many differences in learning to use and maintain USN equipment. An extensive training programme was put in place and some of the individual equipment courses were quite long. The Tartar Missile System course, for instance, took six months. Because the Tartar System had not been performing to design expectations a major enquiry had determined that one of the problems was poor user/maintainer training. A drastically revised crash programme was put in place at the Missile School at Mare Island, San Francisco Bay. This operated on a three shift basis, from 0800 – 1530, 1600 – 2330 and 0001 – 0930. Walking into a classroom at midnight and then concentrating on instruction was something of a shock to the system.
Looking Back on the Melting Pot
The RAN Electrical Branch was formed by an untidy mixture of maintainers who had different training backgrounds and different maintenance procedures. They were armed with a Wee Megger and an Avometer and their tool box was filled with screwdrivers, pliers, hammers and an industrial strength soldering iron. They were led by an officer corps of even more diverse background. These chasers of volts and amps developed through a steep learning curve over the following years to be the carers of analogue and digital computers of great complexity, requiring the use of the most sophisticated test equipment.
Coping successfully with this ever-changing task had in the early days a small, but identifiable attitudinal effect amongst some personnel. There was a sense that ‘Greenies’ were different. Perhaps a little special, with a tendency to consider themselves superior. This attitude led, at least in a few cases, to examples of hostility to those seemingly privileged few.
My own history illustrates this point. In early 1947, as a Leading Radar Mechanic, with just over a year in the Navy, I joined my first ship and after some early confusion and debate about my right to be messed with the Petty Officers, that is where I ended up. Most of the POs had years of war-time, sea-going experience so it is very easy to understand the raised eyebrows. The President of the Mess, a POGI, was distinctly unimpressed that his navy should inflict such an arrangement on his mess. I was surprised however, when 20 years later I joined my last ship, a DDG. The Captain greeted me with the following: ‘Welcome aboard Dusty. I know you can fix things but there is one more thing I want you to do – keep those prima donna Greenies under control.’
Alma Mater reflections from afar
Approaching the alma mater, literally fostering mother, is perhaps another suitable way of looking at some interesting reflections on the introduction of the new Electrical Branch which were found in an old (February 1946 edition) of the then influential The Naval Review.
*Some far-seeing and able officers may volunteer to kick off the new branch in the belief that it holds a good future in store for those who get in on the ground floor. They may be right in this; but, taking a long view, when the new branch is established it surely can only appeal to average intelligences in search of security. This will ultimately detract from the Navy’s fighting power.
*Torpedo officers – with all due respect to their many sterling qualities – are not often electricians at heart, for they would be unlikely to reach high rank if they were. I doubt if a torpedo officer could be found who would not gladly scrap his technical leanings in favour of operational ones, if he was compelled to make the choice.
*Yet they (Engineer Officers) handled electric propulsion, alternating current, and electrical repairs and maintenance of all sorts with the utmost efficiency. Moreover, permanent ‘E’ officers are given an expensive and fairly advanced course in electrical engineering at Keyham. It is very difficult in these circumstances to see the need for yet another branch.
Most of these comments are from the imperfect memory of an ex-Radar Mechanic, ex-Upperyardman (Electrical), and ex-Greenie who served from 1945 to 1982. It is certain that there are omissions and it is likely that there are errors. I trust this provides food for thought as the subject deserves a more scholarly treatment.