PLYMOUTH SOUND - A dangerous route to Devonport Dockyard

Written in October 2014

Please, no comments on the font I have used on this page where some letters look the same -e.g. a 'U' and a 'V' in the word manoeuvring.

Some of our naval dockyards were very easy to navigate in and out of, though most were difficult to do it inside the harbour/yard.

Portsmouth harbour was just about the easiest, and over the years there have been very few accidents where warships {under their own power} have been concerned. The harbour is soon {?} to play host to our largest warship ever, the Queen Elizabeth, although the Prince of Wales is scheduled to enter harbour, to go alongside or into a basin for mothballing, and that is it for her! Thus the coming and going of the Queen Elizabeth will require a new skill and accuracy in passing through the harbour entrance, although I have no doubt that her berth will be, as always, the first available jetty, namely South Railway Jetty {SRJ} with plenty of space for manoeuvring.

Plymouth however, has seen a number of naval accidents and just about all of them in the Sound in full view of the public.

Just as a snippet, I am going to cover our two largest warships in the 1960's and 1970's one of which I served in but that was in the 1950's.

The ships are of course HMS Eagle [our largest ship in those days, trumping the Ark by a 1000 long tons approx] and HMS Ark Royal - that's the big one of course !

Before I deliver the snippet, have a look at the route taken by all warships navigating from the English Channel into Devonport Dockyard.

The Breakwater you see is nearly 1 mile long [took nearly 26 years to build] and it gives perspective to the size of this massive Sound. Inside it [to the north] are several large buoys [not shown] painted yellow [C, D, E, F] which provide a naval Fleet anchorage under the protection of the breakwater against the prevailing southwesterlies, which at their height, can so easily spoil the day for many a captain.

The drawing is simple, but it will give you some idea of the difficulty posed by Drakes Island being where it is.  There is not much room for error especially for a 45,000 ton vessel, and both the Ark Royal and the Eagle came a cropper when rounding Drakes Island. The job is doubly difficult in foul weather especially when strong winds are present, because the joint effect of the massive rectangular shaped hull and the Island superstructure acts as a sail, pushing the carriers off-track and into hazardous waters within the sound. The route through the Bridges is closed to all naval vessels even to those with a very shallow draughts and only the western channel is safe to use around the breakwater which is tiny given the size of the sound.

You can probably now see why the new carriers are to be based on Portsmouth, but even there, dredging will have to take place to give the deep-draught carriers a safe depth in which to transit.

So to the groundings, which as you will see were not the fault on the ships involved but the fault of the Queen's Harbour Master.

First comes the Ark Royal, which on the 16th January 1962 grounded in Plymouth Sound on her way to Devonport on returning to the UK from the Mediterranean.  Two days later on the 18th, the survey ship Shackleton did a recce of the route taken by Ark Royal and found that two buoys marking the channel  were out of position,  The courts martial of both the Captain {Captain D.C.E.F. Gibson RN} and the Navigating Officer took four days at Plymouth and both were reprimanded. A review was sought for both trials by the Defence Counsel and at the Reviews, the sentences were quashed. The Civil Lord of the Admiralty said that the evidence did not support the findings. Ark Royal and her officers were exonerated and their professional reputations remained intact. 

Next came the Eagle only eight years later on the 9th October 1970. Have another look at my simple drawing above and look particularly at Plymouth Hoe towards the top of the drawing. The drawing is orientated with north at the top. If you look at the West Hoe, you will see a starboard buoy called the "ASH". These buoys not only guide the ships to stay inside a given route entering and leaving harbour, but they are also used for taking visual bearings on and used to execute turns at critic points. If a buoy is in the wrong position, even though it might remain as a Port or a Starboard navigation buoy, the resultant turn order could lead the ship into danger. On this day/occasion, the ASH buoy was 145 feet from its chartered position and the move had not been promulgated to mariners. A Court Martial covering six days were convened at Plymouth to try the Captain {Captain I.G.W. Robertson RN} and the Navigating Officer for hazarding their ship. The Navigating Officer being junior, was tried first, and rather unfairly was severely reprimanded which would have adversely affected his career, Next came the Acting Queen's Harbour Master followed by the Captain and they were both reprimanded. That the moving of the buoy a huge distance of one hundred and forty five feet without telling anybody could have caused a major incident, wasn't mentioned and was not used as mitigation for the ship's officers. A travesty of justice? I think so because Eagle was my ship once upon a time.

Good bye and safe sailing.