The Royal Navy, steam turbine plant, and engineering cultures

Attention conservation notice: c. 2,000 words on the sociology of the RN’s interwar engineering corps and its impact on steam plant design.

As mentioned previously, I’ve been meaning to write something about the Royal Navy’s interwar steam plant. This was inspired in part by this piece by Erik Lund, but this has also been something I touch on in the thesis. I argue that the Admiralty’s post-war adoption of new propulsive technologies such as the gas turbine – and thus Metrovick’s involvement with the RN – was in part a reaction to the perceived failings of the RN’s steam plant. Much of the material below is based on a draft section cut from the thesis for reasons of length, but I think it’s interesting enough that it’s worth sharing, not least because I’ve been able to find very little scholarship on the RN’s engineering branch in the 20th century. In writing this section, I had in mind David Bloor’s excellent book on the development of aerodynamics in England and Germany in the first quarter of the 20th century (particularly Bloor’s sociological approach), as well as Louis Le Bailly’s account of powerplant engineering in the RN. Though somewhat idiosyncratic, Le Bailly’s is the best overview of the subject I’ve seen, and the outline matches the other materials I’ve been able to find. The lack of a broad secondary literature on the RN’s engineering corps means that I’ve had to rely on a relatively small number of sources; though I looked at some more-or-less contemporaneous material, most of the accounts of being a serving engineering officer were (for obvious reasons) retrospective personal memoirs, which are somewhat problematic. I’d be interested to know what readers think, and whether it would be worth trying to work this up into something more substantive.The referencing of this blog version is a little minimalist, but if I can get wordpress to play nice I’ll try and update it at some point; if you need more detail just ask.

Powerplant Engineering and the Royal Navy

During the Second World War the Royal Navy discovered, to its dismay, that its warship steam plants could not compete with those of the US Navy in maintainability and fuel efficiency.[1] In comparison with the US, the RN’s steam plant used notably lower temperatures and pressures. This was not the result of any particular British industrial backwardness, as British turbine manufacturers were not noticeably inferior to US companies (indeed, in many cases the companies had cross-licensing agreements). The difference is usually ascribed to the fact that the Admiralty gave shipbuilders contracts to build warship turbines, whereas the US Navy placed contracts with the specialist turbine manufacturers, who could draw on recent developments in power station steam turbines. Yet this account simply relocates the source of technical backwardness from British industry to a reactionary Admiralty; a brief sociological analysis of the Navy’s engineering corps and its Engineer-in-Chief’s department (responsible for naval machinery) provides a more satisfactory explanation.

Engineering Officers had had to fight long and hard for status in the Royal Navy; introduced to tend the machinery as steam propulsion became more common during the nineteenth century, they remained civilian officers outside the chain of command and with their own rank structure. There was great antagonism between ‘gentleman’ naval officers and the ‘tradesman’ engineers, with extraordinarily vitriolic debates about the latter’s status in the technical and naval press.[2]  However, in response to warships’ increasing technical sophistication, in 1903 the new Second Sea Lord ‘Jacky’ Fisher, with the approval of the Earl of Selborne, the First Lord of the Admiralty, completely overhauled naval officer recruitment and training. The ‘Selborne-Fisher scheme’ aimed at common entry for both general branch and engineering officer cadets. Crucially, under the common-entry system Engineering Officers (who had an (E) appended to their rank) had executive authority, and could aspire to command of a warship.

This decision was reversed in the ‘Great Betrayal’ of 1925, causing huge resentment among serving Engineering Officers.[3]  In the wake of the Royal Navy’s failings (perceived or real) during the First World War, the Navy’s senior leadership had fallen back on the ideal of the naval officer as heroic Nelsonian commander.  The increased technical demands and specialisation within the Navy, they argued, meant that Engineering Officers could not also master the ‘above-deck’ skills required for command. However, by the engineers this was seen as a reversion to the antagonism of the 19th century; consequently many officers left the service for industry, and the standard of candidates applying for engineering duties dropped.  The problem was essentially one of status; once again non-executive officers, engineers could not command a warship, could not issue orders to non-engine-room crew, and had no power to award punishments.  In some sense this status was similar to other ‘guilds’ within the Admiralty; the Corps of Naval Constructors, the Royal Dockyards, and the scientific staff of the Directorate of Research. All were acknowledged as important to the smooth functioning of the Navy, and they were separate – but not quite equal – from the RN, each with their own promotion paths, albeit civilian ones.[4]  Unlike these guilds, however, Engineering Officers were both military officers and embarked on warships, and the definite social divide between the Engineering and Executive branches of the Navy did not always make for the happiest working relationships, harking back to the Victorian Navy’s ‘gentlemen’ and ‘tradesmen’. Indeed, naval officer cadets were actively discouraged from joining the engineering branch, though it was sometimes seen as an option of last resort for those that failed the executive branch’s medical requirements.[5]

The ‘Great Betrayal’ seems to have affected the Engineer-in-Chief’s department in more subtle ways. The Royal Navy’s engineering college at Keyham had closed in 1910 as initial officer training was centralised under the Selborne-Fisher reforms, but with the disruption of the First World War it did not reopen until the early 1920s.  Coupled with the loss of younger Engineering Officers to industrial careers in the wake of the ‘Great Betrayal’, this meant that the Engineer-in-Chief’s department was staffed mainly by older pre-Selborne-Fisher officers. At the same time, the Naval Staff had developed as an ‘elite within an executive elite’, and had little contact with the engineering hierarchy. These factors led to a somewhat insular Engineering Branch, which had limited influence on staff requirements, and whose officers had as much in common with their counterparts in the civilian sector as they did with the rest of the Navy. Initial attempts by the RN to develop high-pressure steam plant in the 1920s in HMS Acheron were beset with development troubles, and the programme was abandoned.  The interwar period also saw a severe slump in the British shipbuilding industry, which had problems in maintaining skilled labour and building capacity; together with reduced warship production and limited funds, this militated against further steam plant development.  Perhaps as a result, the Engineer-in-Chief’s department’s major concern was with reliability, which encouraged technical conservatism, an evolutionary approach to machinery development, and a certain amount of groupthink between the department and shipbuilders.  In this environment, ordering turbines from shipbuilders made perfect sense; it helped keep them in business at a time of economic uncertainty, and avoided costly development problems such as had been encountered with the Acheron. It was with the machinery developed in this way that the RN entered the Second World War.

Yet from the early 1930s the Engineering Branch began to change and attract higher-quality candidates. In part this was due to engineering’s increased attractiveness to naval entrants; the depression caused applicants to think than an engineering qualification would be useful in civilian life, and applications to the Engineering Branch from public schools and from the Royal Naval College began to increase.  Finally, by the late 1930s there was a cohort of (E) scheme Engineering Officers with seniority and postgraduate engineering qualifications rising through the Engineering Branch’s ranks; the Engineer-in-Chief’s department created specialist sections to investigate boiler design and steam turbine efficiency headed by such officers, which led to new assessments of naval propulsion technologies. During the Second World, despite the urgent need for engineering officers to keep the Navy’s warships running, the Admiralty attempted to ensure that they were rotated through ship and shore appointments, so that experience was spread throughout the Engineer-in-Chief’s department and the Fleet.  Spurred on by what they had seen of their own and other nations’ machinery, the Engineering Officers ascending through the hierarchy brought with them a sense that change was needed in the RN’s propulsive design. By the war’s end the Navy had taken on board a number of innovations in propulsion machinery – not least the gas turbine – and had begun the design process for a new generation of steam powerplants. A new generation of Engineering Officers was now in senior positions within the Navy’s Engineering hierarchy, which led to a more adventurous Engineer-in-Chief’s department.  The wider post-war Royal Navy was also more receptive to the idea that fleet mobility should be a priority, with many of its senior officers having fought alongside the US Navy in the Pacific; the long distances of this campaign had emphasized the poor endurance of the British Pacific Fleet when compared to the USN.

The changes in the Engineer-in-Chief’s department fed back into changes of the steam plant procurement process. In 1943 the Admiralty ordered the ‘Daring’-class destroyers, which were intended to operate in the Pacific, and would need long range. Conscious of their existing steam plant’s unfavourable performance, the Admiralty formed a Propulsion Committee. This comprised representatives of the major shipbuilders and the Engineer-in-Chief’s department; the US Navy also supplied representatives, who gave accounts of the USN’s development problems with high steam conditions.[6] A Turbine Sub-Committee, chaired by Commander(E) IG Maclean, head of the E-i-C’s Gearing and Turbines section, brought together marine engineering and industrial turbine companies, and requested turbine design tenders. The sub-committee selected two promising English Electric designs for further development; a joint BTH-PAMETRADA design was later added.  PAMETRADA was the Parsons and Marine Engineers Turbine Research and Development Association, which was formed by the shipbuilders in 1943 in order to improve their turbine designs. This seems to have been a defensive move to stop the Admiralty from simply switching to procuring turbines from specialist manufacturers. Although the Admiralty were members of the association, finance came mainly from the shipbuilding and turbine companies; the DSIR also made a ‘considerable’ financial contribution. The designs chosen by the Turbine Sub-Committee were to be developed by PAMETRADA and English Electric respectively, and to be tested at PAMETRADA’s new shore test facility.[7]

By 1944, the Admiralty had issued the requirements for the Daring-class destroyers’ machinery, and Sir Harold Yarrow picked the English Electric turbines to power those Darings built by the Yarrow shipyards, as he considered these to be the best of the turbine designs available (the other Daring-class shipbuilders used the PAMETRADA designs). As a result of this relationship, post-war the Admiralty asked Yarrows and English Electric to collaborate on a survey of world naval steam plant practice.  Engineers from both companies worked with the E-i-C’s department as an engineering consultancy team to the Admiralty. By 1950 English Electric had withdrawn from the collaboration, possibly because the company was divesting itself of its naval engineering business; as a result the consultancy team adopted the name Yarrow-Admiralty Research Department (Y-ARD) in 1952. Effectively independent from Yarrow shipbuilders, Y-ARD acted as engineering consultants and project managers to the Admiralty. The conclusions of the YE47A investigation were that ‘British Naval machinery has, for the first time in history, become inferior in many vital aspects to that of the United States Navy.’ Y-ARD noted that the Daring-class machinery currently under test was comparable to current US plants, but that in order to bridge the gap in future, the research and development capabilities of both the naval and the commercial organisations should be reviewed.[8]

As part of the YE47A study, YARD had been asked to design a complete steam plant installation including boilers, gearing, and turbines. Designing a plant for optimum performance required careful selection and matching of the various components; previous practice had been to pick components in more-or-less standard sizes, but then to adapt them to the desired rating. The first integrated design built by YARD was the YEAD-1 plant (Yarrow-English Electric Advanced Design), which was a shore test plant. YEAD-1 was shortly followed by the design of the Y.100 plant, which was a production design fitted to anti-submarine frigates. Given the success of these designs, in 1952 the RN issued a staff requirement for a next-generation plant, Y.102, which would use high-pressure steam for cruising, but would have gas turbines for boost purposes in a ‘combined steam and gas’ (COSAG) layout. As a design partner for Y.102, Y-ARD would team up with Metropolitan Vickers.

Essentially, then, changes in the makeup of the RN’s engineering corps and an appreciation of progress elsewhere led to changes in the Admiralty’s propulsion plant procurement process, which allowed MV to get a foot in the door for the naval propulsion market; in a future post I hope to explore quite how and why MV developed the expertise to get involved in this project.

[1] The RN’s warships were generally shorter-legged than the USN’s, which was a combination of plant efficiencies and the fact that the RN tended to optimise its warships for high top speeds rather than efficient cruise.

[2] See Geoffrey Penn’s Up Funnel, Down Screw: The Story of the naval engineer (London: Hollis and Carter) for more on Victorian naval engineers.

[3] Le Bailly makes quite a big deal of this, but it was borne out in pretty much all the personal papers I looked at of naval engineers who had been active in that period, including the Vice-Admiral (E) Denys Ford (at the IWM archives) and Engineer Vice-Admiral Harold Brown (at the Liddell Hart Archives, KCL).

4] This point about the Admiralty Guilds I got from Scott and Hughes’ Official History volume on the Administration of War Production.

[5] Louis Le Bailly’s Memoir The Man around the Engine mentions being discouraged from an engineering path; I also came across other examples in the unpublished memoirs of Vice-Admiral Allen Trewby, held in the Liddell Hart Archives Centre at KCL.

[6] As Erik notes, the USN’s high-pressure steam plants had relatively short lives due to piping and weld failures.

[7] Much of the detail of this section comes from a paper by the English Electric turbine engineers Cowlin and Veitch in the Transactions of the Institute of Marine Engineers.

[8] Many Y-ARD project reports, including this one, are held in the National Archives.


5 Responses to “The Royal Navy, steam turbine plant, and engineering cultures”

  1. Urban Garlic Says:

    The social phenomenon you describe here, of technical talent having low formal status, is echoed in James Hamilton-Paterson’s “Empire of the Skies”, which is about the decline of British aircraft development in the post-WW2 era. According to (my recollection of) Hamilton-Paterson, there was an issue with “gentleman aircaft designers” being unwilling to listen to feedback from test pilots, who they regarded as mere vehicle operators. This was a contributing factor in relatively high operational cost and low readiness of British-built aircraft in the RAF.

    I don’t have the background to really assess Hamilton-Paterson’s claim, but it’s interesting to me to see the echo of it in your post here.

  2. Jakob Says:

    In the absence of comparative evidence, I’d be a little leery of ascribing unique failings to the UK aircraft industry; much as I enjoyed Hamilton-Paterson’s book, it seemed to me to be comparing the UK to a yardstick of perfection, rather than to any other existing industry. That said, there may be something in it insofar as much of the British aircraft industry was run by designer-entrepeneurs in a fairly autocratic fashion until the mergers of the 1960s (I’m thinking of eg. Handley Page, de Havilland, Camm). Unfortunately I’m not aware of any socio-historical studies of UK aeronautical engineering even at the chief designer level; this is something I think would be greatly worthwhile, but unfortunately I’d have to find someone willing to fund me for a few years in order to do it…

    It is also important to reiterate that British industry was by no means technically conservative as a whole; even within the Admiralty propulsion engineering seems to have been unusually staid. This was something I should perhaps have mentioned above; RN gunnery, signals, and torpedo specialists were executive officers, and so had a stronger voice on the naval staff. Whatever the failings of interwar RN weapons procurement (for instance, British high-angle anti-aircraft fire control is often – debatably – mentioned as a particular weakness) these were not so much the result of technical backwardness as of inaccurate strategic assumptions about the nature of the threats to be faced.

  3. Duncan Says:

    In 1937 HMS Warspite’s 3 year reconstruction was completed. She re-entered service with a 400psi/700f steam plant, that achieved better efficiency (.748/lb/SHP/hr) than any other naval power plant in the world. In 1941 USS Washington, equipped with a state of the art, USN high pressure power plant could not achieve even .8 lbs/shp/hr. In 1945 HMS Vanguard did trials with her improved 400psi/700f steam plant, that achieved equal efficiency (.63/lb/SHP/hr) with the USN’s latest Iowa class fast battleships. The early USN high pressure plants were inefficient and could not match the best that the RN had in service. By the early 1940s the USN had taken the lead but this was primarily because RN designs were frozen when war broke out while the USN had another 2 years to continue to perfect their designs. However, if the comparison is made against the other world’s navies, it would be seen that the RN was ahead of all the others in terms of efficiency and reliability especially so over the Kriegsmarine’s latest high pressure steam plants which proved to be notoriously unreliable and inefficient despite their word leading steam temperatures and pressures.

  4. Jakob Says:

    Thanks for this; could I ask where you got the fuel consumption numbers from? The YE47a project report did mention the Kriegsmarine’s steam engineering, and evaluated it as far inferior to the RN’s, but the conclusions were that the RN’s wartime plant was inferior to the USN’s – though this was possibly on average; I don’t recall any mention of eg Warspite’s upgraded plant.

  5. Duncan Says:

    The Warspite and Vanguard data is from ‘British Battleships’ by Raven and Roberts and the Iowa class data is from USS New Jersey’s trials as reported here:
    It is pretty significant that Vanguard could match Iowa’s double reduction 650psi/850f power plant in fuel efficiency with her 400psi/700f single reduction turbine plant.

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