One of the most dangerous operations at sea is refuelling one ship from another by means of a flexible fuel pipe. This is a manoeuvre the Royal Navy has been experts in for many decades and during the two world wars smaller ships such as Destroyers were regularly refuelled by capital ships with larger fuel tanks such as battleships. It was however more common to take on fuel from small tankers, with both ships having to maintain station whilst fuel was transferred from one vessel to the other. Tonight we have a series of snapshots taken by a sailor aboard a Royal navy warship as she refuelled form a small tanker at sea. The image quality isn’t brilliant, but it is rare to have such photographs and even from these hurried snaps it is clear how dangerous this activity would have been:The fuel lines can be seen snaking up from the tanker, supported by a derrick and then coming down to the warship where they would be pumping fuel straight into her tanks. The sea looks very calm here, but even a mild swell makes this task far more hazardous and anything with cables under tension at sea can be potentially lethal as if they snap they whip back and can cut a man in half instantly.
Eric R Wilkinson was aboard HMS Euryalus in 1944 and describes how she was oiled at sea:
This is the time to write about oiling at sea. Ship’s companies in cruisers and destroyers were used to a life in which it was always necessary to visit a port to take in oil fuel every few days. The time between refuelling varied with all sorts of factors — the speed we sailed at (as I recall we used at least twice as much oil per mile at full speed as at cruising speed) and how low in fuel it was acceptable to be in the circumstances of the place and time. But every week or so, and often more frequently, we put into a port to refuel. This brought respite from the monotony of watch-keeping at sea, at least for the few hours it took to refuel.
But such frequent visits to port would obviously not be possible in the Pacific, and therefore we learned to refuel at sea. This had been part of our working-up programme at Scapa. An oil tanker steamed at constant speed while the ships being fuelled kept station on her, on each side or behind. Flexible hoses were hoisted from ship to ship, and the fuelling proceeded. It was a fraught period for many in the ship. The shipping of the hoses was difficult at the best of times and almost impossible in poor weather. Occasionally the hoses disconnected and fuel gushed everywhere. Keeping station imposed continual strain on the bridge personnel who had to steer and adjust the ship’s speed very precisely.
It was also stressing for the men in the engine rooms who had to adjust the big wheels which controlled the throttle valves which admitted steam to the engines, as orders were telegraphed from the bridge. The engine designers had not envisaged this sort of close speed control being necessary, and the tachometers fitted to each engine gave only rough readings. Fine adjustments had to be made by repeatedly clocking the rev counters. Finally, the engineer officer in charge of taking in oil fuel had to be released from his watch-keeping duties in the engine room so the other engineer officers had to take over his watches