Chapter 1

I didn’t enjoy school, all I wanted to do was to join the Royal Navy and go to sea. I was obsessed with the sea and foreign, exotic places. I learned all about sailing ships, the square riggers, the tea clippers. I soon knew the name of all the sails, the different shapes and name of bows and sterns. I remember my Dad taking me to Portsmouth Harbour when an American aircraft carrier, The Wasp, was in for a visit. It looked huge, was very impressive and made me all the more determined to go to sea.

I had passed the eleven plus exam and so chose to go to one of the new Technical Schools that were springing up. The one I went to had only been built two years previously. It was staffed by teachers, led by Mr Childs, who were full of enthusiasm for the the new scientific teachings while keeping hold of the old traditions, such as the teachers wearing their academic robes every day with their colourful hoods on special occasions. It was a very good school and I enjoyed all the science and maths lessons but still wanted to leave as soon as possible.

The crunch came shortly before the GCE exams. I was predicted to do well so was automatically expected to go straight into the sixth form after the exam results came out. My path was all mapped out for me. Sixth form, University then a job in one of the “professions”. I had different ideas. I had read John Masefield. I had Sea Fever! I was now old enough to leave school and in spite of rows with teachers and parents, I left school on Friday 3rd August 1962. I joined the Royal Navy on Tuesday 7th August. That Monday was to be the only day I was ever out of work during my working life.


Passing out from basic training, HMS Raleigh, October 1962

I had tried to join as an Artificer Apprentice but my eyesight was too poor so I took the second option and joined as a Junior Electrical Mechanic 2nd class. JEM2. I went to HMS Raleigh, a training establishment at Torpoint in Cornwall for my basic training before transferring to HMS Collingwood at Fareham, Hampshire. I found the technical training easy and really enjoyed learning about the Royal Navy and ships.

Then my GCE results came through, seven good passes. I was now qualified to start as an Artificer Apprentice without taking the Admiralty exams and the eyesight requirements had now been eased so my boss called me in and asked if I wanted to transfer, “recatted” in the Navy jargon, to be an Artificer Apprentice – I did! I was sent off home for a few days leave with instructions to get a train to Plymouth, make myself known on the station to a P.O. ( Petty Officer ) who would be waiting for me and many other boys to be taken to HMS Fisgard in a fleet of Bedford 3 tonne lorries. HMS Fisgard was the Artificer’s training establishment – directly opposite ‘Raleigh. I had come full circle.

Artificer training at the time was, 1 year at Fisgard to learn general engineering . Then 2 years at ‘Collingwood, ‘Caledonia or Yeovilton depending on your specialisation. I chose Control Electrical so I knew I would later be spending two years aback at Collingwood. After those two years there you were sent to ‘join the fleet’ to further your practical skills on a ship and then back to Collingwood for a year to complete the training, take the final exams etc.

So what did the year at ‘Fisgard consist of? This was a very intensive year. It was a mix of theoretical, practical and Naval training. It was drummed into us that, by the time we qualified, we would be able to fix any problem that came up on a warship. This was up to and including making parts as necessary. This was then often necessary because the Royal Navy had ships around the world and it was often difficult or impossible to get spare parts to them so ships had to be as nearly self sufficient as possible.We were shown gears, for example, that had been made by Artificers at sea from scratch to replace damaged parts. This is why we were taught the full range of craft skills to start with, as a foundation for the intricacies of the equipment to come. I got good marks in the early exams so I was ‘advanced’ by four months which meant that I moved forward a class and so spent only 8 months at Fisgard.

As a contrast, there is now no need for this level of skill so the Artificers have gone, to be replaced by Technicians who do a two year apprenticeship. Most breakdowns are fixed using ‘repair by replacement’. There are many fewer ships and airfreighting of spare parts is now commonplace with pickups using the helicopters that most warships now carry. So while the equipment on warships is much more complex, the fixing of faults has become a lot easier.

As an example, we spent days making complicated metal objects using basic workshop tools to attain a good ‘skill of hand’. Days were spent in the drawing office drawing complicated parts on paper. No CAD systems then. I still have some of the ‘test jobs’ I made during that time. You were only allowed to keep your test pieces if you achieved over 75%. 1% was taken off from the starting 100% for each thousanth of an inch that was incorrect on each dimension. The picture below shows a few of them. Probably the most difficult was the fitted hexagon. It had to fit in each of the 12 orientations with a fit of +/- 1,000 inch on each dimension. I still remember my ID number stamped on each piece, 7913 E. They are going a little rusty now, as am I.


A selection of my test jobs from Fisgard

At Collingwood the training got more complex and equipment was stripped, repaired, rebuilt and tested. There were test jobs making radios and electronic test equipment using aluminium for the chassis and then valves  – yes thermionic valves were then ubiquitous. It was only towards the end of my time in Collingwood that I came across transistors.

This meant, of course that we had to learn all about thermionic emission, valve theory, modulation, super heterodynes and enough to design valve circuits. We also had to learn about the computers that controlled the weapons on warships. These were electro mechanical computers so the calculations were done by a combination of mechanical devices such as differentiators and integrators. They were very precisely made miracles of mechanical engineering. Rotator positions were measured by magslip transmitters and moved by precision positional motors – controlled by valve servo DC amplifiers. This meant that they drifted and had to be balanced or tuned in several times a day.

At the same time, were were aware that all this stuff was soon going to be replaced by AC servos and transistors on printed circuit boards. The big talk was of the future micro processors and integrated circuits that were being talked about in magazines such as New Scientist. We now had to learn about the parallel path of solid state electronics. For this we were introduced to atomic theory, right down to protons, neutrons and electrons and how they reacted with each other, how electric currents were produced, doping of material to make semi conductors and then on to diodes and transistors and working electronic circuits. As an aside, these three particles were thought to be the basic building blocks of matter, The Leptons, Bosons and Quarks would come later.

We understood that this was all changing but I don’t think we realised how the coming electronic revolution was going to change everyone’s lives.


After two years in Collingwood I was given a ‘choice’ sheet asking where I would like to go in the world for my year at sea. The world was split into several areas as far as the Royal Navy was concerned: North Atlantic, South America and South Africa ( SA & SA ), Far East and Middle East. It was like choosing a cruise from a holiday brochure! Most people chose Far East and SA&SA, as did I. I was given Middle East – the least popular of the choice but someone had to go there. There were three of us who were to be drafted to HMS Eskimo, which was a tribal class type 81 frigate. She had already left the UK from Chatham Dockyard and was on passage to Aden where we would join her after flying out from Brize Norton on a VC 10 trooping flight.

To see chapter 2, please click Here

© Richard Kefford    2017                                                                             Eorðdraca

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on lifelong learning

  1. If you were expected to be able to make parts for repairs, what did you make them from?
    Really interesting account – both chapters. Looking forward to the Persian Gulf!


    • Every ship carried a stock of metals and wood. Partly for making replacement, broken parts but mainly as a stock of material that could be used for what was called damage control in the event of a shooting war. Wood to act as bungs for holes in the hull and to shore up bulkheads and deckheads. Everything was predicated on keeping power and keeping the weapons able to fire.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really interesting to find out about a career path so different from my own. Makes me think of the Patrick O’Brian books and Nelson’s navy, where they certainly had to be able to make or mend everything on a ship. Now I see where your great piece about Aden comes in.


    • Thanks for your comments Martha. Interesting that you should quote “makes and mend”. That has now ‘morphed into meaning an afternoon off.
      Look out for the next episode about the Persian Gulf!


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