The Battle of the North Atlantic

Incredible as it may seem, the British Royal Navy had a tradition that all navigating bridges should be open to the elements, a holdover from sailing ship days. In this picture, the man on the far left is wearing an officer’s cap, so he is most likely the officer of the watch, that is the deck officer who is actually “driving the ship”. The man to right, wearing the knit watch cap, is a lookout although being on the bridge he is probably an experienced sailor. You can see how bundled up both men are and both of them seem to be wearing rubberized waterproof suits, under which they would usually be wearing two shirts, two heavy wool sweaters, a duffel coat, in addition to heavy gloves, double socks, and sea boots. Even so, water trickled into their clothes.

HMS Columbine was a Flower Class corvette launched in 1940. These ships were miserable to serve in and would “roll on wet grass,” wrote author Nicholas Montserrat who served on one. They were constantly damp. One never got dry. They had no refrigeration. Food was terrible. Crew quarters totally were totally inadequate and unhealthy as reported time and again by Royal Navy medical officers. Ventilation was appallingly bad with little fresh air getting into the ship. Water alternately condensed on the inside hull of the ship or froze to it. Officers usually had an inch or two or water in their staterooms.

This is a “short forecastle” or “fo’c’sle” corvette, meaning the distance from the bow to the navigating bridge is quite short. This ensured that in any kind of weather, the bridge watch would be under a constant deluge of water. The Flower Class corvettes were based on the design of a whaling ship. They were not built to Royal Navy standards in terms of water tight compartments, thickness of armor plate, etc. Instead, they were built in civilian shipyards all over the UK. Some were built in Canada.

This is a photo of the open bridge of the Canadian Flower Class Corvette, HMCS Trillium. The Canadian Navy compiled a record of breathtaking incompetence during World War Two. Nearly all of their effort went into providing escorts for convoys in the North Atlantic for which they eventually had over 75 Flower Class Corvettes. Unlike the other self governing Dominions (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, et al), Canada refused to integrate its men into the overall Royal Navy. Her Majesty’s Canadian Navy was so poorly trained that in the middle of the most desperate phase of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Royal Navy requested the Canadian Navy be withdrawn entirely from convoy escort duties and never used for anything. This wasn’t possible politically and Churchill told the RN to deal with the Canadian Navy as best they could. During the war in the Atlantic, the Canadians didn’t sink more than one U-Boat by themselves.

Lookout duty was harsh in the North Atlantic where it is cold almost all of the time and very cold most of the time.

[Image courtesy of Life.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

7 thoughts on “The Battle of the North Atlantic”

  1. wooden chips? That is a fascinating piece of info to learn. I wish I had known that two years ago so I could have put that in AHG but I will work it into my next novel somehow.

  2. I just finished reading Adam Nicolson’s “Seize the Fire”, a look at Admiral Lord Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar (which I give four out of five stars for an excellent narrative flow and compelling arguments). While he isn’t specifically interested in British ship design of the period, the book does include some pertinent details of how and why a vessel was structured. One thing he mentions several times is the expectation that an officer’s place in battle is fully exposed on the open upper decks. This was not an optional requirement, it was his duty to remain calmly exposed to fire. He also points out that communication of orders on a ship was wholly verbal, so the bridge area had to be open so the conning officer could pass his orders to crews steering the ship and manning the rigging with more ease. As Charles noted, navies are naturally tradition-bound, so it makes sense in that regard that the RN kept open bridges well after the arrival of modern communication equipment. I guess what seems obvious to us wasn’t so obvious to others who knew no other way of doing things.

  3. Regarding the open bridge in the USN: As I said, the open bridge was used when casting off or tying up to a pier. Another case where the open bridge was very important was when the ship was dropping anchor. The Captain himself would stand on the open bridge wing and cast wooden chips down to the water below. This is how he could judge how much “way” the ship still had on. When the ship came to a dead stop (by noting the wood chips did not drift)—then and on would the command to “drop anchor” be given.

  4. In reference to Mr. Hall’s comment, I will also point out to my readers that he, too, served in the US Navy in the 1980s. I think the practice of the open bridge continued from sailing days because it was thought that was the only way for the watch officers to have a feel for what was going on in the sea around them. The RN also did a lot of steaming at high speeds in large formations so being able to see what was going on was important. Another reason is that most RN ships were “short legged” so they didn’t carry a lot of fuel since the British had put naval bases around the world. So the ships were typically not at sea as much as they had to be in WW Two. Also, much of the British Empire where the ships were patrolling was hot so the need for protection against the cold wasn’t as important. Unquestionably it had to affect their performance when they were taking green water over the bow with white water flooding the bridge all the time. Sometimes the watch officers were washed overboard. But navies are incredibly traditional. The navy is the only service where the officers and men where distinctly different uniforms. But as Mr Buckland said, in the US Navy there is an open bridge used for docking et al. Curiously, a friend who just retired from the German navy told me that he used to see RN officers standing on top of the bridge just yelling orders when they were docking. THey didnt have an open bridge!

  5. the electronics such as sonar and radar were in small compartments just below the fore part of the bridge and the watch officer could go into those compartments if the men heard or saw something. But I’m sure things shorted out a lot because the Flower Class corvettes leaked through their deck seams all the time. The ships were always damp so it must have been difficult. The coxswain was below and out of the weather and they communicated helm and engine orders to him via voice pipe and he operated the engine telegraph since the Flower Class only had one prop.

    I read a memoir of an RN deck officer. He was very young and was leading a local convoy of small coastal freighters carrying cargo between British ports. He was leading them into Plymouth I think and had to spot a buoy and come hard a port while signaling all the other ships to turn at the buoy because the buoy marked the narrow channel into the port which was regularly swept for mines which the Germans dropped at night from aircraft or from UBoats. It was raining so badly he could see absolutey nothing. The ships had closed up because they needed to follow the deim stern light of the ship ahead. The watch officer took his megaphone, not an electric one, and put his face into the open part and looked through the end. And he spotted the buoy but still almost pissed in his pants which most anyone would. That was standard practice apparently. On larger fleet units they had both types of bridges but the watch officer stood on the open bridge. They finally had to start enclosing the bridges of escort ships on the Murmansk run since the bridge watch had to be changed every hour or so or the men would freeze.

    I didn’t know that the US navy had both. To my other readers, Mr. Buckland served in the US Navy in the 1980s and was a bridge telephone talker who communicated the captain’s orders throughout the ship.

  6. Why the British Navy insisted on open bridges is a mystery to me. During WWII, when electronics came to the forefront in ships, it would have made keeping the electronics dry a real pain.

    U.S. Navy ships commonly have what is called an “open bridge” above the enclosed bridge. This is commonly used during docking as it gives a better view down to the pier. Most watchstanders remain on the enclosed bridge, and the Captain and his phonetalkers go topside to the open bridge. They are in constant contact with their fellow watchstander on the bridge through their sound-powered phone circuits.

  7. Was there a compelling reason the RN kept open bridges? Or were they merely intent on proving how though they were? From a practical point of view, it seems as though being blinded and tossed about by seas constantly crashing over you didn’t offer much practical benefit. At least in an enclosed bridge vis vis the USN, visibility was maintained and some semblance of order remained. It’s another idiosyncrasy of the RN I don’t really understand.

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