Supply of the Fleet has posed a logistic problem that is virtually as old as the Royal Navy itself. In the days of wooden warships the requirements were relatively simple - powder, shot, timber, canvas, victuals and, of course, rum. But as the Navy grew in size and complexity its logistical needs became evermore diverse. By the end of the 19th century, wooden hulls and sails had given way to ironclads and steam.
The Royal Navy's supply chain was spread across the world with a network of base ports, coaling stations and depots. These were serviced, in the main, by Merchant Navy ships, owned or chartered by the Admiralty. Then, in 1905 the Lords Commissioners issued an instruction that stated: "Auxiliaries which belong to the Admiralty will be styled Royal Fleet Auxiliaries'... those on charter will be styled Merchant Fleet Auxiliaries'." Thus the RFA came into being.
Despite having this network of re-supply and refueling stations, the Royal Navy wanted the facility to refuel and resupply its ships while at sea, and this was initially carried out with stores and bags of coal passed from the stern of the supply ship to the bow of the warship by a system of ropes and blocks. Later, techniques were developed for the transfer of fuel oil, still using the astern method, but with oil pumped over through a flexible bronze hose.
It was not until the Second World War that replenishment at sea (RAS) became well established. The German method of transferring fuel in rubber hoses was adapted, and experience, particularly gained from Pacific operations, led to the abeam method of fuel replenishment and the heavy jackstay method for transfer of stores. Today, replenishment at sea is a routine operation, carried out from RFA ships in operations, exercises and deployments throughout the world. It remains, nevertheless, an evolution calling for the highest standards of seamanship as the ships sail in close proximity, linked together, in daytime or at night and in all weathers.
Reflecting this task as their core role, the RFA’s current flotilla of 16 ships contains thirteen tankers and stores ships. The newest additions to the flotilla are Largs Bay and Lyme Bay, which are Landing Ship Dock with the latest diesel-electric propulsion system.
The two fleet support tankers, RFA's Bayleaf and Orangeleaf were all built as commercial tankers, but underwent conversion to bring them to RFA standards and equip them for naval support when they entered RFA service. One of this class is normally based permanently in the Gulf to support the Royal Navy's Armilla Patrol ships. The two small fleet tankers, RFA's Black Rover and Gold Rover complete the tanker fleet.
These ships, too, are normally deployed away for long periods, one to support the Falkland Islands Guard ship the other normally undertaking FOST (Flag Officer Sea Training) duties. RFA's Fort Victoria and Fort George are combined fleet support tanker and stores ships, designed to give "one-stop" support to naval task groups. Large ships of 31,500 tonnes displacement, they are able to supply both fuel and stores to ships at sea.
The other two Fort class ships, RFA's Fort Austin and Fort Rosalie, are fleet support stores ships to replenish warships with stores such as food, spare parts and ammunition.
All tankers and stores ships, with the exception of the Leaf-class, have large flight-decks, hangars and facilities to embark helicopters. These are used to carry out re-supply by transferring underslung loads, but can also operate from the RFA's as anti-submarine or troop carriers, thus making the RFA ships "force multipliers". In the 1998 Gulf crisis, both Fort George and Fort Victoria carried 5 helicopters with all their crews and support staff on a permanent basis.
RFA Argus's primary role is to provide operational flying training for Royal Navy aircrews. More than two-thirds of her length is given over to a five-spot flight deck, enabling her to operate all types of helicopters. The ship is effectively a small aircraft carrier, with a flying control position, and her two lifts built into the flight deck serve four hangar spaces below, where embarked aircraft are serviced and maintained. She can also function as an operational helicopter carrier, particularly in the amphibious warfare role, and as a logistic ship, able to transport cargo and vehicles in the hangars and on the deck. This flexible ship has one other important secondary role - that of primary casualty reception ship. Equipped with a hospital complex comprising two operating theatres and 95 beds, she can accept casualties flown straight out to the ship by helicopter.
Forward repair is the final element of the RFA's capability. This is provided by RFA Diligence, a complex ship fitted with workshops and equipment to cater for a wide range of repair and maintenance requirements at the front line of maritime operations. While battle damage repair is her wartime role, the ship is used extensively in her forward support role, acting as mother ship in support of Royal Navy units - usually minehunters or submarines - on distant deployments. Besides her heavy repair facilities, she is equipped to provide auxiliary electrical power, fuel, fresh water, sullage and crew accommodation.
Over the years the RFA has developed into a complex multi-purpose Flotilla, providing the Royal Navy with replenishment, training and forward repair capabilities, and the Army and Royal Marines with secure sea-borne logistical support. Despite all the changes one thing remains constant. The RFA continues to be manned by British seafarers who are part of Merchant Navy.
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