Retirement home for old campaigners

24th September 1999 at 01:00
The Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham, Kent, is a rich resource for studies of war on the waves, says John Crossland.

Sixty years ago the Royal Navy was bracing itself for action on the outbreak of the Second World War when Winston Churchill took the helm. As First Lord of the admiralty, he controlled the navy, which at that time was the only force in a state of readiness to go to war forcibly against the enemy. For anyone tackling 1939-45 as a curriculum special subject or a school project, a visit to the former Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham, Kent, is well resourced.

The 70-acre dockyard on the river Medway is a heritage site whose significance extends far beyond these shores, with a ship-building tradition which goes back 500 years.

The Chatham Dockyard Trust inherited from the Navy what has been described as "the most complete dockyard from the age of sail", complete with a wealth of listed buildings, some of which housed the crafts and craftsmen employed in building Nelson's Victory here in 1765. All that was missing were the ships to fill the Navy's old dry docks.

In 1998 the Trust received an SOS from naval history enthusiasts in Tyneside, where the last Second World War destroyer, the Cavalier, was rotting and destined either for the scrapyard or to be sent to Malaya as a tourist attraction.

With the help of a Lottery grant Cavalier was saved and can now be found in No 2 dock. Like HMS Belfast, further up the Thames, Cavalier's battle honours are the Arctic convoys which aided the Russian allies against Nazi invasion. One school group is rendered momentarily silent by their guide, who reminds them that the ship is a memorial to the 153 Royal Navy destroyers lost in the war, together with 30,000 crew.

"Cavalier was a 'wet ship'," he explains as the visitors scramble onto the open bridge. "There was no cover and the sea would literally freeze as it broke over the windshield."

Imagine the poor ship's steward, trying to carry the officers' food from the galley to their wardroom (officers mess) via a catwalk, above a deck which would be see-sawing violently in a Force 9 or 10 gale. "This," says the guide, "would result either in cold victuals or the seaman carrying them being washed overboard."

Although the officers' quarters were reasonably spacious, for the ratings they were cramped and oppressive. For real claustrophobia, however, you need to board Ocelot, the last war vessel to be built for the Royal Navy at Chatham.

Completed in 1964, this submarine ironically saw service in the same Arctic waters as Cavalier. Submarines are known as the "Silent Service", but Ocelot's design incorporated features to ensure especially quiet underwater running, because she was a spy ship.

As you lower yourself into the forward torpedo room you realise why submarine ratings had to pass an acclimatisation test - they had to satisfy naval psychologists they could tolerate being cooped up in this tiny space. Accommodation was so constricted that after heaving an 18-inch torpedo on to its loading track a seaman could find himself peeling potatoes - the torpedo room doubled as a larder.

There were two toilets, or "heads", for 62 men and no one used hot running water except the captain. In fact no one bothered to wash their clothes - they were destroyed, together with their lice, at the end of a patrol.

Chatham Historic Dockyard, Chatham, Kent ME4 4TZ. Tel: 01634 823800. Open weekends only in November to March, and daily in April to October. pound;3.50 per pupil; one adult free per 10 pupils. Preliminary visit free. Led sessions available

* THE WATERTIGHT SKILLS OF SHIPBUILDERS

For teachers covering the growth of British naval power in the age of sail, the Wooden Walls exhibition in Chatham Dockyard's old Masthouse and Mould Loft, dating from 1753, is a fascinating experience. Children follow William Crockwell, a 14-year-old apprentice, through the pages of his diary while he helps build the man o'war, the 'Valiant', and through the rooms where he worked, now skilfully recreating the various processes with the help of life-sized figures.

A Victorian Dockyard Pack aimed at key stage 2 is being developed, and will cover Charles Dickens' visit to the yard in 1840, where his father worked in the pay office and where he would have looked over ships such as the steam and sail sloop 'Gannet', which was built at Chatham in 1878.

They can also follow the transition from wood to steel in shipbuilding; the impact of the Industrial Revolution, prison hulks on the Medway and rope-making (which children can already try their hand at in the old fleet Ropery). Young visitors will be able to dress in Victorian naval uniform and undertake gun and sail drill and signalling.

Future packs, which may incorporate the provisions for KS3, KS4, General National Vocational Qualifications and higher education, are planned for the Tudor dockyard and the Second World War.

A new teacher's book, 'Education at World Naval Base' is currently being printed.

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