It has been said that “An army fights on its belly,” and it might well be added “A fleet fights on its repair facilities.”
A nation which has no permanent bases outside its own shores cannot carry on offensive warfare successfully and still base on permanent bases within its own confines, and that being true of the United States, especially with regard to war overseas, it follows that we must have complete mobile repair facilities which may be established quickly in advance bases and perform their required functions without the delay incident to the construction of permanent facilities on shore.
The late war held many lessons for all military and naval men, but none more important to us than the emphasis it placed on the value of our mobile repair facilities, such as were available at the time, and the showing up of our deficiencies in that regard. It would appear that all too little has been written by those of us who were placed in positions charged with maintaining the operating ships in effective condition for the strenuous work required of them.
Manifestly repair ships furnish the kind of mobility which is so essential to the shifting locale of major war operations, and by the same token permanent facilities at an advance base may be of small use, when the scene of operations moves from its vicinity, as compared to the usefulness of mobile facilities which will operate at full efficiency in temporary locations. It therefore follows that repair ships will always have to carry the full weight of responsibility for furnishing adequate repair service, if the maximum number of fighting ships is to be kept up to fighting trim; also that the fleet repair equipment must satisfy war requirements, both as to engineering repairs and all types of hull repairs; in other words, anything a navy yard can do, the repair ships must be able to accomplish.
The two large advance bases operated by us during the war were Queenstown and Brest, with smaller ones at Bordeaux, Gibraltar, and the mine layer base in Scotland. Of these, that at Brest was by far the largest, since we had not only the care of the destroyers, yachts, and numerous small craft for convoy and submarine defense work, but also the repair of transports and freighters as well as the rebuilding of the hulls of various torpedoed vessels brought into that port. In spite of the fact that we had at our disposal the French navy yard and dry docks, the repair ships were the center of repair activities and the commanding officers of those ships controlled the repair work.
When we entered the war numerous merchant ships were converted into repair ships. It seems relevant to include in this discussion something of what that conversion entailed, since we will always be doing that at the outbreak of war and any methods used in the last one will be of interest in the next war. A merchant ship suitable for conversion must have good beam, and large ’tween deck spaces for the proper arrangement of shop equipment. In the Bridgeport, the former German ship Breslau, we had a vessel of 12,000-ton displacement when rigged as a repair ship, with a 54-foot beam and large ’tween deck and hold spaces, two forward and two aft, suitable for shops, offices, storerooms, etc.—as nearly an ideal ship for an engineering repair ship as could have been desired, with the one serious exception of speed.
Large side ports, one forward and one aft on each side, seemed essential, so we installed such ports in No 2 ’tween decks forward, and in No. 4 ’tween decks aft; the forward ones were in wake of the forward machine shop space and the after ones opened into the torpedo room. These ports were invaluable in passing work in and out of the ship from low lying craft, such as destroyers.
When completed we had the following shops: Machine shops (two forward, and tool maker’s shop aft); jeweler’s shop; optical shop; torpedo repair shop; carpenter’s and pattern shop; forge shop; coppersmith shop; foundry (capable of casting a ton of iron, 700 pounds of composition); drafting-room and repair office; internal-combustion engine shop; welding shop. The last two shops had special houses built on deck for them, all others were below decks. It will be seen that the above equipment could not in any way answer requirements for major hull repair, and that we were distinctly an engineering repair ship.
The recruiting of the various special ratings called for by the equipment was found to be easy in war time. By going to factories using the types of mechanics needed and enlisting the interest of the management in our problem, we found that they did not object to our taking men out of their shops, they even suggested men particularly competent, in many cases giving them special instruction during the fitting- out time, so that when they finally came to us they were far above the average in competence.
After we had finished the ship we soon found that she could not house a complement sufficient to operate the equipment continuously, which operation we considered a war-time requirement. As she was equipped to take care of a peace-time complement of only 440 men—still the allowed complement of our repair ships—the Navy Department naturally ordered that complement for her and it was up to our ingenuity and persuasiveness to get the necessary number of men regardless of established complement. This was effected in part by the commanding officer going to Washington and obtaining a letter to the commander of the Pelham Bay training station authorizing the transfer of 150 mechanical men whose enlistment record showed some training. As a result the ship sailed for France with 600 in the crew, only 440 of whom had proper berthing space; the excess were accommodated by temporary berths in the shop spaces.
Naturally we could not operate the shops efficiently at night with sleeping men all over the place. The bridge deck ended just forward of the smoke pipe where it broke down to the boat deck which ran aft to the break of the superstructure, and we proceeded to build a light extension to the bridge deck, carrying it aft to the break of the superstructure. When housed in with wood this made a wonderful berthing space for 320 men. This work was effected while carrying on our repair work on the destroyers. After the Armistice, with the aid of strutural men from the Army, we built the structure in with steel and thus made the Bridgeport the only real war-time repair ship in the Navy, judging by the standards herein set forth.
After building this new berthing space we were able to increase our crew to 820 men and to keep the ship’s equipment operating day and night. The Prometheus, astern of us, with her allowed peace-time complement, was able to operate only about one and one-half shifts in the twenty- four hours, thus turning out only half the work her equipment was capable of doing. This was no fault of the latter ship, for her structure did not permit increasing the housing facilities as ours did.
There will be those who advocate the housing of extra workmen on shore and will say that we do not need the extra housing facilities on board these ships. We, too, had a shore repair unit which we used in conjunction with the crews of the repair ships on the repair work of the port. Our observation was that the men stationed on shore, although part of the repair force, were much more detached from the spirit of the work than were the ships’ crews, and this caused a lack of cohesion in the repair force, perhaps more felt than seen, which definitely reduced its efficiency.
Until after the Armistice the port of Brest was not properly organized for repairs. The admiral’s office attempted to handle the routing of repairs to the various repair units in the port, although it had no intimate knowledge of the requirements of the various repairs with reference to the equipment available at the time in the repair units. This system rendered the industrial manager a figurehead, as he could not properly control the work. It also made it difficult for entering ships to get their repairs under way quickly on arrival.
When the Prometheus was detached after the Armistice the commanding officer of the Bridgeport became senior repair officer and industrial manager, and the following organization was established:
Industrial Manager—Commanding Officer, Bridgeport.
General Superintendent—Executive and Repair Officer, Bridgeport.
Inside Superintendent (Engineering)—Ass’t Repair Officer, Bridgeport.
Outside Superintendent (Engineering)—Engineer Officer, Base Repair Unit.
Inside Superintendent (Hull)—Naval Constructor, Bridgeport.
Outside Superintendent (Hull)—Naval Constructor, Base Repair Unit.
The inside superintendents, both hull and engineering, were in immediate charge of all work on the active operating vessels, which at this time were mainly transports, while the outside superintendents were in immediate charge of work on inactive ships, in large part navy yard and dry- dock work. The general superintendent was the co-ordinating executive over all, and the immediate representative of the industrial manager. A circular letter signed by the admiral informed all entering ships that they were to report directly to the industrial manager in all matters pertaining to repairs, and from that time on the flag office had nothing to do in regard to repairs.
This system worked smoothly and efficiently and, it is believed, to the great satisfaction of all concerned. It certainly rendered it possible to effect more work with a mininum of delay and uncertainty, and it also demonstrated that the administrative workof an advance base should be prevented from mixing with the industrial work. For that reason no repair ship in war should be required to house the flag officer and staff, because their presence on board cannot but interfere with repair work, the only proper function of the ship. A repair ship cannot play man-of- war and repair ship at the same time under the rush of war requirements and, with the admiral on board, will have to attempt at least a pretense of being a man-of-war, and in numberless ways will have her repair routine interfered with.
Destroyers and other small craft having extra strenuous and nerve-racking work while at sea must, in port, be relieved from as much work as possible in order that the officers and crews may get the rest and recreation necessary to keep them fit. To this end the ships served by the Bridgeport were told that repair requests did not have to be submitted; that all the Bridgeport wanted was sufficient information, either verbal or in rough memorandum form, to permit the repair force to act intelligently and that the Bridgeport would take care of the official paper work incident to the repairs. We found this no great hardship on the Bridgeport and it relieved the officers of small craft from an irritating and time-consuming duty and gave them more time for recreation.
The greatest deficiency which we felt in our work in Brest was the lack of facilities within our own repair force to care for major hull damage. For that we had to use not only the equipment of the French navy yards but their structural workmen as well. This arrangement gave much trouble and caused much delay, particularly as the workmen at the arsenal, as they called it, were heavily tinged with red, and were inclined to delay rather than expedite repairs—while those in charge were very chary of using strong measures to force efficiency.
If we had difficulty here how much more would be entailed in a war where navy yards and dry docks would be thousands of miles from the natural theater of war? If it were not entirely feasible to effect freedom from dependence on permanent bases in the war-time operation of our fleet, there would be no real reason for this paper, but our experience during the past war has conclusively proved, not only that this is entirely feasible, but is very easy of accomplishment.
The ideal arrangement would be for the fleet repair facilities to be able to effect any repair incident to war, both in machinery and hull, either above or below water, in any type of ship, in any port on which the fleet may be basing at the time, and to make these repairs permanent.
What a flexibility it would impart to the operations of the fleet! The amazing thing is that through such repair facilities our fleet can secure that flexibility by a smaller outlay of public funds than by any other known arrangement which would secure for the fleet even approximately similar mobility of operations. Realizing the above statement might be taken as exaggerated and theoretical the experience upon which it is based must be described. Reference has been made to torpedoed ships being brought in to Brest; it was in the case of one of these that our experience was gained.
The merchant ship Westbridge, a 12,000-ton freighter, was brought into Brest with her forecastle head awash, after having been hit by two torpedoes when about 400 miles off shore. She had been abandoned and picked up by our wrecking tug, the Favorite, and kept afloat by her cargo of flour in bags. She was run up on the flats at the head of the harbor, where an inspection by divers showed that the two torpedoes had made a single hole in her side in the wake of her fire and engine-rooms about 80 feet long and 15 feet wide, running down below the turn of the bilge.
About ten days was consumed in building a cofferdam over the hole, after which the ship was pumped out. We were then able to begin internal repairs to her boilers and engines, and could move about with entire freedom because the seepage was so little that she could be kept entirely free from water by one small pump. The work of building the cofferdam was carried out by the crew of the Favorite, assisted by labor from other sources, and was accomplished without the use of any prepared material. There is no doubt that the time consumed could have been much shortened if we had possessed material designed for the purpose.
Structural repair ships, equipped for major hull repairs similar to the way our present repair ships are equipped for machinery repairs, is the answer to this problem. They should be ships of about 20,000 tons, with large deck and hold spaces, of good beam and from 15- to 20-knot speed, capable of housing 1,200 to 1,800 men of proper structural ratings. They should be equipped with all necessary shops and tools for working up structural materials to any extent required for permanent repair of damage by shell fire, mines, torpedoes, groundings, and collisions. They should carry knocked-down cofferdam material in such shape as to make the assembly of cofferdams on any surface easy of accomplishment and should also carry knocked-down marine railways capable of being rapidly set up on shore of, a capacity to take vessels up to 3,000 tons. We have in our merchant fleet numerous vesels which are suitable for such purpose. The George Washington and the America are two which are exceptionally well suited to such conversion and are at present available. Detailed plans for equipping the required number of ships should be a part of our war plans and the necessary machinery for the shops should be designated from our shipyards, so that the work of conversion can be promptly taken in hand when war becomes imminent. Experiments on models of our ships should be made to develop forms of cofferdam material to be carried so as to make the application of such cofferdams to any injury a matter of hours instead of days. Behind properly fitted cofferdams any rebuilding of the hull can be expeditiously effected in permanent form, and with the workmen under discipline on board the ships the repairs can be carried out much more rapidly than they could at permanent bases.
To demonstrate the increased rapidity of work by a ship’s crew as compared to that of a navy yard the following experience is detailed: Coming home from Brest in the Bridgeport when in mid-Atlantic, we received a wireless message from the shipping board ship Avondale saying she was broken down and helpless because of engine trouble about 180 miles to the northward, and would have to be towed either to Liverpool or New York. She replied to inquiry on the nature of her engine breakdown that she had burned out the bearings of the pinions of her double-reduction gear Westinghouse turbine and was helpless. On arrival near her, we sent the repair crew over, got the pinions and bearings out, and brought them to the Bridgeport where we trued up the journals which had been badly scored, re-babbitted the brasses, then bored and fitted them. We had to do everything by measurement as the ship had no drawings. We then reassembled the engine and, at the end of twenty-four hours, ran a trial in which she made 1.5 knots more than she had previously been able to do because her pinions were in line for the first time. We then proceeded on our voyage and turned homeward, arriving at the New York Navy Yard on Armistice Day, 1919. In conversation with the outside master mechanic of the yard, we stated that it would, probably have taken the navy yard four days to effect such a repair. The master mechanic said he would not have estimated a day less than a week for the job.
To summarize.—The fleet can be made independent of fixed bases in all except supply, if we add to our fleet repair ships a proper number of ships equipped as structural repair ships.
All repair ships must have war-time complements sufficient to operate their tool equipment continuously, and must have sufficient berthing facilities outside their shop spaces to house and care properly for the war-time complement.
War-time complements should be officially decided upon for each repair ship with these requirements in view.
Flag officers, their staffs, and their offices should never be housed in repair ships when working on their stations.
The senior repair officer of the port should be in complete control of all repairs, and vessels needing repairs should report directly to him in all matters pertaining to repairs.
Repair paper work should be taken care of by the repair ship, not only to relieve the crews and officers of operating ships, especially submarine defense craft, from unnecessary work while in port, but also to permit them proper time for recreation.