How Meteorology Became Part of the Royal Navy: Part Three

Posted in General Interest.

As could be seen in part two of this potted history, the Admiralty was reasonably well prepared for the onset of hostilities. Four years previously, in 1935, documents were produced authorising aircraft carriers, battleships and larger cruisers to be equipped according to their status and advising on the location of the Met Office and balloon shelter; also the siting of certain crucial, and delicate, meteorological instruments in order that they were able to function in the desired manner.


As could be seen in part two of this potted history, the Admiralty was reasonably well prepared for the onset of hostilities. Four years previously, in 1935, documents were produced authorising aircraft carriers, battleships and larger cruisers to be equipped according to their status and advising on the location of the Met Office and balloon shelter; also the siting of certain crucial, and delicate, meteorological instruments in order that they were able to function in the desired manner. The available ships were organised into groups or squadrons with a flag ship and the number of officers and ratings were designated. In some cases the Met Officers were often named, mostly those who had gained experience and had a certain amount of training; there were also others who had obviously shown potential and were to be trained immediately, before taking up their duties.

At this stage, Seamen Q(Met) were still trained on the job by the senior met officer on board, and as most of these gentlemen were Instructor Officers, they had some idea of how to impart this knowledge. Leading the initial instruction of the officers was Dr A G Forsdyke; a very senior and experienced meteorologist from the Meteorological Office, at that time based in Dunstable, and who was on loan to the Navy. For some time it had been suggested that the State Met Service (Meteorological Office) could supply all the forecasts needed by the Royal Navy. This was, as usual, always going to be a thorn in the side of the RN whose answer would inevitably be that whoever supplied the forecasts would need to be able to go to sea and produce reliable forecasts whilst the ship was under way. This was to prove the stumbling block for most civilians who had no wish to

  • Go into uniform
  • Come under the Naval Discipline Act
  • Go to sea at all
  • Be separated from their families

This formula worked against the suggestion then and has done so on numerous occasions since; ensuring that the Navy forecasts its’ own weather above, on or below the sea.

Once war was declared, Dr Forsdyke was required by the civilian met service and his place was taken by Inst Cdr West. Until the outbreak of hostilities all training had taken place at Berkeley Square, the headquarters of the Navy Meteorological Branch (NMB) and this continued for a time until transferring to the Admiralty Compass Building at Slough when it was felt that the centre of the capital may be just a little dangerous. This went on for a short time before relocating again back to London, but this time to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, where officer met training continued until 1946.

forsdyke

Officers Met Course 1939

Seamen Q(Met) remained well into the war, only being replaced by Seamen (Met) in 1942. There had been some ad hoc training at the ever expanding number of Air Stations across the country but, with the formal recognition of met as a sub-specialism of the seaman branch, more formal training was undertaken at Lee-on-Solent; the met ratings ‘bank’ for the south of the country. This situation remained until 1947 and the establishment of the first real RN Met School. Those ratings known as Seamen Q(Met) retained their nomenclature and only gradually faded away through natural wastage.

By the end of 1941 manning was becoming a problem with more and more officers and ratings being sent on active service both at home and abroad. This was leaving considerable gaps in the complements on shore bases. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) first came into being during the First World War but was disbanded again once the war was over. Re-established in 1939, it was not until the latter end of 1941 that a very small and new branch, Meteorological Wrens, were formed to take the place of naval ratings and officers on shore stations, thus reliving them to go back to sea. It was stipulated that a certain number of shore billets would be needed for men, to cover the requisite amount of Home Service and leave.

When the Wrens Met Branch was initially formed, after their basic training at Mill Hill was over, the wrens were trained “on the job” wherever they were first drafted; very similar to that of the Seamen Q(Met) pre-war. Possibly by late 1942 but certainly by early 1943, the met wrens were sent to HMS Kestrel at Worthy Down to do a basic six week course on meteorology before being drafted to the many Naval Air Stations scattered rather like confetti across the whole of the United Kingdom.

Although other branches of the WRNS served overseas during the hostilities, it would appear that the Met Wrens were not so fortunate. Some of the men did and indeed, in one instance, one of the met ratings was drafted overseas, after training, as an ordinary seaman (met) during the latter months of 1942 and eventually returned to home shores very late in 1945; only to discover that back in August 1945, whilst still in Italy, he had been promoted to Petty Officer (Met)! One of the ratings the navy “forgot”; at no time was he ever officially informed he had been rated up; it was just through reading signals detailing movements that he and his mate discovered that they had advanced up the career ladder.

At the outbreak of war, Royal Navy Meteorologist numbers, both officer and rating, were singularly low but measures were in place to train forecasters and ratings in very short order as the realisation hit home that, although well prepared on paper, the RN Met Branch would possibly be ‘stretched’ to cover all eventualities in the short term should the need arise. Many courses were put in train for met officers and by 1943 this included WRNS Officers, with mostly on the job training still being the norm for ratings and later wrens. By 1942 the realisation was that more formalised training was needed for both ratings and wrens and this appears to have taken place at various RNAS across the country. The young rating who “time and the RN forgot” was trained at RNAS Crail near Fife whilst a couple of the wrens were trained at RNAS Donibristle again in Fife. It was not until later that training, as described earlier, became more settled; indeed it was not until 1946 that met training became centralised, in its loosest term, in one place – but that is another story.

forsdyke

Met Office RNAS Yeovilton circa 1943

Throughout the war the numbers in the met branch continued to rise, all under the NMB and the very, very experienced and capable hands of Capt Leonard Garbett RN. This role of leader he continued to hold until his second retirement in 1947, when he was well over sixty years of age. Before he retired for good, Capt Garbett left behind a legacy of his involvement with meteorology in the navy in the guise of detailed notes of the rise of the branch pre-World War Two, descriptions of various incidents during the war and a document detailing the lessons learnt after the war was over. He even started to write a book recounting the history as he knew it. He kept a Met Diary noting significant dates both before and during the war which was kept up by subsequent Directors of the branch postwar.

Personnel employed on Meteorological Duties

19391945
Executive Officers74
Instructor Officers3060
RNVR Officers50206
WRNS Officers053
Ratings (Seamen(Met)some existing Q(Mets)320

By 1946, the hostilities over, officers and ratings in the branch had been “demobbed” as had all but a handful of wrens. There followed lengthy discussions on the way forward for the Met Branch – there were some who felt that it should cease to exist – a not inconsiderable task which took four years to debate leading to a metamorphosis in 1950. In the meantime the branch continued to function using full time serving officers, ratings and wrens; regular training courses continued to be a feature, thus increasing the numbers again after the release of all the HO members.

It would be a long time before the numbers in the branch were reduced to anything like those seen before World War Two again and, as usual, finances played a not inconsiderable part as did the very great advances in technology but this has taken place in much more recent times. At least one lesson was learnt from the Great War, when ninety per cent of the met officers returned to their previous pre-war duties only for the branch to resurface a couple of years later and for it to expand with the rise of the aircraft carrier. The next article will look at the details leading to the complete revamp of the branch in 1950, the rise of the Met Schools and the branches only period of complete autonomy.

Reference Sources – Various official Admiralty documents archived with:

  • The National Archives, Kew
  • Royal Naval Historical Branch, Portsmouth

Gill Charles, Secretary and Researcher, Cloud Observers – an Association for retired RN Meteorologists.

September 2011