- Payne, Alan
- Biographies and personal histories, Naval history
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Albatross, HMAS Hobart I, HMAS Encounter I, HMAS Sydney III, HMAS Australia II
- March 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
After two years in the Mediterranean Payne was appointed to Devonport Dockyard as Senior Constructor in charge of new construction and moved into an official residence. This was only a few minutes walk from the building ships. In June 1933 the keel plate of an improved Leander Class cruiser, the Apollo, was laid down. He was delighted to be building cruisers again and took a tremendous interest in her construction, inspecting the work seven days a week. In 1938 HMS Apollo was renamed HMAS Hobart and was to distinguish herself in the war under Captain Harry Howden RAN.
In addition to the cruiser a total of ten sloops were built, two at a time. One of the last pair, HMS Seagull, was to be the first all welded warship in the world.
After the Apollo two bigger cruisers, Birmingham and Gloucester, were completed. The latter was launched by the Duchess of Gloucester.
In October 1937 his period at Devonport came to an end and he was appointed first Chief Constructor at the Singapore Naval Base. A few months later the big graving dock was opened with full ceremony and most of the workshops had been completed. The dock was opened by the sloop Lowestoft, which he had built at Devonport.
At the time of the ceremonial opening the workshops were practically empty, but the facade impressed the guests, which included the Sultan of Johore. By the end of 1938 practically all the workshops were equipped, the dry dock in operation and a 50,000 ton floating dock in constant use. At the beginning of 1940 Payne went over to the Dutch naval base at Sabang in northern Sumatra to acquire a handy 5,000 ton floating dock.
Dockyard officers and Chargemen were all Europeans while the skilled workmen were mainly Chinese and the labourers Indian. The native Malays were to be found only in the less strenuous jobs of lorry drivers and messengers. It was a time of rapid expansion to meet the needs of war.
The time had come for Payne to ask for a Constructor on his staff to assist in the additional work and Mr. H.E. Newnham, whom he had known as a young Constructor Lieutenant in Malta, was appointed as his deputy in July 1938. Newnham found his chief a hard taskmaster, who involved himself in everything including routine docking. Newnham describes his chief as rushing up and down the dock, cursing in English and Malay, streaming with sweat. When the ship was secured he would then turn to Newnham with a beam of pleasure – ‘Well Newnham, that went off very well’.
‘Serving under him was thus tiring and far from easy‘, Newnham wrote later. ‘But it gave life a zest, a sense of optimism and purpose and a feeling of fulfilment such as I have never experienced during any other part of my career. Also, I think that he was probably the best possible choice of a Chief Constructor for Singapore in the critical days of its development and also during the strenuous activity of the early part of the war‘.
Payne’s experience in airships had given him a good head for heights. When the four masts for the Singapore Wireless Station were built by contract the responsibility for overseeing the work rested with the Constructive Department. He undertook the overseeing personally and climbed to the top of each mast as it was built. When the last mast, believed to be one of the tallest in existence, was completed he had himself timed climbing to the top and down. The time was 20 minutes, so he could be proud of his physical condition. The writer heard the story for the first time from a Chinese friend in the back room of a curio shop in Singapore in 1945.
Singapore’s first experience of war damage work was the repair of the aircraft carrier Eagle’s bomb room wrecked by the explosion of a bomb while it was being stowed. This was followed by major repairs to the cruiser Emerald and a D Class cruiser which had been in collision, and then by the destroyer Isis and the submarine Rover damaged in the Mediterranean.
A change in the usual dockyard work was afforded by the docking of the large liners Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Aquitania and Mauretania. These and several other liners were fitted out as troopships and defensively armed. Payne was rather pleased to have docked Queen Elizabeth for the first time.
Payne always rose to a challenge and the old monitor Terror was a special one. She was required in the Middle East, but it did not look as though she would survive the long sea voyage. The trouble was that her bilges were fitted with pipes of which no record existed and thousands of the rivets of the bilge plating were loose.
Payne devised methods to make the old structure reasonably secure and watertight. Mr. Newnham wrote: ‘His staff, to a man, said it would not work and thought more orthodox repairs were essential. His drive, personal encouragement and optimism carried the job and within weeks instead of many months‘. Terror gave a good account of herself later.
In May 1941, Payne took passage in an unescorted cargo liner to take up his next Appointment as Manager Constructive Department, Rosyth. He looked forward to seeing Scotland and was pleased that he had at last broken away from Devonport.
The ship called at Cape Town, so he was able to visit Simonstown again and found both places very changed since 1930. On arrival at Liverpool he telephoned the Admiralty and was promptly informed that he was to take over from the Manager at Devonport who had suffered a fractured skull in the blitz.
The old part of the dockyard at Devonport had been badly damaged by the blitz, and most of the centres of Devonport and Plymouth flattened. Morale had to some extent been affected in the dockyard.
The first job was to get things moving again and to begin the reconstruction of the badly damaged cruiser Belfast, mined in 1939. Payne was appalled to find the shattered wreck of the cruiser occupying a valuable dry dock. It was quite evident that she had been written off as a total loss. The new manager had other ideas and by sending minor repair work out to contract he found the men to rebuild the cruiser.
Belfast distinguished herself in the sinking of the battle cruiser Scharnhorst in the Arctic on 26th December 1943. Admiral Bennett, who flew his flag in Belfast, wrote to the Director of Naval Construction: ‘Particularly would we thank the Constructive Manager, Devonport and all his lads for their work on Belfast. She is fitter and faster today than she has ever been.‘
New construction at Devonport was of a more mixed variety than prewar and during the period 1941-46 included the cruiser Trinidad, the aircraft carrier Terrible (later HMAS Sydney), two floating docks, the submarines Totem, Truncheon, Tudor, Thule, Ace and Achates. In addition to major repairs to battleship Valiant and HMAS Australia and many other refits and repairs, Mountbatten’s destroyer Javelin, torpedoed at bow and stern, was reconstructed. Also two Armed Merchant Cruisers, Alaunia and Artifex were converted to Repair Ships.
One notable special project was the ten day conversion of the ex American destroyer Campbeltown for the attack on St. Nazaire, perhaps the most successful raid in the Royal Navy’s long history. While inspecting the converted destroyer the writer remarked that he thought the Constructor concerned had done a fine job. The Manager would not accept the conversion as being a particularly hard job as it had top priority. The Naval Commander of the raid, Commander R.E.D. Ryder, VC, RN, did not agree and later wrote; ‘I do not believe it could have been equalled elsewhere in this country‘.
Before D Day a number of landing craft were to be temporarily converted to armoured gunboats using tanks.
At one stage the writer telephoned the Manager to ask if he was ready to take the tanks for his landing craft. He immediately accepted the tanks, which then trundled along the roads from Bath to Devonport. Unfortunately, unknown to either of us, the Devonport craft had been cancelled!