- Betty, John G, Lieutenant, RANVR Ret’d
- Naval technology, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2002 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
John Betty submitted this article for the Naval Officer’s Club competition in May 2002. It was awarded second prize. Sadly, he did not live to collect it.
Logistics: the art of procurement, maintenance, supply, transportation and distribution of military supplies and material.
‘I don’t know what logistics are, but I need more of ‘em.’ Attributed to Admiral Ernest J King Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet. ((The Forgotten Bases – The Royal Australian Navy in World War II by David Brown. Ed. David Stevens, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1996))
There never were, and no doubt there never will be, enough combat ships for a conflict involving seaborne forces deployed over the world’s oceans. Having ships return to distant home bases every time they need docking for emergency or routine repairs is a luxury which no navy can afford. This was the challenge faced by the Allies during World War II in the conflict ranging over the vast areas of the Pacific.
The story of Darwin’s elusive floating dry-dock is a small part of the Allied response.
BEFORE WORLD WAR II, most navies were able to conduct their operations within easy reach of well-established bases to which they could retire to refit and replenish supplies. The Royal Navy had access to a worldwide network of dockyards and bases at strategic points such as Aden, Alexandria, Hong Kong, Simonstown, Singapore and Trincomalee. The United Sates Navy was able to use naval bases at Pearl Harbour and at Cavite in the Philippines.
The nature and speed of the Japanese onslaught in December 1941 took the USA, Great Britain and their allies completely by surprise. The Japanese occupation of the Philippines, Indo-China and the East Indies and their attempted expansion into the islands of the Central and South East Pacific meant that the Pacific Ocean itself, covering an area larger than the entire land surface of the globe, would become the main theatre of operations for the Allies in their strategy to defeat Japan by blockade, bombardment and direct assault.
With the loss of Cavite, Hong Kong and Singapore there were now no established bases for the Allies in the Pacific west of Pearl Harbour and north of Sydney. Initially this did not present too great a problem, but as the Japanese expansion was contained and the focus of the conflict moved closer to Japan itself, the Allies were faced with difficult logistics and maintenance situations.
The Development of the Modern Fleet Train
It was necessary, therefore, to progressively establish advanced bases in underdeveloped harbours, supported by a sea-borne logistics system which would allow the battle fleet to operate without having to return to home bases. The US Navy faced the challenge in the Pacific by expanding the earlier concept of a Fleet Train so as to provide all the facilities required to support a whole fleet operating in remote areas away from established bases. So was developed the modern Fleet Train, comprising a large number of diverse ships and auxiliaries – replenishment aircraft carriers, aero engine and airframe repair ships, oilers carrying black oil boiler fuel, distillate and avgas, victualling and armament store ships, submarine and destroyer depot ships, radio maintenance vessels, tugs, hospital ships, personnel accommodation ships, and, significantly, floating dry-docks.
Some of the Fleet Train vessels, particularly oilers, carried out their replenishment tasks at sea with the Fleet but in the Pacific the Fleet Train, for the most part, occupied advanced bases and anchorages within easy reach of the front line, to which vessels could readily retire for servicing.
On shore, temporary buildings such as hospitals, warehouses, wharves, repair facilities, workshops and accommodation for administrative staff, crew replacements, maintenance and store personnel, were built to provide the land-based back-up to the Fleet Train.
The Floating Dry-Dock
The need for floating dry-docks came into prominence with the development of these new Pacific Fleet Trains. At the time of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour the US Naval Shipyard had only three such docks in service. By the end of hostilities, they had 156 floating dry-docks, with lifting capacities of up to 100,000 tons.
Routine dry-docking is a normal requirement for all ships, whether military or commercial. The construction of permanent fixed dry-docks is a time-consuming and costly task and in war-time the practical alternative is the construction of floating dry- docks. While they have a shorter effective life span and require more maintenance, they can be built more rapidly and have one unique characteristic -mobility. This important dimension can be overlooked as the need to establish dry-docks in advanced operational areas does not normally arise in peacetime.