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A fascinating glimpse into the inadequacies of the RN and a man who sought to change them

8 Oct 2010The Times
Vice-Admiral Sir Louis Le Bailly

Naval engineer who with like-minded spirits in his branch enabled the Fleet to recover a mobility it had lost in prewar years of neglect

Louis Le Bailly was one of that resolute band of engineers who set about attempting to remedy the technical shortcomings which had been revealed in the ships of the Royal Navy in the Second World War. The gospel of these engineers was “the mobility of the Fleet”, a vital factor which had been sacrificed in the 1920s and 1930s by Admiralty neglect of the engineering branch. Turning its back on the efforts of Lord Fisher to inculcate a community of spirit in the Navy, the Admiralty of post-1918 permitted an attitude which appeared to disparage engineers socially, and implied that what went on “down below” in a ship was not the affair of an officer and gentleman.

HMS Hood, in which Le Bailly served, in dry dock for repairs. A magnificent ship, she suffered from technical defects

This was the state of affairs into which Louis Edward Stewart Holland Le Bailly entered as a cadet through Dartmouth at the age of 13, intended for the seaman (executive) branch but not long afterwards to be compelled through defective eyesight to become an engineer himself. It was a navy outwardly fair but decaying within. Above, the executive branch supervised the polishing of brass and endless painting. Below, a few heroic engineers and their stokers fought a losing battle trying to prevent out-of-date boilers and machinery from falling into disrepair.

As a midshipman Le Bailly served in great ships such as the battlecruiser Hood, which sunned itself in Mediterranean ports under dazzling white awnings, while the bearings of her gun mountings were so corroded that one attempt to train the 15-inch “Y” turret through 90 degrees ended in disaster which was retrieved only by the brute force of tackle, capstan and the ship’s tug-of-war team.

Such a navy was to be revealed as being an inadequate partner to the US Navy when war came, and with it the stern test of operations in the wide Pacific Ocean. Even the First World War four-stacker destroyers given to the Royal Navy by America in the wake of disastrous sinkings at the time of Dunkirk were found, by the astonished RN engineers who made them ready for sea, to be superior in such basic matters as boiler and steam pipe technology to the latest British construction of the time. As an engineer at sea during the war, Le Bailly was among that group of “revolutionaries” who perceived that the Navy’s poor mechanical performance could only improve through an open-mindedness towards technical innovation.
Le Bailly served twice in Hood in the 1930s, secondly as an engineer sublieutenant, 1937-39, after a sight defect had ruled him out as a seaman officer. In between he had done a four-year course at the Royal Naval Engineering College, Keyham, Plymouth.

He was serving in Hood when war broke out and was her upper-deck damage control officer when she was attacked by aircraft in September 1939. As it happened, the bombs of the Germans were far less of a threat to the ship than her own boilers whose water became so contaminated that the battlecruiser was only just able to limp back to Scapa Flow, thanks to desperate remedial action from her engineers.

Later in 1939 Le Bailly was appointed to the anti-aircraft cruiser Naiad. One of a new class of anti-aircraft cruisers, she took part in the battles which raged up and down the Mediterranean as the Royal Navy attempted to keep supplies open to the Eighth Army in North Africa. Fast and well-armed though they were, the Dido Class to which Naiad belonged had one fatal defect. With their five gun turrets they were dangerously unstable when low on fuel and ammunition, both of which were stored deep below the waterline.
Naval regulations expressly forbade the ships’ engineers from letting water into empty fuel tanks to lower the centre of gravity. When, to the astonishment of Admiral Cunningham, C-in-C Mediterranean, one of Naiad’s sister ships was sunk by a single torpedo when low on fuel, Le Bailly got an opportunity to put the engineers’ point of view to him. But nothing was done to alter regulations.

In 1942 Naiad was herself sunk by a single torpedo, capsizing when low on both oil and ammunition. But after an hour or so in the water the majority of her ship’s company were picked up.

Le Bailly was brought back to Britain to lecture at the naval engineering college where an intake of young engineers vital to the Navy’s future needs had not only to be educated, but to be persuaded that they were serving their country by gaining that education, as surely as if they had been at sea.
In the latter stages of the war Le Bailly was sent to the battleship Duke of York, which sailed to the Pacific to operate alongside the Americans. Nimitz, the American commander, told Admiral Fraser, his British counterpart, that US Navy ships stayed at sea for 90 days. Fraser could only offer eight for RN ships. Eventually there was a compromise on 20.

It was the younger engineering officers of the “revolutionary” school on whom the burden of keeping this British fleet operational fell. In Sydney Le Bailly acquired some US-type pipe joints and boiler cleaning compound which helped to keep Duke of York going; but his efforts were not appreciated as his chief, an engineer of the old school, insisted on opening up the battleship’s boilers for routine cleaning every 750 hours, per the book, although the new compound permitted them to steam for 2,000 hours.
Things came to a head after the surrender of Japan when Fraser asked Le Bailly for a report on why the British Fleet’s operational capacities were so lamentably short of those of the US Navy. Le Bailly’s report, a litany of crumbling furnaces, badly designed steam joints, perpetual distilled water shortages and inefficient propulsion machinery set the RN engineering community by the ears. Its criticisms of the design department at Bath, which had ruled the engineering roost to the detriment of the RN for so long, were particularly resented by the old school. Le Bailly was invited to withdraw it by a senior engineering staff officer, but refused to do so, and it earned the severe disapproval of the engineer-in-chief and the director of construction.

As a result Le Bailly served a couple of years in limbo. But winds of change were at length sweeping through the naval engineering establishment. Thereafter, the advent of a new engineer-in-chief ensured that the views of the revolutionaries gained a more sympathetic hearing.
Through such appointments as naval assistant to the Controller of the Navy, 1960-62, and Deputy Director of Marine Engineering, 1964-67, Le Bailly was able to make his input into a modernising process which ended with gas turbines powering all major naval units.
Le Bailly never became Controller of the Navy, a job in which he would have excelled. But there is no doubt that his agitating, and that of like-minded spirits among his contemporaries, was instrumental in giving the Fleet the operational mobility it needed. This, in the Falklands in 1982, enabled it to fight a war in the roughest ocean of the world, 8,000 miles from base.
Le Bailly’s final appointment, as Director-General of Intelligence, Ministry of Defence, 1972-75, took him away from his engineering speciality, but his forward-looking approach to strategic matters made him an ideal man for the job.

In retirement at St Tudy in Cornwall he continued to make an active contribution to defence affairs, as a brisk letter writer to newspapers, and he wrote several books. The Man Around the Engine (1990), a personal, but also technical, memoir, was followed by From Fisher to the Falklands (1991), a history of naval engineering as Le Bailly had personally experienced it. Old Loves Return (1994) was a collection of articles expressing many of his strategic and defence concerns over the years. We Should Look to Our Moat (2007) was a collection of essays suggesting that Britain ought to concentrate for a while on re-establishing a nation at peace with itself, before embarking on more overseas adventures.

He is survived by his wife, Pamela, whom he married in 1946, and by three daughters. Vice-Admiral Sir Louis Le Bailly, KBE, CB, OBE, naval engineer, was born on July 18, 1915. He died on October 3, 2010, aged 95

2 people have thanked this post
Stovepipe Registered User

Hi there,
It wasn't only the RN.When the RAF recieved Packard-built Merlins from America, they found them to be assembled with gaskets at critical joints, just as in automotive practise.The British had been reared on the metal-to-metal joint, despite the proven superiority of the gasketed joint and concerted efforts by Air Ministry personnel were made to stop Packard shipping such gaskets in completed engines. It got to the stage that Packard engineers would routinely ship extra gasket sets, thrown into the engine crates, when the British reps were distracted, so that the mechs in the field would be able to keep their engines running. Eventually, the clamour from the field won out and the gaskets were added at manufacture again.

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