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AT FIRST GLANCE IT MAY NOT LOOK MUCH LIKE A SHIP, perched high and dry on a hill overlooking Devon’s beautiful Dart estuary but this is the Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) the initial officer training establishment of the Royal Navy and before it was a building, it was a ship, one of the wooden walls of England.
This was in 1863 when the first ‘college’, the wooden hulk HMS Britannia was towed from Portland and moored in the river. A year later, after an influx of new recruits, Britannia was supplemented by HMS Hindostan. Thus Dartmouth can lay claim to its training role for more than 150 years.
Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930) who designed the shore-based college was one of the greatest architects of his era. In addition to the BRNC he also designed the Victoria & Albert Museum, Admiralty Arch as well as the Mall, opening up to present the imposing re-modelled facade of Buckingham Palace itself.
He was aware that the bricks-and-mortar college needed to maintain the excellence inherited from the spirit and traditions that had shaped the men of the nation’s senior service in the cradle of the old warships that had preceded it.
So he studied the plans of the old wooden-walls-turned-places-of-learning, their layouts, uses and functions as he created the new BRNC at Dartmouth as it provided classrooms, drill halls, work shops, mess decks, a quarterdeck and sleeping quarters for generations of naval officers.
His building – opened in 1905, 100 years after Trafalgar – is a remarkable structure, and contains what is almost certainly the most extraordinary ‘secret’ design built into a piece of architecture anywhere in Britain – so certainly since Stonehenge – and further afield, most probably since the Temple of Ramesses the Great at Abu Simbel.
Like the College, each of those places is aligned by their architects in such a way that at a given time of day and at specific time of year, heaven itself, in the form of the sun, is harnessed to bring illumination to a precise spot and for a particular reason.
At Stonehenge it is the sunrise on midsummer morning kissing the altar stone.
In Dartmouth it is Nelson, of immortal memory, whose untimely death at the Battle of Trafalgar is honoured in this way: and the man who made the calculations and designed the entire structure around that single event was the magician, Aston Webb.
Once a year, on Trafalgar Day, 21st October, in the half-light of the chapel a beam of sunlight travels down and onto the altar from a small round window high above the west door. (see triptych panel).
This year’s October 21 will be the same as last year. Those who have come to remember all the Royal Navy’s fallen remain silent, facing the altar, their minds taken back particularly to the deck of Victory, 211 years ago this month: this hour: this minute.
Nelson’s flagship, Victory, is locked in a deadly struggle alongside the French battleship Redoubtable. It is almost 1.15 in the afternoon. Captain Hardy and Nelson, in full uniform, are walking on the upper deck through the midst of the intense fighting, both ships shaking with the intensity of broadside after broadside. Suddenly Hardy realises that Nelson is not by his side. He turns to see him kneeling on the deck, supporting himself with his hand, before falling onto his side.
He has been hit by a marksman from the fighting top of the French ship and his spine is shattered. Nelson is carried below by sergeant-major of Marines, Robert Adair and two seamen. As he is lifted he has them drape a handkerchief over his face so that any crew who see him will not be alarmed.
He will die, below decks some three hours later but it is at this point – and at this time – as he leaves the deck and sees daylight for the last time that is commemorated in the very fabric of the chapel where today’s Royal Navy trains its officers, “to deliver courageous leaders with the spirit to fight and win”.
Leave the chapel and here again, is Webb’s guiding hand, seen once more here in the long corridor that serves as the backbone of the main building. He uses it to make distinct the two important aspects of a cadet’s life in service. At one end is the chapel (the spiritual), at the other the so-called gunroom (the temporal). But if you are looking for guns in the gun room you will be disappointed.
A gunroom is the junior officers’ mess on a naval vessel and was originally the quarters of the gunner. The senior officers’ equivalent is the wardroom where traditionally naval etiquette demanded that the three subjects of politics, religion and ladies were taboo.
Quite how this works in practice in wardrooms (or gunrooms) in today’s Royal Navy is unclear, where more than ten percent of all officers nowadays are female: so too are all ratings.
Officer training for the Women’s Royal Naval Service – the WRNS – moved from Greenwich to Dartmouth in the 1970s and became fully integrated with the men in the early 1990s.
Britannia at war
But there were many Wrens in service at Dartmouth during WW2, one of whom, Petty Officer Ellen Whittal lost her life in an air raid – but not before she had been instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of cadets and officers who had routinely arrived as the new intake in early September.
Mrs Ellen Victoria Whittal, ‘Nella’ to her family, had been instructed to send letters and telegrams to each of these men ordering them to delay their arrival by a week.
Why the change of plan? In the years following the war the official line was – and remains – that putting off the date of starting the term was simply a means of adjusting the end of term to coincide with Christmas leave.
But inevitably, speculation and controversy remain. This start date for the arrival of the new intake was a tradition – only adjusted marginally by leap years and calendar adjustments.
Had Ellen Whittal not carried out her orders to the letter, how many lives would have been lost when the great gathering place at the College, called the Quarterdeck, directly under a roof of several hundreds of tons of Delabole slate, came crashing down?
Six Focke-Wulf 190s launched their attack at about 11.30 am on Friday, 18th September 1942, out of the sun and at low level. They hit shipping in the river, the shipyard on the opposite bank and the College itself. Although 25 people died that day and more than 40 were injured, Ellen Whittal was the only person to lose her life in the College itself.
She was cremated at Plymouth City Crematorium, and her name appears on the memorial in Plymouth (Efford) Cemetery. It reads: These Members of His Majesty’s Service Who Died in the Service of their Country.
Staff and students were moved to Eaton Hall in Cheshire for the rest of the war, the damage was repaired and BRNC taken over by the US Navy as its HQ in the run-up to the invasion of Europe in 1944.
Today’s officer cadets can join between the ages of 18 and 32 and spend between 30 and 49 weeks at the College, depending on specialisation. A large contingent of foreign and Commonwealth students from no fewer than 20 navies can be part of the student body at Britannia at any one time.
Public tours of the BRNC last about two and a quarter hours and pre-booking as well as photographic identity is essential (Passport, Driving License or Senior Citizen Bus Pass). Tours start at a pick-up point in Dartmouth town and visitors are taken to and fro by bus. Book through Dartmouth TIC 01803 834224 or for further information the Britannia Association Tours office is most helpful 01803 677565.
FOOTNOTE: Nelson is buried in the crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, but Devon honoured Nelson too in its own way and on Thursday 21st January 1801 made him a Freeman of the City of Exeter.
First he dined at the Royal Clarence Hotel and then walked from Cathedral Square, to stand proudly beneath the civic clock just inside the entrance of the city’s Guildhall, there to be so proclaimed and presented with a commemorative sword. But that’s another story.