Britannia Royal Naval College

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Over the next three issues of MS&T, Europe Editor Dim Jones will be reporting on the way in which the UK’s Armed Forces train their officers. Appropriately enough, the first visit to a military College was to the Senior Service, the Royal Navy.

At 1700 hrs on selected Monday evenings in the months of January, May and September, buses arrive at the Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) Dartmouth from the railway station at nearby Totnes, and release their cargo – around 150 young people, embarking on the first formal stage of their quest to become the next generation of Royal Navy officers.


BRNC Dartmouth is positioned in a spectacular setting high above, and enjoying spectacular views of, the mouth of the River Dart, on England’s south coast in the county of Devon. In 1857, the Admiralty decided that all officer cadets should join the same training vessel, at that time HMS Illustrious, which was moored in Haslar Creek, Portsmouth, and was replaced in 1859 by HMS Britannia. However, the ‘fleshpots of Pompey’ were deemed inappropriate for the development of young naval officers (who, at that time, joined at the tender age of 13), and a more suitable location was sought, requiring a deep-water harbour with easy access to the sea. HMS Britannia sailed into the River Dart in 1863, later to be joined by HMS Hindostan. However, by the 1890s, the wooden hulks had become unsuitable for training and, in 1898, the foundations of a shore-based college were laid; the figureheads of Britannia and Hindostan now grace the Dartmouth parade ground. The first cadets entered the new BRNC in 1905; since then, among many others, Dartmouth has trained four future Kings of England, and five other members of the British Royal Family.

Selection Process

During that time, the format of officer training at Dartmouth, in common with its sister establishments at Sandhurst and Cranwell, has undergone an almost continuous evolution. All RN officers now complete their initial training at Dartmouth; Royal Marine (RM) officers have their own course at Lympstone. Today’s Cadet Entry will undergo an intensive 29-week course, Phase 1 of their officer training, the aim of which is to develop junior leaders who are also professional mariners – officers who, regardless of branch, will be comfortable in the maritime environment. The journey, for the vast majority, will have started with application to, and initial suitability testing and interviews at, an Armed Forces Career Office (AFCO); the successful candidates will then have been selected to attend the Admiralty Interview Board (AIB). This will take place either direct from school, or before or after completion of a university degree course, through which some will have been sponsored by the RN. Of the Entry, about 30% will be direct entrants, and 70% graduates; anecdotally ‘the younger you get them, the longer you keep them’; there will also be a few ex-ratings (known as Senior Upper Yardmen). The Board process, which takes about 36 hours, comprises a medical examination, psychometric testing, leadership assessment, written exams and an interview. Additionally, those aspiring to a career in naval aviation will have undergone aircrew aptitude testing at the RAF’s Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre at RAF Cranwell. One of the first requirements is successful completion of a fitness test, for which candidates will have been counselled to prepare before arrival.

The AIB will award each candidate a score; they will then go into a pool, and branches will select from that pool based on their manning requirements and the applicant’s preference; experience indicates that, if a candidate is selected by the desired branch, he or she has a 97% chance of completing Phase 1 training.

The selection process produces 150 entrants every four months, and there will be two entries at BRNC at any one time. Upon selection, prospective cadets will be given access to a closed Facebook page, which allows them to learn more about the College and ask questions.

Left: The Log race.
Image credit: Dim Jones.

Basic Military Training

On arrival, the Entry will be split into six Divisions named after some of their illustrious forebears – Blake, Cunningham, Drake, Hawke, Howe and St Vincent – each with a Divisional Training Officer (DTO) of the rank of Lt, the whole Entry supervised by a Lt Cdr. This arrangement is broadly similar to the tried-and-tested Divisional system which they will encounter during the rest of their service. About 20% of the Entry will be International students – some funded by their own nations, others sponsored by the UK – and around 13% will be female, to whom all branches of the RN, including submariner and diver, are now open.

The 29 weeks are split into two terms of 14 and 15 weeks. Week 1 is devoted to familiarisation, uniform and kit issue and fitting and, for some, a first taste of marching as a squad. Each cadet will give a one-minute presentation on him- or herself, and will have to pass both a fitness and a swimming test. Initial informal impressions of individuals gained by staff at this early stage generally turn out to be quite accurate.

During Weeks 2 to 4, the cadets undergo Basic Military Training, which includes some academics, rifle-training and skill-at-arms. They also take to the water for the first time, in whalers – single-screw open boats – in which they will learn to operate the vessels under the effects of wind, sea and tide; the Dart estuary is extremely tidal with a fall of around five metres during Spring Tides, and strong currents. They will also be taught the basic principles of navigation. Officers of the Warfare branch will expand on this training during subsequent courses, but it provides those from other branches with a firm foundation. Lastly, they will undertake Initial Military Fitness Training.

Physical fitness is a continuing theme throughout the course and, although the cadets are not required to be natural athletes, or to attain the levels of physical condition required of Royal Marines or Special Forces, they are required to keep themselves in shape, and in this they receive all the assistance they need – and more! It is estimated that a cadet, on average, will take 20,000 steps a day (excluding formal PT sessions), and very little of it will be on the flat. The vertical span of the Dartmouth estate is more than 300ft from the top sports field to the Sandquay jetties on the river. Fitness is not an end in itself; it demonstrates that cadets will be able to perform their operational duties when tired, cold, wet and sleep deprived. It also instils discipline, response to orders and teamwork; indeed, the acronym C2DRIL (Courage, Commitment, Discipline, Respect, Integrity, Loyalty) is emblazoned on the gymnasium wall. All fitness training is closely supervised; some exercises can only be monitored by qualified PTIs, and there is always medical support at hand or on close call.

Exercise Havoc

Week 5 marks the end of this initial phase of the course and culminates in Exercise Havoc, of which much more in a minute. This is followed by a Families Weekend, the aim of which is to introduce the cadets’ families to the RN, not to reintroduce the cadets to their families. It includes a ‘Trade Fair’, which showcases the various support organisations available to the families and ensures that their offspring are not their only line of communication with the Navy.

Exercise Havoc is an intense 24-hour assessment of everything the cadets have learned thus far. It starts at 1800hrs on a Tuesday evening, with a briefing from a senior training officer, following which nominated cadets from each division are required to be on 30 minutes notice to give a presentation, with visual aids, on a topic selected by the staff. The rest of the evening is given over to preparations for the morrow and inspections by DTOs.

The next day starts at 0600 on the parade ground with an inspection of every item of kit the cadets possess, during which they must demonstrate that a) they have it, b) they know where it is, c) it is properly weather-protected and d) that they can get it all back inside their bergens and day-packs in double-quick time. Individual transgressions are rewarded by a ‘strike’, collective misdemeanours by a circuit of the ‘ramps’ surrounding the parade ground, at the double of course. It is a while since I was last on a parade ground at 0600; at least the frenzied activity served to keep the cadets warm.

The rest of the day is spent progressing at breakneck pace from one activity to the next, involving multiple changes of uniform; events include: the inevitable fitness training, marching, intelligence-gathering around the campus, individual requalifications in whaler handling and knot-tying, a leaderless practical exercise, preceded by a quick fully-clothed immersion in a plunge pool, and immediately followed by the infamous ‘log-run’, a team race from the top sports fields to the main gate and back, man- (or woman-) handling the eponymous log.

‘Leaderless’ does not actually mean that there are no leaders, only that there is no designated leader; there are, in fact, about as many would-be leaders as players, and the ‘hubbub level’ is something to behold. The staff are privy to the set schedule, but the cadets are not made aware of their next event until it is almost upon them. They are given just enough time to get from one serial to the next – or maybe not quite – and the requirement is ‘right time, right place, right rig.’ Deviations from any of these are covered by the splendid and all-embracing term ‘adrift’, and may be rewarded by individual ‘strikes’ or collective punishments, almost invariably involving some sort of physical exertion.

On completion of the log-race, the divisions I watched had 15 minutes to get back to their accommodation, shower, change, clean their wet boots, put the rest of their wet kit away, and muster on the parade ground. Individual performance is assessed, but the whole fiercely contested exercise is scored on a divisional basis. There are some – but not many - events which are carried out at less than warp speed; I attended the presentation by St Vincent Division on ‘Courage’ – both physical and moral - during which the celebrated duo of Captain Blackadder and Private Baldrick were presented as role-models. Twenty-four hours after it started, the exercise culminates in a debrief from the exercise controller, at which the order of merit of the divisions is revealed, and the overall standard assessed, reflected – if appropriate - in a relaxation of the inspection and marching regimes, and limited access to the cadets’ bar.

There is a view that the modern education system does not condition the younger generations to the possibility of failure and that they are therefore not very good at taking responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. Dartmouth seeks to teach them that failure is an experience to be confronted, and it is their responsibility, but that this is OK, providing they accept the help on offer and work to overcome it. Their educational backgrounds (e.g. arts versus engineering) is not important in terms of likelihood of success, but previous experience in sailing or small boats certainly helps.

Command, Leadership and Management

Post-Havoc, there is a step change in emphasis. Weeks 6 to 11 are given over to Command, Leadership and Management (CLM) training, and culminates in Exercise ABLE (Assessed Basic Leadership Exercise). This is a one-week field exercise on Dartmoor, supervised by Royal Naval Leadership Academy (RNLA) personnel, and comprising a lot of movement, not much sleep and, depending on the time of year, cold and/or wet conditions. Cadets are given basic leadership tasks, such as building bridges or rescuing downed aircrew from within minefields. The designated leader is required to receive verbal orders, come up with a plan, brief the team, and supervise the execution of the plan. Staff assess individual and team performance using ORCE – Observe, Record, Classify, Evaluate. Week 11, for those successfully completing ABLE, comprises a long weekend, visits to the training centre at HMS Raleigh in Plymouth, and to the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines, and other training activities. Borderline failures are given remedial training and reassessed, while those falling further short of the mark may be recommended for back-coursing; these protocols apply at every stage of the course. On very rare occasions, and only in the event of multiple failures, College and cadet come to a mutual agreement that his or her career path will probably not involve the sea.

Intermediate Military Training

Weeks 11 to 14 are devoted to Intermediate Military Training – a mix of academic and practical, including consideration of maritime roles such as disaster relief (topical, in view of recent post-hurricane operations in the Bahamas), and operational and tactical planning, specifically the Tactical Estimate process, based on the ‘7 Questions’: what is the enemy doing, and why?; what have I been told to do, and why?; what effects do I want to have on the enemy, and what direction must I give to develop my plan?; where can I best accomplish each action or effect?; when and where do the actions take place in relation to each other?; and what control measures do I need to impose?

Left: BRNC Picket Boat and Whaler during the Advanced Maritime CLM.
Image credit: UK MoD.

Sea Time

Term 2 is divided into three parts: Pre-Sea Training, Initial Sea Training, and Advanced Maritime CLM Training and Assessment. The Entry is split into two and they complete the latter two modules in parallel. Initial Sea Training involves a five-week deployment to operational vessels (anywhere in the world, at sea if possible, but alongside if not); frigates and destroyers provide the ideal experience. The cadets live alongside the ship’s ratings and familiarise themselves with life at sea and the personal organisation required to make a success of it. They are given tasks to perform, individually or as part of a team; they also get a ‘worm’s eye view’ of the command process, and the reaction of the junior crew to it – invaluable experience for the future!

The Advanced Maritime CLM takes place on the river, involves teams of 12 cadets, and makes use of 70s-built twin-screw picket boats as well as the whalers, operating from the Sandquay jetties. The crew live on board the none-too-spacious picket boats for up to a week at a time. The first three weeks are spent refreshing lessons previously learned, and familiarising the crews with the boats. The module culminates in a two-week phase, the first half of which is called Maritime Leadership Development (MLD) and is instructional; the second is Maritime Assessed Leadership (MARL) and is, as the name implies, evaluated. Operations are supervised from the bridge and operations room of a former Sandown-Class minesweeper (HMS Cromer – M103), now decommissioned, permanently moored at Sandquay, and renamed Hindostan, in memory of the original hulk. Picket boat and whaler act as a Task Group, and exercise crews are given missions to accomplish, making use of both vessels. The cadets rotate through the various on-board roles: CO; Executive Officer (XO or Second-in-Command); Navigator; and Officer of the Watch (OOW), who also acts as helmsman. During my visit to a picket boat, the crew were given the task of navigating to a local riverside park, which they were required to reconnoitre and evaluate for the purposes of setting up a field hospital. It is generally accepted that those divisions which have experienced sea training first are better equipped for the challenge of MARL, but due allowance is made for this in the assessment process.

Week 29 marks the end of this road – and the beginning of the next. It is spent preparing for, and executing, the Passing-Out Parade, during which various general and professional prizes will be presented to members of the Entry. Most will pass out as Midshipmen, but Senior Upper Yardmen will graduate as Sub-Lieutenants and others, such as Medical Officers, as Lieutenants. All will now progress to Phase 2 training in their respective professional specialisations.

Courageous Leaders

The UK has a long and proud seafaring history, and there is no shortage of suitable applicants for careers as RN officers. However, the RN’s strength and capability has now reached the point where, in the view of many professional observers, a shortage of operational vessels, particularly destroyers and frigates, has led to the RN being stretched to meet its operational commitments. There is a manpower shortage in some critical specialisations although this is more acute for senior and junior rates than for officers. Particularly topical, as the RN’s second new carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, enters Portsmouth for the first time, are the shortcomings in the flying training system which will generate pilots for the F-35 Lightning II. For both carriers to be able to operate simultaneously will present something of a manning challenge for sailors and aviators alike.
The mission of the Britannia Royal Naval College is: “To develop courageous leaders with the spirit to fight and win”. Even in an era of lasting general peace, it is clear that situations will arise in the future which might require these young officers to deliver the skills acquired at Dartmouth in an operational setting. Dartmouth is, by any measure, a tough 29 weeks, and it is doubtful that many graduates would recognise in themselves the individuals who disembarked from the Totnes train some seven months earlier; however, most would agree that the course has given them a firm foundation on which to build a career as a naval officer. Dartmouth’s must be to give them that foundation and also be a rewarding and fulfilling experience, and to my not entirely unseasoned eye, the College is doing it extremely well.

Beyond Phase 1 - Other Courses at Dartmouth

The Phase 1 officer training described in the main article is by no means all that goes on at the Britannia Royal Naval College.

BRNC is the centre for the RN Reserve Forces, for the officers of which there are two entry methods: a two-year period of weekend commitment, which includes four weeks at Dartmouth; and an accelerated eight-week course, including the four spent at Dartmouth. The College is also home to two of the three squadrons of the RN Leadership Academy – Royal Sovereign and Royal Oak – and the HQ, while the third squadron, Royal Arthur, is at HMS Collingwood in Fareham, Portsmouth. Royal Sovereign Squadron provides leadership training to the Phase 1 course, and the HQ is also responsible for the Outdoor Leadership Training Centre (OLTC) at Tal-y-Bont. Lastly, Dartmouth hosts the HQ of University Royal Navy Units (URNU), of which there are 15 covering 64 universities in UK, which are the source of a large proportion of the Dartmouth intake.

There are many specialist branches in the Royal Navy, but the largest is the Warfare Officer branch, and it is from this that the incumbents of all the principal sea-going executive appointments – Principal Warfare Officer (PWO), Officer of the Watch (OOW), Navigator, Executive Officer (Second-in-Command) and Commanding Officer (CO) are drawn, for both surface and submarine fleets. Phase 2 training for Warfare Officers comprises four phases and lasts about 17 months; it leads to a foundation degree in maritime studies from the University of Plymouth, which may be advanced to a full degree at a later stage. The first is the Initial Warfare Officer (Foundation) Course (IWO(F)), which is followed by Common Fleet Time (CFT), IWO (Navigation ) (IWO(Nav)), and Aviation and Warfare (AVWAR) before young officers embark on Specialist Fleet Time (SFT). On completion, Junior Warfare Officers return to HMS Collingwood to complete the final assessment course, IWO(Continuation) Course (IWO(C)) before joining the fighting strength.

IWO(F) takes place at BRNC and lasts 15 weeks. The course is principally an academic package on navigation and warfare and aims to familiarise students with basic bridge procedures and navigation ‘rules of the road’. A key vehicle for achieving this is the ‘Daring’ bridge simulator, which is located in the Navigation Building of BRNC. Manufactured by Wartsila Marine, the principal aim of Daring is to exercise IWO(F) student officers in coastal navigation. To this end, the bridge positions are reconfigurable, and course members can practise, and be evaluated in, the key bridge positions: Officer of the Watch, (OOW), Navigator, and Helmsman. The visual system can replicate all environmental and weather conditions, such as sea state, wind velocity, day/dusk/night and visibility, and accurately replicates the approaches to all the major ports on the south coast of UK and many elsewhere. The Navigator and the OOW work together to take fixes on predetermined references and establish accurate positions. Navigation at this stage is done using paper charts; transition to electronic means will come during later modules. Meanwhile, the instructor and assistants can generate, and modify the behaviour of, multiple vessels of varying types, and these will be represented both on the visual system and on a bridge radar plot. Having first identified a possible hazard to navigation, and determined its course, speed, minimum separation range and, therefore, potential collision risk, the OOW will devise a course of action which satisfies the ‘rules of the road’ (the International Regulators for Preventing Collisions at Sea), and report the salient parameters to the CO (represented by the instructor), together with the proposed solution. If agreed, this will be communicated to the helmsman, who will alter course and/or speed as required. The complexity of the scenarios – difficulty in navigation, weather conditions, number, type and ‘threat level’ of contacts – will increase as the course progresses, culminating in the ‘Channel Dash’, a simulated transit from Portsmouth to Portland.

IWO(F) consists of more than just the Daring simulator. There is academic instruction in navigation, oceanography and meteorology, ship design and behaviour, radar and sonar theory, and military history. There is also a week’s sea time on a P2000 patrol vessel, and five days on one of the College’s sail training vessels. Successful IWO(F) graduates will progress to the subsequent IWO modules at the Maritime Warfare School at HMS Collingwood. These will include consideration of the different types of maritime warfare – Anti-Surface (ASuW), Anti-Submarine (ASW) and Anti-Air (AAW), and students will also study the management of aviation on board. Specialist Sea Time involves deployment to operational vessels, this time for 8 to 12 months and as officers under instruction, and the whole culminates in a Naval Watch Certificate, which qualifies them to operate as OOW in a benign warfare environment, and subsequently for a Bridge Warfare Qualification which encompasses the war setting.


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