HMS Vernon

imageHMS Vernon Main Gate by B. Reynolds


The third ship to bear the name HMS Vernon was a fifty gun frigate that saw active service in home waters, the Americas and the East Indies between 1832 and 1848. She was then laid up in Chatham Dockyard until emerging in 1867 for use as a floating coaling jetty. In 1872 she was given a new lease of life as a hulk anchored in Fountain Lake at Portsmouth where she was a tender to HMS Excellent for Torpedo and Mining training. From 1874 to 1923 Vesuvius, a gunboat of 250 tons, became Vernon’s Whitehead Experimental Tender for the conduct of torpedo trials.

imageThe third HMS Vernon

On 26 April 1876 the hulk of Vernon together with those of the former 26 gun steam frigate Ariadne (providing accommodation) and the lighter Florence Nightingale were commissioned as HMS Vernon to become the home of the Royal Navy’s Torpedo Branch at Portsmouth, independent of HMS Excellent. The hulk of Actaeon was added in October 1879 and used as a workshop. In January 1886 the former two-deck ship-of-the-line Donegal arrived and assumed the original Vernon’s role as a more spacious torpedo school ship. Donegal was renamed Vernon while the original Vernon was renamed Actaeon and replaced the original Actaeon as a practical workshop; the original Actaeon was then scrapped.

On 23 April 1895, the 3 hulks (Vernon, Ariadne and Actaeon) were moved to Portchester Creek in Portsmouth Harbour. The accommodation hulk Ariadne was replaced by the hulk of the old three-decker Marlborough which became Vernon II. She was connected by bridges to Actaeon and the old Donegal which became Vernon I. In 1904 the pioneer ironclad Warrior (now on show in Portsmouth as HMS Warrior 1860) arrived as a floating workshop, power plant and wireless telegraphy school and was renamed Vernon III. For conformity, Actaeon was then renamed Vernon IV. In the same year, Ariadne was sent to Sheerness to become the nucleus of a new torpedo school. Confusingly, she was renamed Actaeon in the following year.

imageMarlborough, Warrior & Donegal in Portchester Creek

During the First World War, work at HMS Vernon concentrated on torpedo trials and training and the research and development of anti-submarine devices and training in their use as well as mines and ships’ electrics. On 1 October 1923, HMS Vernon (or ‘The Vernon’ as it came to be known) was established ashore at Portsmouth on the site of the old Gunwharf (now the development known as Gunwharf Quays) and Mining, Whitehead [Torpedo] and Electrical departments were formed.

image Gunwharf’s Main Gate decorated “In celebration of the French Fleet August 1905”

The original names of the Vernon hulks were adopted for buildings in the shore base.

imageOriginal HMS Vernon Ship’s Badge

During the Second World War, HMS Vernon became responsible for mine disposal and mine countermeasures. Her officers and scientific staff achieved several coups involving the capture of mines and the development of countermeasures. One of the earliest of these was the rendering safe and recovery of the first German magnetic mine (Type GA) at Shoeburyness on 23 November 1939. For this deed, Cdr John Ouvry was decorated with the DSO by King George VI at a ceremony on HMS Vernon’s parade ground on 19 December 1939. Others decorated at the same time for this, and other tasks where mines were rendered safe for recovery and examination, were Lt Cdr Roger Lewis (DSO), Lt J E M Glenny (DSC), CPO C E Baldwin (DSM) and AB A L Vearncombe (DSM). Of particular note, these were the first Royal Naval decorations of the war.

In June 1940, the first attempt to render safe a ground mine by divers was made in Poole Harbour, Dorset. A diving unit from HMS Excellent, supported by divers trained in Rendering Mines Safe (RMS) techniques from HMS Vernon, successfully removed the fuze from a Type GC mine underwater although the mine exploded as it was towed inshore. For his central role in this task, Able Seaman Diver R G Tawn was subsequently awarded the DSM. On discovering the skill of HMS Vernon’s mine technicians, the Germans placed booby traps in some mines. One was fitted with a small explosive charge that detonated when the mine was stripped in the mining shed at HMS Vernon on 6 August 1940 causing the deaths of Commissioned Gunner (T) Reginald A. Cook, PO Cecil H. Fletcher, AB William B. Croake, AB William J. Stearns and AB Alfred E. Stevens and serious injuries to other personnel. Following this incident, mines were stripped and examined at a disused limestone quarry at nearby Buriton which was nick-named HMS Mirtle (short for Mine Investigation Range).

Various sections of HMS Vernon were dispersed to sites throughout the country following heavy air raids on Portsmouth, one of which demolished Dido Building and killed 100 people in a single night. On 3 May 1941, the main part of HMS Vernon was evacuated to Roedean Girls’ School at Brighton (HMS Vernon(R)) where bell pushes on the dormitory bulkhead were purportedly labelled ‘Ring for Mistress”. Other sites included Havant, Purbrook, West Leigh, Stokes Bay, Hove, Dartmouth/Brixham, Helensburgh, Edinburgh and Port Edgar. Although many naval divers were trained at HMS Vernon in Rendering Mines Safe (RMS) procedures as members of the Mine Recovery Section during the Second World War, it was not until 1 October 1944 that responsibility for naval diving passed from the Gunnery Branch, still based at HMS Excellent, to the Torpedo Branch based at HMS Vernon. This brought Minewarfare (both mining and mine countermeasures) and Diving under the same organisation for the first time.

Owing to the wartime evacuation measures, a new diving school and experimental station known as Vernon(D) was set up at Brixham in Devon on 27 Oct 1944. The (D) referred to Dartmouth where administrative support was stationed. The RN Superintendent of Diving, responsible since 1942 for the Admiralty Experimental Diving Unit (AEDU) based at Siebe Gorman and Co, Tolworth, Surrey and for the coordination of diving training in addition to research and development, moved to Brixham together with HMS Tedworth, the RN Deep Diving Tender. Almost immediately, Vernon(D) became overwhelmingly occupied with the training and support of ‘P’ (Port Clearance) Parties (Naval Parties 1571-1575 and 3006) until 1 October 1945 when the organisation moved back to HMS Vernon proper at Portsmouth.

On 10 October 1946, the Torpedo Branch divested its Electrical responsibilities to the recently formed Electrical Branch and merged with the Anti-Submarine Branch (formerly based at HMS Osprey at Portland) to form the Torpedo and Anti-Submarine (TAS) Branch. Hence, the TAS Branch assumed responsibility for naval diving. HMS Vernon remained the home of the TAS Branch at Portsmouth until the Summer of 1974 when it was devolved to HMS Dryad at nearby Southwick prior to the formation of the Operations Branch in early 1975.

imageVernon Semper Viret”
New HMS Vernon Ship’s Badge

Training in Diving, Demolitions and Minewarfare, along with Naval Control of Shipping and, for a time, Seamanship, continued on the site of HMS Vernon at Portsmouth even after it ceased to be an independent command on 31 March 1986 and was renamed HMS Nelson (Vernon Site). In 1987, the establishment was renamed HMS Nelson (Gunwharf) and briefly became Headquarters for the Commandant General Royal Marines before his move to permanent accommodation at HMS Excellent on Whale Island. In November 1995, Minewarfare training was shifted to the School of Maritime Operations (SMOPS) HMS Dryad at nearby Southwick and subsequently to the Minewarfare Operational Training Centre at the Maritime Warfare School in HMS Collingwood across the harbour from Portsmouth. Diving training, together with the Superintendent of Diving, the Fleet Diving Headquarters, the Fleet Clearance Diving Team and the Portsmouth Area Clearance Diving Team moved into new accommodation on Horsea Island in Portsmouth Harbour and the old Vernon establishment closed its gates for the last time on 1 April 1996.

(produced by Rob Hoole mcdoa)