Peter Luff – 2011 Speech to the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors

Below is the text of the speech made by the Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, Peter Luff, made at SS Great Britain in Bristol on Thursday 19th May 2011.


Thank you Jonathan for that largely kind introduction, and for inviting me tonight to a totally memorable event.

It is a genuine pleasure to be with you.

Tonight is a celebration of the vital work of the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors.

I’m acutely conscious that you are the experts and that my job is to provide some colour.

Or, to paraphrase a former war-time Director of Naval Construction, Sir Stanley Vernon Goodall, in response to rather a dull draft from his assistant: you provide the facts, and I will impart the enthusiasm!

And I am as enthusiastic about the quality of military and civil service advice.

And the facts speak for themselves: credible and confident professional engineering leadership has been at the heart of major British naval projects since 1883.

In large part, that has come from the Corps of civilian staff represented by the RCNC.

In preparing for tonight, I had my attention drawn to a 1955 debate in the House of Commons on recruitment to the RCNC.

Hansard records that the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Simon Digby, accepted MPs’ concerns that more could be done to attract people to the Corps, but noted that only one person had resigned since 1951, “and that was to do the same job in Canada”!

But although smaller in number today, the quality and dedication of RCNC members remains as high as ever.

And so thank you for all that you do to support the Defence of this country, and the effectiveness and safety of those who fight on its behalf.

Brunel / SS Great Britain

Sadly, in the modern age, the truly noble work of the engineer is often confused with the vital craft of the mechanic.

Now it’s in danger of becoming a cliché, but engineering must re-claim its position as an honoured profession in the eyes of the public.

An architect may have designed Sydney Opera House, but it took an engineer to build it.

And just look at the grand surroundings in which we find ourselves in here tonight. And my thanks to everyone involved in organising this event.

Tonight, we celebrate the RCNC on the SS Great Britain – my thanks to everyone involved in giving us this rare treat. It was the first ocean liner to have an iron hull and a propeller, and it was designed of course by the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Brunel is my hero, and in my view the finest civil engineer of all time – and the personification of the Franco-British partnership! For those who don’t know, his father was French.

Now he possessed that rare combination of creativity and innovation, technical brilliance and commercial flair.

And so he changed the world.

As Jeremy Clarkson put it when he nominated Brunel as the Greatest Briton: “Brunel put beauty into the beast of the industrial revolution, which made Britain great.”

His boldness and determination to succeed often led him to actually ignore the risk to his own life.

As another author put it, Brunel was “in love with the impossible.”

It is Brunel whose name is forever linked with the Great Western Railway, connecting Bristol with London – a route on which so many in this room spend so much of their working lives.

And, of course, it was Brunel who built Florence Nightingale’s hospitals and delivered them to the Crimea in record time – the outstanding UOR of the 19th century! And this ship as well served as a troop carrier in that war.

It was Brunel, too, who invented an iceberg-warning device for his ships.

And what ships they were.

Without Brunel – literally and metaphorically – where would we be tonight?

Equally, for all his many triumphs down the years, Brunel experienced failure too.

His atmospheric railway was ultimately unsuccessful, and his infinitely superior broad gauge – the 100% solution – was defeated by the inferior narrow gauge – the 20% solution!

But this evening our subject is ships.

So I’d like to reflect on some lessons from naval construction history which continue to impact, both the Corps today and my role as a Defence Minister.

Lessons From Naval Construction History

Britain has a proud maritime history.

The seas have been – and continue to be – central to our island nation’s influence, prosperity, and security.

As Sir Walter Raleigh put it:

“Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.”

Britain’s omnipotence has sadly long since passed.

And yet as you rightly emphasise Jonathan, our wealth still relies on international trade with over 90% of that trade, by value and volume, being transported by sea.

The Royal Navy has been at the centre of our national life for centuries. Today it has a unique role in promoting and protecting Britain and its interests – and yes, one of the old and original threat – piracy. The RN is central to our future national security and, to quote the SDSR, to delivering an adaptable posture with flexible forces.

And this means that the proud maritime legacy of this country, and of which I am strong supporter, has a positive and resilient future under this Government.

This also means that the Corps must continue to play its vital role.

Because naval construction – and the seas our vessels sail on or under – test man’s skills as much as ever.

Now, as some of you, I’m sure, know, the Corps itself was founded in the wake of the catastrophic loss of HMS Captain during its acceptance trials due to design faults.

It was a time when the great struggle between the ‘wood floats, iron sinks’ traditionalists and the supporters of ironclad warships was at its height.

It was a time when two hitherto fundamentals of naval warfare – sail power and broadside armament – were being challenged by steam and the turret ship.

‘Turn the gun, not the ship’ was the idea that drove a brilliant young, inventor, Captain Cowper Phipps Coles.

And Coles generated a political, media, and public bandwagon in the face of Admiralty doubts about the Captain being top-heavy.

In the event, the Captain sank along with 500 men, including Coles.

The subsequent court-martial was a case of ‘I told you so’, aimed at presumptuous private designers who might in future seek to challenge the Navy’s monopoly in ship design.

The project had gone ahead despite the advice of the Chief Constructor for the Admiralty, E J Reid, and it had been a failure in almost every respect – save one: Cole’s turrets would feature within 12 months on the newest ironclad – the mastless Devastation – was acknowledged by the Admiralty who paid royalties to Cole’s widow for use of his design.

It was a time of public concern over safety; the efficiency of government’s acquisition processes; and a time of rapid organisational and technological change within the Royal Navy.

Plus ça change.

It’s one of the timeless paradoxes of engineering that success encourages engineers to enhance performance and reduce costs.

Wanting to create more elegant, optimal designs, the engineer moves away from traditional standards sometimes – sometimes – unintentionally eroding safety margins.

Not surprisingly, these innovations, exacerbated by overconfidence, can lead to failures.

Failures in turn lead to increased attention to reliability and safety, pushing the pendulum in the other direction.

Now, as you said Jonathan, today, our work takes place in the shadow of the tragic Nimrod crash in 2006, and the subsequent damning Haddon-Cave report.

It’s entirely proper that safety is our overriding concern, but we must also be mindful of that pendulum.

Our work also takes place in the context of transformation in Defence, including our approach to acquisition.

Now the people at Abbey Wood have not received the praise and thanks they deserve, but they – including many of you here tonight – can among other things take great satisfaction from the numerous lives that have been saved by their work.

Everything we do is based on the legitimacy given to us – or rather entrusted to us – by the British people.

And they’re not listening when we tell them that we deliver the vast majority of our equipment and support projects to performance, time, and cost.

They’re not listening when we say that over 80% are delivered to time, and nearly 90% to budget.

They’re simply not buying our story when the commentators understandably focus their often grossly inaccurate reports on extremes and ‘the things that go wrong’.

So, to win the confidence of the taxpayer, we must be frank about our shortcomings, forthright about our strengths, and fearless about the changes we need to make if we are to support current operations and build the Armed Forces of tomorrow.

Historical Parallels With Acquisition Today

That said, we should remember that many of the challenges we face are no different to those faced by our predecessors.

Long Lead Items

For example – and I think I’m indebted to Admiral Lister for this – there is nothing more established in naval construction than the principle of buying the long lead items in good time.

I’m told the oak for HMS Victory was purchased 15 years before construction began.

Off The Shelf

Or the question of buying off the shelf or modifying off the shelf.

It reminds me of the LST (Landing Ship Tank) Maracaibo Class during the Second World War.

Churchill demanded ships that could land tanks – themselves not yet built – on beaches anywhere in the world.

This was physically difficult because it would require an ocean-going ship of limited draught.

And it was psychologically difficult because it was likely to demand writing off the ships after their first assault.

The solution was the conversion of Maracaibo oilers, because of their shallow draught.

In turn, this required ingenious new bow disembarking gear, as suggested by the Director of Naval Construction’s department.

When launched in Sunderland in July 1941, it became the first ever landing ship designed for tanks – the ingenuity of an urgent operational requirement before we ever invented the UOR.

The chief sacrifice was speed – only 10 knots against the 17 knots which specially designed later ships could sustain.

But the value of an adapted off the shelf purchase was clear.

Modular Construction

And their modular construction, which Bob and I were discussing over dinner.

Still in World War II, the first motor launches – “A” Type MLs – were built after the Fairmile organisation approached the Admiralty. They proposed pre-fabrication by saw-mills and furniture makers in London, and then sending the units to selected yacht builders for assembly.

The scheme was so successful that the subsequent “B” Types were constructed in the same way – and we have learnt the lessons today with the carriers.

80% Solutions – Nothing New

And those B types show that the utility of an 80% solution over a perfect one is nothing new as a classic capability trade was made.

The re-designed boat needed higher speed and was first designed with three engines.

But a shortage of supply from America prompted a reduction to two engines and lower speeds.

However it also meant a 50% increase in the number of boats built.


And innovation has been a permanent feature of naval construction.

Writing in 1966, in the introduction to the splendid “British Battleships 1860 to 1950” by Oscar Parkes, Earl Mountbatten of Burma said,

“We are now in an interim age in which the aircraft carrier has already replaced the capital ship and the task force the line of battle. With the advent of the atomic age the guided missile launcher will replace the gun turret and the nuclear reactor the boiler furnace. Ships of the future will thus be different in shape as well as function; and the revolution thus represented will be just as fundamental as the change from sail driven wooden walls to steam driven iron-clads.”

The Value Of Sailors

Now, Mountbatten’s prophecy has not yet been entirely fulfilled, I’m sure he would have agreed that above all, there’s one lesson from history that we forget at our peril – the value of sailors.

Parkes himself captures it well:

“But when the wars were over and we came to size up the eternal value of things, it was not the ships but the men who had won.”


How true.

But it’s not just those who do the fighting who should be counted among the men who had won.

Without the high levels of professional, technical, and managerial competence of Corps members down the ages, the very survival of this country – and its prosperity – would almost certainly been put at too great a risk.

It continues to this day as we build the Royal Navy of the 21st century.

Yet I know that work of the Corps has all too often gone unheralded.

So here, in this great monument to British maritime engineering and architecture, I’m proud to say thank you for all you do on behalf of the nation, and for the men and women of our Armed Forces.

The toast is: “the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors”!