An account of HMS VERNON (R)

 

 

 

The Admiralty Torpedo, Mining & Electrical Training Establishment

at Roedean School For Girls, Brighton

May 1941 - June 1945

 

 

 

 

PART ONE - THE MOVE TO BRIGHTON

 

From August 1940 enemy bombing of Portsmouth Harbour forced H.M.S. VERNON, a busy shore based training establishment, to be dispersed to other sites around the country - Scotland, the West Country, and areas along the South Coast. Roedean School, Brighton, East Sussex was chosen to become the new home of the Headquarters and Central Administration sections of HMS VERNON, together with the torpedo and mine warfare schools and associated training departments.

In the early spring of 1941 Roedean School for Girls, Brighton was selected by the Admiralty to become home to H.M.S. VERNON, the Royal Navy's torpedo, mining and electrical training establishment. The advance party, under command of Lieutenant J. R. Carr, arrived at Roedean on April 7th 1941.

 

 

Roedean School For Girls, Brighton. Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN

Roedean School For Girls, Brighton. Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN

 

 

It has  passed into naval lore that before the navy moved into the school the Captain insisted that all of the female pupils should leave; it was rumoured that some of the sixth formers were still in residence. The mistress in charge, reportedly replied "my girls will be all right; they've got it up here" tapping her head" to which the Captain answered "Madam, it matters not where your girls have it, rest assured my sailors will find it!" This makes for a good yarn, but is of course all fiction as the dates prove.

 

At this time part of the school, number three house, was in use by the Army which had moved in shortly after the girls' school had evacuated to Keswick in the Lake District, where teaching resumed from September 5th 1940. Initially a contingent of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arrived for training, followed by the Queen's Royal Regiment, then four Canadian regiments and the London Scottish, who were in residence when the Navy arrived. Number three House was the only part of the school properly 'Blacked out' against air raids at the time, so work began immediately to prepare the remaining buildings for occupation, contract labour being brought in to complete the work. As accommodation became ready for occupation Lieutenant Carr telephoned Portsmouth to send another batch of ratings to Roedean, often on a daily basis; all of this work and moving in being undertaken before a firm decision about who would actually occupy the site had officially been taken.

The Army was reluctant to vacate the site but a compromise was reached - the Navy would occupy the parts of the school not already in use by the Army - a situation which was not to last for long though, the Admiralty putting forward the best case for ownership in Whitehall. The Army was shortly to receive a message which read; "unless alternative accommodation has been arranged, number of tents required is to be indented for" - this was the first they knew of their immanent eviction! They eventually relocated to 'The Olde Place' in Rottingdean, a short distance along the coast.

Roedean was officially commissioned as HMS VERNON (R) on May 3rd 1941 as the Headquarters of the Admiralty torpedo, mining & electrical training establishment under the command of Captain Brian Egerton, RN. The establishment provided intensive training courses in torpedoes, mines, depth charges and shipboard electrics. Note: (R) denoted VERNON at 'Roedean', with VERNON (P) being the residual elements of the establishment at Gun Wharf, Portsmouth.

 

Settling In

The main building at Roedean School has its main entrance facing the south, with four north/south oriented 'Houses' these being numbered 1 - 4; viewed from the cliff top house numbers run left to right. In front of the main entrance is an open area referred to as the quadrangle, at its south edge is a stone balustrade offering an uninterrupted view across the grounds and along the coast road to Brighton and Rottingdean. The area of the balustrade was referred to by the navy as the 'Quarterdeck', a revered area within a shore establishment, the site of the flagstaff flying the Naval Ensign - the Quarterdeck must be saluted by naval personnel when passing as a mark of respect. The School's quadrangle doubled as a parade ground, the site of Sunday divisions (parade of ship's company before church) at which the men and women of HMS VERNON would be addressed by the Captain and inspected.

Before the end of the first year, more space was needed, both for accommodation and instruction; few rooms at Roedean were large enough to hold lectures for 200 men with the exception of the main hall, the gym, and at first the art school which later became part of the Wardroom.  Suitable premises were found by requisitioning St Dunstan's Home for the Blind at Ovingdean. This new building had opened in October 1938, but like the Girl's School a quarter mile down the road, the organisation had been evacuated to Church Stratton, Shropshire in 1940. This site was used for several purposes, including an electrical instruction 'school', HMS VERNON's central pay office, sub-lieutenants' sleeping quarters and the ratings canteen and bar.

 

St Dunstan's Home for the Blind at Ovingdean. Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN

St Dunstan's Home for the Blind at Ovingdean. Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN

 

 

From 10th September, 1942 members of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) began arriving to take the six week long Seaman Torpedoman's course, up to sixteen WRNS ratings a week,. This was a new specialisation for women serving in the RN as WRNS personnel were increasingly filling shore based roles in order to free up men for sea duty. New premises were requisitioned at 90 Marine Parade as instructional classrooms for these courses. In the first year of this new course 684 WRNS (T) had completed the course, only nine failed.

 

WRNS (T)s at HMS Caroline, Belfast.

Torpedo Wrens at HMS Caroline, Belfast June 1945 - Photo: Leading WRNS (T) Margaret 'Peggy' Ellis, the first Torpedo Wren to join HMS Caroline after passing her course at VERNON (R) in November 1942.

CLICK HERE to read Peggy Ellis's memories of training at Brighton

 

 

The number of personnel at Roedean was to rise steadily over the course of the war; rising from approximately 150 officers, 1,000 ratings and 100 Wrens during first year, increasing to about 250 officers - including 19 WRNS Officers, 1,500 ratings and up to 600 Wrens per year. Numbers would have been even higher had the Mining Instruction School not moved back to VERNON (P) in August 1943. Over the course of its four years in Brighton VERNON (R) requisitioned further sites in the Brighton area, both for accommodation and instructional purposes, and these were:


Instructional sites
The garage area of the 'Grand' Hotel, Brighton; used for High Power Practical instruction
The 'Dreadnought' garage (22 Victoria Terrace, Hove); Torpedo Instruction
14 Royal Crescent, Brighton; WRNS only Torpedo instruction

 

Accommodation sites
St. Dunstan's Ovingdean, Junior officers accommodation.
John Howard House, Old People's Home, Kemptown, Brighton; for WRNS quarters (now Brighton Steiner School)
No. 22 Lewes Crescent, 17 Arundel Terrace, and 90 Marine Parade, Brighton; additional WRNS quarters
The Children's Summer Home, Northgate House, Rottingdean, another St Dunstan's property used at one time to provide holidays for the young children of St Dunstaners requisitioned for chief and petty officers' accommodation
Marine Gate, private flat complex, Brighton; unoccupied flats requisitioned for overflow officers' accommodation and married officer's quarters.

 

John Howard House, Kemptown, Brighton – used as WRNS Quarters.

John Howard House, Kemptown, Brighton - used as WRNS Quarters.

Photo: Lt Cdr Rob Hoole RN

 

 

Before the end of 1942 Admiral Sir Charles Little visited Roedean; as Second Sea Lord he had been instrumental securing Roedean for VERNON. The establishment had no bugler or band, so the relevant musical salutation was played over the tannoy system from a radio-gramophone. The Electrical Artificer working the apparatus was so excited that he forgot to lift the needle from the record after it had played the 'Alert', and to everyone's horror the loudspeaker system began blaring "God Save the King" In his speech the Admiral said he had received many welcomes in his time, but this was the first occasion he had received a Royal welcome!

 

Three class photographs from torpedo courses held at Roedean. Images curtsey of  Chris  McBrien.  Click to see larger image.

 

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Copyright  Tony Drury 2005


Comments (1)

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Brian Reynolds (auckland, New Zealand) says...
I have the above 3 photos. My father is in the first one: bottom row r.h. side. He is Lawrence Herbert Reynolds. service number is: CMX 97783.
What are the chances of clicking on an Internet research site and finding a picture of your late father there?
I got such a shock.
Any information about him would be welcome
Thank you for reading this.
Brian Reynolds.
12th April 2014 9:17am
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