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HMS Western Isles

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Tobermory Bay, pier, and harbour, 2003
Tobermory Bay, pier, and harbour
© Ann Burgess

HMS Western Isles was a World War II naval training base established at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, where a school which specialised in the training of anti-submarine techniques for the crews of Atlantic convoy escort vessels was established.

Mull had not been the original choice for this school, as the Admiralty had originally planned to set up a joint Anglo-French training centre at the port of Lorient in France. However, following the Fall of France between May and June of 1940, the Germans occupied France, and Lorient became one of the most fortified of the German U-Boat bases.

Royal Navy Shore Establishments and training bases were normally shore based, and could be referred to as stone frigates, but HMS Western Isles was unusual in that the name also referred to a ship, as the base commander had insisted on being able to watch the crews being trained, and visit their vessels at any time.

Shore establishment

Like many areas throughout the west of Scotland, Mull was classified as a Restricted Area during the war, and became home to a naval base during 1940 when Admiral Sir Percy Noble set up a training centre in Tobermory, as part of the Independent Western Approaches Command.

The base was placed under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Gilbert Stephenson KBE CB CMG, then Commodore Stephenson, who had a reputation for being a little eccentric, but was also very efficient, strict, and energetic, being in his mid-sixties when he took up the post. Stephenson came to be known as the Terror of Tobermory due to his strict approach, and had no hesitation in dismissing officers or ratings he considered were not up to his standards. His methods were effective, and continued to be used after the war, when he was acknowledged to have played a major part in turning the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic at a critical stage of the conflict. He earned a number of other nicknames, with Monkey Brand, or simply Monkey, puggy, and electric whiskers being listed. Stephenson would be Mentioned in Despatches in 1940, knighted as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in the 1943 King's Birthday Honours, and later be given the decoration of Commander with Star of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav. He retired for the second time in 1945, with the anti-submarine battle won.

A frequently recounted anecdote typifies Stephenson's approach to training: while inspecting a corvette and its crew, he suddenly threw his hat onto the deck and declared that it was an unexploded bomb. A trainee (variously reported as a quartermaster or sub-lieutenant) immediately kicked it into the water. After Stephenson commended the man for his prompt action, and not wanting to lose his hat, he declared the heavily gold-braided hat to be a man overboard, and the trainee had to dive in to the water to retrieve it.

About 90% of the officers trained at Tobermory were RNVR (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve) reservists, while the sailors under their command were mainly Hostilities Only ratings, and Stephenson was quick to realise that the task of training these men required a different approach to that of training regulars. He believed the most important priority was to make the trainees determined to win; then to understood the importance of discipline; next, the importance of correct administration; and finally, technical proficiency, since he considered that skill would be worthless if overall spirit were lacking. He encouraged a willingness to adapt rapidly to various situations, and would issue surprise orders to the trainees and use his boat to carry out surprise inspections. Even though the crews were aware of this fact, they had no idea when he would do this, and had to remain alert at all times, or risk being caught out. Creative war games were also held, in order to simulate difficult situations at sea.

Under Stephenson's command for four and half years, the school completed 1,132 training courses, with a total of 911 escort ships, including Flower-class corvettes, passing through Tobermory. By the end of the war, Tobermory trainees had accounted for 91 U-boats, with a further 38 probables, and 39 enemy aircraft destroyed.

Working up

The process of bringing together the separate members of a crew in order to have them work as team was known as working up, and supplemented the basic and specialised training they would each have received individually within their own fields of operation.

The school was tasked with both training and working up the newly formed crews of corvettes, frigates, sloops and patrol service trawlers in the methods of anti-submarine warfare, and from mid-1940 onwards, all escorts intended for the Atlantic and Arctic convoys attended the school at Tobermory immediately prior to departing for duty.

Training was intensive, and the basic 14-day course took between two and three weeks to complete, dependent on content. Ships would practice anti-submarine attack manoeuvres, gunnery, watch keeping, ship handling, and emergency procedures in The Minches, a sea channel to the northwest of the Isle of Skye. The school was also able to teach additional techniques such as submarine detection using ASDIC equipment, and depth-charging, when appropriate for the vessel and crew.

HMS Western Isles (ship)

Batavier IV was a passenger ship of 1,568 tons which could carry 75 first class passengers, 28 second class, and up to 325 steerage, and was built in 1903 for the Batavier Line, a Dutch company which operated a passenger service between Rotterdam and London.[1]

In 1940, the ship was requisitioned for use as the training ship HMS Eastern Isles, but was renamed HMS Western Isles when it was assigned to Commodore Stephenson at the naval training base of the same name, based at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.

Memorial plaque

A memorial plaque to the memory of Vice Admiral Sir Gilbert Stephenson, which also remembers some 200,000 British and Allied officers and men who trained at the Tobermory school, can be found in the Western Isles Hotel on Mull. The plaque was unveiled by his daughter, Miss Nancy Stephenson, in a ceremony attended by a side party from HMS Scotia, the RNR (Royal Navy Reserve) headquarters unit then based at RAF Pitreavie, which was closed and razed in 1996. CPO Brian Michael, coxswain of HMS Scotia, made the plaque in his spare lime. The Royal Navy was also present at the ceremony, and represented by the fast patrol craft HMS Attacker.

The plaque was donated by the London Flotilla, which disbanded as a Royal Navy Supplementary Reserve in 1965, but has continued to function as an association for serving and retired naval officers.


  • In Which They Served, by Brian Lavery

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