Dartmouth's Britannia Royal Naval College appoints a new commanding officer
PUBLISHED: 09:30 11 September 2014
PHIL SCOBLE meets Captain Henry Duffy, the new commanding officer at Britannia Royal Naval College
Capt Henry Duffy remembers very clearly his first sight of Dartmouth’s Britannia Royal Naval College.
“Arriving here on a very cold winter’s day in January 1987 left me awestruck,” he remembers. “The college is a remarkably beautiful building, and the grounds are too. I was, frankly, dumbstruck.”
Capt Duffy trained at the college for 16 months before heading out into the North Sea hunting Russian submarines. But he says that the College and the town of Dartmouth had a profound effect on him.
“I was 22 years old and I grew from a civilian into a military officer. It had a profoundly positive effect on me – it gave me a sense of purpose and I knew early on I wanted to follow it as career. Dartmouth and the Britannia Royal Naval College was a massive part of that. The setting here is one that most naval training establishments around the world can only dream of.”
Following his training, proud Liverpudlian Capt Duffy had a hugely varied career, including commanding the ship HMS Liverpool. He also went through the renowned (and notorious) Green Beret training with the Royal Marines, an honour that cannot be taken away. He also was the naval liaison officer at Sandhurst, the premiere training academy for the army
Then, 27 years after he first passed through the gates, he was informed that he would be commanding the Britannia Royal Naval College.
“It’s an incredible honour and privilege to be in command at BRNC. I feel a great responsibility and the weight of history on my shoulders as I take it on.
“The College was opened in 1905, 100 years after the Battle of Trafalgar and that is no coincidence. The beauty of this place is we draw on that wonderful naval heritage and the values laid down by generations of courageous sailors to inspire and inform each new crop of young cadets.”
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Dartmouth has been the ‘Cradle of the Navy’ since 1863 when the Royal Navy ship Britannia was sailed into the River Dart to become a floating cadet training facility. The Hindostan, moored off Old Mill Creek, joined it in 1864.
During the next 41 years, the two ships (although Britannia was replaced with a ship specifically adjusted to aid training in 1869) were the home of thousands of cadets, including the future King Edward VIII and George VI. The Royal brothers were both treated like any other cadet, and Edward in particular was famously a bit unruly!
Living aboard ageing hulks was not considered the best life for the future lifeblood of the Navy, however, so the search began for a permanent, land-based home for cadet training.
The Navy looked at 32 sites nationwide but finally chose where the ships had been moored in the first place – Mount Boone above Old Mill Creek.
Sir Aston Webb, the architect responsible for the redesign of Buckingham Palace, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Admiralty Arch (among many others) designed the college, which was finished in 1905.
In the 109 years since then the world, and the training at BRNC, has changed beyond recognition.
The training of cadets takes them from the waters of the Dart to Dartmoor and beyond, as they learn the skills of leadership they will take into military theatres across the globe.
The Dart and the sea off the South Devon Coast play a huge part in that training, and it is one of the key advantages of having a training establishment in Dartmouth.
Not one officer cadet will forget Dartmouth, or what they learnt there.
“At Britannia Royal Naval College we work to prepare fabulously talented young men and women for the pressures of front line operations, protecting British interests around the world – as the Navy has done throughout its history.
“Dartmouth is fundamental in their training and we have to do a good job because it just gets harder from here on in.”
Capt Duffy smiles as he looks out of his office window overlooking the river and the town of Dartmouth.
“We are, I have no doubt, the best Naval training establishment in the world. That we are the most beautiful and are based in an idyllic, wonderful place is a wonderful bonus!”
10 things you didn’t know about Britannia Royal Naval College
The college cost £220,000 to build – equivalent to more than £80million today.
The land the college is built on was bought by compulsory purchase in 1898, for £25,000. It was bought from Raleigh Estates and should the Navy ever vacate the site it’s rumored they have to offer it back to the original owner at the purchase price!
The College was bombed twice during the Second World War. The first time, in September 1942, a Wren was killed and the Quarterdeck was almost completely destroyed – you can still see damage to the stature of King George V at the end of the Quarterdeck.
The first class of Wrens to be taught at BRNC enrolled in 1976.
When the BRNC was built two time capsules were hidden somewhere in the building – but only one has been found.
Training at BRNC
Cadets are put through a structured and gruelling training regime when they join the college.
The process for new recruits is termed ‘militarisation’ - in very basic terms taking a civilian and turning them into a productive and positive member of a military organisation.
Most cadets will already have completed a university degree before joining BRNC (very different from the first cadets in 1864, who joined as young as 13).
The college uses the ‘marine flank’ of the river and the surrounding coastline for extensive seamanship training, including combat tactics and even basic sailing.
Cadets also go through extensive leadership training, a field in which the BRNC leads the world, and tough physical conditioning that sees them utilizing Devon’s extensive variety of environments, from trekking on Dartmoor to survival training in woodland across the county.