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Secrets Behind the Names That Sail the Seas

The War Illustrated, Volume 8, No. 203, Page 714, March 29, 1945.

There is far more in the christening of a ship than meets the landsman's eye. Why is it necessary to conceal the names of vessels when these are launched in wartime? How are the names selected, and what special significance have they? Why is a number sometimes substituted for a name? Little known facts in this connexion are revealed by ALEXANDER DILKE.

We had to wait three months to be told officially that Vanguard was the name which Princess Elizabeth gave to Britain's newest battleship – the greatest yet built in the British Isles – when she launched it on Nov. 30, 1944. The name was kept secret because it was considered it might enable the enemy to guess a good deal about her and any ships of the same class; nevertheless a German broadcast gave the name at the time of launching.

Names of the battleships of the King George V class were announced before the outbreak of war, as international agreements called for the nations exchanging details of all warships under construction or projected. But the names of completed ships in this class have never been announced until they have been some time in commission, with evidence that the enemy knew their identity.

It is the custom in the Royal Navy to christen warships in “classes”, the names of all the ships in one class, similar in size, speed, armament, and so on, being consistent. Among our destroyers is the “Hunt” class, so named because each bears the name of a famous British pack, such as the Quorn, Pytchley, Garth and Southdown; one carried the idea further, the wardroom being labelled “The Kennels” and the captain's cabin “Master of the Hounds”.

Obviously, if the enemy knew the name of a new warship he might thus discover its “class” and judge its speed, armament and other details. Knowing that in the King George V class we had announced the names King George V, Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Anson and Howe and that two battleships in another class – Lion and Temeraire – had been begin, the enemy might have been able, from the name of the new battleship previously mentioned, to make deductions. Those deductions might have been wrong, of course!

In the 1914-18 war the Germans puzzled long over a British destroyer named H.M.S. Zubian. They could not place the name in any of the known destroyer classes, and their encyclopedias did not help them to discover its meaning. Only after the Armistice was it revealed that the name Zubian was made in the same way as the destroyer to which it was given – by joining together Nubian and Zulu. Those sister ships were both damaged and a new destroyer built from the fore part of one and the aft part of the other!

There is a definite rule against using the names of living admirals; and, of course, a sense of proportion is maintained. “County” names have been kept to cruisers. Flowers names are more suited to corvettes than to battle-cruisers. A numerous class of sloops bearing flower names, which did brilliant work in the last war, was sometimes known was the “Herbaceous Border”.

The U.S. Navy is more consistent in christening its warships, since it has definite rules that certain names are used only for certain types. For instance, a vessel called after one of the States will be a battleship: Montana, Ohio, Maine, New Hampshire, and Louisiana were the names announced for the projected 58,000 ton class. The gigantic building programme of the U.S.A. gives rise to wonder as to what name would be used if there were more than 48 battleships! If you see a ship named after a large city in the U.S., then she is a cruiser. Although U.S. and British naval authorities might be consulted over names, one frequently finds two warships with the same name. Enterprise, Franklin, Birmingham, Rochester, Anthony, Duncan, are just a few examples of the duplications that are recorded.

U.S. destroyers are not so easy for us to identify from their names, for they are christened after famous men associated with the United States Navy, including Secretaries of the Navy, Congressmen, sailors – ratings as well as officers – and inventors. American battles and famous old warships provide names for U.S. aircraft-carriers. The Lexington's name was “handed on” after that aircraft-carrier was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea, to a new carrier originally intended to be called Cabot. The name comes from the battle of 1775, but there are at least five towns of various sizes called Lexington in the U.S.A. The Lexington of the battle is in Massachusetts.

U.S. submarines get their names from fish and marine animals, fleet minesweepers from birds, oilers from American rivers. There is a group of names for every type of ship and some of them are very curious. Volcanoes and the ingredients of explosives provide names for ammunition ships, and names of Indian tribes as well as mythological characters are used. The Germans seem to prefer names of men famous (or infamous) in their history – Bismarck, Tirpitz, Spee, Zeppelin, and so on. When the cruiser Lützow was transferred to the Soviet Navy early in 1940, her name was given to the former Deutschland, a “pocket-battleship”, apparently as a clumsy attempt to conceal the transaction.

With British submarines the substitution of names for numbers first came into operation in the case of those built soon after the 1914-18 war; by 1939 only a few numbered ones were in existence, and the experiment of again giving numbers instead of names was not a popular one when it was tried, early in the war. Submarine officers and men found it difficult to entertain any feeling of pride, enthusiasm or affection for an impersonal number: which is another way of saying that a name, with tis associations, has the morale-supporting effect which a number so completely lacks. It is a matter of esprit de corps; the name is a rallying-point, as it were, comparable to a ship's badge or a regimental Colour. The Germans, however, have always numbered their U-boats, but not consecutively as completed.

Thousands of merchant ships have been launched in recent years, and it must on occasion have been difficult to decide on an appropriate name. At one stage of the war, place-names that came into prominence during the North African campaigns were given to merchant ships. Years hence, when that fighting has been forgotten by most people, it will no doubt be wondered how such curious names for ships were found.

Months ago, when it was feared that the enemy was gaining information from the names of ships stencilled on packages that were to form their cargo, it was decided that henceforth all such packages should carry instead an identity number, which have no information to any enemy agent who might have watched them being transported by road or rail to the port of dispatch.


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