Behind the Scenes at BRNC with Training Commander Jeff Short
“History is all around us,” Cmdr Short beamed. “There has been a Naval College here for 147 years. Originally it was housed in two ships on the Dart – the Britannia and the Hindustan. The college building opened 106 years ago, bearing the name Britannia; but Hindustan lives on too, it is the name we give to the old warship on the river at Sandquay, used for training.”
BRNC has four key outputs – initial officer training; through-life command, leadership and management training across the Navy; defence diplomacy; outreach.
Cmdr Short explained: “BRNC has been delivering initial officer training since 1863 - developing courageous leaders with the spirit to fight and win. We are responsible for the moral component of operational command – people who can lead and understand sailors.
“This is the perfect place in which to do that; safe, self-contained and with constant access to the water.
“We take three entries per year, in April, September and January. Each entry of 144 will undergo 28 weeks of initial officer training – term one is 14 weeks at BRNC, term two is 10 weeks at sea, four here at BRNC.
“Typically each intake is 10 per cent female, 10 per cent upper yardmen (ex sailors) and 75 per cent graduates, with an average age of 23-and-a-half years. Some 19 per cent of these graduates will have had contact with the Royal Navy at university.”
Training, he said, was robust and modern: “We don’t shout and swear at our students anymore, we don’t berate them. We lead by example and understanding - but it’s by no means an easy ride.”
From their induction, when they get to grips with kit, inspections, physical stamina, drill, weapons and basic maritime skills, cadets are assessed on knowledge of the Royal Navy, their potential for command, leadership and management, their sea sense and operational context. The learning curve is steep.
Field training for three days in the college grounds is a very tough early test, Cmdr Short said. “From this very early stage the staff get to know cadets’ strengths and weaknesses and the cadets get a feel for the practical and team skills they will need. They learn how to adapt their own persona to be an effective leader and how to adapt their style to suit the task in hand.
“It isn’t pass or fail but we do identify those who will need further instruction to ensure they are prepared for the assessed element, exercise ABLE Command, which comes next (Assessed Basic Leadership Exercise). It is strenuous and if the cadet wasn’t pretty fit on joining, this week brings it home that poor physical fitness degrades your performance as a leader!”
As well as using the extensive college grounds and the River Dart, the staff make regular use of the wilderness terrain of Dartmoor to physically and mentally test their young recruits to the limit.
When families are invited to the college at the end of the fifth week, most are struck by the change they see.
Social education remains a key part of training: “Dining formally is important, etiquette is important. There are rules to a mess dinner and social codes that must be followed. We also all go to church together. It is still relevant, and in the Articles of War. Christians go to chapel, Muslims go to the mosque, non-believers sit at the back and have reflective time. Our three chaplains provide an incredibly important pastoral service.”
A visit to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire brings home the realities of war. A future plan is for veterans from Dartmouth to make the trip with the cadets.
On the old warship Hindustan comes the first taste of life aboard ship, eating and sleeping on board while coping with fire exercises, casualties, jumping overboard in survival suits and working together. Term two is dominated by 10 weeks at sea in an operational warship, supported by BRNC staff throughout. Cadets receive a comprehensive introduction to all aspects of life and specialisations in an operational warship – from baking the bread to taking the wheel.
The final test is the maritime leadership exercise. Cadets eat, sleep, work and live in the Picket Boats, a familiar sight for Dartmouth residents. The exercise is a single tactical scenario running continuously throughout the week, set in an imaginary country and containing a terrorist threat. It features rules of engagement and interaction with a local civilian population. Cadets take it in turns to act as commanding and executive officers.
Cmdr Short said: “It is very demanding and again we disrupt their sleep pattern and dislocate their expectations. Not everyone will pass. Wastage of about 20 per cent is acceptable.
At the moment it is 13-15 per cent. Some choose to leave, we suggest to others that they leave, and some are just not fit enough. There are filters all along the way because they need to be excellent and have the potential to be exceptional.”
The celebration for those who do make the grade is the passing out parade, often attended by members of the Royal Family.
Since the end of the last war, BRNC has worked with other nations to train their young naval officers. Defence diplomacy is extremely important. Twenty countries have taken advantage of the service, choosing to train their officer cadets alongside those of the Royal Navy. It’s described as 18 months of investment, followed by a lifetime of influence; the benefits of cultural diversity as important as those of income generation.
The current new entry at the college is a record 55 per cent international cadets, from countries
including the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Estonia, Lebanon, Sierra Leone and Belize.
Through-life courses look at command, leadership and management training across the Navy – in the words of Cmdr Short, “from flash to bang.”
“For example at the moment coming through we have mid seniority lieutenant commanders who are going on to be heads of departments.
“There is something about coming back to where they started with the Navy – to the alma mater – learning within historic walls where the ethos and heritage of the Navy is evident. We run a vast mixture of courses – everything from mentoring and coaching to leadership. They are accredited so that they can be used beyond the Navy. Chaplains, doctors, dentists, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Senior Upper Yardmen, the RN Reserve Officers – they all come and train here.”
Perhaps the least known aspect of work carried out by the college is through its various partnerships. BRNC is partnered with VT Flagship, the company that employs 185 support staff at the college, for example in the galleys, grounds and in PR and media. Its partner, the University of Plymouth, employs the college’s 15 academic staff.
Links with the community are strong. Cmdr Short said: “BRNC puts £2 million into community hospitality every year – pubs, restaurants, and other local businesses rely on the college. Tours of the college are a huge draw for tourists, bringing them into the town in coaches and cruise ships with knock-on benefits for local businesses.
“Four hundred people who are attached to the college in some way live in the local area, paying rates here, going to school here, shopping here and supporting local services. In turn the college supports local groups, events and organisations. We are in partnership with South Devon College and Dartmouth Academy, supporting education locally, sharing expertise and facilities. We support projects with manpower – for example the new garden at Kingswear Primary School, the play area at the South Ford Pre School, painting of the new reception at Dartmouth Academy.
“BRNC is at the heart of the Royal Navy and integral to Dartmouth life. It is the place where we train the leaders of the best Navy in the world.”
First Published April 2011 By The Dart