Crest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationCrest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationSHIPS' BELLS
Time, Watches and Bells

The lives of every officer and rating in a ship was determined by ship's time struck every half hour
on the ship's bell and by his "Watch". His Watch told him where he had to be at any time and the bell told him the time aboard ship. The ship's bell has naturally become the most collectable item aboard  ship and I have been sent photographs of many of the bells issued to V & W Class destroyers.  The United States Navy retains the ownership of the bells of all major combatant vessels but in the Royal Navy Ships' bells were offered for sale by the Admiralty when no longer required and there is no central record of who owns them now. 

Most are in private hands and since they are so collectable and command high prices there are many fakes and I thought it would be helpful to pass on what little I know via this web page and appeal to you and others to send me photographs of the bells of V & W Class destroyers known to you and any information or advice that may be of help in distinguishing between replica bells or fakes and the originals.

But before doing so I think it would be best to start by explaining the meaning of  ship's time and the organisation of the ship into four hour "Watches" with the striking of the time on the ship's bell
at half hour intervals and the difference between the two watches kept in port and the three watches kept at sea on cruising stations and "action stations" when every man is on duty.



Ship's time is unrelated to local time which varies according to longitude. It is based on the 24 hour clock and is divided into 4 x four hour watches, beginning with the "Middle Watch" at midnight GMT (0000), followed by the first and last "dog watch" of two hours each, and ending at 2400 with a seventh four hour Watch, confusingly called the First Watch.

This table from the Seamanship Manual (1951) may make things clearer:
000 - 0400
Midnight - 4 am
0400 - 0800
4 am - 8 am
0800 - 1200
8 am - noon
1200 - 1600
noon - 4 pm
  First Dog
1600 - 1800
4 - 6 pm
  Last Dog
1800 - 2000
6 - 8 pm
2000 - 2400
8 pm - midnight
From the Seamanship Manual (1951)

A portable  Ship's Chronometer carried by the Commanding Officer checked the times displayed on the ship's clocks to see that they were accurate and consistent. I was delighted to be sent a photograph of the Chronometer of HMS Venomous, the V & W Class destroyer in which my father served as Lt(E) during her final Commission before she went to the Breaker's yard in 1948.

Chronometer of HMS Venomous 1944
Documntation for the Chronometer
Chronometer of HMS Venomous 1944 - reverse
The front and reverse of the ...
Note the identifier HS 4715 on the reverse

Lt(E) William Redvers Forster RNR was the only officer aboard by 1946 and, technically, the Commanding Officer, though in practice, no more than a caretaker. The documentation records that the chronometer was in Venomous from 23 June 1944 - 1945.

Striking the Ship's Bell

The time was given by striking the hours and half-hours on the ship's bell throughout each watch, "one bell", "two bells", etc according to the number of itmes the bell has been struck. The sequence is repeated in each watch and the name of the watch is added to tell the time e.g. 10.30 civil time would be "five bells in the forenoon". The last dog-watch ends at 2000 with eight bells.

Watches aboard warships from Wikipedia
From Wikipedia:'s_bell

 The "dog watch" was divided in two to give each man a different watch each day; it also allowed the entire crew of a vessel to eat an evening meal, the normal time being at 17:00 with first dog watchmen eating at 18:00.

Apart from marking the time the bell is only struck in fog or bad weather, when it is rapidly run for five seconds every minute, and for a general alarm ordered by the Commanding Officer when it is rung rapidly for much longer than five seconds.


In Port

Port and Starboard Watches were kept in Port, either 24 hours on and 24 hours off, or 12 hours on and 12 hours off, allowing men to go ashore on a day's leave, or half the crew to be sent on leave for a week while the other watch manned the ship, sometimes while a boiler clean was carried out.

At anchor, the state of the weather might require a higher degree of readiness, with an Anchor Watch being kept on the bridge, and possibly main engines being brought to short notice.

At Sea

In wartime the normal state for warships was the two watch system, Defence Stations: one watch on and one watch off, known as one in two. This allowed for the ship's weapons systems to be ready for immediate use, and for damage control stations to be manned. Depending on the threat, the Ship's Company might have to go to Action Stations, to cover the periods of low light at dawn and dusk.

Depending on the threat, a three watch system, Cruising Stations: one in three, might be followed, giving more time off for rest and meals. The watches were named Red, White, and Blue. The Engineering Department might operate in three watches as a matter of course.

Action Stations

When Action Stations was sounded on the ship's bell and over the Tannoy, every man in the ship 'closed up' in his place, which might be different from his station when the ship was at Defence or Cruising Stations.

Men Dressed as Seamen
by Gorley Putt

Gorley Putt, a CW Candidate,  served as an ordinary rating in HMS Woolston and in a slim book published by Christophers in 1943 gives a clearer explanation of the system of watches aboard a Royal Navy warship than any I have seen:

For the ship's routine, the entire ship's company (except "Daymen" - stewards, sick-bay attendants and so on) is divided into three watches - Red, White and Blue. The 24 hours are also divided into watches - First (8pm to midnight), Middle (midnight to 4 am), Morning (4 am to 8 am), Forenoon (8 am to noon), Afternoon (noon to 4 pm), First Dog (4 pm to 6 pm), and Last Dog (6 pm to 8 pm - and scorned is the novice who would call it Second Dog!).  These spells of duty are kept by the watches in rotation; that is the reason for the two short Dog Watches, ensuring an uneven number of watches in the  24 hours and so arranging that Red, White and Blue keep a different "trick" each day. In wartime the Duty Watch is "closed up" at the armament while ... the other two watches are industriously engaged in routine duties invented with equal industry by the Petty Officers of the Watch.

And explains how -

... the transverse divisions of the ship's company into three watches (Red, White and Blue) for ordinary routine, into two watches (Port and Starboard) for leave and larger administation, into three divisions (forecastle, iron-deck and quarterdeck) for the working of the ship and allocation to "Divisional Officers", and into eight teams or messes for living arrangements, mixed us all up into different groups at different times and made the arrangement of a chosen social life as difficult at sea as it is anywhere else.

Veterans forget the shipboard routine, the monotonous background to their war at sea and Gurley Putt's liitle book will help their families know what it was like to live on a V & W destroyer in wartime. Click on the link to find out more about his book and see examples of the drawings by Roger Furse of life below decks.

Where are the bells now?

By 1934 large numbers of old warships were laid up and the expectation was that they would in time be scrapped. Consequently, on 12 April 1934 Admiralty Fleet Order (AFO) 867, "Ships Bells for Disposal", was issued listing bells from eighty named ships for sale to ships' officers and others at prices from 1 to 5. They included the bells of twelve V & Ws: Vanoc, Vega, Verity, Veteran, Viceroy, Vimy, Vortigern, Wallace, Watchman, Wessex, Wild Swan, Witch and Worcester. Most of them had a diameter of 10 3/4 inches and a weight of 27 lbs. Please get in touch if you own one of these bells.

Further lists of "Ships Bells for Disposal" were issued and on my next visit to the National Archives at Kew I hope to find the  time to extract the names of V & W Class destroyers from these lists and add them to this page. In the meantime ithey can be seen by registered readers with admission cards but need to be requested online in advance:

ADM 1/25839
Sale of Bells by the Admiralty, 1927-1928
ADM 7/958
Ships' bells: register and sale, 1920-1928
Vol 1 Indexed
ADM 7/959

Ships' bells: register and sale, 1921-1932
Vol 2 Indexed
ADM 7/960
Ships' bells: register and sale, 1931-1934
Vol 3 Indexed
ADM 7/961
Ships' bells: register and sale, 1933-1937
Vol 4 Indexed
ADM 7/962
Ships' bells: register and sale, 1934-1938
Vol 5 Indexed
ADM 7/963
Ships' bells: register and sale, 1936-1947
Vol 6 Indexed
ADM 1/26749
Disposal of ships bells and trophies, 1941-1959
The bell of HMS Whitshed

As Germany rearmed and the threat of war became plain these old warriors were brought back into service and fitted with new 14 inch diameter bells. The bell of HMS Whitshed is the only ship's bell in Alan Dowling's collection of ship's plaques, crests annd bost badges and since it has a diameter of 14 inches we can be sure that it is the same bell that hung in the ship when she took part with five sister ships in the evacuation of the Welsh and Irish Guards from Boulogne on 23 May 1940.

Photographs of bells of  V & W Class Destroyers on this website

The ship's bell of HMS Veeran
HMS Montrose (the son of her last CO)

HMS Verulam (St Albans District Council)
It is hanging outside the Council Chamber in the Council Officers, St Albans

HMS Veteran (Greg Jepp)

HMS Vimiera (owner not known)

HMS Vimy (Rodney Moncrieff, Canada)

HMS Vivien (HMS Dalriada)
Phone or e-mail HMS Dalriada in advance if you wish to see the bell

HMS Walpole (Ely Museum)

HMS Whitshed (Alan Dowling)

How to identify genuine bells from fakes

Bells may be falsely inscribed for sentimental reasons but more often for profit. The chisel marks of the inscribed date and name are clearly visible when the black wax is removed from the inscription. A reputable collector told me that destroyers always hung from a “crown suspension head” at the top of the bell but the only sure guarantee of authenticity is by tracing ownership back to the scrapping of the ship after the end of WW2.

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