Sunday, 2 December 2012

It's only a name!

The fifth HMS Duncan (HMSO)
Whilst recently reading a post on another blog (which shall remain nameless to prevent embarrassment to the writer), I took exception to what I felt was a facile comment regarding the naming of one of the Royal Navy's new Type 45 Destroyers. Without quoting him directly, the upshot of what was said was along the lines of "What sort of name is HMS Duncan? Sounds like it was named after an accountant!"

Although this comment was no doubt meant to leave his readers rolling in the aisles with laughter, I for one felt that it showed a staggering amount of ignorance not only towards the naming policy of the Royal Navy but showed a lack of knowledge of history in general, which sadly seems only too prevalent these days.

Whilst the arguments over the teaching of British history in schools belong to another place, this whole saga left me thinking about the whole business of how military hardware is named and how this reflects the characteristics of the various nations and services involved.

As we've started with the Royal Navy, let us continue with the story of HMS Duncan. Named after Admiral Adam Duncan, victor of the Battle of Camperdown against the Dutch in 1797. She is the seventh ship of the Royal Navy to bear the name and this I think, is the crux of the Royal Navy's naming policy; famous names are perpetuated, battle honours won by previous ships of the same name are proudly displayed on the current vessel and the ship's company are encouraged to learn and be aware of the history attached to the name. For interest, despite the first HMS Duncan appearing in 1804, the battle honours for this name were all earned by the fifth vessel to bear the name, a 'D' Class destroyer launched in 1932 that saw arduous service during the Second World War. She earned the following battle honours for the name - Spartivento 1940, Malta Convoys 1941, Mediterranean 1941, Atlantic 1941-45, Diego Suarez 1942.

A look at the Royal Navy's current fleet list, although sadly greatly reduced in recent years, reveals many famous names still in commission and whilst there are too many to mention them all here, names such as Illustrious and Ocean commemorate famous aircraft carriers from the past, whilst names such as Kent, Westminster, Montrose and Portland not only perpetuate famous old names but provide a connection from local communities to their Navy which makes for superb public relations. The US Navy, follows a similar tradition to their British counterparts, mixing the tradition of perpetuating old names such as Enterprise, commemorating famous naval heroes such as Halsey, Nimitz and Spruance and connecting with local through the vessels named after their respective States, towns and cities.

The German Navy of World War Two, the Kriegsmarine, as might be expected named it's vessels in a generally much more martial style, celebrating past Germanic heroes such as Bismarck, Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Graf Spee, as well as perhaps surprisingly naming some cruisers after German cities like Nurnberg, Emden and Koln, although these style of names were in the minority. It was probably not surprising that the Nazi regime wanted to commemorate German heroes from the past rather than foster connections with local communities.

Moving away from the navies of World War Two to the fighting aircraft, less of a pattern emerges. Rather than a general naming policy, many aircraft names were decided on the whim of the designers, or more usually the individual manufacturers. More often than not though, this loose policy produced some memorable names, many of which remain household names to this day. Arguably the best known aircraft of the last war, or possibly of all time is the Supermarine Spitfire. Today, the name is synonymous with speed, grace and deadly fighter aircraft but perhaps what is not so widely known is that the fighter was almost called the 'Shrew' instead of the name that subsequently passed into legend. The inspiration came from the chairman of Vickers Aviation Limited, the parent company behind Supermarine, who nicknamed his daughter 'a little spitfire' and who rightly felt that the name was more inspiring than that originally proposed. When the name was decided upon, the news was passed to the designer, RJ Mitchell, who famously remarked "Just the sort of bloody silly name they would give it!" Like many designers, Mitchell wasn't interested in names, just in getting the final product right.

Prior to the Spitfire, Supermarine were as their name implies, better known for their seaplanes rather than fighters, with the result that their seaplanes were given stolid, if uninspiring names such as Walrus, Seagull, Seamew and Sea Otter. The Spitfire seemed to revitalise their naming policy, for post-war they produced fighter planes with names like Scimitar, Spiteful and Attacker. 

The Spitfire's 'sister' fighter during the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane came from the Hawker Aircraft Company who unlike Supermarine, seemed to have a definite naming policy for their products, for as well as Hurricane, they were also responsible for the Fury, Typhoon and Tempest - all named after great disturbances of the air, although just to confuse everyone, they also came up with bird names such as Tomtitt, Sea Hawk, Kestrel and much later, their famous 'Jump Jet', the Harrier. The American manufacturers came up with a similar mixture of names for their products, giving us a diversity of names ranging from the Flying Fortress, Liberator, Thunderbolt, Lightning and Mustang, as well as many more, all of which have a distinct American feel to them. 

By contrast, the aircraft of the Luftwaffe mainly relied on their manufacturer's type name for indentification - the Bf109, the Focke Wulf 190, the Heinkel 111 and the Dornier Do17 all became famous - or infamous - just through these numbers alone. There were exceptions though - the Focke Wulf 200 maritime reconnaissance aircraft was christened the Condor and as such became etched in the mind of many a participant in the Battle of the Atlantic. Also permanently associated with the Nazis is the Junkers 87 Stuka, which was a corruption of the German word Sturzkampfflugzeug, meaning 'dive bomber', which is exactly what the Stuka was!

Military hardware, in contrast to ships and aircraft, does not generally seemed to have been named as such, Rifles, machine guns, artillery pieces and the like do not usually attract anything other than their type numbers but the exception to this rule is the tank. For some reason, the tank attracts names as diverse as anything seen with fighting ships and aeroplanes.

The Panzer Mk III Tank (author's collection)
British tanks during World War 2, it has to be said, were on the whole fairly uninspiring in terms of performance, the only truly class piece of equipment was the Comet, which only entered service in time for the last six months of the war in Europe. Before that, the British Army had to make do with some splendidly named tanks such as the Cromwell, Churchill and Crusader as well as the somewhat less inspirationally named Matilda! 

To most of us, the American tank of World War 2, which also provided much of the armour for the British Army, was the Sherman. Not the most powerful tank ever produced, the Sherman had the great advantage of being produced in vast numbers, so that losses could easily be replaced. It was also easy to maintain  and rugged, so combining all of these factors, the Allies were onto a winner. Wartime American tanks were named after famous generals, so in addition to the Sherman, names such as Lee, Grant and Pershing were all commemorated.

German tanks started the war as purely being named Panzer (or tank) Mk I, II, III etc. It was not until later in the war that they started being named after big cats, firstly the Panther and then possibly the most famous and feared tank of the war, the Tiger. Fortunately for the Allies, the Tiger appeared fairly late in the war and was not built in sufficient numbers to threaten the outcome of the war.

As always in a blog of this nature, we can only scratch the surface of the subject but as can be seen, the name attach a certain mystique to a weapon of war and sometimes give the weapon legendary status.

Published Sources:

Badges and Battle Honours of H.M. Ships - Lt. Cdr. K.V. Burns - Maritime Books 1986
Spitfire - Jeffrey Quill - Arrow Books 1985

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