80 years of lifesaving marked with memorial sign at HMS Sultan

Topic: PeopleHonours and awards Storyline: HMS Sultan

A road sign on a wall at HMS Sultan now points the way to a small, highly-dedicated branch crucial to the safety of all who fly at sea.

To mark the 80th anniversary of the RN Safety Equipment and Survival Branch, veterans joined today’s Safety Equipment Technicians at HMS Sultan to celebrate eight decades of lifesaving.

It is a trade which came into its own in World War 2 as the carrier replaced the battleship and the Fleet Air Arm grew considerably.
And as with other realms of naval warfare, there were rapid advances in sea survival as the conflict progressed.

At the beginning of the war, gas inflatable life preservers were introduced, inflatable life rafts were carried in multi-crew aircraft and leather helmets were worn to offer further protection, with parachutes also provided. 

Until 1943, equipment was maintained at sea by trained seaman specialists – and ashore by Wrens, trained by RAF personnel.

But as safety equipment became increasingly complex, it became clear that fully-qualified personnel were required, and in November 1943 the Royal Navy Survival Equipment Branch was formed.

It’s enjoyed several homes – HMS Raven at Eastleigh, HMS Siskin in Gosport, RNAS Daedalus in Lee-on-the-Solent and, since 1996, the RN’s home of marine/aerial engineering, HMS Sultan.

By far the longest period of the branch’s 80-year existence – some 35 years – were spent at Seafield Park in Hill Head, a village just along the Solent from Lee-on-the Solent.

From 1956 until 1991 when the site was sold, the old country house/school served as a unique training environment for personnel assigned to the small but vital branch – and remains its most fondly remembered location, hence the unveiling of the old road sign as a memorial.

Lieutenant Commander John Scivier, president of the Royal Naval Safety and Survival Equipment Association (and also former CO of HMS Victory), underlines the importance of the work past and present with three simple words: We save lives.

“I spent nine years in the Safety Equipment Branch. Seafield Park was the home of training for most people in the association, it was the training environment which we would all know,” he said.

“It was a unique place which took you away from the Royal Navy into a country home environment, we all have very fond memories of it.

“A lot has changed since, with personnel recognised now as Safety Equipment Technicians, meaning their technical skills are being recognised. We hope the sign, donated by association member John Vitti, will offer some inspiration to those now coming through training.”

Among the thousands of naval aviators past and present grateful for the technicians’ work is the head of the Royal Navy, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key, who served as an Observer in Lynx helicopters in the 80s and 90s.

He told members of the association: “Please pass my best wishes to the Association, not least because I once had to use their equipment 'in anger' and neither it, nor the training provided in how to use it, let me down. So I am for ever grateful to them for the vital role they play in ensuring we save life at sea when things go wrong.  And I know I am not alone in being so.”

Today the branch’s personnel are responsible for a swathe of equipment not just sea survival equipment for aviators: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence (NBCD) clothing, high-tech helmets such as used in Apache and F-35 jets, Short Term Air Supply Systems (STASS) for use if an aircraft or amphibious vehicle is submerged. Safety Equipment Technicians are also involved with underwater escape and tri-service Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training.
The 80th anniversary of the branch is also being marked with a display at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton.