A Brief History ...

The members of the Navigating and Direction Officers' Association have qualified from some of the Royal Navy's most challenging professional courses. Navigating and Direction Officers have been at the forefront of the development of naval tactics, adapting to the operational demands of new weapons and threats that arise from the latest technological innovations. The branch dates back to the late 19th Century when Captain Henry Oliver, (seen here in the uniform of a Vice Admiral) established a Navigation School, initially afloat in HMS MERCURY and then in 1906 ashore in the Old Naval Academy in Portsmouth Naval Dockyard, and known as DRYAD after one of the ships that was used for practical training. This was the start of a long association between the Navigation School and ships or bases named DRYAD.


The Navigation School trained the navigating officers serving in the major warships during WW1, where new procedures and tactics were learnt through hard earned practical experience. Navigating officers advised the Fleet and Division commanders of the best methods to manoeuvre their formations to achieve tactical advantage over the enemy.


New technology and tactics developed during WW1 were quickly introduced to the courses at the Navigation School during the inter war years, including the use of Radio Direction Finding, aerial navigation, gyro compasses and action plotting.

The Navigation School remained in Portsmouth Dockyard until 1941, when due to the increasing interruption to training from bombing of the naval base, it was moved to the relative safety of Southwick Park, just to the north of Portsdown Hill behind Portsmouth. Southwick Park was the home of Colonel Thistlethwayte, who had previously invited senior officers to shoot over his estate. After the Navigation School moved in and requisitioned his property, the invitations ceased!


The introduction of radar at sea and the very potent threat of aerial attack had a most profound change upon the way ships were fought. Prior to the advent of radar, the Captain or Admiral was located on the bridge of a ship from where he could see most of the battle and make his tactical and manoeuvring decisions. The ability to engage the enemy beyond the visual horizon coupled with the risk of ships coming under sudden air attack with little time to react required a radical change. Now he needed to see the locations of enemy aircraft and ships, obtained by radar, beyond his visual horizon, presented in a clear and logical format that would allow him to gain the tactical advantage. This was especially true for effective air defence.

The Direction Officer specialisation developed from these changes. The most effective defence of ships against air attack was the use of fighter protection, controlled by Direction Officers viewing radar information in their ships, and provided the means of directing supporting fighters to intercept approaching enemy air raids before they were able to deliver their attack.

To achieve the tactical advantage, sailors and officers were trained to ensure all available information was properly correlated and presented to enable the timely intercept of approaching air raids. This became known as the Action Information Organisation (AIO) and brought about the creation of a major branch of the Royal Navy. It was considered to naturally belong to the Navigation branch, as it was dependant upon knowing the position and movement of friendly and enemy ships and aircraft.

To better train the Direction Officers in the practical skills of interception, a Fighter Direction Training Centre (FDTC) was established at the Naval Air Station at Yeovilton in 1941. Operational activities at Yeovilton forced the FDTC shortly afterwards to move to nearby Speckington Hall. Due to the shortage of both radar and aircraft with which to practise, a heavy reliance was placed upon teaching the principles, and included the use of Walls ice cream tricycles, one being an "enemy aircraft" and another being a "friendly fighter". The Direction Officer could see both "aircraft" and would pass the necessary directions for the "fighter" to close and intercept the "enemy".

As greater operational experience was gained, the need for separate Air Direction Rooms (ADRs) with dedicated communications and plotting equipment became increasingly apparent. To ensure the most effective compartment layouts and presentational methods, mock up "models" of ADRs in various classes of ships were built in the outbuildings of Southwick House and named the Action Information Training Centre (AITC), with many of the staff coming from the navigation branch. Southwick Park became known as HMS DRYAD, and was also the HQ for Operation OVERLORD, the invasion of Normandy.


Just as WW2 was ending, a purpose built RN Air Direction Centre was built at Kete on St Anne's Head in Pembrokeshire, where the radar systems had an uninterrupted view over the adjacent waters of the Irish Sea, and was later named HMS HARRIER. The reorganisation and reduction in size of the Royal Navy following WW2 resulted in Kete closing in 1960 and the training of Direction Officers returning to Yeovilton and DRYAD.


From 1945 to 2004 HMS DRYAD established itself as the Royal Navy's leading maritime warfare training centre, known as the School of Maritime Operations (SMOPS) and later the Maritime Warfare School (MWS), requiring a major building programme and the development of the most up to date and sophisticated shore based training facilities.


Many of the people and ships linked with the development of the N and D specialisations were represented in the names of several buildings including Captain (later Admiral) Oliver, founder of the Navigation School. The development at DRYAD required so much space that for the period between 1975 and 1993 the Navigation School was moved to HMS MERCURY on the top of the South Downs near Petersfield in Hampshire, where a view of the Solent could be had on a clear day.


Further consolidation of the Royal Navy's training centres resulted in the closure of HMS DRYAD in 2004 and the relocation of most of its training to HMS COLLINGWOOD near Fareham, where the Navigation School is now based in Endeavour Building. Fighter Controllers, the modern day successors to the Direction Officer, continue to be trained at Yeovilton, and COLLINGWOOD.

Click here for a more detailed description of the development of the Direction branch.