Saturday Snippet: The early days of World War II at sea


At the start of World War II, the Royal Navy began a massive expansion that would multiply its numbers of ships and seamen many times over.  A large part of this was calling up reservists of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR – drawn from professional seamen of the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets) and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR – drawn from all volunteer civilian personnel who were not professional seamen or fishermen).  Reservists in the latter service would attend drill evenings every week, and spend a couple of weeks every year aboard ships to round out their practical training.  (There was a quip at the time that Royal Navy officers were gentlemen, trying to be seamen;  Royal Naval Reserve officers were seamen, trying to be gentlemen;  and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officers were neither, trying to be both!)

The RNR and RNVR proved to be essential components of the Royal Navy during the war.  By its end, they had come to represent well over half the officers in the Fleet, and performed sterling service, just as civilians came to form the vast majority of the US Navy’s personnel by the end of the war.  One of those called up was then Lieutenant-Commander Denys A. Rayner, who’d been an RNVR officer for well over a decade by that time.  He was to be one of the most successful and outstanding reserve officers of the war.  Ten years after the war ended, he published a book, “Escort:  The Battle of the Atlantic“, describing his Naval career and the vicissitudes of wartime service.

My father bought a copy of that first edition, and I grew up with it, re-reading it often.  I have it still.  It’s one of the all-time classic accounts of North Atlantic convoys and the battle against German U-boats, and has stood the test of time very well.  It’s recently been republished, and is now available as an e-book as well as on paper.  Rayner wrote several novels as well, including “The Enemy Below“, which became the basis for the hit 1957 Hollywood movie of the same name.

Captain Stephen Roskill, official War Historian of the Royal Navy, was a personal friend of Rayner’s.  The latter asked him to write the Foreword to “Escort”.  In it, Roskill said:  “I know of no other officer, let alone one of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, who served continuously for more than five years in command of escort vessels; nor of any other who graduated from a trawler at the very beginning to a corvette, then to a small destroyer, and finally to command of a group of the new and greatly improved war-built escort vessels.”  That’s quite a track record.  Rayner was a fighting officer all the way.

In September 1939, when World War II broke out, the Royal Navy called up all its reservists.  They were initially used to crew vessels that had been in reserve, or were commandeered from the merchant and fishing fleets.  In particular, the crews of the latter vessels were called up to crew their existing ships, which were converted to minesweeping or anti-submarine vessels.  LCdr Rayner was one of those called to service from the very first day.  I thought readers might enjoy learning how one of the world’s great fighting forces expanded in the face of the immense demands made upon it, and how its reserve personnel coped with the challenge.

Four days before the outbreak of war I received my telegram ordering me to report to the Sparrows’ Nest Trawler Base at Lowestoft, to which I was sent, in the Admiralty’s polite phrase, “for disposal” as Unit Commander of antisubmarine trawlers.

I had already packed my bags, set my affairs in order and seen to the laying up of my yacht. As I was one of the last to be mobilized I had time to get myself ready. In that I was luckier than many others.

When I joined the Sparrows’ Nest there was no cause to wonder why my mobilization had been delayed. As a base it simply did not exist. Even the taxi driver at Lowestoft station did not know of it, except in its pre-war guise as a park with a pierrot show. He told me that he thought he knew of a house which the Navy had taken over and I agreed that we might as well go there to see if they knew anything about a base for His Majesty’s Trawlers.

When I arrived at the house, which was in fact to be the base, I met Commander Gardiner on the doorstep. He and I were, as yet, the only staff. The Captain was due to arrive at four o’clock that afternoon, and we would receive the first draft of men on the following day. We had twenty-four hours to get the base working. I dumped my bags in the house and we walked together down the road to the tree-lined park. Passing inside the gates we came to a large concert hall. Sounds of music and singing could be heard. We went round to the stage end of the building, and came upon some of the artists sunning themselves in deck chairs and drinking coffee. Others were on the stage rehearsing. Gently but firmly we told them that there would be no show that night. We had come to take over the building.

By lunch time two more unit commanders had joined, as had the base Paymaster and his staff. Early in the afternoon lorries arrived from Chatham bringing stationery, mess tables, forms, a small working party and a few writers, stewards and cooks.

We might be getting off to a late start, but the organization behind the Paymaster’s side of the base was obviously superb, and the cases had been packed with great intelligence. The first to be unpacked contained twelve wastepaper baskets. The whole operation had been planned in that sort of detail. All we lacked in that first twenty-four hours was man power, and executive officers. Obviously someone had said, “Oh, the trawlers will not be ready for a week or two. Those unit commanders we are sending there can turn to and run the base until their ships are ready.”

During that night and the next day a dozen or so officers and a like number of ratings working with their coats off, man for man and without distinction of rank, had created a working base out of absolutely nothing. We were dog tired, but we were ready for the first incoming draft on the evening of the second day. To my lot had fallen the key position of Drafting Officer, and I sent off the first crew to join their ship at eight o’clock on the second morning. As assistant I had Lieutenant Lord Churston, R.N.V.R. For a week we drafted crews to the minesweeping trawlers. At the end of that time the base was a flourishing concern. We had accommodated over six hundred Patrol Service ratings, had manned over eighty minesweeping trawlers, and had built enough air raid shelters from sand-filled fish boxes, commandeered from Lowestoft fishing harbour, to house our men while they were awaiting draft. They were more than usually odiferous shelters, and their architecture was unique. It was perhaps fortunate that they were never tested.

Soon we began to hear rumours that the first anti-submarine trawlers would be ready. It took considerably longer to fit a trawler for A /S work than for minesweeping. The vessels chosen for the former purpose were the big modern 900 ton Arctic trawlers sailing mainly out of Hull, whereas the minesweeping trawlers had been drawn from the smaller Fleetwood and Grimsby boats and were 600 ton vessels. Even so there was a great difference between individual ships — an individuality that was well known to the men, a great number of whom had actually sailed in or knew intimately the ships whose names were now beginning to appear on the list of A/S trawlers which had completion dates beside them.

Lord Churston and I would have shown the character and self-denial of saints had we not taken advantage of our peculiar position. We set about collecting five good ships’ companies for our own group intending, when the time was ripe, to choose our ships in the light of the knowledge we had gained from the men, and then to draft ourselves and them together. After all we had come to fight a war, not to be Drafting Officer and Assistant Drafting Officer of the Royal Naval Patrol Service Base Lowestoft. There were, we felt, plenty of officers who, for one reason or another, would be more suited to carry out those duties.

We each chose the skippers for our own ships. Fate led me to make a supremely good choice. Skipper Lang was a perfect example of the Devon trawler skipper. Although he had not often handled ships as big as the 900 ton Loch Tulla to which we eventually drafted ourselves, he had risen from boy to become master of a sailing trawler out of Brixham; and then, after a period in steam trawlers, he had been appointed harbour master of that port at a remarkably early age. A harbour master must have a great deal of tact; and a tactful man Lang certainly was. He could get men to work because he knew just how far they could be driven, and everyone in the ship knew that he could do any job better than they could do it themselves.

He was a first rate seaman and knew things about the way of a ship at sea which no one not trained in sail could have understood. He would have made a great sailing master in any earlier age. His tall figure, topped by a head of short and crisp grey hair, for he rarely wore a cap, could easily be visualized in trunk hose on the decks of one of the English ships which chased the Armada up-Channel, or in white breeches and blue coat on the deck of a privateer running down upon one of Napoleon’s fat supply craft. He gave me an enormous store of weather lore, whose accuracy astonished me. Later it was put to very good use, when I had to decide such questions as whether to let the escorts of a convoy go on oiling or wait for better weather.

“Wind’ll freshen from the south’ard before midnight, Sir.”

“How so, Skipper?”

“See those gulls, Sir, throwing water over their backs — sure sign of a southerly wind that, Sir.”

“Thick weather or clear, Skipper?” I’d ask.

“Oh thick, Sir, with a mizzel of rain. Did you not notice how red was the rust on that buoy we passed a while back — blood red it was. ‘T’will be thick as the Earl o’ Hell’s riding boots tonight.”

Probably this conversation would take place at noon in bright, clear weather with no sign of the approaching “warm front” beloved of the meteorogical men. Later as I peered with strained eyes into a driving mist that formed into drops on my eyelashes, I would remember the conversation only too plainly, as I strove to make out the dark and unlighted headland which was the northerly limit of our night patrol line.

He had a hundred more such sayings, and all equally true. They were important enough to me then with a thousand horse power in a steam kettle below me, but how much more valuable they would have been a hundred and forty years earlier!

Lang had a great mistrust of all aids to navigation, and to him even the compass was more of a convenience than a necessity. In all the twelve months we served together I never remember seeing him fix the ship’s position by navigational methods. He found his way about the sea as much by instinct as by knowledge. I well remember once, when I was teasing him about this while I was fixing the ship, he said, “But you don’t really need that, Sir! We are here,” and he pointed with a large and slightly spatulate finger to a particular spot on the chart. My “fix” proved him to be as correct as made no matter. He must have had a three-legged station pointer built into his brain.

On another occasion I was a good deal worried because our compass had developed quite extraordinary errors after a depth charge attack in narrow waters. I thought this would mean having the compass re-corrected and re-swung, but Lang remarked: “But why bother about correcting it so long as we know the error? Lor’ bless you, Sir, in my old trawler we used to go down-Channel nor’-nor’-west and come home nor’-nor-‘est. It’s just a question of knowing how wrong it is.”

We got to know each other very well indeed, for of course we had our meals together in my cabin. I thus came to know his wife as well, although I never actually met her. He was very much a family man, and all his comments on the food, which was not always as well cooked as it might have been, were delivered as from her tongue. From this I gathered an impression of a very kindly house-proud woman, and an excellent cook. How we longed for her pastries!

So Churston and I let two or three groups of trawlers go by, until at last our men gave us the green light.

“That Loch Tulla, Sir — that’s a fine ship for us, Sir. Built special she was, Sir, for an Icelander — a very big man he was — and everything about her of the best — and the Regal, Brontes and Istria, Sir — there’s three good sound ships — not as you might say extra modern, Sir, but real good sea-boats that any man would go fishing in. The Davy, Sir? Never heard tell of her — reckon she’s a new boat.”

Churston and I drafted ourselves. There was no lack of unit commanders waiting to step into our shoes. We fixed our own reliefs, and went to say good-bye to Commander Gardiner and the Captain. “But you can’t do that — not yet.” Apparently it had occurred to no one that two young men in our position would help themselves. But it was too late, the signal had already been made. We handed over to our grinning reliefs and left. We heard later that Lieutenant-Commander Bruford, R.N.V.R., who had taken over from me, had found a ship to his own liking within twenty-four hours. After that they got a proper Drafting Commander, and the racket closed down.

The fine weather which had set in with the start of the war still held — and mercifully so; for the conditions aboard the ships when we arrived in Birkenhead were indescribable. There were ninety-two men working on Loch Tulla’s upper deck, and more than half of them had in their hands some tool to which either an electric cable or a high-pressure air pipe was attached. The upper deck looked as if an enormous spider, possessed of a sense of humour and slightly inebriated, had attempted to spin a gigantic camouflage net. The remaining forty-five men, carrying brushes and pots of grey paint, went solemnly round the ship, repainting wherever the tool men had blistered the previous application with their oxy-acetylene welders, or had riveted on some new fitting since last the painter had passed that way.

There had been no one to meet us; nor was there any organization to cater for our wants, which were many. If a ship had been declared ready to receive her crew on a certain day — well, she was ready and the crew must live in her. Luckily the firm of Cammell Laird came to our rescue. They threw open their canteen to us and fed us for three days; then they put a large moulding loft at our disposal, and we used that as a mess deck. There were a hundred and one things to see to. Watch and quarter bills had to be drawn up so that every man would know what watch he was in, what was his action station, and in which mess he would eat and sleep. There were standing orders to write and get typed, ammunition and naval and victualling stores had to be embarked. And all the time these duties were interrupted by tests on gun mountings and depth charge throwers; tests on the water tightness of the asdic [sonar] fittings; on the magazine flooding arrangements, and on many other of the new machines that were being put aboard. Each one of these tests must be attended by a ship’s officer; and there were only two of us, Lang and myself. It is true we had a petty officer, called a ‘mate”, who was supposed to be a watch-keeper and more of an officer than a rating. This rank was never a success, and as soon as the Patrol Service got properly under way it was dropped and the mates were replaced by young Sub-Lieutenants. Very few of the mates had actually served as such in fishing trawlers; for the only qualification needed was the possession of a Board of Trade fishing mate’s ticket. The mate of an Arctic trawler would almost certainly have had his Skipper’s ticket, and could then have been a Skipper in the Patrol Service, receiving quite a useful yearly retainer through the R.N.R. grant. Ours, who looked better than most, was a sorry sight when the first days of seasickness had taken the curl out of his hair. Both Lang and I considered him quite unsuitable as a watch-keeper, and thus began our long months of “watch and watch.”

Lying astern of us in the fitting-out dock was a big Cunard liner being converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser. Beside her the piles of first class mattresses grew, as her passenger accommodation was ripped out and made into mess decks.

Returning one night to the ship I paused to talk to our quartermaster.

“It do seem a shame to see all they mattresses going into store where the rats will nest in ‘em, Sir.”

“It does that, Quartermaster.”

“How would it be, Sir —?”

“I’ll have nothing to do with your sinful thoughts, Quartermaster.”

I made my way to the companion hatch that led down to my own accommodation. As I was half way down I paused: “Quartermaster.”


“You realize I shall not inspect the mess decks until after we have left Liverpool. Goodnight.”

My cabin was in the after end of the old fish hold, separated from the new mess decks by a bulkhead. For the next half hour sounds of men handling bulky and awkward bundles reached me through the thin partition, and there was a constant shuffle of feet on the deck above my head.

In the morning one corner of the pile appeared to be lower, and some of the mattresses looked very rough to have come from the staterooms of a liner. I could only imagine that the local rats had been quick to seize the opportunity to provide for their own nests.

As soon as the ships were ready we went down the Mersey River for compass swinging and gun trials. We returned to a berth in Birkenhead docks. For one night we lay in the dock which was just inside the main lock. We then received orders to go alongside a shed in another dock to embark our naval stores. As this was some distance away I telephoned to Flag Officer Liverpool’s staff, and asked for a dock pilot. I was told that all were too busy, and that anyway trawlers were expected to find their way about without recourse to dock pilots.

We started. I thought I knew Birkenhead docks fairly well, as they were so near my own home. “It doesn’t really matter,” I had said to Lang, “I know it well. I’ll act as pilot if they won’t give us one.” All we had by way of a plan of the docks was the rather small one on the chart of the Mersey. This showed a certain opening between two docks, and feeling proud of ourselves we took her towards this place with reasonable speed on her. We came round the corner of the dock to find a brick wall barring our path. The Harbour Board had decided to close this particular passage between one dock and the next. We came to a grinding stop, and Loch Tulla was ten feet shorter than she had been a moment before.

Fortunately she was what is known in trawler phraseology as “a soft-nosed ship”; that is to say the real stem of the ship was the forward watertight bulkhead. The idea was that if, when fishing in the White Sea or off Bear Island she should run into pack ice, the bows would crumple rather than split. So, although we had spoilt her looks and her immediate readiness for war, we had not done any great structural damage.

We were dry-docked the next day for repairs. They took only four days to fit us with a new stem and bow plates. I had feared that the shock might have cracked the engine bearers, and such damage would have taken a long time to repair. Fortunately our soft bow had taken the jolt out of the crash, so that the only damage was to the bow itself.

During those four days I was summoned to a Board of Enquiry at the office of the Flag Officer in Charge in the Liver Building.

Addressing me the President of the Board asked: “You are in command of H.M. Trawler Loch Tulla?”

“No, Sir.”

He looked over his spectacles at me. “What do you mean, “No Sir”? — of course you are.”

“No, Sir. I am in charge, not in command — Skipper Lang is the commanding officer.”

“How can he be? So long as you’re there, you’re the senior.”

“I’m the Unit Commander, Sir — in charge of the operational conduct of one unit of anti-submarine trawlers. I live in Loch Tulla because she is fitted as a unit commander’s ship, the other trawler of my unit is not so fitted; but I can, if occasion demands, equally well go to sea in her.”

“Well, how did it happen?”

“We’d asked for a dock pilot and been refused one. We are a 900 ton ship, Sir — I don’t think the staff realize just how big these Arctic trawlers are; people think we are no bigger than a drifter of 120 tons. With that gun up forward and all the fishing gear out of her she is riding two foot above her normal trim forward. You’ve got to handle her fairly fast or her bows will blow off down-wind. As unit commander I’m entirely satisfied with Skipper Lang’s conduct. It was in my opinion an accident that could hardly have been avoided once we had taken the wrong turning.” I felt that I was now no longer the prisoner in the dock, but counsel arguing a defence.

However the Paymaster Commander, who was acting as Secretary, intervened. Speaking to the President he said:

“You know I think we’ll have to adjourn until we’ve seen the Admiral on this, the board was to be held on Lieutenant-Commander Rayner, I don’t think we can switch it to Skipper Lang just like that, Sir.”

“When does the Admiral get back?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“We’re sailing for Portland tomorrow morning, Sir,” I informed him.

The President looked up at me and smiled. “Aren’t you lucky!” he said.

We sailed, and we never heard anything more about that episode; but for weeks I scanned the mail anxiously and looked at every buff envelope to see if it had come from the Flag Officer Liverpool.

. . .

As the rest of the group had gone ahead while we were having the new stem fitted, we sailed alone from Liverpool to Portland. The plan had been that we should go there for a week or so to “work up” and receive a final training before going on to our war stations. However, after the Athenia sinking, Mr. Churchill, speaking as First Lord, had promised the country that eighty anti-submarine vessels would be on their stations within a fortnight. The rush that followed killed the “work up” plan. We arrived at Portland at 5 p.m. one night and sailed at noon the next day — a certified operational anti-submarine vessel.

Because his ship had developed some defect and remained behind, our own senior officer was not present. It therefore fell to Loch Tulla to lead the 14th Anti-Submarine Group through the breakwaters of Portland harbour. From the yardarm fluttered a string of flags, new and brilliant in the bright sun. “Order One, George ten”, form line ahead, speed ten knots. It was the first order I had ever made to a group of ships, and I was proud of myself and my command. As the three ships took up their stations astern of me, perhaps a little uncertainly, I leant over the after end of the bridge and watched. Astern of me Istria was shuffling into station, her high bow slicing the short channel seas, astern of her was Regal with Churston as unit commander leading the second division of the group. The last ship in the line was the unknown quantity Davy.

Loch Tulla was unique amongst trawlers. If I was to say that she was the most handsome trawler ever built the commanding officers of all the other trawlers would rise up and tear me limb from limb. Let us leave it that she was different. She had been specially built for an unusual man. Regal, Istria and Brontes were as much alike as three pins. It was not until they developed little idiosyncrasies of their own under their new commanding officers that you could tell them apart at a distance of a mile. The Davy again was different. As we had guessed she was a new ship taken fresh from the builders. Looking at her one had the impression that her designer had tried to do something special, but the arrow of his thought seemed to have missed the target. To a seaman it did not appear that the bow matched the stern. Somehow or other the lines of her hull did not flow evenly along the length of her. As a ship she had a lean and hungry look; and she was to prove light-headed and irresponsible. This is not to belittle the officers and men who manned her. Her commanding officer, Skipper Mackintosh, was as good in his way as my own Skipper Lang. Mackintosh came from the Moray Firth. His men were always both smart and happy, and he ran an excellent ship. But I know the Davy nearly drove him to despair. She was a nightmare to take alongside. Without warning her high thin bow would suddenly blow down-wind, and there was nothing for it but to go astern and try again. Although she had two foot more freeboard forward than any other ship in the group, she was the wettest sea boat of the five; and in a steep head sea such as often fell to her lot on patrol in the Pentland Firth with wind against tide, she would take fantastic quantities of water over her bow. As befitted one who came from the north-east coast Mackintosh was a good Presbyterian. He was never heard to swear aloud, but the Davy must have tried his patience hard.

The 14th Anti-Submarine Group was bound for Rosyth, where we would be used to patrol the entrance to the Firth of Forth. Our one evening at Portland had been a hectic one. The camber where the anti-submarine trawlers lay was crowded with ships, moored four and five deep. Most of the group and unit commanders knew each other, and we were all eager to find out where our friends were going. The groups were bound to so many ports; patrol groups to Alexandria, Malta, Gibraltar, Rosyth, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Liverpool, Belfast and the Clyde; groups specially selected for coastal convoy work to Harwich, Rosyth and Plymouth. We might have picked anything out of the hat.

We rounded the North Foreland as it was getting dark, threaded our way through the maze of swept channels and sandbanks which marks the entrance to the great port of London, and hurried on northward. The fine weather which had lasted since the day war was declared had gone with the sun, and a stiff easterly gale was rising. About ten o’clock that night one of the pins holding the compass bowl in the wheelhouse worked itself loose, and could not be found. Without a steering compass I could not lead the group up the narrow war channel, so I sent Churston on ahead, but it proved impossible to follow the last ship in the line with no compass for the quartermaster to steer by, so I hove to until dawn.

When dawn came we found the missing pin on the wheelhouse floor, and I was able to refit it to the compass. The steering compass was the original one which had been in the ship before conversion. It was a merchant service pattern, and not a proper Admiralty fitting like the new binnacle on the upper bridge, which had been built above the wheelhouse when she was converted to a warship.

When we had mended ourselves we hurried on northward alone, passing the Humber as night fell. The previous night’s wind had eased considerably. The sea was littered with the lights of fishing vessels, and this gave us an idea. Why be a darkened shape, and so an obvious war vessel when if we had lights and looked like a fisherman we would actually be less conspicuous? There was always the possibility of a U-Boat. We switched on our navigation lights. An hour later the asdic operator reported a strong echo bearing north seventy degrees west, at a range of one thousand yards.

Looking along the bearing I could see no surface vessel. I rang down for dead slow on the engines and went into the asdic hut. It was true enough — it was just such an echo as a U-Boat might be expected to give. While I was considering the matter, I wearing one pair of headphones and the operator the other, we both heard a very definite clanging noise followed by the steady beat of engines. The propeller noise stopped, and shortly afterwards there came another distinct clap. I went to action stations, and Loch Tulla ran in at full speed to fire her first pattern of depth charges.

We circled round afterwards. There was a strong smell of oil, a piece of grey painted wood floated in the water disturbed by the explosion of our charges. With the knowledge we then had it looked pretty conclusive. Later in the war we would have known better. It could have been a minelaying U-Boat and we could have killed it, but in those early days we did not realize just how close a depth charge must be to a U-Boat to cause lethal damage. We heard later that when two mine-sweeping trawlers were sent to investigate the area one was herself mined, which was an indication but not a proof that we had attacked our first enemy.

The next morning we arrived at Rosyth. I had to go ashore and report. The rest of the group were already on patrol, and before nightfall — so were we. There was, we soon found, to be absolutely no rest, no let-up at all, for the next six months.

That’s how Denys Rayner’s war started.  By the time it was over, he’d commanded six ships (one of which was sunk under him), sunk one U-boat, and escorted countless ships in convoy.  He had a very busy war indeed, more so than most officers of any Navy.



  1. I highly recommend as well: The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat. Although a novel, it is essentially an accounting of his service with the Royal Navy in the Atlantic. There are some truly unforgettable descriptions in it. I think I first read it when I was a young teenager, snagged it off my parents' bookshelf; it left indelible images!

  2. As "unknown" above said, my intro to the royal navy was "the cruel sea" by Monsarrat. At your recommendation I just purchased escort and expect to enjoy it. I've always enjoyed reading about the sea.
    how I ended up in the Air Force rather than the Navy is a story for another day.

  3. Another good book about warfare in the North Atlantic is "Clear The Decks", by Daniel V. Gallery.

  4. Yes, "The Cruel Sea" was published in 1951, a few years before "Escort". Nicholas Monsarrat was also an RNVR officer, ending the war as a Lieutenant-Commander, and commanded three ships (corvettes and frigates). His novel was therefore written from personal experience, not just using his imagination.

  5. Too many good books to read in the short time we have on earth, and good Lord what a story you've included here.
    Many thanks.

  6. Having read it finally it does call straight to mind my own experience in the old Mine Battle Fleet. We would gently collide with other sweeps, cruisers, peers and nobody above took any notice. We didn't do much damage to ourselves or others and they were so fun to drive in the West and Persian Gulf. Not sure about the east coast ships. They werern't "us". The 9 on the west coast were mostly amazing ships, crews, officers and CO's.

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