Royal Navy, 1941 to ’46, in order, The Change to Naval Life in 1940

Prior to 1940 the Navy in today’s terms was a cross between a monk’s seminary and a football supporters club. Lower Deck life aboard ship was hard, totally masculine, and without any privacy. Shore leave was limited, often only a few hours and lived at strength 10. The sailors were proud of the Navy and proud to be in the Navy, but their relationship with society was varied. Allegedly, notices on establishments in towns adjacent to a dockyard read – ‘Dogs and sailors not admitted.

WW2 was tough on the regular Navy and even tougher of the poor innocents joining. Prior to it, most of the Navy Lower Deck was recruited as ‘boys’, many from orphanages. More than their home, it was a secure haven, they had camaraderie, almost every need was catered for, and every year was like the rest. For those with ambition there was a limited ladder to climb. The chasm between them and the Wardroom, not only didn’t bother them, they accepted it. From the Wardroom aspect, there was a glass wall and no matter how high a promoted man might rise as an officer, there was an unwritten view expressed or not, ‘he was Lower Deck, you know!’

Then came the HO’s – Hostilities only – volunteers or recruits, of every class. Round pegs in square holes, some found their vocation, and then the rest. In the beginning all HO’s were resented by the Regulars. The phrase HO was an insult. a put down, and it took several years for the stigma to be dropped, because the HOs had proved themselves. We, from sheltered civilian life, in our teens, knew nothing of life,. Four letter words interspersed into sentences and even between syllables were rare in the ’40s at that age. Talk of brothels, sexual deviance in all its forms, living in crowded conditions for weeks on end with little respite, having to guard food because of hunger, or misappropriation, all had to be accepted. Punishments through ignorance, misunderstanding, or with good reason, could be cruel and unnecessarily harsh, all without putting a foot on a ship. This is no exaggeration as later pieces will give proof. One had to be a tortoise, with a thick shell, keep one’s head low, preferably close to the ground for scuttlebutt, say little, be cautious of whom to trust and go slowly.

JAIL I had been a quasi-sailor for all of three weeks when I was put on cell duty, at cells which contained two men accused of attempted murder. We had a Chief Gunner’s Mate who took us for drill. His favourite punishment for serious offences like talking in the ranks, being incompetent, not obeying orders properly was to make a man run round the parade ground with a rifle held above the head at full stretch. Be assured it is very painful after a while, especially in pouring rain without an oilskin. The two men had attacked him, one with a knife, the other a bayonet on different occasions, our sympathies were with them. Naval Jail in those days included picking Oakum – teased out hemp rope, used on tall ships for filling the seams of the deck planks. A piece of rope about a foot long and two inches thick was weighed, then the prisoner, with just his fingers had to reduce the twisted rope to its original hemp fibres, the wear and tear on the fingernails had to be experienced to be appreciated. At the end, the huge pile of fluff was weighed again. The prisoners were only given meat on one or two days a week and had to eat with a spoon. To an innocent civvie, this all seemed extreme and as I was sympathetic with the prisoners, I smuggled proper meals into them, begged from the Wren kitchen-staff and helped them pick oakum, hardly realising that if I was caught, I would be in there beside them.

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