I believe that the Service was suspended in the aspic of time, almost ever since the days of Nelson – until the war, with the sudden alterations in thought and deed which that emergency and the introduction of civilians forced upon it. In turn the Nelson syndrome was thrust upon us at every opportunity by those who had served, man and boy, for more than ten years before we, the HO’s, joined, ‘What was good enough for Nelson is good enough for me’, was the formula and radical though it may be, I have learned through experience, and therefore can appreciate, that change for the sake of change, and precipitate change in particular, not through attrition or detailed experiment, can be very detrimental. ‘Defaulters’ was a case in point The word ‘defaulter’ applied to anyone brought up on a charge, irrespective of how innocuous or severe. It was a presentation by the charging Officer or Petty Officer of a crime to the Officer of the Watch in the presence of the accused and had been played, probably unchanged since the days of Nelson, hilarious to the outside eye, dear to the heart of authority but not to us at that time.
The ceremony went something like this. Someone in authority put a man on a charge and the latter was duty bound to appear before the First Lieutenant at an appointed place at an appointed time. On that day the Master-at-Arms, the Regulating Petty Officer, the Writer, the Escort consisting of two sailors decked out in webbing belt and gaiters, and the criminals would gather, along with whoever was making the charge. The defaulters would stand in a line in order of appearance, some trying to have a crafty drag on the stub-end of a cigarette without being discovered, which would only add to the charge if caught. It was at this point that the whole thing, in my eyes, became sheer theatre. “Prisoner, or prisoners, fall in,” shouted the Regulating Petty Officer, only inches from the ear of the man selected, and the defaulter would stand between the two members of the escort. “Quick march,” roared the PO and the prisoner and escort would shuffle through the door and into the office for the hearing, being goaded on with shouts of ” Left, right, left, right…….” continuously until the word ‘Halt’ was emitted in high crescendo. With the lack of space on ships there was no way they could actually march but there had to be a semblance of the real thing and the interpretation ended up as an undignified shuffle, roughly in time to the shouting. At the word ‘Halt’, everybody stamped their feet resoundingly, the RPO then roared “Off caps” although there was only one cap to come off, and, if the man was in seaman’s rig, he would be very careful how he took it off, because many were watching, not least the Master at Arms. Apparently there was only one way, and it seemed to take ages to learn.
From that stage on, things became quieter. The RPO was silent, thank God, the Master At Arms read the charge, ‘Jimmy’, as the First Lieutenant was universally known, asked the man who had brought the charge for details, the criminal was asked for his version and excuses, although the latter were never expressed openly; if it was in his province Jimmy gave sentence, if a higher sentence was demanded or the crime was outside his remit, the defaulter was bound over for Captain’s Defaulters and for very serious crimes, even he, had to pass the hearing on to a higher authority. At the end of the proceedings it was time for the RPO to come into his own again, all that noise and stamping was repeated once again. Fortunately on our little tub, through lack of space, we enjoyed a quieter version, we had no Master, no RPO in the true sense, and no room for the enactment, in fact it was all very civilised as I found out to my cost. See ‘Passing Out Parade’ to be posted later.