2 We're in the Navy Now

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 15, 2020

As I stepped out of the train on Harwich station with the five other boys enrolled with me I exclaimed `What a strong smell of salt!` Whereupon one of my companions looked scathingly at me and replied, `What did you expect? This is the sea, you know`. Not wishing to appear a complete moron I remained silent. It would have lowered my prestige to the lowest mark on the prestige barometer to have told him that for the first time in my sixteen years I was about to set eyes on the real live sea. (Later I was to be struck by a strange feature of the British. For them, to travel thousands of miles by foot or ship is a mere pastime, and all over the world one can find Britishers in the most outlandish of places, but to take a half-hour journey by train is difficult. London was then only two hours by train from Leicester but if any of our friends made that trip he was looked on as the achiever of a remarkable feat.) Now I felt very far indeed from my home and the street which had been my playground.

Before I had time to become philosophical a man in uniform approached us and without ceremony told us to follow him. We were to discover that he was a chief petty officer but the sight of his uniform, differing little from that of a commissioned officer, so filled us with awe that he might have been an admiral. Out by the jetty it was dark. The little steamboat we boarded was the biggest steamboat I had ever seen although the forecastle they squeezed us into was so small there was hardly room to change one’s mind. Half way across the water, it paused by a sloop, HMS Tring, on board which we would make our first trip to sea; but that was more than a year later. Following our guide, whose vocabulary seemed to consist of grunts of `Right`, `Left`, `Quickly`, we came to a long low building, facing a wide roadway, and were hustled through a door into the presence of some other petty officers, and one officer with two thick gold bands on his sleeves.

The first question almost took our breath away. It was `How much money have you?` Wanting to be accepted as honest boys each one of us gave a truthful reply. Those who had more than half a crown were obliged to surrender the surplus to a petty officer, receiving in return a receipt. Boys in this establishment, we learned, were not allowed to have more than half a crown in their possession at any one time. The next question concerned cigarettes. If murder was the most heinous crime in civilian life, smoking before the age of eighteen had priority in this establishment. The anti-smoking lecture occupied, I think, the major part of this midnight pep-talk, which finished with announcement that there were only two kinds of people in the training establishment, the Quick and the Dead, and that it was hoped we would hurry to join the Quick. We were told a little history. The road outside was, by tradition, known as the quarter-deck and `boys second class` (such was the exalted position we now enjoyed) were not allowed to walk on the quarter-deck but must always cross it at the double. This, we were to find out, was one of the many naval words which we all and sundry had to learn, and it meant run.

In a few minutes we were following our petty officer across the holy of holies, walking. He brought us to a long narrow street with a corrugated iron roof. `This`, said our guide, `is the Long Covered Way.` Was there somewhere a Short Covered Way? The morning would do to find that out. What I, at least, was struck by was the complete silence that prevailed. It was so infectious that we talked in whispers and tried to tread as lightly as possible. It was this silence that first impressed me with the high degree of discipline in the school. On either side, long one-storey buildings, separated from each other by neat grass plots, stretched away into the darkness, the gable ends with the entrance doors giving on to the `Way`. In those buildings four thousand boys between the ages of fifteen-and-a-half and seventeen were sleeping. I could not imagine any public school or similar civilian establishment being so completely engulfed in perfect silence. Anywhere else some of the young inmates would have been having a romp or a pillow fight, but not in the Shotley Training Establishment. Moreover we met no guards or proctors lurking in the hope of catching some breaker of the peace. Such upholders of the law were not needed here.

When our leader ducked into a door somewhere in the middle of the `Way`, we did likewise, although no words had been spoken. It was the showers. In a small ante-room six heaps of naval clothing lay on a long bench. When we had showered, these clothes would replace our civilian dress and turn us into naval property. Although clean, the clothes were far from new and came, of course, off the peg. Nobody had bothered which peg, so the little chaps got the big sizes and vice versa. We didn’t grumble, after all we weren’t going to a Royal Review. So with a little swapping and plenty of subdued laughter we managed to soften down the gawky scarecrow look, though the soft-looking little pork-pie hat, lacking the famous ribbon with golden HMS on it, undid the improvement. Before putting on the real thing we had to prove ourselves `boys first class`, and that was almost a year and a half away.

Showered and dressed we continued our walk through what seemed endless territory. Calling at the cook house (we did not know that here it was called a galley), we collected some big pans, then entered one of the dormitory houses where a single light illuminated a long table with forms on either side. Never shall I forget that first supper. Never shall I forget that first supper. I almost whooped with pleased surprise. Tripe and Onions! The aristocrat of plebeian dishes, the first violin in the working man’s culinary orchestra. Fish and chips may be in greater demand but compared with tripe and onions they are base, for fish and chips are eaten with the fingers from a newspaper, whereas tripe and onions are served on a plate, with a glittering knife and fork. By the time we had finished we were convinced that if the Navy always ate that, then just as an army marched on its stomach, so a fleet sailed on its galleys.

Then to bed, as Mr Pepys wrote, though being Secretary to the Admiralty he should have known enough naval parlance to write `turn in`. We added our unconscious sounds of sleep to the cacophony produced by about sixty other new entrants who had arrived in the previous two or three days and who, like us, were now known as `Nozzers`.

It was only in the morning that we got an idea of how immense was this school. Where the rivers Ouse and Stow meet to pour into the sea between Felixstowe to the north and Harwich to the south, they form a promontory. About three miles up from the mouth of the river a huge wall reaches from one side of the promontory to the other, and behind this wall lies the Shotley Training Establishment, equipped with every facility. Within its territory were, besides the living quarters, numerous specialist buildings, a swimming pool, a church, and several acres of playing-fields.

The complex included not just one school but several, and what was most praiseworthy about all of them was that they taught nothing unnecessary. There was a gunnery school, a school of seamanship, a school for academic subjects, a signals school, a wireless school and, not least, a physical culture school. A class consisted of sixty boys divided into two groups, A and B, who together filled one of the long dormitories. For each class there were two permanent instructors, one for gunnery and one for seamanship, who were also responsible for the cleanliness of the dormitory and the behaviour of the boys. For academic subjects and in the gymnasium there were special teachers who had nothing to do with conduct in the dormitories.

The day was divided into four lessons -schoolwork, gunnery, seamanship and physical culture – with each group taking one or another subject in turn. From four o’clock, when studies finished, until supper at seven the boys, who had already had a daily two-hour lesson in the gym, spent all their spare time on the playing fields. Food was regular and plentiful, in confirmation of which claim I would like to draw attention to the fact that it was impossible to get volunteers to help in the galley. The number of volunteers in the kitchen of an organisation is the best indication of the state of its food supply.

It was the ideal school. Only one thing prevented it from becoming the best and the best-known school in the country. That thing was nothing other than class prejudice. Nobody will venture to suggest that a school so well equipped and run, and with a permanent contingent of four thousand pupils, could not produce skilled and erudite people who would eventually develop into first-class naval leaders. But the boys from Shotley were not destined to rise so high. Informed people may argue that every boy had an opportunity to be attached to the Advanced Class. This was true. The period of basic schooling was twelve weeks. Those who at the end of this period failed to pass any of their examinations gave up academic subjects and thereafter devoted all their training time to the other subjects I have mentioned. Should a boy pass all his exams, he was shifted to another class and remained in the school maybe six months longer. But in the long run it meant nothing. When he left to begin life in the Navy, he was a `boy first class` like the others who had never done advanced studies. His further advancement depended entirely upon himself. It is legitimate to wonder what the Advanced Class was for.

I have remarked that the standard of discipline in the school was very high. It must be emphasised that although the cane was an official form of punishment, it was far from being the basis of this discipline. The cane was restricted to certain crimes, such as smoking, and only the captain of the school had the right to order a caning. A trial was held at which both sides were given the chance to speak and the actual execution of the punishment – six strokes for a first offence, twelve for a second, and not exceeding twelve in any event – was carried out under the supervision of an officer. There were other regulations. The regulating petty officer, for instance, was not allowed to raise the cane higher than his head and at the first sign of blood the caning had to be called off. Considering that the petty officer who did the caning in my time was a Rugby International, the no-higher-than-the-head rule was little comfort to the boy strapped to the box-horse and dressed in a tightly fitting pair of thin duck trousers. Nevertheless the youngsters took it in good part and were more likely to despise the boy who yelled than resent the man who beat.

Boy cadets and midshipmen were also liable to be caned. One administration of this punishment to a midshipman occurred on board my last ship, the Norfolk, when Captain Prickett ordered the caning. We were doing the spring cruise round the islands of the West Indies, and before we arrived at any particular island a notice would appear on the noticeboard giving some details about it. Without fail every notice concluded with the warning that the coloured population were or were not socially recognised. At one island, so small that, as sailors say, it was taken indoors out of the rain, there was some misunderstanding as to the social status of the coloured population. So when the midshipman, as the officer in charge of the motorboat, put into the pier to take off guests for the officers’ ball on board that evening he made a mistake. He saw a group of coloured men and women dressed as for a ball and took them on board the motorboat. The result was that the whites, who came down to the pier in time to see a boatload of coloureds on their way to the ship, refused to go to the ball, and the officers were obliged to be sociable to people who were not socially recognised.

It was a comedy of errors but for some reason the captain had the boy caned, even though the ball was a private entertainment of the officers, not a service enterprise. Such an incident could not have taken place in our school, although a boy could be caned for smoking on the frailest evidence. Having a matchstick, even a dead match, in his possession was sufficient to prove him guilty. However, so difficult was it to get smoking materials that the offenders were few and far between and practically always the same people. I did not smoke myself but I chummed up with a fighting Irish boy who had a backside like a Union Jack practically all through his stay in the school.

The discipline appealed to me. Only a few days after I had begun my classes (interrupted by the very bad effects of a vaccination which kept me in the hospital for six weeks), I realised that I liked what I had seen of the Navy up to then, and my liking grew as I progressed. From the beginning I felt a change for the better taking place in me. The rapidity with which everything was done, the order that existed everywhere, the regular good solid food, the endeavour to improve our physical strength and agility – all these were acceptable and pleasant. Furthermore the training in the intricacies of seamanship and the technicalities of naval gunnery were bound to widen the horizon of even the most backward boy, and I did not consider myself in that category. My interest in sport also grew. Each dormitory had its football and cricket teams and I played in both, which was an innovation for me. Moreover I found myself making good progress with my lessons. At the first examinations I topped the class in gunnery, a position I kept to the end.

Another influence was pride in the Navy, gained mainly from romantic stories of a life on the ocean wave. The school itself taught us to be proud, but about things which in later years always seemed to me superficial. We had to be proud of cleanliness, both of our persons and our surroundings. We were taught to be proud that the parquet floor of our dormitory shone like burnished steel, that the row of thirty beds was in every detail a perfect line, that even the tooth, clothes and hair brushes on our bedtables formed their own separate perfect line. Our clothes were another object of the pride taught in the school. There was a gauge for every length, a gauge for the width of the bell in the trousers, a gauge for the cut in the jumper, even a gauge for the distance between the three rows of tape on the blue collar.

That was the `pride` instilled in us in that school, and nobody could change it, for it had been ordained by My Lords of the Admiralty. These highly educated specialists, with enough gold braid between them to gild the statue of Nelson, had devoted tremendous mental energy to this vital problem of defence. One wonders if the Lords carried gauges themselves.

Certainly the petty officers did, and whipped them out the moment they saw a suspect article of clothing. I personally have witnessed a naval commander turning a pair of duck trousers inside out to see if the little fob pocket was washed white. But the pride which was absolutely essential to such a force as the Royal Navy – in its history, its most outstanding achievements, what it stood for, how it had grown to its present powerful position – was completely ignored. Only once in one and a half years at that school did I hear an officer lecturing boys about the Navy, and that was a farce as the officer was not a commissioned officer but a warrant officer and he tried to tell us the old chestnut about every sailor carrying an admiral’s barge in his ditty box. (I cannot say baton because admirals do not carry them, and I am sure if they did, the sailors’ awe of them would soon give way to laughter at the sight of full admirals in full dress toting a decorated stick of Blackpool rock.)

So this wonderful school with its huge intake of young material, the kind that every government considers the most apt for educating in its own beliefs, gave a training that though effective was limited – not by the ability of the pupils but in the social conception. This limitation could be summed up in the words `we and you`. Of course we had met this attitude in our elementary schools, but there we did not live with it and consequently it did not bother us. Here in the naval school we were side by side with it every day.

Of course the naval authorities did not admit to class feelings, not at all. In their view they were doing us a service. We were being trained and, up to a point, educated absolutely free of charge and moreover were being paid for it. All that was true, but what were we being trained for? The young man who pays high fees to go to college is not tied to that college for the remainder of his active life. On graduating he chooses his own occupation, and nothing except his own ability or lack of it will prevent him from making a success of it. We in contrast were being turned out to fill our allotted slots in the Royal Navy.

From Shotley came that extraordinary figure so essential to the efficiency of any military arm, the non-commissioned officer. The Navy had technically expert non-commissioned officers because the Navy’s mobile unit, the ship, allowed the carrying of large-scale systems of instruments more complex and highly developed than land armies could carry with them. As a result the non-commissioned specialist had to pass a series of training courses that in sum total added up to a number of years of intensive study. Gunnery instructors and torpedo instructors, for instance, had to do five training courses, each longer than the one before and the last taking almost two years, and between each course they were required to put in a minimum of two years’ practical experience. Moreover the gaining of qualifications had to be timed with promotion in rank, so that any qualification beyond the second could be granted only to a leading seaman or a petty officer. Thus it was that with three years’ study of very intricate subjects behind him and after many years of service and experience, a man rarely went higher than petty officer and, more humiliating still, was obliged to stand to attention, salute and say `sir` to a sixteen year old midshipman.

Even this much promotion was difficult to obtain. World War I had led to the creation of an excessive number of petty officers – some examined one day and officially rated the next- with the result, in the late twenties and early thirties, that it seemed a seaman had little chance of making petty officer rank before he took up his pension. To rise from able seaman to leading seaman a rating had to wait six years after having passed the exam, and to make sure he had no charges of misdemeanour against him. Another factor was the parsimony to which the then government was resorting in its financial troubles. After the first gunnery course a rating was obliged to wait two years before applying to enter the second unless he had obtained more than eighty-five per cent in his first examinations; and the examiners were verbally instructed that no one should get more than eighty-three per cent. The cheese-paring then affecting the service not only inconvenienced individuals but was certainly a contribution to some of the Navy’s setbacks in the early days of the Second World War.

Should any former pupil of Shotley reach the highest rating possible for a lower deck man and attain full specialist rating (known significantly as `non-substantial`), it was of no help to him on reaching pension age at forty. However high his non-substantial rating, he received no official confirmation of it and had nothing to show for having spent years working for a qualification. Of course, as far as gunnery ratings were concerned it mattered little, for his qualifications were of no use to him in civilian life. But to get a torpedo rating one had to be a qualified electrician, and an engine room specialist had a profession much in demand in civilians. The truth of the matter was that civilian engineers with diplomas might complain that they had paid money for their education, and that government subsidised specialists would be a serious threat to their employment. The Wizard of Oz hit the belaying pin right on the head when he told the straw-stuffed scarecrow that he had brains all right, it was the piece of paper that was missing.

This may seem a digression from the story of my own progress through the training ship, but it is in fact closely related to it. When the fifteen- or sixteen-year old recruit signed his very one sided contract, he agreed to a clause stating that his period of service should begin at the age of eighteen. That is, he served on average two years which were not accounted to him. The authorities’ justification for this was, again, that he was being trained free of charge; and again the question was `What for?` Certainly not for the Bluebell Chorus, for all the skill and know-how that his training gave him was for the exclusive use of the Navy. So the very first contract the recruit signed set the pattern of limiting him in numerous ways.

If this school had been used to develop freely the talent of the most outstanding pupils, uninterrupted by class prejudice, there would naturally have been a closer understanding between the wardroom and the lower deck, and one of the factors that made Invergordon possible would have been removed.

In spite of these shortcomings, most of the boys undergoing training were satisfied with their lot. There were some runaways, but their rarity only confirms my claim. During my time there only one break-out occurred and the participants were strange bedmates. One was a reform school boy whom liberal minded do-gooders thought the Navy might straighten out and the other was a weakling who often lay in bed at night quietly crying for his mother.

As for myself, I can only say that the Royal Naval Training Establishment gave m the physical and moral strength to live through the terrible adversities that for a number of years were to dog my steps.