About the time that our class took its final examinations, the Admiralty called for ten volunteers for training in the Submarine Service. By naval regulations boys were not accepted in the Submarine Service and even Abs [Able-bodied Seaman] had to have a non-substantial rating, preferably Seaman Torpedo Man. In spite of this, ten volunteers were taken from the Training Ship every year to be sent for three months to the Submarine School at Gosport and then to a serving flotilla, where they were attached to a submarine, ostensibly for practical experience.
In defiance of the horror stories about `death traps` in which the men who dived below the waves never knew if they would come up again, I found myself lined up with nine other volunteers outside he very building where eighteen months earlier I had surrendered my surplus cash and listened to grave warnings about smoking. Then I had been wearing my one and only suit which mother had talked a local tailor into making at the lowest HP terms ever bargained for. Now I was in full naval uniform complete with cap ribbon inscribed in gold letters HMS Ganges – the name of the old wooden wall which was the foundation of the school. The dream of every Shotley boy was being realised for the ten of us, whilst deep in the covered way groups of other boys, not as yet qualified for this great privilege, stood watching us in silent envy. A regulating petty officer came out of the building carrying our papers, a railway warrant and a warrant for food to be spent when we changed trains in London. He looked along the row, stopped when his glance fell on me and said, `Wincott, if you go on in the way you are now, you will be an admiral`. Prophetic, but not in the way he meant.
With an official-looking paper in my hand, allowing one dinner for ten men, I walked proudly through the imposing portals of the restaurant on one of London’s larger railway stations, my `subordinates` (for I had been put in charge of the party) grouped behind me. We stared around at the marble pillars and elaborate décor suggesting the anteroom to a Roman baths. In return one or two of the diners stared at us as if we had arrived from another planet. Then I saw, moving in our direction, a very pompous gentleman with a rather long frock coat, the tails swinging with his strides. On closer scrutiny his face looked like a plate of mashed potato with three prunes stuck in it. It wore a supercilious expression. `What do you want?` he demanded, gazing to one side as if he expected an answer from the people at the far table. I thrust the paper under his button nose and he drew back as if it were a dead rat. It struck me that this person was something to do with the waiters, but in a slightly more exalted position than the ones who did the serving. He twiddled the paper in his hands, looking about the place for some lower menial to attend to us. At last he crooked a finger and a waiter with a number on his lapel came over to where we were standing. The new arrival took the paper, spent a considerable time reading the contents, and then in a sad disappointed voice said `Follow me`, and made for the door through which we had just come.
Neither he nor his chief had deigned to address potential customers of this high-class establishment as `sir`. That of course was nothing new to us, but if a policeman must address a criminal as `sir`, cannot a sailor of His Britannic Majesty’s Royal Navy expect that courtesy from a flunkey? We were due for further indignities. He led us out of the station building through a side door into a dirty street where trucks were unloading and crates and other luggage were spread all over the causeway. In his immaculate white front and creased trousers our guide stood out like a shop-window dummy in an attic. Then he swung down unswept, stone steps to lead us into a semi-dark basement where a trestle table with no cloth stood between two long benches.
`Sit down here and wait`, he said, and without further ado hurried back to his white table cloths, crystal and polished knives and forks. In a minute or two appeared a boy who must have been the fourth assistant to the boots. He carried a huge jug of beer, collected some glasses from behind a partition and started pouring it out for us. At last we had obtained service, the service to which, according to the snobs of the railway company, sailors were entitled – down in the basement because that was the only place suitable to our position, and beer because whoever heard the word `sailor` pronounced without the prefix `drunken`? None of us had drunk beer before. We were only seventeen and in those days young boys seen inside a pub were considered bad characters. There was an old man scraping barrels in the basement. When we complained to him about this treatment he said, `You’re lucky. I was kicked out of a place like this when I came home from France in early 1919. If you want to eat with the toffs, you’ll have to wait for another war. Then they’ll pull you in.`
We were not old enough to appreciate his irony, but at least we were consoled to feel that our shabby treatment did not have the entire support of all the railway people. Coming up from Harwich to London we had been exuberant, joking and singing songs in our joy at having finished the training period successfully. Now all those high spirits had gone and we were half way to Portsmouth before we returned to normal. But by the time we entered the portals of HMS Dolphin, the Naval Submarine Depot, we had forgotten all about it.
Two petty officers, our future instructors, conducted us to the living quarters of the crews. This was an old wooden ship without masts but with a number of sheds on the top, whose sloping roofs made it look like Noah’s Ark. We occupied two large rooms on deck, with the boats’ crews a deck below us. At the other side of the jetty were secured several submarines, mostly L-boats, and some distance ahead of our Noah’s Ark two World War I submarines were tied up. With the aid of these craft our instructors, old submarine hands who had been all through the war, we were to learn what makes a submarine dive, surface, remain at a given depth, and the rudiments of all its other mysterious workings.
As we had direct contact with grown sailors, a privilege strictly forbidden in the Training Ship, we soon began to learn what was special about a submariner. There is no doubt that the peculiar life they led, the physical closeness in the confined spaces of the boat plus the actual danger that existed in those days, went to make these men of a very different character from general service men. Not very long before we arrived, the disaster to the L-24 had taken place. Off Portland Bill the boat had surfaced right before the bows of the battleship Resolution which had cut it in two with the loss of all hands. One felt that this tragedy had left its mark on the remaining crews in an exceptional manner.
Most members of submarine crews were married – it was for the extra money needed to keep their families that they had chosen this service. In addition most of them were what was known in the Navy as `natives`, that is their wives lived in the ports where they were stationed, although if the husband was drafted to a foreign station, the wife returned to their home town. Submariners’ wives were always at the gates to meet their husbands coming ashore, especially when they had been to sea on exercises. As a result, many of the men’s wives were known to other members of the crew and even to other crews. when the news of the L-24 tragedy hit Portsmouth, the wives of the crew rushed to the base to confirm the report. It may seem strange, but they wanted to be told by the men from the other boats – the men who knew their husbands, who had been perhaps the last to see them alive, may even have spoken by semaphore only minutes before they dived to oblivion.
It is not difficult to understand that in this close-knit community the sailors’ reaction to what had happened was known only to themselves. They were not morbid, there was no rush of requests to be returned to general service, a right they had because in those days service in submarines was entirely voluntary. Neither were there expansive demonstrations of sorrow and dismay. The nightly singing which always began spontaneously ceased without a hint or a word from anyone. But the conversation, if subdued, was not about the tragedy. There was none of the horseplay that sometimes broke out on the mess deck, but neither was there a word of the catastrophe. It was only later that I witnessed how profoundly they had taken the sudden death of their comrades.
About a month or two had passed when a `Sale of Dead Men’s Effects` was announced. Such a sale was a tradition after the death of any man in the Navy. All his kit was spread out on the deck or, if in the depot, on the ground. A Writer stood by with the pay-book and then the most able amateur auctioneer began to dispose of the articles, trying to get as much money as possible; for the proceeds of the sale must go to the widow or mother of the dead man. No money changed hands. The bidder just offered a sum and if he was not out-bidded, the Writer marked it in the pay-book to be withheld from his pay. When the kit of one of the L-24’s crew, Leading Seaman Dempsey, was auctioned, a large crowd of his former comrades gathered round. The regulating petty officer held up the first article and immediately bids were made way above its actual worth. Not one first bid took an article, but time after time it was increased to what was, for sailors, a fabulous sum. I stood entranced and watched a pair of ordinary scissors bought for the sum of five pounds and then thrown back again to be bid for once more until this one pair of scissors realised twenty-five pounds – and that in the values of 1924. I knew from the way they were bidding that several of the men would not go to the pay-table at all that coming pay-day.
In this way they expressed their sorrow at the loss of their comrades, and they were quite happy to think that when the widow received the money realised by the sale, she would not know who had contributed to it.
The special relationship between submariners was demonstrated even more clearly when I had the opportunity to see officers and men sharing the confined space aboard. If the officers were dining and a rating needed to pass from one end of the boat to the other, the only barrier between them was the rating’s `Excuse me`. But the affinity between everyone in the boat was not based on close physical contact alone, but upon the deep understanding of their dependence on one another for their safety. There could be no room for a mistake even by the rating with the simplest of duties. Commander George Grider of the US Navy tells how in World War II a rating turned a switch in the wrong direction, almost blowing to destruction the submarine and its crew – and by then there had appeared two generations of new boats fitted with safety appliances never dreamt of in my day. The cramped space, the permanent proximity of officers and men, and the dependence on each man’s quick thinking certainly brought about an understanding of each other which, had it been fostered in the Training School, might have been an attribute of the whole Navy and not just the peculiarity of this specialist branch. It may be argued that in two wars the Navy met almost insurmountable adversity and came out victorious, and that therefore the old system proved itself. No one will attempt to denigrate the Navy’s triumph, but there were other factors in the winning of World War II, one of which is summed up in the words of Shaw: `The big mistake Hitler was that he frightened the British people, and you cannot frighten the British people.` Although not a language expert as Shaw was, I venture to add what he meant but left unsaid: `and get away with it`.
But let us be honest: in both wars the British Navy had numerical superiority. The question of today is whether the Navy, no longer numerically superior, can face the forthcoming trial, a trial far greater and more devastating than any of the past.
The Training Ship had made me well disciplined and physically fit and had given me a much broader mental horizon. The Submarines, however, infused me with ideas which general service could not have supplied. During my time in the submarines I was close to two incidents which came near enough to tragedy to make the unforgettable. In on I experienced that atmosphere of tense waiting when a boat has dived and not reappeared on schedule – an atmosphere perhaps more nerve-racking than the actual confirmation of a tragedy. Luckily the missing boat surfaced in the end, but for almost two hours our boat took part in the search, watching a huge red flag tied to a submarine’s periscope making great circles on the waters of Torbay while the boat hunted underwater for its companion. It looked like a film of some religious visitation. On the parent ship and the surrounding submarines every eye was glued to that visitation whose presence seemed an order for silence covering the whole area. The waters of Torbay are not noted for their enormous depths, but trapped in a submarine at any depth the men are in grave peril.
It was this peril that always strengthened the men’s unity and determination, as was illustrated for me one day when our second captain, in the manner of an Englishman observing that `it looks like rain`, remarked the coxswain: `Do you know, Smith, our batteries are giving off a high degree of arsenic gas`. No panic, not even large eyes looking in fright for the way out. Just the most casual manning of stations to begin a search for the cause, with one or two jokes bandied about hinting that perhaps the smell came from somebody’s unwashed feet.
The submariners were full of anecdotes about their life and duties. One was about a signalman on the conning tower of a boat leading a flotilla steaming line ahead, whose hat was caught by a gust of wind and sent flying away astern. The signalman turned and with his fingers semaphored to his hat, now floating in the water, `Return to harbour`, then turned to face forward where his eyes should have been all the time. Half an hour later the captain ordered him to signal `Line abreast`, but when the signalman turned, not one of the five boats of the flotilla was to be seen. The ever-vigilant signalman of the following boat had picked up the instruction directed at the hat, taken it for the real thing and passed it down the line.
Each year there was a competition for a cup given by Admiral S, in which, at a signal from the parent ship, the submarines were to crash dive, surface, fire five rounds from the 4.5 gun, crash dive again and surface. The whole operation was stopwatch-timed by a team of umpires. The most delaying and annoying part of this operation demanding speed and perfect team-work was the removal of the gun sights. These extremely delicate telescopes have to be treated like so many new born babies. To dive with gun sights shipped would be to destroy a most expensive instrument. In the competition, therefore, it was necessary to unship them carefully, place them into their individual boxes and take them into the boat at a walk. One day just before the contest, two well-known jokers told the captain that they had thought up a scheme to reduce the operation with the sights to a minimum. The captain was sceptical, even more so when the men said they could not disclose the whole plan to him, but when they gave their word that if the sights were ruined they would pay for them out of their own pockets, he finally acquiesced. In the competition that boat had completed the whole operation before rival boats were halfway through it. Most impressed, the admiral sent a stream of signals demanding an explanation from the captain. When the captain called the authors of the victory to him, the men looked at each other, grinned, and then one opened his closed fist: `We put one of these on each end of the sights, sir, and dived with them shipped`. The captain looked down at the extended hand and burst into uncontrollable laughter, for there lay a certain rubber good.
Whether this story is true or not is of not great importance; what matters is what the story illustrates – the incomparable ingenuity of the submariner, the man whose devotion to duty so all-engulfing that it marks even his moments of frivolity.
Although I was almost on the threshold of eighteen when I left the Submarine Service, and therefore in naval understanding very junior indeed and with no right to an opinion, I had already learned enough to see that the `drunken sailor` was no longer drunk enough, and not often enough drunk, to live up to his place in folklore. True, he had a long battle before him before he could change the ideas of badly-informed writers and old-fashioned singers who somehow persisted in believing that English breweries worked for the Navy alone. To me it was obvious that I had joined a band of men who were in the first place sober, sentimental home-lovers, whose frequent absences from their closest bred in them a firmer tie with their homes than many people who come home from work every day care to show. A married submariner, for instance, always carried a photograph of his wife and family in his ditty box and whenever he wrote a letter, which was often the box stood before him with the photograph on top for him to look at.
His patriotism was not of the bombastic dulce et decorum est pro patria mori sort, but the more sensible dulce et decorum est to live pro patria.
I passed out of the Submarine Service very reluctantly, as General Service then seemed some kind of degradation. But the Navy never throws its boys, second or first class, to the lion until they are eighteen.
Being about five minutes from that age when I joined a cruiser I was victualled in the separate mess for boys where the ruling power was the PTI [Physical Training Instructor]. For some reason never explained, it was deemed that this rating had the magic power to protect boys from contamination by the big-mouthed, boozing, brawling blue-jackets come three or four years older than us in the crew. On a three-thousand-ton cruiser it is hard to realise any form of separation, but that was the rule. Six months later I passed through the stage of OD [Ordinary Seaman], the most despised rating in the Navy, and attained the exalted position of AB. So, at the age of Eighteen years and six months, I had the right to indulge in all the vices, real and imaginary, which the PTI was supposed to have defended me from only a short time before.
My attaining this position at the age of eighteen-and-a-half was a tremendous achievement at that time, for My Lords had decided that in the interests of economy, that most abused word in any language, no OD could pass for AB until he was nineteen. By a bare two days I missed coming under the axe of naval parsimony. The author of this measure must have dreamt every night about saving the country’s finances – at the expense of the lowest paid, of course. One morning he must have woken screaming `Eureka!`, or whatever it is that people shout when making monumental discoveries, for in his brilliance he had discovered a means of saving enough money to build one bumboat in one year. The bony fingers of the grim skeleton of economy seemed to have gripped the Admiralty financial experts by some particularly sensitive nerve at that time, for just then new pay scales were introduced for all lower deck ratings joining after 1925. These new ratings, registered as X ratings against the J ratings on the old scale, were to be recruited according to the requirements of each year. In time the J ratings would be phased out altogether or would at least be heavily outnumbered; at which point the financial experts, confident that a protest from the remaining handful of J ratings would get no support, could level the Js and the Xs.
What these financial strategists failed to take into account was the iron-clad fact that the crisis was global and was not to be deflected from its relentless course by half measures taken by the British Navy. Time and the deepening crisis were to force them to abandon their long term plot of Js and Xs, and to plunge them into a reckless gamble which even in a panic no player should have risked. But six years had still to pass before this gamble was attempted.
For us, the men who had joined at the pre-1925 pay rates, the new arrangement meant nothing. We took it that, as far as we were concerned, the old rates would go on unchanged, until the last man receiving them reached retirement age. When the ratings on the new scales first appeared on the ships, a year or two after their recruitment, nobody on the lower deck paid any attention to them. Only when, in 1931, the pay question became a grim reality did I discover that the company of my own ship, the Norfolk, had quite a large contingent of the post-1925 entrants.
Before I could make that discovered, however, the Navy willy-nilly furthered my education in the devious ways life is lived, not only in Britain but in many other countries. Having been sent from the cruiser to the RN Barracks at Devonport, I found myself right in the middle of the General Strike. Detachments, squads and even bigger units were leaving every day for different parts of the strike-bound Britain. Luck on a small scale, which always seems to accompany me, put me in a small detachment with a petty officer and a very young lieutenant in command. Our destination was, of course, unknown to us, but the fact we left the barracks in a truck suggested we were not bound for a distant target: the RN Barracks at Devonport has its own railway platform and major land journeys by seaman always begin there.
As we left the barracks our officers quietly ordered us to put our rifles and bayonets on the floor of the truck, explaining just as quietly that it was unwise to make our arms too obvious as we drove throughout the streets of Devonport. This rather surprised us. We believed we were going about our legitimate business. But we were all under the influence of `Theirs not to reason why`, and did as we were told. Things became even more intriguing when we discovered our destination to be the C-in-C’s main wireless station, standing in isolation on a cliff above the entrance to Plymouth harbour. There we pitched two bell-tents and kept a round-the-clock guard on the installation. Nobody explained the purpose of this very extraordinary measure. But camping out in Cornwall’s beautiful scenery, feeding high and rarely bothered by our lieutenant for anything except guard duties, we were having a good time and did not trouble much about whether there was any point to it. We were there about three weeks and in all that period I was the only guard compelled to demand `Halt! Who goes there?` A low rumbling voice answered me out of the darkness, and when its owner came within my vision I realised I was looking into the face of a Negro.
I was doubly disappointed – first when I learned he had been born in the district and except on fairgrounds had never seen a coconut in his life; and second, because the sight of him had filled me with wild ideas about the invasion which I was to bear the brunt of. Apart from the sudden appearance of the Negro, the whole three weeks passed without incident. Then, in the Detailed For Draft Office, somebody discovered us. It is said that the people in this office despatch individuals to various ships and establishments by the method of the shut eyes and the pin. One of them must have used a railway spike to get us out of Cornwall. However they may be, it was suddenly decided that our job was one for the marines, so we piled our equipment and ourselves into the truck and back we went to where it had started. All over Britain the General Strike was raging as students drove buses, unloaded hips and in general did their bit towards strike-breaking while we guarded them. Strange that these same students should have fathered those who today stand in picket lines, march in demonstrations and teach otherwise peaceful workers how to stick a boot in a policeman’s face.
Then a whole battalion of seamen from the depot were despatched on an aircraft carrier to the Clyde for the purpose of guarding `important objectives` - that is, the mines and factories belonging to private individuals where the workers were on strike. We were dumped on the Hood which was anchored off Clydebank and there for six weeks we stood guard over holy-stones and wash deck gear until again somebody remembered our existence and brought us back in comfortable railway carriages. It was at that time that the question of reducing the sailor’s `over-generous pay` was being considered- no doubt to make up for the vast cost of our useless round-trip to Scotland.
On returning to the barracks I read a notice calling for volunteers for service on the China station. It took but a few seconds to write out my request, and soon I was in the middle of all the rigmaroles connected with going on draft. I found myself with about six weeks’ advance money and seven days’ foreign draft leave. The leave finished a dead heat with advance, and, in a flurry of goodbyes over numerous glasses of lemonade, I returned from home broke, but full of enthusiasm for the glamorous East.