5 Some Have Politics Thrust Upon Them

Devonport Barracks are not in Devonport at all but in a little place called Keyham. The two districts are so close, however that only the town architect can say where the boundary lies. In 1930 the population of the barracks was about four thousand men and officers. The imposing gateway suggested the entrance to a palace, and the guard with his rifle and fixed bayonet contributed to the impression, although, instead of a busby on his head, he wore a sailor’s cap. A building which was something in the style of a palace stood to the left of the entrance, a little way down towards the drill ground. That was the wardroom, where the officers lived. To the right were, first the quarters of the chiefs and petty officers, and then the barracks for the men – barracks which on Sundays suggested a deserted factory.

They were large four-storey brick building with one long room on either side of each floor. At one time each building had its own feeding arrangements. Food was brought from the huge galley to each mess, which was simply a table placed along one side of the room divided down the middle by bag racks. Then a chief cook named Jago devised a scheme whereby the ground floors of two buildings facing each other were turned into dining rooms, catering for all the men in the complex.

It completely altered the feeling of this large number of men and was the introduction of what was called `General Messing`. The catering was taken out of the hands of the leading seaman in each mess and placed in the hands of this same Jago, who was now a warrant officer. Under the old system the men were faced, every month, with a mess bill, because the sum accredited to each man, one shilling and sevenpence per day, was not enough to enable them to eat as they wanted. The new system allowed the caterer to buy food wholesale, with the result that not only did the men have no monthly mess bills but there was also considerable economy all round, the money thus saved being used to provide other comforts in the barracks, Sitting-rooms were opened on this money, furnished with carpets and easy chairs and supplied with newspapers and magazines.

However at the time in question the system had been introduced only into the barracks and into one or two of the bigger sea-going units. When a man was detailed for draft to a ship his first question was whether the ship was on General Messing or Canteen Messing, with its attendant monthly mess bill. As a result of this innovation many men looked upon the barracks as a rest home. So did the Navy, but the authorities took care to see that no one stayed in the rest home for very long.

I mention this system of feeding because of the differences it made to a sailor’s pay. The so-called experts who have written about the pay of the lower deck at the time of Invergordon have never once included in their assessments the mess bill which the greater part of the Navy paid every month out of its own pocket. It could reach ten shillings or more, and on the China station, where many food products were imported, sometimes from England, it reached ten Hong Kong dollars a month, at that time the equivalent of £1. Only after many applications to the Admiralty was a small addition granted to the victualling allowance on that station.

There is no denying the fact that with General Messing the men lived and fed better. Moreover as well as purchasing the comforts already described, there were funds enough to employ the men on the barracks as waiters, so that the dining-room was as well equipped and run as the canteen of any large industrial enterprise in he country.

Liberty, as the right to go on shore is termed in the Navy, was exceptionally generous at Devonport, in that we could spend all our free time on shore. All activities. Study ad working parties ended at 4 pm, and anybody not on watch aboard was entitled to go on shore till seven the next morning. Such freedom I have never met in any armed force in the world. As a result many married men, returning from a foreign commission to be accommodated in the barracks, closed up their houses in their home towns, hired rooms near the barracks and lived with their wives the whole time they were at Devonport. A man was free to go ashore three days in four, had two short weekends every month plus one long, from Friday evening to Monday morning, and was altogether in a position somewhat equal to a man working in a factory. Of course it generally lasted no more than a few months, rarely as long as a year.

It had its negative side too. Keeping two homes meant extra expense – another thing the `financial experts` have never taken into account when working out their rather distorted conception of a sailor’s pay. no doubt it was these same experts who told the two-and-a-half million unemployed of that time that two buckets of water had the same calorie content as a loaf of bread, and advised them to drink more water. Some may say that the sailor accepted this obligation to keep two homes of his own free will. But it is only human for a man absent from his wife for two or three years to want to spend all his available time with her. Further, did not the Navy, who had signed a contract with this man – sometimes for twenty-five years and including these long periods of absence- have some responsibility to see that he could be with his wife as much as possible? They never lifted a finger to assist, although a fighting man becomes a better fighter if he knows that those at home are comfortably provided for.

At the age of twenty-one I was not particularly worried by these problems. I was what is known as fancy-free and wanted to make the best of my young life, as far as women and song were concerned. Wine I gave a miss, as I have done all my life, never having been convinced of the joy it provides. Too often I saw young comrades of mine who had been on the booze the previous night, holding their aching heads and groaning in all sincerity. `Oh, I had a wonderful time last night. Oh my poor head. I don’t know how I will do my work today. But I had a wonderful time last night. Spent all my money. Oh, what a wonderful time I had and oh, my poor head`. No money left and a thick head into the bargain was not my idea of a good time. But I liked to get around, go to a dance, do a little toetripping with a fair young thing. And somehow I never got a sore head.

Even then, my type of sailor predominated in the Navy. Increasingly young people were joining from the school bench rather than from work like me, and conscious of their superior ability and recognising that the Navy would be their career, they pitched the tone of their ambitions somewhat higher than I or other men who from the beginning, were quite content with the prospect of CPO [Chief Petty Officer] rank. But these ambitious young men were doomed to disappointment. For what reason? The simple answer is class prejudice.

Although the naval authorities talked about their men with great pride to other people, civilian officials and such like - `my sailors` was the term used – they deliberately hindered the men from developing their talents in the interests of the service. In 1918, Rear-Admiral Lay, Director of Naval Training, proposed that gifted young men from the lower deck should be aided to enter the officer corps. Read-Admiral Lay was not trying to earn a reputation as a kind uncle to the lower deck. The 1914-18 war had completely and brutally smashed our conceptions of social relations. It had shown that the despised plebeian could perform acts of bravery, take initiatives, demonstrate leadership. Rear-Admiral Lay recognised this and also recognised that the Navy needed an injection of non-blue blood, that birth was less in demand than brains.

His chief opponent, the then Second Sea Lord Vice-Admiral Heath, raised the almost unbelievably snobbish objection: `To be a good officer it is necessary to be a gentleman`. Perfectly true, though not in the way he meant it. Many officers were known as `gents`, the lower deck’s highest praise, but these were not the people who were gentlemen among gentlemen and boors to their subordinates. It was not behaviour that Vice-Admiral Heath had in mind, however, but the fear that someone might appear in the wardroom whose mother took in washing. So although by his tenacity Rear-Admiral Lay succeeded in getting some reforms passed in the promotion system, the `Heaths` introduced a whole series of unofficial obstacles to block the ascent from the lower deck.

In only a few years of service I had already witnessed the callous destruction of young men for every reason except lack of talent. When I was just a boy serving in the submarines I met a two-badge AB nearly at the end of his first twelve years and somewhere in the region of thirty years old. With the large number of unemployed in civilian life he knew he was obliged to sign on for a pension. This man had passed the higher education test in accordance with the regulations, the most annoying of which was the stipulation that the test must be taken before reaching the age of twenty-four: just one of the many little obstacles deliberately placed in the path of the lower deck man who wanted to move out of his class. In addition he had passed the general knowledge test, and on the face of it there was nothing to stop him receiving his mate’s rating, the lower deck’s first step to becoming an officer. But almost six years had passed since his examinations and he had now less chance of becoming an officer than I had of becoming the Queen of Sheba.

Besides the compulsory examinations there were a number of other tests which were never made public, various commissions which investigated a candidate’s ability to meet the high standards of society behaviour considered essential by the seagoing elite. There was, for instance, the `Etiquette Commission` which visited this AB’s home and found his mother in a sack-bag apron; whereupon away went his chances/ another acquaintance, successful in the examinations, had been foolish enough to visit a tattoo shop on his first trip ashore in a foreign port. The result was not a lurid picture of a huge ship disappearing under a green-blue sea across his chest, but a small compass in the joint between thumb and index finger: in all about the size of a sixpence. But it was enough to spoil his chances. The annoying aspect of this was that the wardroom had plenty of officers whose bodies looked like the National Gallery after a suffragette raid. Similarly an entry in red ink on a man’s medical history sheet, indicating that he had caught VD, put an end to his prospects, though quite a number of officers spent periods in hospital for this affliction. It was never described as VD, however, and was therefore called by the men `wardroom lumbago`.

Some candidates passed the social tests as well as the technical examinations, but were these rare successes accepted in the true sense of the word? In many ways they were never accepted. Such a candidate knew very well that he would never make the top naval academy, and up to 1930 only one lower deck man in the twentieth century reached flag rank. Even that one exception received his rank only on retiring, having previously occupied the post of captain of a training ship, never a ship of the line.

Usually an officer from the lower deck received lieutenant’s rank and after eight years was retired with the rank of lieutenant-commander. There is little doubt that they were unhappy: the one lower decker among the officers was a lonely man, a man on a strange desert island who had left our society and had not arrived at the society he desired. At eleven o’clock such a man would often be seen coming on deck to relieve the officer of the day. Now the Navy works its watches strictly to the famous eight bells, and eleven o’clock is six bells, not a time when watches are normally relieved. But eleven o’clock was the time the bar opened in the wardroom, and not having the money to drink duty free whisky, not to speak of treating his pals, the officer from the lower deck would (for a small renumeration, some sailors hinted) stand the watch for an officer more able to buy a round of drinks. How far this was true, I do not know, but one ex-lower deck man I served with was seen late in the evening making his way to the officers’ bathroom with a bundle of dirty linen under his arm. He was married and his pay did not stretch to the luxury of paying for his laundry. When guests from ashore were invited to an officers’ evening party, he never took part but relieved the OOD [Officer On Duty].

Such goings-on in the confined space of a ship could not be concealed from the men. Not that they sympathised. But the snub given to the lower deck officer was much the same as the snub administered to us, except that where he, on the surface at least, was treated as a shipmate, for us such camouflage was considered unnecessary. Some people thought that the rare selection of a lower deck man to become a commissioned officer was part of the general recruiting campaign. Others, and maybe they were nearer the mark, suggested that the authorities were trying to fill the gap between the officers and the lower deck with a favoured recruit who could be a source of badly needed knowledge of the men. If so, their stratagem was a complete failure, for, because of the wardroom’s attitude towards him, he was neither theirs nor ours.

It is useless to pretend that I had all this cut and dried at the age of twenty-two. Then I spent most of my duty time working for a gunnery qualification and, as soon as studies finished, I ran out with the first liberty boat to a little room I had hired where I put on a civilian suit, bought from the strict regime of economy I had kept during my time in China. I well knew that a sailor in uniform was just as likely to get a snub in Plymouth as in Hong Kong – only not such a blatant one and not from such cheap snobs.

Nevertheless, politics, in a very mild form, was forcing itself into my life, and considering that there was little effort to give the lower deck even an elementary idea of what was going on in the country, that was a big step forward. From the beginning in the Training Ship we had lived in political isolation. Admittedly there was a notice-board on which cuttings from newspapers were occasionally put up, but rarely a complete one. This strange kind of censorship was very effective: although my period in the Training Ship included January 1924, I, and I suppose many like me, left the ship unaware not only that Lenin had died but that he had ever existed. Even the Daily Herald was not allowed on the ships till 1926, and then not because of a progressive move on the part of the Admiralty, but because of a change in the Herald’s policy and, more likely, ownership.

It is ridiculous to talk of outside influences developing a certain political trend in me, as some writers on Invergordon have alleged1. In fact the Navy, especially the lower deck, resented any influences of that sort from whatever source. After the raid on the pirates’ lair in Bias Bay, I was told that a certain Chinese newspaper had printed a lurid account of the bloody slaughter we had wrought, claiming a number of dead and mutilated bodies far in excess of the total population of the village. As a participant in the raid I scoffed at this blatant lying, but men who had not been there roared with laughter and that was the end of it.

If I was influenced by anybody, it was by more experienced sailors who were nearing retirement age. In my last period on the Ambrose I worked with a man who was a rare exception in the Navy. He had passed the age of forty, when he should have left on pension, but was making up `bad time` - that is, the time spent in the cells in his youth for breaking all the Navy’s rules and regulations short of `Aid to the enemy`. When I knew him he had ceased his rule-breaking and was leading a quiet life. He was very intelligent, respected not only by other seamen but also by the petty officers and chief petty officers, although he had never aimed higher than an AB rating himself. He possessed a wise and sensible notion of politics, and though, like everyone else in the Navy, he did not belong to a political party, he was capable of putting a case in a very erudite manner. While we worked together he explained many things about relationships between the lower deck and the wardroom. He described the peacetime Navy as a regimented yacht club. The owners of the yachts were the officers and the menial strength to the men. The regimentation came from the faraway Admiralty which, notwithstanding the preferences of the yacht owners, dictated the movements of the ship. But wherever the Admiralty sent a ship, the officers arrived like passengers, ordered a boat ashore whenever they wanted one and, at any time of the night, ordered one back on board.

Despite the tradition forbidding women on board after sunset, many boats returning with officers in the wee small hours carried women too. The Ambrose was, as I have said, a very roomy ship, and besides the officers serving the ship itself there was on the strength a large contingent of submarine officers. These last were prone to leading the high life – not only because they received considerably more pay than general service officers, but also because volunteers for the submarines were mainly dare-devil young men who wanted to have their fling. If the students of those days could have `rags`, and knock off policemen’s helmets to play football with, then why couldn’t these young people have fun too? There were no policemen to control them and they were indifferent to what the lower deck might think of them, not accepting that the men they commanded had an opinion worth hearing in such affairs. One night we had the remarkable spectacle of two officers, each wearing nothing more than a tie, swimming to the ship, whilst on the forecastle of the accompanying motorboat two women and some other officers screamed with hysterical laughter and shouted lurid observations to be heard all over Hong Kong harbour. Their innocent evening frolics ended up with one of the women quite drunk, riding totally naked up and down the officers’ passage way on a bicycle, met at either end by officers with fire hoses.

Of course all the mess had to be cleaned up by the seamen. Maybe similar high jinks are sometimes practised in the houses of the affluent, and there it is the servants who have to clean up the mess. But that is what they are paid for and, moreover, the servants will not be asked to go into battle or to uphold the integrity of a famous force by exemplary behaviour ashore. If by chance a sailor should disgrace his uniform on shore, one of these officers would consider it his `painful duty` to punish the man severely.

I hope no one will misconstrue my intentions in describing the foregoing incident, or suppose that I wish to convey the impression that such incidents led to Invergordon. What they did was add to the brew in that cauldron which was belching out the obnoxious fumes of class prejudice; and which, in its turn, was widening the gap between the lower deck and the wardroom.

The mystery of the rift has never been fully explained and it is not as simple as some people would have us believe, with their neat formula: `We are we, and they are they, and never the twain shall meet`. At that time there were just over a hundred thousand men in the Navy, nearly ten thousand of whom were officers. Most of the officers were from the middle, or lower middle, classes. The aristocratic officers (including, by the way, members of the Royal Family) were a very insignificant minority, although I might add, it was from these people that we saw and felt the least class prejudice. Some of the majority had barely escaped putting on the blue collar. perhaps their parents had got them into Dartmouth with the aid of a distant relative who had a little pull in naval circles. However that may be, these people entered Dartmouth when they were mere boys of twelve, and nobody will accept that boys of twelve are already infused with flagrant class prejudice.

The answer must be that, while at school, they were subjected to a very subtle sort of indoctrination. It must have been that they were brainwashed into believing the stupid saying that `the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton`. One marvels at the picture conjured up: scions of the gentry pull of their famous ties and tear into Napoleon’s Old Guard, knocking them down like ninepins, while a crowd of lads from the Old Kent Road, Moss Side and the Gorballs stand to one side leaning on their muskets, watching the slaughter and chewing their cud. Strange that so many of the scum got killed or wounded. They must have got too near the fragments of Eton ties that were flying around. Of course in those days not much was known about the school. Now that its inner secrets have been revealed, we should perhaps rewrite the saying: `The battle for Homolib was won in the dormitories of Eton`.

As evidence that naval officers were indoctrinated with class prejudice before they ever reached the sea. I cite their almost universal attitude towards men from the lower deck. If a sailor tried to explain the cause of a minor misdemeanour, the officer’s foregone conclusion was always that the man was lying. Equally, it was accepted without evidence or question that the men were dull-witted. Where could the officers have learned this approach unless it was engendered in the college? However, it is greatly to the credit of the officer corps of the RN that a considerable number of them discarded this attitude, developing instead an approach based on a simple, humane principle: firm but polite.

Indoctrination is an extraordinary thing which many people underrate. They fail to understand that the people least able to appreciate its power are those subjected to it. Presented as something giving them superiority over those they have to control or command, they go with it all the way. I have witnessed in the Far East the insidious change indoctrination makes in people whilst they themselves are completely ignorant of what is going on in their minds. A batch of new entrants to the army were to take over the duty of guarding convicts. Arriving in their civilian clothes from their towns and villages, they passed, on the way from the station to their quarters, a body of convicts working under guard. Touched by the sight of these men the new arrivals searched their bags and bundles for something to eat and threw it to the convicts. Two weeks later, after a `training` period, their attitude had changed beyond recognition: every time they were obliged to communicate with the convicts, they used the most insulting language and where possible inflicted discomforts which might be described as sadistic. When taxed they could only parrot `Duty, duty`.

The course for seaman gunner’s rating, the first step on the gunnery ladder, lasts three months and provides an elementary knowledge of the major features of naval gunnery. Upon completion an examination is held. Unluckily for us, our course took place just after the enforcement of the economy measure preventing those who passed from immediately taking the next course. I came top of the class with the allowed eighty-three percent, but as that was two marks below the percentage admitting a man to further study, I had to spend much valuable time hanging around the Gunnery School washing windows and polishing brass-work.

It was at this time that notices were posted up announcing a forthcoming meeting of the Welfare Committee. Owing to the fact that sailors were only temporarily resident anywhere, the Welfare Committee did not exist in the generally understood sense. Each time the bi-annual farce was announced its members were elected anew. What the Admiralty expected from it is hard to say. Cynics suggested that it served the purpose of convincing the public that sailors had at least a small part to play in their own welfare. Shortly before I read the announcement of the forthcoming meeting, the Board of Admiralty’s answers to requests submitted by the previous committee had been posted on the noticeboard. A small crowd of sailors had gathered round and were almost bursting with bitter laughter at the ridiculous requests submitted, which had no bearing on the real grievances of the lower deck. None of the requests would have entailed trouble or expense, yet the Admiralty had refused more than half of them. The scoffing attitude of the men clearly demonstrated that the Welfare Committee was a joke – but a heartless joke, played by sleeves ringed with gold braid which should have been ashamed to associate themselves with such a farce.

I was urged to go to the meeting at which the committee would be chosen, but remembering the requests that had been turned down, I was a little wary at first. Then I came to the conclusion that the reason for the Welfare Committee’s helplessness could only be discovered by being on it, and I agreed to go. It was a poorly attended meeting and I was voted on to the committee. There was no need ever to return to another meeting, for here in this cinema hall everything became clear to me.

The presiding officer was a Lieutenant-Commander Malleson, one of the few World War I VCs still alive. There could not have been a more unsuitable choice, for Lieutenant-Commander Malleson was no hero to us. He seemed to get enjoyment from subjecting the men from his division to continuous childish pinpricks. After Mr Malleson had walked round the barracks, there were chalked crosses everywhere – on ditty boxes he thought dirty, on kit-bags not exactly straight in their racks, and in a myriad of other places. A cross on a man’s gear came to be known as `a kiss from Mr Malleson`. The biggest laugh came when Malleson drove up to the barracks in a ramshackle two-seater with a dickey so dirty that its colour was unrecognisable. Promptly the men went to town, and in a very short time that car was covered with kisses drawn in the dirt.

There was little for Malleson to do. What he did do, or rather read, was enough to show the Welfare Committee in its true light. The first words were a warning from the Admiralty about the limits on the committee’s work. `Presiding officers,` it began, `are to warn the committee that the following subjects are not to be discussed: 1 Individual ships and establishments. 2 Individual claims. 3 Personnel…` Then, after a couple of similar forbidden points, came the all-embracing embargo which enabled presiding officers to veto any point raised. It came under the single word `Policy`. From the beginning, therefore, the Welfare Committee was tied hand and foot and for that matter, blind-folded and gagged. Anything and everything came under the heading of policy. The warning ended with a reminder that all requests must be delivered to the Admiralty by post, no personal deputations would be received.

Now I knew why the sailors scoffed. Here was a serious body like the Admiralty spending its time discussing, and what’s more refusing, simply asinine requests – such as permission for the men to have cuffs on their number two suits as well as on their number one suits; or to wear sewn-round caps, because the sewn-round cap looks smarter than the non-sewn-round cap. It sounds incredible that the ruling power of His Britannic Majesty’s Royal Navy, a body of men with distinguished careers, specialists in one or other of the intricate mechanisms of fighting ships, some of whom had contributed scientific discoveries to be copied by all the world, should deal with the `welfare` of the lower deck as only a person with the brains of a rocking-horse could do. For years the men had been endeavouring, through the Welfare Committee, to establish a contributory fund through which they could get railway tickets gratis when they went on leave. Although it was a system which would pay for itself, it had been refused again and again on the flimsy pretext that it would require extra clerical staff.

What driving power was it that urged these people of the highest position in the Navy to present the lower deck with a committee to expose and rectify their grievances, then disarm it with excuses of the most feeble kind? The answer is that these highly educated gentlemen were, politically, living in the early nineteenth century, when the ruling classes all over the country were dominated by the idea that any privilege granted to the lower orders would infallibly lead to calamity – for themselves, that is. To say `no` to the most harmless of the Welfare Committee’s requests was the surest way of keeping the lower deck where it belonged; to say `yes` was a sign of weakness that could only encourage further demands. It was precisely the justification for the cruelty which a circus-trainer uses to train wild animals.

Evidently every list of requests from the Welfare Committee carried within itself the seeds of bloody revolution, every request brought these gentlemen nearer to a `Bounty` or a `Spithead` or a `Nore`.

It would be wrong to contend that the Welfare Committee’s powerlessness led to Invergordon, but it certainly deepened the men’s mistrust of the Admiralty, and that mistrust was to be the reason why the men would not listen to pledges from senior officers of the Fleet that the pay-cuts would be reviewed.

After the Devonport Division Welfare Committee had finished its discussions a delegation was chosen to go to the final meeting at Portsmouth, where all the port divisions would be gathered. My name was suggested but the Detailed For Draft office had other plans for me. In their estimation I had been in the depot too long and a spell at sea was badly needed. So I was removed from the list and a little later was drafted to join the new cruiser Norfolk, then completing construction in Fairfield’s yard in Glasgow.

Thus it was that an overzealous clerk put me aboard the Norfolk. A little more laxity on his part and I might have gone as a delegate to Portsmouth, and this story would never have been told.

  • 1. For example, The Mutiny at InverGordon, Kenneth Edwards, London, 1937.