Parsimony, which seemed to have grasped the Navy of the thirties in a grip that threatened to squeeze the life’s blood out of the service, found one feature which it could not pare down, try as it might. That was tradition. Even the traditions that entailed a certain amount of expenditure survived, so tenaciously did they stick. How naval traditions came into existence is questionable. In most cases they did not originate with the incident they are supposed to commemorate, but have been adapted to it. It is known, for instance, that the black silk a sailor wears in mourning for Nelson was worn by the men who did the heavy work of firing the guns long before Nelson’s demise. When closed up to the guns, they tied a black rag round their foreheads to prevent the sweat getting into their eyes. But the silk’s mourning character has come to be accepted and, like many other traditions, is accredited to Nelson. When a young, inexperienced sailor asks `Why do we do this?` the standard answer is: `Young man, Nelson did it, and so will you.`
So, just as paying off a ship demanded a hundred-foot-long pennant, the commissioning of a new ship also had its traditions. There was a difference, however, for the paying off traditions were a show for everyone to see. What could be more stirring than the sight of a sleek cruiser steaming along with the paying off pennant streaming from the mast, the wide end decorated with the red St George’s cross and three or four gold-painted balloons tied to the tip?
The commissioning tradition was far less spectacular and usually no over-welcomed by the men. It was an event which set the tone for the future life of the ship’s company. `To be or not to be` was the question, and in this case a much more worrying one than the young chap from Denmark ever faced. The point at issue was whether this would, or would not, be a `happy ship` - the alternative to which was a `hell ship`. True, that term was generally reserved for the merchant service and naval ratings rare used it; but that did not stop them from thinking it.
When it is first taken over from the builders, a ship is a disgrace to naval discipline and order. Unlike most mechanical objects, which are freshly painted, every piece of metal a blaze of shining light, a new warship has to be scraped and polished, chipped and painted, scrubbed and washed until, as they say `One could eat one’s dinner off the floor of the toilet`. And all this work is done by the new ship’s company.
Now, to achieve the high degree of cleanliness desired, an unofficial tradition was practised by some captains which meant, in brief, roping in a large number of men for extra work in their free time. The captain simply passed the word to his commander who, being the executive officer and therefore responsible for carrying out the captain’s wishes, gave instructions that conditions be created to rope the needed numbers in. Everything was done verbally and nowhere was there written proof, but every man on the ship was aware of what was happening. The regulating staff under the command of the master-at-arms moved into action. Not one little infringement was passed up, and if no infringements existed they were invented. Consequently, every day, at commander’s defaulters, there was a large crowd of men, mostly seamen of course, waiting to be punished. Usually it meant seven days of what was known officially as 10a, but in the jargon of the lower deck as `seven days` extra dancing class`. Every evening they were scattered round different parts of the ship, some with emery paper, scrubbing away at a dockyard-painted steel deck to make it look like a mirror; some with wash-cloths and buckets of `suji-muji`, a liquid concoction of five parts water and five parts any kind of powerful cleanser guaranteed to remove unwanted marks more effectively than flames; and of course a large body with the inevitable `holy stone`, called by the men `the sailor’s bible`.
According to naval regulations this 10a punishment was supposed to be drill with rifle and bayonet from 5 pm till 7 pm. But no captain let loose his `crushers`, that is regulating petty officers, on an unbridled rampage, for the pleasure of watching men toss rifles around, whilst his ship needed to be brought up to naval scratch.
Doubtless the possibility of a swoop of `crushers` was uppermost in the men’s minds as we went on board to take over the Norfolk; for this would be a first intimation of how the orchestra of shipboard life was to be tuned for the remainder of the commission. However, although the master-at-arms on the Norfolk was a sullen, scowling type, notorious throughout the Devonport Division for his favourite saying, `My name is Cause and I’ll give you cause to remember me’, there was no sign of a mantrap at work when we arrived with our bags and hammocks. Night fell without anybody being taken before the officer of the day. It was a good omen, and we all had the feeling that Norfolk would be rated a happy ship. We were further convinced of this when the captain called us to the quarter-deck to make his acquaintance.
In his address Captain Prickett particularly emphasised the importance of a ship working even more smoothly than a watch. Britain with its empire was like a dog with a juicy bone, he said; there were other dogs only too anxious to take it away, and therefore we must always be at the highest peak of efficiency. He played it skilfully, for when we put out to sea to join the Fleet, now gathered at Scapa Flow, he had another talk to us and asked us if, despite the short period of preparation, we would agree to enter the annual regatta, less than a week away. We had little time for training; none of us knew each other’s capabilities, and there would be no opportunity to find out who were the best oarsmen. But nevertheless we responded with enthusiasm, and the captain was pleased. Although we should have practically no success with untrained crews, our entry in the regatta under those conditions would earn him a very complimentary signal. Captain Prickett had set a good tone from the beginning, and it is a well-known fact that what the captain does the other officers always try to follow.
There were other ships in the Fleet whose reputation as happy ships was known throughout the Navy. The battleship Ramilies was nicknamed `Ragtime Ramy`. It was said that when a new member of the ship’s company stepped aboard the Ragtime Ramy, he was met with the questions: `Have you any talent? Can you play football? Can you box? Do you play a musical instrument?` And there was an expression of dismay on the face of the questioner if the new hand confessed to not being gifted in any way.
Arriving at Scapa Flow we told the world – that is our world, the Fleet and the admiral of the Second Cruiser Squadron to which Norfolk belonged – that we were in the regatta. As expected we did not win a race, but when it was all over we certainly got the complimentary signal that the captain was hoping would come from the flagship. It congratulated us on our splendid attempt and cheered us by suggesting that the next year we should do better. This prophecy turned out truer than the admiral suspected, for the next year we walked away with the regatta and won the overall `Silver Chanticleer` which meant that our ship was cock o’ the walk. But more about that later.
Norfolk was not a beautiful ship to look at, with the sleek speedy lines of the lighter cruisers or the symmetrical silhouette of the Hood. With its high free-board, stretching from forward to aft, and three irregular funnels, it could have been taken, were it not for the turrets, for a large passenger-freight ship. But the old saying `appearances deceive` was appropriate to the Norfolk class of heavy cruiser. I became aware of that on our first long trip, when we went to the West Indies in the spring of 1931. We had on the trip a kind of super-cargo an engineer commander who was measuring the roll and pitch of the ship. There happened to be tumultuous enough sea about for him to take good measurements, and we liked to watch him. Being an engineer, and therefore not dependent on prestige on any particular show of aloofness from the mob, he was quite willing to speak to us and answer our questions. One thing he said I shall never forget. `This class of ship,` he explained, `is more powerful than a pre-1914 battleship.` I did not remain on her long enough to witness the proof of his words myself, but those German units who tried to tackle one of these cruisers found it out the hard way, and that is the best evidence of the fighting ability of any warship.
So despite the parsimony afflicting the Navy between the wars, technical developments made rapid strides. After all, to get more power in 10,000 tons than previously was contained in 25,000 tons in the course of a short fifteen years was a tremendous achievement. But for some reason the men who had to operate these mechanical wonders went through a training more suited to the old hand-worked ship. When I was qualifying for seaman gunner, most of our training was based on a gun whose definition we had to learn by heart: `a six-inch breech-loading gun`. When breech-loading guns were first introduced into the Navy it had been necessary to distinguish between them and the old muzzle-loading guns. Long before I was born, however, muzzle-loaders had disappeared from the Navy, but still it was thought vital to drum this ancient formula into our heads. On the other hand, no extra time was allowed us to master the new, intricate instruments of fire control, then coming into use. Our instructor calmly informed us that we would have to study them in time stolen from other subjects. The inspiration behind so ridiculous a measure of economy is hard to fathom.
During the course we received our normal wages and after successfully completing it and acquiring non-substantial rating, we got a small increase. Yet in spite of the extra threepence a day, we left the course to wash paint and polish brass-work. Scrub and polish, scrape and paint – clearly such activities would improve our gunnery efficiency and help us master the complexities of fire control. Indeed, this was the very shortcoming which but a few years later allowed the Tirpitz to be the grave-digger of the mighty Hood.
Some admirals were so obsessed with the scrub-and-polish fetish that they ceased to be normal human beings. One such gave a burlesque performance at the half-yearly `admiral’s inspection` aboard one vessel. Striding along the deck, the suite and ship’s officers trailing behind dressed in their Sunday best, swords and cocked hats and all that, he spotted a sliver of match-stick in the scuppers of an otherwise spotless deck. He drew up stiff like a bull sighting the toreador. There was a pause as he regained his breath, then he shot his arms into the air as if imploring all the devils in hell. `Dig me out! He shrieked. `Dig me out! I am up to my neck in shit! Dig me out!`
This screaming clown asked none of the men he was inspecting where their action stations were, or their fire stations, or their collision stations. In his conception the matchstick was more important to the safety of the ship than a knowledge of emergency action. It was about this time that the Y turret, the Royal Marines’ turret on a Norfolk-type cruiser, sustained a terrible accident which almost completely wiped out the turret’s crew. During firing practice, one of the guns misfired, and the number 2 opened the breech. The moment the rush of air entered the breech, the cordite exploded. It was a human error, maybe due to insufficient training, but certainly not due to somebody’s failure to find a matchstick in the scuppers. After the catastrophe a gadget was invented to prevent the breech being opened before the gun had fired. I am sure it was not that admiral who invented it. He was probably devoting his time to distributing magnifying glasses in the search for dust. The emptiness of the old phrase `cleanliness next to godliness` was proved at Savo when Admiral Mikawa’s highly trained seamen sent, along with a number of American ships, the Canberra, another Norfolk-class cruiser, and all her crew to their maker, polished but untrained.
After Scapa Flow we were ready to fulfil our traditional duty. Our ship was named Norfolk, so we had to establish good relations with the people of the county whose name we bore. On commissioning, a social club committee had been formed on the ship, of which I was elected secretary with a certain AB George Hill as my aide. First we wrote to Norwich City Football Club and informed them that all our sports teams would wear the club’s canary-coloured shirts. Then we set out to visit two of the county’s towns, Cromer and Yarmouth in that order. Our arrival at Cromer was something of a sensation as a cruiser like ours had b=never been seen there before. The good folk of Cromer were very hospitable and many places in the town were thrown open to us. We set off for Yarmouth with high hopes. They were not disappointed. Within a few hours of our arrival the town hoardings, the local tramcars, and other places where it was possible to stick something up were plastered with huge bills: `HMS Norfolk – A Grand Carnival Dance`.
It was a smashing success in the great glass hall on the pier. All the town was saying that this had been one of the most attractive events for years. Even the local Conservative chairman, who had at first announced that the Conservative Club would be closed to the drunken sailors he feared would overrun the town, came on board to apologise to the captain and invite the sailors to the club. Furthermore, the warrant officer sent to maintain order at the dance reported to the captain next morning that he could not have chosen a better event to make his name. Yarmouth was convinced that the blue collar covered not only strong shoulders but gentlemanly ones as well. On the popularity market the Norfolk’s shares rocketed to the skies, and the captain was number one shareholder.
In the spring of 1931 we made our cruise to the West Indies, taking two weeks to get there. No doubt this trip included a lot of exercises, but we knew as much about them as the policeman on duty outside the Houses of Parliament knows about Cabinet business. There and back, we went on scrubbing and polishing and adding not one iota to our efficiency.
Easter leave passed and once again we were at Scapa Flow, lining up for the annual regatta. This time the Norfolk’s oarsmen were prepared, but so were the oarsmen of all the other ships of the squadron, and especially those of our greatest rival, the York. In the months since commissioning we had acquired most of the sports trophies we had competed for, and a glass case about six feet high had appeared just outside the wardroom. We had only let the York take one silver cup, for football.
One of the few worthwhile regattas of Britain, the Atlantic Fleet’s annual regatta was always rowed in an outlandish spot such as Scapa Flow, and no information about it ever appeared in any newspaper, anywhere. There was none of the ballyhoo about the training or the actual races that there was for the overpraised university boat race, which, to us, seemed ninety percent publicity and ten percent real rowing. It was a two-day event with a trophy for each race and, unique in the Navy, a money prize for the overall winners. One of the ships ran a tote to which bets were brought by representatives from all the other ships.
The biggest event was the seaman’s cutters’ race, a three-mile slog in a ton-and-a-half boat, with fixed thwarts and an oar fifteen foot long, so thick at the grip that the hand does not completely surround it. There were no featherweight cockles here that, after a training session, two chaps pick up and take home with them for fear the wind might blow it away, nor any oars hardly larger than a jam-maker’s wooden spoon. No fleet of motorboats, steam launches or what have you followed down the course. One single boat followed the six cutters through waters too rough for the students’ boats. And when the winning cutter sped across the finishing line, nobody flopped over his oar, but in true naval fashion the crew, like one man, tossed their oars and kept them perfectly straight in the air as all the ships cheered.
For some unknown reason every measure was taken to prevent the public from seeing this extraordinary display of oarsmanship. Maybe the old boy network did not favour the idea of powerful plebeians stealing the show. Now if two public races were held – one in which a naval and a student crew competed I university cockleshells, and another in which they competed in naval twelve-oared cutters – that would set the Thames on fire.
So the Norfolk won that regatta, the very same Norfolk that chroniclers of Invergordon were to describe as a hotbed of red agitators. And in the winning seamen’s cutter were two of the outstanding figures at Invergordon. Leading Seaman Richard Carr, the best stroke ever to take a fifteen-foot ash oar in his grip, and the modest second bow, myself. Strange as it may seem, we were always to the fore in any kind of social activity or entertainment – and all for the good of the lower deck and, of course, of the Navy.
Having filled our six-foot-high trophy case with every kind of trophy, and by doing so raised the prestige of Captain Prickett above that of all other cruiser captains, we sailed for Kiel, one of the first ships to visit the famous German naval base since World War I. Conspiracy-minded scribes have discovered in this visit the iniquitous influence that began to change our allegiance from the flag of prestige to the flag of red. True, we did meet up with red, a whole bucketful of it that somebody had poured over the still-standing statue of the Kaiser. But we ourselves were not splashed with it to the extent of one pinhead. The Germans received us wonderfully well. They spent hours with our men who had fought in the war, and the yarns they swapped kept everybody too busy to think of anything else.
Except me. I found time to pen and send an angry letter to the old Daily Herald. Their man, who was supposed to be covering this visit, announced that our ships would be met by a gun salute from the new, German, pocket battleship Deutschland. I could not let that pass. After a sly dig at his powers of observation I informed the paper that the Deutschland was just a hulk on the stocks, sans engines, sans guns, sans everything. My letter was not only not published, it was not even acknowledged.
At that time I was given to writing letters to newspapers, being naïve enough to believe they might have a little influence. One that did get printed was written when I nearly went berserk over an article printed in one of the big London dailies. The author was a well-known woman writer who, not long before, had married a naval officer. Her article was an insulting and degrading blurb of patronising snobbery under the title Jack’s Christmas Dinner. The paper published my letter with the heading `A Broadside From the Navy`. My own heading had been slightly different. `Miss So-and-so’s Bloomers`, but the editor was evidently more delicate than I was. The many other letters from the lower deck which, besides mine, were prompted by this jibing article gave the writer to understand that when the pen is thrown down challengingly at the feet of the Navy, we answer, `Madam, keep off the lower deck. When we want female company we go ashore for it`.
Then came the time for summer leave. After it the Fleet would sail from home ports to rendezvous at Invergordon and I would put in a request to go to the Gunnery School to qualify for Gunlayer Two, the next step up the gunnery man’s ladder. Or so I thought.