Sober Men and True: Sailor Lives in the Royal Navy 1900-45 
by Christopher McKee.
Harvard, 285 pp., £19.95, May 2002, 0 674 00736 0
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Rule Britannia: The Victorian and Edwardian Navy 
by Peter Padfield.
Pimlico, 246 pp., £12.50, August 2002, 0 7126 6834 9
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Shortly before she died a few years ago, my Aunt Lizzie was recalling her courting days in the late 1920s and early 1930s and remembering the dance-halls in the locality; places which survived into the 1960s and were familiar to me, too. The St Margaret’s Hall and the Kinema Ballroom, Dunfermline; the Palais, Cowdenbeath; and the ‘Snake Pit’, Rosyth. That wasn’t the last’s real name, which neither my aunt nor I could remember. It was really no more than a big room above the Co-op store, near the roundabout on Admiralty Road. On the way home from the pictures – the Rosyth Palace, maybe having seen there a naval epic such as The Cruel Sea or Above Us the Waves – I sometimes stood at the bus stop opposite and listened to the drums, trumpet and saxophone, and through the windows saw the shadows of people dancing in a subdued orange light.

I never went inside. My Aunt Lizzie hadn’t been inside either. Sailors went there. On-screen heroism was one thing, but: ‘Oh, you couldnie gan wi’ a sailor,’ my aunt said. ‘Folk thought that was terrible. They’d say: “Is that no’ awfie! She’s in the street wi’ a sailor.”’ She was laughing when she said this; partly because it was all so long ago, and partly at the snobbery of it. She herself was a miner’s daughter and worked in a linen mill. Eventually she married a stonemason. As partners, miners, factory workers, locomotive firemen and, of course, stonemasons were all fine – tip-top. But sailors! ‘I think he’s giving you the eye Lizzie.’ ‘Let’s be going for the last tram.’

For most of the last century, the sailors of the Royal Navy were very plentiful in this part of Scotland. They poured from the gates of Rosyth’s Naval base whenever a cruiser or an aircraft-carrier came in, to supplement the sailors who were more or less permanently there on frigates, destroyers, tugs, boom defence boats, and on a whole flotilla of minesweepers (though they were kept in a separate harbour, Port Edgar, across the Forth). Ten thousand or so civilians worked at the dockyard to repair and supply the fleet, and went to and from their work in fleets of buses and special trains. Many had come north from the Royal Navy’s heartland in Southern England: Chatham, Portsmouth, Devonport. A whole town had been built to accommodate them: Rosyth Garden City. Many if not most of my relations worked at the dockyard – Rosyth was a handy provider of employment after the mills and mines of West Fife had begun to close in the 1930s – and as a boy I was infected with Naval enthusiasm. At home I underscored ships’ names in the ABC of British Warships with purloined dockyard pencils stamped with the words War Department and the Crown. These were the ships I had seen from our front window – the destroyers Daring and Diamond, the aircraft-carrier Eagle, the cruiser Gambia, the triple-funnelled minelayer Apollo – as they travelled upriver on their way to their dockyard moorings, their presence there proved a day or two later on local streets and on local buses by the ribbons on sailors’ caps, the ship’s name embellished in gold. In the summer we would crawl through the whin bushes on the hills behind the house to see how close we could get to a sailor lying on the grass with a girl – a girl who had not been so circumspect as my aunt, with a man who was ignorant of the best local courting geography. In this way, we hoped to see sex in flagrante. I don’t think we ever did but sometimes a man in dark blue – navy blue – bell-bottoms would rise from a clearing in the whins and shout at us fiercely.

This was the 1950s. The Royal Navy was no longer the largest in the world – the two great Cold War powers had overtaken it – but its history as ‘the pre-eminent sea-fighting force of the post-1500 world’, in the words of Christopher McKee, resonated still in school history books, comics and war films (Officer with mug: ‘Cocoa, sir?’ Officer with binoculars: ‘Good man, Number One!’). The most popular cigarette brands suggested that seagoing manliness and smoking were one and the same thing: Capstan with its ship’s capstan on the packet, Senior Service with its man-o’-war silhouette, Players with its bearded sailor and a ship’s name Hero in his cap ribbon. The words ‘British’ and ‘Navy’ seemed intertwined, in a way that ‘British’ and ‘Army’ or ‘Air Force’ never were. Grey ships, heaving seas, the swivelling turrets of six-inch guns; our island’s story, often with John Mills. And yet, for all its links with history, its invocation of Drake and Nelson, the grip of the Royal Navy on the popular imagination of Britain is relatively recent, dating from what Peter Padfield refers to as the country’s ‘Navalist awakening’ in the last two decades of the 19th century, when the Admiralty’s dogma that ‘the best guarantee for the peace of the world is a supreme British fleet’ became the leading edge of Imperial belief.

Until then, the Navy had been a quaint institution, devoted to Nelsonian ideas of warfare and largely divorced from the industrial world. Its fleet was a bizarre collection of fully rigged ironclads and cruising ships, commanded by men who even in the early 1890s, according to an Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Chatfield, ‘were still embedded in sails and all the thought that pertained to them . . . They hated engines and modern guns; the mine and the torpedo were anathema to them.’ Sea-going merchant ships had been driven by steam since the 1840s, but in the Royal Navy men were still drilled chiefly by clambering up masts and along spars and furling or unfurling sails, having been recruited casually for single tours of duty aboard one ship. Flogging was officially abolished as a punishment only in 1879. Sailors still worked barefoot, in baggy trousers which gave their legs greater freedom when they were climbing aloft and could be easily rolled above the knee when they were scrubbing decks. Other than that, and a jacket of blue (hence ‘bluejackets’, hence every sailor as ‘Jack’), their dress varied according to their taste and pocket: they paid for their own clothes.

The Imperial trade routes of the British merchant fleet – then, and for a long time after, the world’s largest collection of ships under a single flag – could hardly be protected by such means. The industrialisation of the Royal Navy could not be kept at bay. New technologies meant new kinds of men, skilled in the management of high-pressure steam, quick-firing guns, torpedoes, telegraphy, and drawn often from industrial cities and suburbs as well as the old recruiting grounds of ports and fishing villages. These new recruits met hostility and snobbery. Boiler-room stokers were, and remained, the lowest form of shipboard life; deck officers – ‘fighting officers’ – kept their social distance from men of theoretically equal rank who were obeying their instructions for more or less speed at the engine-room end of the bridge telegraph. But nobody was immune from change. Training ships (and later onshore training colleges) replaced the onboard, haphazard, learn-as-you-go method of acquiring seamanship, which was no longer the only important skill. Sailors, like soldiers, were marched and drilled with rifles. The fighting officers learned to specialise: in navigation, gunnery and torpedoes. In the 1870s, the fastest warship afloat could manage 15 knots (17 mph). In 1893, new classes of torpedo-boat ‘catchers’ or ‘destroyers’, with light steel hulls, could go at twice that speed. By the late 1890s the Royal Navy possessed nearly six hundred ships (roughly five times the current total). In 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the greatest array of naval power the world had ever seen was anchored at Spithead for her inspection: 21 battleships, 53 cruisers, 30 destroyers, 24 torpedo boats and other small craft, all of them drawn from home commands without, as Padfield notes, weakening the Navy’s then premier battlefleet in the Mediterranean (50 warships were based at Malta) or any of the squadrons that watched over the Caribbean, the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and the China Sea.

These ships were very pretty things, with white painted upperworks, black hulls with red waterlines, yellow funnels and masts. (A version of this livery survives in the last royal yacht, Britannia, now moored as a museum piece in Edinburgh, and also on matchboxes.) The decks of this late Victorian Navy were holystoned white. Every unpainted piece of metal was polished and smoothed, including the impractical brass funnels on admirals’ pinnaces. As a military force it was perhaps designed more to impress or suppress – gunboats for the occasional little local difficulty – than to fight a full-scale naval war, where its sheer size would put off any potential enemy (Russia and France were then the favourites, and the Royal Navy’s ships outnumbered both these countries’ Navies put together). ‘Five strategic keys lock up the world,’ Admiral (later First Sea Lord) Sir John ‘Jackie’ Fisher said. He had in mind Singapore, the Cape of Good Hope, Alexandria, Gibraltar and Dover. ‘These five keys,’ he added, ‘belong to England!’ As Padfield writes, ‘it was small wonder that British Naval officers strode the world with the assurance of demi-gods.’

Grand though this Navy was, its decorative and placid aspects didn’t long survive Victoria’s death. Jackie Fisher’s response to Germany’s ambitious warship-building programme changed the Royal Navy’s strategy, ships and men. Fisher was a pugnacious ‘materialist’, the term for the lobby inside the Navy which believed that superior technology would always win the day. Battleships of unprecedented speed, gun-power and armour slid down the slipways of the Clyde, Tyne and Solent. In 1902, every ship was painted a durable grey from waterline to mast-tip. In 1907, every sailor was issued with a ready-made uniform. Newspapers reported inter-ship competitions in gunnery and drill, and recorded amazing speeds: ‘Clear ship for action! – best cruiser 36 seconds, best battleship 45 seconds.’ An Edwardian gunnery officer wrote in his notebook of the men who fired 12-inch shells at a moving target five miles away across the rising and dipping ocean: ‘Gunlayer – the human machine – training to the point of mechanical and automatic accuracy – he must not think.’

By 1910, the focus of British Naval strategy had moved away from the protection of a far-flung Empire – warm seas and a white awning over the aft-deck – towards a European war in the chill winds and waters of the North Sea, the Channel and the North Atlantic. The location of Navy yards had been left largely unchanged since the 17th and 18th centuries, all of them in the far South of England, the handiest place to fight the French or to send fleets beyond Europe. New bases were now built to counter the German threat – Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth, Rosyth on the Firth of Forth.

It was this piece of Edwardian military planning that accounted, eventually, for the dancing at the ‘Snake Pit’. As for the sailors who went there in my aunt’s day, they were men who had made the Royal Navy a career, signing on for 12 years and then, when that time had elapsed and if they wanted a pension, signing on again for a further ten. The Navy was now – had been for many years – a highly disciplined, regularised outfit; the days when press gangs scavenged pubs to seduce volunteers with rum were long gone. According to Christopher McKee, the Navy enjoyed a better public image than the Army during the last century and could be choosy in the young men it recruited.

Were they such a danger to nice girls – or indeed to nice boys? The purpose of McKee’s Sober Men and True is, in the author’s words, to discover ‘what lies behind the stereotype of the globe-trotting adventurer’ with his ‘prodigious appetite for alcohol and sex’ and his delight ‘in anti-social behaviour which is held in check only by the fear of harsh punishment’. The result of his research isn’t conclusive; the stereotype isn’t completely denied. But it is possible to see the Royal Navy sailor of fifty or a hundred years ago taking shape in the mist of this book’s remembered experience as a prefiguration of that later stereotype, the New Man, both in the New Man’s idealised state and as he actually is. A sailor, an Old Man reading McKee’s account might think, would make a jolly fine wife on the one hand, and an average member of the binge-drinking classes (see any town centre, midnight, Saturday) on the other.

McKee is an American academic, a specialist in navies, and he is the first to warn that he has drawn his portrait of sailor lives from a very narrow sample: from the archived letters, diaries, taped interviews and unpublished memoirs of about eighty sailors (none of them officers; this is a book about Naval ratings, the men of the lower deck), which is a tiny number given that in 1919 the Navy contained nearly 107,000 ratings (the figure today is about 35,000). He scrupulously argues about how ‘typical’ any of his subjects’ experiences might be, and regrets lacunae with a poker face. ‘As for masturbation,’ he writes at one point, ‘although its prevalence on board was recognised in the Navy’s traditional wake-up call “Hands off cocks, on socks,” it was a completely taboo topic among the sailor informants’ – his own sailor informants, that is – ‘never even mentioned, let alone discussed, in diary, letter, memoir, questionnaire or interview.’ Good of him to point this out; difficult to know what interesting knowledge any direct probing would have yielded – frequency, location?

Whatever the case, this is a small and hard to mourn loss in a rich and valuable account of the way sailors lived and worked and the kind of people they were. Many were running away from hostile or feckless parents – unloving stepmothers and drunken fathers feature in several reminiscences – or from the prospect of onshore unemployment. They joined up in their mid to late teens, ‘to see the world’, and left in their early thirties and early forties as remarkably self-sufficient men who, despite this self-sufficiency, often found life on land savourless and disappointing. When moved to summarise what his years (1934-46) in the Royal Navy had done for him, Raymond Dutton (Mechanician First Class) wrote:

I was taught discipline, a trade and a pride in achievement. I enjoyed comradeship to a degree I believe unavailable in any other walk of life. I was fed, clothed and housed, and travelled to many parts of the world that I otherwise would never have been able to visit . . . I would add that it was not all sweetness and light. Many times I felt lonely, afraid, bored, homesick and seasick, but never to the extent that it seriously affected my desire to serve in what I regarded as a privileged fraternity.

And yet, and yet: life at sea was so often hellish, especially in wars. Hundreds of men would spend weeks at a time cooped up in what one them described as ‘a floating steel box’. Edward Pullen, who served in the First World War aboard a destroyer in the North Sea, remembered:

There was no life at all aboard a destroyer . . . you couldn’t stand up, you couldn’t sit down and you couldn’t walk about . . . And we always had a rope round us because . . . it was quite easy falling overboard in a destroyer . . . And the water used to come down just like a waterfall all the time. And you could never cook nothing. I used to boil a dozen eggs before we left Scapa . . . That’s the only way. You lived an awful life . . . You couldn’t make a cup of tea because the seas was continually washing over.

His captain, Pullen said, wore his oilskins day and night, and vomited all the time.

In battle, gut-wrenching fear was the dominant emotion. A signalman described the consequences of an attack on the destroyer Kelly in 1940, on condition that he remained anonymous.

That torpedo broke my nerve. Before, I always slung my hammock and undressed before getting into it, but after it I never slung it nor undressed when the ship was at sea. I slept as best I could on the lockers . . . What is more I was never happy below decks once the ship had left harbour. At every bump and bang, be it only a wave breaking against the side, I went hot all over.

Stokers worked as far below decks as it was possible to be and had no clue as to what was happening in the world above; their only duty was to keep the boilers fired and steam up. Films ranging from the wartime In Which We Serve to James Cameron’s Titanic have portrayed the scramble for the ladder and the closing watertight door when the ship tilts and the sea pours in – the perfect ingredients for the audience’s later claustrophobic nightmares. But how did men live with this fearful possibility day by day? James Dunn was a Chief Stoker on the destroyer Gabriel when it ran into a German minefield near Heligoland in 1918. Two other destroyers were blown up and sank with half their crews. Dunn told his interviewer many years later: ‘If they ring down Full Speed, like they did a couple of times, and you’re supposed to be on the verge of meeting the enemy, believe me it’s a frightening experience . . . you’re waiting to be blowed sky-high at any minute.’

Interviewer: And all the time you were at sea . . . you were below the waterline and you knew, really, that if anything happened, a torpedo –

Dunn: You had oil tanks up at the side of you. You had oil underneath you. And you had 250 pound of steam all round you. So –

Interviewer: Do you become philosophical about it?

Dunn: Yes. Yes. I got – in the war I used to have one thought in my mind: if I had one more leave. As long as I could have that one more leave, well, anything could happen – and it would, I thought. But if I could only go ashore once more.

Interviewer: You’d be happy?

Dunn: That was my philosophy.

Dunn’s destroyer was one of a new breed then – an oil-fired ship. In a battle, oil has its disadvantages; it is more combustible than coal and coats the sea and all those men unlucky enough to be suddenly in it, oil in their mouth and lungs, oil that makes them slippery to the grasp of other sailors who are trying to haul them to safety. Men just a few feet away from a dry deck and a blanket would slide back into the sea and drown. But nobody in the Navy regretted the disappearance of coal, and the filthy, dangerous labour of taking the fuel on board, the task known as coaling. A First World War battleship typically carried more than three thousand tons of coal, but at high speeds in battle conditions could get through almost eight hundred tons in a day. There were black mountains of Welsh steam coal at strategic points across the world – Scapa, Aden, Malta, Singapore – as well as freighters that could deliver it to the warship’s side. ‘A shadow would come over the ship as soon as you heard you were coaling,’ said George Michael Clarkson (Joiner First Class). The great enemy was dust. All doors would be sealed; small holes were filled with oakum; lifeboats were hoisted outboard; officers and men alike wore their oldest clothes and poked Vaseline up their nostrils and spread it around their eyes. But as the coal was swung aboard in its two-hundredweight sacks, each to be tipped down chutes into the bunkers, a thick layer of black grit would quickly smother the ship and get pretty well everywhere; into the big tins of lime juice that had been placed around the deck for the crew’s casual refreshment, into the trumpet valves and trombone slides of the Royal Marine band which was sometimes assembled (also dressed in old clothes) to play lively tunes and help the work go with a swing. Too much haste made it dangerous, and there was always haste, with a ship’s efficient reputation at stake and a general anxiety to get it over with (one battleship commander used to perambulate through the dust accompanied by a rating who carried a large blackboard on which was chalked a crude drawing of a pint of beer and the slogan: ‘The sooner you get it in, the sooner you get ashore and have one of these’). Wire ropes would snap and the coal come crashing down on the men on the deck below. Inside the bunkers, men would trim the coal with shovels, distributing it evenly across the floor. Sometimes they would be trapped as the coal reached the bunker’s ceiling. Every coaling brought its crop of injuries, and sometimes deaths.

But everybody mucked in. When a ship was coaling, Naval hierarchy and deference were relaxed for the day. A sailor might tell an over-officious officer where to get off and suffer no punishment. Otherwise the discipline embodied in the King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions was enforced to cover crimes ranging from desertion and insolence towards superiors to misbehaving at divine service, sleeping in another man’s hammock, negligently throwing or lowering anything from aloft, and smoking if under the age of 18. Until well into the 20th century a sailor aged 17 or under could still be caned or birched – providing, according to McKee, ‘a legitimated outlet for homoerotic sadism in punishers and audience’. A favourite punishment, known as ‘keeping the flies off the paintwork’, was to make the offender stand to attention at some remote spot on the upper deck every day (not to exceed 14 days) and face a bulkhead, like a naughty child sent to the corner of a classroom.

Ratings divided officers into good and bad. A good officer might say: ‘Now don’t forget, you blokes, if ever you’re in trouble at home, the missus gone off with the milkman or anything like that, you come and see me.’ Bad officers came in various sorts, but the most despised were drunks who had taken too much gin at their midday meal (officers could drink as much as they liked, or as their captain allowed) and would then, in the words of one sailor, ‘issue orders of a ridiculous nature, and often of a dangerous nature, but they had to be obeyed and put into execution’ because of the risk of otherwise being charged with mutinous conduct. Very few officers rose from the ranks, and those who did were disliked: ‘they knew all the dodges and had all the answers.’ Relations between officers and men improved steadily throughout the first half of the last century, and they were almost always better on small ships than on large, at sea than in port, in war than in peace. But at the end of the day, in the words of Able Seaman Walter Basford, ‘They were officers and they brooked no argument on anything. You were told to jump or double and you jumped and doubled . . . They were officers and you were not, and that was that.’

McKee’s sailors remember many other hardships. The food could be grim. On long voyages in small ships, even as late as the Second World War, a crew might eventually have to resort to Nelsonian grub – weevilly ship’s biscuits and the especially dreaded salt pork, which came out of casks and was sometimes green (‘there’s nothing more hideous than a piece of salt pork in your mouth’). Living and sleeping arrangements were overcrowded. The hooks from which sailors hung their hammocks were often only 18 inches apart, one man’s hammock to the next, and in the lavatories men sat shoulder to shoulder above a long sluice.

McKee sums it up. ‘Monotonous food. Strict and relentless discipline. Daily close-quartered living devoid of privacy. Boredom, day after uneventful day at sea. Battle. Dangerous, fear-inducing work. Sudden illnesses – sometimes deadly. Long absences from home and family. Burdens of responsibility. No human being could endure these indefinitely and without respite.’

What kept them going? Many sailors referred to comradeship as their finest memory of the Navy. William ‘Jock’ Batters (Plumber First Class) wrote in his unpublished memoir:

When a sailor ‘belonged’ to a ship his main loyalty was to his ship and his mates. If they endured enough together, his family came second. How other can you explain the actions of men who, when their ship was going down, were seen to go below, although the order for ‘Abandon ship’ had been given? . . . Whatever this kink was – and it was the antithesis of self-preservation – it really existed.

This fellow-feeling was fostered by drill and split-second team work – raising anchors, lowering boats, firing guns – but that was true also of the Army and even once of primary schools. Where the Navy differed, what intensified its comradeship, was the way ratings looked after one another as a kind of seagoing family, replacing the real one (where it existed, happy or unhappy) on land. The way sailors ate is a good example of this domesticity. In the Army, soldiers were fed by lining them up at the cookhouse door and then dumping food on their held-out plates. Until the 1950s, the Navy had a much more complicated – and apparently more inefficient – arrangement. Sailors were assigned to messes, each of around ten to twenty-five men, and equipped with a stowable table, cutlery, plates and a bread bin. The leading seaman in each mess was called ‘the caterer’ and he chose ‘the cook-of-the-day’, a job that went by rotation. The Navy issued certain staples to the mess – bread, fresh or preserved meat, potatoes, sugar, tea, condensed milk – and then allowed each mess fourpence per man per day to buy other food (tinned fruit, say, or bacon) according to the mess’s taste. The cook-of-the-day’s job was to collect the ingredients from the ship’s stores, work out the menu, prepare the meal and then take it for cooking to the ship’s galley, where the staff known as ‘cooks’ (though so far as non-officers were concerned they did no cooking at all) would shove it into an oven or a pan of water. Then the cook-of-the-day would brew tea or cocoa, collect the mess’s rum ration, and set the mess table. Eventually he would return to the galley to collect the cooked food. Afterwards, he would clear the table and wash up.

The food wasn’t sophisticated. Bread and jam were usual for breakfast and tea. Dinner – at noon – might be a roast with potatoes and onions or toad-in-the-hole, with a duff of pastry and raisins for pudding. Supper might yield cheese and pickles, eggs, tinned rabbit or salmon. Cooking formed no part of a rating’s basic training. Every rating learned to cook by cooking for his shipmates, and therefore, if he were to keep the friendly esteem of his mess, he would need to learn to make the best of his often unpromising ingredients, to cook passably well. And when the mess sat down to eat they sat as a family: the serving pan was passed around the table, and each man was trusted to take no more than his fair share.

It was the same with laundry. Until the end of the Second World War, every sailor was in theory responsible for the washing and pressing of his own clothes, a tedious business which required a man to take a bucket of hot water from the galley or the ship’s boilers and then sit over it and scrub and rinse and wring. The wet clothes would be spread out to dry in the heat of the boiler-room, with the permission of some sympathetic engineer. If a ship was in the tropics the kit was white; sailors remembered that in the tropics ‘one is never finished washing.’ But here, among the family of the lower-deck, sailors also learned enterprise and domestic specialisms and formed themselves into ‘firms’. A firm might be a couple of sailors who took in other men’s laundry, or repaired shoes, or mended the fabric of uniforms, all for small fees which by the end of a voyage could amount to a couple of hundred pounds (enough in the 1920s to buy a house, which made married men especially keen on this form of private overtime).

Of all these little businesses, the most interesting was tailoring. The sailor who could use scissors and a sewing machine never lacked work. Sailors needed to be smartly dressed – a need that was as much self-imposed as required by any regulation or officers’ tyranny. Sailors, as McKee writes, were instinctive dandies, especially when ashore. The ready-made uniform in its standard sizes was regulation wear on board, but considered simply not up to the job for attraction and seduction. ‘All the nice girls love’ and so on. For their audience on land, sailors favoured shoes with a high heel, and what they called ‘tiddlyvated’ outfits which had been made to measure at their own expense, with even wider trousers, and tunics that fitted tighter round the chest. Decorative elements could be purchased on the sly from a small mail-order company: James Ward, 90 Markhouse Road, Walthamstow. Thomas Wallace (Chief Yeoman of Signals) remembered how a false cap ribbon from Walthamstow might change a girl’s mind. ‘Well,’ Wallace said, ‘if you were on HMS Black Prince or HMS Emerald, oh, you couldn’t wear that cap ribbon. You used to write to Ward and get a Vengeance, Revenge, Powerful, Terrible – they were the favourite cap ribbons. The only time you wore it [was] when you were on leave . . . because girls come along – “Oh, look at the ship he’s on – Vengeance!Terrible!Powerful!” – flirt.’

Despite all the onboard activity, boredom was always hard to conquer on a long voyage. The scenery from the deck’s rail offered no relief. ‘The sea seldom changes in my view,’ wrote Ray Wilkins, who served on a cruiser in the Second World War. ‘I do not belong to the sect whose sentiments are touched by the sight of oceans. It is just so much water to me.’ Men amused themselves in the mess by argufying (‘Sometimes about any silly subject. I have seen the mess almost in blows over the question “Is marmalade jam?”’), or by doing macramé – antimacassars for the family back home – and making rag rugs and ship models. There were occasional concert parties, which afforded cross-dressing opportunities, and on the bigger ships frequent dances, when a piano would be hauled on deck and men in bare feet would be tutored in foxtrots, quicksteps, quadrilles and waltzes. At such times, as at coaling, rank was given a holiday; a lieutenant might take a stoker as his dancing partner.

The most reliable high point in every sailor’s day, however, was the distribution of the rum ration, a tradition that continued until 1970. The great ceremony that attached to it had an almost religious flavour (‘It was just like taking the Holy Sacrament,’ Joiner First Class George Michael Clarkson said). McKee describes it well. At 11 in the morning the boatswain’s mate would pipe ‘Up spirits,’ to cue the petty officer of the day to climb to the quarterdeck, where an officer would give him the keys to the spirit room. Then the petty officer would join a small, official party – including Royal Marines and the ship’s cooper (‘Jimmy Bung’) – which processed ‘with much formality’ below decks, unlocked the spirit room’s door, and there, using a hand pump, decanted into a small keg, the ‘barrico’ or ‘breaker’, one eighth of a pint of rum for every rating and petty officer on the ship (except those who were teetotal, or under punishment, or below the age of 19). Then two marines would carry up the keg to the aftdeck, where they stood guard over it. A little after that, the cooks from the petty officers’ messes lined up with their jugs. Petty officers had the honour of taking their rum neat and they were served first. The chief steward checked his record and announced the number of drinking men present in each petty officer’s mess, whereupon the sergeant of marines doled out the ration. The rest of the rum was poured into a large tub and mixed with water – three parts water to one of rum (after 1938, only two parts water) – to become grog, which was what the ratings got. At noon the boatswain’s mate piped up again: ‘Muster for your rum.’ The cooks-of-the-day from each mess lined up with metal buckets to receive their authorised number of tots – a tot being a half-pint of grog – which was ladled out by the sergeant of marines (using half-gallon and quart measures), assisted by the petty officer of the day (getting the ration exact using measures for pints and gills).

Any grog remaining at the bottom of the tub – and there were often several tots of it – was known as ‘plushers’. The master-at-arms or chief petty officer in charge would ceremonially tip this residue into the scuppers at the edge of the deck, from where, to the daily perplexity and annoyance of thirsty seamen, it would drain into the sea. The rum-issuing party would then withdraw to drink their ‘neaters’ with their fellow petty officers. They could start drinking at 11.30 or 11.45. Ratings, on the other hand, had to wait until they finished their work at noon before they could swallow their grog, usually in one long gulp (‘Bottoms up!’).

Navy rum was 95.5 proof, or 54.6 per cent alcohol; civilian rum, available in shops, is usually about 40 per cent alcohol. An eighth of a pint wouldn’t make a young man unsteady on his feet, but there were all kinds of scams and dodges that enabled larger supplies, as well as the official extra rations (‘Splicing the mainbrace’) that came with special occasions such as Trafalgar Day and Christmas. The cooks who brought the rum to the messes had the privilege of ‘sippers’ – when each man in the mess would offer the cook-of-the-day the chance to take the first sip from his glass. Rum was a currency, like heroin now is in prison; it could be hoarded and bartered. One mess tradition was that messmates would give up their ration to a man on his birthday, so that he could drink as much as he wanted and then, as one sailor said, ‘he goes underneath the table and sleeps it off for a couple of days and then the rest is dished out to whoever wants it.’

Officers tolerated such goings-on. They were careful not to interfere too much with life on the lower deck. Mutiny was extremely rare, but it remained a possibility. As McKee says, ‘it would be foolish to suppose . . . that sailors’s obedience is based on fear . . . In the final analysis the leaders are there only because of the willing, if silent, consent of the led.’ And rum made men happy, or happier than they would have been otherwise. George Michael Clarkson recalled its effect on the appetite: ‘When the dinner came up, very often the meat was a little bit off, we’ll say, or there was something not very tasty about it. But with that tot . . . you could eat anything, give you a wonderful appetite . . . This rum it was wonderful stuff really . . . You swallow this tot and you’re at peace with the world.’

Drink, dancing, knitting, sewing, cobbling, reading, argufying, writing letters home: all could help a day pass. But none solved the problem of hormones.

How gay was the Navy at this time? McKee says the question is impossible to answer: there are no objective records; opinion is the only historical source. Homosexual encounters were a serious offence in the Navy’s disciplinary code – the charge meant a court-martial and if the accused were found guilty they could be dismissed from the service. Any legal records, however, would be a poor guide to the incidence of homosexual behaviour, just as they would to drunkenness. Officers and men turned a blind eye, and the obstacles to the prosecution of two consenting sailors were considerable: witnesses were required – few men wanted to peach on a mate, and nobody wanted a scandal and a disreputable ship. In the judgment of some sailors, however, homosexual acts were ‘rife’ or ‘prevalent’. Others said they happened ‘quite a lot’ or that the Navy ‘got its quota’. Reginald Ashley, who served in the First World War, remembered: ‘They used to say that the carpenter’s shop in the Iron Duke was a proper whore shop . . . and all the blokes used to go there that went in for these sorts of thing.’ George Michael Clarkson had vivid memories of the chase during his first teenage years at sea: ‘And you can take it from me that I had an awful job to retain my virginity. And the only way to do it, you fought, you did.’ Clarkson’s main difficulty lay with burly men on his own deck, but he also remembered an officer, Captain Lancelot Napier Turton of the second-class cruiser Venus, a man known as ‘Shits’ Turton to crew. Turton, looking for oarsmen to row his captain’s gig, spurned experienced sailors in favour of boys who were fitted out ‘with short little briefs and everything nice’. When the cruiser was anchored at Trincomalee in Ceylon, boys and captain would row ashore and camp in tents overnight. Clarkson: ‘He nearly caused a mutiny there. He came out half canned one night and was addressing the ship’s company. He said, “You should think of me as your uncle,” see, and they all started raspberrying him.’ In October 1918 ‘luckily’ he died.

It was the man-boy relationship (especially if the boy was unwilling) that caused most disapproval, both from crews and the Admiralty. A boy aged 15 or 16 was an easy target – away from home for the first time, lonely, and often hungry (a piece of bread and jam could do wonders). Older sailors often acted as one-to-one mentors to boy recruits, and could become sexually possessive of them. Jealousy and fights would sometimes disrupt the harmony of the mess. For this reason, and because the boys’ exploitation was offensive to most of the crew, when a man was caught ‘using a boy as a woman’ (in one sailor’s interesting phrase), looking the other way was no longer so easy. According to McKee, all his informants ‘roundly condemned seduction of boys by adult sailors’ and approved of their severe punishment.

So again, how gay was the Navy? I think the answer must be ‘quite’. But then a further question arises. Was this situational homoeroticism – any orifice in a storm – or did the Navy also attract a disproportionate share of men who were drawn to other men on a deeper and more full-time basis? Sailors think mainly the former, not that any of those quoted by McKee admit to any such last resort behind a convenient gun turret. Homosexual ‘weakness’ was something that happened to others. As a popular Navy song went:

Backsides rule the Navy.
Backsides rule the sea.
If you wanna get some bum,
Better get it from your chum,
‘Cause you’ll get no bum from me.

And then at last the ship would dock and unlock its cargo of pent-up desires. ‘You give the impression that in foreign ports all sailors mainly did was look for drink and women,’ an interviewer said to Chief Yeoman of Signals Thomas Wallace. ‘Well, that mostly, yes,’ Wallace replied. Not every sailor did. Some visited museums, attended Christian meetings, toured the sites. William Blamey, a telegraphist, recorded his visit to Khania, in Crete, during the First World War: ‘The town itself is . . . of the old cobble type, very interesting so far as old and out-of-fashion civilisation goes, but that doesn’t interest the average sailor . . . the streets he likes to see are pub, pub, pub, eating house, restaurant, pub, pub, pub, wine store, lodging house, pub, pub, pub etc. The town, though not large, runs a street – a whole street – for prostitutes.’

In home ports, the sailor had a slightly wider choice. As Seaman Edgar Baker wrote in his diary, a sailor either sought ‘a girl in the best sense of the word . . . or man goes in for women.’ In towns such as Chatham, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Rosyth, girls in the best sense of the word were wary – all the nice girls, contrary to the song, did not love a sailor (see my Aunt Lizzie) – so the choice was often theoretical. ‘Women’ were much less bother. In Portsmouth, for example, most pubs had them.

You might get a tart calling over, ‘Hello Jack, how are you’ – that sort of thing – and sidle over alongside. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘What ship are you on?’ ‘You just come from so-and-so?’ And she would make the conversation. And the next thing you’d see were Jolly Jack and her having their tipple and them walking off outside.

A frequent destination was Southsea Common (‘that was the place where you could get away with anything’). There a man, after a minute or two, might pull out a pound note and pull on a condom and finally ease his desire. The Navy knew condoms as ‘Dreadnoughts’ – which made sense because venereal disease was the seamen’s plague, though the name was also of course derived from Jackie Fisher’s armour-sheathed and surging class of battleship.

Navy towns, as McKee reports, are no longer so rumbustious. The Navy has shrunk. Chatham’s dockyards are now a museum. Rosyth’s main Naval duty is to look after redundant nuclear submarines until someone can decide what to do with their reactors. Capstans have been buried by heaps of Marlboro. In Britain, the sea used to touch so many people in so many ways; a tide has gone out.

Among the framed family pictures on our bedroom mantelpiece are two of young men in nautical uniform. One shows my father in the white tropical uniform of the British India Steam Navigation Company, which employed him briefly as a junior engineer in the late 1920s. The other is of my father-in-law as a Royal Navy sailor at the outbreak of war in 1939, a picture he gave the girl who became his wife. He looks very jaunty, hands on hips, his cap pushed back on his head and his cap ribbon tied in a bow. He looks as though he might be about to dance. You can just make out two crossed semaphore flags on his sleeve – his badge as a signaller (by lamp or flag) which is how he served out the next six years of war, always on small ships: armed trawlers and corvettes. When he came ashore he could cook, sew, knit and cobble, and often did. A New Man.

As for battle, ‘I was in the water twice,’ he would sometimes say, meaning that two of the ships he’d been on had been torpedoed or bombed and sunk. He never went further than that to his family, though it’s possible that he was more expansive as an evening wore on at the Navy Club in Newcastle, among old comrades. Like many of the sailors who inform McKee’s book, he was a New Man encased in the dignity and restraint of the Old.

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