Citizen Sailors: The Royal Navy in the Second World War, By Glyn Prysor

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The Independent Culture

This impressive human history of the Royal Navy begins the long overdue process of putting it back at the heart of the war effort, and does so in the words of those who served. Glyn Prysor skilfully weaves first-hand testimony around the chronology of conflict, constantly re-examining the mood and morale of the service through the tense pre-war days of the Abyssinian Crisis, the Spanish Civil War, the Rape of Nanking and Munich to demobilisation.

The voices of men and women engage the reader in battle, boredom and runs ashore. Many of these witnesses keep up a running commentary across the years. While some are cut short by death others, newly mobilised, take up the story. Their testimony demonstrates that some things are eternal.

When the war in Europe ended the captain of a British cruiser berthed at Rangoon told his crew, "the Navy must go on, if England is to live". Without the Navy there would be no trade, no jobs, no food and no security. He urged his many "Hostilities Only" citizen sailors, anxiously awaiting demobilisation, to vote wisely in the forthcoming General Election. While the Mass Observation survey revealed that few people understood what sailors did, they trusted and respected the Navy far more than the other two services. Little wonder: the wartime generation knew how their food reached these shores, and why the German army never tried to invade. Seapower provided the key to national security, and the defining element in national identity.

For all the paper and ink expended on the brief drama of the Battle of Britain, the grinding war in the Western Desert that climaxed at El Alamein, and the triumphant return to Europe on D-Day, the Royal Navy made Britain's greatest contribution to the allied victory in the Second World War. The Senior Service was in action on the first day, and the last. It defeated the greatest threat to Britain's survival, the German attack on seaborne trade that Churchill famously termed the Battle of the Atlantic. It alone kept the free world connected for 18 months, until America finally joined the conflict.

Then the Royal Navy held the Indian Ocean, separating Germany from Japan. A thin grey line kept the two axis powers apart, and secured vital Middle Eastern oil. Finally, as the tide turned, the Navy delivered Allied troops back onto European soil, in Sicily, Italy and France. It was no coincidence that the same man who had plucked a defeated British army from the beaches of Dunkirk landed British American and Canadian troops on the Norman coast four years later, with an unequalled masterpiece of operational planning.

Even as the nation celebrated Victory in Europe, the most powerful fleet Britain ever assembled was advancing on Japan, hammered by the kamikaze strikes of a new kind of war. On the day Japan finally surrendered, British battleships were bombarding Tokyo. Before the ships came home, they restored many of the great port cities of Asia, and repatriated the legion of sickly, malnourished survivors of hellish prisoner-of-war camps.

The grim unrelenting struggle transformed the pre-war professional Navy into a truly representative force of men and women. The scale of the naval effort was unprecedented. Nelson's Navy had peaked at 120,000 men; in 1939 the Royal Navy, with all its reserves, ran out at slightly under 200,000 - but by 1945 there were over 800,000 men and 74,000 women in uniform. Inevitably, the price of sea power was high: 50,758 men and women were killed on active duty, and many more were wounded. The Merchant Navy lost another 30,248 men.

The country rallied behind the Navy, Warship Weeks raised millions in loans, as cities and towns vied to sponsor a battleship, a submarine, or a patrol boat. If Britons were ever truly an "island race", it was in the middle of the Second World War, when more of them served in the Royal Navy than ever before and everyone cared, because their very lives depended on sea power. The impact of disasters, none more emblematic than the catastrophic explosion that in 1941 destroyed HMS Hood, proud flagship of the empire, was deep; but the resilience of the service, which annihilated the briefly victorious Bismarck three days later, proved the more enduring triumph. Never again would German battleships enter the Atlantic.

Among the more unusual naval posts was Naval Party 100, a communications and administrative unit working in Northern Russia. Jack finally met his match in the snowy wastes of Murmansk and Archangel, where beer had to be thawed before drinking, and the welcome was even colder than the beer. The Arctic convoys that supplied the Soviet Union tested the Navy to breaking point. Despite mountainous seas, alternating periods of permanent daylight and darkness, ships often so heavily encrusted with ice that they were in danger of capsizing, not to mention the worst that aircraft, U-boats and battleships could throw at them, the Navy met the ultimate challenge. The cost was high, but the convoys got through, keeping Stalin onside until a Second Front could be opened.

Sailors are different; they go down to the sea in ships, and in wartime they stay there for months and years. They work in teams: each weapon, sensor, machine or craft required teamwork to operate and maintain. Huge battleships with a crew of 1400 were complex, interlocking systems of systems, each depending on all the others.

In battle there was nowhere to hide; most men fought for their mates, desperately anxious not to flinch or run. The massive influx of reservists, volunteers and women civilianised the service, much as the war would change society. In order to be effective, Navies have to reflect the ideas and values of the society they serve. They must change as society changes, because the people who pay for and serve in navies are products of that society. When armed forces are out of step with their country, the results are invariably catastrophic.

The new sailors, "Hostilities Only" appointments, adapted to the demands of naval life, but they did so on their own terms. The Citizen Sailors of the Second World War made a difference to an old way of life; for example, rates of venereal disease fell to only one third of pre-war levels, suggesting the new sailors were better informed, and more discriminating. Naval attitudes to homosexuality were markedly more understanding than in other armed forces, while discipline held up far better than in either of the other services.

The war changed the Navy, bringing the values, ideas and attitudes of a fast-evolving society into the closed professional world of battleship grey. Victorian approaches to officer-man relations, empire and politics gave way to a new levelling agenda. Older officers were astonished when Citizen Sailors went on strike to demand better conditions, and a better understanding of what the war was about. "England expects that every Man will do his Duty" was no longer enough; the new sailors wanted to know why.

The Navy met their demands, developed better management skills, improved mental health treatment and the age-old rituals designed to let off steam and relax the inevitable tensions of a life inside a hot, overcrowded steel box, facing the constant danger of sudden, violent death. These sailors had to be treated as adults, voters and above all citizens of a fully-functioning democracy engaged in a total war. Information was an essential component of morale. Alongside the Welfare State, the Labour Government of 1945 modernised officer recruitment and ensured promotion from the other ranks. While the pre-war Navy that served a world empire power had gone, the Navy remained at the very heart of what it meant to be British. Sadly, modern Britain has lost sight of the sea – something we may all live to regret.

Andrew Lambert is professor of naval history at Kings College London and author, most recently, of 'Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation' (Faber & Faber)