Naval Notes: Nelson's tars still slung hammocks till the 1950s

"MAKE THE Navy your Korea." That was the mocking inscription chalked by a messmate on the door of a kit locker belonging to a young able seaman returning from leave; his first intimation that during his absence "his number had come up" for a Far East draft.

It was July 1950 and the Korean War was just two weeks old. Ahead of this young sailor loomed the prospect of a two-and-a-half-year separation from family and friends, exotic foreign parts and the likelihood of seeing some action and even being shot at. He may not, on balance, have been displeased; in his boyish imagination, perhaps, distinguishing himself and getting his picture in the paper back home. Such was the lure, with little else to recommend it, of the peacetime Royal Navy to romantically minded British youth. Anyway, as his messmate reminded him, if he couldn't take a joke he shouldn't have joined.

It was assuredly no joke for hundreds of older men caught up in the emergency. These were senior ratings within a few months of completing their 12-year engagements, signed up for as adolescents. A Retention Order rushed through Parliament within days of the Communist invasion of South Korea had suspended armed-forces release. These RN ratings, mostly married and fathers of children, who had served their time and wanted their lives back, were bitter men. A foreign draft held no allure for them; they had done all that, seen it; including enemy action to which their Second World War campaign ribbons bore witness.

The Retention Order had left it to heads of Services to determine the length of time that personnel should be retained in the light of their manpower requirements. The War Office opted for six months; the Air Ministry three; and the Admiralty 18 months. Such inequity angered but did not surprise the ratings affected. It was, in their view, of a piece with the admirals' attitude in general to the lower deck of the post-war, atomic- age Royal Navy; still seemingly regretting the demise of the press gang and vexed by this unwonted necessity of making the service attractive to long-engagement volunteers at a time of high pay and full employment ashore.

The Royal Navy was not then, nor has been until comparatively recently, amenable to rapid, radical change. Nelson's tars messed below decks in small groups between a pair of broadside guns, slept in hammocks and drew raw victuals for their meals. A hundred and fifty years on, junior ratings, except in shore establishments and the larger warships, lived in "broadside" messes, slung hammocks and were issued with raw provisions which they prepared themselves for cooking in the ship's galley.

This single fact illustrates better than any other the extraordinary conservatism, or hide-boundedness, of the Royal Navy in the mid-20th century. Other aspects of lower-deck life were commensurate with the messing arrangements. The archaic discipline, rigorously applied by naval officers who were still godlike beings apart; captains who "cleared lower deck" to read to ranks of bareheaded sailors the Articles of War, in which no fewer than 22 offences specified therein were followed by the awesome formula: ". . . shall suffer death, or such other punishment as is hereinafter mentioned". Of course, for most of those crimes the supreme penalty would not, could not, be exacted by this date, but they were chilling words and meant to be so. This archaic rigmarole was continued with because, like so much about the Navy, it was the tradition.

In fairness, there were many things the Admiralty would have changed had it the resources to do so in post-war Britain's dire economic circumstances, and as those circumstances slowly improved modernisation was gradually introduced, too gradually for some.

David Phillipson is the author of `Roll on the Rodney! - life on the lower deck of Royal Navy warships after the Second World War' (Sutton Publishing, pounds 16.99)