"The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy Since 1939"
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!”
This is a third book of a trilogy documenting the ordinary sailors of the Royal Navy whose immediate precursor, ‘Able Seamen
) I reviewed here recently. This volume takes us from 1939 to the present. This is dangerous territory, for it covers the service of much of its potential readership, including my own.
The first third of the book is devoted to the Second World War, in which a Navy of 130,000, aided by 16,000 reservists, grew to a peak of 790,000 net of thousands of losses, including 50,753 dead and 870 missing. The difference was made up of ‘HOs’ (ratings entered for ‘Hostilities Only’ and conscripts. As with later National Service the Navy was able to some extent pick and choose whom it took, so somewhat raising the educational and social level of the pre-war Lower Deck. The HOs turned into matelots and the oldsters provided a skilled backbone, perhaps in only penny or single numbers in the smaller craft (Lavery quotes Coastal Forces as being 98% HOs).
Between them all they won a World War, often in the context of watch and watch, dawn and dusk Action Stations, ship’s duties when off watch, and often sea conditions making it impossible to obtain even such sleep as time did allow. In tropical waters ships would be crammed with a full war complement, totally inadequate washing facilities, and of course no air conditioning. In machinery compartments temperatures could easily reach 135º
F, partly due to steam leaks which seemed to be largely avoided in American warship construction.