The Real Red Sailor Role Model

Discussion in 'The Book Club' started by Redsailor, Jul 21, 2012.

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  1. ‘The Red Sailor’ was never intended to be a literary masterpiece. It simply reflected a time in living memory (for some of us) that we could readily identify with, warts and all. It was probably one of the very few books, fictional or non-fictional, actually written during those post-WWII eras by a matelot from the lower decks. Naval authorship in those days was usually reserved for those of the officer fraternity who had some influence via the oldboy network in the literary world of publishing.

    They in turn produced numerous good books of their exploits but quite a few of them conveniently ignored Jack’s contributions within their story lines. Instead, they often chose to portray their sailors as unthinking automated gofers, rebellious upstarts or drunken simpletons that they could control and punish at will whenever they erred or strayed.

    Patrick O’Hara in his wisdom took that narrow and subjective wardroom perspective of Jack and used it to great humorous advantage in his novel. His hero, James Varne, was the stereotypical two-fisted mess deck rebel, who held nothing but contempt for his superiors, a hard man who felt forced to declare war on the Imperial Navy as he frequently referred to it.

    Having served on HMS Consort/Concord (can’t remember which one) in the Far Flung, O’Hara drew on his own experiences with the fleet in Hong Kong and Singapore. I believe he modelled his anti-hero character from a former shipmate of his, a stoker, Trevor Thomas, who had once been Royal Navy welter-weight champion for the Home Fleet. Trevor lived near to me in Bootle, Liverpool, and as a baby sailor on leave; I listened avidly in our local pub to his dits which closely mirrored Varne’s adventures in almost every detail. Bear in mind that O’Hara’s book was not to be written for some years after. His tales were legion but this one remained embedded in my memory:

    Soon after joining the destroyer in Hong Kong, Trevor was approached by his DO asking him to box for the ship in a forthcoming tournament against the US 7[SUP]th[/SUP] Fleet and he respectfully declined to do so. The pressure was gradually increased by both officers and POs but Trevor was adamant he would not box for the entertainment of the pigs or to put silverware in their trophy cabinet. Gentle persuasion soon turned into a ruthless conspiracy to make his life a living hell but their efforts only entrenched his iron resolve of non-compliance.

    One night whilst ashore in Hong Kong it is believed that his Captain ordered the shore patrol to focus special attention on Stoker Thomas and give him a hard time. They found him in the Wanchai district and tried arresting him on a trumped-up charge. When they attempted to seize him, all hell broke loose, with Trevor punching out the lights of the shore patrol and also those of arriving US Navy snowdrop reinforcements; one patrolman being thrown through a store front plate glass window and others requiring hospitalisation for their injuries. His giant oppo, ‘Tiny’ Henderson, jumped into the fray up-ending three USN snowdrops in rapid succession and ramming their helmeted heads into the pavement like garden posts. Finally detained, Trevor came up before his Captain for punishment and realising this was another set-up responded to the charges by grabbing and punching the CO, breaking his jaw.

    He was ordered brought home in chains on HMS Theseus and given the maximum of 90 days DQs in solitary upon arrival in Portsmouth.
    After 90 day’s in solitary confinement, the prisoner was to be examined by a Surgeon Commander and evaluated by a trick cyclist to determine its effect upon his well being. When they entered his cell Trevor immediately set about them pushing their dazed and battered bodies out through the door. They were followed by every item of his clothing and then there was the sound of him smashing the glass well lights in his cell with one of his boots.

    His Royal Marine minders arrived with his particular pet hate, CS ‘Killer’ McCoy, in charge, calling out for Trevor to come out and surrender himself. Out of the darkness came his reply, “You can always come in and get me Colour Sergeant.” Three attempts were made to enter the cell by Marines armed with pick handles, but inside its unfamiliar gloom the bootnecks soon fell victim to Trevor’s fury and his particular brand of punishment. An overhead lubricating oil line ran through his isolation cell that had a leaking isolation valve. Trevor had used the leaks to smear most of his upper naked body and legs with oil thus making it more difficult for his attackers to grab and subdue him. On the fourth attempt they were eventually successful in restraining and handcuffing him, but not before more injuries were inflicted upon them. It must have been poetic justice for Stoker Thomas to later learn that CS McCoy,suffered serious neck and back injuries in the mêlée, and after hospitalisation was transferred from HMDQ to light and later desk duties elsewhere.

    Trevor was court-martialled and dishonourably dismissed from the Navy as violently aggressive and totally unamenable to discipline. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is what he wanted all along, after the despicable treatment he had received on his last ship.

    An old sea daddy of mine once said there were three kinds of shipmates: friends, oppos and MoD acquaintances. Friends are with you for most of your life. Oppos are guys you raised a lot of hell with in far off ports a long time ago and that you might see from time to time. And MoD acquaintances are those you stood some watches with, shared some BS sessions with in the mess, would never see again and rarely ever remember.

    I did believe that competence could be a saving grace for some sailors back in the day, many for the most part had a natural affinity for non-conformity, harbouring disdain for the ‘recruiting poster’ superficialities of naval life. And so it was for Trevor, a man who worked hard as a stoker loving his job and who played even harder when shore leave came around. Rebellious and assertive - yes - but mean spirited and petty– never. Given some pro-active encouragement rather than the continual aggravation and intimidation handed out by his masters, Trevor may well have proved to be an asset to the Navy rather than the disgraced pariah they had conspired to turn him into. Mr Thomas has long moved on to that big boxing ring in the sky,but I for one was extremely proud to have called him my friend and neighbour.
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2012
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  2. B/Z A lovely tribute to a friend and neighbour, and a rare insight into the workings of the Red Sailor. From Partick O' Hara perception, about the Andrew via James Varne. Ps you are spot on about Officers writing books about the RN. having read plenty of John Wintons books... the nearest one resembling life onboard for Varne, would be his book We joined the navy . about life aboard HMS Barchester AKA HMS Dorchester, with the Badger and the snottys PS Also his book HMS Leviathan AKA HMS Eagle,and Bob
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2012
  3. Thanks for sharing your & your oppos dits, when members of the lower deck were treated like shit,no change there then.
  4. Soon after joining the destroyer in Hong Kong, Trevor was approached by his DO asking him to box for the ship in a forthcoming tournament against the US 7[SUP]th[/SUP] Fleet and he respectfully declined to do so. The pressure was gradually increased by both officers and POs but Trevor was adamant he would not box for the entertainment of the pigs or to put silverware in their trophy cabinet. Gentle persuasion soon turned into a ruthless conspiracy to make his life a living hell but their efforts only entrenched his iron resolve of non-compliance.

    Knocked around in the early 70s with a lad who boxed for the mob, he said he did exhibition bouts, ring in the middle room surrounded with hofficers at table, at the end of the 3 rounds they threw money into the ring as, payment/reward? for the entertainment, thought it was a bit demeaning myself but it didnt bother him, but I could understand some would not do it.
  5. For "James Verne "read Mike [Bomber] Harris from Hebden Bridge Yorks. Mike finished up on the pro wrestling circuit. For John Wintons" LT.Cdr. Bolinger Badger" read Lt. Cdr Paddy Vincent D.O. part one training H.M.S. Ceres 1955.^_~
  6. "Very Ordinary Seaman" by JPW Mallalieu is an excellent WW2 book written from an HO ratings point of view, from joining up through to the end of his first sea draft.
  7. Read HMS Leviathan back in the 70's. Lent my copy out and never got it back.

    I've never heard before that the ship in the book was based on HMS Eagle. Do you have anything else to share or has this subject already been done to death?

    Did the 'band playing on the moving elevator' story actually happen?

    Last edited: Jul 23, 2012
  8. Defo the Eagle, the first work up periods after a long refit, about 1960 ISC the cover is also a big giveaway!!! Ps plenty fot sale here for a penny or more .... HMS "Leviathan": John Winton: Books also his obit says so. John Winton - Telegraph
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2012
  9. (granny)

    (granny) Book Reviewer

    'Lower Deck', by John Davies.
    A tale about the Malta convoys. He was an Upper Yardsman waiting for his shore draft to gain a commission.
    An interesting down to earth story, very interesting if somewhat odd in the vernacular. In 1942 the robust language of the Lower Deck would not have been allowed into print. His book is in Diary form covering the short period 21st April-31st May 1942.
    He eventually made Lieutenant.
  10. Seaweed

    Seaweed War Hero Book Reviewer

    The wisecrack about publishers needs a bit of substantiation!

    The late John Winton (actual surname Pratt and a term-mate of the late Sir Julian Oswald, although Oswald was a 13-y.o. Dart entry) got permission to publish his first book when the Admiralty minders must have been dozing off. Scuttlebutt was that they were not too pleased when it came out but it was too late then & Winton never looked back. As an ex-Benbow I can only say that We Joined is a bland factual account of the level of farce bubbling away below the immaculate glory of naval life. Yes, it's extremely funny, but the reality was even funnier. He was ultimately an engineer in submarines but got nhis steam ticket in Eagle where he was involved in quenching a near-disatropus hangar fire just before Eagle was needed foir Suez. The only reason the hangar fire was put out was that certain valves and gearing had been regularly maintained by one of Winton's CPOs. Winton tried to get the man an award but it was turned down. The Admiralty sat on Leviathan as long as it could and if you read it you'll see why! As a retired NO Winton warmly suported the RN in all sorts of ways and I believe wrote many naval obituaries for the D Telegraph.

    Don't know about the band on the lift but I do recall the cadet OOG marching the guard for Colours off Triumph's lift before it had stopped and the front rank, rifles and all, ending up prone on the flight deck closely followed by the rear rank.

    Officers write about officer stuff because that's what they know and understand. For the post war navy try:

    "The Bos'n's Call" by Hugh Willis The Bosun's Call: Hugh Willis: Books, a hilarious, and I mean that, account of his time was OD and AB in a Loch frigate before going CW (I knew him when he was a Lt) and

    "When I was on the Tartar" by Michael Payne

    The tricky bit is that writing is a gift and some have it and some don't.

    For Royal (and fiction) try "The Bright Side" by Robert Carr

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