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My opinion of the Royal Navy will naturally lean towards my personnel experiences but much of it will apply to life in the RN as it is today.
However before delving into the mysteries of becoming a sailor, each volunteer should be aware of the Sailor’s Ten Commandments and be prepared to abide by them.
THE SAILOR'S TEN COMMANDMENTS By Anon.
1. Thou shalt not scrounge, neither shalt thou swing the lead, lest thy resting place be the "Ogwash" where the fishes and whales quench their thirst.
2. Thou shalt not take the name of "Buffer" in vain, or thou shalt have thy name inscribed on a tablet named S.41. and undergo a course of D Q's.
3. Honour thy pusser and thine R.P.O. all the days of thy service, that thy credits may be remembered even as the sands of Egypt.
4. Thou shalt not fill thyself to everflowing with beer and spirits, or by Royal Warrant thou shalt loose much pay and the Jaunty shall number thee amongst his transgressors, for it is written, "He that drinketh from the devil's brew, shall not pull the roller."
5. Six days shalt thou labour all that thou has to do, but on the seventh day thou shalt do twice as much.
6. If it cometh to pass, that by zeal and sweat off thy brow, there is mention of thee as having been elevated to the dizzy heights of Able Seaman, lo! thou shalt journey to places of big noises, which is called "Fleet Club." There shalt thou crave that they accept liquid refreshments off thee, at thine own expense.
7. Thou shalt not covet unto thyself thy neighbour's kit nor his blanket. Neither shalt thou borrow anything off the owner if he is not present or thou shalt have thy sins visited upon by the hand that blacketh thy eye.
8. Thou shalt not fritter away thy worldly goods in the pursuit of Banker, Nap or Pontoon, lest the avenging voice of the duty officer be heard saying unto the land, "Render unto me thy names and leave the shekels where they are."
9. Thou shalt not kill, if the cook grieveth thee. Thou shalt not smite him, hip nor thigh. Nor shalt thou draw him off a goffer. Thou shalt go into the caboose of the headman and crave audience with him, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. He will open his mouth and words of much wisdom will flow forth and next time it will be twice as bad.
10. And when it comes to pass that thou art time expired, thou shalt embark upon the waters and journey upon them until thou reacheth the promised land known as "Blighty." There, thou shalt take unto thyself a strange raiment and henceforth thou shalt be known in all the land as a "Civvy." There in the land of "Blighty" thou shalt study the art of "dole" and the drawing thereof, and lo! for many, many moons shalt thou rest from thy labours and rest thy aching bones. HERE ENDETH THE SAILOR'S TEN COMMANDMENTS
At the age of just 16 years and 11 months and for the princely sum of 30 shillings (£1.50) per fortnight I walked through the gates of hell with adventure in my heart and a sea shanty in my soul as a Junior Electrician’s Mate Second Class (JEM2). After being issued with everything from hammock to uniform right down to toothpaste I found myself being pushed, poked, prodded, weighed and measured by medical officers. Open wide! Ahhh! Bend over! Cough! Adding injury to insult I was inoculated against every disease known to man, or so it felt like it, and tumbled into bed wondering what the hell I’d let myself in for.
During the next six weeks my character was ripped out of me and rebuilt to become an automaton belonging to the armed forces. I got to know the parade ground very well as our whole group was taught how to march and more importantly obey commands and carry them out with precision without any regard as to whether they were right or just. We climbed masts without safety nets or harness, we learned the basics of seamanship and we learned how to wear a gas mask correctly. Just to prove the point they shut us in a room and threw in tear gas canisters. And we learned parade ground drill with and without rifles until we could do it in our sleep. When they shouted shit, we jumped on the shovel. At the end of the six weeks I had muscles on my eyebrows and I was a different person.
During the next 12 months I learned their chosen profession for me and became a Junior Radio Electrician’s Mate Second Class (JREM2) with the Junior being dropped (REM2) when I became seventeen and a half years old. My choice was to become an electrician. They decided that I should become a radio electrician and they always won.
I celebrated my eighteenth birthday at a wireless station in Singapore with a drink of orange squash.
During the next 12 years I spent time at wireless stations all over the world and in England and in ships of the line ready to defend our shore come what may. I also slowly started to unravel the new me and replaced some of it with the old me. 34 years on and the job still hasn’t been completed and I doubt if it ever will. Life at sea was both a hoot and a misery as with no war to fight we spent much of the time playing war games that were made as realistic as possible. There was no blood and gore in this man made hell and everyone took part. Only death allowed you to say no. Simulated death that is. The only consolation was the daily issue of rum.
It is hardly any wonder that on the 31st July 1970 a 283 years tradition came to an end when her majesty’s sailors stopped being issued rum each day. Compared with yesteryear the equipment on board a modern ship is far too intricate to be left in the hands of semi drunk sailors. Each day at noon every man over the age of 20 would, if they wanted it, be issued with a tot of Pusser’s rum BEFORE the midday meal. I should explain that Pusser is the navy slang for the naval authorities from way back and the navy if it is anything at all it is traditional. The rum that we were issued was in the region of 140 degrees proof and each man got one eighth of a pint that was topped up with an equal amount of water bringing its potency down to that what you would buy in a pub. That is half of a half pint glassful that was probably equivalent to about six pub tots on an empty stomach.
Then on the 23rd March 1967 I found myself on Portsmouth Town railway station clutching a railway warrant in my teeth and two suitcases in my hands and wondering where the last 13 years had gone.
Knowing what I know and if I were a 17 years old again I would join the navy to learn a trade, to visit foreign shores, to fight battles if need be and to stagger along the jetty on the way back from a run ashore. The pay is much better today and the food is excellent even in a force eight, but there are no hammocks to sleep in which is a pity because in a hammock the sea can do as it pleases.
Conditions on board are more civilised but the work is the same if more complex and the discipline is no less fierce during training. Watches still have to be kept 24/7 because a ship is never asleep not even in dry dock. If in port, Xmases will be spent on board whilst three watches are at home with their loved ones but that isn’t so bad because those men will get the New Year at home. Sailors will play football and cricket and hockey in foreign lands against brewery teams with a conducted tour afterwards and a rest in the pub. Some sailors may even get the opportunity to play water polo in the middle of the Mediterranean like we did. Sailors will dress up as pirates to entertain some orphans of the world or children in the port’s local hospital. They will be ambassadors of England whilst abroad.
A sailor is best summed up by a long gone friend of mine who penned the following more than fifty years ago.
WHAT IS A SAILOR?
By Leading Seaman Charteris.
Of all the world's dwellers, a sailor is perhaps the most widely discussed and least understood character of them all. He is one of uniform classification and appearance, yet posses a unique individual opinion of his own. He is ruled by a regular edition of Q R's and A I's and the state of the "barons" on board.
A sailor can be of any colour or any creed, yet he observes the same attitude of being in turn, a staunch comrade in arms, a profound lawyer, a cynical pessimist, a buzz-spreading optimist, or a victim of countless "green rubs."
He can be found in, out of, around, beneath, on top and swarming upon ships of every shape and size, above or below the sea; yet his appearance never changes nor his face portrays any appreciation of his worthy tasks.
He has money invested in shares with handles on, has amazing capacity for consuming liquid and a cast iron digestion which consumes some strange "oggies" and "pusser's bangers."
A sailor will drip every minute of every day and twice as much at "tot time." A sailor will relish the call of "Up Spirits" and drop every task for "Splice the Mainbrace." A sailor will talk of some strange "dozen" that is the bane of his life, meanwhile venting his wrath upon the "Buffer," "Mess-deck P O" or "Killick," depending upon who happens to be furthest away at the time.
Ashore, a sailor is a paragon of virtue and good manners. He is sociable and genial. He will sing dubious ditties at the top of his voice, reeling like a storm tossed tug; yet the appearance of a white belted patrol seems to have the magical effect of subduing his voice and steadying his step. He makes mental notes of pints consumed, old ladies who drank "scrumpy" and his best darts score to relate during breakfast next day, much to the awe of his listeners. He will risk life and limb for a share of his oppo's "tot," yet return it virtually untouched, after winning at "Uckers."
A sailor dislikes "pusser's boots," hats, lanyards, dhobying overalls and blankets, efficiency tests, pay books, station cards, inspections, "PULHEEMS," mess bills, wakey-wakey, kit musters, crushers and returning from leave.
He likes very much the "rum call," uckers, quarterly settlement, lurid books, reserve fleet drafts, long leave, mail, hammock, "make and mend," tickler and the girl he dreams of up the line.
G I's find him maddening. His interpretation of "rig of the day" can resemble a collection of rags from the paint locker, whilst his apparent accidental footprints across the whiteness of a newly scrubbed quarterdeck, can bring grey hairs to a raving "buffer."
A sailor is civility with a shabby cap tally, industry in the bilges, studiousness with a deck cloth, truth with fourteen days stoppage of leave, initiative with a chipping hammer and humour with a NAAFI pie.
There is none so true and loyal to his wife or girl, for whom he will save and behave, but should his better influence desert him, he becomes a man of little faith in human nature, a hard hearted being whose activities are confined to catching the first boat ashore, to meet another of those unfaithful females.
He is an accomplished dishwasher, mechanic, card and darts player, sewer mender, cook and server and babyminder. He will hold up the heaviest of traffic, oblivious to the questioning of his parentage, just to help an old lady across the road. He is a connoisseur of all beers, wines and spirits from Scapa Flow to Capetown and New York to Hong Kong. He knows the name of every barmaid at every pub in every port that he has been to, while his recollection of the exact location of these houses, is truly bewildering.
His locker consists of beer labels, pusser's yarn, marlinspikes, photographs, (some even properly attired) bars of soap, tickler tins and old letters. He relies on his oppo's sense of comradeship in borrowing silks, white fronts, collars and shoes to get ashore, but never seems to remember from whom they were borrowed. He is a subtle combination of applied indifference and patriotic concern.
Yet who can deny, that it was a fitting gesture that men of his own service transported our late King, on his last journey. There were many proud hearts and willing hands that day. You see, a sailor despite his faults would lay down his life for both those who love him and they who dislike him.
Next time that you see a sailor ashore, think of him as a human being, buy him a pint, tell him a joke and remember, mine's a bitter.
Although I left 10 years ago this brought a tear to my eye and a smile to my face. God Bless
Bigbaz 29.09.2001 00:03
Coming from an Rem I have to say that this is one piece of inspired writing. I remember most the cockroaches everywere on the Grenville. Ice on the decks and condensation running from the everywhere on Cleopatra off Iceland. I remember the orphans at a home near Portsmouth as we dug a pool for them. I remember India, South Africa, Hong Kong but most of all I remember the mates I had. I was proud to wear that uniform, but whats left now but memories..Baz
SMacdonald 31.07.2001 01:39
A really excellent and thorough description of the life of a sailor.