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Swimming proficiency for national
servicemen in the Royal Navy

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This page takes 'National Service' as the generally understood term in 1950s Britain, meaning conscription into the armed forces for young men after World War Two.

For a service based primarily at sea, it might seem that swimming proficiency would be a requirement. However this was not so. At no time during my national service in the Royal Navy was I asked if I could swim. Neither were any swimming lessons offered.

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Why swimming proficiency was not a requirement

The reason for lack of attention to swimming was given to me one very dark and stormy night on board ship during the middle watch at about two in the morning.

A Stoker Petty Officer was on the bridge for a little fresh air and we were chatting. I mentioned the matter of swimming and he smiled. He said, "Look over the side".

I looked over the side and saw that the sea resembled thick black oil with a slight sheen from the moonlight.

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He continued, "If you were to fall overboard or the ship was hit, how much difference do you think it would make whether you could swim or not?"

I took his point.

Later he told me that he had been on the Arctic Convoys during the war and had been lucky enough to survive. He mentioned sinking and said "If the ship copped it and you were in the water, you would survive only five minutes in that freezing arctic water, one if you were lucky." I shivered at the thought.

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Minimising danger from going overboard

Consequently I always made sure that I acted in such a manner that I was in the least danger from going over the side - especially at night. When the sea was at all rough and I was on the upper deck, I always held on tightly when I was anywhere near the guardrails.

Page contributed by Fred Peach

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