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Post-WW2 National Service in the UK


Interesting facts about post-war national service in the Royal Navy

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badge of the Royal Navy

Personal recollections by Fred Peach, edited by the webmaster

Punishment in the Royal Navy

If we naval national servicemen committed any offence, we were asked for our card. This was kept by the person demanding it until the offence had been reported to the necessary authority and action taken.

Sentencing a punishment

To receive our sentence we paraded in front of an officer according to the severity of the offence. After being told our punishment, our cards were returned.

Types of punishment

Punishment was awarded according to the seriousness of the offence. The officer in charge 'rewarded' a minor offence with a ticking off; a more serious offence went to the captain of the ship or establishment and the even more serious offences were dealt with by court martial.

All in all punishment was light on board ship - especially on small ships - offenders were more often than not let off with a good talking to. Examples of other punishment could be stoppage of leave, stoppage of pay and being required to double round a parade ground in full kit with a rifle over one's head for as long as the petty officer in charge of 'men under punishment' thought fit.

The offence of whistling

Certain offences were traditionally considered quite serious. Whistling was one. This came from sailors in sailing days broadcasting an impending mutiny by whistling.

The Oath of Allegiance to the Crown

One of the many things that made the Royal Navy quite different from the other two services was that we recruits were never required to swear allegiance to the Crown.

In the RAF and the Army, I understand this is one of the first things that happens. In our case, as post World War Two national servicemen in the Royal Navy, we were to learn why in our naval history lectures.

Historical background to the Oath of Allegiance in the navy

The Royal Navy started many centuries ago as an armed force recruited by the owners of merchant ships.

The owners had tired of having their precious cargoes plundered by pirates and anyone else who took a fancy to them, so decided to protect them with men employed simply to defend the ships and their cargoes from attack. As such 'the Crown' didn't come into the picture.

As years went by the situation developed into what the Navy is now. Instead of a merchant ship's complement comprising only 'sailors' responsible for loading the cargoes and navigating the ship from one place to another there was a crew of 'protectors'. As the practice grew more popular and piracy and the like was controlled. things changed, and instead of each ship having his own 'protectors' they were put on their own ships which guarded a fleet of merchant vessels.

In time of war the fleet of 'protector ships' was seen as highly suitable for combating the enemies of the then current king or queen. One set of protector ships combined with another and the Royal Navy was born. But still with no allegiance responsibility to the crown. Indeed for a great number of years merchant ship owners provided the pay of these protectors.

Eventually the whole thing was regularised and the Royal Navy proper came into being. One final development followed. Although the Royal Navy personnel fought the ship at sea, there was a need to have more highly skilled marksmen and more military skilled men on the Royal Navy ships.

Why the Royal Marines do take the Oath of Allegiance

The Royal Marines, who are part of the Royal Navy do, however, take the oath of allegiance to the Crown. The reason again lies in history:

Although the Royal Navy personnel were skilled at swordplay, firing cannons of various shapes and sizes and the use of the traditional cutlass, their rifle skills were only moderate. Yet sharpshooting was a need in the early days, and there were occasions when it became necessary to fight on land from their ships.

Thus was born the Royal Marines - the soldiers of the Royal Navy. These first marines were recruited from the army of the day and were thus 'sworn men' who had taken the oath of allegiance.

A naval idiosyncrasy

Royal Marines were and still are part of the Royal Navy. In ships of the Royal Navy that carry Royal Marines, the Marines are always quartered between those of the 'sailors' and the commissioned officers. The theory remains that men who, on joining, had been required to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown would protect the commissioned officers from the rough and ready sailors who had not taken the oath.

Rum issue

Every member of the Royal Navy is entitled to a daily issue of rum.

Neat or dilute rum

In the case of Petty Officers and above their rum is issued 'neat'. For ranks below Petty Officer the rum is diluted with two parts of water, sometimes three. So the ration for us post-war national servicemen was either 'Two and one' or 'Three and one'.

Grades for recipients of the rum issue

Everyone was classified according to one of three grades.

• The first was 'Grog', so a G appeared on one's Ships Card.

• The second was 'Temp' meaning Temperance, for someone who did not take his rum ration for whatever reason. His card was stamped with a T. A daily sum was supposed to be added to his pay in compensation for the lack of the rum ration. However many who were T classified complained that they never saw a penny of this compensation money.

• The remaining classification was 'Under Age'. This meant that the sailor was under the age of 20 and therefore not entitled to draw the rum ration. His card was stamped UA. They received neither a rum ration nor an allowance in lieu.

Serving the rum issue

In barracks the serving of the rum ration was by all entitled personnel queuing up before a large barrel on which was inscribed the words "God Save The King", and being given a pub-type half-pint of the watered rum filled to the brim. The rum had to be downed immediately and in very short time, with no loitering. One gulp and it was gone. Then the glass was swilled around in a fanny of cold water and put back on the tray next to it before the order "Next man!" was called. No time was wasted. Certainly there was no time for the rum to be savoured.

At sea the ration for the whole mess was drawn by the Cooks of the Day and poured into glasses, one for each person entitled to a ration. The rum was often used as a sort of currency. Doing a favour for someone might result in 'Sippers' which meant that the donation was just a quick sip out of the proffered glass of rum. 'Gulpers' meant a more prolonged drink. It was very rare indeed for the whole ration to be offered but it did come about from time to time.


We naval national service men had to wash our own clothes. There were, though, so I under­stand, differing provisions for naval men not dressed as seamen inasmuch as their white shirts were laundered by facilities in their camp.

How clothes were washed

At our training base in Cookham we could use the sinks in the shower/washing huts. On board ship we used a tin bucket of hot water. The soap was the cheap rough kind which was issued once a month.

At any time when a crew member was off duty one of his pastimes would be to obtain a bucket and sit rubbing away at his collars, underclothes, handkerchiefs and socks - always rubbing, the rule being you scrub dirt in and rub dirt out.

How the washing was rinsed

Once all our clothes had been rubbed and squeezed clean, the bucket was refilled with cold water and the clothes rinsed.

How the washing was dried

The washing was squeezed and wrung to remove as much water as possible and and then hung up to dry.

At our training base in Cookham we hung out our washing on string stretched between huts. This was, however, frowned upon by the authorities and had to be whisked away if there was a risk of an officer becoming present.

On board ship, if you could get away with it you could leave your washing to dry near the engine room where the air was always very warm - providing you were reasonably sure than when you returned to collect your dried clothes they were still there. Otherwise washing was hung up in the mess.

How the washing was ironed

in each hut or mess there was a communal iron, purchased by a small contribution from each mess-member. It was used to smooth the washed items.

Comparison with the other services

The other two services, as I understand it, did not have to wash their clothes themselves. They had laundry arrangements. Just another example of how we national servicemen in the Royal Navy had a harder time than those in the other two services.

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.

Swimming proficiency - or lack of it

Why swimming proficiency was not a requirement, which may seem surprising for people who work at sea. The reason 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.

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.

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.

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