GENERAL ARTICLES

WHAT SAILORS THINK

Strikes, politics, food wasters and gasoline wanglers ■ ∎ ■ these are the pet peeves of the Royal Navy’s fighting men

NICHOLAS MONSARRAT November 15 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

WHAT SAILORS THINK

Strikes, politics, food wasters and gasoline wanglers ■ ∎ ■ these are the pet peeves of the Royal Navy’s fighting men

NICHOLAS MONSARRAT November 15 1943

WHAT SAILORS THINK

GENERAL ARTICLES

Strikes, politics, food wasters and gasoline wanglers ■ ∎ ■ these are the pet peeves of the Royal Navy’s fighting men

NICHOLAS MONSARRAT

LIEUT., RNVR

WHAT sailors think and talk about affects the ships of the Allied nations at all times, colors their corner of the war, and, matched and duplicated in the other fighting services might profoundly affect the peace.

A great deal of it may seem naive but there is a reason for that, and a good one. Sailors, more than anyone, tend to get out of touch with things. They see newspapers at irregular intervals, and not always the ones they prefer; they may be sealed from the outside world for weeks at a time. What they read and hear talked about when they come back again sometimes surprises them; perhaps because they see only half or a quarter of the whole picture, and cannot tell that the emphasis presented to them is faulty or the view only a partial one.

But that doesn’t stop them thinking and talking a lot; indeed, like most spectators they talk the more for being out of the centre of activity. Here is what they think and say in the Royal Navy.

1. The War. We are, of course, winning it; that has never been in doubt at any time. But it is tremendously difficult to see the war as a whole, and the amount of leeway we have to make up—in the Far East, for example—is barely appreciated. This makes our progress seem very slow and particularly so at such times as the New Year or the anniversary of the ship’s commissioning, when the previous year’s hopes are recalled. Somehow the situation always looks very much the same, the end not much nearer, and home as distant and as hazy as ever.

Events and successes at sea naturally get the most attention and things like the Bismarck sinking or the Malta convoy battle are a first-rate tonic. Our big bombing raids and sweeps are rather taken for granted, though the RAF is okay. (We have entertained some of them on board, with notable cordiality on both sides.) Army successes, even on the scale of the North African campaign, are still somehow mistrusted or at least accepted with reserve; it cannot be ignored (except by sunshine students of affairs) that the Army were the “Dunkirk Harriers,” and kindred phrases, till the Battle of Alamein, and only now is it beginning to be realized that they were up against a crushing superiority of equipment in the earlier days and that the man-versus-steel excuse is of all excuses the most valid one.

No blame is attached to anyone for this inequality of weapons; it is how Britain has always fought her wars, and you can’t recriminate against such a national character as lack of foresight.

Of our Allies the Russians make the greatest impression; they are terrific, without qualification, and the effect of this is noted later under the heading “The Peace.”

One does not meet any expressed hatred of the Germans; atrocity stories ring no bell, and the word “Hun” is newspaper currency only. But such things as the bombing of a home town or actual contact with some piece of treachery or ruthlessness make for anger; and behind it all is the determination, taken as much for granted as the water under our keel, that we must win or perish. “Roll on the peace” is a recurring and favorite catchword, but it will have to be our peace; nothing sooner, and nothing less.

Can’t Explain Strikes

2. Strikes. I’ve not been able to explain to questioners why, of two men fighting the same war for the same clear stake of survival, one of them enjoying home life, comparative security and high-level wages can refuse outright to work unless he is paid more; and the other, conscripted at a meagre wage and sent far from home and into danger, would be shot out of hand if he tried the same tactic.

To sailors working under subhuman conditions for four shillings a day, wartime strikes seem a mixture of blackmail and pure treason. A country desperate for production, like a man desperate for food, is easily held to ransom; suppose the Services applied the same “bargaining weapon” in their own sphere? “What would happen to the country and the war if we tried the same thing?” is a frequent query, and I have heard the idea amusingly and bitterly elaborated in the messdecks; the ship refusing to escort a convoy the last 100 miles except for a bonus of $50 a man, or the Army demanding so much a mile for advances, with time-and-a-half for retreats, and Sundays free.

What did the Russians before Stalingrad think of such manoeuvres? “I saw ‘STRIKE NOW IN THE WEST’ chalked up on a factory wall at home,” said one Petty Officer to me when we were discussing this aspect, “and by God! that’s just what the men inside were doing. They’d struck all right for an extra two bob a shift. I reckon Hitler would be in Buckingham Palace right now if we all tried it.”

3. Food wasters, gasoline wanglers. This is where I have my say—as a sailor, of course.

We bring the stuff in, sometimes at cost to ourselves, nearly always at some sacrifices on the part of the ships we escort. Often now and in the past that cost has been tremendous; out in the Atlantic ship after ship has gone down; men have drowned or burned to death; survivors have gasped and shivered; the life line has seemed as thin as thread. But there has always been one thing to balance all this, offsetting the horror and the pity; the idea that what we were bringing in was vital, that it goes straight to fill some threatening gap, that no part of it is wasted or diverted. To bring it home safely rubs out all other entries in the log. It has been worthwhile.

And then we read the newspapers.

The cases are fewer now but still they come: food wasters, black-market buyers and thieves, people wangling goods in excess of quota, people taking Lordknows-what profit on the sale and resale of things they had hardly heard of in peacetime. Imagine what fools we feel, knowing that a convoy of what we thought vital supplies has really gone to the comfort and profit of such people, the comfort of stupid folk who cannot visualize the price in blood of what they

are wasting, the profit of assorted vermin who see in a shipload of necessities only the chance of a squeeze.

I once overheard at a restaurant table next to mine one favored citizen say to another:

“I’d have cleaned up another $5,000 if I’d held on till the end of the month.”

Held on to what? Not to a section of front-line trench, I’ll bet ! It was almost certainly some necessity or other delivered to his doorstep by the valor and endurance of brave men. Back from a rough convoy it makes the food stick in your throat. Is such a man concentrating on winning the war? Who is he trying to best? It doesn’t sound like Hitler. And yet the game goes on, checked at one point, slopping over at another; the goods are passed from hand to hand, the margin grows, the money involved gets bigger and dirtier. If ever men should be singled out and shot for looting, these are the prime candidates.

You can understand how it looks to sailors; these men are rats and we are the saps who keep them alive. And 10 such men are not worth the right arm of a Merchant Navy survivor picked off a raft in midAtlantic.

Tankers Are Dynamite

GASOLINE wanglers, like traitors, merit a special hell. Probably enough has been written about the hazards of bringing an oil tanker across the Atlantic, and the fate of the ones that don’t make it, to establish the background and impress it on the dullest mind. None of it has been exaggerated; tankers are dynamite, and their crews are heroes of a particular quality.

What then is one to make of people who license their private cars as taxis in order to get extra coupons, who obtain additional gasoline to attend church on Sunday, and then don’t go, who play golf by taxi (an isolated bit of lunacy, this), who drive hundreds of miles to a race-meeting already served by special trains, who treat gasoline as if it could be poured from a tap? What sort of men are they? Stupid? Incurably selfish? Traitorous? Do they feel clever when they’ve got this extra whack? Does it give them a sense of power to know that men, foolishly valorous, have fought and perished in hundreds just to keep their cars ticking sweetly? Once again, 10 such are not worth the skin of the man who dies for them, and one sometimes wishes that they could be individually flayed just to prove it in simple terms.

If there is bitterness here it is probably my own. I once saw some men failing to escape from a sinking tanker. Ever since then that has been what I mean by “gasoline coupons.” Each coupon is alive—to start with.

Footnote to the above. I see that it has now been declared legal to put down one’s place of business as “Tattersall’s Ring, So-and-so Race-Course,” and that a journey there (in the capacity of bookmaker) counts as work sufficiently vital to warrant an extra issue of gasoline. I wish I had heard of this earlier; I am sure that many a merchant seaman we have fished out of the water would have died the easier for knowing it.

4. Politics. Virtually nothing to report here; there is no time and, in effect, no occasion for political interest. The “Duration Only” ratings have shed or put in the background whatever convictions they had previously; and among the Active Service hands, the meagre interest they took in pre-war party politics seems to have evaporated, since the main issues, low pay and slow promotion, have largely disappeared in wartime or have been overshadowed by events.

It is perhaps worth noting, as an indication of their outlook, that a film showing Trafalgar Square speakers Continued on page 30

What Sailors Think

Continued from page 22

(mostly professional politicians) demanding a “Second Front” received a positive barrage of laughter and catcalls when shown at the local RN cinema. The feeling behind the demonstration was crystal clear; it was the expressed attitude of the people who would be at the landing-beaches towards the people who wouldn’t.

They were ready for the second front at any time, but the time was to be signalled by the competent authorities only and no others need apply.

Sailors and Girls

5. Girls. Sailors enjoy their reputation for gallantry, but they seldom seem to exploit it beyond the limits of good order and public decorum.

In the course of three years I have only had to deal with one affiliation case, and that one was contested with an air of such injured purity and detachment that I felt it in doubtful taste to raise the matter at all. One case, in three years, is not large-scale debauchery, or indeed debauchery of any sort. To offset the figures you could say that luck comes into it, but these things, if they exist at all, usually show on the record and here they certainly do not, the record is excellent.

Of course, as is natural when men are cooped up together at close quarters, the tone of conversation does not exactly reflect a humble worship at the shrine of womanhood; there is a lot of loose talk, and a chance listener might reasonably suppose that he had to deal with a nest of oldfashioned rogues of the “Yield-or-else” type. And when several ratings are together ashore they are inclined to behave badly, kidding girls and generally embarrassing them. But separate one of them, and put him on his own with exactly the same girl and he usually becomes a model of deference and attention. It is only when he is with a crowd that he lacks the courage or the initiative to treat women as normal human beings.

Incidentally there seems to be in the Naxry a special affection for Wrens, by which I mean that they are looked on not as fair game but as part of the Service and thus to be protected and preserved from outsiders. And what could be nicer than that?

6. Home. If sailors are not the most sentimental of men, then I’d like to know who are. More than half the crew of this ship are married, but all of them, married or not, seem to have a love of home grafted deep inside them, to a degree which a cynic might not credit. It is complementary to the ship, as the inner centre of their world; it stands behind everything. When the mail, for instance, is delivered on board and distributed to the various messes the atmosphere in the ship is a quite distinctive one, compounded of sentiment and a sort of unassailable

concentration.

Furthermore, their plans for the future all seem to centre, not round jobs or a steady income, but on a house, a family, a private world which, no matter how cramped or poor it may be, will give them peace against all comers. That is what they are fighting for, the sure welcome, the bride, the old woman. Their daydreams are the least ambitious and gentlest of any I know.

This is probably as x’ital a source of

strength and endurance as could be found anywhere. Worldly success may fade out of sight or be given up as hopeless, but this inner aim is not to be quenched. Men who fight with the heart, for the heart, are unbeatable.

7. The Peace. What sailors think and say about life after the war is probably more vague and unformed than in any other service.

All the things peculiar to life afloat contribute to this: the “closed circuit” of the ship, the absence of outside contact, the irregularity of communications. All these put a curtain between us and the shore. It is sometimes barely possible to keep up to date with the current war news, much less with trends of opinion and “planning” generally.

To take a concrete example, singled out for ease of illustration irrespective of its relative importance, this ship was at sea when the Beveridge Report was published in the newspapers. As a result, not one rating in 10 has any idea of its scope, not one in 50 a detailed knowledge of its provisions. (It is on chances such as this that a vote and even a lifelong attitude of mind may depend.) Roughly speaking, the plan is thought to be “insurance for all”—“taking over the insurance from the big companies”—or even “instead of the dole”; and this is all the impression it has made and all the hope it has raised.

A copy of the Report, which I later made available to anyone interested, had a minute circulation on board. Its interest as “news” had by then vanished, and it did not seem to arouse any other interest.

As well as this enforced vagueness (and in some cases complete indifference) as regards current projects there is a definite “win-the-war-first” attitude which contributes to the same hiatus. All things considered, “take no thought for the morrow’* is a reasonable summing up.

What will it be like after the war? It is still felt to be mostly guesswork. Perhaps things will be much the same, possibly a little better. There is sure to be unemployment and uncertainty still, but the readiness with which enormous grants for war expenditure are authorized gives some promise that money may be found (or rather credit furnished) for peacetime schemes to relieve this sort of distress. There will be more education available, “more of an equal chance for everybody.” I’ve not talked with anyone professing fear of the future. Equally, one does not hear of any active determination to make things better; there is a simple belief that they will be so and that we have learned from war economics enough to revitalize the peace.

It seems to be accepted that money will still be the mainspring of effort and the measure of success. When I brought back from home some of my son’s christening cake for distribution to the Petty Officers’ mess, one of them asked me: “What do you reckon he’ll be when he grows up?” I said I hoped he’d be something like a surgeon or an architect or a musician, to which the reply was, “Plenty of money in all of them if you get to the top.” I said I also hoped that he would not feel that “plenty of money” was the answer to everything, and that he would contrive to lead a full and happy life without it. This simply did not register, nor the idea (which I probably made to sound priggish and ineffective) that my son might be content to put things Continued on page 32

Continued from page 30 into the world instead of taking them out. This Petty Officer (neither an ambitious nor a selfish man) did not visualize a world in which this would be possible without a complete sacrifice of comfort and the probable starvation of whoever practiced it.

There remains this pointer toward the future, which has cropped up so often that it cannot be dismissed as worthless. The heroism and endurance of the Russians frequently provoke the remark: “They must have something really worth fighting for,” and the idea, current before the war, that they were the slaves of a soulless and hated state is now dismissed as bunk. “It (communism) wouldn’t do for us, but something of the same sort might if we could get it without a mess-up,” is

another remark, indicating the kind of a impression which the Russians’ resist-

i ance and readiness to die for their

t country and way of life has made»

i There must be something in a system

e which produces such extreme valor,

a not in isolated cases here and there,

but as a national characteristic; they 3 must feel that their country, their soil, o is their very own and that no force, s either of reaction or the reverse, can e betray their victory, e This is not the time in our history ? to discuss the implications of this

, feeling. I am simply recording that

e sailors have been struck by it, as no

3 doubt many other people have, and

t that when the time comes to organize

t our peacetime way of life Russia’s

f loving and jealous defense of her own

s will be remembered.