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Letters from Ordinary Seamen during the Second World War

Posted by Neil Jackson, on September 2nd, 2020

This month we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, a conflict which saw the Royal Navy expand its personnel strength considerably, with over 1 million men and women serving between 1939 and 1945. The Navy included people from a broad spectrum of society, with its regulars supplemented by RNVR officers, RNR Skippers and a large number of Hostilities Only ratings to mention a few. Many temporary officers spent several months at sea as Ordinary Seamen prior to training at HMS King Alfred near Brighton, ensuring that the ‘lower deck’ on certain ships was often an eclectic mix of people from different classes and backgrounds.

This article includes a selection of letters from two Ordinary Seamen, written during the darkest years of the conflict for the Royal Navy in 1941 and early 1942, when thousands of casualties were suffered and iconic ships such as Hood and the Ark Royal were sunk. However, rather than moments of extreme tension and terror at action stations, these letters focus instead on shipboard life and daily routines; snapshots of the lived experiences of those who served at sea during the war. They describe the living conditions that thousands of men had to adjust to when serving aboard the often overcrowded ships in the Royal Navy at this time. These letters provide a valuable insight into the lives of these men, which were often mundane, monotonous, and at times downright frustrating (I can personally attest to the fact that, over half a century after these letters were written, tropical rig was still a struggle to keep clean and white!).

Extract from ‘British Naval Documents, 1204-1960’ by Professor G. Till et al, NRS volume 131 (1993) pp. 1002-1004.

 
Ordinary Seaman K. Stott of H.M.S. Rockingham to his wife,
3 December 1941

… Lying in my bunk last night I tried to catalogue some of the things I shall remember about destroyer life. I think they would fall into three categories, smells, noises and sights, in that order. I don’t think I shall ever forget the hot reek of fuel oil; the alcoholic gush of sweetness, vaguely distasteful, when damp demerara sugar is opened up; the noise of crockery rattling in the cages during the night as the ship rolls and heaves; the sound of the boatswain’s pipe, his ‘wakey wakey’; the sight, from the bridge, of the stern wallowing as the seas smash over her; the skyline swinging violently to port and the funnels crazy against the sky, already braced for the inevitable lurch to starboard that follows. I could go on: the hot, horrid, smell of cigarette smoke coming up through the voice pipes when you are queasy, and haven’t had a cigarette yourself for days; the peculiar shake she gives just before you know she is going to stop a heavy sea; the queer taste of a ‘duff’ made with flour that has gone slightly mouldy….

 

Ordinary Seaman Wilfred Smith of H.M.S. Erebus to his mother,
7 December 1941

…Glad to report myself still well and, a fact that does not cease to amaze me, still entirely immune from seasickness. My only complaints are a feeling of tiredness and listlessness, no doubt due to broken and snatchy hours of sleep owing to having to get up and go on watch continually at various hours of the day and night. We work in three watches now – red, white and blue – doing roughly four hours on and six to eight off, although when I say ‘off’ there is usually some job or the other to be done below decks. I am in red watch now and am gun-trainer on a [word obliterated by censor] (anti-aircraft gun), an ugly-looking affair, but quite effective I believe when it comes to the real thing!
We have had one or two deprivations while on this trip. Water (fresh for washing) has been reduced to a minimum, with no hot at all, and thus no chance for a bath or a decent shave. And so everyone has been walking about very unshaven and unwashed, but today the situation appears to have improved a little and there may even be the possibility of a hot wash down before much time has elapsed – believe me, I sincerely hope so anyhow, as at present I am feeling as lousy as a cuckoo! There has also been a shortage of bread and potatoes, our ration of both of which has been cut by half. But taking things generally the food situation has been very good – plenty of tinned vegetables and joints of meat, also plenty of chocolate in the canteen to fill up with if necessary….

 

Ordinary Seaman Wilfred Smith of H.M.S. Erebus to his mother,
18 January 1942

…We have been wearing tropical rig for some time now, i.e. white shorts, shirt, and white cap, black shoes or boots and black socks or stockings. But I must say I shall always prefer the blue suit, although weather conditions of course are the governing factor in these affairs. The trouble with this tropical rig is that one is never finished washing; one wears the white shorts while working about the ship, and needless to say at the end of the day, when one has done perhaps a bit of painting or scrubbing or sweeping etc. said infernal shorts are anything but white, and so once more one repairs to the bathroom (which incidentally is totally inadequate in size), and once more one attempts to produce a clean pair of shorts with the aid of a bucket (if able to borrow somebody’s) or a bowl if they are not already in use, a bit of persil and soap and a lot of elbow-grease. And then perhaps there will be some socks, a shift, towel, shirt and one of two other odds and ends which also require restoration to something like whiteness. I can assure you our bathroom in the dog watches presents at times a scene that has to be seen to be believed!…

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About Neil Jackson

Neil Jackson is a serving Warrant Officer 1st Class (Aircraft Controller) in the Royal Navy, currently assigned to HMS Queen Elizabeth. He has a BA(Hons) in History from the Open University, and is the Editor of the Members’ Blog.