The Royal Navy and its Seamen at war

The 1937 Coronation Fleet Review, which showcased the Royal Navy at the height of its power

The 1937 Coronation Fleet Review, which showcased the Royal Navy at the height of its power

One of the features of war at sea, is that apart from perhaps the odd death from illness or caused by accidents, the vast majority of casualties come all at once. Often, they consist of most or even all of a ships company. If an Army unit has a bad battle, it might have lost say 10 or even up to 20 men in a day. An RAF Squadron might have lost 1 or maybe 2 aircraft in an operation. A ship, however, if torpedoed might lose most or all of its crew. Considering that Battleships such as HMS Hood, HMS Barham and HMS Royal Oak – all Portsmouth ships – contained upwards of 1,000 men, that entails heavy losses in a single day.

The list of sailors from Portsmouth who died between 1939 and 1947 tells us a lot about the Royal Navy itself. Many of the senior ranks, particularly Petty Officers, were older men and had served many years in the Navy. As Portsmouth was the home of a large part of the Navy, many of them naturally ended up living in Portsmouth. As such a high proportion of Portsmouth’s naval servicemen were senior ranks, such as Petty Officers.

As well as men who served and died on board ships, there were also many who died in the course of serving onshore. For every sailor onboard ship, many more were required to provide training and support services on land, especially when the Navy was taking in an influx of new recruits in wartime. In particular, older men who were perhaps too old or unsuitable for active service at sea seem to have worked in desk jobs or as instructors at shore bases. Many of these older men died in service, perhaps from heart disease, cancer or illness brought on by a lack of nutrition in times of food rationing.

During the Second World War the Royal Navy seems to have had a number of branches: stokers, who fuelled the ship and maintained the boilers; engine room artificers, who maintained the engines; cooks, stewards and supply assistants, who were responsible for catering; writers who took care of administration; and also other specialist roles such as shipwrights, engineers, gunners and masters at arms. There was also a large number of Able Seaman performing general tasks, and in some ships a number of Boy Seamen. In larger ships, Royal Marines would crew one of the main turrets, and the ship might also have a Royal Marine band onboard.

In stark contrast to todays Royal Navy, where many seamen are highly skilled technicians and systems operators, the Royal Navy of the mid-twentieth century was made up mainly of mechanics and labourers, who had to do hard, physical work.

Of men who served onboard ship, the statistics are pretty clear. When losses were suffered, for example if a ship was sunk or heavily damaged, a large proportion of a ships crew could be killed at once. This is not only due to the proximity of so many men to the point of danger, but that often survivors could expect no salvation and became casualties themselves. A stark reminder of this is that a majority of sailors who died in the war have no grave other than the sea itself. However, there are also a small number of men buried in their home town who must have died in hospital, and also men buried in the numerous ports around the world where Royal Navy ships called in.



Filed under Navy, portsmouth heroes, World War Two

2 responses to “The Royal Navy and its Seamen at war

  1. Johngocambs

    very informative. I served in the RN for a few years myself and find this very interesting. Thanks!

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