Running a Big Ship

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  • Author:
    Captain Rory O'Conor RN
    This book takes us back to the piping days of interwar peace, and a British fleet of bone-white teak and gleaming brightwork, starched ice-cream suits under sun-bleached awnings, immaculate paintwork and enamelled turrets and not an Irish pendant hanging Judas. Hands were called at 0530, fallen in at 0600 to scrub forward, scrub aft, and clean ship for an hour before breakfast, eaten as were all other meals on the broadside messdecks.

    The author was Commander (Executive Officer and Second in Command) of the battlecruiser HMS Hood 1934-1936, a remarkable appointment for a newly promoted Commander. Of her complement of 1500 the vast majority were under his aegis. In 1937 he published this digest of his experience in the form of guidance to others in the same role in capital ships and cruisers, all of whose manning was predicated on the manpower needed to man the armament in those pre-automation handraulic days.

    The organisation described survived the war in big ships at least until in 1959 the increase in automation - five men to a 6" turret instead of fifty - led to much smaller complements, and the rise of the technician produced ultimately a Weapons Engineering department quite separate from the miniscule seaman (and RM) numbers. Successive rises in the school-leaving age and increased technical training produced a Lower Deck of greater awareness than that so paternalistically managed before the War.

    The level of detail is amazing. That is of course the historical interest, particularly the last eighty pages which describe exactly how such matters as bugle calls and 'muster by open list' fitted into the organisation and how spitkids were managed. However, and particularly in the first 145 pages, there is a great deal of wisdom relating to the welfare of the men and how to handle them. If I were suddenly transported to the job of Commander or XO of a British warship, I would find this book quite helpful, including perhaps his advice relating to embarked RAF personnel.

    O'Conor was well thought of, promoted Commander at the age of 33 and then Captain at 37. This work earned the valuable endorsement of a Foreword by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork and Orrery. This new edition is a very welcome contribution to making detailed naval history more accessible, coming as it does with an introduction by Brian Lavery.
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  1. beagleboy
    Piqued my interest.
  2. seaweed
    Not really appropriate for the formal review, but the Navy I joined was still doing the early morning scrub decks as I discovered about four months into my career, and in Leningrad in October in bare feet, the Neva river water from the firemain was, I have no doubt, character forming.

    As a midshipman in a wartime-built cruiser in the mid-50s the situation was much as described in the book except that the complement was not much more than half that of Hood, and would have been less except that in the Far East we were kept at full war complement.

    Later in Tiger, as Commander's Assistant's Assistant where delegation could go no further, one of my jobs was getting Daily Orders out and I had a through drubbing in all the fish-head organisation described in the book although by then, with the new 6" Mk 26 and only four of them instead of nine Mk 23s, a cruiser's complement had been considerably cut and one couldn't just open a new box of sailors for anything that came along. The scrub decks had gone - the gangway watchkeepers did the job in silent hours using mechanical scrubbers the 1st Lt had boned from somewhere. The Commander hatched a plan to have the RM Band spread the awning on entering harbour but that didn't really work although we did find most of the Bandies eventually. With far fewer Booties needed their landing platoon had shrunk considerably but as I was deafeningly informed by Sarnt Major 'with increased FIREPAAH! SAH!'

    In a DLG in the 60s (HMS London) the Greenery had expanded enormously, there were no Booties and we ran like a Big Ship but in miniature, with me still the Daily Orders man as Sub Lieutenants had disappeared back into the maw of BRNC. Tricky bits were finding the bodies for a Royal Guard (for the King of Siam) which would have been no sweat in Hood. Seaslug was entirely the preserve of the Greenies with no seamen involved at all.

    So this book did ring a few bells with me.
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    1. overopensights
      Great stuff!"
      overopensights, Aug 9, 2017