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Running a Big Ship

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.

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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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