Seamanship in the Royal Navy

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Posted by Geraint Lewis on July 05, 2007 at 16:33:03 from user Geraint_Lewis.

Ransome gives Commander Walker a pretty good write up so far as his general seamanship and "man management" goes: tying knots one handed in half an eye-blink to impress the Dutch Pilot; having a no-nonsense approach to bringing up his children, etc.

I've just been reminded of this when coming across a description of Admiral Sir Arthur Browne Cunningham (known as ABC) in James Holland's "Fortress Malta". Cunningham was Britain's foremost "fighting admiral" during WW2, responsible - amongst other successes - for the RN's raid on Taranto (a mixed blessing as his tactics there directly inspired the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour the following year).

Holland states that ABC was highly unusual in having achieved Flag rank through a career spent mainly in destroyers, as opposed to the more prestigious "Big Ships". Further more:

"he (ABC) firmly believed that proper seamanship could only be acquired on the smaller, more manouvrable destroyers, where instantaneous decisions and ruthless determination were part and parcel of good leadership. 'The best officers to be found in big ships come from submarines or destroyers,' he said. 'I have always maintained there is more real discipline in destroyers than big ships, and of course we are always in so much more touch with our men'."

I guess this could raise two Ransomish points. Firstly, was Ransome aware of the "Big ship" and "little ship" cultures in the Royal Navy of the time? He certainly seems to have created, in Commander Walker, a believable "little ships" or "destroyer" seaman, as defined by ABC's views at least. Was Ransome's creation of Commander Walker based on general knowledge about the RN, or did he have more specific contacts with naval officers on which to draw?

Secondly, there is the old favourite topic, of how the books' characters developed in later life. It is clear that John was going to follow his father into the Navy, and as many people have hypothesised before, WW2 would have intervened at a relatively early stage in his career. Personally I've always imagined that John would have followed his father into "little ships" by preference - either destroyers or just possibly submarines. The emphasis on greater responsibility, seamanships skills, etc, would presumably have attracted him. But do people feel there is any evidence that John would have gravitated towards "Big ships", which at the time may well have been seen as a preferential route for a career officer?


PS - As an aside, ABC's description of destroyer commanders "ruthless leadership" does make me think of Nancy.

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