Nelson’s Wavy Heir, Part 1

I have to confess that I rarely watch the Military Channel, one of the more obscure recesses of the vast satellite TV channel list – so obscure that it doesn’t even make it into the TV guide we get every week, unlike such offences against humanity as the various spin-offs of Channel 5 and the increasingly laughably misnamed History Channel. (My definition of ‘history’ is very broad, but it doesn’t extend to ‘Storage Wars’ or ‘Ice Road Truckers’.) Even when I do take any notice of the Military Channel’s programming, there’s rarely anything that appeals; let’s face it, when you’ve seen one programme about ‘the world’s deadliest aircraft’ or Israeli special forces, you’ve seen them all. But they’re currently running a series called ‘Officers and Gentlemen’ about trainee Royal Navy officers going through their paces at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and this definitely caught my eye – although it’s a sad indictment of ‘sea blind’ 21st century Britain that such a programme is exiled to the obscurity of the Military Channel rather than getting an outing on a more mainstream service. For one thing, it brought back happy memories of the time over 20 years ago when I, too, was an ‘officer’ under training at Dartmouth. So I thought that I’d spend a couple of weeks taking a trip down memory lane to the somewhat surreal previous life of Sub-Lieutenant J D Davies, RNR (CCF).


The British public school is a very strange place, even before one considers the political and moral arguments for and against its very existence or ponders the undue influence its alumni exert in supposedly ‘modern’ Britain. One of the odder rituals that characterises many public schools takes place on one afternoon every week, when mild-mannered teachers disappear into changing rooms, discard their off-the-shelf TKMaxx suits or tweed sports jackets that were briefly fashionable in 1925, and re-emerge in uniform, miraculously transformed into Lieutenant-Colonels, Pilot Officers, Sub-Lieutenants and the like. For this is the demi-monde of the Combined Cadet Force, a Victorian creation originally designed to provide training for future generations of officers and gentlemen. For such an apparently old-fashioned pillar of the establishment, the CCF can be a remarkably subversive organisation. For one thing, it entirely overturns the hierarchy of the school: thus a head of department, say, or a deputy headmaster, can find himself having to salute the most feckless classroom teacher, who happens to be his superior officer within the Corps (as it’s colloquially known). This was certainly the case when I joined the CCF of Bedford Modern School in 1988 as the newest officer of its Royal Navy section. The contingent commander, and thus a baton-wielding Lieutenant-Colonel, was a school legend, a much-loved, charismatic but famously disorganised Geography teacher, and the majority of his officers were from the same mould, thus turning the school’s Corps into a somewhat anarchic gentlemen’s club. Perhaps the classic example of this was one of the annual inspections, when it was announced that we were to be graced by the high-ranking military attache of a Middle Eastern state. The dignitary arrived and passed down the lines of cadets, all standing stiffly to attention. Virtually nobody realised that this was the contingent CO’s brilliant response to the last-minute cancellation by the regular officer who was meant to be carrying out the inspection: the swarthy Arab colonel walking up and down the lines was in fact the Head of Classics, brilliantly disguised by the Drama Department.

My entry into the CCF was inevitable from the moment the Headmaster who appointed me looked at my CV, noted my interest in naval history, and suggested that a willingness to join the Corps would greatly strengthen my prospects of being offered the job. (Similarly, ‘being Welsh’ was considered sufficient qualification to place me in charge of the Under-15B rugby team.) Public school teachers are expected to become involved in the extra-curricular life of the school, and I have to admit I didn’t object to being semi-dragooned into the CCF; I realised at once that this presented an unparalleled opportunity for me to experience something of the Royal Navy from the inside, insights that were likely to prove valuable to me both as a historian and a potential future writer of fiction. (The rugby was a different matter; I still shudder when I recall the level of parental abuse from the touchlines that greeted some of  my more eccentric refereeing decisions, or getting soaked to the skin on the touchline during a monsoon at Oakham School as my team and theirs played out a 0-0 draw, a scoreline virtually unknown in rugby, on a pitch that resembled a swamp.) So I was duly appointed an officer in the Royal Navy section, which meant my name went onto the Navy List, albeit somewhere near the very back of it. This made me a Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Naval Reserve (Combined Cadet Force), and one of an elite body entitled to wear a very special uniform; along with our brother organisation, the Sea Cadet Corps, we were the only arms of the RNR still to wear the ‘wavy navy’ stripes which had been worn with such great distinction in wartime by the RNVR, the former Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

I’d joined the CCF in September, at the beginning of a school year, which meant I couldn’t undertake the Officers’ Initial Training Course at BRNC Dartmouth until the following August. In the meantime I learned the ropes of the training programme that we carried out with our cadets at the school and accompanied a party of cadets to a course in Portsmouth: this was my first experience of both wearing uniform and of wardroom life, both aboard the accommodation ship HMS Kent and the adjacent shore base HMS Excellent, where the magnificent oak-panelled Edwardian dining room contains the original of the famous painting of a British sailor that once adorned packets of John Player cigarettes. This proved relatively straightforward in one sense – an Oxford education ensured that I already knew which way to pass the port – but an eye-opener in another, namely the astonishingly low prices of wardroom drinks, which, alas, means that many of my recollections of time spent on warships and shore bases are distinctly hazy. I also had my first of four memorable experiences of the Clyde Fleet Tender, of which more in a subsequent post. But finally the following August came round, and it was time for the train journey that generations of naval officers under training have made, down to Totnes station in Devon, there to be collected by transport from the college. And so I came to Britannia for the first and, so far, only time.

Britannia is a truly awe-inspiring building. Its huge, cloister-like corridors are impressive enough, but the major public spaces are veritable shrines to British naval history: for instance, the ‘quarterdeck’, effectively a vast assembly hall, and above all the gunroom, where we dined, the walls of which are adorned by huge paintings of famous victories. (A few years later, I was fortunate enough to be asked to contribute to a book based on each of the gunroom paintings; my chapter was on Blake at Santa Cruz, 1657). Our theory classes took place in the same rooms where countless naval officers have been taught. These covered such subjects as basic navigation, which I took to like a duck to water, and naval knots, which for some reason continue to form part of the cadet curriculum. I never really got to grips with knots, especially the bowline, where all the talk of rabbits going down holes served only to confuse me. There were also lessons in etiquette; fortunately I’d been forewarned about the need to say ‘please excuse my rig’ to the senior officer in uniform at the bar if one happened to be dressed in ‘Planters’, the smart jacket-and-tie dress code for the evening, and thus avoided being forced to buy a round of drinks for everyone present by the devious midshipman who decided one evening to fleece this interloping bunch of unsuspecting schoolteachers.

But the most memorable training took place outside. Every morning was spent on the parade ground, teaching us how, when and whom to salute (I’d had a year to get used to such things so had a head start on some of my fellows), together with good old-fashioned square bashing. I wasn’t great at marching, but by the end of the course I could do it without committing the great sin known as ‘tick-tocking’ or resembling an arthritic duck, which is more than can be said for some of my compatriots. Several sessions were spent out on the River Dart in the college’s little flotilla of picket boats, learning how to navigate and steer them, how to bring them alongside, how to rescue a man overboard, and so forth – the basic staples of seamanship. Of course, there were several near disasters (fortunately none when I was in ‘command’) but fortunately there were always grizzled old salts on hand to ensure that we didn’t run onto rocks or collide with the Kingswear ferry. We were blessed by excellent weather, and I still remember the frisson as our ‘squadron’, in line ahead, sailing past Dartmouth Castle and out into the open sea.

I’d been dreading one particular element of the course: the compulsory swimming test, which I think was a couple of lengths of the Britannia pool, fully clothed. I can swim, just, but my lumbering and graceless splashing was barely up to a single length in swimming costume, let alone two in clothes. At this point, though, fate, luck, divine intervention – call it what you will – smiled upon me. We learned that our swimming test had been cancelled because the pool at Dartmouth had a crack in the bottom of it and was closed for repair. The navy being the navy, everyone just conveniently forgot about this particular ‘essential prerequisite’ of qualifying as an officer. And so, by the end of an all-too-short but memorable course, I’d made many new friends, could bring a boat alongside a quay without crashing into it, could march in step (after a fashion) and, all in all, I could just about pretend to be a naval officer without feeling like a monstrous fraud – although the first time I was saluted by a Royal Marine guard sporting a very large machine gun still came as a shock. We had a proper ‘passing out parade’, with one of the college’s officers taking the salute, and off we went, back to our various schools, fully fledged officers of Her Majesty’s Royal Naval Reserve (Combined Cadet Force).

(Next week: How to eat scrambled eggs while World War III begins, plus the reason for not going to Campbeltown.)

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