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return to Lt-Cdr Mason's researches
or World War 2, 1939-1945

by Geoffrey B Mason, Lieutenant Commander, RN (Rtd) (c) 1992




Maintenance of Discipline - Fundamental Considerations


Living conditions - Discipline - Alcohol - Periods of Foreign Service and Family Separation - Terms of Engagement - Drafting - Main Manning Depots - Specialised Training Establishments and Naval Air Stations  - Boys (or Juniors) and Artificers Training Establishments - Local Leave


Increased Attention to Welfare and Conditions





see also


Post-War Chronology of Royal Navy Events 1946-1970 covering:

Admiralty and later MOD administration.





Naval Aviation

Home Station

Foreign Stations



HMS Vanguard, Britain's last battleship1946-60
(Courtesy NavyPhotos)




The respective attitudes one towards the other very much mirrored those of society as a whole during the same period. Officers were principally judged by the degree of professionalism they demonstrated and by their approach to problems affecting life on board the ship or establishment in which they served. These characteristics are very much influenced by the educational and social backgrounds of both officer and rating. In either case the experience of life by each individual, both within and outside the service environment, was an important factor. Good relations are more easily fostered in a small organisation and for that reason, subject to the quality of leadership displayed by officers and senior ratings, small ships were more suited to the creation of a stable and efficient working relationship.


It must be recognised that the image projected by officers and senior ratings has a particular significance, especially that of any commanding officer. Those gifted with a charismatic quality were able to exert a tremendous influence on all for whom they were responsible. However for best effect it was necessary that they demonstrated an ability to assess the strengths and weakness of their subordinates. With this asset any commanding officer could be confident that all with whom he had dealings would respond in the way he judged was most suited to a particular situation. Leadership of this type would always foster good relations, but was comparatively rare. Positive guidance and consistency in dealing with subordinates are essential requirements to ensuring good relationships between officers and ratings. In their absence some compensation could be provided if his Executive officer possessed some if not all these attributes.


However, in such situations the likelihood of a clash of personalities would be almost inevitable and could have a disastrous effect with a consequential deterioration in relationships at lower levels. All these elements make a subjective analysis very difficult, if not impossible. Any assessment made has to take into account the many alterations made to conditions of service as well as improvements in habitability and working arrangements on board ships. The greater attention paid to welfare matters during these decades, and the relaxation of some of the outdated restrictions, are additional factors which cannot be ignored when considering this subject.


Maintenance of Discipline


In any large organisation the attitude of those in authority to their subordinates is of fundamental importance. The principal difference between a 'commercial' and a 'military' environment is that the latter, with its more severely disciplined structure, has a far sharper teeth with which to enforce authority. Interpretation of the rules governing the naval service varies considerably because they depend largely on the discretion of individuals responsible for the maintenance of discipline. Variations in methods of enforcement for the same infringement differ because of both the 'human' factor and the circumstances pertaining at the time of any infringement.


Fundamental Considerations


During the period up to 1960, although most officers had been educated to a high academic standard, most of them had lead a cloistered existence within a society far different from the conditions under which most ratings had grown to maturity. This influenced their attitude to ratings and it was essential for all officers to adapt to entirely new circumstances when they first had responsibility as Divisional Officers. Some did this quickly but others found it a very difficult process. The impression they created varied considerably for the reasons already outlined and reaction by ratings differed between the various categories concerned.


Professional ability displayed and a capacity to understand the reactions of those for whom he was responsible in any situation, were important attributes required by any officer. They would do much to ensure a responsive environment. Personal idiosyncrasies and an ability to project personality played a significant part in achieving this situation, together with common interests in sporting and other competitive ship activities. For example a young lieutenant whose ability as a Ships Communications officer was considered to be inadequate would still gain respect of his division if he showed an ability to distinguish between a genuine complaint and an attempt by others to take advantage of his own inexperience.






Study of press reports, biographical works and observation of the changes made over this period shows that there were many factors affecting service in the Royal Navy. Most of them had a direct influence on the relations between officers and ratings. Between 1949 and 1957 many of the reasons for complaint were gradually given some attention. It is difficult to single out one as the most significant, but the following were of prime importance and continued to give cause for disquiet for many years, especially to all those concerned with recruitment:


Living Conditions in ships and some shore establishments.


Methods of maintaining discipline.


Provision of Married Quarters.


Long periods of separation due to overseas service.


Terms of Engagement for Regular Service.


Pay in comparison with equivalent shore employment.


It is important to recognise that changes in social conditions, attitudes and standards of living in the civil

community exerted a very considerable influence on service life. In response to these changes the entry requirements for cadets, including their acceptance from a wider range of schools were altered. This was the first step towards providing career officers from a wider cross-section of the ,nation and in due course assisted in improving relationships between officers and ratings. The introduction of more complex equipment and use of procedures which demand a higher standard of education at all levels has also helped to create a more tolerant atmosphere, within the still essential, but modified disciplinary boundaries required in any military organisation.


Living Conditions


In the immediate post war era, shipboard living conditions in many ships, especially for ratings, were generally poor due to overcrowding. The design of many ships was inadequate for their function in war, and even more so for a peacetime service which included a proportion of conscripted personnel. Many ships carried far more people than was allowed for in their design due to the increase in the amount of equipment fitted, such as additional radar and weapon systems. The shortage of space restricted sleeping facilities and gave rise to considerable concern.


Catering and feeding arrangements in ships were also the subject of many complaints raised by ships companies after the end of hostilities in 1945. Galley arrangements were primitive, particularly in small ships. As a result the standard of food provided for ratings was poor and also limited by the use of  'Canteen Messing’. The need to modernise galleys and to provide better catering standards, although recognised, was not remedied for many years. Changes necessary to improve the situation were very slowly adopted for financial and purely lethargic reasons. The higher echelons of the naval service, responsible for making such decisions were largely made up of people whose judgements were based on standards which had been acceptable during the period before 1939. Because they found it difficult to appreciate the need to provide essentials such as air conditioned living accommodation and improved catering, the much needed changes were slow in introduction and life at sea continued to be very unattractive. Financial and political considerations simply added to the complications being faced.




Wartime naval service was quite different from that prior to the outbreak of war. A very large proportion of officers and ratings were serving for the duration of hostilities and not familiar with the custom and practice of the pre-war RN. These criteria were not necessarily always suitable for the conditions being encountered.


The low standard of shipboard facilities had a considerable influence on the maintenance of discipline and therefore in providing 'happy and efficient’ environment. Extensive differences existed between ships in the way that the same disciplinary infringement was dealt since much depended on the way in which individuals concerned regarded the particular circumstances. In this respect commanding officers had to ensure that clear guidelines were given to all under their command which would meet any envisaged situation. This was often not the case with, in many cases, counter-productive and lasting effect on the relationship between ships companies and their officers and senior ratings.


The attitude of ratings serving on 'Regular’ Terms of Engagement to their officers was influenced by that of the 'Hostilities Only' intake, and vice versa. A great disparity existed in many cases in the standard of education and type of social background which had both disadvantages and advantages. A poorly educated rating who had joined the navy on a 'Regular' engagement could be considerably influenced by a messmate with a better standard of education who had been conscripted. Grudges about lack of leave or poor conditions, imaginary or otherwise, could be put into a quite different perspective when discussed on a mess-deck. Alternatively a seasoned Able Seaman with several years of service could have a major influence on his messmates and could ensure that representations were made in a manner most likely to be dealt with sympathetically and satisfactorily. The inexperience of many officers and senior ratings compounded the difficulties of maintaining a sensible standard of discipline in very disparate circumstances. For example the requirements in a ship stationed in the Far East in 1945-46, where there were many problems associated with catering and climates, let alone the unstable political environment, were quite different from those pertaining to a ship in Home Waters waiting to be reduced to Reserve. For example, see "Deployment of Loch-class Frigates in the Dutch East Indies, 1945-1946".


Variations in the attitudes to authority as already mentioned were to a degree affected by the categories of rating concerned, but there were some contradictions to this generalisation. Ratings whose duties required a high standard of training and education were less likely to be involved in serious confrontations. Artificers and Mechanics of all types, Writers and Supply ratings are examples. It can be postulated that their particular skills made them less likely to be influenced by others less able to take account of all factors influencing a particular disciplinary situation. Relaxation of unnecessary practices such as restriction of leave to specific times in shore establishments, routine formal inspections of living spaces at ‘unsocial’ hours and frequent musters of ratings for no apparent reason, all contributed to the need for improvement of conditions. Similarly, the wearing of plain clothes when going ashore in the UK was welcomed in the light of the changed attitude towards servicemen by some civilians.


However, perhaps the greatest factor in ensuring satisfactory discipline by keeping In touch with ratings and their living conditions, was the correct use of the Divisional System which had been in use for many years. Although Leading Hands of Messes and Presidents of Chief and Petty Officers Messes were in direct daily contact with the ships company, each Divisional Petty Officer had a specific responsibility for keeping his Divisional Officer informed of any matters affecting their departments. A great deal depended on these intermediaries. Their ability to distinguish between the significant and the inconsequential was of prime importance. Again, much depended on the experience and educationally based qualities of individual Divisional Petty Officers. Inevitably, in many cases some officers and senior ratings were presented with situations which demanded judgements beyond their experience and competence. Delays in discharge of certain categories of rating and of officers, on Regular and 'Hostilities Only' terms of service, as well as difficulties in implementing changes in living conditions, also contributed to Increasing the likelihood of disciplinary problems.




No consideration of the relationship between officers and ratings can be complete without due attention to the effects of alcohol. This applies to both officers and ratings since the 'demon' recognises no boundaries. The comparatively easy access to alcohol in wardroom messes, especially in small ships cannot be ignored, but as long as strict control was exercised by Commanding Officers, effects on the running of the ship were minimised. In respect of the Lower Deck the daily issue of rum throughout this period is a very contentious subject. Leaving aside the practice of issuing 'neat' rum instead of 'grog to junior ratings, which was certainly practiced in some small ships, many infringements of discipline can be directly attributed to the effects of rum. Some ratings were quite unable to cope with this regular issue of a potent spirit and although intended for personal consumption this regulation was frequently disregarded. Similarly it must be noted that some officers, unused to the availability of alcohol were equally vulnerable and their judgements could be affected, sometimes with significant results. However in the case of officers the penalties involved would be sufficient to blight a career to a greater extent than for ratings. Experience suggests that on balance rum created more problems than it prevented and it was abolished as a general issue in July 1970.


Periods of Foreign Service and Family Separation


Ships normally spent 2˝ years on Foreign Service and no married quarters were provided for families during their separation. Mail services were poor until the general introduction of regular airmail facilities. As a result any family problems causing personal disquiet created additional difficulties in good man management. The reduction of most Foreign Service commissions to 18 months in 1964 and the far greater attention paid to family welfare did much to improve matters. Married quarters became available by the 1960's and use of air travel for compassionate leave removed the delays involving speedy return to UK during foreign service Coupled with the improved habitability provided by air conditioning and the increased attention paid to recreational facilities, these changes significantly reduced disciplinary problems.


Terms of Engagement


Ratings joining the service as a Career had to serve for a period of either 7 or 12 years from the age of 16 and this regulation remained unchanged at the end of hostilities in 1945. Many ratings who entered service as Boys aged 14 or 15 subsequently regretted this long term commitment, especially those who began their service prior to 1939. After 6 years of war spent largely afloat in most cases, their attitude to the service was greatly affected by their experiences. The influence of the very number of 'Hostilities Only' personnel was a significant factor in fostering discontent. The apparently 'greener' grass available in civilian life, free of the constraints of naval discipline, presented an undeniable attraction, especially to those who had married during the war. Apart from the aspects already described this enticement continued to give rise to much concern by Divisional Officers for many years. Disaffection for this reason was undoubtedly undesirable and had a bad influence which conditioned attitudes to officers, particularly those unable to sensitively deal with the problem.


Constant attention had to be paid by those responsible for manning the Fleet to measures which would increase the proportion of ratings re-engaging for further service. Incentives in the form of a bonus payment and loans for home purchase were introduced. Re-engagements continued to be insufficient to meet manpower targets although the numbers varied as determined by the requirements of the shore labour market. The shortfall was more significant in the case of technical ratings since the standard of naval training they had received was very suitable for shore employment. Retention of ratings with electronic and engineering experience was especially difficult. In Individual cases when discharge was been denied or delayed, those concerned felt to have been disadvantaged, which brought consequential problems. However, changes were made to increase the proportion of ratings selected for promotion to commissioned rank and to allow recruitment of graduates at a later entry age. Together with improved management training these steps did much to make available sensible guidance based on experience and a wider understanding of 'lower deck’ problems. Later, in order to increase the number of ratings joining the service the period of commitment required for 'Regular' terms of engagement was significantly altered and 'Discharge by Purchase' requirements were modified. As a result the harmful influence of disaffected personal was minimised.




Until the Centralised Drafting System for ratings was introduced in 1957, each Port Division was responsible for the manning of its attached ships and establishments and for advancement of ratings to higher rank. There were many anomalies between treatment of similar cases by each Port Division which lead to complaints by the ratings concerned. Advancement to Petty Officer and selection for training courses could be delayed by an over-bearing in complement in a particular category within one Port Division. Divisional Officers needed to be constantly aware of this disadvantage. The centralised system reduced this difficulty and the introduction of a system allowing ratings to indicate a preference for future service enabled improvements to be made in methods of selection for advancement.


Main Manning Depots


Many of the problems affecting maintenance of discipline in ships were compounded in these shore establishments due to the large numbers of ratings involved. Personnel accommodated in Barracks when under training or whilst awaiting draft found life in them tended to be very impersonal. There was less direct contact between officers and ratings, especially those not undergoing courses of instruction. A much greater standard of attention was therefore required by Divisional Officers if welfare matters and other personal problems of ratings were to be dealt with correctly. The special qualities needed were not invariably available, and made periods in Depots very unattractive, particularly for unmarried junior ratings not living in the locality.


Disciplinary constraints in Depots were considerable and bore more resemblance to the pre-1930 era than to the very different times after 1945. Some of the procedures were difficult to justify and changes to the routine followed made only slowly. Much depended on the calibre o the Commodore and his Executive Officer. These appointments were very much 'promotion conscious and any alteration to the routine accepted over earlier decades was a daunting task. Alterations were however made by some more perceptive Commodores, but differed between Manning Depots. An attractive feature of life in the Manning Depots was the extensive availability of recreational sport of all types which enabled many officers and ratings with ability in such activities to achieve high standards of proficiency. For many years, both during and after WW2, some senior ratings and officers employed on Regulating and administrative duties remained in Depots over long periods and were able to exercise an undue influence on the way in which the routine of the establishment was carried out. They therefore had no recent ship service and were not very responsive to trends in society at large. A very high standard of supervision by officers appointed to administrative duties was thus required. Perpetuation of outdated methods, especially dealing with young ratings had very lasting and counter-productive effects. Only with such experience and knowledge could a satisfactory level of morale with the minimum of restrictions be maintained. Many the difficulties experienced at sea could be traced directly to fallings of staff and the unnecessary practices followed in the Manning Depots


The standard of catering in these large establishments was low and was another major cause of complaint by ratings. In part this was due to the very poor galley facilities which had remained unchanged for many years. Use of a single standard menu, repeated week in and week out, took little account of the need to provide attractive and appetising food. This factor did little to encourage ratings to re-engage and affected their general attitude to naval service.


Amongst the improvements eventually made were the introduction of a ‘Free gangway for libertymen and later wearing of uniform when going ashore was no longer compulsory. Galley and catering standards were modified and many of the earlier restrictions and conventions practised were removed or revised. As part of a tri-service programme to improve accommodation, new buildings were constructed to replace the Victorian 'Blocks' which did much to improve living conditions. The very great reduction in manning requirements since 1957, as the size of the Fleet diminished, altered the role of the Manning Depots and the number needed With far fewer ratings in the service and the increase in numbers living in married quarters or in their own homes whilst awaiting draft, the deleterious influence of life in Manning Depots and its consequential effects on morale have largely disappeared


Specialised Training Establishments and Naval Air Stations


Disadvantages of life in a Manning Depot did not apply to the same extent in specialist Training Establishments where there was far more direct contact between officers on the training staff and ratings under instruction. In Naval Air Stations the basic organisation differed since Fleet Air Arm personnel were organised into Squadrons and moved to ships or other air stations as required. Naval aviation comprised more closely knit communities in which the relationship between officers and ratings was similar to that in a small ship.


Boys (or Juniors) and Artificers Training Establishments


These were well organised in comparison with Manning Depots although their routines were based on pre-war conventions. Discipline tended to be harsh until the changes necessary to make service life more attractive were belatedly introduced. Accommodation and catering were especially poor in older establishments. Improvements were made when financial constraints were overtaken by a realistic appreciation of the need to attract and retain personnel. Officers and senior ratings needed to be well chosen for this type of specialised work. The influence of the training staff on young, immature trainees cannot be over emphasised and the attitude of ratings to their seniors was very dependent on the example set during initial training. Relaxation in routines and the increased attention to the welfare of trainee's problems were gradually introduced and did much to ensure that the Fleet was provided with a suitable standard of young ratings.


Local Leave


The easier access to temptation whilst ashore has always resulted in attendant problems affecting behaviour of ratings. Two aspects were particularly notable and required special consideration. Alcohol was readily available and dockyard ports were renowned for prostitution. Control of ratings ashore was exercised by the provision of Shore Patrols and required special expertise and extensive local knowledge if they were to be both effectively and sensibly deployed. Insensitive and overbearing conduct by those responsible for ensuring a reasonable standard of behaviour ashore has a major influence on young ratings and therefore conditioned their future attitude to authority. The increase in size of the Regulating Branch and better training for this specialised duty has ensured improved management of conduct of ratings ashore. Amongst the precautions taken to prevent the spread of venereal disease was the provision of specialised separate messing arrangements.





Defence requirements since 1960 have resulted in a complete revision of the role and Make up of the Royal Navy.


A continuous process of change has taken place in order to meet threats whose nature is far removed from any previously encountered. Technological advances have resulted in the introduction into service of very complex types of equipment whose operation and support require a quite different type of rating and officer. Many of the disadvantages of earlier designs of ships have been overcome in new types of warship and more attention has been paid to their habitability and to catering arrangements with much improved accommodation for officers and ratings. Recruitment and training requirements have had to be extensively revised to ensure that new entries would meet the needs of the modern Fleet


A far higher standard of basic education compared with that required before 1947 was essential. Prospective candidates for Cadetships were required to hold 'A' Level qualifications prior to entry and greater opportunities were made available for ratings with suitable professional and educational attainments to be promoted to commissioned rank. Ratings entering technical branches had to have an educational standard which suited training in maintenance and repair of far more sophisticated equipment. These criteria helped to provide a sound manpower structure which would allow development of good personal relationships based on thorough training in the technical and management skills needed for the modern Fleet. Ratings promoted after several years experience on the 'lower deck' have many advantages since they demonstrate a high professional standard and also are well able to interpret 'lower deck' reactions to a wide variety of situations because of their background. Their contribution to maintaining good morale and in setting a high standard by example were important features appropriate to changes made necessary by modern defence requirements.


Increased Attention to Welfare and Conditions


By the 1960's, in order to provide a direct link between the Admiralty and the personnel of the Fleet, a special visiting team was created by the Second Sea Lord, who was responsible for all matters concerned with manning.


It made visits to ships and establishments at home and abroad to enable any matters relating to welfare and conditions affecting service life to be voiced. As a result of visits the team was able to advise which particular problems were worthy of consideration by those concerned with formulating future policies. This was a further indication of the importance placed on early recognition of 'coal face' difficulties likely to influence recruitment in general, and more particularly re-engagement.


Despite all the various improvements to conditions and the increased attention paid to all matters affecting the welfare of personnel, the basic requirements of a disciplined service remained largely unchanged. If anything, the need for officers and senior ratings to display qualities of leadership and example was made greater because of the different requirements of modern warfare. Changes in social standards and communications exert a major influence on the attitude of personnel. The importance of constant monitoring of the reactions of ratings to day by day situations remains the same. Generally speaking they expect living conditions and working facilities vastly different from those accepted in 1947.





The level of pay has progressively increased over the decades so that it is far more aligned to salaries in the civil community. Slightly higher Pay rates were given to ratings on 'Regular' Engagements after 4 years service and a bounty was paid on re-engagement. Once these needs had been recognised there is little evidence that remuneration has had any significant effect on the relationships between ratings and officers. There were various differences in rates of pay as for example, loss of pay in some cases for ratings on promotion to Commissioned rank, but these have been eliminated.





The period between the end of hostilities in 1945 and the early 1970’s should be regarded as a transitional stage between the days of Imperial power and the era of weapons of mass-destruction. The gradual introduction of equipment based on new technology has been made during a period when immense changes were taking place in social conditions and aspirations. The structure of the Royal Navy during the years before 1939 was felt to be adequate for its efficient use as the bastion of Britain's sea defence, and was broadly in line with conditions acceptable in society as a whole. Activities on board ships were very labour intensive and with good basic training in the particular skills required did not require a very high standard of education as far as ratings were concerned. The relationship between officers and ratings was governed very largely by the social standards of the wider civil community. Given good leadership, the availability of sporting activities and travel, allowed most ratings to accept the restrictions imposed by service discipline and conditions without rancour sufficient to seriously affect their relationship with those in authority. However, the impact of wartime conditions and the increase in numbers of personnel had a dramatic effect on the outlook of all personnel. The introduction of new and more complicated equipment has demanded a far higher standard of education and training. Changes in social conditions in the community outside the Service further emphasised the shortcomings of the pre-war Royal Navy.


As already described the necessary adjustments to the management of naval personnel management did not take place at the same pace as the changes outside the Service. Expectations by ratings who served between 1950 and 1970 were vastly different from those in pre-war days. Far more attention needed to be paid to conditions of service and to the general welfare of all personnel. Where these were lacking, relationships between ratings and officers were significantly affected. Much therefore depended on the qualities of leadership and understanding available. Officers had to be seen to be aware of the many matters affecting the administration and conditions in any ship or establishment. More importantly, it had to be demonstrated that they were taking steps to correct or represent justifiable causes for concern.


Alterations to officer entry requirements with increased attention to promotion prospects for ratings have considerably assisted this process. Maintenance of good relations between officers and ratings still depends on the same fundamental requirements. All concerned have to be able to accept those constraints essential to any disciplined organisation. At the same time these must be matched with the need to meet reasonable expectations in respect of living conditions and family welfare. This balance is very difficult to achieve because of the continually changing standards imposed by external influences including educational factors and the effects of mass communication. As these are not always beneficial to the overall needs of the Service, morale and good relationships will continue to depend on the ability of individuals in authority to make judgements in the best interest of the service and also suitable to each occasion. Relationships between ratings and officers in the post 1970 Royal Navy will largely depend on ensuring that the necessary equilibrium between 'constraint' and circumstance is maintained. 

revised 1/12/10