Thursday, 12 December 2013

Naval Gazing

Having attempted to trace my family tree, I can confidently assert that I have sea-salt in my blood.  I am descended from a long line of Cornish/Devonian sailors.  We even have a seafaring claim to fame as Jack Crawford – “Hero of the Battle of Camperdown” is apparently a great-times-several uncle.  He even has his own statue in Sunderland and a Wikipedia page – and having read this and how he sold his medal to buy booze I am quite convinced and ready to accept him as one of my own.  More recently, my great uncle was lost on the HMS Prince of Wales, sunk off Singapore in the middle of World War Two.  His memory has resonated down three generations.

But I know that I am not unusual in this – despite my having grown up nowhere near the coast.  We are a small group of islands so it is only natural that many of us have taken to the seas over the centuries.  There has also been a lot of prestige attached to the Royal Navy, which must have made it an attractive proposition to a young man with not much in the way of an interesting future before him, especially in the days before there were planes to fly.  The navy has also been an attractive subject to film-makers, and the service’s Second World War exploits have been well documented.

I recently stumbled across a 1939 film called ‘Sons of the Sea’.  Filmed in lavish colour, this is very obviously a recruitment drive for the impending war.  The storyline mostly takes place at Dartmouth Naval College, and I would guess that permission to film there meant that the film did have official blessing.  Scenes of parades at the college and the beautiful local scenery are deliberately placed to make the hardest of British hearts swell with pride.  There’s a lot here for the vintage transport enthusiast, including some delicious chocolate and cream GWR action.  But there are not that many boats – surprising for a film about navy personnel.  This could be because the film is mainly about the officer class and it is mainly parades and desks.  If this film was an officially blessed recruitment drive, it appears that the navy at this point in time were much more interested in attracting officers than ratings.  They knew that conscription would bring them enough of the general cannon fodder that they needed, but they worked to attract the cream of the middle classes to come and give the orders.

If there is one contemporary navy-themed war film that stands out for me, it is ‘In Which We Serve’. This 1942 film is, in the film’s own words, the story of a ship.  It follows the adventures of the fictional HMS Torrin and its crew – going right across the board from Noel Coward’s upper class captain to John Mills’ salt of the earth cockney.  This too had the blessing of the Ministry of Information, and of course it had to have some sort of feelgood and morale boosting factor about it.  But it does not shy away from reality.  The ship is torpedoed and sailors lose their lives, perhaps illustrating that British audiences wouldn’t have accepted a load of old flannel and the powers that be knew that.   This is good news for us, because we do see some genuine concerns from the time.  I was particularly interested to see the recognition of how modern warfare made life even more difficult for servicemen than it had ever been before.  The bombing of cities by the Luftwaffe meant that for the first time, those serving on board ships had as much cause to worry about their loved ones as vice-versa.  Plymouth, where many naval wives and families lived, was particularly targeted by bombers.  The Chief Petty Officer’s loss of his wife and mother-in-law during a raid in the film was true to life.  Miraculously, John Mills’ wife and unborn child survive, despite being in the same house.  This is where the censors must have stepped in – because countless children and babies were killed in the Plymouth raids.  The death of a pregnant woman must have been deemed too much for contemporary audiences to take, showing us where the morale line was drawn.

Looking at these two films together provides some perspective on how attitudes changed in World War Two.  As Britain approached war, ordinary sailors were not deemed interesting enough to star in a film or worth a lot of effort to recruit.  By 1942 their lives take centre stage in a screenplay written by upper-class aspirational Noel Coward.  At last the efforts of the masses are being recognised, I wonder if this was a sea-change for film? 

But let’s not forget our naval heroes, as depicted in this sort of film. Not those heroes with statues or pubs named after them.  Those whose only memorial is the sea itself, the same sea that defines us as a nation.

This is the last posting for 2013, I'll be back in 2014.  In the meantime, you might like to spend your Christmas break reading my book, Matinee Musings, available on Amazon:

I will also be bringing out a new book of short stories very soon.  Look out for it on my Amazon page - 'Athene and Other Stories' by Sarah Miller Walters.  Publication will be announced on my other blog: Here's an extract to get you in the mood:  

 Not many of the evacuees wanted to go to Owl Farm.  It was run by the Widow Woolton, a tall and stocky woman whose voice violently ricocheted off the walls of the village hall as she made her selection.  Her husband, Farmer Woolton, had given up his life during the 1939 harvest.  That is, a lot of people said that the incident with the thresher had been suicide.  His wife had patently married him for his farm and it has to be said that she was born to a life dedicated to the country.  Ever since their union, he had declined in strength while hers continually multiplied.  She became expert in new farming methods where he remained novice and she flaunted her skills making him feel less useful by the month.  None of Farmer Woolton’s relatives had dared to claim inheritance of the farm and besides; they were all away with the forces.  Widow Woolton remained in firm control of Owl Farm, and relished the challenge of helping to feed a country at war.

There were several spare rooms at the farmhouse, it being of the tall sash-windowed Georgian type of building.  Land Girls took up some of those, the widow relishing the opportunity to act the part of Amazon Queen over such green young women.  But she had one large bedroom set aside for evacuees, and insisted on having first choice of any healthy looking boys that arrived in the district.  All but the most bravado filled boy shrunk from being selected by Widow Woolton.  Her eyes reminded them of bus headlamps from before the blackout.  When they realised that they were destined for a farm, they knew that they would be put to work, that they has been chosen for their ability to lift and carry. The best that they could make of it was to hope for extra rations.

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