Something inside me has always wanted to explore. Losing my Mum at thirteen acted as a catalyst, pushing me to travel and see something different. The careers available in the mid-seventies were quite different to now. It was either British Rail, Rolls Royce, a labouring job or the Armed Forces. Two of my older brothers were already in the military, and would always regale me with stories when they were back home on leave. I decided that I would join the RAF, but, after visiting the recruitment office and discovering there was an eighteen-month waiting list, I left frustrated. Upon exiting, I literally turned left and signed up to the Royal Navy instead.
Initial basic training was both daunting and exciting because I had no idea what was going to happen to me. My father put me on a train from Nottingham, leaving me with the advice that ‘the first twelve years are the worst.’ I arrived in Plymouth, and from then on it was listening to an array of orders designed to muster all of the young lads. There were about eighteen of us on that same train, all from Nottingham and Derby; it was baffling and harsh in places, but it was effective.
In the first few days, you’re basically stripped of your civilian identity; your clothes get replaced by uniforms, you’re given all the kit, and no matter how short your hair is, you get the 50p naval haircut. The weeks went quickly, as we absorbed an enormous amount of information. Not everyone made it through the training; homesickness played a big part, and for others, it was just too much of a culture shock.
After I’d passed out, I embarked on an eighteen-year career as a Marine Engineer. A lot of people are fascinated by the sea, but none more so than the mariner. I’ve always loved tradition and superstition, and both of these play a big part in the Royal Navy: you’re not allowed to whistle on board, historically it had been used as a signal to start a mutiny; being followed by an albatross is lucky, and killing one will bring the crew bad luck; and any sailor passing the equator for the first time is subjected to a Crossing the Line ceremony. This involved erecting a sea-water pool on deck, which the first-timer is ‘baptised’ in, having been caught, tried and offered to King Neptune. It’s a rite of passage ceremony that is all taken quite seriously.
Food is always important to a ship’s crew, and the number one rule is to never upset the chef. Running out of ‘nutty’ - chocolate or sweets - can be serious. We once found ourselves down to the last Mars bar, which ended up being raffled off for £45. It sounds mad, but the money went to a children’s charity.
No two days in the Navy were the same, but never was this more applicable than when the Falklands Conflict started in 1982. Communication was limited, and we were told that it was being operated on a ‘need to know’ basis - which is military code for ‘we might tell you once we know what’s going on’. Things happened quite quickly; we were literally writing our wills on the way down there.
For my part, I joined a combined fleet to form the Bomb and Action Repair Team. Operating from a large Merchant ship, we were responsible for servicing damaged vessels in rough seas and extreme weather conditions. We were there to ensure ships continue to meet their primary objective: ‘To float and then to fight’. It probably feels more emotional looking back now; at the time you just had a job to do.
Unfortunately, after the initial sinking of HMS Sheffield, we suffered several losses for both the Merchant and Royal Navy. Additionally, our brave land troops and pilots suffered significant losses for the liberation of the Falkland Islands. During the conflict, I lost two former shipmates; attending military funerals, and helping to build small memorials for them was always something I was extremely proud and honoured to do.
We lost people during peacetime, too. Some died on-board due to accidents, and one young officer was swept away by a freak wave that seemingly came out of nowhere. A strange and eerie atmosphere exists on board of a ship that has just lost one of its crew. Little is said, but much is felt.
The time I enjoyed the most was when I moved to ballistic nuclear submarines. It was a different world entirely – our role was to deliver the nuclear missile strike if it was ever called on. But being in that confined space for so long has a big effect on a person; you go for months without seeing the sun, breathing fresh air or having any contact with your family – the only privacy you get exists within your own mind. The psychological testing you have to go through beforehand is intense; they’re looking for people that can handle that level of pressure, both physically and mentally.
I’m extremely proud of my naval career, but equally proud of my wife and children for the role they played. We would write letters to each other, even though sometimes we couldn’t post them. We’d read them together when I got home, and it always surprised me how similar the letters were. To an extent, we were all in the navy.
Re-joining civilian life was difficult; there was simple efficiency to life in the Navy that doesn’t exist outside of the services. People think the military is being told what to do, where to go and how to act, but it’s the opposite. You’re trained to do a job, and you do it. If you don’t, there are consequences.
Outside of the Navy, there’s a huge lack of accountability, and I feel like I get challenged far more than I deserve. Everything is so wooly; life has just become about who can say the most, not who can actually say what needs to be said.
I miss being part of something unique. I miss looking out over the endless, mystifying sea that felt so calming and terrifying at the same time. Most of all, I miss the many different characters I served with. Not all of them were pleasant, but that camaraderie remains; when we meet up, it comes in many guises, but mostly shared memories, nautical banter and humour, as if no time had passed at all.