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Two Rooms And A View: 92 In the RNVR

...One evening in the summer, we actually went to sea on the small inshore minesweeper. Although the North Sea was calm and we only went a short distance outside the twin piers, my stomach indicated that it did not approve of my joining the navy....

Robert Owen joins the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

In 1956, the world was involved in a bitter Cold War as the powers of East and West pointed nuclear arsenals at each other. The Second World War had ended over ten years earlier, and to many people they were years of apparent peace. Aiden Walker (1993) explodes this myth by detailing the six campaigns between 1948 and 1960, in which a million and a half National Servicemen were involved and in which 395 were killed in action.

The National Service Act of 1948 dictated that all young men reaching the age of eighteen were to present themselves for a medical examination and, if passed fit, were to serve a minimum of 18 months in the armed services. (At the start of the Korean War in 1950, this was increased to 24 months.) Youths involved in a scheme of study or training were offered deferment until this was complete up to the maximum age of twenty-six years of age. This last sentence was very important to me because it meant that I was deferred until the completion of my apprenticeship in April 1956.

Historically, many male members of my extended family have been mariners. The sea must certainly have been 'in the blood' on my father's side because my great grandfather, John Connell was a Master Mariner. His son, my grandfather, was a Stoker in the Royal Navy and my father's brother Edward was an Able Seaman in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. In addition my cousin on my father's side was a Chief Engineer in the Merchant Navy.

Unfortunately, three of the four lost their lives at sea. This was the worrying background as I pondered on the possible choice of the Royal Navy for my National Service.

It was a former classmate at Stanhope Road School and apprentice colleague at Reyrolles, Andrew Kinelato, who finally influenced me as to how I should spend my two years serving the Queen. His father, another Andrew, used to be an officer in the Royal Navy and had an up-to-date knowledge of the Queen's Rules and Regulations by which the service is governed.

It was normally extremely difficult to get into the Royal Navy for national service, but Andrew informed me that if we joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) at least a year before we were due to be called up, the navy could not refuse us. Perhaps more important, he explained that if we were successful in a trade test during that year in the RNVR, we would go into the navy as Artificers.

I didn't know what an Artificer was, but Andrew quickly informed me that they were Petty Officer tradesmen who had completed a navy apprenticeship. They trained for four years at HMS Fishguard and had a very high reputation. The Fishguard Association (2003) naturally thought so when it called its book on one hundred years of the Artificer Apprentice, "Second to None".

As I pondered my decision, the advantages of a possible Petty Officer rank, enhanced pay, status and conditions sounded too good to be true. I took Andrew's advice. Therefore, early in 1955, Andrew and I presented ourselves, along with Brian Smedley, another Reyrolles lad, at HMS Satellite - the RNVR training ship moored in the river at South Shields. This ship along with the Headquarters vessel, HMS Calliope at Newcastle and a small in-shore minesweeper, comprised the RNVR Tyne Division.

This was staffed by a small number of regular sailors, some volunteer ex-regulars and a large number of teenagers, who hoped eventually to join the Royal Navy. We completed a short induction programme, were issued with bell-bottom uniforms and instructed to attend so-called 'drills' at least one night a week. The uniforms were quite a novelty and I believe we could have hired them out at the week-end for the alleged effect they had on the young ladies in the town.

The Wednesday night 'drills' consisted of an inspection and elementary drill, then lessons on the history, organisation and traditions of the Royal Navy. One evening in the summer, we actually went to sea on the small inshore minesweeper. Although the North Sea was calm and we only went a short distance outside the twin piers, my stomach indicated that it did not approve of my joining the navy.

The RNVR was organised nationally with Divisions on most major rivers throughout the United Kingdom. In The Autumn of 1955, the Annual Swimming Gala was held in Dundee. Although only a moderate swimmer, I allowed myself to be persuaded to take part in the one length breast stroke event. It was held on a Saturday evening and with travelling expenses paid and overnight accommodation provided, it gave me the opportunity to visit Scotland for the first time.

This was the first and only swimming gala I ever entered and it is remembered with embarrassment. As a team, we had agreed that a fast start to all events was essential. In fact I was off to such a fast start, that I was in the water while the others in the race were still waiting for the starting signal. To do this once was perhaps acceptable, but to do it twice, nearly caused a major incident. An official warning was given with the threat of disqualification if repeated. As a result for the third start, I consciously held myself back and finished last. So much for my swimming career!


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