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Two Rooms And A View: 94 National Service Sailor

...The following four weeks were spent on 'square bashing' and a variety of lectures on the history, organisation and traditions of the navy. Square bashing consisted of an hour's drill on the large parade ground before and after lunch. My experience of elementary drill in the Boys' Brigade helped a lot. Some of my colleagues had great difficulty determining their right foot...

Robert Owen begins his national service in the Royal Navy.

Arriving at the gate of HMS Victory, a massive Victorian built shore establishment, at 8 pm, I remember feeling like an impostor. This was confirmed when a 3-badge, (indicating twelve years' service with good conduct) Leading Seaman, a rank below Petty Officer (P.O.) greeted me with, "What can I do for you, P.O?" His expression changed when he saw my papers. Sarcastically he said, "We will have to keep you in for an extra two hours for arriving so late" as he directed me to the appropriate building.

The following morning, I got my service number (P.M. 966270) and joined about twenty other national service conscripts on the four-week New Entry Training course. My new colleagues were all aged between 18 and 21 years of age, but that was the only common factor. They were all shapes and sizes and from a never-ending variety of backgrounds. One was dressed in a long drape jacket, narrow drainpipe trousers, thick crepe-soled shoes and a D.A. haircut. An obvious Teddy Boy.

There were four others like myself in a P.O's uniform, and once again the cross-anchored P.O.'s badge caused problems. Although this time on the correct arm, the officer in charge ordered the five of us to remove the badge. We later found out that this was to respect the authority and experience of the long-serving P.O. who was in charge of the group during new entry training.

The following four weeks were spent on 'square bashing' and a variety of lectures on the history, organisation and traditions of the navy. Square bashing consisted of an hour's drill on the large parade ground before and after lunch. My experience of elementary drill in the Boys' Brigade helped a lot. Some of my colleagues had great difficulty determining their right foot from their left.

During the four weeks we lived in a large four-story Victorian type barracks in conditions that reflected the age of the building. Four lines of upper and lower bunks with about twenty in each line made for about 160 on each floor. Each person had a metal locker about 36 inches square where we were supposed to keep all our kit and personal belongings.

The meals were very good, but we hardly had any time to enjoy them because of an overloaded timetable. We were programmed for fifteen hours a day. I used to enjoy military bands, but after getting woken up at 6.30 every morning with the Royal Marine Band playing outside the window, I changed my mind!

Of the many lectures during this period, I recall one on health education. Part of this was devoted to sexual relations, and there was a lot of giggling when a doctor demonstrated on a visual aid how to use a durex. He explained that these were available free when leaving the barracks or ship and that the main reason for using them was not to reduce the number of illegitimate babies but to safeguard the health of navy personnel. I have often wondered what the feminists of later years would have made of that statement.

My being called up for national service exposed my mother to a level of financial hardship that the navy refused to acknowledge. She lost my income from Reyrolles, and while she did not now have the cost of feeding me, she still lost my contribution to the greater household expenses. In other words, she was much poorer as a result of my national service.

I took this up with the navy during my first week of service, but they did not want to know. A second approach in writing brought an official reply saying that my father's maintenance money of 1.10.0d (1.50p), fixed in 1939, was provided for my mother to live on.

I refused to give in, and with the help of the Soldiers, Sailors and Air Force Association, (S.S.A.F.A.), eventually got the navy to make a small contribution, provided I made a suitable allotment out of my service pay. Fortunately, after the first few weeks of basic training, I went on to a Petty Officer's rate of pay, and this was no longer a problem.

After a few weeks at HMS Victory, the next course started and who should arrive but Andy Kinelato. Andy, unlike me, was to train to be an Electrical Artificer, but our training ran parallel for the first few months. He was always two weeks behind me, and jokingly I told him to "stop following me around."

The first time we were allowed out of the barracks was during the final week of New Entry Training. This allowed me to explore Portsmouth and the sea front at Southsea. Although it was now October, I was amazed to find people still on the beach and promenade. It seemed like a different country compared to Tyneside. This, along with the history of Old Portsmouth, the open spaces of Southsea Common and the ever-active ships on the Solent, were to make me a life-long admirer of this part of Hampshire

Another pleasant memory of the time was my first visit to the Isle of Wight. This was organised and resourced by members of the Church on the Island, who regularly welcomed groups of new entrants to their homes and church. I also took the opportunity to establish contact with North End Presbyterian Church in Portsmouth. As soon as the congregation knew where I was from, they wanted to know the ingredients for St Andrew's famous Sale of Work. Unfortunately, I couldn't help.

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