We Joined The Navy

By: John Winton


The President of the Admiralty Interview Board had been a naval officer for a very long time. He had started as a scrubby-faced boy at the Admiralty Interview and he had served as a Midshipman in a battle-cruiser at Jutland, as a Sub-Lieutenant in a Yangtse gunboat, as a Lieutenant in a cruiser on the South Atlantic station, as a Commander in a battleship of the Home Fleet, and as a destroyer Captain in the North Atlantic. He had served in every sea from the Timor to the Adriatic, in every strait from the Bering to the Magellan, and had suffered every wind from the sirocco to the trades. Now, by hard work, attention to detail, and marrying late, he had become an admiral and was once more at the Admiralty Interview, interviewing another generation of scrubby-faced striplings, one of whom would grow up to be an admiral and interview a further generation of scrubby-faced striplings and so on and so on. Never had he had so clear a vision of the slow process of evolution in the Royal Navy. Never had he seen that evolution entrusted to poorer hands. In the Admiral’s opinion, the mighty tree of the Navy, which had produced such magnificent branches in the past, was now dying at the roots. He and his colleagues were gathering the last diseased twigs before the final crash. The Admiral leant his forehead in the palm of his hand and sighed.

The remainder of the Board, the Headmaster, the Civil Servant, the Psychiatrist, the Commanders (E) and (S), and the Lieutenant-Colonel, Royal Marines, marked their President’s sigh and hunched their shoulders. They dropped their heads and waited expectantly, like Victorian children waiting for Papa to say grace.

The Admiral sighed again.

‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said at last, ‘here we are again. I hope I see you refreshed and ready for one more battle with the latest products of our present day and age? Frankly, I don’t know what the schools do to them these days. I can’t believe that the basic stock has changed. It must be the environment. By the time we get them at eighteen years of age it takes us five whole years or more to make them any damn use to man or beast. Here we have a country bleeding itself white to provide education for all and what happens? We spend half our time interviewing cretins and morons and the other half interviewing communists and embryo politicians. It takes us all our time to find enough boys in one year who are not clearly destined for the Old Bailey to keep the service going.’

The Admiral shook his head and sighed a third time. The Board listened with pleasant approving smiles on their faces. One or two of them nodded. These were the very phrases with which the Admiral opened each fresh series of interviews. The Board sat like contented members of an audience who hear again the well-loved curtain-raising words of a familiar play. Not that the Board did not entirely agree with the Admiral. It was Monday morning, the first morning of a new Interview Board, and each member of the Board knew that several weeks of trying work lay ahead.

The Admiral passed a hand wearily over his forehead.

‘As this is the first day,’ he said, ‘I may as well refresh your memories on one or two items of policy.’

The Board slumped in their seats.

‘Remember we are not looking for normal boys. We are looking for boys who will make naval officers. There’s a difference. We are looking for half-wits. The service will add the other half in its own way and in its own time.’

The Board nodded.

‘None of these boys will be very intelligent. If they had any intelligence they wouldn’t be here. They’d be applying for jobs outside which carry more pay and less work, like most of their contemporaries. But lack of intelligence need not concern us. An intelligent man never makes a good naval officer. He embarrasses everybody.’

The Board glanced briefly at their President and nodded again. After all, he had been a naval officer for nearly forty years. He should know.

‘I need not tell you not to be surprised at anything you hear in this room. I myself have long since lost the capacity for amazement.’

The Board pursed their lips. They remembered the candidate who had tried, with a pin, to convince the Admiral that Christian Science worked for the common man.

‘Keep off religion and politics. They know more about that sort of thing than we do.’