Sunday, January 19, 2014
From the archives: WHEN LETTERS WERE HANDWRITTEN: SOME ADVICE TO A YOUNG DESTROYER CAPTAIN
Royal Navy Air Station, Somewhere in Britain
I am sorry I have been away, so your letter has laid unread for some days; and I am, as usual, very busy on returning to the job.
There are, of course, hundreds of pit-falls into which a new destroyer captain may fall; but they are so many and varied that I cannot possibly think of putting them all down in one letter. Moreover, unlike Jehovah of old, I don't think that a list of "thou shalt nots " can ever be very much help, so I will try and give you a few "thou shalts."
Your first concern in producing a good ship must, of course, be discipline. Never forget that the whole discipline of a ship is vested in the person of its commanding officer. My Lords. in their wisdom have evolved the existing system with a view to keeping it absolutely fair. Summary justice, if sympathetically and intelligently wielded by the captain, can be the fairest form of justice known to men. (Do not imagine that courts martial, etc., are fairer. They are not, because they are so mixed up with legal procedure that the human element is lost.) On the other hand summary justice wielded by one man can be very unfair since we are all subject to prejudices and partialities. So Rule One is: see to it that your summary justice is utterly fair and impartial. On your success in this rests the discipline and morale of your ship.
Next in importance I think I would put your relations with your officers. Having been one of my officers you have probably a pretty fair idea of my ideas on the subject, but I would like to emphasize that you cannot get on without efficient officers; and officers, particularly inexperienced ones, will never be efficient unless they are given a full sense of responsibility. Never let an officer get the impression that you are not prepared to trust his judgment, but try and always give the impression that you assume 100 per cent. zeal and efficiency on the part of your officers and are rather surprised and hurt when you find that standard is not reached. If you get a really bad officer, the only cure is to fling him out; there is no room for a bad officer in a small ship. Do not forget, however, that a mediocre officer can quickly blossom into a good one if properly led, and that if not properly handled he will in all probability become a bad one. Fortunately there are few officers in our Service who are fundamentally bad and incurable. I can think of one, can't you?
Next in order, but of equal importance, is your reputation on the lower deck. Don't imagine for one moment that the lower deck can be "bounced." In a small overcrowded community, cut off from the world, such as the mess deck of a destroyer, one of the main recreations is gossip; and the great subject, which is always ready to hand for the gossiper, is his officers and particularly his commanding officer. The lower deck's judgment of their officers is terrifyingly perceptive, and the slightest foibles or weaknesses of their commanding officer are leapt upon with the pleasure of a gossiping washerwoman. Fortunately, however, the sailor is a generous soul; and when he has made his mind up about you he will overlook many little human frailities and keep his eye firmly on the bright side. But before he does this you must establish yourself in his confidence, and there is only one way to do this. He does not look upon you as a better man than himself because you happen to be wearing gold lace and brass buttons, but he does acknowledge that by your training and experience you are capable of doing a job which he could not hope to do. The way to gain his confidence, and the only way, is the hard way of proving your capabilities. However sympathetic with his domestic difficulties you may be (and it is important that you should be so) you will never gain the sailor's whole-hearted support until you have proved to him that you know your job.
I think perhaps the next subject should be handling the ship. The more detailed aspects of this gentle art I expect you learned from me during our time together, particularly when you were "the pilot." But there are a couple of golden rules which I have always followed and I cannot think of better advice to give you. The first is: "never fight the elements if you can help it." By this I mean that if you can possibly make use of the wind and the tide to get your ship into the desired position those elements will get you there quicker than all the horse-power in the world. In its simplest form this rule is expressed in the time-honoured rule which every coxswain of a boat is taught, namely; "always stem the tide coming alongside." But it has a much wider application if you think about it. Thus you will know that as soon as way is off your ship it will be impossible to get the bows up into wind by manoeuvring the engines. Therefore arrange that you get in such a position that you do not wish to put your bows up into the wind. Similarly you will also know that with the ship stopped in a beam wind the stern will go very easily up into the wind, so plan your approach so as to make use of this phenomenon.
The second golden rule is: "as fast as possible at sea and as slow as possible in harbour." I think you have probably heard me say this before. The slowness in harbour can of course be overdone in boisterious weather conditions, since a destroyer has a nasty habit of going sideways if she is not going ahead very quickly; but on the other hand if you hit something going slow you will not do a great deal of harm, whereas a really decent crash with 1,500 tons behind it is apt to cost the country a great deal in wasted time and manpower. It is often easier to take a destroyer alongside a difficult berth at excessive speed and rely upon the engine-room to provide you with efficient brakes at the right moment. This is not seamanship. In the worst case the engine-room boys may let you down, in which case there is one hell of a hole in your bows; but in all cases you have virtually lost control as soon as your screws are going full speed astern, and there is also a strong likelihood that one engine will either start or stop before the other one which will give you an uncontrollable swing and, to use an expression borrowed from my present trade, "You've had it ! "
Another way not to do it is to approach a place where you are being blown on to the berth by a strong beam wind, by leaving yourself plenty of room and then drifting down on top of it. It is surprising how much damage a destroyer can do to her tender hull by arriving violently on the fenders with a really good drift on. I don't think I can go into any more details; there are so many hundreds of situations with which you will be faced and which you must solve for yourself, but the above two golden rules can be trusted not to let you down really badly. There is only one really good reason for getting your ship smashed and that is in action with the enemy, and even then only if you are achieving something useful by smashing him worse.
If you are going to stick to the racket of war very long one of your chief concerns must be the training of your officers of the watch at sea. This is becoming more and more difficult in these days of inexperience amongst the majority, but it is by no means impossible to avoid the necessity for remaining yourself on the bridge for excessively long hours. The only way to make a good officer of the watch is to teach him first your way of going about things and then insist upon him doing it himself without your supervision but with the knowledge that you are ever at his call if he wants you quickly. Excessive supervision will never make a bad officer of the watch into a good one. The only way is to build up his confidence in himself. This may sometimes turn your hair grey; but it is, as I said, the only way. I have spent many hours on the lower bridge before I was confident that some particular officer was competent to carry on in my absence - on the lower bridge because he did not know that his actions were being supervised. It paid me handsomely and I have never yet been in a ship where I could not get almost all the sleep I wanted (and I can take a good deal). Always be prepared, however, to arrive on the bridge at double-quick time if you are wanted. The responsibility is yours; and it is unfair to a young officer to expect him to hold the baby if he is not confident in himself. Your job is to build up that confidence.
Well, I think that is about enough fatherly advice for one letter. I tried to write you when you were in your prison camp; but the censor kept on sending it back because I had broken some piffling rule, so I eventually chucked my hand in. I wanted to write and tell you how very proud I was of the old ship's last action-she certainly had a Viking's funeral.
Give my respects to your wife and tell her that my present station is an excellent one for Wrens. My own family is flourishing, thank you. Unfortunately the brat is now high enough to see over the top of the table and everything comes off it on to the floor she needs much more supervision than any officer of the watch.
Best of luck to you with your first command, and do write and tell me how things are going.
Yours very sincerely,
From the U.K. Naval Review