A meticulously researched look at the lives of sailors serving in the British Royal Navy during the first half of the 20th century.
McKee (History/Grinnell Coll.), who profiled US Navy officers in A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession (not reviewed), here paints a portrait that contravenes commonly held stereotypes about enlisted sailors. Such stereotypes, he argues, are generally drawn from either formal military histories written by officers and academics or from the visions of novelists and filmmakers. These sources often portray sailors as hard-drinking sexual deviants—a cliché, McKee asserts, that too easily dismisses the intense pressure these men endured during their cruises. Rather than rely on traditional military histories, he makes use of the diaries, letters, memoirs, questionnaires, and taped recollections of the former sailors themselves. These documents reveal a decidedly monotonous and often dangerous shipboard existence. Interweaving conventional history and detailed enumeration of naval regulations into the sailors’ own anecdotes, McKee captures the tension endemic on ships where public routine governed every moment of the day. Such an endless cycle of bland rations, lack of privacy, severe discipline, and hard physical labor inspired much of the portside drinking and sexual enthusiasm so often glamorized by novelists. While he does not deny the common existence of such behavior, McKee finds that it obscures the finer feelings that motivated sailors to live under such discipline: a sense of camaraderie, spirit of adventure, and love of country. These are the qualities, he suggests, that made British seamen essential to Allied efforts in both world wars; a truer portrait should supplant the popular image of the roistering sailor.
Particularly appealing to those concerned with naval history, but written in vivid prose that will sustain the interest of more general readers as well.