What the Royal Navy thinks …

What the Royal Navy thinks …

My stories of life in the Royal Navy Submarine Service during the Second World War have attracted some attention from current members of the Senior Service. Below are two appreciations of the adventures of Harry Gilmour. One from the very top, and the other someone lower down.

Foreword to Gone to Sea in a Bucket by Lord Boyce

When I was first given the opportunity to read Gone to Sea in a Bucket by David Black, I was very busy and I put the manuscript to one side. However, when I did finally manage to pick it up, I was glad I’d cleared my in-tray first – because I could not put it down!

Speaking as a submariner, I found this tale of submarine life in wartime a genuine pleasure. It is technically extremely accurate from an engineering/equipment point of view, with regards to how a submarine of that era was operated and fought; and the detailed description of life on board (even down to ‘Train Smash’ and ‘Cheese Oosh’ – always popular scran!) and all the associated atmospherics one might encounter are most authentic.  There are a couple of instances where I felt nomenclature was different to that I have used – for example, I would say “All Round Look” as opposed to “360 Look” – but these are tiny; and the author may have it right: in 1940 that may have been the expression used.

I found myself easily transported back to the time I joined my first submarine 50 years ago – built in the closing stages of World War 2, so not that different from the submarines David Black describes. I was in total empathy with Harry Gilmour, his hero, when he joins HMS/M Pelorus as the junior watchkeeper on board; in my case - and at a similar age - I went aboard my first boat as 5th Hand, and Harry’s experiences scarily mirrored my own, right down to having a CO known for his liking of the hard stuff – though happily in my situation he indulged ashore and not aboard where he was a formidable and skilled attacker. And when Harry joins HMS/M Trebuchet … well, what can I say? I too had a wardroom steward just as much an eccentric character as Harry’s ‘Lascar’ Vaizey.

The insight into the relationship between *‘the Trade’ and General Service (the surface navy) is also absolutely spot on – and an element of that still exists in modern times between submariners and ‘skimmers’! (It was certainly powerfully in-being when I joined my first boat – **Vice Admiral Wilson’s words live on!!)

And the insight also captures perfectly the ethos and professionalism of the whole crew beneath the waves.

*        “Aye”, said Ted with a sage nod. “Thing about the Trade is, Mr Gilmour, unlike that lot upstairs, with us, if every man knows his job, and does his duty, exactly right, then there’s a good chance we’ll all live. If he don’t, then we don’t. It’s simple as that.”

*        “There isn’t less discipline in the Trade Mr Gilmour. If anything, the discipline here is the hardest of all. Self-discipline. You look after yourself, your mates and your boat. At all times.”

*        Life in a submarine was a unique experience. On a big ship, hierarchy prevailed. On a submarine, it was different. You had to rub along, mainly because it wasn’t safe to do otherwise.

The fear of ‘friendly fire’ from the RAF also lives on – or at least it did until the Government got rid of the RAF’s ASW Maritime Patrol Aircraft in the 2010 defence review.

The book’s closing adventure is indeed the stuff of Hornblower and Jack Aubrey; it’s the singeing the King of Spain’s beard and ‘Crap’( I knew him personally, and my father served under him) Miers*** winning his VC in WW2 rolled into one – and the exciting way it is told helps to sustain credulity!  All the aspects of submarine warfare are brought into play: the surveillance mission is extremely authentic, and once the shooting starts …

I could go on – there is so much to parallel with my own experiences as, I suspect, will be the case for anyone who has been in the Trade, even in today’s nuclear submarine fleet – but if I did I would end up making this foreword longer than the book with my own quotes and personal reflections from every page!

Yet I do hope that anyone reading this book who is not a submariner will gain as much enjoyment as I have taken!

I say this because I know that out there is a huge readership with no experience of Nelson-era Ships of the Line, yet who find the works of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian hugely readable in spite of their delving deeply into the technical detail of their day.

In the same way, Gone to Sea in a Bucket reflects the submarine service in World War 2, with the same attention to detail. And that is why I believe that in its hero Harry Gilmour, David Black has created a Jack Aubrey for the modern age. And set him at the heart of tale as epic as those of O’Brian and Forester; a tale that encompasses not only the same thrill of action, but also the same compassion and understanding for the true heroes of our nation’s seafaring traditions – the fighting sailor then, as now.

Admiral of the Fleet the Lord Boyce KG GCB OBE; former First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, 1998 to 2001;  and Chief of the Defence Staff, 2001 to 2003.

*‘the Trade’ – The Royal Navy Submarine Service’s name for itself.

**In 1901, when the Royal Navy was first considering commissioning submarines into the fleet, the then Vice Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC described them as: “Under-hand, unfair and damned un-English.”

*** Rear Admiral Sir Anthony Cecil Capel Miers VC KBE CB DSO & Bar, who won his VC commanding HMS Torbay in 1942

Review for Rum Ration – the un-official, official RN online community


I have high hopes for this series, having received the first 3 books and finished them off in fairly short order.  The ‘high concept’ is fairly simple - the author, David Black, has created a fictional Royal Naval hero, Harry Gilmour, but instead of the increasingly crowded RN of the Nelson era, Gilmour is a Royal Naval Volunteer Reservist who joins up at the start of the Second World War. After a brief and miserable stint on a capital surface ship, where as a ‘wavy navy’ part timer, Sub-Lieutenant Gilmour is up against a hostile regular big-ship mafia in the Wardroom, Harry finds himself heading to HMS Dolphin to join the Submarine Service. Harry has the character and sea-sense to thrive in boats, as he grew up around yachts on the banks of the Clyde, and he finds that he takes to ‘the Trade’ and his fellow regular submariners accept him pretty readily.

This series really landed for me, because it works on many levels. Firstly, Black is excellent at describing the RN of 1940 - recovering from the decline and neglect of the ‘locust years’ and peacetime routines, carrying hundreds of years of tradition, but always looking for a battle while trying to lean forward into the latest war and adapt as fast as it can.

The range of characters rings true, from utter buffoons as one would encounter in a ‘Sharpe’ novel, to more pragmatic and forward-looking types. Most of them are drawn sympathetically, and I was reminded of that other great sea story, The Cruel Sea, as Black has the great Nicholas Monsarrat’s skill in portraying ordinary people doing their best under extraordinary circumstances.

He weaves in seamlessly real figures from the war, such as Admiral Max Horton and Captain ‘Shrimp’ Simpson, and their speaking parts ring true. There are villains, of course, and Gilmour’s nemesis is an awful specimen of humanity, the ‘Bonny Boy,’ a senior submarine staff officer with murderous levels of ambition. Harry is party to the shameful truth behind the Bonny Boy’s self-enhanced reputation, and so he is a marked man. There need to be sequels for many reasons, but the ‘Bonny Boy’ finally getting his is one of the most important!

Secondly, he evokes the wartime Royal Navy submarine service, the unloved runt of the RN litter, but now strategically vital to the war effort, with unerring accuracy. If there are errors and omissions in his research, this ex-submariner failed to notice them. His picture of life on wartime diesel boats is grim, detailed and authentic, and he is able to get inside the heads of the men who were there, to unpick the atmospherics and unspoken ‘mood music’ of a tightly-knit submarine crew.

Thirdly, he sets up an enormously detailed background picture of wartime life. Readers who know their wartime history will appreciate how real events and people pop up as fictional counterparts. Readers who don’t will get a fantastically readable introduction to the subject.

5/5 Anchors/Mushroomheads.  Harry Gilmour has real potential to become the Richard Sharpe of the Royal Navy Submarine Service. He is a sympathetic, utterly believable hero operating in an immensely detailed and accurate world, but Black’s skill as a writer means that the story carries the reader through without burying them in the detail. Accurate, readable, populated as it is with believable characters, this series adds another Tier 1 Personality to the network of great military heroes, and, best of all, he’s a submariner.

By “a former Submarine engineer”