"Royal Navy and Maritime Book Reviews" PROVIDED BY - Rob Jerrard
HMS Ganges: Tales of the Trogs, John Douglas 1995,
12 full-page humorous, sometimes cruel illustrations drawn by ex-boy a brilliant cartoonist, especially the one where ship-mates became whip-mates!'Also, some drawings from the Shotley Mags. etc.
Preface and Chapter 1 by way of Introduction
H.M.S. Ganges the naval establishment for training boy entrants into the RN. - was situated on the tip of the Shotley peninsular, ten miles seaward to the east from Ipswich in Suffolk, and across the harbour from Harwich and Felixstowe.
Ganges was famous, or infamous, it was an excellent training establishment - which many claim, turning boys into men and producing the finest seamen in the world. Or perhaps it was the notorious harsh and strict place in which young sailor-boys were bullied, harassed, cruelly punished & brain-washed into obeying orders immediately on command - or be subjected to barbaric punishments! Perhaps it really was the place where 'shipmates became 'whip-mates,' as someone once suggested.
To it's debatable credit, H.M.S. 'Ganges' produced leaders by way of Petty Officers and Chief Petty Officers; some eventually made it to the Wardroom.
There was the adverse, young boys committed suicide, or did themselves deliberate physical harm, hoping for a medical discharge, rather than continue with the rigours of the training. One, at least, died whilst undergoing punishment; another drowning whilst learning to swim; yet another jumping from the mast, the only way out; or failing to return from leave, having despatched themselves into the grave by hanging rather than return to Ganges.
HOWEVER: Agree or disagree, when you read the following pages, whichever conclusion you may reach, it will be absolutely right for some, wrong for others, and vice-versa for both!
You can only draw your own conclusion!
Where it was, What it was and, and What they say about it...
'It was the first, the last and the only concentration camp in Britain.' 'Discipline was on par with that of Cap'n Bligh of the 'Bounty."
'Ganges was a holiday camp.'
'They say Ganges turned out the best seamen in the world - that was just a 'con' to get young boys to join..
'Discipline was brutal in the extreme.
'It was the blue-print for the German P.O.W. camps.
'I hated it!'
'I loved it!'
A Short History.
H.M.S. Ganges, the ship, which had sailed around the coast from the harbour of Falmouth where it had been for many years, was anchored in Harwich Harbour from 1895 to 1905. In that latter year the boys came ashore to establish H.M.S. Ganges the 'concrete frigate,' and the teak-built training-ship, the last wooden-hulled vessel to carry an Admiral to act as Flagship, was taken to Chatham, renamed and used as a tender to R.N. Barracks. She was later towed to Plymouth for breaking up.
Ganges, or what remains of it, is now a Police Training College; it may be gone from sight but not from the memory of hundreds of thousands of boys and men who spent several months training as Boys, or Instructors or as members of the staff. The memories it provoked, etched indelibly, marked for all time in thousands of minds, are often good, but most times bad. There are stories of compassion and kindness. Not all Instructors were bullying sado-masochists, and the latter trait was definitely not a qualification to become an Instructor, but it was brought out in some when they realised the magnitude of the mostly unquestionable and, in some cases, limitless power they held over two thousand boys. Some stories conflict with others, proving that some opinions can be guided, and affected by what happens to us or what we see happening to others.
It was planned to write a book of entertaining laughter-provoking anecdotes: "The humourous tales of HMS Ganges" but this one contains only a small fraction of the humour which had been anticipated. It was, initially, envisaged as a documentary of nostalic humour of the days of a well-spent or miss-spent youth, depending how the reader observes it. The unfortunate result is that it includes sado-masochism, bullying, humiliation, with an occasional injection of spite, self-importance by persons with inferiority complex problems; humour, though little of it; pathos and sympathy, spiced with rare humanitarian actions of kindness by a few who cared about others. What a pity. It was meant to be about humour.
Worse than that; some stories contradict others. As the wise and ancient poet, Jadie said:
"It does not follow that whatever happened to us, must have happened to everyone; and if it did not happen to us, it does not also follow that it happened to others".
The extracts at the beginning of this chapter - disproportionately in favour of the good rather than the bad - are taken from letters about H.M.S. Ganges. It's reputation varies greatly, depending upon who is relating the story how they were treated by their Instructors and their contemporaries, their mess-mates, the boys themselves, who, in some cases were equally guilty of man's inhumanity to man.' Some letters praised all the Instructors and say nothing but good about them, though it is not totally inconceivable to understand that the writers could not have first-hand knowledge of all the instructors who passed through Ganges. It will be seen that so many ex-Boys, when relating their stories, continually use the word, sadistic. Some other phrases are also used several times and it is difficult to alter the wording and retain the original meaning. The comments on good or bad Instructors are mostly generalised in both cases, based mainly upon personal experience and seldom that of others, which seems to be the method of assessing situations as is usual and common to human nature. At the lower end, some tales are horrifying, bordering on the likeness to prisoner-of-war camp atrocities, though not to the extremes of Belsen or even the infamy of the Bridge on the River Kwai story.
One boy, now a retired police sergeant, thought Ganges was paradise. "It was," he said, 'Absolute heaven to lie asleep, knowing I did not have to listen to the clumsy footsteps of a drunken father clumping up the stairs to drag me from my bed to thrash me for no reason. "
Instructors - and Boys who had been promoted over their mess-mates - illustrated by their own bullying actions. There are stalwarts who defend the reputation of Ganges defiantly and gallantly. There can be no doubt that certain aspects of the Ganges regime gave rise to atrocities unfair and unjust treatment, barbaric punishments, bullying sadism and masochism - according to the letters which follow including several from ex-Boys who returned later as Instructors. and one at least who returned again as an officer. Although a few liked or loved Ganges, others hated and feared it so much they tried to bring about their discharge by deliberately wounding themselves to a point where they could be discharged because of ill-health or some deliberately brought about by their own desperate actions. Most Boy's took Ganges as a sufferance to be endured and got rid of to make way for the obvious good things to come. The reputation of Ganges as a paradise, holiday-camp, hell-hole or simply a training establishment for Boy Seamen was therefore relative to personal opinion.
At the height of the Ganges' training schedule, there was accommodation for two thousand boy's and several hundred staff. Place those two thousand boys in the same situation, in the same place at the same time, ask them to relate their experiences - and the result is two thousand differing versions, each one in total belief that his version is the true one, and the versions of others if they differ greatly are accused of being suspect for varying reasons. There is also a strong-minded, one-track, self-opinionated section who were treated well by the Instructors and Instructor-Boys, later known as Junior Instructors, and refuse to believe that anyone could have been treated less than fairly and justly. A similarly biased view is held by those who's Instructors and Instructor-Boys were little Hitlers, -and that was being lenient with their opinions - who cannot believe that anyone could have been treated, in the very least, any way' but harshly, unfairly and unkindly. In the stories which follow the reader should ignore claims that Ganges was all bad or all good. It should be understood that not all humans are average, nice people. There are those who have been bullied at school and could not retaliate because of their lack of courage and/or stature to fight back. They get their revenge later, in adulthood, by treating those beneath them in like manner. There are those who's ego is so large that they have
down others to make themselves look big, clever smart and all-powerful.
Several stories herein are related by ex-Instructors. They convey a feeling of responsibility and anxiousness to see the job through, and to do that job most efficiently with great consideration to their Boys. One chapter, in particular, is devoted to ex-Petty Officer Frank Henry Austin and his story: My finest hour...
Ex-Instructors, who made the similar collective comment: I was a Boy at Ganges and later returned as an Instructor and got my own back,' when asked to elucidate upon that statement, remained jointly silenced. Only one, a Junior Instructor, elucidated upon it.
We are all the centre of our own world, and, as such, most people are convinced that their own personal views are right, and the opposing views of others are completely wrong; the intelligent person will look at the situation from both sides and concede that some could be right and some could be wrong. Neither side are completely right or wrong. To compile an unbiased opinion of Ganges, apart from my own observations and comments on some stories, I tried again to get other points of view - from the Instructor's side, or from those who had stories to relate about kind, caring human Instructors. I wrote to the Ganges Gazette, the quarterly magazine of the Ganges Association, asking for stories about the kindness of Instructors, and contacted ex-comedian Charlie Chester, who has a two-hour spot on Sunday evenings on Radio Two, inviting ex-Ganges Boys to write letters of contradiction to the general 'sado-masochistic Instructor' theme. The meagre response of just one letter from each source was disappointing, especially as one admonished me for saying Ganges wasn't as bad as I said - then explained how bad it really was!
As the author of this book and to be fair and impartial, in defence of most of the Instructors, P.T.I.' s and officers, I have to say this: In the seventeen months I spent at Ganges, I never experienced any atrocity, unfair dealing, cruelty, sadistic bullying by any Instructor Boy, Leading Boy, Petty Officers or Chief Petty Officers, Wardroom Officers or P.T.I.' s, with whom I had personal contact. Therefore, I could not say that atrocities and mis-use of power by Instructors, did, or did not take place. Tales of atrocities did filter through at the time, most were not rumours, but provable facts: a comparable
Anyone else, his physical condition concealed a serious ailment or deformity which had not been discovered by previous physical examinations. After several dozen up-and-downers on the notorious and dreaded Laundry Hill - the tortuous hilly-route of many painful memories of jankers and Shotley Routines - he began to approach the point of near-collapse. Faint and weak by this time, he told the Instructor-in-charge that he felt ill; the Instructor ignored his plea and ordered him to keep doubling. Shortly after, the boy dropped to the ground unconscious. The Instructor, according to reports, kicked him and ordered him to get back onto his feet. The boy was unconscious. The Instructor continued to poke him with the toe of his boot; then, realising that the boy was-as not shamming, he ordered two other boys to escort the boy to the sick bay. The boy died later. The Instructor had a nervous break-breakdown. That was true; but it was more likely that his break-down was caused by the incessant barrage of vociferous boy's who threw all caution to deride that Instructor from the safety of distance as they hurled vocal insults and accusations at him whenever he walked in the Ganges enclosure. Within three days of the luckless boy dying, the Instructor was removed from Ganges to elsewhere.
The foregoing tragedy was brought about by' the seeming uncaring attitude of an Instructor who had one purpose in mind: These boys are under punishment, it is my duty to punish them, and punish them I will. The boy claimed, and stated, that he was unwell. He was-as not believed. It was very obvious that the Instructor thought the boy was pretending to be ill to get out of the punishment.
You will read many complaints about the P.T.I.' s, physical training instructors, but the P.T.I. of my division, Grenville, was no less than thoroughly likeable, understanding and friendly. It is a suspicion I have held for several years that some aspects of Ganges which caused pain or fear would eventually give rise to a total hatred of Ganges itself. Those same aspects could, conversely, cause some ex-Boys to actually herald the praises of Ganges. The aspects which come to mind, three of them, are climbing the mast, swimming and gymnastics. If there is a fourth it would be taking part in the man' types of sports which Ganges had to offer.
From my own point of view I loved climbing the mast, I excelled at swimming, I was good at gymnastics -- - near the top of the class but not outstanding.
Particularly in the case of swimming and climbing the mast if the complainant has a fear of heights and/or water. Other sports, gymnastics. football, cricket, rugby, etc., contain pain-inducing activities which are ignored by the lovers of those sports as 'par for the course. But if a boy is not the sporty sort, and is forced to learn to swim, climb the mast, take compulsory lessons in gymnastics and sports, then he might blame his hatred for those things entirely upon Ganges - and therefore he would hate Ganges.
Some of the stories provoke disgust. and the only intervention by the author is to make an appropriate comment, assuming the stories are true. My personal view of Ganges, is, therefore, unbiased. Any comments made before, during, or after a story, is made only upon the contents of that story. I have no personal gripe against Ganges -made at least two life-long friends whilst there - but if I was urged to make some complaint, then it would be this: I was once hit over the head which a rolled-up map by' an Instructor, but this was part of jocularly-friendly banter which was taking place between us both in the class-room. It didn't hurt - although it came as a mild and unexpected shock - and was the Instructor left, half-way through the course to be demobbed. I was as sorry to see him go as the rest of the class - except perhaps the WREN he was having an affair with. Our main concern was because we were anxious that the Instructor taking his place never turn out to be as good - or not as bad, depending - as the one who was leaving.
There was one Instructor, a Lt. 'Schoolie,' who took a gang of us lads for a week-end camping at Pin Mill, two miles along the river, a welcome week-end away from the pomp, bullshine and discipline. It was rumoured that the 'Schoolie' liked the look and feel of the tender bottoms of young boys. From a true incident which followed, he also liked to chastise those tender bums with semaphore-flag-sticks on the slightest excuse and personal whim. The others and myself were observed by an uncaring cottage-dweller scrumping mouldy wind-falls from her overgrown orchard which was ankle-deep in rotten apples. She voiced her complaint to the 'Schoolie' who's soft, brown eyes sparkled with expectation at the thought of being able to scourge the bums of the scrumping young scamps.
The sentenced without trial to three whacks of a pair of semaphore-flags across the buttocks.
The other two took their punishment meekly, 'the timidly and fearfully, without protest or questioning of his right to do so.
Then it was my turn - but I was determined not to be beaten by a perverted old of a cow-eyed 'Schoolie.'
I said: 'No, sir, you' re not allowed to hit us. Besides, we only picked up what was nearly rotten apples.'
He didn't know' what to do or say. Here was a cheeky young, fresh-faced Nozzer, actually defying the high blown, unquestionable authority, which he thought, up to that point, was infallible.
"I said: bend over!" he demanded sternly; "And touch your toes." I shook my head: "No." I had reached the point of no return and was determined to see it through. I warmed to my new-found bravado, realising by the look on his face that he was near defeat, not quite knowing how to handle this young, persistent upstart. 'You're not allowed to punish us without a fair trial." I realised then that it sounded a bit melodramatic, and wondered in the following split-second what would happen - obviously', being an officer he could not back down in the face of insubordination.
I held his gaze, thinking perhaps I had better bend over and take my punishment before this simple charade of bravado might end in Commander's report and six whacking cuts delivered by 'Creeping Jesus,' the beefy R.P.O. But I obstinately refused to bend over so that my tender young bottom could be chastised by' anyone just to satisfy his homosexual tendencies.
'Alright,' he said. 'Report to the quarterdeck when you return to Ganges and I'll charge you with direct disobedience of orders and insubordination, including dumb insolence. Take that defiant look off your face, Douglas, and go and collect some firewood for the fire." His 'face' had been saved but his threats never came to fruition. I reported to the quarterdeck, waited, but he didn't appear. Even to this day I still marvel at my courage as one of the absolute lowest of naval ratings, opposing such great majesty as a Royal Navy Lieutenant. I felt as if I could have said, 'Balls!' to the skipper and got away with it.
Back in the mess, as the tale was told, my esteem rose to the highest levels of admiration. At a height of five feet two inches I was the tallest in the Division for several weeks.
There are stories which follow that prove several boys, who were given the same ultimatum, 'my punishment or Commander's report?' would have been punished more leniently, or not at all, if they had opted for Commander's report. It makes one wonder just how many boys would have escaped illegal and harsh punishment if they had stood their ground, or reported those unofficial and of times barbaric unjust treatments. There are several stories on that theme. My own Instructors were never guilty of the statement, Commander's report or my' punishment?' None of my Instructors ordered us out of bed at 0100 or 0200 to satisfy a drunken urge to show us they were closely blood-related to Hitler or any member of the S.S., determined to prove their superiority. But according to letters received, there were those who did. It makes sad reading.
Unlike the stories of long, sweaty hours on punishment routine, they were not made to double up the three flights of concrete steps jokingly called 'Faith, Hope and Charity' in an attempt to teach us how' to read morse-code at a speedier rate, or more efficiently. We did perform a few strenuous sinew-stretching muscle-cramping up-and-downers on that tortuous stretch of concrete steps, not because we were slow in learning, but because of some minor breach of rules, regulations or discipline, and which were probably deserved. There were some Instructors, according to the stories, Nv'ho suffered the affliction of conspicuously apparent brain-thickness, believing with old-fashioned Victorian reasoning, that physically and painfully' punishing slow-learning, back-ward boys, would actually cause them to learn more quickly!
Isn't punishing a person for being unable to learn quick enough the wrong way to teach? Punishment for being lackadaisical, sloppy, or lazy, or being deliberately slack in harning, is a totally different matter. Brutality and humiliation does not earn respect, it breeds fear, and only fear. Fear causes a person to react quickly because of nervousness; it leads to inaccuracy, causes mistakes and sometimes total inertia. The old saying: 'more haste, less speed,' is as true to this day as when it first stated. Kind treatment can lead to respect, and respect will lead to the person respected being obeyed by their subordinates - that is discipline. Fear sometimes has the same result but not the same respect for the mentor, and mistakes are often caused by the nervous hurriedness which fear brings.
None of my Instructors tried to teach by terror, we were never made to put bed-chocks down our pyjama legs back-to-front and run around the parade-ground until we dropped. But because those things never happened to me, I cannot honestly swear that they did not happen to others. In fact, so many say' that it did, they must be believed. There are several extracts from the letters sent in by ex-Instructors who were ex-Boys. They also tell of and thereby confirming, the unnecessary brutalities and bullying by their Instructors when they, the story-tellers were boy's.
One ex Boy is Ronald S.C. Robinson, a one-time member of Drake Division, 1936, retired now as a Lieutenant Commander. Despite his rise through Petty Officer, Chief and finally to the wardroom, he has always been stoically cynical. His following statement, as an ex-officer, ex-Ganges Boy, simplifies what H.M.S. Ganges, when all it's aspects are whittled down to basics, really meant to those who considered it's purpose and meaning in greater depth than most:-
"What I recall most vividly," reports Ronald, 'Was the irrelevance, not only of Ganges, but the Royal Navy in general. I can remember becoming, even at that early age, an expert on practices that would never be of the slightest use to me at sea. It did irreparable harm to me in that it bred a cynicism that even now is not fully eradicated. This was the product of the realisation that, there was I, in a navy that had no concept of its relevance or function, had no intention of finding out, and, confronted with it's sobering reality', would probably have tried to polish it. It also created in me a lot of good, a resolve to counter both bullying and gross inefficiency at any level to which I might be advanced.
We became highly proficient at diverting attention from our inability to do something - by doing something else, and doing it well. In taking part in that diversionary, protective hypocrisy, we were merely copying what the whole of the service was up to.
Some of the stultifying orthodoxy is still doctrinal: From time to time, I wonder if, perhaps, there might be a Rosetta Stone somewhere that I've not been able to decipher. As an example: the significance of proficiency at 'Horse Hockey' in determining fitness to command still eludes me."