Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Naval (Branch) Gazing

Long ago, when ships were made of wood and were sailed or rowed, the start of branch rivalry occurred, though it's fair to say the Vikings and Romans were all one branch, murderous heathens, armed only with sword and spike.

So when did real branch rivalries begin then?  Well to be honest, it's not entirely clear.  Sailing ships superseded rowed Galleons and sailing ships had their "divisions" or trades.  But on sailing ships, almost everyone was a sailor and fighter, even the cooks.  And everyone was a bunting tosser.  And you can bet most folks took a turn on the helm.

So with that in mind when did those damned branch divisions start?  As I'm not well versed on the matter and how other nations Navies operated I'll look more closely to home, and The Mother Country, as our Navy as it is now was born from that Navy and it's structure. And the best way to do that is by using branch structures.

I'll ignore the Officers here and concentrate just purely on Matelots, the lower deckers.  Officers however do get a mention as they already had defined tasks throughout history.

Seamen - originally everyone on a Man'o'war was a seaman, even the officers if needed.  The whole point of

 a fighting ship was to get from A to B, do it's fighting, and get home again.  In that course, everyone knew that the ship had to be sailed and took turns in sailing her.  And when getting to the fighting, everyone knew how to use a sword or fire a cannon.  So everyone was a "Jack of All Trades."  But after years of trial and error it was soon discovered that to get efficiency out of a fighting ship, one had to diversify and by giving certain crewman tasks at which they excelled, a better job was done and the outcome was far better for that ship or navy.  So Seamen diversified into branches, the Bunting Tosser, The Gunner, The Sail Handler, The Bosun and his mate, the Yard Hands, and others.

The seaman branch diversified through history on the style of ships they sailed on, but largely the same corp d'esprit permeated that history.  Gunners are still Gunners, but now they drive directors and suchlike.  They are a breed apart.  How many folks have you heard say "never go on a Gunners Run - they beat themselves up"?  And with the advent of sonar and radar another breed came to fore.  And not to mention Spooks!!  Those trades are now sadly gone, lost when Boiler driven ships departed for parts eternal.  I think now we have gone back a step to the sailing days where Combat System ratings now do all combat operations, a sort of Jack of All Trades.  Of course I might be wrong, been away from Gray Ships and Navy for over 14 years now.

Now the butt of everyone's jokes in the mess.  The Sail Handlers and Yard Hands.  They provided the best out of the sails, and when sailing ships died, they morphed from being on high, to shoveling dirty coal.  From the bright sunshine of the Yards, to the Hard yards in keeping boilers pumping.  The saddest tale of all. 
But it has it's upside.  The strongest rivalry has always been between the seamen and the stokers.  The stokers held their own, and rightfully so.  There job was always the toughest, getting a ship around the oceans with limited technology.  Not only did they have to keep boilers running but they had to fix them too, and any manner of machinery on a ship.  Often grimy, very often smelly, and the bane of Heads Cleaning Parties, stokers lived and died machinery, oil and FFO.  Later on better ships meant less strains on their resources and to such an extent now practically all they do is press buttons and oil machinery.

But let's move on!  The Bunting Tossers.  These folks also morphed through time.  Agreed flags are still used, and signal lamps still feature, but what of this breed.  Well having served a lot with these guys and gals
I can tell you they are a very different breed.  Quiet, reserved, unwilling to get into branch tirades, and likely to walk away than stand their ground in an argument.  Communicators have probably been the longest serving branch of any specific trade due to the complexity of their job throughout history and given that they will probably always be around.  They are proud of who they are and what they do but they don't often communicate that.  I have known some fine sailors from that branch and I'm sure there are still fine ones around.

So where did the Weapon Mechanic originate from then?  Grease monkeys!  Well on sailing ships there
wasn't much call for this breed.  Cannons were simple beasts, rounds didn't need to be greased, maybe they
sharpened boarding parties swords then (on a greased whetstone)?  It's fair to say however that with the advent of breach loaded weapons, there was a need for this animal.  Like stokers, their appearance and slovenly habits made them a butt of dits around ships and bases.  But they are needed in the modern navy, despite their origins and make a worthwhile contribution (as they have done for a century).

Ok we touched lightly on the electrical side of things with the Comms folk.  Now the guys and gals that provide the Spark!  Yes Sparkies (or electricians for you
uneducated and unwashed). Back in sailing days, their job would have been to provide oil to the navigation lights, keep the stoves going for the cooks, and possibly helped the Bunting Tossers with their signals (repairing/making)  They morphed in the last century into electricians thanks to boiler ships, machinery, wiring and the need for things electrical to work.  A sort of a cross between Weapon Mechanics and Communicators in appearance and how they acted, but generally well meaning and decent folks.  I mean anyone that has the ability to touch wiring and not get zapped has my attention.

The Cabin Boys.  Well to be honest, that's where they derived from on sailing vessels.  Cabin boys served the officers food and drink and cleaned their cabin, clothes and generally doing anything that was required of them.  So the Stewards branch therefore is probably the third oldest recognisable branch in any Navy.

The second oldest branches are the Cooks and Stores.  Since ships went to sea with the intent of fighting and conquering, there has always been a chef, and he also largely did the stores.  Both branches morphed with technology and separated (but remain linked) due to the demands of those jobs.  It's kind of
strange, when you watch any movie or programme with a sailing ship in it, you never see the cook house or cook working??

OK so I forgot the medic!!  Anyone can amputate a leg (and they used to a lot)  Jack of all trades morphing into another trade.  See Steward above!

Of course the oldest and longest serving branch is the Droggies.  No good having a ship if you don't know where you are going and don't know how to get back!!


  1. What, no mention of Writers? Did your pay appear as if by magic Zaps?

  2. Did they get paid back then? I thought being a salt was for love of the sea and it's challenges. And of course the currency then was Grog, enter the SA's ;) Pay Clerks came much later.

    1. They were given a letter of credit which they had to take to Dockyard pay Office but many were turned over ie pier head draft to another ship so the Admiralty didn't have to pay them