- Book reviewer
- Biographies and personal histories, Book reviews, Royal Navy
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
O.U. 5513 (10) 43 The Navy List, containing list of ships, establishments and officers of the Fleet, October, 1943.
Published by order of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty for the convenience of the Service. (Crown Copyright Reserved).
Price: Not for sale
Reviewed by Tony Howland
Surely, if ever something was created to illustrate the stoic and dogged determination of the British people to preserve their institutions and prevail against all odds under the depredations of the Germans during World War II, this is it. The Navy List 1943 is a remarkable volume, unique and worthy of our wonderment. It is reviewed here, not to encourage you to rush off to your nearest bookstore in anticipation of having ‘a good read’ – no bookstore would have it, and it’s not exactly ‘a good read’ – but as a salute to an incredible achievement.
This is strictly a reference book; a copy is held in the library of the Naval Historical Society at Garden Island in Sydney. It is not available for lending, but can be viewed and used on site on request. Mind you, our copy is frail. It’s getting on; it is, after all, 64 years old. With its soft cover, it was really only designed to last one year. We have a collection of Navy Lists going back over many years, and each has emblazoned on the cover the admonition ‘All previous copies of the ‘O.U.’ Navy List are to be destroyed’. Interestingly, too, whilst it is not classified according to normal procedures, the cover also has the further direction, in large block capitals, ‘TO BE KEPT LOCKED UP.’
Let me set the scene. This is not a diminutive volume. It does not sit coyly, hiding from our notice, on our library shelves. It has real gravitas. It is ten centimetres or four inches thick, comprising as it does nearly 2,850 pages, and tips the scales at just short of two kilos or slightly more than four pounds. (I’m not usually given to weighing my books, but in this case, out of interest, I made an exception).
We have no definitive information about the number of these volumes which were produced. In trying for a guesstimation at the Society, we started with the fact that in 1943, the RAN had in excess of 400 vessels in commission, and each of them, and every Naval shore establishment, would have received a copy of this Navy List. Consider then the Royal Navy, with every ship and shore establishment, and then add every Navy of the then British Empire, plus interested others from around the world; we guessed, conservatively, that each issue of a Navy List in 1943 probably numbered about 10,000 copies. Our copy of the Navy List is dated October, 1943, and states on its title page, ‘Corrected to 18th September, 1943.’ In other words, there was less than a month between closing off this copy, and going to press. This volume also has amongst its myriad Sections, one entitled ‘Obituary, a list of officers whose deaths have been reported since 18th July, 1943’. (presumably the previous issue of the Navy List, only three months beforehand.)
To add a further dimension to the task of compiling this and other issues of the Navy List, consider the fact that all this was put together by hand. We didn’t even try to estimate the number of officers who were listed, but each name appears at least three times in each volume, once in alphabetical order with seniority under the correct List (General, Reserve, Volunteer Reserve, etc), then listed according to rank and seniority, and finally according to his or her appointment to a ship or establishment. The Royal Marines in all their formations and regiments are also listed. Ensuring each of these entries is correct by some elaborate system of cross-referencing would on its own be a major task. Up-to-date information would flow in from around the world at a time when changes were, sadly, all too frequent, and then be brought together and filed in several lists on a daily basis.
All of this, as I have said, was done by hand. This was well before the age of computers. Even with computers, the scale of the task of assembling an issue of the Navy List would be formidable. Given, too, that this was all done at the height of the War, we would have to ask ourselves some interesting questions. How many people were involved in the production of this esoteric volume? Were they given ‘protected employment’ status to justify their absence from some, arguably, more productive effort for the war? Where were they accommodated, so that their offices, records, and production facilities were protected from the bombs? Consider the distribution task – presumably, everything went by sea. So evidently, the timely delivery of each issue of the Navy List was considered important enough to allocate what must have been considerably valuable cargo space during those straitened times. How much paper was used – presumably most, if not all, had to be imported, again, at the height of the war?