Running a Big Ship

30 Jul 18
Posted by: Kevin Rowlands

by Capt Rory O’Conor RN

I was eager to review this book for, having been the Commander of HMS Bulwark a few years ago, I had in effect “run” a big ship. The author, Rory O’Conor, had been the Commander of HMS Hood in the early 1930s and I wanted to know what difference eighty years made to the conduct of what must be one of the best jobs in the Navy.
Sadly, and to my embarrassment as a self-professed man of books, I didn’t know that Running a Big Ship existed when I joined Bulwark. Evidently, it never became my “bible”; instead I used Toby Williamson’s “Executive Business” published in these pages as my guiding light and still sometimes turn to it now for a reality check (Naval Review, August, 2005). Both present a warts-and-all picture of the highs and low of the job. I love Willamson’s turn of phrase, “the likeable, drinking rogues, the litigious, exculpatory few or the seriously disturbed loners [who] will take up a lot of your time.” These twenty-first century words are matched superbly by O’Conor’s earlier exasperation with the workshy: “All the world hates a skulker – it must hate him – why should a man slide away and leave his mates to finish off a job?”
O’Conor’s leadership method started with his Ten Commandments. Everyone who has served has been faced with interminable and unreadable Standing Orders, but O’Conor limited his to the “little” that the ship’s company must actually know. He justified his approach by simply saying that, “If Moses could control the people of Israel for forty years in the desert with Ten Commandments, it would be surprising if more were needed for the commission of a ship.” Well, quite. Paraphrasing, his were: observing the customs of the Service; keeping the good appearance of the ship; keeping individual good bearing and dress; paying courtesy to officers; obeying orders; being punctual; asking permission to leave work; reporting on completion of work; no gambling; and making requests through proper channels. If only.
After outlining his Commandments, O’Conor goes on to describe how they are put into action in greater detail, from the running of the Commander’s Officer to the responsibilities of different branches, daily routines and recreation. The subject matter is serious for the author, but he tackles it in a light-hearted way and the reader cannot help but warm to his humanity and personal commitment. His section on Midshipmen made me smile. To him, a Midshipman was an officer, not an overgrown schoolboy. He didn’t like the fact that to the thoughtless they were just messengers, and to “Training and Education Experts (whose name is legion, for they are many)” they were “natural prey.” To regard Midshipmen as officers meant seeing them as our younger selves who had not yet had time to make all our mistakes.
O’Conor’s time in Hood was undoubtedly a great success. Brian Lavery provides a lively contemporary introduction to the new print of this classic and explains how the ship won numerous accolades and awards, and how O’Conor himself was viewed. In fact, O’Conor was given six months off between appointments after leaving Hood to write his guide; something difficult to believe could even be contemplated today. Lavery also gives a little potted history of the author who went on to be promoted Captain and to command the cruiser Neptune during World War II. He was lost when his ship struck a mine in the Mediterranean in 1941.
If I had a criticism of this version of Running a Big Ship, it is the dust jacket. It is a real shame and, if I were to put it more strongly, something of a disservice to the author and an insult to the reader, that whoever wrote the blurb and accompanying flyer either did not read or did not understand the book. O’Conor makes very clear that he was the Commander of HMS Hood, and how the roles and responsibilities of the Captain, the Commander, the Duty Lieutenant Commander and, when appropriate, the Duty Commanding Officer work. It is therefore wrong to claim that “in 1933 he was made Captain of HMS Hood” and that the book was written “having completed the highly prestigious commission of commanding HMS Hood.”
However, that aside – and let us not forget that we should read books for the author’s words, not the marketing department’s – there is much to learn here. Does it translate to the twenty-first century? In large part, yes it does. I suppose we would spend less time today organising regattas, but we would surely devote as much of our energy to getting the most from our people and serving them well in return. It is worth reading for a bit of fun and nostalgia for a (slightly) different Navy, and the price is reasonable. Recommended.

Kevin Rowlands
Captain, RN