Maurice Brawn, a national service ordinary seaman by re-categorisation

One man's experience of a Navy call-up

by Maurice Brawn and Dennis Mills



This story is based on the chance coming into contact of the two authors, both of whom were national servicemen in the early 1950s. Dennis started his naval life as an ordinary seaman RNVR and much to his surprise was re-categorised as a coder special for national service. Maurice started out as a coder special, also much to his surprise, but was also re-categorised, along with 20-30 of his fellows when the Navy discovered its mistakes.

Dennis worked on the Coder Special project which produced the book by Tony Cash and Mike Gerrard, The Coder Special Archive (2012) and several articles by Dennis, including his own memoir on this website.

Another article was 'Getting into the Navy in 1952' , Lincolnshire Past and Present, no.94, winter 2013-14. This describes his recruitment as an ordinary seaman RNVR, Hull Division 887, to ensure doing national service in the Navy. The arrangement was thrown on one side by the national service recruitment officer at Lincoln in July 1952. This man was a civilian Ministry of Labour and National Service official and insisted that the Navy did not take any national servicemen, despite Dennis' s protests and Admiralty Instructions and Queen' s Regulations. But then he recalled an almost forgotten memo in his desk, next looking back at Dennis' s CV which included sixth form Latin and French. Thus informed, he proclaimed that he (the mighty official and not the First Sea Lord) would let Dennis into the Navy if he would learn Russian. It was past Dennis' s lunch hour, so he quickly said 'Yes' .

Maurice also lives in Lincolnshire and takes Lincs Past and Present. Within days of no.94 coming out, he wrote to Dennis via the editor to draw the contrast with his own experience of a Navy call-up:


I have read your article in the LP&P magazine with great interest. I have down-loaded the book from the website and I have realised that there are some facts about naval recruitment of people to become coder special that you and your friends may not be aware of. I entered the Navy for national service by way of the coder special route.
I left school in 1947 at 16 with a very good School Certificate, but as with so many boys of my age there was no possibility of continuing in education. I had credits in Maths and English and science subjects with a distinction in Chemistry, so I went to a company in my village and was employed as a laboratory assistant. After a probationary period, I obtained an apprenticeship which involved national service deferment, but I had to register, and gave the Navy as my preferred service (which I promptly forgot). When my apprenticeship finished I was called to the recruiting centre at Northampton and a very large marine sergeant told me that as I had a preference for the Navy I was to become a coder special. I asked what that was and he said it was secret and he could not tell me.
In February 1952 I went to Victoria Barracks, where I was surprised to find that I was not given a sailor uniform and discovered why I had been allowed into the Royal Navy. I was to learn Russian and coders special were a new branch which required 'the sort of people that the Navy did not have' . I had failed one subject in my School Certificate - that was my only foreign language, French!
We soon went to the Joint Services School for Linguists at Coulsdon Common near Croydon. It was disorganised, it was cold, there was very little coke, no provision of wood to light fires, and no paper in the lavatories (Heads). The writing on the wall said 'Yest-li ou vas boumaga?' (Have you got any paper?). The place was a war zone where the Army, the Navy and the Air Force fought one another. The amazing thing was that after only a few weeks in the Navy we were as antagonistic to the other services as were the one or two POs and naval officers in charge of us.



  Some students and staff at JSSL Coulsdon, summer 1952. The instructor is Elena Levitskaya (' the Black Widow' ), with soldiers either side of her. To her left, the older man is probably the vice principal. The others are two airman and a coder special in fore-and-aft rig.

Photo by courtesy of Bill Morgan, one of the few regular RAF students.


 There was also another group of belligerents. They were the Russian-speaking instructors who were supposed to impart the Moscow accent (the only bit for which I received praise). Their desire, which they did not hide, was that Britain should declare war on the Soviet Union. I was much more concerned that John and Mary should live at peace nedalico ot Londona (not far from London). (Maurice is quoting here from our first Russian reader - DM).

After a couple of months there was an assessment, as a result of which one third of the naval contingent failed the course. I was in good company; most of us who failed were science-based and we had people who had completed their degrees, one specialist in Wave Mechanics, and quite a few assorted people with Chemistry and food industry specialities. The Navy could not get rid of us, so we had to complete our national service with it. We waited, and eventually were sent back to Victoria Barracks, a bunch of failures that the service did not want.


HMS Implacable. A fleet carrier launched 1942, spending most of 1943-44 in the NW Approaches and North Sea. April 1945 sent to the Far East to join the British Pacific Fleet. Then back to the Home Fleet; later the training squadron 1950-54. Broken up 1955. Photo:


An admiral arrived; he was dressed overall and very impressive. We were assembled to be interviewed. I do not know who went in first, but the admiral must have got someone who explained qualifications, such as university degrees and exam results, to him without any 'aye aye sir' , and with a simplicity that admirals could understand. There may have been more than one person interviewed, but the interviewing quickly stopped and his lordship departed. We were offered the choice of becoming seamen or stokers.

Your article suggests that during the time between my leaving Coulsdon at the beginning of June 1952 and your arrival there in February 1953 there was a considerable improvement in the organisation of the JSSL, both in the teaching of the Russian language and of the living conditions.

I was re-categorised as a seaman and my national service was I think useful both to myself and to the Navy. After training on the aircraft carrier HMS Implacable, when I was second in my group, I joined HMS Obedient, a fast mine-laying destroyer. She had been on the Russian convoys to Murmansk and had just been refitted. Our task was to follow the training aircraft carriers when trainee pilots were landing and taking off, to pick up any who crashed into the sea. I became part of the crew of the whaler and learned to use an oar in rough water; it was a matter of brute force, but not ignorance. After flying was complete, a dummy was dropped into the sea for us to retrieve. Our best time was 1minute 17 seconds. Our skipper could drop the whaler almost on top of the target. Because of our type of duty, we often spent five days continuously at sea, anchoring at night and never far from land along the south coast and up the Irish Sea to Scotland.

We often had to refuel at sea and the ship' s side became very dirty and had to be painted. The Admiralty changed the shade of grey paint used for the ship' s side. The new shade was in short supply, but there was lots of the old shade. With my experience in the paint laboratory, I was able to change the shade of the old to match the new. I think I became the first ordinary seaman ship' s painter ever in the Navy. The First Lieutenant swopped bottles of gin for old grey paint and I recycled it. The ship was painted for the fleet review at the coronation, and for whenever we went into port. I handed out the paint pots and brushes, but did not have to do the painting; I had found a 'Cushy Number' .



HMS Obedient. Destroyer launched 1942. On many Arctic convoy trips. Present at Salerno landing 1942, in action against E-boats 1944 in connection with D-Day landings. Converted to mine-laying at Immingham, April 1945, worked in North and Baltic Seas, becoming part of the Local Flotilla and Reserve; broken up 1962.Photo:


I completed my national service having been to Copenhagen, Gibraltar and Lisbon in the Implacable and spent many hours at sea in the Obedient, which had more hours of sea time than most other ships of the fleet. In the vernacular of the mess deck we were 'All About' .

After my demobilisation I first worked on the manufacture of plastics for children' s toys and dolls and then the design and development, manufacture and use of insulation panels in the construction of the insulated structure of cold stores and food factories. Eventually I became self-employed as a sort of consultant in that field and travelled a lot in connection with this work.



 Dennis now continues the story:

Maurice was right to point out that JSSL Coulsdon' s act had been smartened up considerably in the interval between his departure and my arrival. Coke was still in fairly short supply and the Army food (for the Army was in charge) was plentiful if poor. Peace had broken out between the factions and the teaching had become uniformly of a high standard.
Some of this was down to Wing Commander MacDonell who was principal for nine months between Maurice' s time and mine. He had a beneficial row with the commandant, a lieutenant-colonel, and therefore of only equivalent rank; and also sacked a number of instructors. His remarks have been supported by the recollections of some Navy students of the August 1952 intake, which overlapped with Maurice' s. It is clear from Admiralty papers that Maurice' s was the first intake at Coulsdon and it had opened without a principal, and chaotically as students arrived over a period of 5-6 weeks. (The very first intake had been at JSSL Bodmin in October 1951, also chaotic!).

However, the root cause of the trouble was the need for much better briefing of front-line recruiting staff. In particular, the attempt at secrecy was quietly dropped, so far as the basic language training was concerned. Our training and work elsewhere as radio intercept operators remained secret until the early 1990s.



2 Donald MacDonell, From Dogfight to Diplomacy: a Spitfire pilot' s log, 1932-58, edited by Lois MacDonell and Anne Mackay, 2005 (Barnsley, Pen and Sword Aviation), pp.216-17.





Other articles by Dennis Mills:
My Life In The Royal Navy 1952-54   Dennis recalls his life in the royal navy as a national service entrant as a Coder (Special)1952-54
Joint Services Schools For Linguists 1951-60  National Servicemen preparing for
war as Russian linguist



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