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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 85 - It's no Navy lark for stressed-out submariners


SHIVER my mainbrace, splice the yard-arm and hoist the jolly white ensign, I have recently seen the film adaptation of Patrick OíBrianís Nelsonic novel, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, of true British sailors ranting and roaring against the perfidious French matelots, as well as blowing them and their ship into a blazing inferno of wood splinters, torn canvas, tottering masts and bodies.

Spectacular stuff: but while that grim tale of a British captainís obsessive desire for revenge for nautical humiliation by tactically-adroit Froggies was, for me, often tedious to the point of producing yawns as big as cannonsí mouths, I was impressed with the unstinting way the rival crews grappled in combat that had the vigour of the rugby field and the lyrical enthusiasm of aggressively-flailing crowds spilling from pubs at closing time.

Nobody held back, no poltroon quavered, "Cease shoving, will ye?", and nobody retired with a sick headache or the complaint that the noise and the people were simply too stressful.

Just as it should be - in fiction and fact. The Navy that guards our stern and rockbound shores has traditionally been manned by stern and rock-jawed sailors, from the Dane-defeating days of Alfred the Great, the Spanish Armada, when remote and ineffectual dons were scattered by good Queen Bessís battling sea-dogs, to the "Nelson touch" triumph at Trafalgar, the big gun broadsides of Jutland and naval actions in the Second World War and beyond.

DRAKE may be in his hammock, a thousand miles away, but you knew where you were with our sailor lads, not just a-dancing heel-and-toe at Plymouth Hoe, but steadfast chaps with hearts of oak and nerves of steel - or so it seemed.

The news that a "shakedown" voyage by the nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Trafalgar, was postponed because 11 sailors complained to the captain about being too stressed to sail, could dent the imperturbable image of our fighting fleet.

Trafalgar, which had a £5 million repair bill after hitting the seabed off Skye on 6 November, 2002, during a training mission, injuring three crew members, was due to return to service on 23 April.

The men, possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, were landed for medical assessment. One man is facing disciplinary action. The submarine is now back at sea again.

By Barnacle Bill and the seven scurvy sons of Sinbad the Sailor, Iím out of my depths here. I donít doubt for one psychiatric moment, the sincerity of the complaints of the submariners, but 11 crew members going "on the sick" with what might be the mental equivalent of the bends because of the stress of working in what is, in effect, a bombshell, is doubtless understandable, but tends to send public confidence into a crash-dive about the way our nuclear strike vessels are operated.

STRESS, as a disabling affliction, seems out of line with the maladies of our armed forces.

"Charge for the guns."

"Sorry, sir; got a stress-related nosebleed coming on."

"Once more unto the breach."

"I cannot abide this press of arms, dread sovereign. Methinks I must lie in my tent awhile to ease my perturbed spirit."

"England expects."

"Aye aye, captín, after weíve received our counselling ration and relaxation therapy from the Chatham Sailoring Tween Decks Stress Relief and Spirits-Raising Outreach Group."

In stressful times of shot and shell, Britons have displayed admirable phlegm. Lord Uxbridge told Wellington at Waterloo after being hit by a cannonball: "I have lost my leg, egad."

Wellington replied: "So you have, egad."

Lord Raglan, who lost an arm at the battle, said: "Let me have that arm back. Itís got a ring given to me by my wife on a finger."

Stiff upper-lipped Britain has, alas, almost vanished. Young Army recruits nowadays receive what amounts to stress-reduced training.

Out, are parade-ground bawling, so-called, mindless discipline, ridiculing and tough punishment. In, are internet access, condom machines and welfare and emotional support projects.

Rookies could still suffer from stress. It might spread to all the forces, making thousands too flaked-out to fight. Spread globally and added to back trouble, it could mean an end to wars with - shiver my mainsheet - consequences too stressful to contemplate.


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