BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fittest of the Fit: Health and Morale in the Royal Navy, 1939-1945’


Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Fittest of the Fit: Health and Morale in the Royal Navy, 1939-1945

Author: Kevin Brown

Total Number of Printed Pages: 276

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8


In public perception, the sailors of the Royal Navy are fit, healthy and suntanned and ready at a moment’s notice to die ‘for King / Queen and Country’. But is this a true picture, and when it mattered most (During World War II), how closely did the perception equate with reality? This volume was written in an attempt to find out.

Within the book, a section titled: List of Illustrations follows the Contents page. Its function is self-evident from its title. A poem titled To Absent Friends follows; it humourously (but respectfully) summarises a sailor’s perspective on life. The poem is followed by the volume’s Preface, within which the author backgrounds to the reason for its creation. The twelve Chapters which form the main part of the book now appear. Within these the author explores all aspects of the health of sailors serving within the Royal Navy and British Merchant Marine during WWII, presenting the narrative from the perspective of the Medical Professionals involved.  The scope is wide and comprehensive and is concerned with all aspects of a sailor’s life.  Within the Royal Navy that life is multi-facetted and as a result (and in addition to the expected ‘surface’ operations), the subject material includes both submarines and the Fleet Air Arm (The Royal Navy’s air-defence section). Each Chapter is concerned with a particular aspect of a sailor’s health as it applied to the Royal Navy, from ‘recruitment’ (Chapter 1 Our men, Finding the Fittest) to submerged life (Chapter 7 The Waves Above), to the temptations facing a sailor ashore (Chapter 10 Neither Wives nor Sweethearts). Where appropriate, the actions of individual medical officers appear as representative of the specific narrative being discussed, while the German response to a situation is at times also noted. Invariably, the latter offers a complete contrast to British practice. Chapter 12 (Went the day Well) summarises what has gone before, and is followed by five Appendices.  These are statistical and of Table format, with the subject material ranging from Naval Recruitment and Rejection,  1939-1945 (Appendix 1) to Royal Navy Sickness and Death Rates (Appendix 5). Where appropriate within each Chapter, additional information is provided through the medium of Endnotes. These are numeric in form, Chapter-specific and sequential. The associated citations appear in a dedicated Notes section placed after the Appendices. A Bibliography placed after the Notes section lists the written material used in the volume’s creation. Electronic sources are not listed. The Bibliography is followed by its Index, the book’s last section. Twelve pages of images accompany the narrative and appear in a dedicated section placed within the centre of the book. The captions are informative and reproduced within the previously-mentioned List of Illustrations section. Curiously, although the majority of the images carry authenticating citations, two do not.   The reason for the ommission is not known. The volume contains numerous Quotes, many of which carry authenticating citations. Equally however, other unreferenced Quotes were also noted (That on page 208 being but one example, although ironically, that specific Quote appears under a previous Quote which has had a citation [No.51] allocated to it). The reason for the discrepancy is unknown, but the lack of supporting citations raises questions about the authenticity of the statements. The volume contains no Maps or Glossary of Naval Terms / Terminology. What (For example) is Tropical Rig (page 25) or HMHS (Page 220)? In the absence of a Glossary, a reader without naval knowledge can but speculate.

This volume is informative, well-written and very entertaining. However, for this reviewer (and in addition to the previously-noted difficulties outlined above), its Index proved problematical. Random checking of the Index during the review process found several omitted entries. These included such examples as Bryan Matthews (Page 111), Medical Research Council (page 134) and Gonorrhoea (page 195). Other examples were also noted.  In addition, an Index search for WRNS indicated that references to that organisation appeared on pages 9-10 and 14 18, but omitted an entry appearing on page 186.  Why this should have occurred is unknown. Since by implication there is a problem in this area (although its size

As previously-noted, this is an informative, well-written and very entertaining book and the ‘Difficulties’ previously-outlined notwithstanding, is likely to have wide appeal. Medical Professionals with an interest in ‘Things Naval’ may find it worthy of their attention as might (Because it refers to a specific social group and their actions under stress and pressure), Sociologists and Phycologists. Military Historians with an interest in nautical matters and World War II as it affected the Royal Navy could also find it informative. Readers with an interest in the more unusual (and forgotten) aspects of naval warfare may also find it of interest.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.



BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fittest of the Fit: Health and Morale in the Royal Navy, 1939-1945’