Halcyon Class Minesweepers

Halcyon Class Ships
Medical Matters - Stress or 'Fatigue'

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It is perhaps surprising that little is heard about the problems caused by the levels of stress that crews had to endure. There are occasional reports such as the crew of HMS Hebe needing to be rested during the Dunkirk evacuations (see below). Similarly the crew of HMS Hussar were replaced following constant attacks during East Coast convoys.

The extracts below show that the potential for problems had been recognised and some measures were in place to deal with them... 'ratings were trained to take a grip on themselves'!


Source: Extract from The Royal Naval Medical Service Vol II, JLS Coulter, P328

Stress in the Arctic

The Medical Officer of H.M.S. Leda  recorded: 

'It has been rather interesting to observe the reactions of people to the abnormal stress and strain which action in this climate has imposed upon them. The immediate effect of air attack is one of nervous stimulation coupled with fear or acute apprehension. This apprehension is minimised for those whose minds are occupied with a particular job. But for those whose task it is to watch and wait, it is at a maximum. When a particular incident is over a variety of reactions are seen. Some men laugh hilariously and hurl illustrated epithets after the departing enemy. By contrast, other men reflect despondency. Following a prolonged period of attacks, there may be a period during which everyone outwardly appears normal apart from obvious weariness from lack of sleep. Then the glimmerings of psychoneurosis begin to appear. Most of those affected are normally of a nervous or anxious disposition, but a few ostensibly phlegmatic individuals also exhibit signs. 

'There are roughly three classes: 

(1) The man who comes and says outright that he is afraid and cannot stand up to things any longer. 

(2) The man who veils his mental state by assuming a physical malady. 

(3) The person who seeks a means of escape in alcoholic intoxication. 

'As an example of the first group may be quoted the case of a leading seaman, a member of a gun's crew. This man came to me in great distress and stated that he could not carry out his duty any longer, as he was so frightened by enemy air attacks that he feared he might run from his post and seek cover. It was obvious from the man's general behaviour that he was carrying a heavy mental burden. His previous record showed that he had experienced heavy enemy action in other ships.

'In his case suggestion was employed and he was shown other aspects of his own position and was assisted to redirect his thoughts from himself and his own personal safety to the wider implications of his duty as a leading seaman and a gunner. This suggestion, together with the sedative effects of potassium bromide, produced marked improvement and he subsequently performed his duties in action and showed no signs of collapse. 

'In cases of the second group there was a rating who complained that he had a pain in the region of his heart. He later produced abdominal pains and vomiting, continuously present and unrelated to meals. Improvement followed the suggestion and assurance that he was suffering from no organic disease. 

'The third group requires no amplification.

'I have formed the opinion that no one, except those who desire to stay, should remain in a ship of this size under the conditions which we have experienced for a period longer than eighteen months, because: 

(1) It appears to me that reactions are bound to occur, but in many cases will not manifest themselves until later by which time the environment associated with unpleasant experience has become the ship itself from which there is no escape. A period of rest ashore, or even transfer to a new ship, would mean a change of environment which would bring forth new mental and psychological adjustment. 

(2) Despite the fact that sport and entertainment are organised when opportunity arises, I have yet observed that there is a general listlessness and apathy of late which is quite foreign to the nature of our ship's company. This has increased to a marked degree after the rigorous and exacting winter months spent on the Northern convoy route, and it certainly militates against the happiness and efficiency of the ship as a whole. I am not suggesting that anyone has failed to do his particular duty or that there is even any tendency for that to happen, but after living in the ship for eighteen months, I now observe that the zeal, adventurous spirit, general comradeship and harmony which once existed among us appear less keen. 

(3) Mental and physical stress are severe. This in turn tends to upset the equilibrium of normal bodily functions, and lack of fresh food does little to improve this state of affairs. I feel that we shall soon once more be facing a rigorous winter in the knowledge that we have not been fortified by the fruits of summer to overcome its ills.'


Source: Extract from The Royal Naval Medical Service Vol II, JLS Coulter, P328  

HMS Hebe at Dunkirk

Coupled with the usual background of the incidents of battle, continued loss of sleep was the factor which contributed most toward psychological disturbances. It seems probable that, had sleep not been denied to the crews of so many ships through force of circumstances, there would have been hardly any hospital admissions for psychiatric reasons as a result of this operation. In actual fact, there were probably many more hospital admissions than were warranted by the number of genuine cases because, under the conditions existing at Dover, admission to hospital was often the only means of securing sleep, rest and regular meals for some men who were obviously badly in need of relief. There came a time when some seamen had been on almost continuous watch for six days. The type of case in which exhaustion and not lack of courage was the factor involved is illustrated by one seaman who showed a marked generalised tremor and was unable to walk. This man had been on watch for some six days and nights and had also dived overboard to rescue a drowning soldier. 

Individual hysterical manifestations were rare and very few are recorded. …  The need for isolating such few cases as did occur, in order to avoid others becoming infected by such symptoms, is shown by events in H.M.S. HEBE. On Saturday June 1 Hebe was damaged by bombs during the evacuation of Dunkirk. No one in her had slept for five days and nights. One young officer suddenly had an attack of hysterical epilepsy on the bridge. Some 30 members of the ship's company now became similarly affected with generalised clonic movements and incoherent mumbling. The Medical Officer who had to deal with these cases himself finally succumbed to this mass suggestion. It is in point that these psychological manifestations did not appear until the ship's crew ceased to be actively engaged and found themselves safely in harbour after a long period of physical and mental fatigue had culminated in the last severe air attack. It is also on record that in H.M.S. Hussar, men became hyper‑emotional and broke down and wept when given an order. 

The measures adopted for controlling threatened psychological breakdown in these ships varied, but always called for the combined efforts of Doctor and Commanding Officer working hand in hand. Reassurance by a Medical Officer frequently proved successful when combined with the natural leadership of the professional naval officer and senior rating. In fact, in many ships it called for skilful judgement and resolution to decide how far it was possible or wise to drive a ship’s company suffering from prolonged strain.


Source: Extract from The Royal Naval Medical Service Vol II, JLS Coulter, P328  

The more delayed effects of strain of Arctic Convoys were frequently to be observed on return to the United Kingdom. The Medical Officer of H.M.S. Eclipse reported: 

'Since our visit to North Russia, with its action with enemy surface craft and the unrest of daily bombing attacks, there has been a marked increase in the sick parade. On one day recently I have had to send twelve men for medical and surgical consultations. Of these twelve, eight have already been discharged to hospital and the other four are awaiting relief. The important point is that these men had been suffering from their complaints for months, and in some cases for years without reporting sick. The reasons given were that they desired to remain on duty, on war service, and they were afraid that their complaints, if reported, might mean that they would have to leave the ship. 

'The extreme cold off North Russia, combined with prolonged action conditions had a most marked effect on our crew. In action, two guns were frozen solid, spray froze on the men, and the leather sea‑boots of one officer were literally frozen to his feet. 

'These conditions greatly affected the nerves of the crew, with the consequent results that complaints which they previously hid have become aggravated, and are now disclosed. 

'These twelve men were good, conscientious workers who had been in the ship since before the outbreak of war. It is only now that they feel the strain on their nervous systems to such an extent that they must report sick with a long standing physical disability. 

'In any case I feel that when officers and men have completed eighteen months to two years under these conditions, their efficiency becomes impaired and this tends to get worse as time goes on.' 

Intermittent strain operated more often than that of continuous and prolonged action. But it proved equally exacting and was held by some to be harder to endure.



By Edgar Jones and Neil Greenberg 

Breakdown at sea: surface vessels

Low levels of psychiatric casualties in the navy was considered a function in part of selection ‘since the Navy and the Air Force get the first pick of recruits, whereas the Army must take all that remain and consequently the average level of intelligence in Army recruits tends to be lower than in the other two services’. The protective effect of high morale was predicated on two distinctive factors: first, the notion of the ship’s company united by their loyalty to each other, and secondly, the fact that once at sea there was no opportunity for evacuation. Reporting sick to the ship’s doctor did not improve a sailor’s chances of survival and jumping overboard often resulted in almost certain death. In naval action, Surgeon Captain C. H. Joynt observed, ‘the safest activity is steady devotion to duty rather than flight’.....

.....For the Royal Navy, hazardous operations such as Arctic convoys, which carried a significant risk of death in testing conditions, saw a significant number of stress related disorders. The medical officer of HMS Eclipse recorded on his return to the UK:

‘since our visit to North Russia, with its action with enemy surface craft and the unrest of daily bombing attacks, there has been a marked increase in the sick parade’.

The medical officer of HMS Leda concluded that because of the mental and physical demands of these convoys no one should sail them for longer than eighteen months. One medical officer recorded that the ‘prolonged and repeated stress and strain’ led to an

increase in the numbers attending the sick bay and, collectively, by the development of apathy and listlessness which had previously been quite foreign to the nature of the ship’s company’.

Senior officers appear to have been at particular risk. At the end of a year’s service in Arctic waters, for example, nine officers, all with good records, were invalided from a single warship. By 1943 it was recognized that for a number of destroyers and smaller vessels, captains had been left in command beyond the point at which they were effective leaders. Studies of soldiers have shown that rank is a protector against psychological disorders. However, for the navy this was not necessarily true. As a general rule the higher the rank in the army, the further the soldier found himself from the front-line. Hazards were shared more equitably on warships, while senior officers also carried the heaviest burden of responsibility. Mid-way through the conflict, the navy accepted that even experienced sailors had a breaking point and introduced the term ‘fatigue’ for those who earlier in the war might have been diagnosed as suffering from an anxiety state. This was designed to avoid any stigmatizing label and to encourage natural recovery...

....The apparently low rate of breakdown aboard warships during the First and Second World Wars may conceal more than it revealed. First, the sailor who feared for his life had no safe escape route, while adopting the sick role conferred no obvious benefit. In fact, if he had a vital task to perform, such as closing a watertight door or securing a magazine, deserting his post may have increased the risk that the ship could be damaged or sunk. Naval personnel were well aware that the sea, irrespective of war, was a hostile environment. The closed space of a warship may be analogous to some aspects of modern combat where there is no clear front-line and hence no obvious escape route. A further reason for the low rate of breakdown at sea was the decision to deploy psychiatrists to shore establishments. Doctors on board ships may have not detected psychological disorders as long as a sailor continued to perform his duties. Not labelling someone who somatized their distress, whether as a deliberate policy or by chance, may have allowed them to continue at duty and, in turn, prevent the emergence of recalcitrant psychological symptoms...



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This site was last updated 17 Januar 2012