October 1913 and the St Vincent is in Portsmouth harbour, where four midshipmen have come to the end of their first two-year cruise. Called to Captain Ironside’s cabin, they learn their fate. Three are made sublieutenant, the fourth is pushed out of the Navy, a failure.
There was no tolerance in the Royal Navy for weaklings and incompetents who failed to master the basics. They were beaten for every infraction of the rules of seamanship, encouraging them to conform or to get out.
Adams, born to the elite, is made sublieutenant and posted to Iron Duke, flagship of the Grand Fleet, and the latest and largest of superdreadnoughts.
McDuff goes to Good Hope cruiser bound for the South Atlantic. An old ship, and he had hoped for better, but there were chances to specialise on an armoured cruiser.
Sturton, able and slightly maverick, hoped to be sent to another battleship where he could become a gunnery specialist, but instead goes to Sheldrake, a destroyer joining the Mediterranean Fleet. Destroyers were wet, cold, and uncomfortable, but it could be the making of his career.
Baker, the failure, had never fit in. He came from the wrong background and was ostracised aboard ship, left on his own to survive the best he could. Rejected by the Navy, he is forced to join the Territorial Army or be disowned by his rich, vulgar father. Nineteen years of age and dumped on the scrapheap.
War comes in August and the four young men meet its challenges in surprising ways.