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Naval Reserve Forces

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Although there had been precursors, such as the River & Sea Fencibles during the French Revolutionary Wars; and some provision for naval reserves made (but dropped through the fall of the Whig government to the Tories) in 1852; it was not until 1859 that the R.N.R. as such came into being (provisionally named the Royal Naval Volunteers). In the teeth of vociferous opposition from much of the R.N. establishment, in 1861 there was the separate formation of an officers’ reserve.

It was not until much later that ratings received proper naval uniforms (but then these had only been first introduced for ratings in the R.N. in 1857). However, even although officers’ wore uniforms from the start, not only were their cap badges and buttons different, the rings for were of a very ornate ‘intertwined’ pattern from the R.N.’s plain bands of gold, instantly identifying R.N.R. officers as different.

With a commonplace lack of strategic thought to be found in governmental and military organisations, this reserve basically found itself to be something of an equally badly-trained replacement for the Royal Naval Coast Volunteers. While the organisation periodically changed, it was not until the 1880s that there were any real improvements in the R.N.R. Official incompetence during the Russian war scare of 1885 led to the first provision of proper armed-merchant cruisers, which in turn meant the potential of meaningful sea time for the reservists. (There had been only very limited experiments at taking reservists to sea in men-o-war by this time.) Further, but grudging opportunities availed themselves through the Naval Defence Act (1889) and subsequent building campaigns, as the professional navy became overstretched from the 1890s onwards. Through these decades, in spite of continuing opposition from much of naval establishment the R.N.R. had grown significantly, not only in size, but also in complexity, with the addition of more branches of service. Nevertheless, it was still seen primarily in terms of a gunnery reserve and incompetently at that, since the training remained out of date and poor.

During the Edwardian period, the R.N.R. survived Admiral Sir John Fisher’s attempt to disband it in 1905 and ironically through this, was put on a far more useful footing. With massive building programmes and the retention of older, larger warships as reserve fleets, the manning problems of the R.N. were by then severe. It was in the role of keeping the pre-Dreadnought men-o-war at sea that the mainstream R.N.R. came to be used. (This becomes very apparent when looking at the casualties in the disastrous sinkings of Hogue, Aboukir, Cressy, Monmouth, and Good Hope in 1914.) Also, a relatively small scheme for keeping naval ports free of mines had been developed by using civilian fishing craft. As of 1910 the Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section)  was formed.

As the First World War progressed, more and more roles were found for reservists. Almost immediately German mining operations meant a massive expansion of the R.N.R. (T) along with other craft of the ‘Auxiliary Patrol’. Day to day blockade duties fell to Cruiser Force B/10th Cruiser Squadron, which by 1915 were made up of Armed Merchant Cruisers. Other A.M.C.s, such as the famous Carmania, formed integral parts of the patrolling cruiser squadrons throughout the world. The transportation of troops and matériel required officers with mercantile experience, which were duly used. And, later masters and mates of vessels taken up for government service (non-commissioned Mercantile Fleet Auxiliaries) were also temporarily commissioned into the R.N.R. Yet more officers found themselves on other duties, such as in the salvage of semi-sunken merchantmen.

There were also R.N.R. men in 1914, who along with all sorts of other reserves, ended up in Winston Churchill’s Royal Naval Divisions. If they survived long enough, in Belgium, Gallipoli and Flanders, they became soldiers not just in appearance, but in reality by being transferred to the army in 1916 (although the Admiralty retained some control over them at least administratively).

Unsurprisingly, during the inter-war period the R.N.R. did not figure highly in defence spending - such that this was anyway. However, once again during the Second World War these professional mariner reservists showed their mettle. In the post-war era there was yet more re-organisation and while retaining the title Royal Naval Reserve lost its professional basis, by being amalgamated with the R.N.V.R.


As most service and associated records up to the interwar period are now online, no explanations need now be made here...


The bulk of the background for this section is to be found in Frank C. Bowen: History of the Royal Naval Reserve (London: The Corporation of Lloyd’s, 1926). However, a number of details came from other sources.




This reserve came into existence purely through wartime expediency. Mercantile Fleet Auxiliaries, that is merchantmen on government service, were classed in two ways. There were those that were non-commissioned, which meant that they were on time-charter on government accounts and their crews remained subject to the usual civilian legislation of the Board of Trade - the Merchant Shipping Acts. These vessels shifted men and materiel as per normal. Then there were the commissioned M.F.A.s. They were operated in a different manner, their owners having little to do with them while in this state and were in fact classed as naval auxiliaries - flying the white ensign. They took roles such as armed merchant cruisers, fleet store ships and ammunition ships. Instead of commercial articles, officers and men of these entities signed T.124 forms, binding them to the Naval Discipline Act.

Although there had been general pay rates for merchant mariners in peacetime, especially through trade union pressure, these were not standard. War, of course, brought great instability and by 1916 there was a significant variance, depending on what had been negotiated by unions and even individuals signing on. This was even the case on commissioned M.F.A.s. Admiralty Weekly Order, number 1856, issued on 8th August 1916 announced that it had been ‘decided to standardise the rates of pay of Mercantile Marine Ratings employed in Commissioned Fleet Auxiliaries’. Separately, merchant officers on these vessels were also to be treated similarly.

However, this order went much further. It was also stated that arrangements had ‘been made for the maintenance of a Reserve at the R.N. Barracks, Portsmouth, of the principal Ratings required to fill vacancies in Commissioned Fleet Auxiliaries. Such men will be engaged from time to time as necessary by the Superintendents of Mercantile Marine and will be signed on the Agreement Form T.124X for the S.S. “Sunhill,” which will be regarded as the parent ship for Mercantile Ratings at Portsmouth...’. Although officers were not specifically mentioned in this edict, from my own research it would appear that some were appointed at least nominally to Sunhill later in the war.

At least some ships’ articles for commissioned M.F.A.s (early in the war anyway) are to be found within the normal mercantile ‘crew lists’. But, apart from those there are precious few records relating to the M.M.R. surviving. There is a small number Admiralty Transport Department files dealing with administrative subjects (until this department was subsumed into the newly formed Ministry of Shipping). But, the only documents of real potential interest to genealogists will be the two medal rolls for the First World War era. Incidentally, these show men serving as early as 1914 and this would appear to have been an administrative short cut.

Incidentally, as of October 1918 Protection and Identity Certificates were issued to members of this reserve (as well, apparently, as the R.N.R.).





If in the early years the R.N.R. was seen more in terms of coastal artillery through lack of any proper assigned role, then the R.N.V.R could most definitely claim to be successors to the Royal Naval Coastal Volunteers. Even though the R.N.C.V. was disbanded in 1873 (with it’s members supposedly encouraged to join the R.N.R.’s newly formed 2nd Class Reserve), largely through the efforts of Thomas Brassey M.P., a purely amateur band of coastal artillerymen known as the Royal Naval Artillery Volunteers sprung up in the same year.

A delightfully interesting and highly colourful organisation, their larger and more affluent divisions were often reported within the social columns of the best newspapers. However, coverage was not always beneficial and much public bickering did not endear them to the R.N. Apart from some old cannonry, a gunboat or two and some instructors, which were supplied by the state, they had to pay for everything else. This included their uniforms, the officers having wavy bands of silver. Keen as mustard, with their ancient cannons and cutlasses, the R.N. had little interest in them and in 1891 tried to offload them onto the army. The volunteers chose to disband themselves, rather than suffer this indignity!

Nevertheless, many of the same men reformed themselves into ‘naval cruising clubs’ and lobbied in high places for some place in the country’s defence. In time this bore fruit and in 1903 the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve was formed. Unfortunately, prior to the First World War, the R.N.V.R. retained all the worst aspects of the old R.N.A.V. In an era of massive technological and organisational change, unsurprisingly the R.N. treated them as a joke. At this time the term ‘wavy navy’ after the pattern of gold rings their officers wore and the adornment on ratings’ blue-jean collars was coined, though later it became something of a term of endearment.

Just like the R.N.R. during the First World War the men of the R.N.V.R. came to fill lots of roles, regarded by the R.N. as secondary, but nevertheless essential. Again they were called on in the Second World War. And, as already mentioned they disappeared into the R.N.R., although in essence they took it over.

Additionally, within the records of the R.N.V.R. at Kew are those of the Mine Clearance Service. As can be determined from its title, this was a post First World War organisation recruited to clear the hundreds of thousands of mines sown during the war. It was drawn from all arms of the R.N. and its reserves, but also included past merchant mariners and those that had never been at sea before. It is stated in T.N.A. guides that the M.C.S. was administered by the R.N.V.R., but there would seem to be no documentary evidence to back this claim.

Another organisation that may cause severe confusion is that of the Royal Naval Volunteer (Supplementary) Reserve. This was formed in 1936 and recruited overwhelmingly from yachtsmen thought to be potentially useful in time of war. No routine peacetime contact with the R.N.V.R. was maintained, being trained separately. Also members held no rank until they had been ‘granted temporary commissions as Probationary Sub-Lieutenants, R.N.V.R. or temporary appointments as Probationary Midshipmen, R.N.V.R., on or after Mobilisation’. After being commissioned, there was no apparent differentiation from other officers of the R.N.V.R.

As most service and associated records up to the interwar period (where surviving) are now online, no explanations need now be made here...

Most of the historical information for this section came from J. Lennox and Wilfred Granville: The R.N.V.R.: A Record of Achievement (London: George Harrap, 1957). However, similarly some detail came from other sources.




Unlike the R.N.V.S.R. (see R.N.V.R. above) this reserve was for ratings. This was short-lived however and affected comparatively few men. The Military Training Act of May 1939 required the registration of all men aged 20 to 21. The Admiralty therefore formed this reserve in order to recruit from this pool of labour that was liable for service in the army. Volunteers for the R.N.S.R. would therefore become subject to calling out by the R.N. rather than the army. Events overtook this, with war in September 1939 and the passing of the National Services (Forces) Act. As far as I understand there are virtually no records pertaining to this reserve.




This was a reserve commitment begun in 1901, whereby Royal Naval ratings of good character who had completed their time, for receiving an annual retainer could be liable to be returned to service in times of emergency (that is, war). While ex ‘blue-jackets’ could equally have sought employment ashore, some became merchant mariners.

Along with other reserves, the R.F.R. was called out in August 1914. This was similarly the case in 1939. With a loss of the bulk of traditional ‘long service’ ratings through the Second World War the rules were changed. So, some ratings that had been H.O. (Hostilities Only) were recruited into this reserve, with some being called up for the Korean War (1950-53). I believe, the R.F.R. may again have been called out during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Two years later this was reorganised into the normal reserve commitment of its day. Some ‘Fleet reservists’ are definitely known to have been returned to service in 1982 for the Falklands War.

There are no operational or administrative documents intrinsically dealing with the R.F.R. However, there are occasional references to men under this liability rejoining the R.N. This is apparent from crew-lists and agreements of the latter half of 1914. Perhaps because of considerations such as geography, or even a similarity in working conditions, there seem to have been higher percentages of men in the North Atlantic passenger liner companies working out of Southampton in the R.F.R., than elsewhere in mercantile service. A good example of this can be found in the crew-lists and articles for the White Star Line’s Oceanic for 1914.

Study of the original legislation formed the basis of this section. I do not know of any published work dealing with this subject. Nevertheless, my attention has been drawn to information on a website by the descendent of an R.F.R. man that had been very active post First World War in bettering the lot of Royal Fleet Reservists. This makes most interesting reading and can be found at http://www.doverlife.co.uk/ and going to ‘history articles’.




Awarded official status in 1911, elements of this mercantile support service to the R.N. had been in existence for some years before, under the control of the Admiralty Transport Department at first. It is not entirely clear how this came into being, but from the vessels acquired previously it is apparent that at least one original important aim was experimentation into fuelling (both coal and oil-fuel). Through the Great War 1914-19 there was growth in this service, but in total terms of the tonnage of the ‘Merchant Service’ this was negligible. It should be explained that although government owned, the crews of these vessels were not subject to the Naval Discipline Act. Instead, they were governed by the Merchant Shipping Acts, like the majority of civilian mariners.

There are no personnel documents per se, as far as I understand, within the Admiralty Transport Department files dealing with officers and men of the R.F.A.S. The records of this department were operational and administrative documents and there are hundreds of fascinating files dealing with running commercial vessels on Admiralty account, some of which deal with R.F.A.s. (With the massive administrative shake ups in the Admiralty, imposed by the politicians later in the war, this department was disbanded and the work was taken over by the newly formed Ministry of Shipping.) Just occasionally individuals are mentioned in these documents, dealing with everything from extra pay to mutiny. However, this is not a body of work that is generally profitable for genealogical research.

This is not an organisation which has been widely written about. Nevertheless, an useful work is Captain E.E. Sigwart: Royal Fleet Auxiliary: its ancestry and affiliations 1600-1968 (London: Adlard Coles, 1969).





Although in some respects closer, historically, to the Royal Naval Reserve this section has been placed at the foot in order to allow readers not necessarily au fait with the nature of the various reserves given the title ‘Royal’ to differentiate between these easier. In support of the Revenue’s cruizers offshore and customs officials ashore, the first formal peacetime ‘coastguard’ (of Riding Officers) was formed in 1698: all aimed at impeding smuggling. In 1809 another element was added. Operating inshore this was the Preventative Water Guard. Seven years later there was a major reorganisation. Most of the Revenue cruizers were to be operated by the Admiralty; the Preventative Water Guard was put under the control of the Treasury; and the Riding Officers were the perks of the Board of Customs. Additionally, the Admiralty also formed the Coast Blockade in 1816. This was another shore-bound anti-smuggling unit.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this bureaucratic mess did not survive un-investigated. After committee activity in 1821 a year later the Coastguard came into being. This united all the above, apart from the Coast Blockade - at least initially. Nine years later the Coast Blockade disappeared into the Coastguard. Under the Board of Customs, its officers were to be nominated by the Admiralty.

During the Anglo-Russian War (1854-56) the Coastguard had already been used in effect as a naval reserve, with men serving onboard warships on operations in both the Black and Baltic Seas. Through the Coastguard Service Act of 1856 the Coastguard was transferred to Admiralty control and became properly a reserve for the R.N. in time of war. Internal reorganisation followed and three groups were formed - the Permanent Cruiser Force, the Guard Ships and Shore Force. The first continued the work of the Revenue cruisers, along with fishery protection duties and other miscellaneous tasks; the second comprised R.N. warships used as floating headquarters in major ports (with annual sea-training); and the third obviously worked ashore.

Post First World War (in 1919) the Permanent Cruiser Force was done away with (probably a ‘victim of the Gedes Axe’). In this year the Shore Force became manned completely by naval pensioners and in 1923 was transferred to the Board of Trade. In the Second World War the Shore Force was put under operational (but not administrative) control of the Admiralty once again. Along with the Auxiliary Coast Guard, comprising of part-time volunteers, they carried out various miscellaneous duties, including coast watching.

Post 1923 the Coastguard Service has been administered the Board of Trade 1923-39; the Ministry of Shipping 1939-40; the Ministry of War Transport and its successor Ministry of Transport 1940-64; and the Department of Trade and its successors from then.



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