During 1936, The Board of Admiralty decided that a new Reserve, to be called the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve, would be formed and consist of ‘gentlemen interested in yachting and similar pursuits, desirous of being earmarked for training as executive officers in the event of war’. They would have no rank, no uniform, no pay and no training. The First Sea Lord announced the formation of the RNVSR on the 27th October 1936 and, by the end of that year, there were over a thousand members. A large proportion of these volunteers were not content to have their names on a list, so demanded some form of training. The Admiralty was not prepared to provide training, nor any ships or craft, so various volunteers formed local groups and Yacht Clubs at Exmouth, Topsham, Starcross and Lympstone decided to link together in an association called the Exeter Flotilla, helping all members to improve their efficiency at simple navigation, seamanship and signalling. When the War came, these volunteers joined the Royal Navy but records during the 1939-45 period do not exist as the association was discontinued in those years.

When the hostilities ended, re-unions occurred on an informal basis and soon a room at the Rougemont Hotel was hired for monthly meetings; these meetings were then transferred to the RAF establishment at Lower Duryard where membership grew slowly and an Annual Dinner was held at the Golf Club.

In late 1946 the RNVSR was officially re-constituted by the Admiral Commanding Reserves - no longer a 'list of gentlemen' but a number of officers with considerable wartime experience - thus Exeter Flotilla was reformed. A parallel organisation, known as Exeter and District RNVR Officers' Association, was also formed which met regularly for meetings and held Annual Dinners at the Rougemont Hotel (1949), Imperial Hotel (1950) and Countess Wear Hotel (1952).

In the early 1950s, the Admiral Commanding Reserves arranged for West of England Navy Establishments to provide lecturers for Exeter Flotilla and also arranged for their meetings and social functions to be held at the Infantry Training Centre, Royal Marines, Lympstone. He also asked that Exeter Flotilla accept retired Royal Navy and RNR Officers as Associate members. Throughout the country there was a total of 30 Flotillas, London Flotilla being the largest with about 2,000 members. The Exeter RNVR Officers' Association decided to disband and its active members joined Exeter Flotilla. Monthly training lectures and refresher navigational training courses afloat in ships of many Merchant Navy companies were arranged, mainly in the North Sea, Baltic and English Channel but some longer passages with the Palm Line to West Africa and back were arranged. Trinity House Vessels, Sun Tugs and Sealink Ferries also co-operated, and it was also arranged for members to sail in the German Navy Coast Defence vessels, patrolling up to the Russo-Polish border. This sea-training was co-ordinated through the London Flotilla.

Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth provided day sea-training in a Royal Navy minesweeper and the Admiral Commanding Reserves periodically recalled officers for service and refresher training in HM Ships, but not normally more than once every three years.

Whilst membership of Exeter Flotilla steadily grew, the national total fell from about 9000 in 1957 to about 2000 in 1964, so the Admiral Commanding Reserves decided the time had come to disband the RNVSR "with honour" and, at the same time, invited some officers to transfer to the RNR. He also asked the various Flotillas in the country to carry on as Officers Associations, so that a list of names and addresses of ex-RNVSR and other retired Naval Reserve Officers was kept in existence. The Exeter Flotilla complied with this request and, at the same time, offered membership to anyone who had been commissioned in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines or their reserves.

The membership of the new Exeter Flotilla increased to over 270 with the annual subscription remaining at 1. Training lectures were organised in accordance with the new Flotilla's constitution, where the aim was stated to ensure that members kept up to date with the affairs of the Royal Navy. Frequent visits to Naval Establishments and HM Ships were arranged (with some sea time) and cricket and golf matches were played against RN and RM Establishments. Co-operation with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines was maintained and improved by Exeter Flotilla helping ships and establishments in various ways. For many years, a 100 or more Flotilla Members undertook duties to help the annual Plymouth Navy Day and when HMS Exeter was commissioned the whole crew were invited to Exeter where they were fed and entertained by members of the Flotilla in their own houses. HMS Exeter's team played a local Rugby team organised by the Flotilla and it also arranged an official march-past the Guildhall by the ships company. Members donated several hundred books to start the ship's library. A gavel, an oil painting of the previous HMS Exeter and a Cross made from its mast were presented for Church Services on board. Days at sea in HMS Exeter were regularly arranged and representatives of the Flotilla attended some special HMS Exeter Church Services in Portsmouth, with other services being organised in Exeter Cathedral for the Ships Company.

Visits to Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, were frequent features and the Flotilla, for many years, played the College at cricket for a cup presented by a member of the Flotilla. The Flotilla also presented a Naval Officers Sword to the College for presentation to the outstanding cadet.

In the early 1970s it was decided that Exeter, the capital of the traditionally sea-faring County of Devon, should have a Trafalgar Day Church Service and these, held annually in the Cathedral have proved very popular (with Prince Andrew attending one year) and have now continued for over 20 years. When Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, died the Admiral at Plymouth decided that a Memorial Service should be held in the County and requested the Flotilla to make all the arrangements for the service and the issue of invitations to official guests and others.

At the time of the Falklands War, the Naval Authorities in Plymouth were concerned that, were there to be casualties as a result of a Plymouth manned warship being sunk, there would not be sufficient Officers available in Plymouth to visit and inform next-of-kin. Exeter Flotilla therefore provided the Commodore HMS Drake, with a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers of volunteer members living at strategic places in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. Fortunately their services were not required but the Flag Officer Plymouth and the Commodore HMS Drake were both exceptionally grateful to the Flotilla for undertaking this responsibility.

When the RNVR was disbanded, 30 associations, known as Flotillas, were set up throughout the country, but, with the passage of time, most of these have ceased functioning or have amalgamated, so that now only a handful exist. Exeter Flotilla is one of those.

Adrian Martin
March 1998

Since that time the original sources of Flotilla membership have undergone significant reductions following structural changes. The RN has contracted and the RNR has shrunk considerably, but now plays a more active role in times of crisis. (While on active service officers are designated as RN, and the ‘R’ in the executive curl no longer exists.)

In 2005 the Exeter Flotilla became associated with the national French equivalent of the Flotilla, the Rennes Chapter of the Association des Officiers de Réserve de la Marine Nationale (ACORAM). Since then professional exchange visits have taken place with them.

The decommissioning of HMS Exeter in 2009 resulted in loss of a favoured alliance but the Flotilla has already developed an affiliation with HMS Defender which was commissioned in 2013.

The annual subscription was increased to £10 per annum in 2010 but membership remains at about 200.

The Exeter Flotilla is the last remaining one of its kind, but in 2014 similar organisations still exist in Liverpool and Sussex.

The Flotilla continues to flourish and, despite considerable pressures on CTCRM at Lympstone, the Flotilla continues to enjoy their hospitality and facilities for regular lecture evenings, dinners and social occasions.

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