THE ROYAL NAVAL VOLUNTEER SUPPLEMENTARY RESERVE 1936 -1940
A GOOD IDEA OR AN INADEQUATE RESPONSE TO MANNING THE ROYAL NAVY FOR THE START OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR?
© Anthony Balfour MB. BS, MA (Exon) & Maritime South West No 25 (2012), the Journal of the South West Maritime History Society.
Manning a rapidly enlarging navy in wartime poses challenges for every government. There is a particular difficulty in obtaining new officers who possess the knowledge and skills required to stand watch on a ship of war, navigate, and lead men in battle. Before the Second World War the Royal Navy had a number of Reserves to call upon, but realised that these would still provide insufficient officers. Hence in 1936 it formed the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve from men who were 'interested in yachting and similar pursuits'. This article considers how the scheme was set up, what training they received, and how effective the Supplementary Reserve was. The information comes from Admiralty files, Admiralty Fleet Orders, and memoirs of men who joined the Navy by this route.
Existing officer sources 1935
As the Royal Navy moved from the restricted numbers of capital ships required by the Washington Treaties to the start of a Rearmament Programme in 1935 the Admiralty had a number of sources of new officers.
The Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, was the Royal Navy's training centre for professional Naval Officers. Boys joined at thirteen and stayed for four years at Dartmouth before entering the fleet as midshipmen. After two years and three months at sea with the fleet they would take their midshipman's examination, followed by professional courses as Sub-Lieutenants, before going back to sea to obtain their bridge watchkeeping certificates, a pre-requisite for promotion to Lieutenant.
Numbers of cadets entering Dartmouth fell below 100 a year after the First World War, but had risen to 150 a year by 1935. The Admiralty decided not to increase this number any further because it would take four years before large numbers of permanent officers would be ready to go to sea. Furthermore excessive expansion of officer numbers during the First World War had led to over population with junior RN officers after the war. The compulsory departure of so many of them under the 'Geddes Axe' after the end of the war had been a painful situation the Admiralty did not wish to repeat. Hence the number of new cadets entering Dartmouth remained around 150 a year throughout the Second World War.
There was also a Special Entry to Dartmouth which took in young men aged seventeen after they had finished their schooling. The scheme had been started in 1913 when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty but had not been widely taken up. With the threat from Nazi Germany in the mid 1930s numbers of Special Entry cadets rose until it, too, was producing 150 new officers each year from a nine month training course. From 1932 to 1939 the training had been based on HMS Frobisher, but when this ship was requisitioned early in 1939 the course transferred to Dartmouth. Although the Special Entry course continued throughout the War it was not enlarged for fear of creating too many professional officers who would not be needed after the war.
The Royal Navy also had Reserves on whom it could call on the outbreak of war. The largest was the pool of retired naval officers who still kept their commission and were liable to be recalled in an emergency. Many of these were entering middle age and had considerable experience. The Admiralty foresaw that they would be most needed in leadership roles in ports, convoys, training centres or squadrons of small boats. Not many were young and fit enough to go to sea in the smaller vessels which were being built as escorts, or would be taken up as minesweepers and coastal craft.
The Navy had a list of Merchant Naval Officers who had joined the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and agreed to transfer to the Royal Navy on the outbreak of hostilities. They held a Board of Trade Master or First Mate's certificate and underwent annual training with the Royal Navy. However the needs of the merchant navy during wartime would grow so the Merchant Navy ship-owners Association pleaded with the Admiralty not to take any more officers into the RNR once war broke out.
Finally the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) was a cadre of volunteers who trained at shore bases and in Royal Naval vessels and were ready to serve in the Royal Navy in any emergency. However their numbers were controlled and expansion from 1936 was limited by the small size and number of RNVR Divisions. Granville believes that there were 1000 RNVR officers at the outbreak of war.
As a result of the Rearmament Programme begun in 1935 the Admiralty recognised that it would require many more officers and men to man the rapidly growing fleet. After the experience of the First World War it had already been agreed that every able bodied man would be conscripted into the armed forces on the outbreak of war unless they were in a restricted occupation. Lavery has written about the call up and training of the "Hostilities Only" men who were conscripted into the Royal Navy, explaining how they were trained in former Holiday camps and sent to sea after ten weeks. But few of these would be available as officers in the Royal Navy until they had undergone a considerable amount of training. The Royal Navy's problem was to identify men who would make suitable officers as soon as possible after the outbreak of war.
With this need in mind the Admiralty launched the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve in October 1936. Already in May 1936 the Secretary of the Royal Cruising Club had written to the Admiralty offering the services of its members in the event of war, and the Admiral Commanding Reserves had replied writing that he was considering a scheme to utilise such men. He wrote a memo on 19th June 1936:
"As a result of the expansion of the fighting forces, the case of yachtsmen has once more come to the fore both in Parliament and in letters and personal enquiries from private individuals.
In view of the activities of the Army and RAF in earmarking officer personnel there is no doubt that the earmarking for the Navy of experienced men with sea experience who cannot join the RNVR is a matter for serious consideration in order that they may not be lost to the sea service on the outbreak of war."
The proposal was submitted to the Board of Admiralty in a memorandum dated 5th October 1936, stating that the subject had been discussed with the RNVR Advisory Committee and was supported by them. The Board approved the proposal on 15th October and by the 21st October the Treasury had sanctioned it. On 3rd November an Order in Council was passed at Buckingham Palace to approve the scheme. Contrary to current practice the institution of this new Naval Reserve was not announced or discussed in Parliament.
A Press notice was issued on 28th October 1936, giving details of the scheme to recruit 2000 suitable men. The previous evening Sir Samuel Hoare, First Lord of the Admiralty gave a speech to the Navy League at Grosvenor House at which he announced the formation of a new Reserve. According to The Times he stated:
"The Admiralty has long been aware that there is a large body of men in this country who are interested in yachting and other seafaring pursuits and who, though they are ineligible through age or place of residence, or unable through lack of time, to join the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, are yet anxious to use their experience of the sea in defence of their country in time of war. We intend to create a new Reserve, in which yachtsmen who wish to be earmarked for training as executive officers in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in the event of war would be enrolled. Membership of what will be called the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve will involve no actual training in peacetime, nor will the members wear any uniform, but on being called up will be classified with sub lieutenants of the regular Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and will be eligible for promotion and grant of acting higher rank in exactly the same way as the officers of the RNVR. The age limit will be 18 to 39 inclusive.
It is hoped that this scheme will make a wide appeal to any whom it is impossible to include in the present RNVR, and that it will give the Royal Navy a new and valuable field from which to draw those additional officers which it will be bound to need in the event of emergency."
Brian Lavery, in In Which They Served, suggests that the first public announcement was made by Admiral Sir Ernle Chatfield, First Sea Lord, at a dinner of the Auxiliary Patrol Club on 23 October 1936. But he fails to give a reference to confirm this opinion. In view of The Times article quoted above, and the issue of the press statement on 28th October, any prior announcement must have been to a private gathering, and not released publicly at that time.
The first announcement in Parliament was made by Sir T Inskip, Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, on 4th November 1936, in a debate on the Address. He stated that 'the number of naval officers is being, and will need to be, increased substantially. The response of the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve has already been excellent'. This sequence of events is not recognised by Howarth who writes that the RNV(S)R 'was formed almost accidentally late in 1936 when the First Lord of the Admiralty presented the Naval Estimates. for 1937 to Parliament'.
The October Press Notice stated that candidates should report to the Commanding Officer of one of the eight RNVR Divisions where they would be interviewed and given a medical examination before enrolment. No details were given of the standards required, although presumably they were similar to those for existing RNVR officers. The application form asked for details of schooling and membership of any yacht club.
As an illustration of the recruitment process, A G Prideaux, a barrister in the Temple, writes of arriving one evening at HMS President, off London's Victoria Embankment, to be told that he had come on the wrong day for enrolment. Nevertheless the Commander suggested 'Come down to the wardroom and have a gin'. After a pleasant chat and a hurried examination by the medical officer he was duly enrolled. His education and profession was enough to satisfy the expectations of the navy.
Apart from informing their Division each January of their current address, members of the RNVSR had no further commitment or training. Nevertheless many sought opportunities to go to sea in Royal Naval vessels whenever this could be arranged. Prideaux was able, through friendship with Dicky Wells, signal officer of the 14th Destroyer Flotilla, to spend a short time on board HMS Jervis, the Flotilla leader, while she was doing working-up exercises. Everyone in the ship was so helpful that he picked up a great deal of information about naval routine and the working of a warship. Later he took the Yachtmasters examination whilst waiting to be called up.
Douglas Duff, in a novel based closely on his own experiences, describes joining the RNVSR in 1937, going to Portland for training and sometimes going to sea in a minesweeper 'to make himself fit for the trouble he could see coming'.
When Richard Walker signed up for the RNVSR he joined a group of yachtsmen based at the Butt and Oyster public house at Pin Mill, near Ipswich. Whenever possible they carried out 'naval exercises' in the North Sea using Cortauld's ketch and Frank Carr's pilot cutter. Carr also gave them lessons in coastal navigation.'
In Devon some RNVSR members at yacht clubs in Exmouth, Topsham, Starcross and Lympstone linked together to form the 'Exeter Flotilla' in order to help members to improve their efficiency at simple navigation, seamanship and signalling. The Flotilla still exists as an association of retired RN and Royal Marine officers who meet regularly near Exeter, and arrange an annual Trafalgar Service.
Certain London members of the RNVSR formed themselves into the 'London Flotilla' in order to provide training at their own expense, purchasing out of their own resources two 60 foot ex-Naval steam picket boats and maintaining them within reach of London for the use of their fellow RNVSRs.'
The immense enthusiasm displayed by these volunteers impressed the Admiralty, which finally arranged in 1939 for some of them to make short training cruises in units of the Royal Navy, and to attend lectures provided at certain centres. Until then, the preparation of the Special Reservists had depended on their own enthusiasm and resources, undertaken at their own expense.
In early 1939 recruiting for the RNVSR ceased. The numbers enrolled had reached approximately 1300, but 1,090, mainly in the London Division area, were still waiting to be enrolled. However the Admiralty recognised that they would be short of Junior Accountant Officers, Medical Officers and Dental Officers and arranged for them to be enrolled directly with the Admiral Commanding Reserves into separate branches of the RNVSR.
First training course
An attempt was made early in 1939 to train a number of volunteers from the RNVR and RNVSR in existing facilities, followed by time at sea. The intention was to reduce the complement of officers in destroyers and cruisers by one Lieutenant and replace them by a Reserve officer who would be made a Probationary Sub-Lieutenant or Lieutenant according to his age. Nevertheless Admirals responsible for groups of destroyers were not keen to have their complement of regular officers diluted by men who were not sufficiently trained to be left on watch alone.
In February 1939 the Admiralty asked for fifty volunteers to serve for three years. A subsequent Admiralty Fleet Order confirmed that 'classes of ten at a time would undergo a course of about one month at a shore naval establishment followed by three month's training in a destroyer'. The Director of Training and Staff Duties (DTSD) proposed that the first month should take place at the RN Barracks, Portsmouth, and laid down a syllabus of training consisting of i) Disciplinary Training ii) Divisional Training iii) Preliminary Plotting and Pilotage. He wrote:
"The four month training of these officers should aim to fit them for the duties which they will carry out during their subsequent 2 years and 8 months service. In the case of destroyers it is suggested that these officers could perform some or all of the following duties: Divisional Officer, 000 in harbour, Officer of the Watch at sea after sufficient experience, Correspondence, Plotting, Signals, Victualling, Action Stations in the After Group.”
The Admiralty file only contains details of the first fifteen officers who were trained in May 1939, and another batch of twenty five who commenced training on 1st October. The Commanding Officer of the first group wrote that 'The keenness, interest and enthusiasm displayed by these officers as a whole has been most commendable. This process of sending selected men to existing shore establishments was very slow to make progress and few men went through the training. The ad hoc arrangement for small groups was insufficient to meet the Navy's needs. The Admiralty realised that when war came the Royal Navy would need a larger, more speedy, training course for its temporary executive officers.
Once war had been declared in early September 1939 RNVSR men were called up in batches of fifty at a time each week, and sent for training at HMS King Alfred which was commissioned as the new Officer's Training Establishment on 11th September 1939. The first official notification appeared on 11th January 1940 in an Admiralty Fleet Order stating that 'The Headquarters of the Sussex Division of the RNVR at Hove is now utilised as a training establishment for Temporary RNVR (Executive) Officers and has been commissioned as HMS King Alfred'. The AFO went on to explain that:
'At present the Officers being sent for training consist of the gentlemen whose names appear on the list of the RNVSR, together with nominations from certain other sources such as the Joint University Recruiting Boards. The establishment will, however, be subsequently used for the training of RNVR, RNSR and Hostilities Only ratings who have been recommended for commissions'.
The Admiralty did not intend that the new officers would be commissioned as regular officers of the Royal Navy. Instead they would be commissioned as temporary officers in the RNVR for the duration of hostilities, enabling them to return to civilian life after the war ended.
Since the new officers would belong to the RNVR it was appropriate that they should be trained at a RNVR Headquarters, using RNVR facilities, and utilising RNVR and retired RN training staff.
At that time there were eight RNVR bases around the United Kingdom but most of them were in busy ports like London, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and Newcastle which were at risk of damage from enemy bombing. However the Sussex Divisional Headquarters at Victoria Terrace in Hove, a pleasant South Coast residential area, was unlikely to receive bombing raids early in the war. The main buildings consisted of wooden huts close to the promenade, some of which were fitted as classrooms, and included an armoury of weapons, a demonstration gun for practice drills, a small boat on davits, a flag post and signals, and a small parade ground. This equipment was valuable, but there was limited room for fifty new officers each week, as well as the training staff.
However a new council swimming pool complex, the Hove Marina (above), was nearing completion on an adjacent site, and this could provide much needed space. Although Judy Middleton, a local historian in Hove, could find no documentation to confirm it, it is likely that Earl Howe, Commander of the Hove Division, recommended his headquarters to the Admiralty for this reason. The large underground car park was used for sleeping quarters for some trainees and a mess for the staff; the main swimming pool had been designed to be covered over for functions, and this provided a large hall; more rooms became available for offices and classrooms as the builders moved out.
The centre had to be rapidly adapted for its new use as a residential training establishment using the few RNVR personnel who did not immediately go to sea and the cadre of retired naval officers and petty officers who taught at RNVR Divisions. Captain Pelly was brought out of retirement and appointed in charge. Accommodation for trainees was limited, and the concrete of the car park proved to be cold, so guest houses in adjacent roads were used to house many. Naval tailors also set up business in the neighbourhood, attracted by the business of fitting out new officers.
But the training establishment had many shortcomings. The parade ground was far too small for over one hundred trainees, and they did most of their drill on the adjacent promenade in view of the passing public (figure 2). The old hutted classrooms were small and poorly ventilated and the practical equipment was still basic. The concrete car park was basic, and had to be converted into separate rooms. In particular there was very little opportunity to practice navigation and conning a ship except on one small boat in the adjacent Portslade harbour.
The facilities immediately available made it a reasonable place to give a short course in naval ways to members of the RNVSR. But, without long term planning, they would prove inadequate, and even most unsuitable, for training the landlubbers conscripted for Hostilities Only as the war progressed.
The King Alfred course was only intended to last for four weeks, although many officers left before then. Was this brief course adequate? Full time career naval officers trained for four years at Dartmouth and even the Special Entry officers, who started at the age of eighteen, trained at Dartmouth for a year before becoming midshipmen. A four week course seems too brief to teach men all they needed to know to take on the arduous responsibilities of a naval officer during the war.
Part of the answer lies with the type of men who came on these first courses. These RNVSR men were older and more mature than the usual entrant to Dartmouth. They had experience of employment, and were likely to take the responsibility of their new job more seriously. Having completed formal education, they would have had enough secondary education to learn the duties of their new role. They were men who had learnt to think for themselves and take initiative, whilst still recognising their duties within the organisation.
Even more valuable was their experience and interest in yachting. All of them were familiar with the sea and handling small boats in confined waters. Many had taken their boats on cruises which involved visiting ports and harbours around the British Isles and possibly across the English Channel. They would know about coastal navigation and the rules of the road and would be familiar with the majority of the seamanship content of their course. This made the task of their instructors, mainly RNVR officers and Petty Officers, more difficult. 'It was one thing to explain the traditions and customs of the Royal Navy but quite another to discuss technicalities with which, as they frankly admitted, their pupils were often more familiar'. 'It was no uncommon thing for a trainee to correct the instructor on a point of seamanship.
At that time yachting was still a hobby for a limited class of people who had the money to spend on buying and maintaining their boats. Hence it could be assumed that the RNVSR volunteers would come from the upper classes, be of reasonable income and education, and have the required 'Officer like qualities'. As such they ought to be men who were able to lead and take responsibility even in times of trial such as they had already experienced at sea.
Most importantly, the need was for suitably competent men to officer the small ships and escorts which were coming out of the shipyards. Although these vessels would be commanded by more experienced men, often from the RNR, competent officers were needed to dilute the complement and learn how to handle the ships whilst working afloat. The navy could not wait for six months for men to be trained from scratch and needed men with sufficient knowledge as soon as possible.
Although our information is incomplete it is interesting how King Alfred trained the navy's future officers. Captain Pelly and his team aimed to 'fit the candidates for the duties of OOW at sea and in harbour and to develop officer like qualities. The syllabus contained the following details:
Seamanship included types of ships, rigging, anchor work, conning and ship handling, rules of the road, and boat work, all of which the volunteers were familiar with. The duties of an Officer of the Watch and organisation of a ship in Royal Naval ways were new to them, but they seemed keen to learn. The teaching started as classroom lectures and led on to practical experience with a model forecastle for anchor handling. (Figures 3 and 4).
Officer-like qualities were taught principally by field training. Much of the time was devoted to drill which took place on the promenade at Hove. The training started under a Petty Officer, but in due course each new officer would take charge of a small squad to lead them in increasingly complicated manoeuvres. These yachtsmen were used to taking command of small boats, but needed to learn how to handle a wide variety of seamen who may not have had as much intelligence or enthusiasm as them.
Signals' training was in flags, Morse, semaphore and wireless. Yachtsmen were familiar handling signals used in races and for safety at sea, but the Royal Navy used a different set of signals for different
Gunnery included knowledge of the types of weapon and ammunition, aiming and control. There was one 4-inch gun available for gun drill, and small arms were used on the range. There was too little time to teach about torpedoes, depth charges, mines and demolition in detail. There is no record of any training in fire fighting or damage control. The aim was 'for an officer to learn a sufficient and comprehensive knowledge (of torpedoes) in order to rend first aid to his ship's equipment in a crisis and normally to be in such a position that he cannot be bluffed should he have an inefficient staff'. Navigation and Pilotage was recognised as essential for future officers, although many RNVSR officers were competent in coastal navigation, This was taught by training officers, most of whom were older RNVR officers or retired RN officers too old to go to sea.
One of the training staff described their coming.
'They came in taxis, on foot, and some even in limousines driven by liveried chauffeurs. They sported top hats, bowlers, trilbies, and golf caps and they wore morning suits, tweeds, grey flannels and shorts ... there was scarcely a naval uniform among them'.
'And they brought to those permanent RNVR officers who had been sent to Hove as instructors no small headache. It was one thing to explain to those often hard-bitten old sailors the customs and traditions of the Royal Navy, but it was quite another to stand up and lecture them on seamanship and navigation. It was known for an irate pupil to march out of a classroom in disgust at being taught what he had learnt as a boy, and by a young man he would not have shipped as an Ordinary Seaman when he was at sea'.
Some were found not to be fit enough. The Medical Officer reported that 'there were over 10% failures in the medical examination although the standard was extremely low.' With quite a large number of retired merchant navy officers among them he considered that 'this could have been prevented by a more adequate examination on enrolment.
The brevity of the course had a number of disadvantages. Because of the urgent demand for officers, some men were sent to sea as soon as ten days after joining King Alfred, as this was the minimum time needed for a tailor to make an officer's uniform. 'The shortage of officers was already acute, and such valuable men could not be left sitting in a classroom. What 'passing out' tests there were hardly mattered as long as they had a full uniform. During this time their seamanship was soon apparent, but there was little time to learn how to handle all the weapons they would later be using. There was inadequate time to learn all the administrative duties they would be performing as officers and none could obtain their officer of the watch certificates. The training staff regretted that they had too little time to inculcate these independent men with the traditions and discipline of the service.
The aim was to produce an officer able to contribute to a ship's company, under supervision, as soon as he joined. It was assumed that new officers would have the intelligence and ability to quickly learn the details of their job when they joined their first ship. Nevertheless some officers felt that they had been given insufficient training. One RNVR officer complained: 'These officers received very little training before they were posted from King Alfred. Most of the men were keen and experience yachtsmen. Navigationally they stood in very little danger; but they were lamentably ignorant of gunnery, torpedo, mines and signals'.
Once a new officer left King Alfred, he was usually sent straight to a ship which was being commissioned or taken over by the Royal Navy. Some RNVSR entrants were able to be posted very quickly. Duff had spent two years in the cadet ship Con way, and served as a midshipman at the end of the First World War. On his third day at King Alfred he was summoned by the Drafting Officer and sent to command a 350 ton yacht being adapted for use as a coastal patrol craft.
New officers would be given responsibilities such as Officer of the Day whilst in harbour, Officer in charge of a Division, Gunnery or Antisubmarine Officer, and Correspondence Officer. He was not able to be a full Officer of the Watch at first, although he would be trained up for this as rapidly as possible. In action each officer had a particular responsibility. This might be in charge of a gun, the torpedoes, depth charges, or anti submarine detection. The new officer had to learn how his equipment worked from warrant officers and the instruction book. Most effective learning took place by repeated practice in drills and practice firing.
Faced with all these responsibilities, the training course at King Alfred had barely prepared each new officer for all they would meet. Sufficient knowledge had been taught to allow them to understand the principles of
each task, and new officers would need to learn the specific details on each new ship. With enthusiasm, willingness to learn and intelligence to imbibe new facts, combined with self confidence and the support of others, good temporary officers resulted. Learning from senior colleagues was expected to take place, supplemented by working up exercises and courses.
As the two thousand men of the RNVSR were steadily called up for training, the Navy widened its search for suitably qualified seamen. Merchant Navy Officers who held a Board of Trade Master's or First Mate's certificate were already eligible to be commissioned in the RNR. Before the War the Board had introduced a Yacht Master certificate for amateur sailors in two levels, Yacht Master Ocean and Yacht Master Coastal. The Admiralty advertised that anyone holding such certificates would be considered for a commission. This attracted a number of existing sailing men who had not previously joined the RNVSR and also led to the rise of short training courses offered by merchant captains in order to obtain Board of Trade certificates. One who took advantage of this was Robert Harling, who obtained his certificate at Captain Dutton's Nautical School.
Later the Admiralty widened the scope of their hunt, announcing on 15th May 1940 that 'a limited number of temporary commissions in the Executive Branch of the RNVR are available for experienced yachtsmen between the ages of thirty and forty who possess a knowledge of navigation equivalent to that required for the Board of Trade Yachtmasters (Coastal) Certificate. Nicholas Monsarrat was one such entrant who was considered by the Admiralty Selection Board because of his sailing experience. A further batch of candidates were selected by the Joint Universities Recruiting Board and sent to Hove after an interview and medical examination. Ludovic Kennedy was one of these. With all of these men the Admiralty was pleased to have people who had enthusiasm, sea experience and leadership qualities similar to those who had volunteered to join the RNVSR. By the summer of 1940 the majority of these yachtsmen had passed out of King Alfred, and from then onwards the officer cadets came from conscripts who had been assessed as potential officers and spent three months at sea on the lower deck. These 'Hostilities Only' men needed a longer course, and their experience and abilities were more variable.
The quality of the officers who came through the RNVSR can be seen in the reviews. The medical officer at King Alfred wrote in 1946 that 'they were a most valuable source of supply of junior officers and they have done and are still doing a wonderful job of work'. Kerr and Grenville wrote in 1957 that:
'the 'supplementaries' who were to be trained (at King Alfred) were perhaps the most valuable officer material the Navy was to receive during the War. Aged from eighteen to forty, they were volunteers in the truest sense of the word, and there were few of them who were not experienced seamen before they came into the Navy. The response to the invitation to join the Supplementary Reserve had been tremendous, so that the Admiralty was able to be very choosy indeed, and the men who came to Hove needed little training in the essentials of their future jobs.
In 1960 Roskill wrote:
'The RNVR brought to the navy qualities which were peculiarly their own. Because they had not been moulded by the long education and apprenticeship of the regular officer they had less respect for the authority of rank; but they also had fewer inhibitions against indulging in novel organisation, equipment and procedure.
After the end of the Second World War many RNVR officers wished to retain their commission. Because of their enthusiasm and the possibility of their being needed again if the Cold War escalated, the RNVSR was formed again in October 1947 to allow wartime temporary officers to maintain their naval connection. The Royal Navy recognised how useful trained officers had been at the start of the war, and was pleased to keep some on the Reserves to be called up for any emergency. As before, they were attached to local Divisions, were allowed to wear uniform on formal occasions, and kept their previous ranks, but were not given any training unless they organised it themselves. At their peak 8,000 officers belonged to this Reserve, but in time it fell to less than 2,000 and was closed in 1965.
In the RNVSR the Admiralty tapped into a band of enthusiastic volunteers who were keen to serve their country in the event of war. Some had tried to assist whilst in local sailing organisations, and many sought further training by themselves as war approached. It is regrettable that the Admiralty was cautious in recruiting from this source, limiting the numbers to two thousand.
Until the war broke out the RNVSR cost the Treasury very little money. The RNVR Divisions had to interview each man, carry out a medical examination and keep an up to date list of these men, but such tasks were familiar to them. Most Divisions appeared not to have any problems in processing RNVSR volunteers, although the pressure on the London Division was considered excessive.
Yet the Royal Navy's enthusiasm seemed to be limited once the initial announcement had been made. Very little further advertisement was made after 1936, and when recruits built up in 1938 the Admiralty put a limit on the numbers of men accepted. No uniforms were issued, and no training provided. Only when demand built up from members in 1939 did the Royal Navy provide some limited opportunities for further training.
When the Admiralty realised in February 1939 that they would need men to dilute the skilled officers in destroyers the use of volunteer RNVSR men was limited to a small course at Portsmouth. This sort of arrangement would prove inadequate to prepare the 2,000 men once war broke out, but provided a small trial of what the Navy might need.
Duff considered that 'the Supplementary Reserve had been a strange anomaly. A cheese paring half measure, dear to a Treasury relying on the patriotism and disinterestedness of the class of men to whom it had appealed. Each man had to pay his own way to the training centres: there was no uniform and no status. It was an appeal to pure service'.
The success of the original volunteers showed the advantages of training yachtsmen as Temporary Executive Officers. They already had sufficient knowledge of navigation, skills of seamanship, and the qualities of enthusiasm, confidence, courage and self reliance needed in officers. They only needed a short course to introduce them to some of the Navy's habits and methods before being posted to a ship where they would learn whilst working on the job.
Training experienced yachtsmen proved so successful that the Navy soon sought more sailing men, as well as educated volunteers from the Universities. They should have recruited these into the RNVSR earlier, offering the promise of limited training to foster their enthusiasm and provide a focus for their patriotism. Only when all such men had been taken up did the Navy move on to train conscripted men who had no previous experience of the sea, and give them three months exposure to life at sea before starting officer training.
The good idea of recruiting volunteers from "gentlemen who are interested in yachting and similar pursuits proved to be an inadequate response once war broke out, because of the limited vision of some within the Admiralty who had failed to recruit more sailing men, provide suitable training in peace time, or find a better centre at which to train them once war broke out.
I am grateful for the help of Prof Nicholas Rodger and Dr Duncan Redford who aided my research as part of an Exeter MA dissertation, to Dr Hugh Murphy for helpful comments, and Stephen Howarth for permission to reproduce pictures from his book The Royal Navy's Reserves in war and peace 1903 - 2003 (Barnsley; Leo Cooper, 2003).
Return to RNVR