The Royal Naval Reserve: 150th Anniversary

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The history of The Royal Naval Reserve


Ever since there has been a fighting Navy the Merchant Navy of the UK has had to act as its reserve, both in personnel and material. In the Middle Ages Kings seldom thought it worth their while to maintain a standing navy; when they wanted fighting ships they borrowed them from the merchants, together with the men to take them to sea. Neither the merchants or merchant seaman received any credit for their service; if the naval action was successful it was the knight in command of the fighting men who increased his reputation. Later when the tactic of fighting in line was developed which demanded the employment of larger and stronger ships, fighting broadside to broadside, the design of warships and merchant ship types began to diverge, and it therefore became necessary to maintain a standing navy.


During the 17th Century, apart from a ‘hard core’ of men who preferred service in the fleet, the navy relied on recruiting from the whole ‘maritime community’ of the nation – from merchant ships, colliers and fishing vessels. The peacetime service required up to 4,000 men and could usually meet this number from volunteers. But in war time over 20,000 men were needed and other means, especially the use of the press gang was employed to make up the deficiency. During the 18th Century the Royal Navy had access to the largest reservoir of seaman of any nation. Skilled seamen working as a team were essential to combat effectiveness. Aloft they enhanced speed and manoeuvrability; at the guns they enhanced rate of fire. Without a body of proficient petty officers and seamen an 18th century warship was not worth much. Manning the fleet in time of war was its most intractable problem which seriously affected the naval readiness in the early months of every war. The methods of recruiting seamen remained unchanged and amounted to a contest in which the merchant ship owners relied chiefly on paying higher wages while the navy relied ultimately on physical compulsion, which was exercised through the inequitable and erratic practice of impressment. The ‘rules’ of the game were shaped so that each side – the merchant interest and the navy – would get a share of the available trained seamen. The key ‘rule’ was that the navy must not take men from outward bound ships; as no seaman who hoped to avoid naval service would risk a voyage under such a threat. The navy’s focus was therefore on incoming ships. Additionally, Britain’s effective seafaring population was increased by the service of foreign seamen – up to 15% towards the end of the Napoleonic era. The first seagoing Naval Reserve was the 1,200 strong, Royal Trinity House Volunteer Artillery, created in 1803. Composed of merchant seaman and their officers and paid for by Trinity House, this London corps was large enough to man ten frigates which were moored across the Thames below Gravesend, and served to stiffen the Londoners’ nerves at a time when there was a strong threat of invasion. The victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 ended that threat and the Trinity House Volunteers were disbanded and the ships paid off.


When war against Russia broke out in 1854, the navy had to man two fleets, one for the Baltic and the other for the Black Sea. The ships were only put to sea through the efforts of a small nucleus of trained men on board, many of them coastguards, elderly by lower deck standards. Men had to be recruited from every available source; even Swedish and Norwegian volunteers were signed on in Stockholm. In June 1858 the First Lord, Sir John Pakington, set up a Royal Commission on manning which reported in January 1859. It recommended more training ships for boy seamen, free bedding and mess utensils for new recruits, free uniform for continuous service entrants, an improved scale of victualling, improved pay for seaman gunners; and, most importantly, the formation of a Royal Naval Reserve.

The beginning

The statute authorising the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Naval Reserve (Volunteers) Act of 1859, establishing a reserve of professional seamen from the merchant service was passed in August 1859. The RNR was originally a reserve of merchant seamen only but in 1861 this was extended to include recruitment and training of masters, mates and marine engineers. From its creation, RNR Officers wore a unique, distinctive lace consisting of stripes of interwoven chain, known as the ‘rocky stripes’. In 1865, to support their representation for an undefaced blue ensign to be flown by merchant ships commanded by an officer in the RNR, the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen informed the Admiralty that there were 117 Lieutenants and 65 Sub Lieutenants with active list RNR commissions. A number of drillships were established at the main seaports including HMS PRESIDENT which was moored in the London West India Docks and HMS EAGLE in Liverpool, later renamed HMS EAGLET. Seamen left their ships in the base ports to undertake gunnery training in a drillship for a period of one month annually. After initial shore training officers embarked in larger ships of the fleet (usually battleships or battle cruisers) for a one-year period to familiarise themselves with gunnery and naval practice. Although under the operational authority of the Admiral Commanding Reserves, the RNR was administered jointly by the Admiralty and the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen within the Board of Trade.

The Hungry Hundred and Famishing Fifty

In 1890, the First Lord, Lord George Hamilton, announced that the Navy urgently needed 100 more Lieutenants. In 1895 it was therefore decided to recruit 100 officers from the Merchant Navy, 90 of which were Royal Naval Reserve Officers who accepted permanent commissions as Lieutenants in the Royal Navy. A condition of the offer was that these officers were not eligible for promotion beyond the rank of Lieutenant except for war service. They became known as the ‘hungry hundred’ which stemmed from the fact that most merchant navy officers had no permanent career structure, having to sign on for each new voyage, while RN officers were on a permanent salary. Three years later, with the shortage of Lieutenants continuing in the RN, a further fifty RNR Officers were given similar permanent commissions. They were inevitably known as the ‘famishing fifty’.

The Empire joins

Officers and men of the RNR soon gained the respect of their naval counterparts with their professional skills in navigation and seamanship and served with distinction in a number of conflicts including the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion. In 1903 King Edward VII approved a special medal to be awarded to members of the RNR for services in South Africa and China and provision was made for the foundation of an Australian Branch of the RNR, with twenty five officers and 700 men. The following year the small experimental Accountant Branch of the RNR was made permanent and enlarged to a maximum of 200 Assistant Paymasters who were not merchant seafarers but employees of banks, accountancy and insurance firms. In 1907 the Admiralty proposed to the Treasury that there should be a ‘Long and Good Service’ medal for ratings of both the RNR and RNVR. This was accepted, with the medal awarded after 15 years’ service. (Formally named as the ‘Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, the award became informally known as the reward for fifteen years’ undetected crime).

Awards of the Victoria Cross to members of the Royal Naval Reserve:

George Leslie Drewry, Midshipman RNR
HMS RIVER CLYDE, Gallipoli 1915

George McKenzie Samson, Seaman RNR
HMS RIVER CLYDE, Gallipoli 1915

Frederick Daniel Parslow, Lieutenant RNR

Archibald Bisset Smith, Lieutenant RNR
SS OTAKI, Atlantic 1917

William Edward Sanders, Acting Lieutenant DSO RNR
HMS PRIZE, Atlantic 1917

Joseph Watt, Skipper RNR(T)
HM Drifter GOWAN LEA, Straits of Otranto 1917

Ronald Niel Stewart, Lieutenant RNR
HMS PARGUST, Atlantic 1917

William Williams, Seaman RNR
HMS PARGUST, Atlantic 1917

Charles George Bonner, Lieutenant RNR
HMS DUNRAVEN, Atlantic 1917

Thomas Crisp, Skipper RNR(T)
HM Special Service Smack NELSON, North Sea 1917

Harold Auten, Lieutenant RNR
HMS STOCK FORCE, Channel 1918

Richard Been Stannard, Lieutenant RNR
HMS ARAB, Namsos 1940

Thomas Wilkinson, Lieutenant RNR
HMS Li Wo, Java Sea 1942

Donald Cameron, Lieutenant RNR
HM S/M X.6, Kaafjord 1943

Ian Edward Fraser, Lieutenant RNR
HM S/M XE.3, Johore Straits 1945


Frank C Bowen
History of the Royal Naval Reserve The Corporation of Lloyd’s, 1926

Stephen Howarth
The Royal Navy’s Reserves in War and Peace 1903-2003 Leo Cooper, 2003

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy Oxford Illustrated Histories, 2002


In 1909 an RNR Officers’ Decoration known as the Reserve Decoration (RD) was also established for fifteen years’ service. In 1910, the RNR (Trawler Section) was formed to actively recruit and train fishermen for wartime service in minesweepers and minor war vessels. The rank of Skipper RNR(T) was established, with enrolment into the force beginning in Grimsby and Aberdeen in 1911. In their professional careers, many RNR officers went on to command the largest passenger liners of the day and held senior positions in the shipping industry.

Mobilisation 1914

On mobilisation in 1914, the RNR consisted of 30,000 officers and men. Officers of the permanent RNR on general service quickly took up seagoing appointments in the fleet, many in command, in destroyers, submarines, auxiliary cruisers and Q ships. Fishermen of the RNR(T) section served with distinction onboard trawlers fitted out as minesweepers for mine clearance operations at home and abroad throughout the war where they suffered heavy casualties and losses. A number of RNR officers qualified as pilots and flew aircraft and airships with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) whilst many RNR ratings served ashore alongside the RN and RNVR contingents in the trenches of the Somme and at Gallipoli with the Royal Naval Division (RND). Merchant service officers and men serving in armed merchant cruisers, hospital ships, fleet auxiliaries and transports were entered in the RNR for the duration of the war on special agreements. Although considerably smaller than both the RN and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), a reserve of civilian volunteers formed in 1903, the RNR had an exceptional war record being awarded 11 Victoria Crosses.

Second World War

On commencement of hostilities in the Second World War, the RN once again called upon the experience and professionalism of the RNR from the outset to help them shoulder the initial burden until sufficient manpower could be trained for the RNVR and 'hostilities only' ratings. Again, RNR officers found themselves in command of destroyers, frigates, sloops, landing craft and submarines, or as specialist navigation officers in cruisers and aircraft carriers. In convoy work, the convoy commodore or escort commander was often an RNR officer. As in the First World War, the RNR acquitted itself well, winning 4 VCs.


The RNR and RNVR were amalgamated in 1958, and to avoid the need for new legislation, the older title ‘Royal Naval Reserve’ was retained for the unified naval reserve. After 100 years of proud service the RNR as a separate professional naval service ceased to exist. However, Merchant Navy Officers continued to serve within the RNR as List 1 Officers with their own separate Commodore List 1. The one hundredth anniversary in 1959 was marked with a dinner at the Painted Hall at Greenwich attended by HRH The Duke of Gloucester.


In 1982 during the Falklands Conflict, List 1 RNR Officers worked at Fleet Headquarters in Northwood coordinating Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT), which were used to support the Task Force and transport the Landing Force. Twenty two Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships and forty nine merchant ships and thousands of their civilian crew members; many of them RNR Officers, served in support of the task force. The requirement to provide trained Senior Naval Officers (SNOs) with Merchant Navy experience for Ships Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) was a lesson identified from the Falklands Conflict. In 1983 List 1 RNR Officers commenced training for the role serving as SNOs in STUFT shipping in support of Commodore Amphibious Warfare (COMAW). Following Options for Change in 1991, a single Commodore for the whole of the RNR was appointed and the Amphibious Warfare (AW) Branch was established, manned largely by List 1 RNR Officers with Commander Amphibious Task Group (COMATG) as its functional commander. The branch has since evolved, with the introduction of specialist amphibious ships into service with the Royal Navy and with more diverse recruiting, into the RNR Amphibious Warfare Specialisation providing Operational Capability to COMATG.

OP Telic

In 2003 16 RNR Officers from the Amphibious Warfare Specialisation and Maritime Trade Operations Branch were mobilised for Operation TELIC 1, making a significant contribution to the Amphibious Task Group, the largest such Task Group since the Falklands Conflict. Officers served on the staff of the Maritime Component Commander in Bahrain , at sea on the staff of COMATG, as Senior Naval Officers in Commercially Chartered Shipping, as Amphibious Primary Watchkeepers in HMS OCEAN and as liaison officers in Kuwait. In total 355 RNR Officers and Ratings were mobilised during the first 6 months of Operation TELIC and since then 40 percent of the RNR has been mobilised serving in the Joint Operating Area including Operation HERRICK. The Royal Naval Reserve continues to enable the Royal Navy to meet its operational commitments in times of stretch, when extra manpower is required and provides specialist capabilities not replicated within the Naval Service.

Current events

Merchant Navy Officers serving within the RNR has fallen steadily with the reduction in UK seafarers serving in merchant ships since the 1980s. Currently there are 38 RNR Officers with a Merchant Navy background. With the average age of a MN Officer now at 52 years old, shipping companies are recruiting large numbers of navigating and marine engineer cadets many of whom are following a foundation degree course which leads to a degree in Nautical Science or Marine Engineering. There are currently over 900 cadets in the training pipeline many of whom would be ideal candidates for the RNR, even if at a later stage, they do not follow a career at sea. The recruitment of these Officers also fits neatly into the requirements of the latest Reserve Forces Review which is considering, amongst other issues, how skills learnt in the civilian world can be used in current operations. Certainly a role that the RNR may be involved with in future operations will be Maritime Civil Military Co-operation (CIMIC) where the Royal Navy may be required to set up a maritime infrastructure to enable maritime trade to gain access to ports by providing advice on navigational safety, pilotage, port management, dredging of channels and cargo handling etc. All these operational roles can be undertaken by Officers with Merchant Navy experience and maritime skills.

The future

In the future reserve forces will need to recruit people with civilian skills which are transferable and provide expertise not found in the regular forces. The recruitment of Merchant Navy Officers into the RNR is an excellent example of how civilian skills can be used in an operational role. These officers also have vast experience in the maritime sector and continue to provide excellent utility to the Royal Navy.

150th Anniversary dinner

A dinner will be held at HMS PRESIDENT on Friday 18th September 2009 for serving, past and retired List 1 RNR officers to celebrate the remarkable achievements of the Royal Naval Reserve since 1859. To express an interest in attending the dinner, email Cdr David Whitby RD* RNR Rtd at