British Naval Reserve Organizations

Some Canadians chose to serve in Royal Navy organizations - and other were related to those who served. This is an overview of the diversity of organizations that made up the Royal Navy’s reserve.

The Sea Fencible Service, 1798–1813, was a part time organization of fishermen and boatmen commanded by Royal Navy officers for local defence, especially in case of invasion. In 1853 the Royal Naval Coast Volunteers was established to fill a similar role as the Sea Fencible Service but was absorbed into the Coast Guard in 1857.

In 1853 the Royal Naval Coast Volunteers – a voluntary body with duties similar to the Sea Fencibles was established. They were absorbed into the Coast Guard in 1857.

In 1857 the Admiralty assumed responsibility for the Coast Guard, combining the Shore Force, the Permanent Cruiser Force and Coast Guard ships. The Permanent Cruiser Force comprised officers and ratings of the Coast Guard (formerly Revenue Cruisers). Their duties included fishery protection and suppression of smuggling. Personnel were full–time and liable for active service in event of war. This force was dismantled in 1919.

The Shore Force was a permanent full time paid staff of officers and ratings in civil functions – but liable for service afloat in the event of war. The senior commissioned officers were Royal Navy on half–pay. The Shore Force was reorganized in 1919, staffed by naval pensioners and was transferred to the Board of Trade in 1923. If and when it became operational control would be transferred back to the Admiralty. It was used with an Auxiliary Coast Guard (part–time volunteers) for coast watching and manning of signal stations.

In 1859 the Royal Naval Reserve was established with specialized officers and ratings recruited from British sea–going merchant vessels. They undertook periodic training and were available in the event of war. This was the first specialized naval reserve.

In 1874–1891 the Royal Navy Artillery Volunteers were established. These were men who were not primarily seamen (or who had no sea experience at all). They undertook periodic drills – and were only loosely associated with the Royal Navy.

There was a group of nurses who served in naval hospitals and hospital ships since the early 17th Century. In the 19th Century women ceased to be employed in the navy. In 1883 the Naval Nursing Sisters were established and this represented a re–introduction of women into a form of naval service. In 1902 this group became the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Nursing Service.

In 1883 the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors was established. Originally a professional body of civilian naval architects employed by the Admiralty they evolved into a group who served afloat as Constructor officers or ashore as civil servants.

In 1943–1945 Special Repair Ratings (Dockyard) were dockyard personnel who were obliged to serve overseas if required. Dockyard workers and officers were conscripted into the navy and ordered overseas. They were uniformed and subject to naval discipline, but employed only in dockyard work. The dockyard officers were ranked as Constructors similar to the Royal Corps Naval Constructor officers.

In 1891 the Admiralty assumed responsibility for naval guns from the War Office and established the Naval Ordnance Department. Officers from the Ordnance Store Department were transferred in under special terms of employment. Gradually as they were retired they were replaced by naval officers.

In 1898 a new group, the Boom Defence Service was established to protect ports against torpedo boat attacks. They used wire hawsers strung across harbour entrances to prevent attack. They were manned by pensioners in peacetime and by Royal Naval Reserve officers and ratings in wartime.

From 1901–1958 the Royal Fleet Reserve employed a force of pensioner ratings who were retired from the RN with service of twenty or more years and who were still of military age. A similar scheme for retired officers was the Emergency List. Both of these groups were amalgamated with the Royal Naval Reserve in 1958.

Members of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade and the St. Andrew’s Ambulance Association Corps who volunteered to serve on naval duty in an emergency were organized in 1902 as the Royal Navy Auxiliary Sick Berth Reserve. They served as Sick Berth Stewards (later called Sick Berth Attendants).

The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve was established in 1903 and operated until 1958. Officers and ratings undertook naval training on their own time but were not professionally employed at sea except during wartime. This group was amalgamated with the Royal Naval Reserve in 1958.

The Reserve of Medical Officers was part of an unsuccessful scheme to recruit medical officers for short service (4 years) appointments which would be followed by a period of reserve service. They undertook no training and pledged to serve in wartime – but were not obliged to do so.

In 1910 a group of qualified women who volunteered to serve in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service in an emergency was established called the Reserve of Nurses for the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service was established. They undertook no training and were not legally obligated to fulfill their offer of service.

The Royal Naval Reserve Trawler Service RNR (T) was set up to employ trawlers as minesweepers and patrol vessels. It was disbanded as a distinct section in the Royal Naval Reserve in 1921. In both World Wars trawlers were taken into service including their crews. They were recruited on a T–124 Form which engaged them for service in the named vessel only for the duration of the war.

Merchant vessels chartered as transports manned by civilians by the Admiralty was established in 1911 as the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Until 19121 the officers were invariably RNR officers who used their ranks while on duty. After 1921 they used merchant navy titles and rank structures.

In 1912–1914 a joint service organization, the Royal Flying Corps Naval Wing employed some RN and RNVR officers and ratings attached to the Royal Flying Corps. In 1914–1918 the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was established as an integral part of the navy. It used ranks similar to those of the RN. Those holding RN or RM commissions or warrants ranked in seniority with their naval counterparts. Those commissioned from civilian status ranked in seniority only in the RNAS. On creation of the Royal Air Force in 1918 the officers and ratings of the RNAS were transferred into the RAF or reverted to the RN.

A detached section of the RNVR consisting of private motor yacht owners who manned their own boats and served with the Auxiliary Patrol was established in 1914–1918 as the Royal Naval Motor Boat Reserve.

In 1914–1916 RNR, RNVR and RFR officers and ratings serving ashore in Flanders as infantry were established as the Royal Naval Division. They were transferred to the army in 1916 as the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division.

The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Pigeon Service recruited pigeon fanciers into the Royal Naval Reserve in 1914–1918. They serviced pigeons carried in aircraft and small vessels that were used to deliver messages.

The Admiralty assumed defence of towns and cities against air attack 1914–1918. The RNVR Anti–Aircraft Corps manned guns and searchlights with full–time and part–time members. In 1916 the air defence of London, and later other cities, was transferred to the Army.

A unit separate from the RNR, the Shetland Royal Naval Reserve was established for coast watching and local defence assuming a role similar to the old Sea Fencible Service.

Post Office and Marconi Company radio stations taken over for naval war service were operated 1915–1925 as the RNVR Shore Wireless Service and the staff wore uniforms. They were replaced in 1925 by the Shore Wireless Service and the Shore Signal Service. They were uniformed permanent forces manned mainly by naval pensioners taking over duties that were formerly carried out by Coast Guard staff who were in turn transferred to the Board of Trade.

In 1916 supervision and control of (but not manning) chartered transports was established as the RN Transport Service. The officers were usually retired RN officers who served as uniformed civilian employees serving afloat or ashore. In 1921 they were renamed as the Sea Transport Service and transferred to the Board of Trade although they remained uniformed and involved in naval operations.

In 1917–1921 the Army and Navy Canteen Board replaced civilian contractors. They were superseded in 1921 by the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute (NAAFI). Managers served afloat in uniform and under regular naval discipline as civilian personnel.

In 1918–1919 and again in 1939 the Women’s Royal Naval Service was established as a uniformed service employing women in non–sea–going operations. A reserve unit was formed in 1945 and renamed in 1947 as the Women’s Royal Naval Reserve.

A body of amateur radio operators who undertook to enter the RN during an emergency was established in as the Royal Naval Wireless Auxiliary Reserve 1932–1938. They undertook no regular training. In 1938 they were replaced by the RN Volunteer (Wireless) Reserve, a branch of the RNVR.

A list of potential officers who offered to serve in case of an emergency but who did not undergo training was established in 1936 as the RN Volunteer (Supplementary) Reserve.

Similar to the Patrol Service of the First World War the RN Patrol Service operated 1939–1945. Ratings entered on Form T–124 recruits were recruited as Royal Naval Patrol Service (Hostilities Only) liable to serve with their ship wherever it was deployed but were required to sign a new agreement if they changed ships. The Clyde River Patrol Force comprised civilians who were engaged full–time or part–time in local patrol, mine–watching and general boat work in the upper Clyde. They operated 1939–1945 and apparently there were a number of similar groups operating elsewhere in the UK.

Part–time volunteers who manned coastal observation posts on moonlit nights to fix the position of magnetic and acoustic mines dropped from aircraft in coastal waters were organized in 1941–1945 as the Minewatching Service. It was later re–organized as the RN Auxiliary Service (RNXS).


Site News: March2nd, 2019

Databases have been updated and are now holding 56,584 vessel histories (with 5,550 images) and 58,184 mariner biographies (with 3,673 images).

© 2002-2019