A Canadian Naval Officer's Commission Through the Royal Navy Upper Yardman's School

by George R. MacFarlane, Commander RCN (Retired) (1922-2000)

When I was a youngster my father and his brothers were prominent tugboat men on the British Columbia coast. Early on I formed the ambition to get a commission in the navy. My uncle Fred MacFarlane had been an officer in the RNVR during the First World War and that probably inspired my ambitions.

In the spring of 1940, soon after the start of the Second World War, I applied at HMCS Naden for a commission as a Midshipman. I was then 18 years old. The Recruiting Officer, who was a Lieutenant RCNR, thanked me for offering my services but informed that there were no vacancies for Midshipmen at that time. He suggested that I might consider joining as an Able Seaman RCNR for which there were vacancies. He pointed out that with my experience I should have no trouble in passing the relevant examinations for promotion to commissioned rank.

The war was still young, the navy was still in a preliminary state in terms of preparing for the war and there was not the sense of urgency which developed later on. My main qualifications were that I had studied navigation (privately), had been a Petty Officer in the Sea Cadets and had served as a Mate in several of the BC coast tugboats.

I accepted the suggestion and was attested as an Able–Seaman  RCNR (No. A563). I joined a class for three weeks of introductory training. I asked  my instructor where I would find the regulations pertaining to qualifying for a commission. He was vague about this but told me that a sailor by the name of "Darky" Lowe had been sent to the Royal Navy to qualify as a Sub-Lieutenant RCN through the Upper Yardman's School. Lowe had passed the Navy Higher Educational Tests [HETs] which had qualified him for selection.

Shortly after completing my course, I was drafted to a ship, where I continued pursuing the subject of a commission. No one in the system seemed to have any knowledge of the commissioning scheme. I was next drafted ashore to take a torpedo course. By now I was getting to know my way around the navy. I visited the Schoolmaster who briefed me on the HETs and gave me copies of old tests to study. They were Royal Navy tests and I recall that they were published quarterly. He also offered to help me with my studies.

I wanted to be commissioned into the regular RCN, and I passed up several opportunities for a commission in the RCNR or the RCNVR. I did transfer to the RCN in 1941 as a Leading Seaman. I then began applying to write the HETs. The next big hurdle for me was the necessary recommendation to be accepted into the commissioning system. This was a problem for awhile as nearly all the officers on the coast were Reserves and they assumed that I was interested in a reserve commission. I eventually found the relevant RCN Regulation that described the requirements for the RN Upper Yardmen course. [It was a reprint of an RN AFO (Admiralty Fleet Orders)]

Armed with this information I requested to see the Captain to be recommended. My request was granted but again I was put through the Reserve system and was required to obtain letters of recommendation from responsible civilians such as my doctor (who was a Colonel in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps), my school principal, the Postmaster of Victoria and the Marine Engineering Superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Coast Service - all of which I easily obtained.

By 1941 I was moving up the ladder and had been appointed as a Petty Officer (Leading Torpedoman) RCN and was serving in HMCS Prince Robert. To become a candidate for the RN Upper Yardman College I had to have continuous recommendations as suitable for commissioned rank which meant that I was always under close scrutiny. I had to sit for numerous selection boards.

PO GR MacFarlane

I was next promoted to Chief Petty Officer RCN and at that stage someone in the navy took my career requirements seriously. I was transferred to the East Coast for Destroyer experience and final recommendation. I was drafted to HMCS Skeena and she proceeded to join a group operating against German naval forces in the English Channel. The ship was fighting the war and didn’t really have much time to worry about an individual like myself who wanted to qualify for a commission.

I had been created as a C/W (Commissioned Warrant) Candidate, but for some reason the results of the previous selection boards were not included in my personnel document folder. On entering Londonderry  a board was set up under the Senior Officer ashore, which I passed and I was sent off to H.M.S. Collingwood [near Southampton]. I arrived a week late for the start of the class and thus was not accepted. I was told that I would be gazetted for the next course. This was of concern to me as the age requirement was ‘under the age of 23’. I was then 22 years old plus.

Consequently no one noticed later on that I had been gazetted (by the British Government) to join the Upper Yardman course at H.M.S. Collingwood. As a result, again I arrived late for the course (my ship had been at sea) and was I was again refused entry because I had missed the preliminaries. Although I was very disappointed, it afforded me time to advance my studies and to improve my physical condition; both of which were critical to successful completion of the course.

I was also fortunate at this time to meet an old Canadian school friend who was an Upper Yardman School graduate who gave me considerable advice that fore–warned me about many of the pitfalls that I would later encounter.

In the meantime the Upper Yardman course had moved to H.M.S. Raleigh in Cornwall. I arrived there to find that I was the only non-RN  candidate and that I was senior in rank and age to all of the other participants. My classmates were young Able–Seaman (ex-Boy Seamen), Petty Officer Airmen and other experienced submarine Able-Seamen. All together there were 30 – two classes of 15. My classmates were always polite and we got along quite well but understandably, I was never really accepted as one of them being from the RCN (a colonial).

For my classmates the opportunity presented by the Upper Yardman scheme represented their one and only chance in life to make a jump from the lower to the upper social order in what was a very class–conscious society. As a result they were willing to do whatever was necessary to succeed! They were totally focused on learning the necessary skills and social attributes to excel because a failure in the program would have eliminated their future opportunities once and for all. They were energetic, enthusiastic, aggressive and determined. The course turned them into what the Royal Navy really wanted – to produce trained, confident, accomplished officers with the social graces – who could “fit in” with the rest of the RN officers who had come up through the naval colleges.

Hood Course Upper Yardmen 1945

The Upper Yardmen course was of a predominately academic nature and designed to bring  ex–ratings to the same educational and professional standards as the cadet–entered officers at H.M.S. Britannia – the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. The syllabus covered: Mathematics, Mechanics, Science, English and Current Affairs, Naval History, Geography and naval professional subjects including Navigation, Communications, Seamanship and Engineering.

The course was seven months long having been shortened due to the war – to fill the shortage of trained officers. Officer–like qualities were emphasized along with physical education, elocution, public speaking, essay and journal writing, etc. Elocution was considered very important and we had a special instructor who used records of a famous film actor as the example of what was to be achieved. The goal was to establish a “standard” accent which would establish us as authority figures and as members of the ‘officer-class’. Once a week we had a class in OLQs (officer-like qualities). Our course officer covered topics such as how to carry a cane, what type of material to choose in civilian clothes, the use of gloves, how to behave in different social situations and so on.

My Course Officer, Lieutenant–Commander Roy Casement RN  took  an exceptional interest in our welfare and was a tremendous help to us. He was the son of a full Admiral RN and the nephew of other Admirals. The other officers were fair but were not at all friendly to us. I credit Roy Casement with shepherding me through the course. The course was an extreme combination of  high achievement and high stress. In the end there were twelve graduates out of the thirty starters. Individuals who were considered unsuitable were eliminated from time to time and therefore we were always thinking of who would be dropped next.

We swept–out and cleaned the barracks daily. After breakfast we went to our own Divisions where we took turns as the Parade Commander and reading the prayers etc. Afterwards we did an hour of physical training where the emphasis was on responding to commands to undertake rigorous tasks on ropes, the box horse etc. We would double march everywhere.

We took two classes before lunch with a very short smoke break between them. We ate lunch in our own mess, served ourselves, and ate normal RN rations. To supplement these we planted a vegetable garden and I was appointed as the “gardening secretary”. Gardening was a very unpopular task – my classmates wanted to study when weeding needed to be done. (Everyone had a position as “secretary” of some activity – such as the “sports secretary”, “library secretary” etc.)

After lunch we did two or three more classes until tea–time. After tea we played sports followed by supper. We were dressed up in shirt and tie all day – and had to press our shirts in the evening in the washrooms. In the evening we either did self–study or attended a lecture series. We could listen to the radio in the evening as long as we requested each morning the name of the program we wished to hear with the “radio secretary” and this was approved by the instructor officer.

One night a week an Upper Yardman would give a lecture. Other evenings the lectures would be given by visiting authorities. If there were cultural events being held on the base we would be marched over to attend. On Saturdays we worked the forenoon with instruction. In the afternoon we had compulsory sports or sometimes leave. On Sunday morning Base Divisions were held followed by sports or leave. All leave ended at 2100.

We wore a white cap band so that everyone would see that we were officer candidates – and subject to special scrutiny by everyone. We lived in H–huts off away from the main part of the base. The base commander eventually provided a small car (donated by himself) and several bicycles for transportation. All the course and staff officers witnessed all of our sports and activities. We were continually being assessed (for enthusiasm, leadership, attitude and performance) and some course participants would be removed from time to time. Some of the unsuccessful candidates apparently lacked stamina, and some lacked in academic performance and some lacked officer-like qualities.

When we graduated the RN clothing allowance was sufficient to completely outfit us. The staff arranged for the representative of the naval tailor – Gieves of Bond Street to measure us. Our order lists were scrutinized by the staff to ensure that we had ordered a complete outfit including black gaiters and all the uniforms suitable for every part of the world – – in every season. The outfit came in a black metal trunk with my name painted on it in gold letters which arrived the morning of our graduation and everything fitted perfectly! Gieves seemed to have had advance notice of whose order to fill and whose to ignore because they were not going to finish the program.

We had had a final selection board, chaired by Admiral Davenport RN, a few days before graduation. One candidate failed the board. On graduation, I was appointed to Sub–Lieutenants courses where I met the members of the first class of Royal Roads (the Royal Canadian Naval College) – officers who had started their courses about two months earlier. They accepted me as a friend and I got along with them very well.

The Upper Yardman Scheme had its origin in 1912, initiated as a scheme to allow Royal Navy ratings the chance to gain a commission at a relatively young age. Until 1931 it was known as the Mate Scheme because successful candidates were promoted to the rank of mate, but from 1932 onwards the scheme became known as the Upper Yardman Scheme, those successful being promoted to the rank of Sub–Lieutenant. The scheme continued on after the War, and as far as I know continued at least until the 1970s. There was no comparable system in Canada until after the War when a scheme was established which eventually evolved into the HMCS Venture Officer Training School.

After the war there were many officers who were commissioned from various training plans. The Upper Yardman’s School served me well for the rest of my life. I was always extremely confident – I felt that I had been very well trained and prepared for any position in which I found myself.


To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, Commander George R, (1990) A Canadian Naval Officer's Commission Through the Royal Navy Upper Yardman's School. Nauticapedia.ca 2011. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Navy_UY.php

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