Royal Naval Reserve

The Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) is the volunteer reserve force of the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom. The present RNR was formed by merging the original Royal Naval Reserve, created in 1859, and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), created in 1903. The Royal Naval Reserve has seen action in World War I, World War II, the Iraq War and Afghanistan.

Royal Naval Reserve
Country United Kingdom
AllegianceQueen Elizabeth II
Branch Royal Navy
TypeNaval reserve
RoleVolunteer Reserve
WebsiteRoyal Naval Reserve
Flag Officer ReservesRear Admiral Michael Bath
Commodore-in-ChiefPrince Michael of Kent, GCVO
White Ensign
Naval Jack



The Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) has its origins in the Register of Seamen, established in 1835 to identify men for naval service in the event of war, although just 400 volunteered for duty in the Crimean War in 1854 out of 250,000 on the Register.[1] This led to a Royal Commission on Manning the Navy in 1858, which in turn led to the Naval Reserve Act of 1859. This established the RNR as a reserve of professional seamen from the British Merchant Navy and fishing fleets, who could be called upon during times of war to serve in the regular Royal Navy. The RNR was originally a reserve of seamen only, but in 1862 was extended to include the recruitment and training of reserve officers. From its creation, RNR officers wore on their uniforms a unique and distinctive lace consisting of stripes of interwoven chain.

A number of drill-ships were established at the main seaports around the coasts of Great Britain and Ireland, and seamen left their vessels to undertake gunnery training in a drill-ship for one month every year. After initial shore training, officers embarked in larger ships of the Royal Navy's fleet (usually battleships or battle cruisers) for one year, 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 at the Board of Trade throughout its separate existence. In 1910, the RNR (Trawler Section) was formed to recruit and train fishermen for wartime service in minesweepers and other small warships.

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 the Boxer Rebellion. Prior to the First World War, one hundred RNR officers were transferred to permanent careers in the regular navy—later referred to as "the hungry hundred". In their professional careers, many RNR officers went on to command the largest passenger liners of the day and some also held senior positions in the shipping industry and the government.

The Volunteer Reserve

At the turn of the 20th century, there were concerns at the Admiralty and in parliament that the RNR was insufficient to bolster the manning of the greatly-expanded fleet in the event of large-scale war. Despite the huge growth in the number of ships in the British merchant service since the RNR's foundation, many of the additional seamen were from the colonies or were not British subjects. The pool of potential RNR officers had shrunk since 1859 and experience in the Boer War showed that it would not be possible to call up a sufficient number of reservists without negatively impacting the work of the merchant and fishing fleets. In 1903 an Act of Parliament was passed enabling the Admiralty to raise a second reserve force – the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. While the RNR consisted of professional civilian sailors, the RNVR was open to civilians with no prior sea experience. By the outbreak of the First World War there were six RNVR divisions in major ports around the UK.[2]

First World War

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. Others served in larger units of the battle fleet including a large number with the West Indies Squadron who became casualties at the Battle of Coronel and later at Jutland. 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. One such casualty was armed naval drifter HMT Frons Olivae, which hit a mine off Ramsgate on 12 October 1915 in an explosion that killed at least five other seamen. One casualty, a Newfoundlander serving with the Royal Naval Reserve, was subsequently buried in the Hamilton Road Cemetery, Deal, Kent.[3]

A number of RNR officers qualified as pilots and flew aircraft and airships with the Royal Naval Air Service, 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. 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 RNVR (which was three times the size of the RNR at the end of the War), the RNR had an exceptional war record, members being awarded twelve 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 it to 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 four VCs.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, no more ratings were accepted into the RNVR and new intake to the RNR stopped. The RNVR became the route by which virtually all new-entry commissioned officers joined the naval service during the war – the exception being professional mariners who already held master's tickets, who would join the RNR.[4] All new ratings would go direct to the regular Royal Navy. An intermediate form of reserve, between the professional RNR and the civilian RNVR, had been created in 1936. This was the Royal Naval Volunteer (Supplementary) Reserve, open to civilians with existing and proven experience at sea as both ratings and officers. In peacetime this carried no obligation or requirement for service or training, being merely a register of people who could be mobilised and trained swiftly in the event of war to quickly provide a core of new personnel. By September 1939 there were around 2000 RNV(S)R members, mostly yachtsmen, who when mobilised were sent to active service after a 10-day training course while the RNVR began with a regular 12-week course for officers.

By 1945 there were 43,805 officers in the RNVR, which was colloquially called the "Wavy Navy", after the 3/8-inch wavy sleeve 'rings' that officers wore to differentiate them from their RN and RNR counterparts[5]. By Command of King George VI in 1952, these were replaced by the straight rank lacing used in the full-time RN, with the addition of a small 'R' in the centre of the executive curl on cuff and epaulette insignia. From 30 November 2007, mainly due to increasing involvement of the RNR in RN operations and deployments, the wearing of the distinctive 'R' was discontinued for all other than honorary officers. Similarly, RNR ratings no longer wear RNR shoulder flashes.


From 1938 until 1957, the RNVR provided aircrew personnel in the form of their own Air Branch. In 1947, their contribution was cut to anti-submarine and fighter squadrons only. By 1957, it was considered by the UK government that the training required to operate modern equipment was beyond that expected of reservists and the Air Branch squadrons were disbanded. (The US government took a different view, and the US Navy and Marine reserve squadrons today still operate front-line types alongside the regular units.) The Air Branch was reformed at RNAS Yeovilton in 1980, though it is only open to service leavers.

The British naval reserve forces were amalgamated in 1958, and the RNVR was absorbed into the much larger RNR organisation. After 100 years of proud service, the RNVR as a separate professional naval service ceased to exist. Today the majority of Merchant Navy Officers who would have joined the original RNR are now encouraged to join the modern RNR's Amphibious Warfare (AW) Branch. The centenary of the formation of the RNVR was commemorated by the RNR in London in 2003 with a parade on Horse Guards, at which Prince Charles took the salute. The Merchant Navy officers within today's RNR commemorated RNR 150 in 2009.

Defence reviews over the last 50 years have been inconsistent. Successive reviews have seen reserve forces cut then enlarged, allocated new roles, then cuts withdrawn, then re-imposed. Options for Change in 1990 reduced the RNR by 1,200 and closed many training centres, including HMS Calpe (Gibraltar), HMS Wessex (Southampton) and HMS Graham (Glasgow). The Strategic Defence Review in 1998 continued this by removing the RNR Cold War mine warfare role, but promised to increase the RNR by 350 posts. The restructured RNR was designed to "provide an expanded pool of personnel to provide additional reinforcements for the Fleet", mainly in the roles of logistics and communications.

This left the mine-warfare, seaman and diving specialists in "limbo" until the second Gulf War, when the Royal Navy realised it had a pool of reservists with no real sea post. Echoing the Royal Naval Division in the First World War, the Above Water Force Protection branch was formed "from RN reservists with no draft appointment at the outbreak of war." Because of a lack of full-time personnel, mine-warfare and diving has recently returned (in part) to the RNR. Officers and ratings currently serve on active service in Full Time Reserve Service billets throughout the RN, as well as in mobilised posts in Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Balkans and the UK.

Following the disbandment of the associated Royal Naval Auxiliary Service (RNXS) in 1994, the Maritime Volunteer Service (MVS) was formed as a national maritime training organisation with charitable status. It has taken over and expanded many RNXS roles.

Trades and specialisations

All RNR personnel, regardless of rank, are assigned to a branch of service. Most branches are open to both ratings and officers with the exception of fleet protection (ratings only) and a small number which recruit exclusively from the officer ranks. Listed below is a breakdown of branches and the sub-specialisations which are aligned to each branch.

Sea Cadet Corps Officers

As nominal members of the RNR, officers of the Sea Cadet Corps and the RN CCF Combined Cadet Force retain the use of the former RNVR 'wavy navy' lace. Officers receive a Cadet Forces commission, introduced in 2017 and restated in 2018;[6] previously they were appointed within their respective Corps, rather than commissioned (unless they also held a commission as officers within the RNR).


HMS President
HMS Scotia
HMS Cambria
HMS Dalriada
HMS Flying Fox
HMS Calliope
HMS Eaglet
HMS Vivid
HMS Sherwood
HMS King Alfred
HMS Forward
HMS Hibernia
HMS Wildfire
HMS Ferret
HMS Ceres
Medway Division
Tawe Division
Tay Division
RNR unit locations in the United Kingdom

The modern RNR has fifteen Royal Naval Reserve Units (with three satellite units). These are:[7]

Personnel in the Royal Naval Reserve Air Branch are not attached to a single RNR Unit, but complete their training on regular Fleet Air Arm Units; and are administered through Staff Offices at RNAS Yeovilton and Culdrose.

The University Royal Naval Units, although under the jurisdiction of BRNC Dartmouth, are also a part of the Royal Naval Reserve. Students hold the honorary rank of officer cadet, and can be promoted to midshipman RNR provided they have completed the issued 'Taskbooks' to the satisfaction of the commanding officer of each unit. Training Officers attached to URNUs are appointed as temporary officers in the RNR, without commission or call-up liability.

Notable members

The RNR had an exceptional war record, as evidenced by the dozen Victoria Crosses awarded in WWI; and demonstrations of exceptional merit continued in peacetime.

Selected men of the RNVR

Fictitious characters

Blue Ensign of the United Kingdom

The Blue Ensign of the United Kingdom has been worn since 1865 by British-registered merchant vessels commanded by active or retired officers of the RNR, when authorised by Admiralty warrant. The flag dates from 1801; this usage dates from 1865.

Colonial Reserves

A number of RNR formed before World War II:

  • Straits Settlements Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve – c. 1934
  • Ceylon Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve – c. 1937
  • Malayan Volunteer Reserve – c. WWII

Commonwealth Naval Reserve Forces

There are also naval reserve forces operated by other Commonwealth of Nations navies, including the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR), the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNZNVR), and the reserve force of the Royal Canadian Navy. Previously there were also colonial RNVR units, such as the Straits Settlements Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (SSRNVR), Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve, Ceylon Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (CRNVR), Hong Kong Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (HKRNVR), Straits Settlements Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (SSRNVR) and the South African Division of the RNVR.

See also


  1. Sondhaus, Lawrence (2004). Navies in Modern World History. Reaktion Books. p. 27. ISBN 9781861892027.
  2. Howarth, Stephen. The Royal Navy's Reserves in War and Peace, 1903-2003 . Leo Cooper, 2003
  3. "Casualty Details – Victor Joseph Benoit". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 13 March 2010.
  4. Howarth, Stephen. The Royal Navy's Reserves in War and Peace, 1903-2003 . Leo Cooper, 2003
  5. Howarth, Stephen. The Royal Navy's Reserves in War and Peace, 1903-2003 . Leo Cooper, 2003
  6. "No. 62208". The London Gazette (1st supplement). 20 February 2018. pp. 3146–3147.
  7. e3. "The Royal Navy Reserves – Royal Navy". Retrieved 28 July 2016.
  8. The London Gazette,, 27 October 2015
  9. Foldi, N.S. (1978). Poole, Daniel (1882–1959)'. Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, Melbourne University Press, p. 255. Retrieved on 9 August 2009.
  10. "Captain S. Robinson of the 'Empress of Asia' (1913) (G10732)". National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Archived from the original on 6 March 2009. Retrieved 13 March 2010.
  11. "Obituary: Captain Ronald Neil Stuart", The Times (London). 9 February 1954.
  12. The Examiner. "The Navy's Woman Doctor". Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  13. Robin Knight (10 November 2018). The Extraordinary Life of Mike Cumberlege SOE. Fonthill Media. GGKEY:NK1G8PK99CQ.
  14. Gardner, W. J. R. (1949). The Evacuation from Dunkirk: 'Operation Dynamo' 26 May – 4 June 1940. London: Routledge. ISSN 1471-0757.
  15. Who Was Who. OUP.
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