The history of the RNVR
Commander Sue Eagles describes how the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) became the backbone of the Royal Navy in both world wars – but both its contribution and its legacy risk being forgotten
Although naval volunteers have a long and distinguished history of supporting the Royal Navy over centuries, the great extent to which the Navy – and indeed, Britain itself – depended upon the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) in both world wars is not widely known.
The Admiralty had formed the Royal Naval Reserves in 1859 through a series of Naval Reserve Acts; the RNR personnel were qualified seagoers, mostly from the Merchant Navy. At the turn of the century, however, there was a concern that the RNR was insufficient to bolster the manning of a greatly expanded fleet in the event of war, and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve was formed in 1903.
Visually distinguishable from the Royal Navy by the ‘wavy’ gold rank braid worn on the uniform sleeves, the Wavy Navy, as it was known, was open to civilians, and it became the backbone of the Royal Navy.
In the First World War, a large proportion of the RNVR were formed into the Royal Navy Division supporting the Army on the Western Front and in the Gallipoli campaign. The Royal Naval Division suffered great losses – 11,379 members of the RNVR lost their lives.
As the Second World War progressed, RNVR officers outnumbered their regular counterparts by three to one, and in the fleet there were very few roles in which they did not play a full part. The RNVR served in all theatres of the war, and their contribution in the Battle of the Atlantic was huge: for five bitter and exhausting years, the RNVR provided convoy escorts, keeping the vital Atlantic lifeline open. Hardship was expected and met. Deeds of bravery were many. Over the years an estimated 3,500 merchant ships and 175 naval ships were sunk, together with 647 U-boats. 100,000 lives were lost. Britain’s very survival depended upon getting troops, materiel and fuel across the Atlantic – it was perhaps the hardest-fought victory in history. While several very good accounts have been written of what happened – notably Wavy Navy, a collection of writings by members of the RNVR (Harrap, 1950) and The RNVR: a Record of Achievement by Lennox Kerr and Wilfred Granville (Harrap, 1957) – the service and sacrifice of the RNVR deserve greater recognition.
The Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Forces
The RNVR also became the mainstay of the Fleet Air Arm, with many RNVR officers serving in the RNVR (Air) Branch. By the end of the war the RNVR was 45,000 strong, of whom over 8,000 were aircrew. Members of the RNVR (A) Branch flew the Swordfish in the Battle of the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean, and took part in the Battle of Taranto, the sinking of the Bismarck and the Channel Dash. They also flew Hurricanes with Douglas Bader in the Battle of Britain, and Seafires and Corsairs in the Pacific. Three of the five top Royal Navy fighting aces of the war were members of the RNVR (A).
The contribution made by Coastal Forces was no less significant, and they too were predominantly RNVR personnel. The Coastal Forces Museum in Gosport is dedicated to the most highly decorated RNVR officer in the war, Lieutenant Robert Hitchens, DSO and bar, DSC and two bars, whose extraordinarily courageous service in gunboats was recommended for a Victoria Cross. Hitchens’ family recalls that on one of his many investitures King George VI joked, ‘What, you again?’ Hitchens was killed in action in 1943 and his portrait, painted by Sir Peter Scott (who too served in the RNVR), hangs next to the RNVR Roll of Honour in the Army and Navy Club in London.
At the outset of World War II the RNVR tended to be regarded by pre-war regulars as a lesser breed. However, by the autumn of 1941 the RNVR had rapidly gained experience and respect, with several RNVR (Air) Branch officers given command of second line units and soon afterwards the first command of an operational squadron. An early recruit, joining the RNVR (Air) Branch at the age of 20, was Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown. Straight out of training, he was appointed to 802 Naval Air Squadron flying Grumman Martlets, where a short time later he shot down two German Focke-Wulf FW 200 Condors and was awarded the DSC.
Sub-lieutenant Frank Dawson-Paul RNVR was the first naval ace of World War II and the highest-scoring naval pilot in the Battle of Britain. Lieutenant (A) David Wright RNVR was one of a heroic small band of ‘catapilots’ who flew Sea Hurricanes off merchant ships in defence of North Atlantic convoys. Desperate times called for desperate measures: the Sea Hurricane was launched off the ship by rocket launcher and with no means to land back on at the end of the mission, the pilot had to ditch, hopefully being recovered before the aircraft sank. Wright was also a first-class jazz musician who wrote the infamous Fleet Air Arm A25 song, making light of the hazards of ditchings and crash landings!
One of the strengths of the RNVR was the diverse background from which it drew its personnel. The civilians who trained in naval roles in peacetime in order to serve with the Royal Navy in crisis and war represented a wealth of knowledge and experience and had many talents. Actors Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, Michael Hordern and Laurence Olivier; Beatles producer George Martin; the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming; author of The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monserrat; ornithologist and conservationist Peter Scott; and Grand National winners Frank Furlong and Bob Everett – all these men served in the RNVR.
After the war
At the end of the war, RNVR personnel were demobilised, and many sorrowful partings were thrust upon young men who had given up vital years of their education or professions and shared harrowing experiences together. They had served with distinction – and melted away back into civvy street. It was not wealth or ancestry but the values of duty, humility and service that set the RNVR apart.
In 1954 a memorial plaque honouring the 6,200 RNVR personnel who had died in World War II was unveiled at the home of the RNVR Officers’ Association, the Naval Club in London, and the building was dedicated as a War Memorial to the RNVR. Sadly, the club has since been sold and while the memorial plaque and Roll of Honour has been transferred to the Army and Navy Club, the enormous contribution and legacy of the RNVR, now with no national or public focus, is at risk of being lost.
While the end of the war may have seemed the end for the Wavy Navy, at the end of the 1940s the world was still a very unstable place, and the Admiralty put forward a proposal to keep the RNVR (Air) Branch and establish four RNVR Air Squadrons around the country. RNVR pilots and observers trained at weekends and embarked for two weeks a year, to remain current in deck landing. The RNVR squadrons retained many wartime veterans, and even ten years after the end of the war these experienced weekend aviators represented almost half the Fleet Air Arm’s strength. Many converted to jets and contributed fully to the front-line effectiveness of the Service.
A history to remember
The spirit of the RNVR lived on in the Air Branch until 1957, when the RNVR squadrons were disbanded; in 1958 the RNVR was amalgamated into the RNR.
This time it really was the end for the Volunteer Reserve Service that had given so much to win the freedoms that we value so much today. No fewer than 1,544 RNVR (A) Branch Officers had given their lives in the service of the RNVR, and their names are recorded in the Fleet Air Arm Memorial Church at RNAS Yeovilton. During two world wars and right through to the 1950s, the RNVR made an unequalled contribution to the Royal Navy and was a gallant and constant steadying influence in an unstable world. With direct links to the RNVR now ebbing away, next year’s 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic is an important reminder that without the RNVR the Allies would not have succeeded in defeating Germany and Japan. As a nation we owe it to all who served in the RNVR to ensure that the part they played in the history of our country is never forgotten.
Cdr Sue Eagles QVRM RD RNR is Communications Director at Navy Wings.