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Uncommon Courage: The Yachtsmen Volunteers of World War II

10 Mar 23

The author, Julia Jones, is a writer, editor and classic yacht owner. She is Literary Contributor for Yachting Monthly magazine. Her father served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve (RNVSR) and it was this that inspired her book.

The story behind the RNVSR is not generally well known especially since its members were subsequently subsumed into the RNVR as the war progressed. So what was the RNVSR? The Admiralty Board made a decision in the years prior to the outbreak of World War II that a new Reserve would be formed and consist of “Gentlemen interested in yachting and similar pursuits, desirous of being earmarked for training as executive officers in the event of war”. They would have no rank, no pay and no training. The book comments that only the British national psyche could come up with such a scheme that was a classic example of muddling through. Needless to say, pay and uniform were quickly introduced as hostilities commenced.

As WWII loomed, almost 2,000 amateur sailors signed up to the RNVSR with very little idea of what would be expected of them and for how long they would serve, but knowing they were putting their lives at risk. Some of these individuals were famous (such as Peter Scott and Nevil Shute) and some were very wealthy in their own right. August Courtauld returned his pay to help the war effort, but the majority were “ordinary” people who wanted to do their bit for the RN.

Whilst some had had extensive sailing experience, others had very little. Few could have envisaged the roles that they were called upon to perform that were way outside their previous civilian lives. They found themselves commanding destroyers, submarines (Cdr E P Young RNVSR was the first Reserve officer to qualify from Perisher). Some of these people undertook dangerous duties such as minesweeping, bomb disposal and Coastal Forces. They played a key role with Cdr Ian Fleming’s (aka James Bond) commandos.

The book largely consists of anecdotes from various individuals about their experiences during the war and this makes for a pleasant and informative read. There is some background information about significant events in the war and this is used to put the experiences of individuals into context. The final chapter is a thoughtful one as it describes the experiences of many Reservists as they returned to civilian life after nearly six years of war The post war activities of four George Cross winners (awarded for bomb disposal work) are highlighted – one went back to being a solicitor, one became a county councillor, whilst another worked in Ethiopia and Kenya establishing a university. Sadly, one individual committed suicide in 1977. The reader is left to ponder on a likely connection between the unimaginable strain of his wartime service and his ability to reintegrate into civilian life.


Postscript: From my own experience I had a conversation some years ago with a Reservist Officer who served in Coastal Forces. At the age of 23 he commanded an MGB undertaking nightly forays into the North Sea at 40 knots against a determined enemy. He told me it was the most terrifying and at the same time exhilarating experience of his life which he would always remember. After the war he returned to his job as bank manager and he commented wryly that discussing overdrafts on a daily basis did not have quite the same frisson!