Over one million people (923,000 men and 86,000 women) served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Many volunteered after an urgent recruitment campaign to fill the demand in manpower required to meet the maritime threat of Nazi Germany.
As in the 1914-18 war, the British Admiralty’s first challenge was to rebuild Britain’s naval strength. A shipbuilding programme began that would launch 141 warships from UK slipways. To crew these vessels, the Royal Navy submitted its demand for manpower: 145,000 men, and 13,000 women by 1942. Britain experienced peacetime conscription for the first time.
Limited and Full Conscription
During the spring of 1939 the deteriorating international situation forced the British government under Neville Chamberlain to consider preparations for a possible war against Nazi Germany.
Plans for limited conscription applying to single men aged between 20 and 22 were given parliamentary approval in the Military Training Act in May 1939. This required men to undertake six months’ military training, and some 240,000 registered for service.
On the day Britain declared war on Germany, 3 September 1939, Parliament immediately passed a more wide-reaching measure. The National Service (Armed Forces) Act imposed conscription on all males aged between 18 and 41 who had to register for service. Those medically unfit were exempted, as were key industry jobs such as baking, farming, medicine, and engineering.
In December 1941 Parliament passed a second National Service Act. It widened the scope of conscription still further by making all unmarried women and all childless widows between the ages of 20 and 30 liable to call-up.
Men were now required to do some form of National Service up to the age of 60, which included military service for those under 51. The main reason being not enough men volunteering for police and civilian defence work, or women for the auxiliary units of the armed forces.
Conscientious objectors had to appear before a tribunal to argue their reasons for refusing to join-up. If their cases were not dismissed, they were granted one of several categories of exemption, and were given non-combatant jobs.
< First World War Royal Navy Recruitment Poster for Hostilities Only Ratings
By 1941, nearly 400,000 men had applied to join the Royal Navy. Of these, 40,812 were Hostilities Only, serving until ‘the end of present emergency.’ The term Hostilities Only was first used in World War One to describe experienced merchant seamen who volunteered for the Merchant or Royal Navy
Hostilities Only volunteers in 1939 were different. These were novice sailors, civilian men and women from all backgrounds. Their training was hurried. Due to operational demands, rarely onboard a warship. Yet Hostilities Only ratings fought in all the major maritime conflicts. Under the auspices of the Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS), they escorted convoys, swept mines from the war channels and hunted submarines.
< Second World War Royal Navy Recruitment Poster for Hostilities Only Ratings
There are a number of books that cover this subject in general but Hostilities Only follows my Father, Robert ‘Bob’ Brooks’ experience as a Hostilities Only volunteer throughout the war. Theirs is one of the great untold stories of World War Two.
Continue with Winston is Back.