The RNR was originally a reserve of seamen only but in 1862 this was extended to include recruitment and training of officers. From its creation, RNR officers wore a unique, distinctive lace consisting of stripes of interwoven chain.
A number of drillships were established at the main seaports around the coast of Britain and Ireland and seamen left their vessels in the base ports to undertake gunnery training in a drillship for a period of one month annually. After initial shore training officers embarked in larger ships of the fleet (usually battleships or battle cruisers) for a one-year period 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 in the Board of Trade throughout its separate existence. In 1910, the RNR (Trawler Section) was formed to actively recruit and train fishermen for wartime service in minesweepers and minor war vessels.
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 Boxer Rebellion. Prior to the First World War, 100 RNR officers were transferred to permanent careers in the regular navy - forever after 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 held senior positions in the shipping industry and government.
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 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. A number of RNR officers qualified as pilots and flew aircraft and airships with the RNAS 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 (three times the size of the RNR at the end of the First World War) the RNR had an exceptional war record being awarded 12 Victoria Crosses.
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 them 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 4 VCs.
During World War II no more ratings were accepted into the RNVR which then became the main route for wartime officer entry. The service was called the "Wavy Navy" after the wavy sleeve stripes that RNVR officers wore to differentiate them from RN/RNR officers. These have since been 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, which has been discontinued for all other than honorary officers from 30 November 2007.
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, and are 'appointed' within their respective Corps, rather than commissioned (unless they also hold a commission as officers within the 'mainstream' RNR).
From 1938 until 1957 the RNVR provided aircrew personnel in the form of their own Air Branch. After the war in 1947, their contribution was cut to anti-submarine and fighter units only. By 1957 it was considered that the training required to operate modern equipment was beyond that expected of reservists and the Air branch squadrons were disbanded. The Air Branch was reformed at RNAS Yeovilton in 1980.
The British naval reserve forces were amalgamated in 1958, and the RNR was absorbed into the much larger RNVR organisation. After 100 years of proud service the RNR as a separate professional naval service ceased to exist. However, the centenary of the formation of the RNVR (formed in 1903) was commemorated by the RNR in London in 2003 with a parade on Horse Guards at which HRH Prince Charles took the salute.
Defence reviews over the last 50 years have been inconsistent. Successive reviews have seen reserve forces cut then enlarged, allocated new roles, then 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 World War I, 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.
As of 1 July 2007, due to increasing involvement in RN operations and deployments, officers and ratings of the RNR are able to cease wearing differentiation marks on uniform, i.e. officers do not have to wear the RNR "R" in the curls of their cuff/epaulette rank insignia and other ranks no longer have to wear RNR epaulettes or RNR shoulder flashes.
Following the disbandment of the associated Royal Naval Auxiliary Service (RNXS) in 1994, the Maritime Volunteer Service was formed as a national maritime training organisation with charitable status. It has taken over and expanded many RNXS roles.
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 administered through Staff Offices at RNAS Yeovilton and Culdrose.