The RFA Crews of World War 1
In the Great War the RFA was effectively split in two with those ships which would visit America being placed under civil management and operated under the red ensign while the rest of the fleet continued under the blue RFA ensign. Those ships operating under the RFA ensign found their senior officers being appointed to the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) while most of the rest of the crew, including some junior officers, were appointed to the Mercantile Marine Reserve (MMR). As such they all were subject Royal Naval rules and discipline.
This splitting of the fleet was the British way of getting around the US Neutrality Acts thus allowing our ships to collect oil from the US and bring it to the recently constructed oil tank farms as various ports in the UK.
RFA Captains and Chief Engineers on RFA managed ships were appointed Lieutenant RNR or Engineer Lieutenant RNR with Chief Officers and 2nd Engineers being appointed Sub-Lieutenant RNR or Engineer Sub-Lieutenant RNR. Writers were appointed as RNR Paymaster. In addition some of the crew members were Royal Naval ratings – gunners, some radio ratings etc.
The MMR officers and crew members were drafted to RFA’s from HMS Eagle which was based at Liverpool. By 1918 the name Eagle was required for an early aircraft carrier and so the home for RFA crews was renamed HMS Eaglet.
The ship Eagle/Eaglet was a former 3rd rate ship of the line which had been built in 1804 and was taken over as an RN drill ship in 1911 by the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Upon general mobilisation in 1914 most of the Division, instead of going to sea with the Fleet, was drafted to the Royal Naval Division where it fought alongside the Army at Antwerp, Gallipoli and from 1916 on the Western Front.
After the Great War, on various dates around November 1919, RFA crews re-signed new Board of Trade Articles and reverted back to being merchant seaman. HMS Eaglet continued on as a drill ship until 1926 when she suffered a major fire, her burnt out wreckage being sold for breaking up in 1927.
MMR seaman served not only on RFA’s but also on HM warships, big and small, and through the whole of the Great War the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission show that 1,699 were killed. During the Great War the RFA lost at least 12 Officers with RNR ranks and 49 with MMR ranks and rates.