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RN Family History Research

By Barrie Downer

1. For those who are interested in researching Family History where one of your or your wife's, partner's, girlfriend's relatives is known to (or is thought to) have served in the Royal Navy (possibly in Submarines) here are a few pointers on how to find out when and in which ships or submarines your relative served.

2. Firstly, it helps if you know a Christian Name(s) or Initials and, of course, the Surname, Date of Birth (DOB), Place of Birth (POB) of your relative, his Official Number and Year joined. It also helps to know whether he was an Officer or a Rating. The Date of Birth or Year of Birth is important. The National Archives records for Naval Ratings are divided into distinct groups.


3. Type National Archives into your Search Engine and press Enter.

4. When the options are displayed look for and select the Discovery option and press Enter.

5. When the Discovery page comes up look for the Royal Navy Service Records icon on the left-hand side of the page under Popular Collections - select and press Enter.

6. This will bring up the Royal Navy Ratings Service Records 1853-1928 page.

7. Now scroll down the page to where you asked to enter First Names, Last Name, Service Number (if known), Place of Birth (if known) and a Date Range. Fill in the boxes press Enter.

8. If he was a Continuous Service Rating (twelve years' service from the age of eighteen) or Short Service Rating (seven years' service from the age of eighteen plus five years in the reserve) and some or all of the data you have entered is correct then a Name and Official Number and Date of Birth should come up (or possibly) a list of names should be displayed. If you see the details you are looking for you can click on the Name you need to go to the next page to download the record which will be in a PDF format but remember you will need to buy the information - £3.50 per record! Full instructions are provided.

NOTE. You may see two or more records for the same Name, Official Number and Date of Birth. If so, check the Reference associated with the Records. ADM/188 records cover Service up to 1st January 1929 and ADM/363 records cover service after 1st January 1929 and may include WWII Service. You will need to download both Service Records.

9. If the expected Service Records' do not appear try varying the spelling of the First Name or Last Name to something which sounds similar or widen the Date Range or delete the Official Number in case your information is suspect.

10. If you buy a Service Record you will be able to download to your computer screen and/or save it straightaway - however you will also be sent an e-Mail which will tell you what you have bought and how long you have in which to download it.


11. Early Official Numbers consisted of up to six numbers i.e. 123456 or 272272 or 303303.

12. Later Official Numbers had a Prefix of a single letter followed by up to six numbers i.e. J12345, K6789, M1234 or L4567

  • J indicates that he was a Seaman or a Comms Rating
  • K means he was a Stoker
  • M usually means he was most likely an Engine Room Artificer or an Electrical Artificer or possible a Sick Berth Rating (however in some cases he may have been a Cook or a Steward).
  • L means, generally, he was a Cook or a Steward.
  • SS indicates he was a Short Service Rating.

To help to work out the specialisation of your relative a breakdown of Service Number Ranges may assist: The following Service Numbers were issued for Serving Ratings from 1st January 1873.

  • Range 1 to 178000 Miscellaneous (including Seamen, Stokers, Artificers, Cooks, Stewards etc.)
  • Range 178001 to 240500 Seamen and Comms
  • Range 268001 to 273000 Engine Room Artificers
  • Range 276001 to 348000 Stokers
  • Range J1 to J110000 Seaman & Comms
  • Range M1 to M63500 Miscellaneous (including Artificers, Cooks, Stewards, Writers etc.)
  • Range K1 to K63500 Stokers

13. Sometimes you will find the same Name, Place of Birth and Date of Birth with two different Official Numbers. These are usually where someone joined as a Seaman and later re-categorised as a Stoker (or vice versa) or where someone joined as a Short Service SS Rating and then signed on for continuous service (CS) and then was given a new Official Number with the J, K, L or M prefix.

14. The Service Record will show you information like Portsmouth (Po), Chatham (Ch) or Devonport (Dev) Depots, when he joined and where he joined, height, weight and chest size with details of hair colour, eye colour and complexion and details of scars and tattoos. The latter were very important for being able to identify casualties in the days before photographs. Ships and Submarines served in with dates are shown as are Advancement Dates and his Sub Ratings (or Specialisation) and Dates of Qualifying. Unfortunately, there are no photographs attached to these records.

15. If you think (or know) that your relative was a Submariner please note that early Submariners are not easy to identify as, before 1914, details of Submarines served in were not annotated. However, if you see listed the Submarine Depot Ships such as Hazard, Latona, Mercury, Thames, Bonaventure, Forth, Onyx, Dolphin, Vulcan, Pactolus, Rosario, Egmont, Cormorant, Arrogant, Maidstone and Adamant (or a consecutive group of these) between August 1901 and July 1914 you may be on the right track. If he served for approximately five years in a selection of these ships he is likely to have been a Submariner. If there is then a break of at least two years before he served in any more of these Ships, then it is more or less confirmed that he was a Submariner. The early rules were that no more than five years Submarine Service was allowed before a compulsory return to General Service for a minimum of two years before returning to Submarines. After July 1914 (i.e. after the outbreak of WWI) things changed quite a lot with new many more Depot Ships - Titania, Lucia, Pandora, Ambrose, Platypus, Fearless, Royal Arthur, Crescent etc. and the five and two year rule was relaxed

16. Be aware that you may find out a lot more than you wanted to know as the Service Record is also a Conduct Record and you may find that he was punished by Warrant and sent to Prison, Cells or was Disrated and sometimes why! In some cases, you may find out that he had contracted a 'Social Disease'as medical issues were often recorded. The Record may also be annotated 'Run' (Deserted), SNLR (Services no Longer Required) or 'DD' (Discharge Dead) with date and sometimes the reason. The annotation 'DEE' indicates 'Discharged, Engagement Expired'.

17. In many cases Ratings leaving Naval Service after 12 or 22 years' service joined the Royal Fleet Reserve (RFR) and would be given another Official Number similar to RFR. Po/B/12345 which indicated that they could be recalled for further service in case of Emergency.

18. Your Relative's Service Record might have ceased before 1st January 1929 because he was promoted to Warrant Rank, i.e. Boatswain, Mate, Gunner, Artificer Engineer, Warrant Engineer or Mechanician, but this will be indicated on his Service Record and you will then need to look for his Officer's Service Record (see below). It is quite surprising that, in earlier years, there were many Promotions from the Lower Deck to Warrant Rank and also transfers to Officer Rank.

19. There is other information available on Service Records but as these Records were hand written (sometimes by several different hands) it is not always clear what some data means.

20. Two new source of Naval Rating Service Records (1853 to 1923) are now available – if you are a subscriber to the Findmypast or Ancestry Websites.

21. For the Findmypast website all you need to do is to select Search All Records, type in the First Name(s), Surname and estimated Year of Birth and/or Year of Death. Press Enter and see what records come up. If it is a common surname like Smith, Jones, Williams etc. then many thousands of records will come up. If so use the filters available to select Military, Armed Forces & Conflict. Then look for the filter Service Records in the Category column of the records shown. Then look for a record in the series British Royal Naval Seamen 1899-1924. If you find the right record you can open it or save it without further charge if you are a Subscriber.

22. For the Ancestry website select Search and Enter, type in First Name (& Middle Name - if known), Last Name e.g. Frederick & Jones. Country (where ancestor may have lived - usually England) & press Enter. This should bring up a list of results for Frederick Jones. Select the filter Military and press Enter. This should bring up a list of all military results for Frederick Jones. Look for results marked UK Registers of Seamen's Services 1953 – 1928 and then view likely records. Again - if you find the right record you can open it or save it without further charge if you are a Subscriber.


1. Things now get a little more difficult as these Service Records have not yet been digitised however here are a few more pointers on how to find out when and in which ships or submarines your relative served. As with the previous pointers it definitely helps if you know a Christian Name(s) or Initials and, of course, the Surname, Date of Birth (DOB), Place of Birth (POB) of your relative, his Official Number and Year joined. It also helps to know whether he was an Officer or a Rating.

2. For several years, the Official Numbers of Ratings (as stated above) followed the general rules for Seamen and Comms. which had the J prefix followed by up to six numbers, for Stokers with the K Prefix and up to six numbers and Engine Room Artificers etc. with the M Prefix followed by up to six numbers. However, during late 1920s & 1930s there was a need to save money (isn't there always) owing to the depression. This resulted in a change of pay rates with new entrants being paid less than those who joined earlier. The prefixes then changed by the addition of an X after the previous single letter. Thus, J became JX, K became KX and M became MX. Seamen thus became known as 'JiXer's'. Official Number Prefixes began to be linked with the Depot - Portsmouth (P), Devonport (D) or Chatham (C) of the individual rating and then began to follow the format of P/JX 123456, D/JX 134567 or C/JX 145678.

3. Those who volunteered as Submariners in this period will have served in a number of different Depot Ships. Some familiar names continue during this period. HMS Ambrose went to the Far East to be the Depot Ship for the China Flotilla (4th Submarine Flotilla) at Hong Kong as did HMS Titania. Later both ships were replaced by HMS Medway. Initially the China Flotilla was made up of L Class Submarines but these were later replaced by Submarines of the Oberon Class, Parthian Class and Rainbow Class.

4. Other Depot Ships in the years 1923 to 1938 included Lucia, Maidstone, Forth, Alecto, Conquest, Douglas, Ross, Pigmy, Adamant as well as HMS Dolphin. Other Tenders included Marazion (in the Far East) and Bruce (in the Mediterranean).

5. The Service Records of Naval Ratings who entered the Royal Navy after 1923 are not held by The National Archives and are not digitised.

6. For the Service Records of Ratings who entered the service between 1928 and 1938 you will need to contact:

The Directorate of Personnel Support (Navy),
Navy Search,
TNT Archive Services,
Tetron Point,
William Nadin Way,
DE11 0BB

Tel: 01283 227913
Fax: 01283 227942


1. For Ratings joining the service after 1938 your best contact is:

The Data Protection Cell (Navy),
Victory View,
Building 1/152,
HM Naval Base,
PO1 3PX.

2. However as many joining after 1938 and serving during WWII may still be alive you will probably be asked to demonstrate that you are either next of kin or have permission of the rating you are investigating.

NOTE ONE. Many Ratings joining during WWII were 'Hostilities Only' ratings or 'Short Service' ratings. Here you will find another variation of the prefixes with seamen being given numbers such as P/SSX 12345 and Stokers being given C/SKX 23456 and Tiffies being given D/SMX.

NOTE TWO. Depot Ships during WWII included Bonaventure, Lucia, Maidstone, Titania, Medway, Elfin, Adamant and others.

NOTE THREE. After WWII many Official Numbers changed with the introduction of the Electrical Branch post WWII which re-introduced the older Prefixes with P/J for Seaman and Comms, P/K for Stokers and P/M for Tiffies & Mechanicians. Depot Shipswere phased out in the 1950's and 1960's and Submarine support was transferred to Shore Bases

NOTE FOUR. In the early 1960s there was another change to Service Numbers with the Chatham Depot dropping out of the picture and with Portsmouth and Devonport Numbers starting from something like P050000 or D051000.

NOTE FIVE. Later still the P Prefix was dropped when centralised drafting at HMS Centurion commenced leaving just the D Prefix. When Computers started to be used by drafty there was introduction of a random letter as a suffix so all Official (or Computer) Numbers are in the format D******(?). Confused? You will be!

NOTE SIX. More recently there has been a further change to Ratings Official Numbers. Prefixes and suffixes have been discontinued and the current Official Number/Service Number format is a sequence of eight numbers i.e. 30016789 (hopefully that is an anonymous number)

Naval Officers

Firstly speak to relations and family friends to see if they know more than you do about the individual you are researching. Officers are generally easier to investigate than Ratings and this is down to the routine publishing of a listing of all Officers in the Royal Navy in The Navy List. From the late 18th Century this List was published on a monthly basis via HMSO (His (or Her) Majesty's Stationery Office).

The Navy List is remarkably comprehensive and prior to WWII included Royal Navy (RN), Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) and Emergency List Officers.

RNR Officers generally were Merchant Navy Officers who trained regularly with the Royal Navy and who wished to make them selves available for Service in War Time.

RNVR Officers were generally part time sailors or yachtsmen or those who messed about in boats.

Emergency List Officers were those Officers who had served as RN Officers who had retired at their own request and asked to be placed on the Emergency List for recall in times of heightened tension or war.

Every six months in January and July the Navy List also included Officers on the Retired List. These Retired Officers were also subject to recall in event of Emergency.

Lists up to the 1950s also included details of Officers in the Australian, Canadian, Indian and South African Navy although the range of information on these Officers was more restricted although it did include Royal Navy Officers who had been loaned or transferred to these Navies. It is generally rumoured that all Officers in Command had a copy of the latest Navy List in his desk so that when he came across another RN Ship anywhere in the world he could find out immediately whether he was Senior or Junior to the Commanding Officer of that Ship and whether he was giving the Orders or obeying the Orders of the other Ship.

As well as listing all Officers in alphabetical order it also detailed Seniority in Rank and the Ship or Submarine that the Officer was appointed to and the date of Appointment. Officers on Training Courses were also listed with the Establishment where they were training and which Course they were attending.

So, if you know the Officers name and initials and whether they were RN, RNR, RNVR or Emergency List you should be able to find him. Once you have located the Officer in a Navy List the details in the list should allow you to track him from the time he joined the Navy until the time he was transferred to the Retired List.

Another feature was that, once you have found your Officer and which Ship he was serving in the Navy List had a section which also told you all the Officers appointed to that Ship. This is the advantage available from such comprehensive lists published on a Monthly Basis. When you bear in mind the fact that there were in some cases hundreds of ships and submarines and thousands of Officers in each of the Lists a monthly update produced handraulically without the aid of Computers or searchable data bases and with minimal errors is a most remarkable feat.

Where will you find these lists?

There are various places with complete (or nearly complete) sets of the Navy List from earliest days. Portsmouth City Library has a Maritime and Nautical Section which has an almost complete range as does the Plymouth Central Library. The Submarine Museum Archives has a set which covers the start of the Submarine Service in 1901 to the present day.

The Royal Naval Museum is also a good source of data as is the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. It is always worth asking at your local Library who might be able to arrange access via the Intra Library Loan scheme.

A new way is via who have added two million new Navy Records to its collection including a comprehensive collection of Navy Lists from 1847 to 1945. I haven't used this source yet and am not aware of any costs involved but it promises to be useful.

In more recent years the periodicity of issue of Navy List has reduced to once per year and with a lot less information available - all the more surprising given that the availability of Computer Data Bases would make regular comprehensive updates more easily achievable. There are weekly Officers Appointing List updates but these are not easily available to the amateur researcher. The current Navy List is also downloadable from the Internet There is also an annually published Navy List of Retired Officers. Also in recent years various Navy Lists have been scanned and are available to buy via the Internet although this is something which the professional researcher would be more interested.

What other sources are there?

The National Archives have been busy in recent years in digitising information about Officers prior to 1917 as well as Ratings as described previously. Sources available are:

  1. Royal Naval Division service records (ADM 339) Service records of more than 50,000 officers and men who joined the RND, 1914 -1919
  2. Royal Naval Officers' Service Records (ADM 196) Service records of officers who joined the Royal Navy, 1756 – 1917
  3. RNVR service records from WW1 (ADM 337) Service records of those who served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the First World War

If you think your relative was loaned to or transferred to the Royal Australian Navy you may be in luck. The National Archives of Australia have digitised most of the records of their earlier Submariners. You need to go online and go to When the Home Page comes up select Record Search and thenSearch Now as a guest. When the General Search page comes up enter the details you have like Name, a Range of Dates and enter A6770 in the Reference Number Box. If you are in luck a Record or a number of Records will turn up. One of these may be the one you are looking for. If you find the right man you can open and read his record card and also download it and save it to your Computer at no charge.

One other useful source of data on Submariner Officers promoted from the Lower Deck is the Submarine Museum. If the person you are researching was listed as an Artificer Engineer, Mate (E), Warrant Engineer or Commissioned Engineer he will previously have served as an Artificer or Mechanician. Similarly if he was a Gunner, Boatswain, Mate, Signals Boatswain or a Commissioned, Senior Commissioned or Warrant Officer with one of these prefixes he will have been a Seaman or Signalman before promotion.

From about 1912 Submariners records of ratings started to be kept on Cards at HMS DOLPHIN and, should your relative have one of these Cards it will include his full name, Official Number, Depot, date of volunteering for Submarines, date of Qualifying and sometimes the percentage of his Pass. It will also include his Submarine Depot Ships and Submarines and whether he was Spare Crew these details are usually annotated with the dates served.

The man who can help is the Archivist, George Malcolmson, but you need to give him as much information as possible and also be very patient as there is not a large staff at the Museum and it is usually George who finds out the information as well. If he finds out information for you a donation to the Museum funds is always very welcome.

Otherwise you can always try putting a request on a submariners forum or facebook page or on the National Association Website. Or you can try a question on Google or one of the other Search Engines, however data found this way should always be cross checked with other sources as sites like Wikipedia can be very general and sometimes unreliable in the information found

For Officers or Ratings killed in the two world wars you should look at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website at if you search their data base you need to know as minimum a Surname and enter that he was Navy but you can also check if he served in the Royal Navy or Commonwealth Navies.

This Data Base often gives you the date of death, Ship or Establishment served in, Next of Kin details, Rank or Rating, Service Number, where buried and which Memorial he is commemorated on. This source is very good but ideally you need to enter the fullest details Surname, Initials, WWI or WWII, Service served in and whether British or Commonwealth. One problem, if you don't have full details but have a common Surname Smith Jones, Williams etc is that you can get hundreds of results which you will need to check individually!

For Officers or Ratings served in WWI another source is the National Roll of the Great War. This was produced after the War and was compiled from details sent in by relatives of those who served including civilians involved in War Work. There are a number of books covering various areas of the country mainly based around the big cities and names are listed in alphabetical order. Some of these have been digitised and are available to buy but the Books were republished a few years ago and may be available via your local Library.

Finally, just keep you eyes open when reading newspapers (especially local papers), family history magazines or books about naval ships or naval history. Little clues crop up in the most unexpected places and when you least expect to fine them.

Good luck in your research.



The RN realised early on that due to the nature of the role that one full spare crew would be created for each three commissioned submarines in service. This introduction to a song by Cyril Tawney provides a good insight into the role of spare crew.

Click this link

From the book Grey: Funnel Lines: Traditional Song & Verse of the Royal Navy 1900-1970

   Webmaster Thu, 2 Aug 2018
It would be helpful if this page explained what being spare crew entailed. e.g. serving for short periods on different subs or whatever, and whether if spare crew appears on a service record, more detail might appear on the submariner record card.
   Graham Woolgar Wed, 1 Aug 2018
The function of a Submarine Spare Crew was to provide a pool of officers and men fully qualified on a particular class of submarines. Should an operational Submarine be short of a full crew on sailing - say a key crew member had gone sick or was otherwise able to go to sea - then an appropriately qualified member of the spare crew would be detailed off in his place. This ensured that the submarine was fully capable of meeting its commitments. As previously mentioned the original Spare Crew requirement was for one complete Spare Crew for every three submarines of a flotilla.
When the Submarine returned to harbour the 'Spare Crew member would return to the Spare Crew whilst the man he had relieved would rejoin the crew.
During periods when the submarine was alongside in maintenance or repair the Spare Crew were available to assist the Submarines Crew in the maintenance tasks and to allow some of the crew to take leave etc.
   Barrie Downer Fri, 24 Aug 2018

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