Uncommon Courage: the Yachtsmen Volunteers of World War Two is a fascinating account of the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve's bravery and selflessness, says Peter Willis

Uncommon Courage: the Yachtsmen Volunteers of World War Two
Julia Jones
Adlard Coles £20 (Published 17 March 2022)

It took the Royal Navy a while to get used to the assistance of the yachtsmen who made up the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve at the start of the Second World War.

These ‘Gentlemen, who are interested in yachting,’ had, from 1936 been invited to volunteer for service with the Royal Navy ‘in case of an Emergency’- and initially without formal training, pay or uniform.

Instead, they were expected to use their own resources and initiative – undertaking Erskine Childers-style clandestine reconnaissance, for instance, while enjoying a summer cruise.

Many took themselves back to the classroom to gain Board of Trade certificates and fit themselves for direct responsibility.

While not perhaps always exemplifying what’s been called ‘the innate subversiveness of small-boat sailing’, the likes of Maurice Griffiths, Peter Scott, Robert Hichens, Nevil Shute Norway, Adrian Seligman and many others brought an inventiveness to situations that sometimes challenged the ‘Navy way’ but got results.

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They also wrote letters, journals and memoirs, and it is these that Julia Jones has sifted to make up this remarkable mosaic of frank, front-line accounts of the war at sea.

Delivered with vivid, often quirky detail, grim humour and modesty they reveal quite staggering instances of bravery and selflessness.

There’s also a fair measure of ‘untold stories’ of triumphs and disasters – and affecting reflections on the return to postwar ‘normality’.

For those of us who were the children of the men involved in these events but who often chose not to talk about them, it is a deeply fascinating, and moving document.

Jones herself, whose low-key, ever-humane commentary makes it all bearable, is one such; it was finding a memoir of her own father’s in an attic that sparked off the whole enterprise.

If you feel like acquainting yourself with what the maritime side of the Second World War was really like I don’t think you’ll find a better (or more entertaining) source.

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