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Warrant Officer's cap, shoulder board and sleeve ring in the World War 2 period

return to Lt-Cdr Mason's researches
or  World War 2, 1939-1945

 by Geoffrey B Mason, Lieutenant Commander, RN (Rtd) (c) 1992





This monograph was written after retirement from the Royal Navy to place on record my recollections of naval service during which I had been promoted to Warrant Rank at the beginning of the transition from the pre-1939 Royal Navy to one more suited to the changes in UK society becoming more evident in 1972. The opinions expressed are my own.


Now the wheel has turned full circle it would seem appropriate to consider the various changes in attitude and opportunity affecting senior ratings who wish to advance their professional status as specialists within the Royal Navy. During the period between the end of hostilities in 1945 and the introduction of Branch Rank in 1948 many representations were made to Commanders-in-Chief by "Commissioned Officers from Warrant Rank" and Warrant Officers.


These officers were convinced that their designated status was out of line with their responsibilities and should not be compared with that of Warrant Officers in both the Army and the Royal Air Force. This fact had been particularly evident in the treatment of prisoners of war during 1939 to 1945 - Naval Warrant Officers taken prisoner were held in both Oflags and Stalags because their status was not understood by their captors. Unlike those in the other services they lived in a separate Mess and their positions within the respective service hierarchies were not comparable.





Warrant Officers have always been specialists carried on board ships for specific responsibilities requiring a very high level of experience and detailed knowledge. These attributes were not expected of the "fighting" officers who were primarily concerned with the tactics necessary to make contact with the enemy and then to "fight" the ship. To do this successfully it was essential for warships to carry others who would ensure that the ship was always in a high state of readiness. It had to be well maintained and its guns always ready for use, with ample charges and projectiles. More importantly it had to be in the right place at the right time. These specialists were attached to the ship throughout its life, whether in commission, or "in ordinary" ("laid up"). They did not hold a King's, or Queen's Commission, but had a Warrant signed by members of the Board of Admiralty



The First Warrant Officers


Five specialists were ranked as Warrant Officers, and had the following responsibilities:


Boatswain (Bo'sun) - "Running" and "standing rigging", sails, anchors and cables. He was also responsible for the maintenance of discipline on board. This category also served in Royal Dockyards for similar duties. The origin of the title is buried in antiquity and dates from Saxon times.


The Master - Navigation of the ship.


Carpenter - Hull maintenance and repair.


Clerk - All correspondence.


Gunner - Guns, ammunition and explosives.


Cook - Feeding all on board.


Two other categories were later elevated to Warrant status having previously been considered to be ratings:


Chaplain - All matters concerned with religious affairs.


Schoolmaster - General teaching requirements.


In 1843 The Master and the Chaplain were given Commissioned rank. A further change in 1861 granted a Commission to Schoolmasters engaged in the instruction of naval officers in shore training establishments. They were renamed "Naval Instructors", but those serving on ships retained the "Schoolmaster" title with added distinctions of "Senior Master" and "Headmaster" for those having greater responsibilities. These titles remained in use until 1946 when all Schoolmasters were given Commissioned rank as Instructor Officers.


Warrant Officers of all specialisations had to be capable of carrying out instructional duties ashore and afloat. This criteria still pertains to-day.



Impact of new Technology in the late 19th Century


Advances in scientific knowledge had a most significant effect on the Royal Navy since they completely changed design requirements for warships. Use of steel for ship construction and installation of new types of equipment introduced new manning and support requirements. Educational and training standards had to be totally revised to provide new types of rating for the new much larger Fleet. Each category would require specialist supervision by officers of Warrant rank. The equipment changes included:


Rotating gun mountings and optical range finders.


Mechanical propulsion and other machinery.


Electrical power for lighting and other services


Torpedo armament


Wireless communications.


pre-World War 1 cruiser HMS Fox (no enlargement)



New Categories of Warrant Officer in 1913


It took some years before the necessary expertise was available but study of "King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions" (KR&AI) for 1913 shows the extent to which Warrant Rank had been introduced for duties ashore and afloat. These Warrant Officers were responsible for supervision and training of their specialist category. It should be noted that these new titles are shown in association with the present Branches of the Service which differ from those in 1913:




Gunner + Selected Gunners - given training as Instructors with particular emphasis on "Director

control" of ships armament. Identified by a Dagger (+) suffix to their rank title and hence known as "Dagger" Gunners.


Gunner (T) - a direct equivalent of the "Gunner" (see above). Specialised in torpedo armament equipment operation, maintenance and repair, and in addition was responsible for electrical distribution circuits.


Warrant Telegraphist - operation, maintenance and repair of all wireless communication outfits.


Signal Boatswain - all visual signalling matters. Recent developments had introduced more complex procedures for manoeuvring and tactical control of ships.


Warrant Master at Arms - all disciplinary matters and ratings drafting in Depots ashore. Supervision of Regulating Branch ratings.


Warrant Bo'sun (PRT) - physical training and organisation of recreational activities in large shore establishments




Warrant Engineer - skilled tradesman with high standard of education and long initial training to provide the high professional standards needed to supervise the operation and repair of complex mechanical and electrical power generation equipment.


Warrant Mechanician - introduced to provide an avenue of promotion for selected Stoker ratings. Received skill training similar to that given to Engine Room Artificers. Mainly employed for shore training of Stoker ratings.


Warrant Shipwright - skilled tradesman with long initial training or entry after a shore apprenticeship. Responsible for hull repair and maintenance in wooden and steel ships including operation and maintenance of anchors and cables. Also employed in Royal Dockyards.


Warrant Ordnance Officer - skilled tradesman with high educational qualifications and long initial training

Responsible for maintenance and repair of all types of gunnery equipment, including optical instruments and gunnery directors.


Warrant Electrician - skilled tradesman specialising in maintenance and repair of all electrical equipment including instrumentation and generating machinery as well as torpedo control equipment.




Warrant Writer - all pay and ships correspondence.


Warrant Supply Officer - custody and accounting of naval and victualling stores.


"Warrant Instructor in Cookery" - shore training of Cook ratings.




Warrant Wardmaster - administrative duties and patient care in naval hospitals and hospital ships, other than any associated directly with the work of medical officers and nurses.



pre-World War 2 destroyer HMS Glowworm (courtesy CyberHeritage)


New Post 1930 Categories


The various specialisations remained but by 1935 Warrant Rank had been introduced for rating categories which had evolved since 1918. These reflected the new requirements such as the increased use of aircraft and the development of improved anti-submarine weapons. These were:


Boatswain (A/S) - 0peration and training of personnel in submarine detection outfits and anti-submarine  weapons together with their maintenance and repair.  This was due to the introduction of equipment which embodied modern techniques.


Warrant Photographer - all photographic services in ships and shore establishments. Photography was extensively used in air operations and gunnery training.


Warrant Steward - supervision of work of Stewards and administration of Wardroom Mess services to

give an improved standard in large shore establishments.



The Warrant Officer in World War 2


The tremendous changes in terms of types of equipment and increase in personnel made great demands on all holding Warrant Rank during WW2. Their professional and man-management experience enabled them to make an invaluable contribution. Quite apart from their instructional duties they did much to ensure a high standard of availability of equipment and services at sea. As the RN was largely made up of officers and ratings serving only for the duration of hostilities, the value of this leavening provided a basis for efficiency which cannot be disregarded.


Although the introduction of radar and improved weapons had been made before 1939 these equipments were comparatively rudimentary. The many changes made as new techniques were developed demanded a considerable degree of professional expertise by existing categories. In the Fleet Air Arm, Warrant rank was introduced for aircrew (Pilot and Telegraphist/Air Gunner) and for Aircraft Maintenance ratings. These latter required similar skills to those of the Engineering Branch in ships and their suitability was assessed by professional examination.



Qualifications and Promotion


In general all candidates for Warrant Rank were required to have achieved the same educational standard by having passed the Higher Educational Test (A standard slightly less than that of the pre-1944 School Certificate). Although most branches had professional examinations these varied considerably between branches and some promotions were made on the basis of "long and zealous service". Candidates for Warrant rank were required to have qualified for Petty Officer rating, and in some cases to have served as such for a number of years.


Few promotions could be made before the age of 30 because of these constraints. In some cases promotions were made without sufficient regard to suitability of individuals to their new status and their ability to adapt to change. The average age of promotion to Warrant Rank was between 31 and 35, whereas the majority of commissioned officers were younger. Integration into the new environment was more easily achieved by those whose education and interests covered a wide enough horizon to meet their new responsibilities. In this connection previous experience in activities whether within the service environment or otherwise, and beyond their particular specialist knowledge was a great asset. The transition did however require considerable adjustment and needed goodwill on the part of all involved. When achieved the contribution made by Warrant Officers to overall efficiency was clearly apparent.


Further advancement to "Commissioned Officer from Warrant Rank" was a slow process and required 10 years service as a Warrant Officer. The number of promotions was also limited by the number of complement billets allowed for that rank. This factor meant that few Warrant Officers could expect any further promotion until they were over 40 years of age. It was a major cause of disquiet to them since it showed little appreciation of their contribution and the advantages to be gained by recognising their merit. There were however an increasing number of Warrant Officers promoted direct to Lieutenant rank after 1937 although the few so promoted was a very small proportion of the total number



The Contribution of the Warrant Officer 1913 to 1948


Wide experience gained over many years enabled Warrant Officers to provide the necessary lubrication to ensure that the wheels of the "command machinery" worked smoothly. They were able to ensure that all foreseeable situations were dealt with promptly and efficiently by virtue of their specialist knowledge and long service. When necessary, they could improvise and adapt existing facilities and procedures with a degree of competence simply not available in the case of many younger officers. Years of supervision of ratings and direct daily contact with all matters essential to the smooth running of all departments did much to ensure efficient conduct of affairs whether ashore or afloat.


Because Warrant Officers retained their association with the Manning Port Division which they had chosen, usually on entry to the service, they accumulated a wide range of contacts within the local dockyard and in the Depot. This gave them unrivalled advantages compared with younger General List Officers who would be appointed to ships manned from any of the main Depots. Local knowledge of the personnel involved in dockyards and in the administration of the Depot was gained over many years.


Each dockyard and Manning Depot had its own local procedures and knowledge of these could be very valuable in obtaining the best possible service from local support facilities. Family connections or school friendships also played their part. Many Warrant Officers had family roots in the close knit local community, some of whom were likely to be employed in Admiralty service. Those who attended the local Dockyard School before entry as Artificers would have received their craft training with dockyard personnel. This affinity lasting over several years enabled continuity of contact to be maintained with individuals who carried out work essential to the running of the Fleet. As a result barriers presented by "officialdom" could be circumvented and many impossible situations could be satisfactorily overcome through these personal connections. Hospitality in the Warrant Officers Mess for those who rendered services was an added bonus to help this process.


One of the most important capabilities required of all specialisations at Warrant level was that of instructional competence. Since training of all ratings and some officers was carried out at the Manning Depot, most Warrant Officers had continued association with trainees extending over several years. In addition to influencing training policies they gained knowledge of individuals whom they would meet again many times during their subsequent careers.


The bond which existed between all Warrant Officers was another asset. It allowed many quite intractable problems to be settled "in the Mess" by suitable arrangements, without the need to use more formal channels. There was rarely a department in any large ship or establishment which had no Warrant officer within its structure, so they were in an excellent position to ensure full benefit was obtained from the resources of men, material and knowledge available to them.


Warrant Officers who were Heads of Departments, such as Engineer Officer in a destroyer, had, apart from his overall responsibility for machinery, to be able to co-operate with other departments requiring engineering or associated services. To an experienced professional this presented no major difficulty. Understanding of the reactions of the average rating to particular circumstances was a man management asset which did much to ensure smooth running of their Department. As Divisional Officers they were therefore able to make the necessary balance between compassion and naval practice by virtue of their experience of men and circumstances. Many General List officers have good reason to be grateful for the accumulated wisdom of a Warrant Officer with whom they served as a Midshipman or Sub-Lieutenant.



Social Aspects


During the period before 1948 when Warrant Officers lived apart from other officers in all large ships, their associations with their fellow officers were largely professional. Although they took part in social and sporting activities, various other factors had great influence on their social relationship with Wardroom officers.



Service in Destroyers, Sloops and Small Ships


postwar destroyer HMS Decoy (courtesy NavyPhotos)


Both Warrant Engineer and Gunner (T) specialisations were appointed to these ships and also to some submarines. Of the two, the Warrant Engineer had the advantage of a good educational background and was used to the higher standard of social conduct found in Artificers Messes. The Gunner (T) was less advantaged since he would, in all likelihood, have joined the service as a Boy Seaman without the benefit of the type of academic training given to the Artificer entrant. He would also have spent much of his earlier career in Broadside and Chief or Petty Officers Messes with a less refined atmosphere than was to be found in a Wardroom. However, the wide experience and professional ability of each made them valued members of any small ship wardroom as long as they were able to adapt to their new social surroundings.


In this connection a great deal depended on the attitude of the Captain who would need to recognise these basic facts and make it clear that a certain degree of "give and take" was needed by all concerned if his ship was to be "happy" and efficient. Regrettably this was not always the case and prejudice together with a lack of understanding on both sides did much to delay the acceptance of the Warrant Officer as a valuable asset in a Wardroom. There were instances of officers who took advantage of their status and brought discredit on their fellow Warrant Officers, but these were by no means the majority.



Warrant Officers Messes


In large ships and most shore establishments the complement would include Warrant Officers of many specialisations who were accommodated in their own Mess. As very few activities did not affect them they were able to exercise considerable influence on the quality of life on board. The Mess President, usually the Senior Seaman Officer, a Commissioned Gunner or Boatswain, had responsibility for ensuring that all Warrant Officers conducted themselves socially in a manner which met the standards expected by the Captain. The disadvantages of a less extensive education than that of Wardroom officers and the less exacting standards previously acceptable still applied. Although adjustment was frequently without difficulty there were instances where the President concerned lacked the very qualities necessary to maintaining conduct which would enhance the standing of all Warrant Officers. A great deal depended on the make-up of each Mess with its members of very varying educational and family backgrounds which undoubtedly affected their social attitudes.


On the credit side it should be said that Warrant Officers took their part in all sporting and social activities both as ships' officers and as a separate Mess, with great success. The conduct of those who adapted quickly to life as an officer did much to ensure that the representations being made about the status of the Warrant Officer were favourably forwarded by their Captain. As in small ships the Captain and the Executive Officer played a very important role in providing clear guidelines about the standards expected. The availability of alcohol was a factor needing careful handling, but in most circumstances did not lead to major problems any more than it did in Wardroom Messes.



Branch List


The introduction of more modem weapons and other equipment into the RN had a significant effect on the calibre of rating required. It was evident that there would be a need for experienced officers to supervise work on more complex equipment, whether as operators or in the support role. This trend began to make itself evident by 1948 and a better quality of rating was becoming available for promotion at the time of introduction of the Branch List. The reduction of the required minimum age on promotion to 28 also improved the prospects of promotion before completion of a 12 years Engagement. The standards required during professional examinations for many categories was more stringently applied. A higher general education was necessary to carry out duties as senior ratings satisfactorily, which did much to ensure that candidates for promotion to Warrant rank were better able to deal with their new status on promotion.



Change of Title


Following the many representations made by officers holding Warrant Rank during and immediately after the end of WW2, an Admiralty Committee was set up to investigate the status of Warrant Officers. The principal areas of concern which had been represented were:


Change of title to more accurately align with the responsibilities carried.


Coupled with this was the desire for replacement of the "bootlace" single "half stripe" insignia worn

by Warrant Officers, which it was considered made a further unnecessary differentiation of status.


Improvement of promotion prospects.


Admission to Wardroom status.


The Committee, chaired by Admiral Noble, took into account the submissions were made by Presidents of all Warrant Officers Messes. It concluded that amendments should be made to the existing regulations. Much attention was given to suggestions from the Messes in Port Divisions since they were recognised as coming from the largest number of more senior representatives. Whether this was a sound principle is, in retrospect, questionable, as there was no consensus, especially relating to Title. The proposal largely supported in many Warrant Officers Messes was that these be changed to Sub. Lieutenant and Lieutenant, but this was not agreed by many members of the Committee and not adopted.


The new structure was announced with the Naval Estimates on 9 March 1948 and introduced on 1 July that year. This went some way to improving matters although the contentious subject of title, and the change from the "half stripe" insignia were not resolved and they continued to fester for another 9 years.



Post-Noble Committee Report Improvements


Warrant Officers to be known in future as "Commissioned Officers", and "Commissioned Officers from Warrant Rank" as "Senior Commissioned "Officers ". They were to be collectively identified as Branch List" officers and to be equivalent to Sub Lieutenant and Lieutenant respectively.


Minimum age on promotion was reduced to 28.


The Warrant Officers Mess was to be abolished and all officers above the rank of Midshipman were to be accommodated in the Wardroom in all ships and Establishments although it was recognised that space may not always have been available and any existing Warrant Officers Mess were then to be known as "Wardroom II" until enlarged existing or proposed facilities could be provided both ashore and afloat.


Instead of selection for the next promotion being made after 10 years in the rank, a "Zone" of promotion between 5 and 9 years was introduced for "Commissioned Officers".


More specially selected Branch List Officers were to be given direct promotion to Lieutenant on the General List. They would then be eligible to take up appointments for any General List Officer with the same prospects for further promotion.


The number of specialist appointments for Senior Commissioned Officers to Lieutenant on the Branch List was also to be increased to allow a greater number of promotions to be made but this particular change could not be effective immediately because wartime conditions had made necessary the promotion of Warrant Officers to "Acting Commissioned Officer from Warrant Rank" status. The number of new promotions had to include officers holding Acting rank which meant that the promotion of many younger officers was delayed. The reduction in size of the Fleet also caused a corresponding reduction in the number of billets available.


All other officers became identified as General List Officers or Supplementary List Officers who had joined for shorter naval service


Warrant Rank titles were changed as from 1 April 1948 and officers were accommodated in Wardrooms on 1 July. The prefix "Mr" was replaced by "Commissioned or Senior Commissioned" followed by the specialist title (e.g. "Boatswain" became "Commissioned Boatswain" and "Warrant Writer" became "Commissioned Writer Officer".)



Introduction of the new Electrical Branch


The formation of the Electrical Branch in 1946 had a very significant effect on other existing branches. Consequential changes involved many structural upheavals in existing categories of rating. The new Branch took over responsibility for maintenance and repair of equipments from other existing departments.


Power Supply and Generation from the Engine Room and Torpedo Branches.


Radio Communications and Radar from the W/T element of the Signals Branch.


Gunnery and Torpedo armament from the Seaman Branch.


A major transfer of ratings and officers into the new Electrical Branch took effect from the beginning of 1947 and Branch List Officers received new titles appropriate to their specialisation. These included:


Seamen Branch - Gunners (T) who transferred to the Electrical Branch became Commissioned Electrical Officers (L). Gunners (T) who remained in the Torpedo Branch became Gunners (TAS). A new category of Boatswain (PR) was introduced for the Seaman Branch radar and plot operators. Gunnery ratings were re-categorised to suit their new duties.


Signals Branch - Warrant Telegraphists who transferred to the Electrical Branch became Commissioned Electrical Officers (R). Warrant Telegraphists and Signal Boatswains who remained Branch became Commissioned Communications Officers.


Electrical Branch - Sub-divisions were created as follows, Commissioned Electrical Officer having suffixes:


(L) - Power Generation Distribution and all electrical services.


(R) - all communications and radar equipment


(AL) and (AR) - for aircraft equipment as above.


Engineer Branch Warrant Engineers were sub-divided into categories, again, Commissioned Engineer having suffices:


(ME) - for Marine Engineers


(AE) - for Air Engineers.


(OE) - for Ordnance Engineers transferred later from Electirical Branch in 1948.



Transitional Period 1948 - 1956


A gradual increase in the proportion of Branch List officers entering the Wardroom took place as the changes made in 1948 had time to take effect. The new intake initially faced the same problems of prejudice and adjustment. Although acceptance was slow in some ships, the improvements made when the Branch List was formed were shown to be most beneficial. Very extensive changes to the armed forces made in 1957 involved a complete review of the strength of the Fleet and the officer structure as a whole.



Special Duties List


It was decided during 1956 as part of an overall Review to abolish the Branch List and replace it by a different designation to be called the "Special Duties List". As a result meaningful recognition was given to officers promoted by virtue of their specialist expertise. At one stage serious consideration was being given to providing special uniform buttons marked “SD" for these officers. Such a distinction was felt by all Branch List Officers to be quite unnecessary and a way of maintaining the distinctions so evident before 1939. Following many representations by individual officers that this would be against the best long term interests of the Service the proposal was dropped.  


Another innovation was the removal of the coloured lace worn by all specialist officers on General, Supplementary and Special Duties Lists. Only Medical, Dental and Constructor Officers were to have this indication of their specialisation. In future there would be no visible distinction between other officers. Although not totally welcomed by all, experience showed that this change helped to further reduce some of the prejudice still evident in some wardrooms.





As from 1 January 1957, "Commissioned Officers" were accorded the title of "Sub-Lieutenant", and "Senior

Commissioned Officers" became "Lieutenants". In consequence the associated stigma of the "half stripe" was removed and Special Duties List Officers were to wear the full single or two full stripes as worn by other officers of these ranks. The specialist qualifications of each officer on the SD List was indicated as part of their new rank title. Examples:


Seaman - Commissioned Boatswains became Sub-lieutenants (B).


Engineer - Senior Commissioned Engineers (AE) became Engineer lieutenants (AE).


Supply - Commissioned Writer Officers became Supply Sub-lieutenants (W).


New promotions to Sub-Lieutenant received a Commission signed by the Queen but existing Branch list Officers retained their original Admiralty Warrant as their authority to "observe and execute 'Regulations for the Government of Naval Service'". As part of the naval reorganisation, Schemes of Complement were altered to provide more appointments afloat to give these officers greater opportunity to extend their responsibilities and hence to improve their promotion prospects. By the 1970's the SD Officer had been fully accepted in most Wardrooms for his true value as a professional colleague and messmate who took part in all ship activities on equal footing.



Final Phase of Transition 1970 to 1985


During this period very extensive administrative changes within the RN including the amalgamation of the Electrical and Engineering Specialisations. These have allowed alterations to complement requirements ashore and afloat. After suitable training Special Duties list Officers can now be employed as Head of Department instead of General List Officers. Revised promotion policies allow promotions for Lieutenant Commanders to Commander on the SD List so culminating the aspirations of previous holders of Warrant Rank. With very few exceptions, no officer from Warrant Rank, or its later equivalents, previously had any reasonable chance of attaining this rank unless already transferred to the General List. At last due recognition of experience and a high degree of professional competence had been achieved.



Re-introduction of Warrant Rank


On 1 September 1970 the cycle was completed by the introduction of a status equivalent to that of Warrant Officers in the Army and Royal Air Force. Those who joined the RN as ratings and wished to be advanced in status within their particular specialisation could be promoted to a new rank, Fleet Chief Petty Officer. The "Royal Coat of Arms" was to be used for the insignia of rank as in the other services. In 1986 their title was changed to Warrant Officer thus completing the cycle. They continue to be accommodated with Chief Petty Officers and carry out specialist duties very similar to those of the original RN Warrant Officer. The likelihood of the pattern repeating is unlikely because opportunities are available for the new Warrant Officer to qualify for further promotion on the SD List. Owing to a shortfall in manning requirements advancement is possible to Temporary Sub-lieutenant (SD) and there were 13 Temporary Sub-Lieutenants and six Temporary Lieutenants holding Commissions in the 1991 SD list.





It is interesting to note that the current Navy List includes specialisations by rank within the Special Duties Section, as opposed to the previous practice of listing each specialisation separately. The new SD List officer has broader responsibilities and carries out duties outside his basic specialisation in the same way as any other Commissioned officer. Extensive changes in social attitudes outside the naval service and training appropriate to modem requirements within it have significantly altered the type of officer now serving. As a result the earlier prejudices have largely disappeared. The Special Duties List provides an avenue of promotion with none of the inherent disadvantages faced by the pre-1948 Warrant Officer. The modem well-trained, experienced and dedicated specialist rating is more socially aware and better able to take his place within the officer structure. Having shown the necessary initiative and perseverance he may be sure his professional competence will be recognised and can be rewarded to far greater extent than was possible in the past.




Navy Lists 1948, 1958, 1966 and 1991.

KR&AI 1913, 1926, 1938 and 1943

"The Royal Navy Since The Eighteenth Century, The Navy in Transition" by Michael Lewis (H&S 1965)

"A Social History of the Royal Navy" by Michael Lewis (Allan and Urwin)

return to Lt-Cdr Mason's researches
or  World War 2, 1939-1945

revised 1/12/10