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The Yachties

Australian Volunteers in the Royal Navy 1940–45


Janet Roberts Billett

North Melbourne, Vic:

Australian Scholarly Publications, 2023

Paperback ‎     pp266    RRP: $45.00


Reviewer: Scott Whitechurch, November 2023


An interesting question to ask at a military function would be which was the most decorated cohort of Australian Service Personnel in World War 2. A group which would make a powerful claim to this distinction would be the Yachties - that group of 500 Australians who volunteered and participated in the Royal Navy’s (RN) Volunteer Yachtsmen Scheme.

The contribution of the Yachties has been largely ignored or overlooked in Australian naval history. This has now been properly rectified in a book by Janet Roberts Billett, appropriately named The Yachties. The author undertook extensive archival research and interviews with surviving Yachties and her book highlights in an absorbing way the contribution they made to the war at sea.

The book traces the origins of the scheme, the background and reasons for the Australians enlistment, their training,  war time service in the RN and their experiences with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) upon their return home to Australia.

The aim of the Yachtsmen Scheme was to recruit experienced yachtsmen and train them as officers and to serve in and command mainly small RN warships, such as motor torpedo boats, motor launches and various types of landing craft. What is intriguing about the Australian recruits was that nearly all of them lacked any yachting experience, instead giving reasons for volunteering such as out of duty and the promised adventure on offer. They were appointed as members of the RAN Volunteer Reserve upon enlistment in the scheme.

They trained in England. Most were required to  undergo a period of three-months seagoing service on the lower deck before their officer training and appointment as officers of RN warships. Tragically four of the recruits were lost in HMS Hood. The author refers to others who lost their lives during their wartime service. Once they completed their training at HMS King Alfred they were appointed as temporary sub lieutenants to a variety of RN ships. These included cruisers, destroyers, corvettes and minesweepers and other smaller vessels. One chose submarines and had the distinction of being appointed as first lieutenant to an RN submarine without ever having undertaken a wartime patrol in a submarine. Ten were appointed to the RN’s Rendering Mines Safe Service. The author devotes a  chapter to  this  and highlights the very dangerous work that this service involved

Other Yachties’ service included: North Atlantic convoys, the ordeals of Arctic convoys, the Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans and a range of combined operations, including the D-Day Landings. A couple of them ferried Yugoslav Partisans in the Adriatic and were highly admired by them not because of their skill as sailors but because they had the good sense to paint a red star on their landing craft infantry.

All valued the experience of service as officers in the RN – the training they received, its professionalism and the variety of service they had and their standing as RN officers. Depressingly for most of the Yachties, the reception they received from the RAN upon their return to Australia was lukewarm and their service with the RN was not properly recognised. This was despite their many achievements and hardships they had endured.

The Yachties is an important contribution to both Australian naval and military history and would be a valuable addition to readers’ bookshelves.

And what of the claim that the Yachties were the most decorated cohort of Australian service personnel in World War 2? Their record speaks for itself: four George Crosses, ten George Medals, 32 Distinguished Service Crosses, 38 Mentioned-in-Despatches, three Orders of the British Empire, three Members of the British Empire, two King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct and one Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (the only one ever to be awarded to an Australian Navy person).



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the author for making her work available for review.

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