Royal Fleet Auxiliary
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary is the fifth fighting arm of the Royal Navy. It is made up of civilian-crewed ships operated by the Ministry of Defence. It provides vital – and highly valued – logistical and operational support to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. A committed team of personnel makes sure the Royal Navy and Royal Marines are well supplied and well supported, providing medical care, transporting kit, fuel and other essentials all over the world. In addition the RFA provides humanitarian aid, undertakes counter piracy patrols, counter narcotic operations, defence diplomacy together with assisting in preventing conflict or safeguarding the flow of international trade as single units. They are the uniformed civilian branch of the Naval Service, staffed by UK merchant sailors.
The RFA counts an Aviation Training ship/Hospital Ship and landing vessels amongst its assets. RFA personnel are employees of the Ministry of Defence, and since 2003, special members of the Royal Naval Reserve deemed sponsored reserves, which are civilians who must be part of the Armed Forces in some capacity, in order to carry out specialist civilian jobs in a military capacity. Although RFA officers wear Merchant Navy rank insignia with naval uniforms, they are classed as a part of the naval service and are under naval discipline when the vessel is engaged on warlike operations. RFA vessels are commanded and crewed by these officers and ratings, augmented with regular and reserve Royal Navy personnel to perform specialised functions such as operating and maintaining helicopters or providing hospital facilities. Royal Navy personnel are also needed to operate certain weapons, such as the Phalanx, however other weapons are operated by RFA personnel.
HistoryThe RFA was first established in 1905 to provide coaling ships for the Navy in an era when the change from sail to coal-fired steam engines as the main means of propulsion meant that a network of bases around the world with coaling facilities or a fleet of ships able to supply coal were necessary for a fleet to operate away from its home country. Since the Royal Navy of that era possessed the largest network of bases around the world of any fleet, the RFA at first took a relatively minor role.
The RFA firstly became heavily relied on by the Royal Navy during World War II, when the British fleet was often far from available bases, either due to the enemy capturing such bases, or, in the Pacific, because of the sheer distances involved. World War II also saw naval ships staying at sea for much longer periods than had been the case since the days of sail. Techniques of Replenishment at Sea were developed. The auxiliary fleet comprised a diverse collection, with not only RFA ships, but also commissioned warships and merchantmen as well. The need for the fleet to be maintained was unambiguously demonstrated by World War II.
After 1945, the RFA became the Royal Navy's main source of support in the many conflicts that the Navy was involved in. The RFA performed important service to the Far East Fleet off Korea from 1950 until 1953, when sustained carrier operations were again mounted in Pacific waters. During the extended operations of the Konfrontasi in the 1960s, the RFA was also heavily involved. As the network of British bases overseas shrank during the end of the Empire, the Navy increasingly relied on the RFA to supply its ships during routine deployments.
The RFA played an important role in the largest naval war since 1945, the Falklands War in 1982, and also the Gulf War, Kosovo War, Afghanistan Campaign and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In July 2008, the RFA was presented with a Queen's Colour, an honour unique to a civilian organisation.
FleetShips in RFA service carry the ship prefix RFA, standing for Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and fly the Blue Ensign defaced with an upright gold killick anchor. All Royal Fleet Auxiliaries are built and maintained to Lloyd's Register and Department for Transport standards.
The most important role provided by the RFA is replenishment at sea, therefore the mainstay of the current RFA fleet are the replenishment ships. The Wave-class are 'Fleet Tankers', which primarily provide under way refuelling to Royal Navy ships, but can also provide a limited amount of dry cargo. The Rover-class that were decommissioned in 2017 are being replaced by the new Tide-class 'Fast Fleet Tankers' that were ordered in February 2012. The four new tankers have been ordered from DSME, South Korea with design support from Britain's BMT Defence Services, the first of which Tidespring entered service in 2017. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review confirmed that three "Fleet Solid Support" Ships were to be built and bidding for the contract was to have started in late 2016. However, late in 2019 this competition was stopped in the face of criticism that the competition permitted the potential construction of the ships outside the UK. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this competition was anticipated as likely to be re-started in 2020 with revised terms of reference.
Fort Victoria is a 'one-stop' replenishment ship, capable of providing under way refuelling and dry cargoes. The older Fort Rosalie-class ships provide only dry cargoes. Both Fort Rosalie-class vessels were in "extended readiness" as of June 2020.
The Wave-class, Fort Victoria and the Fort Rosalie-class have generous aviation facilities, providing aviation support and training facilities and significant vertical replenishment capabilities. They are capable of operating and supporting several Merlin and Lynx Wildcat helicopters, both of which are significant weapons platforms. The presence of aviation facilities on RFA ships allows for them to be used as 'force multipliers' for the task groups they support in line with Royal Navy doctrine.
The RFA is tasked with the role of supporting Royal Navy amphibious operations through its three Bay-class dock landing ships. Typically one Bay-class is also assigned as a permanent 'mothership' for Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels in the Persian Gulf.
The unique support ship in the fleet is the aviation training ship Argus, a converted roll-on/roll-off container ship. She is tasked with peacetime aviation training and support. On active operations, she becomes the Primary Casualty Receiving Ship ; essentially a hospital ship. She cannot be described as such – and is not afforded such protection under the Geneva Convention – as she is armed. She can, however, venture into waters too dangerous for a normal hospital ship. Argus completed a refit in May 2007 intended to extend her operational life to 2020.
The Point-class sealift ships were acquired in 2002 under a £1.25bn private finance initiative with Foreland Shipping known as the 'Strategic Sealift Service'. These ships are Merchant Navy vessels leased to the Ministry of Defence as and when needed. Originally six ships were part of the deal, allowing the MoD use of four of the ships with two being made available for commercial charter, these latter two were released from the contract in 2012. The Ministry of Defence also contracts to secure fuel supplies for facilities overseas. For sometime this requirement was maintained through charter of the vessel Maersk Rapier. The ship was tasked with supplying fuel to the United Kingdoms various naval establishments at home and overseas, as well as providing aviation fuel to RAF stations at Cyprus, Ascension and the Falklands. The MoD chartered the vessel to commercial companies during periods where she was not in use for defence purposes. Since the end of the contract for the use of Maersk Rapier, a further contract for the use of another tanker, renamed the Raleigh Fisher, has been secured.
As of 2020, there are 13 ships in service with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary with a total displacement of approximately 376,000 tonnes. These figures exclude merchant navy vessels under charter to the Ministry of Defence.
Dock landing ships
Aviation Support/Casualty Evacuation
Ministry of Defence Sealift/Supply Vessels
OfficersRank insignia of RFA officers are the same as for the Royal Navy; however, the RFA makes use of the diamond used by merchant shipping rather than the loop used by the RN. The rank of commodore is the most senior in the RFA.
|Rank||Commodore||Captain||Chief Officer||First Officer||Second Officer||Third Officer||Cadet|
|Analogous RN Rank*||Commodore||Captain||Commander||Lieutenant |
The RFA uses distinctive cloth to distinguish the branch of its officers. The Royal Navy ceased this practice for most officers in 1955, with the exception of medical and dental officers who are denoted by red and pink cloth respectively.
|Deck||Logistics and Supply||Marine Engineering||Systems Engineering||Communications|
Marine Engineers may also have maroon coloured cloth in place of purple.
UniformsOfiicers and Ratings of the RFA wear similar uniforms to the Royal Navy with RFA distinguishing marks.
No. 1 DressThis is the formal uniform worn on ceremonial occasions. For all commissioned officers it consists of a double-breasted, navy blue reefer jacket with four rows of two RFA buttons; matching trousers; white shirt and black tie; peaked cap; and black leather shoes. Rank insignia is denoted on the lower sleeve.
For ratings this uniform is a single breasted tunic fastened with four RFA buttons, with flapped chest pockets and hip pockets; white shirt and black tie, peaked cap for Petty Officers and above and a light blue beret for other ratings; and black leather shoes. Rank insignia is denoted on the lower sleeve.
No. 2 DressNumber 2A dress is the formal evening dress for ceremonial dinners; it consists of a navy blue mess jacket with a white waistcoat with miniature medals.
2B is "mess undress" for other mess functions, and is worn with either a black cummerbund or navy blue waistcoat and miniature medals. 2C, "red sea rig", is worn for informal evening wear on board ship; it consists of a white short sleeved shirt, worn with shoulderboards, without medals and with black trousers, black shoes and a black cummerbund.
No. 3 DressThis is worn all year round for general duties. It consists of a white shirt with rank insignia on the shoulders, and appropriate headgear. For officers 3A dress includes a long-sleeved shirt and tie, while 3B includes a short-sleeved shirt worn with hard shoulder boards. 3C is the same in all respects as 3A but with the addition of a navy blue woollen jersey.
This is the same as for Officer's No. 3 dress but with the relevant rate insignia and beret. Junior rates are only issued with short-sleeve shirts and are not issued with ties. Thus No.3 dress is divided into 3B and 3C dress. There is no equivalent of 3A dress for junior ratings.
No. 4 DressNumber 4 dress is the working uniform of the RFA. It is referred to as Royal Fleet Auxiliary Personal Clothing System ; it consists of a navy blue fire-retardant jacket, navy blue beret, navy blue stable belt, navy-blue fire-retardant trousers, dms boots, navy-blue T-shirt and an optional navy-blue microfleece.
Number 4R dress is the same only without the jacket and with an optional baseball cap.
RFAPCS is distinguished from its RNPCS counterpart by the RFA blue ensign and 'ROYAL FLEET AUXILARY' tape replacing the white ensign and 'ROYAL NAVY' tape worn on the left arm and left chest pocket respectively.
Junior ratings may also wear an RFA badged baseball cap in this order of dress, whilst undertaking courses at Royal Navy establishments.
No. 5 DressNumber 5 dress is the collective category for all specialist working uniforms. They are worn as required for duties.
Recruitment and TrainingThe RFA recruits rates either directly from industry, or as apprentices whilst undertaking training.
Officers are recruited in one of three ways
- direct from industry
- via the RTO programme
- as cadets
List of Commodores Royal Fleet AuxiliaryThe post of Commodore of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary was created in 1951, and is the senior officer of the RFA. The following people have served as COMRFA:
- 1951–1954: Stanley Kent
- 1954–1955: William Browne
- 1955–1957: Thomas Card
- 1957–1962: Thomas Elder
- 1962–1964: Albert Curtain
- 1964–1966: Eric Payne
- 1966–1968: Griffith Evans
- 1968–1971: Joe Dines
- 1971–1972: Henry L'Estrange
- 1972–1977: George Robson
- 1977–1983: Samuel Dunlop
- 1983–1985: James Coull
- 1986–1989: Barry Rutterford
- 1989–1994: Richard Thorn
- 1994–1999: Norman Squire
- 1999–2003: Peter Lannin
- 2003–2008: Robert Thornton
- 2008–2013: Bill Walworth
- 2013–2015: Rob Dorey
- 2015–present: Duncan Lamb
Lists of ships operated by or in support of Her Majesty's Naval Service
- List of active Royal Navy ships
- List of active Royal Marines military watercraft
- List of ships of Serco Marine Services
- Her Majesty's Naval Service
- List of Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship names
- Merchant Navy
- Royal Research Ship
- Military Sealift Command – the United States Navy's analogue to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary
- Solid Support Ship