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History and Functions of The Sea Transport Services

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This article was originally one of a set of memoranda available only on paper in The National Archives' reading rooms. It acted as a signpost to records of interest on a particular historical subject. It may have been compiled many years ago and could be out of date. Please feel free to edit this page to improve the information

This memorandum was originally written July 1992

Prior to 1916 Britain's overseas troops and supply transports were handled by the Admiralty, except that until 1879, India troops were handled by the India Office. Through the long period of its control, the Admiralty exercised this authority either through its general officers, or through special Boards Commissions. The transportation of the Army to Ireland in 1689 to meet the French Invasion was handled by a board, later named the Commission for Transportation, which was afterwards expanded to handle overseas transport to all areas. The Commission for Transportation was discontinued in 1724, and its functions were split up among other Admiralty boards and several Departments of the War Office. However, as a result of the division of responsibility and abuses which followed the splitting up of transport functions, another Transport Board was established in 1794, The latter was one of three Boards (Navy, Victualing and Transport) which ran the affairs of the Navy for the next twenty-three years. Under its authority the handling of military transportation overseas was centralised and unified.

In 1817, the functions of the Transport Board were merged with other activities in the Board of Admiralty, and The Transport Board itself was abolished. During the Crimean war it was re-established, and in 1861 a strong select Committee of the House of Commons, containing Navy and Army officers, recommended unanimously the formation of a separate and distinct Transport Office under the sole control of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty "To carry out transport of every kind required by our government to any part of our coast and to all our colonies and possessions, including India". As a result, in 1862, the Transport Department of the Admiralty was created under the command of an Admiral. The transfer to it of the Indian Troop Service in 1879 finally placed responsibility for providing merchant shipping for the British fighting services in on authority.

The Transport Department of the Admiralty was transferred to the Ministry of Shipping during the 1914-1918 War. because of the shortage of ships, it was necessary to establish priorities as between the Army, Navy and Air force, and the import programme. Other Departments and Services of the British Government were reluctant to accept the decisions of the Admiralty - A service in competition with them for the use of merchant ships - on their requests. Hence an independent Ministry of Shipping was given authority to requisition all merchant shipping and to direct it to work of high priority. The Transport Department was the nucleus of the new Ministry, with the particular responsibility of meeting the need of the fighting services.

After the first world war, the Ministry of Shipping was dissolved and the Transport Department, instead of returning to the Admiralty, was made part of the Mercantile Marine Department of the Board of Trade. To meet Admiralty requirements the Director of the Transport Department was given a dual status. He was made Head of an Admiralty Department as well as an officer of the Board of Trade. The Sea Transport Division, as it came to be called, together with the rest of the Mercantile Marine Department of the Board was transferred to the Ministry of Shipping in 1939, later becoming part of the Ministry of War Transport, when inland and overseas Transport were amalgamated into one Ministry in 1942.

the Sea Transport Division of the Ministry of War Transport was considerably expanded during the course of the war. The following outline contains a summary of its authority in the field of military transport.

  • In co-operation with the Army, Navy and Air Force planning groups, planned all merchant shipping requirements of operational task forces and for maintenance of the armed services in all theatres of war.
  • Control the operation of troops transports for the three services.
  • Control the leading and operation of cargo vessels assigned to supply the forces, USSR and Malta
  • Arranged on a freight basis for the carriage of troops and military cargoes on vessels engaged primarily in civilian operations and controlled the operation of vessels fitted out as hospital ships.
  • Held responsibility for the procurement of vessels to be used as Merchant Fleet Auxiliaries (commissioned and non-commissioned) including armed merchant cruisers, naval store issuing and armament store issuing ships, accommodation ships, rescue ships, ocean boarding vessels, tugs, etc. and for fitting out such of these vessels as are non commissioned.
  • Held responsibility for recruiting civilians for service on certain classes of commissioned and non-commissioned vessels operated as part of the Royal Navy and administering wages and conditions of service.