Gun Boats

The (British) Army Rowing Club’s entry for the Visitors’ at Henley in 2007. Picture: The Tideway Slug.

6 June 2017

Tim Koch is on parade again:

In my recent ‘nothing to do with rowing’ piece on ‘Cavalry Sunday’, I noted that it was posted on the grounds that those who are interested in rowing history tend to like military history as well. The subsequent comments that I received seemed to support this idea. Of course, links between rowing and the military can be strong – as my recent post on the history of the Brigade of Guards Boat Club showed.

The Army Rowing Club blazer is made from desert camouflage material (‘1991 two-colour variant’), though in military speak camouflage is called ‘Disruptive Pattern Material’.

Below is a probably incomplete list of trophy winning armed forces’ clubs at Henley. I suspect that HTBS Types will add some more:

Guards Brigade RC – Diamonds (Fox), 1901
Household Brigade BC – Diamonds (Darell), 1907
Royal Air Force – Thames and Wyfolds, 1953, Double, 1956
Royal Engineers – Wyfolds, 1950, 1954 and 1956
Force Navale Belge – Wyfolds, 1962
Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst – Ladies’ Plate, 1963
Centre Sportif des Forces de l’Armée Française – Grand, 1956
Central Sport Club of the USSR Navy – Grand, 1961 and 1962
Army Rowing Club – Wyfolds, 2005 and Britannia 2006
Soviet Army, USSR – Grand, 1987

Because of the fact that units of the armed forces are widely spread, it is very difficult to draw on the undoubted sporting talents that must exist in bodies composed of fit young people, particularly for a crew sport like rowing. As a consequence, the level of activity and success of the forces rowing clubs varies with random circumstances. At present, the Royal Air Force Rowing Club (founded 1947) and the Army Rowing Club (founded 1967) seem to be the most active, the Royal Navy & Royal Marines Amateur Rowing Association (founded 1964) less so (this 2013 news story says that ‘rowing in the Royal Navy has about 60 regular members with clubs in Faslane, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Dartmouth). In the 2016 Henley qualifying races, there were unsuccessful attempts at a place in the regatta by the Air Force (Thames), the Navy (Britannia) and the Army (Diamonds).

‘Victory Rolls’ by the RAF at Henley in 1953 where they won both the Thames and the Wyfolds. In the days of conscription, it was presumably more likely to have many experienced oarsmen in the forces at any one time.

In recent years, British rowing has especially benefited from the talents of two serving members of its armed forces.

Major Heather Stanning, Royal Artillery. Now retired from rowing to pursue her military career, she was given dispensation from the army to train and compete with the British team for both the 2012 and the 2016 Olympics (though she did do a tour of duty in Afghanistan for part of 2012 and 2013). A double Olympic Gold winner in the pair, she was undefeated for five years until retirement.
Lieutenant Pete Reed, Royal Navy. Thanks to the support of the Navy, Reed is a three-time Olympic gold medallist (in the coxless four at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and in the eight in 2016). The 35-year-old is currently training full time for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Masters (though probably not Veterans) from the Cantabrigian Rowing Club at the Cambridge Winter Head. This was a homage by the civilians to the the BBC’s classic sitcom, ‘Dad’s Army’ (though, rowing in the terrible 1937 Pattern Battle Dress, it looks more like the writers’ other military comedy, ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’).


  1. A member of Quintin Boat Club, the late Tim Firminger, used to regale us with an amusing tale of military rowing. He was a young conscript in the late forties stationed in Germany. One Morning Parade in June the Company Sergeant Major inquired “if any of his young charges knew anything about rowing boats?” Or words to that effect! Private Firminger stepped forward and was told to report to the C.O’s office.
    He was told that the top brass had decided a Military Presence would be required at that year’s Henley Royal Regatta and he, and a handful of other similarly gifted volunteers, would be sent to Henley forthwith.
    Billeted in a private house, on double rations, rowing twice a day this motley crew of disparate ability were entered in both The Wyfolds and The Thames Cup as British Army of The Rhine Rowing Club.
    Both crews were knocked out by the Wednesday afternoon, spent the rest of the Regatta in full dress uniform swanning up and down the river bank and Stewards with a clutch of pretty girls on their arms, the envy of all! As Tim recalled “the finest two weeks of my military career!”

  2. Your mention of the redoubtable Heather Stanning and Pete Reed brings to mind that other active duty military MAY have won at Henley while not under the colors of a military rowing club. The subject is of particular interest to me, as I was a recently commissioned U.S. Navy ensign destined for a Vietnam deployment when I rowed for Yale in the 1970 Thames Challenge Cup (as was also one of our spares). Our loss to Leander in the semis disqualifies me from the winners list, but, as you note, “links between rowing and the military can be strong”, and I would not be surprised to find that there were recently graduated and commissioned members of winning U.S. college crews who were allowed to compete at Henley under temporary duty orders, as I was, before embarking on their first deployments.

  3. Thank you David (djbiddulph), the above text will be updated. Also, when checking the dates, I noticed that the Force Navale Belge won the Wyfolds in 1962, and that the Grand was won by the Centre Sportif des Forces de l’Armée Française in 1956, the Central Sport Club of the USSR Navy in 1961 and 1962, and the Soviet Army, USSR, in 1987 (I did say that my original list was ‘probably incomplete’).

    I am very pleased to see that HTBS has David as a reader. He is the grandfather of rowing on the Internet as he started publishing all the useful calendar dates for UK and International regattas online as far back as 1997 – and is still going strong at David Biddulph’s Rowing Pages He is one of the unsung heroes who make the sport of rowing happen and he received some well-deserved recognition when he was asked to umpire at the London 2012 Olympics.

  4. Just to clarify- the “Dad’s Army” crew are not racing at Cambridge Winter Head but at the somewhat less serious Cambridge Christmas Head, at which most crews wear fancy dress.

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