HMS Cap Tally

The Royal Navy had been using woven cap tallies with a ship’s name on it since the 1850s. They were an established part of naval uniform and helped show which ship a rating belonged to as well as emphasising esprit de corps. The obvious downside of this was it allowed an enemy to easily determine when a particular ship was in port, or helped identify a vessel after it had been sunk by the uniform of the survivors. During World War I there was some limited use of anonymous cap tallies, however this was sporadic. By the Second World War, operational security had become better appreciated and early in the war it was decided to drop the names of ships from cap tallies and just leave them saying ‘HMS’:

This process took time and some sailors involved in battles at the very start of the war still retained their named cap tallies, those sailors from HMS Exeter for instance paraded with HMS Exeter cap tallies after their successful return from the Battle of the River Plate, but the move over to anonymous tallies was swift and by 1940 most ship’s companies had been retitled. The tallies themselves are embroidered in gold thread, on the black ribbon with the letters separated by full stops:

The rear of the tally shows the process used in machine embroidering these tallies, the mess of threads normally being hidden by being pressed against the cap itself:

The use of a simple ‘HMS’ was also a useful economy measure as different tallies did not have t be supplied for individual ships and men swapping from one vessel to another did not need to have a new tally issued, all of which was important in a war economy. Whilst the most common tally to see is the simple ‘HMS’ other variations can be found such as ‘HM Submarine’, ‘HM Destroyer’ and ‘HMMTB’. Numbers of these tallies were much smaller and only issued to those in that particular branch of the navy but do show that some latitude was still allowed for certain parts of the navy. All of those types of ships that had specialist cap tallies were those where conditions for sailors were the harshest, suggesting that the old esprit de corps role of the tally was recognised as being important even in wartime.

One comment

  1. It’s always nice to be able to tell someone who you represent and a service member wears a uniform a little prouder when there’s an identifier on it not everyone else has.
    Once upon a time, someone got the bright idea that flight jackets (normally ‘illegally’ scrounged by non-aircrew but virtually everyone had one) would only be allowed to have two unique badges on them other than qualification ones, this didn’t sit too well with those who had more badges than jacket and you could tell their career at a glance.
    Hence was born the ‘squadron patch’, a black circle with the words ‘Squadron Patch’ embroidered in white on it, it was officially adopted by one Sqn but I can’t remember which one off the top of my head, a transport one I think but I’m not sure.
    Nobody ever did succeed in telling people to take the badges they had off that I’m aware of, but a few tried and were soundly ignored 🙂

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