Medical Assistant (Royal Navy)

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Medical Assistant
Royal Navy Medical Assistant Insignia.JPG
Rating insignia
Issued by Royal Navy
Type Rating
Abbreviation MA
Specialty Medical Branch

The Medical Assistant.[1] is a Royal Navy medical rating in the United Kingdom. Medical Assistants serve on all types of ships in the surface and submarine fleet, Royal Marines or ashore in a sick bay, hospital, or other establishment. The equivalent rate in the United States Navy (USN) is Hospital Corpsman.


The Medical Assistant provides a broad spectrum of skills in primary care, occupational health, secondary care, pre-hospital trauma life support, medical administration, teaching First-Aid and disease prevention, providing health briefs, and basic environmental health. These are performed in a variety of roles at sea in a ship or Submarine, with Royal Marines Commandos, Fleet Air-Arm, shore establishments, Ministry of Defence Hospital Units, UKSF, and other Tri-Service Depts. Predominantly they provide day-to-day healthcare for their crewmates as a vital part of the ship's company. On larger ships, they are part of a medical team, while on smaller ships they may be the only medic on board.


Members of the Royal Navy Sick Berth Branch (with patients), formed in 1884.

The Medical Assistant[2] was previously known as Sick Berth Attendant and Sick berth Steward (19th-20th century) and earlier as loblolly boy (16th–19th century). Medical Assistants are colloquially known as "scablifters" or "doc" in Royal Naval JackSpeak. The Sick Berth Branch of the Royal Navy can said to have originated in 1833 when a directive was issued to Commanding Officers to organize a "Sick Berth Attendant" category of naval rating in each ship.[3] They received no formal medical training and it was not until June 1883 that a Committee, known as the Hoskins Committee, after its Chairman, Rear Admiral A. H. Hoskins was formed to enquire into the organization and training of the Sick Berth and Nursing Staff of the Royal Navy Hospitals. The Committee, after visiting Naval and Military Hospitals as well as the larger London Hospitals reported their findings to the Admiralty in the autumn of 1884. The Admiralty gave their verdict in an Order in Council dated October 17, 1884.[3] This Order authorised the establishment of a trained Sick Berth Rating Staff with the following Rates:

Sick Berth staff onboard World War I hospital ship
  • 1st and 2nd Class Boys
  • Sick Berth Attendant
  • Sick Berth Steward 2nd Class
  • Sick Berth Steward 1st Class
  • Chief Sick Berth Steward

The Order also supported the formation of trained female nursing staff in naval hospitals, which in 1902 was to become the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service.

It was thought that boys from the Greenwich Hospital School, later The Royal Hospital School, would fill the vacancies. This proved not to be the case, so entry was opened to the Royal Marines and civilians.

In 1900, three new posts were created, known as Head Wardmasters, one for each of the three main hospitals.

In 1891 Sick Berth personnel received a new style of uniform. Instead of the blue serge jumper, blue cloth collar and bell bottom trousers, known as ‘Square Rig, they received a single or double breasted jacket and trousers with black buttons, red badges and a peaked cap. This was known as ‘fore and aft’ rig, and issued to ‘all ratings not dressed as seamen. This uniform was also issued to tradesmen known as "Artificers", who were collectively known as "Tiffies". So it was natural that sick berth attendants were also known as "Sick Berth Tiffies".

In 1920, the term Steward was dropped in favour of Petty Officer. Another major change took place in 1965 which affected the Royal Navy as a whole when the "Fore and Aft" rig was abolished in favour of the "Square Rig". Also in 1965 the term Medical Assistant replaced Sick Berth, and so it remains to this day.[3][4]

Royal Navy Commando MA uniform World War II

The Royal Navy Medical Assistant, throughout their history, whether as a Loblollyboy, or Sick Berth Rating, has seen action during war and in peace. From assisting the ships surgeons in amputating limbs to nursing the injured sailors and Marines from wars and battles throughout Britain's history, from the 16th century onwards. Most notably they served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars at sea,[5] the Crimean War, the Boer and other African wars,[6][7][8] the Chinese Boxer Rebellion,[9][10] and in World War I at sea and on the land as part of the Royal Naval Division. Of note during World War I, the Royal Marines also trained their own medics at Crystal Palace, London to form the R.M. Medical Units.[11] Both Sick Berth Staff of the Navy and the Medical Attendants of the Royal Marines served with distinction at the Battle of Jutland,[12] Flanders,[13] Gallipoli,[14] the Western Front,[15] Battle of Heligoland Bight,[16] Zeebrugge Raid,[4] the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force,[17] Siege of Antwerp,[18] the Battle of Dogger Bank,[19] and the British Campaign in the Baltic (Russia) to name a few.

At the end of the great war the Royal Marine Medical Units were disbanded along with a reduction of the Sick Berth Branch. During World War II the Sick Berth Branch once again served with distinction from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in Commando raids at St Nazaire and the D-Day landings at Normandy, the far East, and with the British Pacific Fleet at Okinawa.[4]

Post-war they served with further recognition and distinction in Op Musketeer (Suez Crisis), Korea, Aden, Malaya, Op Banner N. Ireland, Op Corporate Falkland Islands, Gulf War 1, Bosnia, Kosovo, Op Herrick Afghanistan, Op Telic Iraq, various humanitarian and other peace time Operations, both at sea and with the Royal Marine Commandos.[4]

Commando Forward Surgical Group 2 Az Zubayr Port Iraq 2003

Honours and awards[edit]

So far recorded the Sick Berth/Medical branch rating has earned:

An ongoing project is underway to find all honours and awards that have been recorded on the London Gazette for the Sick Berth/Medical Assistant ratings. Many more are being discovered.


Basic training (10 weeks) is conducted at HMS Raleigh shore establishment in Torpoint, Cornwall. Medical training[20] (39 weeks) is conducted at the Defence Medical Services Training Group at Whittington Barracks in Lichfield.

The first 13 weeks is called Common Core and is also completed with the medics from the British Army and RAF. This training includes:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Disorders and their treatments
  • Basic pharmacology and dispensing
  • Basic environmental health
  • Preventative medicine
  • Wounds and dressings
  • Medical administration
  • Geneva Convention
  • First-Aid
  • Military Acute Care Course, involving pre-hospital trauma and life support.

An exam is taken on each week, those unable on the pass on their second attempt of each exam are 'back classed'.

Once complete a clinical placement of 6 weeks is conducted in a Ministry of Defence Hospital Unit (MDHU) on various wards. Trainees then return to DMSTG Whittington barracks to complete 6 weeks of Single Service (SS) training. SS training involves learning all aspects of Royal Navy medical administration, medical care in the CBRN environment and the care of those suffering from CBRN causes. Included in this is a week spent on board the training ship, HMS Bristol to practice casualty extraction, treatment, casualty simulation, organising of First-Aid exercises and the management of First-Aid Parties during peace and action stations.

The final set of clinical placements covers a period of 12 weeks. The first 6 weeks are conducted at a Medical Centre at a shore establishment to put in to practice clinical primary care and administrative skills. The next 6 weeks are spent once again at a MDHU, this time culminating in shifts at Emergency Rooms and Medical and Surgical Acute Care wards.

On return from the final phase of clinical placements the trainees return to DMSTG for 2 weeks which involves final exams on everything learned and if successful, graduation. The final phase, called 'Part IV training' is then concluded by a consolidation period of 'on the job' supervised training (12 weeks) on board a ship or shore establishment sick bay.

Continuation of training[edit]

Throughout their career an MA must complete a rolling OPS task book. This task book covers all skills required for the MA to maintain their clinical skills in the primary care, secondary care and emergency care environments as well as medical administration and various maritime components. The various sections vary from being required to be completed annually to three yearly. The task book must be kept up to date and is an annual requirement if the rating is to be expected to even meet the basic qualifying criteria for further promotion. This ensures the MA remains current and motivated with their knowledge and skills. The rolling OPS task book is currently only required for the MA and Leading Medical Assistant (LMA) rates.

Pre-front line assignment training[edit]

Prior to joining a ship, submarine or 3 Commando Brigade, Massachusetts's must conduct either the Maritime or Commando MA's Pre-Joining training (PJT) of 6 weeks duration. This is conducted at the Institute of Naval Medicine (INM) and involves refresher and update training in primary and emergency care, medical administration and dental first-aid. The Maritime component involves exercising on board HMS Bristol. Those completing the commando component pracitce field exercises in the Role 1 and 2 field medical environments at Commando Logistics Regiment (CLR) Medical Squadron. Included in this PJT is the Battle Field Advanced Trauma Life Support (BATLs) course.

Commando Medical Assistant[edit]

Royal Navy Medical Assistants who volunteer for service with the Royal Marines must pass the All Arms Commando Course (9-weeks) held at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM) in Lympstone, Devon. Prior to this the Pre-All Arms Commando Course (4 weeks, Commando Logistics Regiment) must be taken to ensure candidates are suitable, selected and prepared prior to the All Arms Commando Course. The MA branch is also open to Royal Marines[21] and are designated as Royal Marine Medical Assistant (RMMA). Those that go on to work with reconnaissance sections of 3 Commando Brigade complete the basic military parachutist course.

Medical Assistants working in support of United Kingdom Special Forces[edit]

Those (Commando trained or Royal Marine Commando only) who have completed at least two operational tours and have passed the arduous Black Serpent course can be selected to provide medical support to UK Special Forces for either the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), UK Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) or the Special Boat Service (SBS). They then go on to complete the basic military parachutist course and, if required the HAHO and HALO Para courses. This predominantly provides a supportive role for UKSF, as the UKSF maintain their own operators that are SF medics.

Black Serpent selection and training[edit]

The Black Serpent course[22] is Tri-Service and open to RN, RAF and Army. It is run by the Medical Support Unit (MSU), Hereford and features various physical and other tests including a hills phase with march routes across the Brecon Beacons similar to those done for UKSF selection. Candidates will be expected to carry out simulated medical treatments during these marches. The goal of such exercises is to test a medic's ability successfully perform while under pressure and exhausted.

Submariner Medical Assistant[edit]

Those who volunteer for Service in the Submarine Service are responsible for the monitoring of air and water supplies and carrying out vital health and environmental safety checks.[23] The training undertaken is Radiation Protection and Nuclear Chemistry at The Defence College of Management and Technology, HMS Sultan in Gosport and also Atmosphere Monitoring training at The Institute of Naval Medicine in Alverstoke. On completion of this training, Medical Assistant Submariners, MA(SM)'s are awarded a City and Guilds Certificate in Radiation Protection and optional membership of the Guild of Radiation Workers.

Additional qualifications[edit]

Other additional specialisatons open to the MA Cadre are, Pharmacy Technician and Operating Department Practitioner which are civilian accredited.


The insignia of the Medical Assistant badge is the Red Cross of Geneva on a white back ground with gold circling. A Royal Crown above the insignia denotes that the rating is qualified at the senior rate level (PO).

Rating structure[edit]

The branch structure of the Medical Assistant follows the same as structures of the other branches of the Royal Navy.

  • Medical Assistant 2 (under training) (MA 2)
  • Medical Assistant (MA)
  • Leading Medical Assistant (LMA)
  • Petty Officer Medical Assistant (POMA)
  • Chief Petty Officer Medical Assistant (CPOMA)
  • Warrant Officer Medical Assistant (WOMA)

Medical Services Officer[edit]

Those who are at PO level who are qualified, recommended and selected, can go on to become Medical Services Officers (MSO). They undertake their initial training at Brittania Royal Naval College (BRNC) Dartmouth. The MSO are commisoned officers who provide policy, guidance and other managerial skills to the Medical Branches of the Royal Navy and Tri-service environment. The highest level they can reach is that of Captain, although there has been one instance of a Commodore. The MSO's were also previously called ward masters.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Medical Assistant (General Service), RN Careers
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  3. ^ a b c Sick Berth Association
  4. ^ a b c d Clark, G. "Doc": 100-year history of the Sick Berth Branch. London: HMSO, 1984 ISBN 0-11-290427-0
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