Royal Navy

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Ensign of the Royal Navy

The Royal Navy of the United Kingdom is the oldest of the British armed services (and is therefore the Senior Service). From the early 18th century to the middle of the 20th century, it was the largest and most powerful navy in the world, playing a key part in establishing the British Empire as the dominant power of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In World War II, the Royal Navy operated almost 900 ships. During the Cold War, it was transformed into a primarily anti-submarine force, hunting for Soviet submarines, mostly active in the GIUK gap. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its role for the 21st century has returned to focus on global expeditionary operations.

The Royal Navy is the second-largest navy in NATO in terms of the combined displacement of its fleet.There are currently 91 commissioned ships in the Royal Navy, including aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, mine counter-measures and patrol vessels. There are also the support vessels of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The Royal Navy's ability to project power globally is considered second only to the United States Navy.

The Royal Navy is a constituent component of the Naval Service, which also comprises the Royal Marines, Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Marines Reserve. The Royal Navy numbers 37,500 people of which approximately 6,000 are in the Royal Marines.


900 to 1500

England's first navy was established in the 9th century by Alfred the Great but, despite inflicting a significant defeat on the Vikings in the Wantsum Channel at Plucks Gutter near to Stourmouth, Kent, it fell into disuse. It was revived by King Athelstan and at the time of his victory at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, the English navy had a strength of approximately 400 ships. When the Norman invasion was imminent, King Harold had trusted to his navy to prevent William the Conqueror's invasion fleet from crossing the Channel. However, not long before the invasion the fleet was damaged in a storm and driven into harbour, and the Normans were able to cross unopposed and defeat Harold at the Battle of Hastings. The Norman kings created a naval force in 1155, or adapted a force which already existed, with ships provided by the Cinque Ports alliance. The Normans are believed to have established the post of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

During the Hundred Years War, the French fleet was initially stronger than the English fleet, but was almost completely destroyed at the Battle of Sluys in 1340. Much later the English navy suffered disastrous defeats off La Rochelle in 1372 and 1419 to Franco - Castilian fleets, and English ports were ravaged by fleets commanded by Jean de Vienne and Fernando Sánchez de Tovar. The English Navy began to develop though and King John had a fleet of 500 sails. In the mid-fourteenth century Edward III's navy had some 712 ships. There then followed a period of decline.


1500 to 1707

The first reformation and major expansion of the Navy Royal, as it was then known, occurred in the 16th century during the reign of Henry VIII, whose ships Henri Grâce a Dieu ("Great Harry") and Mary Rose engaged the French navy in the battle of the Solent in 1545. By the time of Henry's death in 1547 his fleet had grown to 58 vessels. In 1588 the Spanish Empire, at the time Europe's superpower and the leading naval power of the 16th century, and the Spanish Armada set sail to enforce Spain's dominance over the English Channel and transport troops from the Spanish Netherlands to England. The Spanish plan failed due to maladministration, logistical errors, English harrying, blocking actions by the Dutch, and bad weather. However, the bungled Drake-Norris Expedition of 1589 saw the tide of war turn against the Royal Navy.

Mary Rose completed in 1546

A permanent Naval Service did not exist until the mid 17th century, when the 'General-at-Sea' (equivalent to Admiral) Robert Blake took the Fleet Royal under Parliamentary control following the defeat of Charles I. After defeats in the second and third Anglo-Dutch wars the Royal Navy gradually developed into the strongest navy in the world. From 1692 the Dutch navy was placed under the command of the Royal Navy's admirals (though not incorporated into it) by order of William III following the Glorious Revolution.

Under the Acts of Union in 1707 the Royal Scots Navy merged with the English Navy and the modern Royal Navy came into being. The Royal Navy had become the British Navy.


1707 to 1914

The early 18th century saw the Royal Navy with more ships than other navies. Although it suffered severe financial problems throughout the earlier part of this period, modern methods of financing government and in particular, the Navy were developed. This financing enabled the navy to become the powerful force of the later 18th century without bankrupting the country. Naval operations in the War of the Spanish Succession were at first focused on the acquisition of a Mediterranean base, culminating in an alliance with Portugal and the capture of Gibraltar (1704) and Port Mahon (1708). The middle part of the century was occupied with the War of the Austrian Succession and the lesser known War of Jenkin's Ear against Spain.

In the latter war, the British deployed a very large force under Admiral Edward Vernon in the Battle of Cartagena, aiming to capture this major Spanish colonial port in modern day Colombia. Following an able defense assisted by strong fortifications, and the ravages of disease, the British failed in their attempts. The Navy also saw action in the Seven Years War which was later described by Winston Churchill as the first world war. The latter part of the century saw action in the American Revolutionary War where the Navy was defeating the fledgling Continental Navy until French intervention in 1778. The most important operation of the war came in 1781 when during the Battle of the Chesapeake the British failed to lift the French blockade of Lord Cornwallis, resulting in a British surrender in the Battle of Yorktown. Although combat was over in North America, it continued in the Caribbean (Battle of the Saintes) and India, where the British experienced both successes and failures.

HMS Beagle watercolour painting, circa 1841

The Napoleonic Wars saw the Royal Navy reach a peak of efficiency, dominating the navies of all Britain's adversaries. Initially Britain did not involve itself in the French Revolution, but in 1793 France declared war. The next 12 years saw battles such as the Cape St Vincent and the Nile and short lived truces such as the Peace of Amiens. The height of the Navy's achievements though came on 21 October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar where a numerically smaller but more experienced British fleet under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson decisively defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet. This eventually led to almost uncontested power over the world's oceans from 1805 to 1914, when it came to be said that "Britannia ruled the waves".

In the years following the battle of Trafalgar there was increasing tension at sea between Britain and the United States. American traders took advantage of their country's neutrality to trade with both the French-controlled parts of Europe and Britain. Both France and Britain tried to prevent each other's trade, but only the Royal Navy was in a position to enforce a blockade.

In 1812, the United States declared war on the United Kingdom and invaded Canada. At sea, the American War of 1812 was characterized by single-ship actions between small ships, and disruption of merchant shipping. Between 1793 and 1815 the Royal Navy lost 344 vessels due to non-combat causes: 75 by foundering, 254 shipwrecked and 15 from accidental burnings or explosions. In the same period it lost 103,660 seamen: 84,440 by disease and accidents, 12,680 by shipwreck or foundering, and 6,540 by enemy action. During the 19th century the Royal Navy enforced a ban on the slave trade, acted to suppress piracy, and continued to map the world. To this day, Admiralty charts are maintained by the Royal Navy. Royal Navy vessels on surveying missions carried out extensive scientific work. Charles Darwin travelled around the world on HMS Beagle, making scientific observations which led him to the Theory of Evolution.

The end of the 19th century saw structural changes brought about by First Lord of the Admiralty Jackie Fisher who retired, scrapped, or placed into reserve many of the older vessels, making funds and manpower available for newer ships. He also oversaw the development of HMS Dreadnought, the first all-big-gun ship and one of the most influential ships in naval history. This ship rendered all other battleships then existing obsolete, and started an arms race in Europe. Admiral Percy Scott introduced several new programs such as gunnery training programs which greatly and a central fire control the effectiveness in battle of the Navy's ships.


1914 to 1945

During the two World Wars the Royal Navy played a vital role in keeping the United Kingdom supplied with food, arms and raw materials and in defeating the German campaigns of unrestricted submarine warfare in the first and second battles of the Atlantic. During World War I the majority of the Royal Navy's strength was deployed at home in the Grand Fleet. The primary aim was to draw the Hochseeflotte (the German "High Seas Fleet") into an engagement. No decisive victory ever came though. The Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine fought many engagements including the Battle of Heligoland Bight, and the Battle of Jutland. Although it suffered heavier losses than the Hocheseeflotte it did succeed in preventing the German Fleet from putting to sea in the latter stages of the War.

HMS Dreadnought built in 1906 and sold for scrap in 1923

In the inter-war period the Royal Navy was stripped of much of its power. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, together with the deplorable financial conditions during the immediate post-war period and the Great Depression, forced the Admiralty to scrap some capital ships and to cancel plans for new construction. The London Naval Treaty of 1930 deferred new capital ship construction until 1937 and reiterated construction limits on cruisers, destroyers and submarines. As international tensions increased in the mid-1930s the Second London Naval Treaty of 1935 failed to halt the development of a naval arms race and by 1938 treaty limits were effectively ignored. The re-armament of the Royal Navy was well under way by this point; the Royal Navy had constructed the King George V class of 1936 and several aircraft carriers including Ark Royal. In addition to new construction, several existing old battleships, battle cruisers and heavy cruisers were reconstructed, and anti-aircraft weaponry reinforced. However around this time, the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy began to surpass the Royal Navy in power.

HMS Hood. Launched in 1918 and sank during the battle of Demark 1941

During the early phases of [World War II]], the Royal Navy provided critical cover during British evacuations from Dunkirk, Greece and Crete. In the latter operation Admiral Cunningham ran great risks to extract the Army, and saved many soldiers. The Royal Navy suffered huge losses in the early stages of the war including HMS Hood, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. As well as providing cover in operations it was also vital in guarding the sea lanes that enabled British forces to fight in remote parts of the world such as North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Far East. Naval supremacy in the Atlantic was vital to the amphibious operations carried out, such as the invasions of Northwest Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy. During the war however, it became clear that aircraft carriers were the new capital ship of naval warfare, and that Britain's former naval superiority in terms of battleships had become irrelevant. Though Britain was an early innovator in aircraft carrier design and in many naval technologies, it did not have to resources to pursue this in the post-war period.


1945 to Present

After World War II, the decline of the British Empire and the economic hardships in Britain at the time forced the reduction in the size and capability of the Royal Navy. The increasingly powerful U.S. Navy took on the former role of the Royal Navy as a means of keeping peace around the world. However, the threat of the Soviet Union and British commitments throughout the world created a new role for the Navy. In the 1960s, the Royal Navy received its first nuclear weapons and was later to become responsible for the maintenance of the UK's nuclear deterrent. In the latter stages of the Cold War, the Royal Navy was reconfigured with three anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft carriers and a force of small frigates and destroyers. Its purpose was to search for and destroy Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic.

Modern Royal Navy Type23 Frigate

The most important operation conducted predominantly by the Royal Navy after the Second World War was the defeat in 1982 of Argentina in the Falkland Islands War. Despite losing four naval ships and other civilian and RFA ships the Royal Navy proved it was still able to fight a battle 8,345 miles (12,800 km) from Great Britain. HMS Conqueror is the only nuclear-powered submarine to have engaged an enemy ship with torpedoes, sinking the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano. The war also underlined the importance of aircraft carriers and submarines and exposed the service's late 20th century dependence on chartered merchant vessels. The Royal Navy also took part in the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghanistan Campaign, and the 2003 Iraq War, the last of which saw RN warships bombard positions in support of the Al Faw Peninsula landings by Royal Marines. In August 2005 the Royal Navy rescued seven Russians stranded in a submarine off the Kamchatka peninsula. Using its Scorpio 45, a remote-controlled mini-sub, the submarine was freed from the fishing nets and cables that had held the Russian submarine for three days.


Customs and Traditions

The Royal Navy has several formal customs and traditions including the use of ensigns and ships badges. Royal Navy ships have several ensigns used when under way and when in port. Commissioned ships and submarines wear the White Ensign at the stern whilst alongside during daylight hours and at the main-mast whilst under way. When alongside, the Union Jack (as distinct from the Union Flag, often referred to as the Union Jack) is flown from the jackstaff at the stem, and can only be flown under way either to signal a court-martial is in progress or to indicate the presence of an Admiral of the Fleet on-board (including the Lord High Admiral, the Monarch).

The Fleet Review is an irregular tradition of assembling the fleet before the monarch. The first review is purported to have been held in 1400 and the most recent review was held on 28 June 2005. This was to mark the bi-centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar; 167 ships from many different nations attended with the Royal Navy supplying 67.

There are several less formal traditions including service nicknames and Naval slang.The nicknames include "The Andrew" (of uncertain origin, possibly after a zealous press ganger) and "The Senior Service". The RN has evolved a rich volume of slang, known as "Jack-speak". Nowadays the British sailor is usually "Jack" (or "Jenny") rather than the more historical "Jack Tar". Royal Marines are fondly known as "Bootnecks" or often just as "Royals". The current compendium of Naval slang was brought together by Commander A. Covey-Crump and his name has in itself become the subject of Naval slang; Covey Crump. A game traditionally played by the Navy is the four player board game called Uckers. This is similar to Ludo and it is regarded as extremely difficult to learn.

The March of the Royal navy is Heart of Oak.