History of the Royal Navy

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The History of the Royal Navy can be traced back to before the ninth century AD. However, the present Royal Navy was formally created as the national naval force of the Kingdom of England in 1660, following the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne. In 1707 it became the naval force of the Kingdom of Great Britain after the Union between England and Scotland which merged the English Navy with the much smaller Royal Scots Navy, although the two had begun operating together from the time of the Union of the Crowns in 1603.

The English Navy had no defined moment of formation; it started out as a motley assortment of "King's ships" during the Middle Ages assembled only as needed and then dispersed, began to take shape as a standing navy during the 16th century, and became a regular establishment during the tumults of the 17th century. The Navy grew considerably during the global struggle with France that started in 1690 and culminated in the Napoleonic Wars, a time when the practice of fighting under sail was developed to its highest point.

The ensuing century of general peace saw considerable technological development, with sail yielding to steam and cannon supplanted by large shell-firing guns, and ending with the race to construct bigger and better battleships. That race, however, was ultimately a dead end, as aircraft carriers and submarines came to the fore and, after the successes of World War II, the Royal Navy yielded its formerly preeminent place to the United States Navy. The Royal Navy has remained one of the world's most capable navies, however, and currently operates a large fleet of modern ships.


Earliest origins 550-1603


Founder of the navy

Saxon boat burials at Snape (about 550) and Sutton Hoo (about 625) show that sophisticated warships were being built at this period. Northumbria conquered the Isle of Man and Anglesey in about 620 and sent an expedition to Ireland.

The threat from Vikings or "The force" as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles refers to them increased significantly in the early part of the 9th Century and invasions became a serious menace in 835.[1]

The early battles may all have been fought on land. However in 851 the Vikings overwintered.[2] 350 ships appeared in the Thames estuary, “ruined Canterbury,” and "made the greatest carnage of a heathern army that we have ever heard of".[2] Æthelstan of Wessex and ealdorman Ealhere “fought in ships” won a battle at Sandwich, Kent(851) capturing 9 ships.[2] Several other naval battles are recorded and in 882 Alfred himself fought against four ships, capturing two.,[3]

In 896 Alfred had a number of "longships", "nearly twice as long as the others", built to his own design some having 60 oars, some even more, to counter raids along the south coast.[4] Alfred’s victory later that year saw nine of his new ships trap six Danish ships.[4]

The description of the battle is that the Danes beached along a river estuary and proceeded inland. The larger English vessels then arrived to find them on the shore at low tide and could not reach them due to mudflats and some being on the opposite bank. However after some confused skirmishing several were destroyed and several escaped as, despite being beached higher than the English, the Danes lifted with the tide sooner.
Hence it is conjectured either that the Danes used wooden rollers or that another channel was involved which flooded their landing place first despite it being further inland. This has therefore led to the speculation that the site might have been at Poole or at Hayling Island or at Puckers Gut on Romney Marsh. However the most likely place is Bembridge Harbour on the Isle of Wight, which is now a harbour at the mouth of the River Yar. Until comparatively recently however there was a channel cutting Bembridge off as an island and flowing out by Yaverland. In 897 sea levels were higher due to natural global warming and this would have been easily navigable by the light Danish craft and would have provided the necessary impetus for them to float off more quickly. Alfred created the first standing navy, as opposed to ad hoc musters of available craft. This was funded by taxation from areas called "ship sokes" consisting of 300 hides of land which were to provide a ship. Every 4 hides were to provide a helmet and every 40 a "boat". A hide was the amount of land required to support a family, which was locally variable. This indicates a high ratio of "boats" to ships and the ratio of helmets to ship suggests a fighting crew of around 75. This was sufficiently large—and may have been to Alfred's personal design—to intercept and defeat Danish "drakkar", typically of around 36 oars.

Saxons and Danes

The navy soon fell into disrepair however, to be 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 which were used to support the land force on the expedition to Scotland. Under King Edgar annual musters and manoeuvres were held of allegedly up to 1,000 ships. Given the provision of ship soke, numbers of this size are implied, but seem unwieldy and may have included "boats" and merchant vessels. In 992 the fleet was concentrated in London against Olaf Tryggvason.

Although there is evidence of subsequent attempts to fund a national naval force, there was no opposition to the landings of Sweyn Forkbeard from 1003 onwards, nor to the takeover by Cnut in 1016. A large force was assembled by Ethelred the Unready in 1009 at Sandwich under the command of Brihtric, brother of Eadric Streona. However Brihtric accused his subordinate commander Wulfnoth Cild of Sussex (his nephew, son of Aethelmaer se Greata) of treachery. Whilst he vehemently denied this, he nonetheless led a mutiny and sailed off with a third of the fleet. Brihtric followed, but was overwhelmed by a storm. Wulfnoth's ships then returned and burnt the stricken vessels, before defecting to the Danes in East Anglia.

Aelthred ordered the construction of a national fleet in 1008. Ethelred the Unready had significant problems retaining the loyalty of his naval commanders, with Aelfric being deprived of his position as Ealdorman of Mercia for betraying naval secrets to the Danes. He also attempted to mount an unsuccessful raid against Normandy. In the reign of Cnut an English expedition was mounted to support his policies in Norway.

Thorkell the Tall defected to the English from the Danes with a ship of 80 men in 1012. Earl Godwin presented a ship of 80 men to Hardicanute also of 80 men, which seems to have then become the standard size of a warship. After 1016 Cnut had a standing navy of 16 ships including a 120 oared flagship. Edward the Confessor stood down the navy in 1050/1, paying off 14 ships, but then found it impossible to control Earl Godwin and his followers who were exiled following a dispute over his refusal to discipline the citizens of Dover. Godwin and his sons split their forces between Flanders and Dublin and were able to visit their estates in the Isle of Wight and South East England, eventually gaining sufficient support from the "butsecarles" (literally "boatmen") of Kent to sail to London and dictate terms to the King. In 1054 Earl Siward took a fleet to Scotland to defeat Macbeth while in 1063 Edward the Confessor sent a fleet from Bristol around Wales after Gruffydd ap Llywelyn.

While fighting off the attack by King Harald Hardrada of Norway and Tostig Godwinson, Harold Godwinson did have some ships cruising off the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1066, but they ended their vigil in early September, three weeks before the Norman invasion. William the Conqueror had earlier built up a fleet but is thought to have waited until the English one's supplies ran out. It is said that this was because Harold had a "numberless fleet with expert crews long experienced in maritime dangers and battles".

After the Norman Conquest

William the Conqueror sent a fleet to Scotland in 1072 but by the early 12th century the fleet had almost disappeared. Yet in 1141 Henry II invaded Ireland while a fleet of 167 ships sailed from Dartmouth on a crusade to capture Lisbon from the Moors. A further fleet was raised for the Third Crusade in 1190. The Norman kings had a regular need for cross-Channel transport and raised a naval force in 1155, with the Cinque Ports required to provide a total of 57 ships crewed by 21 sailors apiece. However, with the loss of Normandy by King John (who even so had a fleet of 500 sail in an attempt to regain it), this had to become a force capable of preventing invasion (e.g. the 1215-1217 French invasion of England) and protecting traffic to and from Gascony. In the first years of the 13th century William de Wrotham appears in the records as the clerk of a force of galleys to be used against Philip Augustus of France. In 1206 King John ordered 54 royal galleys to be constructed and between 1207 and 1211 £5000 was spent on the royal fleet. The fleet also started to have an offensive capability, as in 1213 when ships commanded by the Earl of Salisbury raided Damme in Flanders, where they burned many ships of the French fleet.

An infrastructure was also developing—by 1212 a base existed at Portsmouth, supporting at least ten ships, including a flagship Dieulabeni and a horse transport Portjoy. Later in the 13th century ships begin to be mentioned regularly as support for various campaigns under Edward I, most notably in Luke de Tany's capture of Anglesey in 1282. Edward II of England attempted to blockade Scotland, but ineffectively. Naval expenses were considerable, with twenty 120-oared galleys being ordered in 1294 because of a fear of French invasion. In the late 13th century there were Northern and Western fleets commanded by "Admirals" who responsible for raising and administering the ships. The post of "Lord High Admiral of England" was created in 1408.

The Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) included a number of cross-Channel raids both ways, mostly unopposed due to lack of effective communications. The navy was used for reconnaissance as well as attacks on merchantmen and warships. Prize ships and cargos were shared out. The Battle of Sluys in 1340 was a significant English victory, with Edward III of England's 160 ships (mostly hired merchant vessels) assaulting a French force in the Zwyn estuary and capturing 180 French ships in hand-to-hand combat. Les Espagnols sur Mer, fought in the Channel off Winchelsea in 1350, is possibly the first English major sea battle; the English captured 14 Spanish ships. The 14th century also saw the creation of the post of Clerk of the King's Ships, who appears from 1344 on as in charge of some 34 royal vessels. In the mid-fourteenth century Edward III's navy overall had some 700 ships.

English fortunes declined in the 1370s, with merchants objecting to the continual borrowing of their ships. Merchantmen were impressed 22 times between 1338 and 1360. There was objection to the taxation to man the king's ships, and by the end of the reign of Richard II of England only four were left, and by 1409 only two. Henry V of England revived the navy, building a number of balingers and "great ships", increasing the fleet from six in 1413 to 39 in 1417/8. This included the 1,400-ton Grace Dieu (which still exists, buried in the Hamble estuary), and won victories in the Channel, reaching a high point in 1417 when the French fleet was destroyed. An invasion of France took place in 1415 which led to the capture of Harfleur and the victory at Agincourt. On Henry's death in 1422 the fleet was sold off and then the lands in France were lost except for Calais where there was a battle in 1458. There was an invasion of France in 1475 under Edward IV who was bought off by the French king. Significant new construction did not occur until the 1480s, by which time ships mounted guns regularly; the Regent of 1487 had 225 serpentines, an early type of cannon. The first known dry dock was constructed at Portsmouth in 1495.

The beginnings of an organized English navy, 1485–1603

Henry Grâce à Dieu, from the Anthony Roll.
Mary Rose, from the Anthony Roll

The first reformation the Navy Royal, as it was then known, occurred in the 16th century during the reign of Henry VII who funded fighting ships by an import levy. His ships were based at the Tower of London. Henry VIII ordered a major expansion of the fleet, which increased from five ships in 1509 to thirty in 1514 including the Henri Grâce a Dieu ("Great Harry") of 1500 tons and Mary Rose of 600 tons. Most of the fleet was laid up after 1525 but, because of the break with the Catholic Church, 27 new ships were built with money from the sale of the monasteries as well as forts and blockhouses. In 1544 Boulogne was captured. The French navy raided the Isle of Wight and was then fought off in the Battle of the Solent in 1545, prior to which Mary Rose sank.

A detailed and largely accurate contemporary document, The Anthony Roll, was written in 1540. It gave a nearly complete account of the English navy, which contained roughly 50 ships, including carracks, galleys, galleasses and pinnaces. The carracks included famous vessels such as the Mary Rose, the Peter Pomegranate and the Henry Grace à Dieu. By the time of Henry's death in 1547 his fleet had grown to 58 vessels, although armed merchantmen owned by private individuals still comprised a large proportion of war-fleets.

There was an Anglo-French war between 1543 and 1549 which saw a battle off the Channel Islands in 1549. In 1580 Spanish and Portuguese troops were sent to Ireland but were defeated by an English army and naval force.

In the 1550s English gentlemen opposed to the Catholicism of Philip and Mary took refuge in France and were active in the English Channel as privateers under letters of marque from the French king. Six of their vessels were captured off Plymouth in July 1556.

In the late 16th century the Spanish Empire, at the time Europe's superpower and the leading naval power of the 16th century, threatened England with invasion to restore Catholicism in England. Francis Drake attacked Cadiz and A Coruña to delay the attack. The Spanish Armada finally set sail in 1588 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, blocking actions by the Dutch, bad weather, and the significant defeat by the English at the naval Battle of Gravelines. However, the bungled Drake-Norris Expedition of 1589 and the more successful raid by Lord Howard in 1596 prevented further invasion plans from occurring. A blockade of the Spanish coast was undertaken by John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher in 1590. Under the reign of Elizabeth I England raided Spain's ports and attacked Spanish ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean, capturing much treasure.

While Henry VIII had launched the Royal Navy, his successors King Edward VI and Queen Mary I had ignored it and it was little more than a system of coastal defense. Elizabeth made naval strength a high priority.[5] She risked war with Spain by supporting the "Sea Dogs," such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake, who preyed on the Spanish merchant ships carrying gold and silver from the New World. The Navy yards were leaders in technical innovation, and the captains devised new tactics. Parker (1996) argues that the full-rigged ship was one of the greatest technological advances of the century and permanently transformed naval warfare. In 1573 English shipwrights introduced designs, first demonstrated in the "Dreadnaught," that allowed the ships to sail faster and maneuver better and permitted heavier guns.[6] Whereas before warships had tried to grapple with each other so that soldiers could board the enemy ship, now they stood off and fired broadsides that would sink the enemy vessel. When Spain finally decided to invade and conquer England it was a fiasco. Superior English ships and seamanship foiled the invasion and led to the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588, marking the high point of Elizabeth's reign. Technically, the Armada failed failure because Spain's ov er-complex strategy required coordination between the invasion fleet and the Spanish army on shore. But the poor design of the Spanish cannons meant they were much slower in reloading in a close-range battle, allowing the England to take control. Spain and France still had stronger fleets, but England was catching up.[7]


The Scottish Red Ensign, flown by ships of the Royal Scots Navy

The Royal Scots Navy (or Old Scots Navy) was the navy of the Kingdom of Scotland until its merger with the Kingdom of England's Royal Navy in 1707 as a consequence of the Treaty of Union and the Acts of Union that ratified it. From 1603 until 1707, the Royal Scots Navy and England's Royal Navy were organised as one force, though not technically merged, as a consequence of the Union of the Crowns when James VI of Scotland became King of England also, as James I.

Though the Lord of the Isles had a large fleet of galleys in the 13th and 14th centuries, there appears little or no trace of a Scots navy during the Wars of Scottish Independence. With Scottish independence established, Robert the Bruce turned his attention to the upbuilding of Scots shipping and of a Scots navy. In his later days he visited the Western Isles, which was part of the domain of the powerful Lords of the Isles who owed only a loose allegiance to him, and established a royal castle at East Loch Tarbert in Argyll to overawe the semi-independent Islemen. The Exchequer Rolls of 1326 record the feudal services of certain of his vassals on the western coast in aiding him with their vessels and crews. Near his palace at Cardross on the River Clyde he spent his last days in shipbuilding; and one royal man-of-war of the Viking type at least was equipped by him before he died in 1329.

15th century expansion

In the 15th century, James I gave close attention to the shipping interests of his country, establishing a shipbuilding yard, a house for marine stores, and a workshop at Leith. In 1429 James went to the Western Isles with one of his ships to curb his vassals there. In the same year Parliament enacted a law that each four merk land on the north and west coasts of Scotland within six miles of the sea was, in feudal service to the king, to furnish one oar. This was the nearest approach ever made in Scotland to the ship money of England. His successor, James II, developed the use of gunpowder and artillery. James III and James IV continued to build up the navy, with James III having 38 ships built for the fleet and founding two new dockyards. In addition, the Scots Parliaments passed legislation in 1493 and 1503 requiring all seaboard burghs to keep "busches" of 20 tons to be manned by idle able-bodied men.

A model of the Great Michael in the Royal Museum

James IV succeeded in building up a navy that was truly royal. Dissatisfied with sandbanks at Leith, James himself sited a new harbour at Newhaven in May 1504, and two years later ordered the construction of a dockyard at the Pools of Airth. The upper reaches of the Forth were protected by new fortifications on Inchgarvie.[8] His greatest achievement was the construction of Great Michael, the largest ship up to that time launched in Scotland, the building of which cost £30,000. Work on the ship commenced in 1506, first launched on 11 October 1511 at Newhaven, she sailed up the Forth to Airth for further fitting. The Michael weighed 1,000 tons, was 240 feet (73 m) in length, was manned by 1,000 seamen and 120 gunners and was then the largest ship in Europe (according to the chronicler Lindsay of Pitscottie). In 1514 the Great Michael was sold to France for 40,000 francs tournais,[9]

Neglect and eventual merger

The Scottish Reformation in 1560 established a government that was friendly to England and this resulted in less military necessity to maintain a fleet of great ships. With the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the incentive to rebuild a separate royal fleet for Scotland diminished further since James VI now controlled the powerful English Royal Navy, which could send ships north to defend Scottish interests, and which now opened its ranks to Scottish officers.

From 1603 until union with England in 1707, Scotland and England continued to have separate navies, though they operated as one force. Thomas Gordon became the last commander of the Royal Scots Navy, taking charge of HMS Royal Mary on the North Sea patrol, moving to Royal William when she entered service in 1705, and being promoted to commodore in 1706. With the Act of Union in 1707, the Royal Scottish Navy was merged with the English Royal Navy, but there were already much larger English ships called Royal William and Mary, so the Scottish frigates were renamed HMS Edinburgh and HMS Glasgow, while only Dumbarton Castle retained its name.

The development of the single British navy

Sovereign of the Seas

After 1603 the English and Scottish fleets were organized together under James I but the efficiency of the Navy declined gradually, while corruption grew until brought under control in an inquiry of 1618. James concluded a peace with Spain and privateering was outlawed. Notable construction in the early 17th century included the 1,200-ton Prince Royal, the first three-decker, and Sovereign of the Seas in 1637, designed by Phineas Pett. Operations under James I did not go well, with expeditions against Algerian pirates in 1620/1, Cadiz in 1625, and La Rochelle in 1627/8 being expensive failures.

Expansion of the fighting force, 1642–1689

Charles I levied "ship money" from 1634 and this unpopular tax was one of the main causes of the first English Civil War from 1642-45. At the beginning of the war the navy, then consisting of 35 vessels, sided with Parliament. During the war the royalist side used a number of small ships to blockade ports and for supplying their own armies. These were afterwards combined into a single force. Charles had surrendered to the Scots and conspired with them to invade England during the second English Civil War of 1648-51. In 1648 part of the Parliamentary fleet mutinied and joined the Royalist side. However, the Royalist fleet was driven to Spain and destroyed during the Commonwealth period by Blake.

The execution of Charles I forced the rapid expansion of the navy, by multiplying England's actual and potential enemies, and many vessels were constructed from the 1650s onward. This second reformation of the navy was carried out under 'General-at-Sea' (equivalent to Admiral) Robert Blake during Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth. (Unlike the Royal Navy, the land forces are descended from a variety of different sources, including both royalist and Parliamentary forces.) The 1651 "Navigation Act" cut out Dutch shippers from English trade. Operations of the late 17th century were dominated by the three Anglo-Dutch Wars, which stretched from 1652 to 1674. Forty new ships were built between 1650 and 1654. Triggered by seemingly trivial incidents, but motivated by economic competition, they were notable as purely naval wars fought in the English Channel and the North Sea. In February 1653 the English Channel was closed to Dutch ships which were then forced back to their home ports. Finally the Dutch accepted the Navigation Act and the British bought up Dutch merchant ships.

The Interregnum saw a considerable expansion in the strength of the navy, both in number of ships and in internal importance within English policy. The Restoration Monarchy inherited this large navy and continued the same policy of expansion of the navy, focusing on making a strong navy full of large ships in order to provide a strong defense under Charles II.[10] At the start of the Restoration, Parliament listed forty ships of the Royal Navy (not of the Summer's Guard) with a complement of 3,695 sailors.[11] The administration of the navy was greatly improved by Sir William Coventry and Samuel Pepys, both of whom began their service in 1660 with the Restoration. While it was Pepys' diary that made him the most famous of all naval bureaucrats, his nearly thirty years of administration were crucial in replacing the ad hoc processes of years past with regular programmes of supply, construction, pay, and so forth. He was responsible for introduction of the "Navy List" which fixed the order of promotion. In 1683 the "Victualling Board" was set up which fixed the ration scales. In 1655 Blake routed the Barbary pirates and started a campaign against the Spanish in the Caribbean, capturing Jamaica.

In 1664 the British captured New Amsterdam (later New York City) resulting in the Second Dutch War (1665–1667). In 1666 the Four Days Battle was a defeat for the British but the Dutch fleet was crushed a month later off Orfordness. In 1667 the Dutch mounted the Raid on the Medway, breaking into Chatham Dockyard and capturing or burning many of the Navy's largest ships at their moorings,[12] which resulted in the most humiliating defeat in the Royal Navy's history.[13] The British were also defeated at Solebay in 1672. The experience of large-scale battle was instructive to the Navy; the Articles of War regularizing the conduct of officers and seaman, and the "Fighting Instructions" establishing the line of battle, both date from this period. 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.

The influence and reforms of Samuel Pepys, the Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under both King Charles II and subsequently King James II, were important in the early professionalisation of the Royal Navy.[14]

Wars with France, Spain and America, 1690–1815

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 rearranged the political map of Europe, and led to a series of wars with France that lasted well over a century. This was the classic age of sail; while the ships themselves evolved in only minor ways, technique and tactics were honed to a high degree, and the battles of the Napoleonic Wars entailed feats that would have been impossible for the fleets of the 17th century. Because of parliamentary opposition, James II fled the country. The landing of William III and the Glorious Revolution itself was a gigantic effort involving 100 warships and 400 transports carrying 11,000 infantry and 4,000 horses. It was not opposed by the English or Scottish fleets. Louis XIV declared war just days later, a conflict which became known as the War of the Grand Alliance. The English defeat at the Battle of Beachy Head of 1690 led to an improved version of the Fighting Instructions, and subsequent operations against French ports proved more successful, leading to decisive victory at La Hougue in 1692. In 1689 the French navy landed James II in Ireland and the Royal Navy failed in attempts to attack his supply ships and at a battle off Beachy Head. James's French invasion fleet could not exploit its victory. Although it burned the town of Teignmouth on its way home, the fleet was sunk by the Royal Navy off the coast of Normandy.

Naval operations in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13) were with the Dutch against the Spanish and French. They 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 in Minorca (1708). In addition Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were obtained. Even so, freedom of action in the Mediterranean did not decide the war, although it gave the new Kingdom of Great Britain (created by the Union of England and Scotland in 1707) an advantage when negotiating the Peace of Utrecht, and made Britain a recognized great power. Spanish treasure fleets were sunk in 1704 and 1708, and the Spanish Empire was opened up to British slaving voyages. The British fleet ended Spanish occupation of Sicily in 1718 and in 1727 blockaded Panama.

The subsequent quarter-century of peace saw a few naval actions. The navy was used against Russia and Sweden in the Baltic from 1715 to 1727 to protect supplies of naval stores. It was used at the Cape Passaro in 1718, during the Great Northern War, and in the West Indies (1726). There was a war against Spain in 1739 over the slave trade. In 1745 the navy transported troops and stores to Scotland to defeat the Jacobite Rising.

The War of Jenkins' Ear (1739–48) saw various naval operations in the Caribbean under admirals Vernon and Anson against Spanish trade and possessions, before the war subsequently merged into the wider War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748). This, in turn, brought a new round of naval operations against France, including a blockade of Toulon. In 1745 the navy twice defeated the French off Finisterre but their convoys escaped. The Navy also defended against invasion by Charles Edward Stuart the "Young Pretender". By the end of the war, the Navy was fully engaged in the worldwide protection of British trade.

The Seven Years' War (1756–65) began somewhat inauspiciously for the Navy, with a French siege of Minorca and the failure of Admiral John Byng to relieve it; he was executed on his own quarterdeck. Voltaire famously wrote that he had been shot "to encourage the others" (admirals). Minorca was lost but subsequent operations went more successfully (due more to government support and better strategic thinking, rather than admirals "encouraged" by Byng's example), and the British fleet won several victories. The French tried to invade Britain in 1759 but their force was defeated at Quiberon Bay off the coast of Brittany. Spain entered the war against Britain in 1762 but lost Havana and Manila, though the latter was given back in exchange for Florida. The Treaty of Paris that ended the war left Britain with colonial gains, but isolated strategically.

At the beginning of the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), the Royal Navy dealt with the fledgling Continental Navy handily, destroying or capturing many of its vessels. However, France soon took the American side, and in 1778 a French fleet sailed for America, where it attempted to land at Rhode Island and nearly engaged with the British fleet before a storm intervened, while back home another fought the British in the First Battle of Ushant. Spain and Holland entered the war in 1780. Action shifted to the Caribbean, where there were a number of battles with varying results. A Spanish fleet was defeated at the battle of Cape Saint Vincent in 1780 while a Franco-Spanish fleet was defeated in the West Indies in 1782. The most important operation came in 1781 when, in 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. Though Minorca had been recaptured, it was returned to the Spanish.

French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)

The French Revolutionary War of 1793-1802 and the Napoleonic War of 1803-15 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, leading to the Glorious First of June battle in the following year off Brest, followed by the capture of French colonies in the Caribbean. Holland declared war in 1795 and Spain in 1796, on the side of France. Further action came in 1797 and 1798, with the battles of Cape St Vincent and the Nile, which brought Admiral Horatio Nelson to the public's attention. It was one of the most decisive battles ever fought and caused Napoleon to withdraw from Egypt. In 1800 Russia, Sweden and Denmark agreed to resist British warships searching neutral shipping for French goods and in 1801 the Danes closed their ports to British shipping. This caused Britain to attack ships and the fort at the Battle of Copenhagen.

HMS Victory in 1884

The Peace of Amiens in 1802 proved to be but a brief interruption in the years of warfare, and the Navy was soon blockading Napoleon's France. In 1805 French invasion forces were massed on the French coast with 2300 vessels. The French fleet at Toulon went to the West Indies where it was intended to meet the Spanish one but it was chased by the British fleet and returned without meeting up. After fighting an action off Finisterre the French fleet withdrew to Cadiz where it met up with the Spanish one. The height of the Navy's achievements 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 the combined French and Spanish fleet. The victory at Trafalgar consolidated the United Kingdom's advantage over other European maritime powers.

By concentrating its military resources in the navy, Britain could both defend itself and project its power across the oceans as well as threaten rivals' ocean trading routes. Britain therefore needed to maintain only a relatively small, highly mobile, professional army that sailed to where it was needed, and was supported by the navy with bombardment, movement, supplies and reinforcement. The Navy could cut off enemies' sea-borne supplies, as with Napoleon's army in Egypt. Other major European powers had to divide their resources between large navies, large armies, and fortifications to defend their land frontiers. The domination of the sea therefore allowed Britain to rapidly build its empire after the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) and throughout the 19th century, giving it enormous military, political and commercial advantages.

Unlike the navy of pre-revolutionary France, the highest commands of the Royal Navy were open to all within its ranks showing talent. This greatly increased the number of talented men available, although there was always a bias towards the upper class. The French revolution's anti-aristocratic purges caused the loss of most of the French navy's experienced commanders, increasing the Royal Navy's advantage over France. During wartime, ships were often manned by means of Impressment, where experienced seamen could be required to move from merchant ships to naval vessels, and (from 1795) by the Quota System, where each county was required to supply a certain number of volunteers.

The conditions of service for ordinary seamen, while poor by modern standards, were better than many other kinds of work at the time. However, inflation during the late 18th century eroded the real value of seamen's pay while, at the same time, the war caused an increase in pay for merchant ships. Naval pay also often ran years in arrears, and shore leave decreased as ships needed to spend less time in port with better provisioning and health care, and copper bottoms (which delayed fouling). Discontent over these issues eventually resulted in serious mutinies in 1797 when the crews of the Spithead and Nore fleets refused to obey their officers and some captains were sent ashore. This resulted in the short-lived "Floating Republic" which at Spithead was quelled by promising improvements in conditions, but at the Nore resulted in the hanging of 29 mutineers. It is worth noting that neither of the mutinies included flogging or impressment in their list of grievances and, in fact, the mutineers themselves continued the practice of flogging to preserve discipline.[15]

Napoleon acted to counter Britain's maritime supremacy and economic power, closing European ports to British trade. He also authorised many privateers, operating from French territories in the West Indies, placing great pressure on British mercantile shipping in the western hemisphere. The Royal Navy was too hard-pressed in European waters to release significant forces to combat the privateers, and its large ships of the line were not very effective at seeking out and running down fast and manoeuvrable privateers which operated as widely spread single ships or small groups. The Royal Navy reacted by commissioning small warships of traditional Bermuda design. The first three ordered from Bermudian builders—HMS Dasher, HMS Driver and HMS Hunter—were sloops of 200 tons, armed with twelve 24-pounder guns. A great many more ships of this type were ordered, or bought from trade, primarily for use as couriers. The most notable was HMS Pickle, the former Bermudian merchantman that carried news of victory back from Trafalgar.

As a result of these wars Britain gained many overseas bases such as Ceylon, the Cape of Good Hope, Malta, and Mauritius.

Although brief in retrospect, the years of the Napoleonic wars came to be remembered as the apotheosis of "fighting sail", and stories of the Royal Navy at this period have been told and retold regularly since then, most famously in the Horatio Hornblower series of C. S. Forrester, but also by Alexander Kent, Patrick O'Brian, Dudley Pope and many other writers. Royal Navy uniforms of the 18th and 19th centuries have also been depicted in both media and film, ranging from no less than four films focusing on the Mutiny on the Bounty as well as a complete series of television movies adopted from the Horatio Hornblower novels.

American War of 1812–1815

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. Another irritant was the suspected presence of British deserters aboard US merchant and naval vessels. Royal Navy ships often attempted to recover these deserters. In one notorious instance in 1807, otherwise known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, HMS Leopard fired on USS Chesapeake causing significant casualties before boarding and seizing suspected British deserters.

In 1812, while the Napoleonic wars continued, the United States declared war on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and invaded Canada. Some of the action consisted of small scale engagements on the Great Lakes. At sea, the American War of 1812 was characterised by single-ship actions between small ships, and disruption of merchant shipping. The Royal Navy struggled to build as many ships as it could, generally sacrificing on the size and armament of vessels, and struggled harder to find adequate personnel, trained or barely trained, to crew them. Royal Naval vessels were often under-manned, without sufficient men to fire a full broadside. Many of the men crewing Royal Naval vessels were rated only as landsmen, and many of those rated as seamen were impressed (conscripted), with resultingly poor morale. The US Navy could not begin to equal the Royal Navy in number of vessels, and had concentrated in building a handful of better-designed frigates. These were larger, heavier and better-armed (both in terms of number of guns, and in the range to which the guns could fire) than their British counterparts, and were handled well by larger volunteer crews (where the Royal Navy was hindered by a relative shortage of trained seamen, the US Navy was not large enough to make full use of the large number of American merchant seamen put out of work, even before the war, by the Embargo Act). As a result, a number of British ships were defeated and, mid-way through the war, the Admiralty issued the order not to engage American frigates individually.

There were also significant losses of merchant shipping to American privateers, a total of 1,300 vessels;[16][17] however, the Royal Navy, operating from its new base and dockyard, off the US Atlantic Seaboard in Bermuda, gradually reinforced the blockade of the American coast, virtually halting all trade by sea, capturing many merchant ships, and forcing the US navy frigates to stay in harbour or risk being captured. Despite successful American claims for damage having been pressed in British courts against British privateers several years before, the War was probably the last occasion on which the Royal Navy made considerable reliance on privateers to boost Britain's maritime power. In Bermuda, privateering had thrived until the build-up of the regular Royal Naval establishment, which began in 1795, reduced the Admiralty's reliance on privateers in the Western Atlantic. During the American War of 1812, however, Bermudian privateers captured 298 enemy ships (the total captures by all British naval and privateering vessels between the Great Lakes and the West Indies was 1,593 vessels).

1848 Woodcut of the Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda (HMD Bermuda), Ireland Island

By this time, the Royal Navy had begun building a naval base and dockyard in Bermuda, which replaced Newfoundland as the winter location of the Admiralty. The Royal Navy had begun development after American independence had deprived it of bases on most of the North American seaboard. In time Bermuda became the headquarters for Royal Naval operations in the waters of North America and the West Indies. During the War of 1812 the Royal Navy's blockade of the US Atlantic ports was coordinated from Bermuda and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The blockade kept most of the American navy trapped in port. The Royal Navy also occupied coastal islands, encouraging American slaves to defect. A Corps of Colonial Marines was raised from these freed slaves.

After British victory in the Peninsular War, part of Wellington's Light Division was released for service in North America. This 2,500-man force, composed of detachments from the 4, 21, 44, and 85 Regiments with some elements of artillery and sappers and commanded by Major-General Ross, arrived in Bermuda in 1814 aboard a fleet composed of the 74-gun HMS Royal Oak, three frigates, three sloops and ten other vessels. The combined force was to launch raids on the coastlines of Maryland and Virginia, with the aim of drawing US forces away from the Canadian border. In response to American actions at Lake Erie, however, Sir George Prevost requested a punitive expedition which would 'deter the enemy from a repetition of such outrages'. The British force arrived at the Patuxent on 17 August and landed the soldiers within 36 miles of Washington DC. Led by Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, the British force drove the US government out of Washington, DC. Ross shied from the idea of burning the City, but Cockburn and others set it alight. Buildings burned included the US Capitol and the US President's Mansion.

A key element of the war was the battle for control of the Great Lakes. A building contest resulted in British supremacy on Lake Ontario, and American supremacy on Lake Erie. The entire Royal Navy on Lake Erie was sunk at the decisive Battle of Lake Erie on 10 Sept. 1813. The British army, along with militia and Indian units were now cut off from supplies and fled eastward. They were caught and defeated at the Battle of the Thames on 5 Oct. 1813, which gave Americans the control over western Ontario, and destroyed the Indian alliance the British army had depended upon. In 1814 the British Army, bringing in veteran units from the Peninsular War, launched a major invasion of New York State under General George Prévost. However, the Royal Navy on Lake Champlain was sunk by the American fleet at the Battle of Plattsburgh on 11 Sept. 1814, forcing Prévost to retreat back to Canada despite his much larger army.[18]

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.

Pax Britannica, 1815–1895

The Napoleonic Wars left Great Britain the most powerful naval country in the world, with no meaningful rivals. The country's economic and strategic strength was buttressed by the fleet; localized military action was a staple of the not-entirely-peaceful "Pax Britannica". In addition, the threat of naval force was a significant factor in diplomacy. The navy was not idle however; the 19th century witnessed a series of transformations that turned the old wooden sailing navy into one of steam and steel.

After 1827 there were no major battles until 1914. The navy was used against shore installations, such as those in the Baltic and Black Sea in 1854 and 1855, to fight pirates; to hunt down slave ships; and to assist the army when sailors and marines were landed as naval brigades, as on many occasions between the siege of Sebastopol and the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. With a fleet larger than any two rivals combined, the British nation could take security for granted, but at all times the national leaders and public opinion supported a powerful navy, and service was of high prestige.[19]


The first action of the period was the bombardment of Algiers under Lord Exmouth, conducted in 1816. This was to force the freeing of Christian slaves.[20] During the Greek War of Independence, at the Battle of Navarino (1827), the Turkish fleet was destroyed by the combined fleets of Britain, France and Russia. This was the last major action between fleets of sailing ships. Ottoman involvement continued, with the bombardment of Acre in 1840, and additional Mediterranean crises during the rest of the decade. Action was taken against pirates in the Levant, Borneo and China Seas. To stop slaving, ships were boarded at sea and slaving ports raided.

To try to prevent Russia gaining access to a warm water port, the Crimean War was fought in the 1850s. Britain (in concert with the Turks and French) sent 150 transports and 13 warships and the Russian Black Sea fleet was destroyed. The Crimean War became known as a testing ground for the new technologies of steam and shell. It was shown that explosive shells ripped wooden hulls to pieces, which led to the development of the "iron clad" ship. It also showed the need for a permanent pool of trained seamen. There were two Anglo-French campaigns against Russia. In the Black Sea, success at Sevastopol was paralleled by successful operations in the Baltic including the bombardments of Bomarsund and Sveaborg.

The Chinese Government placed unilateral restraints on British trade with China. In 1839 a Chinese official impounded opium from India, but the British insisted on the British Empire being allowed to export to China and instituted a blockade of Canton, beginning the First Anglo-Chinese War (1839-42). There was a Second Anglo-Chinese War from 1856 to 1860. In 1857 the British captured Canton and threatened Beijing, thrown back by the Chinese in 1859 but succeeding the following year. As a result of these actions Britain gained a base at Hong Kong in 1839 and a base in Canton in the second war.

In 1864 the bombardment of Kagoshima forced Japan to accept foreign traders. During the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) the British sent a fleet of battleships under Geoffrey Phipps Hornby to intimidate Russia from entering Constantinople. Over the next thirty years, only a bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 brought the fleet into action, carried out to ensure control of the Suez Canal.


Steam power was of interest to the Royal Navy from the beginning of the 19th century, since it neatly solved the difficult and dangerous sailing problems encountered in estuaries and other inshore areas. It was first adopted in the paddlewheels; screw propellers were introduced in the 1830s and, after some reluctance, were adopted in the mid-1840s (the famous tug-of-war between the screw-propelled HMS Rattler and the paddlewheeled the 1850s Naval Arms Race screw battleships and frigates, both conversions and new constructions, were built in large numbers. These ships retained a full capacity for sail as steam engines were not yet efficient enough to permit long ocean voyages under power. Steam power was intended only for use during battle and to allow ships to go to sea at will instead of being held in port by adverse winds. A triple expansion steam engine was introduced in 1881 which was more efficient than earlier ones.

Iron in ship construction was first used for diagonal-cross-bracing in major warships. The adoption of iron hulls for ocean-going ships had to wait until after Admiralty experiments had solved the problem of an iron-hull's effect on compass deviation. Because iron hulls were much thinner than wooden hulls, they appeared to be more vulnerable to damage when ships ran aground. Although Brunel had adopted iron in the Great Britain, the Admiralty was also concerned about the vulnerability of iron in combat, and experiments with iron in the 1840s seemed to indicate that iron would shatter under impact.

In 1858 France built the first seagoing ironclad, Gloire, and Britain responded with Warrior of 1860, the first of the 1860s Naval Arms Race—an intensive programme of construction that eclipsed French efforts by 1870. She was called a "Black Snake" by Napoleon III, but was soon superseded.

When armoured ships were first introduced, in-service guns had very little ability to penetrate their armour. However, starting in 1867, guns started to be introduced into service capable of penetrating the armour of the first generation iron-clads, albeit at favourable angles and at short range. This had already been anticipated, and armour thicknesses grew, resulting in turn in a gun calibre-race as larger guns gave better penetration. The explosive shell was introduced in 1820.

In parallel with this there was a debate over how guns should be mounted on ship. Captain Cowper Coles had developed a turret design in the late-1850s as a result of experience in the Crimean War. Initial designs, published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1859 were for a ship with far more than 10 turrets. Consequently a range of coastal-service turret-ships were built in parallel with the sea-going iron-clads. Because of agitation from Captain Coles and his supporters, the issue of turret-ships became deeply political, and resulted in the ordering of Captain an unsatisfactory private design by Lairds and Captain Coles. The rival Admiralty design, Monarch, had a long and successful career. However the need to combine high-free-board at the bow with sails meant that both these ships had very poor end-on fire. The Admiralty's next sea-going mastless turret-ship design Devastation solved these problems by having very large coal bunkers, and put the 35 ton guns in turrets on a breastwork.

Tank testing of hull models was introduced and mechanical calculators as range finders. The torpedo came in during the 1870s and the first ship to fire one in battle was HMS Shah. This led to the development of torpedo boats and torpedo boat destroyers (later called just destroyers).

Being unchallenged and unchallengable, Britain was able to exercise her maritime imperium of the Pax Britanica at remarkably modest expense. The British defence burden fell progressively to a minimum of 2 percent (of GDP) in 1870. Britain's dominance flowed not so much from the size of her active fleets as from the vast potential strength implicit in the reserve fleet and, behind that, the unrivalled capacity of her industry.

At this time, 80% of merchant steamships were built in British shipyards.[21] The rate of French construction was low, and construction times were stretched out. For instance, the final of the three French 1872-programme battleships was not completed until October 1886.[22] Many of these long-delayed ships were completed in the second half of the 1880s, and this was misrepresented as the French having more new battleships than the Royal Navy in various publications including the famous 1884 articles in the Liberal magazine Pall Mall Gazette, which alarmed the public just before the General Election, and helped create an increased market for books on naval matters such as the Naval Annual, which was first published in 1887.

This age of naval dominance at low cost was ended by the Naval Defence Act 1889. This called for the Royal Navy to be as strong as the next two navies. This led to a new ship building programme, which authorised ten new battleships, 38 cruisers, and additional vessels. Alfred Thayer Mahan's books and his visit to Europe in the 1890s heightened interest further. When Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone held out against another large programme of naval construction in 1894, he found himself alone, and resigned.

Age of the battleship, 1895–1919

The strategic situation changed rapidly in the mid-1890s; between a Russian-French alliance, an ambitious program of German naval construction, and both the United States and Japan expanding their spheres, Britain found herself isolated and insecure.

Both naval construction and naval strategizing became intense, prompted by the development of torpedoes and submarines (from 1901), which challenged traditional ideas about the power of battleships. At the same time the Dreadnought committed to the "big gun only" concept and caused a shift in thinking around the world, giving Britain the undisputed lead. This ship had ten 12 inch guns with a top speed of 21.5 knots. The British were aided in this development by having Naval Observers aboard the Japanese fleet at the battle of Tsushima straits in 1904 where the Japanese decisively defeated the Russian fleet.[23]

Another innovative (though ultimately unsuccessful) concept was the battlecruiser, fast and light but still hard-hitting. However, to achieve this the ship's armour was sacrificed. The result was a potentially fatal weakness. This was exploited by the Germans at the battle of Jutland. At the same time, there was much dispute within the Admiralty about how to operate the modern navy, with Winston Churchill advocating various changes.

The Royal Navy began developing submarines beginning on 4 February 1901. These submarines were ordered in late 1900 and were built by Vickers under a licensing agreement with the American Electric Boat Company.[24] The first British Holland No. 1 (Type 7) submarine (assembled by Vickers) was 63 feet 4 inches long. Four other models of this type soon followed in rapid succession and entered the fleet.

Major reforms of the British fleet were undertaken, particularly by Admiral Jackie Fisher as First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1909. 154 older ships, including 17 battleships, were scrapped to make way for newer vessels. Reforms in training and gunnery were introduced to make good perceived deficiencies, which in part Tirpitz had counted upon to provide his ships with a margin of superiority. More capital ships were stationed in British home waters. A treaty with Japan in 1902 meant that ships could be withdrawn from East Asia, while the Entente with France in 1904 meant that Britain could concentrate on guarding Channel waters, including the French coast, while France would protect British interests in the Mediterranean. In 1906 it was considered that Britain's only likely naval enemy was Germany.[25] This prompted a large re-deployment of Royal Navy ships; in 1895 the majority of ships were stationed overseas, by 1906 they were largely based in home waters.

Also, around this time, an important new development was under way. It was the steam turbine, invented by Charles Parsons, demonstrated by the Turbinia in 1899. Rosyth Royal Dockyard was opened in 1909.

In 1910, the existing Naval Intelligence Division (NID) was shorn of its responsibility for war planning and strategy.[citation needed] Outgoing First Sea Lord Fisher created the so-called Navy War Council as a stop-gap remedy to criticisms emanating from the Beresford Inquiry that the Navy needed a naval staff—a role the NID had been in fact fulfilling since at least 1900, if not earlier.

Some countries from within the British Empire started developing their own navies. In 1911 the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy came into being. In 1941 the New Zealand Division became the Royal New Zealand Navy.

All these reforms and innovations of course required a large increase in funding. Between 1900 and 1913 the Naval Estimates nearly doubled to total £44,000,000.[26] This was over half the total defence budget of £74,000,000 (£5.4 billion as of 2011)[27].

World Wars, 1914–1945

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. The navy also took part in many other operations right across the globe, opposing the Italian and Japanese fleets.

First World War

The accumulated tensions in international relations finally broke out into the hostilities of World War I. From the naval point of view, it was time for the massed fleets to prove themselves, but caution and manoeuvring resulted in only a few minor engagements at sea. During the First World War the majority of the Royal Navy's strength was deployed at home in the Grand Fleet in an effort to blockade Germany and to draw the Hochseeflotte (the German "High Seas Fleet") in to an engagement where a decisive victory could be gained. Although there was no decisive battle, the Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine fought many engagements: the Battle of Heligoland Bight, the Battle of Coronel, the Battle of the Falkland Islands, the Battle of Dogger Bank and the Battle of Jutland. This last was the best-known battle. The Royal Navy suffered heavier losses but succeeded in its strategic goal: the Hocheseeflotte never again put to sea except to scuttle itself after the end of the war in Scapa Flow.

At the start of the war the German Empire had armed cruisers scattered across the globe. Some of them were used to attack Allied merchant shipping. The Royal Navy systematically hunted them down, though not without some embarrassment from its inability to protect friendly shipping. Most of the German East Asia Squadron was defeated at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914.

Soon after the outbreak of hostilities the British initiated a Naval Blockade of Germany, preventing supplies from reaching its ports. International waters were mined to prevent any ships from entering entire sections of sea. Since there was limited response to this tactic, Germany expected a similar response to its tactic of unrestricted submarine warfare. This attempted to cut supply lines to Britain. The anti-submarine measures employed by the Royal Navy relied on patrols, depth charges, barriers, hydrophones and Q-ships. However, merchant shipping losses were high until the widespread introduction of convoys in 1917.

The Royal Naval Air Service was formed in 1914 but was mainly limited to reconnaissance. Converted ships were initially used to launch aircraft with landings in the sea. The first purpose-built aircraft carrier was HMS Argus, launched in 1918.

British submarines carried out operations in the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Sea as well as the Atlantic.

The Royal Navy was also heavily committed in the Dardanelles Campaign against the Ottoman Empire. During the war, the Navy contributed the Royal Naval Division to the land forces of the New Army. The manpower of the Royal Navy expanded fro 250,000 at the start to 450,000 at the end of the war. The Women's Royal Naval Service ("Wrens") was set up in 1917 to undertake administration, transport, logistics and communications work. They numbered some 7000 by late 1918 but were then disbanded. The Royal Marines rose from 17,000 men in 1914 to 55,000 in 1918, and took part in many operations including the raid on Zeebrugge.

Inter-war period

In the inter-war period the Royal Navy was stripped of much of its power. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 imposed limits on individual ship tonnage and gun calibre, as well as total tonnage of the navy. The treaty, together with the deplorable financial conditions during the immediate post-war period and the Great Depression, forced the Admiralty to scrap all capital ships from the Great War with a gun calibre under 13.5 inches and to cancel plans for new construction. The G3 battlecruisers and the N3 class of 16-inch battlecruisers and 18-inch battleships were cancelled. Three of the Admiral class battlecruisers had already been cancelled. Also under the treaty, three "large light cruisers"—Glorious, Courageous and Furious—were converted to aircraft carriers. New additions to the fleet were therefore minimal during the 1920s, the only major new vessels being two Nelson class battleships and fifteen County and York class heavy cruisers.

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 Navy made a show of force against Mussolini's war in Abyssinia, and operated in China to evacuate British citizens from cities under Japanese attack. The re-armament of the Royal Navy was well under way by this point however, with the 1936 King George V class of 1936, limited to 35,000 tons and 14-inch armament, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, and the Illustrious class carriers, the Town and Crown Colony classes of light cruiser and the Tribal class destroyers. In addition to new construction, several existing old battleships, battlecruisers and heavy cruisers were reconstructed, and anti-aircraft weaponry reinforced.

During this period the Royal Navy was used for evacuation and gunboat diplomacy. There were significant pay cuts in the 1920s, culminating in the Invergordon Mutiny of 1931. The crews of various warships refused to sail on exercises, which caused great shock. This led to changes and the pay rates were restored in 1934. However, life for ordinary seamen remained hard. There were 97,000 men in the navy in 1930.

Second World War

As a result of the earlier changes the Royal Navy entered the Second World War as a heterogeneous force of World War I veterans, inter-war ships limited by close adherence to treaty restrictions and later unrestricted designs. It remained a powerful force, though smaller and relatively older than it was during World War I.

At the start of World War II, Britain's global commitments were reflected in the Navy's deployment. Its first task remained the protection of trade, since Britain was heavily dependent upon imports of food and raw materials, and the global Empire was also interdependent. The navy's assets were allocated between various Fleets and Stations[28]

Home Fleet home waters, i.e., north-east Atlantic, North Sea, English Channel (sub-divided into commands and sub-commands)
Mediterranean Fleet Mediterranean Sea
South Atlantic and Africa Station south Atlantic and South African region
America and West Indies Station western north Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, eastern Pacific
East Indies Station / Eastern Fleet Indian Ocean (excluding South Atlantic and Africa Station, Australian waters and waters adjacent to Dutch East Indies)
China Station / Eastern Fleet north-west Pacific and waters around Dutch East Indies
British Battlecruiser HMS Hood

During the early phases of World War II, the Royal Navy provided critical, if depressing, cover during British evacuations from Norway (where an aircraft carrier and 6 destroyers were lost but 338,000 men were evacuated), Dunkirk (where 7,000 RN men were killed) and Crete. In the latter operation Admiral Cunningham ran great risks to extract the Army, and saved many men to fight another day. The prestige of the Navy suffered severe blows when the battlecruiser Hood was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941. Although the Bismarck was sunk a few days later, public pride in the Royal Navy was severely damaged as a result of the loss of mighty Hood. Later in December 1941, Repulse and the Prince of Wales were sunk by Japanese air attack.

The RN carried out a bombardment of Oran in Algeria against the French Mediterranean Fleet. Torpedo bombers sank 3 Italian battleships at Taranto and in March 1941 it sank 3 cruisers and 2 destroyers at Cape Matapan. The RN carried out an evacuation of troops from Greece to Crete and then from that island. In this the navy lost 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers but rescued 30,000 men.

The RN was vital in interdicting Axis supplies to North Africa and in the resupply of its base in Malta. The losses in Operation Pedestal were high but the convoy got through.

The Royal Navy 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. Convoys were used from the start of the war and anti-submarine hunting patrols used. From 1942, responsibility for the protection of Atlantic convoys was divided between the various allied navies: the Royal Navy being responsible for much of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Suppression of the U-boat threat was an essential requirement for the invasion of northern Europe: the necessary armies could not otherwise be transported and resupplied. During this period the Royal Navy acquired many relatively cheap and quickly built escort vessels.

The defence of the ports and harbours and keeping sea-lanes around the coast open was the responsibility of Coastal Forces and the Royal Naval Patrol Service.

Landing craft convoy crossing the English Channel in 1944

Naval supremacy was vital to the amphibious operations carried out, such as the invasions of Northwest Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy. For Operation Neptune the RN and RCN supplied 958 of the 1213 warships and three quarters of the 4000 landing craft. The use of the Mulberry harbours allowed the invasion forces to be kept resupplied. There were also landings in the south of France in August.

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. Britain was an early innovator in aircraft carrier design, introducing armoured flight decks, in place of the now obsolete and vulnerable battleship. The Royal Navy was now dwarfed by its ally, the United States Navy. The successful invasion of Europe reduced the European role of the navy to escorting convoys and providing fire support for troops near the coast as at Walcheren, during the battle of the Scheldt.

The British Eastern Fleet had been withdrawn to East Africa because of Japanese incursions into the Indian Ocean. Despite opposition from the U.S. naval chief, Admiral Ernest King, the Royal Navy sent a large task force to the Pacific (British Pacific Fleet). This required the use of wholly different techniques, requiring a substantial fleet support train, resupply at sea and an emphasis on naval air power and defence. In 1945 84 warships and support vessels were sent to the Pacific. It remains the largest foreign deployment of the Royal Navy. Their largest attack was on the oil refineries in Sumatra to deny Japanese access to supplies. However it also gave cover to the US landings on Okinawa and carried out air attacks and bombardment of the Japanese mainland.

At the start of the Second World War the RN had 17 battleships, and 80 cruisers. Fifty old destroyers and other smaller craft were obtained from the US in exchange for bases. At the end the RN had 15 battleships, 52 carriers—though most of these were small escort or merchant carriers—62 cruisers, 257 destroyers, 131 submarines and 9,000 other ships. During the war the Royal Navy lost 350 major warships and more than 1000 small ones. There were 134,000 men in the navy at the start of the war, which rose to 865,000 by the end. 51,000 RN sailors were killed. The WRNS was reactivated in 1938 and their numbers rose to a peak of 74,000 in 1944. The Royal Marines reach a maximum of 78,000 in 1945, having taken part in all the major landings.


The Royal Navy mostly converted from coal to oil by the end of the First World War. During the period the capabilities of aircraft improved enormously, providing both a capability and a threat. The aircraft carrier became a critical part of the fleet and anti-aircraft guns were mounted on ships.

The gyro compass was introduced in 1908. The first passive sonar hydrophones were introduced into the RN in 1914 while ASDIC (active sonar) came in afterwards. Radar was introduced in the 1930s. Wireless (radio) technology greatly improved during the period and direction finding sets were used.

Anti-submarine weapons changed from sweeps to depth charges, with launchers changing from simple over-the-side dispensers to various types of ahead-throwers.

The Navy from 1945

Post-War period, 1945-1956

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. Navy planners expected to maintain unrealistically high force levels, and were eventually constrained to be a "medium power", relying on the Americans to be the primary defence against Soviet threats. The increasingly powerful U.S. Navy took on the former role of the Royal Navy as a means of keeping peace around the world. Although the late 1940s were generally quiet, the mining of the Saumarez and Volage off Albania in 1946, attempts to control illegal immigration to Palestine in 1947, and the Yangtse Incident of 1949 were reminders that the world was not entirely at peace. A half-dozen warships, including an aircraft carrier, were routinely on station throughout the Korean War. The naval blockade was a main driving factor in the armistice. The Navy also landed troops during the Suez crisis of 1956. However, the threat of the Soviet Union and British commitments throughout the world created a new role for the Navy. With the formation of NATO in 1949, the Royal Navy contributed ships to the Standing Naval Force Atlantic. Its role became primarily one of anti-submarine and mine-countermeasures fleets, though it continued to maintain a diesel-electric submarine force. It also continued its "East of Suez" presence though the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 reduced this role.

Cold War, 1952-1990

The role of the Navy continued to be debated, and in 1957 the Defence White Paper of Duncan Sandys emphasised reliance on nuclear weapons while leaving the Navy's future uncertain.

The 1960s saw the peak of the Royal Navy's capabilities in the post-war era. The two Audacious-class fleet carriers HMS Ark Royal, HMS Eagle, the rebuilt HMS Victorious and the four Centaur-class light carriers gave the Royal Navy the most powerful carrier fleet outside the United States. The navy also had a large fleet of frigates and destroyers. New, more modern units like the County-class destroyers and Leander-class frigates also began to enter service in the 1960s.

Lord Mountbatten of Burma nevertheless continued with development, and by 1962 a new Dreadnought became Britain's first nuclear-powered submarine and in 1968 the first ballistic missile submarine Resolution was commissioned, armed with the Polaris missile. The Royal Navy later became wholly responsible for the maintenance of the UK's nuclear deterrent. Even so, the Labour government announced in 1966 that Britain would not mount major operations without the help of allies, and that the existing carrier force would be maintained into the 1970s; Christopher Mayhew and Sir David Luce resigned in protest, but to no avail. In 1968, further cuts eliminated Britain's "East of Suez" policy (in 1971?).

In the meantime, the fleet was regularly involved in crises; to deter an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1962, in Tanganyika in 1964, and in Indonesia from 1964 to 1966. The Beira Patrol blocking oil supplies to Rhodesia began in 1965. In the Atlantic, the "Cod Wars" with Iceland, and manoeuvres with Spain over Gibraltar were civilised affairs. The RN had the job of protecting British shipping during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-8.

1970s planning envisioned still further cuts to the Navy, with the focus being on "contributing to NATO" rather than operating independently. In 1981, another Minister, Keith Speed, resigned in protest over plans to retain just two carriers and overall manpower at its lowest in over a century.

Chatham Naval Base was used for refitting nuclear submarines from 1963 but it closed in 1984. The RN became part of the British Ministry of Defence in 1964. The Faslane SSBN base opened in 1968. Portsmouth and Devonport naval dockyards were modernised in the 1970s, with the latter being the SSN base. Management of the bases was privatised in the 1980s.

Falklands War, 1982

HMS Invincible, one of the Royal Navy's flagships during the Falklands War

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. Only four days after the invasion on 2 April, a Task Force sailed for the South Atlantic, with other warships and support ships following. On 25 April the navy retook South Georgia, crippling an Argentine submarine called the Santa Fė. The RN carried out land bombardments in support of the landings of British troops at San Carlos Water. The Argentines surrendered on 14 June.

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 remainder of the Argentine fleet withdrew to port but the force continued to be attacked by aircraft with Exocet missiles. The British force was protected by Sea Harrier planes and helicopters deploying countermeasures, but despite shooting down many planes several missiles got through. The war underlined the importance of aircraft carriers and submarines, and exposed the service's late 20th century dependence on chartered merchant vessels. The Falklands were a reminder of the hazards of reducing the Navy further, and resulted in a stabilisation of force levels, as well as technical improvements due to lessons learned from the war.

Operations after 1982

Royal Navy ships in the Persian Gulf during 1998

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 frigates and destroyers. Its purpose was to search for and destroy Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic. There were also mine countermeasures and submarine forces as well as support ships. As the Cold War ended, the Royal Navy fought in the Gulf War against Iraq, with Sea Skua missiles sinking a large proportion of the country's navy. The RN also carried out many mine countermeasures operations. However, the end of the Soviet threat brought about a very large reduction in the strength of the Navy. All its diesel-electric submarines were decommissioned in 1992 and more surface combatants left the fleet.

The 1990s saw blockade operations against Bosnia and involvement in the Kosovo War. The Strategic Defence Review of 1998 and the follow-on Delivering Security in a Changing World White Paper of 2004 promises a somewhat brighter long-term future for the Navy, putting in place the largest naval procurement programme since the end of the Second World War in order to enhance and rebuild the fleet, with a view to bringing the Navy's capabilities into the 21st century, and restructuring the fleet from a North Atlantic-based, large Anti-Submarine force into a true Blue water navy once more. Whilst several smaller vessels were to be withdrawn from service, it was confirmed that two new large aircraft carriers would be constructed. The Strategic Defence Review (SDR) assumed that the highest tasking levels placed on the Navy would be either one full scale operation or two concurrent Medium scale operations, based on these assumptions it recommended that the following fleet levels were required. In the past decade the UK government view has moved away from the recommendations of the SDR, this is usually explained by the changing perceived threat following 9/11 and 7/7, fleet levels are now significantly lower than the SDR recommended.

Vessel Class SDR Requirement 2007 levels [29]
Carriers 3 Invincible Class or 2 CVF 3 Invincible Class
Amphibious 8 5 (inc RFA vessels)
Attack Submarine 10 9
Destroyers and frigates 32 25
Minewarfare 22 16

The Navy took part in the Afghanistan Campaign and the 2003 Iraq War which saw RN warships bombard positions in support of the Al Faw Peninsula landings by Royal Marines. Also during that war, HM submarines Splendid and Turbulent launched a number of Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Iraq.

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. The Royal Navy has deployed a number of Naval Task Groups to the Far East including "NTG 03" in 2003, HM ships Exeter, Echo, RFAs Diligence and Grey Rover in 2004 and HMS Liverpool and RFA Grey Rover in 2005. The Royal Navy was also involved in an incident involving Somali pirates in November 2008, after the pirates tried to capture a civilian vessel.

The strength of the Royal Navy was 43,000 in 2002 (including the Royal Marines). The WRNS was amalgamated with the RN in 1991.


Since the Second World War there have been major changes in the technology used by the RN. Steam turbines have been superseded by gas turbines in surface warships (all major ships being fitted with this since the 1970s), while diesel-electric propulsion for submarines has been superseded by the nuclear reactor (and the steam turbine). The gun has largely been replaced by the missile for ships and aircraft. The torpedo is still used by submarines, though in much improved form, but has been supplemented by the missile. Conventional aircraft have been superseded by short-take-off ones, while the introduction of helicopters has had a major effect on many aspects of navy operations such as anti-submarine warfare. The RN no longer has stocks of mines.

The electronics fit of RN warships has also changed considerably. Besides improvements in radar, sonar and conventional communications, there is now widespread use of satellites for communications and navigation.

The period has seen the introduction of the angled flight deck on aircraft carriers as well as the "Ski jump" to aid take off and mirror landing sights. New, larger aircraft carriers are planned but keep getting postponed.

Trends in Ship Strength

In numeric terms the Royal Navy has significantly reduced in size since the 1960s, reflecting the reducing requirement of the state. This raw figure does not take into account the increase in technological capability of the Navy's ships, but it does show the general reduction of capacity.[30] The following table is a breakdown of the fleet numbers since 1960. The separate types of ship and how their numbers have changed are shown.[31]

Year[31] Submarines Carriers Assault Ships Surface Combatants Mine Counter Measure Vessels Patrol Ships and Craft Total
Total SSBN SSN SS & SSK Total CV CV(L) Total Cruisers Destroyers Frigates
1960 48 0 0 48 9 6 3 0 145 6 55 84 202
1965 47 0 1 46 6 4 2 0 117 5 36 76 170
1970 42 4 3 35 5 3 2 2 97 4 19 74 146
1975 32 4 8 20 3 1 2 2 72 2 10 60 43 14 166
1980 32 4 11 17 3 0 3 2 67 1 13 53 36 22 162
1985 33 4 14 15 4 0 4 2 56 0 15 41 45 32 172
1990 31 4 17 10 3 0 3 2 49 0 14 35 41 34 160
1995 16 4 12 0 3 0 3 2 35 0 12 23 18 32 106
2000 16 4 12 0 3 0 3 3 32 0 11 21 21 23 98
2005 15 4 11 0 3 0 3 2 28 0 9 19 16 26 90
2010 12 4 8 0 3 0 3 3 24 0 7 17 16 23 88

English Navy/Royal Navy timeline and battles

See also


  1. ^ Anne Savage. Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. p. 84. ISBN 0333488814. 
  2. ^ a b c Anne Savage. Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. pp. 86–88. ISBN 0333488814. 
  3. ^ Anne Savage. Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. p. 93. ISBN 0333488814. 
  4. ^ a b Anne Savage. Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. p. 107. ISBN 0333488814. 
  5. ^ Julian S. Corbett, Drake and the Tudor Navy, With a History of the Rise of England as a Maritime Power (2 vol 1898) online
  6. ^ Geoffrey Parker, "The 'Dreadnought' Revolution of Tudor England," Mariner's Mirror, Aug 1996, Vol. 82 Issue 3, pp 269-300
  7. ^ Geoffrey Parker, "Why the Armada Failed," History Today, May 1888, Vol. 38 Issue 5, pp 26-33
  8. ^ Macdougall, Norman, James IV, Tuckewell (1997), 235.
  9. ^ Hay, Denys, Letters of James V, HMSO (1954), 26, date of sale 2 April 1514, ?o.s.
  10. ^ David Davies (1992). Micheal Duffy. ed. University of Exeter Press. pp. 14–38. ISBN 9780859893855. Parameters of British Naval Power. 
  11. ^ "complement numbers of the Restoration". British History.ac.uk. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=26190#s9. Retrieved 2007-07-12. 
  12. ^ Rodger, N. A. M., The Command of the Ocean – a naval history of Britain 1649–1815 (2004), pp. 76–7
  13. ^ “It can hardly be denied that the Dutch raid on the Medway vies with the Battle of Majuba in 1881 and the Fall of Singapore in 1942 for the unenviable distinctor of being the most humiliating defeat suffered by British arms.” - Charles Ralph Boxer: The Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th Century, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London (1974), p.39
  14. ^ Ollard, 1984, ch.16
  15. ^ Rodger, N. A. M. (2004). Command of the Ocean, A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 441–447. ISBN 0393328473. 
  16. ^ "Website of the American Merchant Marine at War". Usmm.org. http://www.usmm.org/warof1812.html. Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  17. ^ USN website
  18. ^ Theodore Roosevelt, The naval war of 1812 (1883) online edition
  19. ^ Roger Parkinson, The Late Victorian Navy: The Pre-Dreadnought Era and the Origins of the First World War, (2008)
  20. ^ Rees Davies, British Slaves on the Barbary Coast, BBC, 1 July 2003
  21. ^ Pugh, Philip The Cost of Seapower, the Influence of Money on Naval Affairs from 1815 to the Present Day, pub Conway, 1986, ISBN 0 85177 419 9 page 34.
  22. ^ Saibene, Marc Les Cuirasses Redoutable, Devastation, Courbet, Programme de 1872, pub Marines edition, ISBN 2-909675-16-5 pages 72 and 77.
  23. ^ Robert K. Massie, 1991 p. 471
  24. ^ Gardiner, Gray, and Budzbon, p. 86
  25. ^ Herwig p. 48–50
  26. ^ The British Battle-Fleet, Fred T. Jane [1912], p354
  27. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Lawrence H. Officer (2010) "What Were the UK Earnings and Prices Then?" MeasuringWorth.
  28. ^ Royal Navy in World War 2[dead link]
  29. ^ "Surface Fleet : Operations and Support". Royal Navy. http://www.royal-navy.mod.uk/server/show/nav.1244. Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  30. ^ Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham (2007-03-13) (PDF). The Royal Navy at the Brink. 1. Royal United Services Institute. http://www.uknda.org/docs/uknda_royal_navy_at_the_brink.pdf. Retrieved 2007-08-10. 
  31. ^ a b created from data found at "UK defence statistics". MOD. Archived from the original on 2007-06-09. http://web.archive.org/web/20070609204819/http://www.dasa.mod.uk/natstats/natstatsindex.html. Retrieved 2007-08-03.  and Conways All the World's Fighting Ships 1947–1995


  • Gardiner, Robert; Gray, Randal; Budzbon, Przemyslaw (1984). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships: 1906-1922. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0870219073. 
  • Hill, Hill. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. Oxford University Press, 1995. 
  • Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. Scribner's, 1976. 
  • Loades, David. The Making of the Elizabethan Navy 1540-1590: From the Solent to the Armada (2009)
  • Rasor, Eugene L., English/British Naval History to 1815: A Guide to the Literature. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
  • Rasor, Eugene L., British Naval History after 1815: A Guide to the Literature. New York: Garland, 1990.
  • Rodger, Nicholas. The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain Vol 1: 660-1649. HarperCollins, 1997. ISBN 0-00-255128-4. 
  • Rodger, Nicholas. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. Allen Lane, 2004. ISBN 0-7139-9411-8. 
  • Friel, Ian. The British Museum Maritime History of Britain and Ireland: C.400 - 2001. British Museum Press (May 2003). ISBN 978-0714127187. 
  • Massie, Robert. Dreadnought. Ballantine Books (1992). ISBN 0-345-37556-4. 
  • Herman, Arthur, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (2004) ISBN 0060534249
  • Parkinson, Roger. The Late Victorian Navy: The Pre-Dreadnought Era and the Origins of the First World War (2008) 323pp

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