Royal Navy

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The Royal Navy is the official name of the United Kingdom's navy. Its history goes back hundreds of years. To most people today, England and seafaring are synonymous, but, in fact, England had little naval concerns in its first several hundred years.[1] The official Royal Navy website mentions earlier events, but defines the first period of the Navy as beginning in 1509.[2]

Since 1964 the Royal Navy has been the responsibility of the Defence Council which is chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence.


King Edward III, who invaded France in 1347, had only 30 Crown-owned ships among his 700; the others were private vessels. The term Admiral first appeared in English in 1295, but the Lord Admiral was an administrator, and most importantly, head of the Admiralty court and adjudicator of prize money. The King, or a noble, had operational command of naval vessels. [3]

Henry VIII: 1509-1660

Regarded as the father-king of the English fleet, King Henry VIII began a naval buildup to check "King James IV of Scots. James had built an impressive fleet to control the Western Isles including a giant gun armed ship, the Great Michael. " Among Henry's ships were the Mary Rose, which is preserved today, as a wreck, in Portsmouth. [4]


The Royal Navy was Britain's principal weapon against Revolutionary France, and France under Napoleon Bonaparte, during the twenty-year conflict between those two nations. While the Battle of Waterloo was the final battle on land, the Battle of Trafalgar arguably was of equal importance on land.

Period of Empire: 1815-1914

In 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, the strength of the Royal Navy left Britain the world's pre-eminent naval power.

Steam and iron

Torpedoes and destroyers

HMS Dreadnought: a silver bullet

See also: Battleship
See also: John Arbuthnot Fisher
See also: HMS Dreadnought (1905)

Driven by First Sea Lord Admiral John Arbuthnot "Jacky" Fisher, the Royal Navy introduced a revolutionary design of battleship that was considered to render all earlier battleships obsolete. The first Royal Navy example of these new battleships was the HMS Dreadnought of 1905.[5] The new vessels were known as 'Dreadnoughts', even if they were built for other navies.

The two differences introduced with this class of vessels was that they were equipped with a large main battery of a single, uniform calibre of large, long range, cannons, and were powered by new, more powerful steam turbine engines, in place of the older technology of triple expansion steam piston engines.

The large main battery of long range cannons of a single calibre enabled engagement with enemy targets at longer range, by firing simultaneous [salvo]]s from the entire battery at one time. The main gunnery officer would sit in a gunnery director in an armoured tower, where they could observe the fall of shot, and tell all the guns in the battery to correct their shared aim.

Germany started building its own fleet of all-big-gun battleships. The two navies were seen to be in a high-profile ship-building arms race.

World War I and aftermath: 1914-1939

During World War I there was only a single full-scale battle between the Royal Navy's fleet of dreadnoughts, and Germany's High Seas Fleet, although there were other important engagements, as well as the emerging submarine threat.

Some commentators describe the Battle of Jutland as indecisive, because both fleets continued to pose a serious threat. Some describe it as a German victory, because the Germans sank more vessels. Some describe it as a British victory, because Britain had control of the seas prior to the battle, and the German fleet remained in port for the duration of the war.

World War I also saw the introduction of the submarine or U-boat, as a commerce raider. The German use of U-boats was countered by the development of convoys, with a convoy escort force armed with depth charges.

Washington Naval Treaty

Following World War, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Japan, France and Italy agreed to sign the Washington Naval Treaty capping the tonnage of various classes of warships, in order to prevent another exhausting naval arms race. After a long period of negotiation, the treaty was signed in 1921. The treaty capped the size of battleships at 39,000 tons. Cruisers were capped at 10,000 tons. The treaty allowed the United Kingdom and the USA to have fleets of fifteen battleships. Japan was capped at nine battleships, and the other signatories at six. The size of Germany's navy was capped by the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was allowed "battleships", capped at 10,000 tons - the size of the obsolete pre-dreadnought battleships.

The signatories all basically complied with the treaty, into the 1930s. Germany and Japan are generally regarded as the first nations to covertly subvert the treaty's limits. By the time World War II seemed imminent, all the signatories were quietly ignoring the treaty limits.

World War II

By World War II, Germany had four battleships, three pocket battleships, and had converted twelve fast freighters into auxiliary cruisers, with hidden guns, that would cruise the world's commercial shipping lanes masquerading as merchant vessels. Germany threatened commerce raiding early in the war, but this was limited by the Battle of the River Plate and the sinking of KMS Bismarck.

Battle of Taranto

In 1940, at the Battle of Taranto, torpedo-equipped warplanes launched from a Royal Navy aircraft carrier provided the first practical demonstration of the vulnerability of battleships to aerial attack, sinking or damaging much of Italy's fleet.

Battle of the Atlantic

A far greater threat than commerce raiding was the German submarine fleet in the Battle of the Atlantic. Germany was to build hundreds of u-boats to restrict the vital flow of supplies to Britain. To counter the U-boat wolf packs, the Royal Navy built hundreds of destroyers, and smaller convoy escort vessels such as the Flower-class corvettes.

Dark days of 1941

Post-World War II: 1945-2000

Following World War II, the Royal Navy, like every other navy except the U.S. Navy, retired all its battleships, because the war had shown they were too vulnerable to aerial attack. World War 2 had exhausted the United Kingdom, which allowed almost all of its colonies to become independent. The post-war Royal Navy was now much smaller, no longer trying to match the U.S. Navy in tonnage or number of vessels.

Post-war Royal Navy aircraft carriers were the first to carry vertical take-off fighters, allowing them to carry modern jet aircraft, in a smaller vessel than the big American air craft carriers.

In 1964 the armed forces of the United Kingdom and their administrative departments were put under control of the Defence Council under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State for Defence. Control is exercised by the Admiralty Board, which meets twice a year, with the Navy Board taking responsibility for the practical running of the Navy and it's operations.

In the latter half of the twentieth century the primary role of the Royal Navy began to shift from providing defence to the UK and dependent territories to providing the national strategic nuclear deterrent.

Korean War

Suez Crisis

Falklands War

For more information, see: Falklands War.

Unexpectedly, in 1983, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. At the time, the Islands' garrison consisted of two Royal Marine platoons. The United Kingdom had just two aircraft carriers at the time of the invasion. The older of the two aircraft carriers had its retirement postponed. Long range Royal Air Force bombers, from Ascension Island, destroyed the Falklands' airfields, preventing Argentina basing fighters there, or resupplying the Falklands by air. A large taskforce proceeded to the Falklands, and allowed ground forces to engage the cut-off Argentine ground forces.

The greatest Argentinian success came through the use of long range Exocet anti-ship cruise missiles. Several vessels were sunk, even when the Exocet's warhead failed to explode, because the missile's rocket engines were hot enough to ignite the vessels' aluminium superstructure. Use of aluminium in construction has since been cut back.

21st Century

As of 2005 the Royal Navy consisted of 33,154 regular personnel and 988 volunteer reserves, with the Royal Marines having 6,585 personnel. At the same time the fleet strength consisted of the following.[6]

4 Vanguard-class strategic missile submarines (Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance).
11 attack submarines comprising 7 Trafalgar-class submarines and 4 Swiftsure class, with 3 Astute-class submarines under construction at that time.
3 Invincible (carrier)-class aircraft carriers (Invincible, Illustrious and Ark Royal).
8 destroyers comprising 4 Type 42-class (batch 2) and 4 Type 42 class (batch 3) with an additional 6 D class (Type 45-class) destroyers under construction or projected.
18 frigates comprising 4 Broadsword class (Type 22 batch 3) and 14 Duke class (Type 23) vessels.
2 Albion class assault ships (Albion and Bulwark).
1 or more Amphibious Assault Ship/helicopter carrier (Ocean-class).
19 minesweepers/minehunters comprising 11 Hunt class and 8 Sandown class vessels.

The Royal Navy operates many other types of vessel, including small patrol craft, maintenance vessels, survey ships, tankers and training vessels. The bulk of the fleet are situated at Portsmouth, Devonport and Faslane.

Two Queen Elizabeth (carrier)-class 65,000 aircraft carriers are under construction.

After the Cold War

New construction includes the Type 45-class air warfare destroyers, Ocean-class amphibious assault ship/aircraft carriers, and replacements for the current ballistic missile and attack submarines.

RN ships played important roles in the Gulf War and in the Middle East generally.


  1. Arthur Herman (2004), To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy shaped the Modern World, HarperCollins, ISBN 0060534249,p. 35
  2. History: Earliest Times to 1509, Royal Navy
  3. Herman, pp. 35-36
  4. Mary Rose 1511, Royal Navy
  5. Robert K. Massie (1991), Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War, Ballantine, ISBN 0-345-37556-4, pp. 468-473
  6. Jane's Fighting Ships 2005-2006