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About this book

This book fills an important gap in the literature on the history of the modern Royal Navy. Eric Grove provides the only up-to-date, single-authored short history of the service over the last two hundred years, synthesizing the new work and latest research on the subject which has radically transformed our understanding of the story of British naval development.

Grove offers a concise and authoritative account of Royal Navy policy, structure, technical development and operations from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the close of the eventful twentieth century. Ideal for both specialist and general readers, this essential introduction explains how the Royal Navy maintained its pre-eminent position in the nineteenth century and how it coped with the more difficult problems of the twentieth, in times of peace and war.

Table of Contents

1. The Coming of Steam

Abstract
When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 the Royal Navy was supreme on the world’s oceans. The established rival navies of mainland Europe had been comprehensively defeated and the upstart United States put in its place by an aggressive maritime campaign. Control of the seas remained vital for the maintenance of Britain’s imperial position after her victory over Napoleon’s Empire, and Britain’s leaders had every intention of asserting it.1 However, there was no intention of maintaining a wartime-sized fleet. The annual numbers of sailors and Royal Marines voted by Parliament were already massively and rapidly decreasing from over 140,000 in 1813 to only 19,000 in 1817 although numbers actually borne were almost 23,000.2 The number of officers employed in 1817 was almost 600, a reduction to less than 25 per cent of the 1813 figure.3 Ships in commission came down from a peak of 713 in 1814 to 121 in 1818.4
Eric J. Grove

2. The Steam Battlefleet

Abstract
Peel’s Tories formed a new administration in 1841; Graham was Home Secretary and Lord Haddington First Lord. The latter was not a major figure and his appointment was a sign that the Prime Minister would take a personal interest in naval policy. Cockburn, a friend of Peel’s, became First Naval Lord. Peel unlocked the longterm resources of the country for the Navy by reintroducing income tax. Despite continued overall budget deficits and against a background of tension with both France and the United States, the Naval Estimates were further increased. They went up from £6.8 million in 1841 to £7 million in 1842, and after a dip rose again to £7.9 million by 1846, almost 12 per cent of the total budget.1 The number of men borne was never below 38,000 from 1841 to 1846.2
Eric J. Grove

3. The Ironclad Age

Abstract
As Prime Minister Palmerston memorably put it, Britain had no eternal friends or enemies, only interests, and the end of the war with Russia allowed the country to concentrate once more on her erstwhile ally but most formidable potential enemy, France. Seven new liners, including the 121-gun Victoria and Howe, had been ordered during the war and three more in 1856–7 but new ship construction was delayed by the postwar contraction of the dockyards and the amount of repair work necessary. It was also felt prudent to keep up with the French and Americans in frigates, the latter threat in particular causing the laying down of six very large frigates of larger tonnage than contemporary liners. The last two, the huge Mersey and Orlando, laid down at the end of 1856, mounted 40 of the heaviest guns available: 10-inch shell guns and 68-pounders. They were formidable fast capital ships but proved too large for wooden construction and were very short lived.
Eric J. Grove

4. The Two-power Standard

Abstract
In September 1879, after the Russian War scare, the Carnarvon Commission had been appointed to investigate imperial defence. It recommended that the defence of the Empire ‘should be based on command of the sea rather than on large garrisons and fortifications’ and ‘that the strength of the Royal Navy should be increased with as little delay as possible’.1 Although the Reports of the Commission were kept confidential, as the Gladstone Government worried about excessive pressure on the Estimates, the major new shipbuilding programme described at the end of the previous chapter was already in train. A sister turret ram to Conqueror, Hero, was laid down in 1884, making a total of 12 new ironclads under construction that year.
Eric J. Grove

5. The First World War

Abstract
The Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe was the foundation of a strategy of distant blockade. This had been adopted in 1913 and was maintained in war despite its leaving open the North Sea coast to enemy attack, a vulnerability that had been demonstrated in the last major prewar fleet exercise. To help solve this problem, Vice Admiral David Beatty was forward-deployed at Cromarty in command of Cruiser Force ‘A’, which comprised the Grand Fleet’s battle-, armoured and light cruiser component. In mid-August Cruiser Force ‘K’ was formed, in the Humber, with the battlecruisers HMS New Zealand and Invincible. The southern North Sea was protected by the Harwich Force of 35 destroyers and two light cruisers under Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt. Also at Harwich was Commodore Roger Keyes’s flotilla of longer-range submarines. The Admiral of Patrols, Commodore George Ballard, provided co-ordinated coast defence and commanded a force of light cruisers, old destroyers and small submarines at Dover. A pre-Dreadnought Channel Fleet was established and more cruiser patrols were set up using reserve units as they were mobilized. Ten older cruisers enforced the blockade in the north.1
Eric J. Grove

6. The Interwar Period

Abstract
The prevailing sense of postwar pacifism coupled with Britain’s weak economic condition provided a difficult environment for the Admiralty. On 15 August 1919 the Cabinet decided that no major war would take place for ten years and that service estimates should be revised accordingly. This was in the context of a paper presented to the Cabinet three days earlier by the First Lord. The latter was now Walter Long, who had replaced Geddes the previous January. The paper had pointed to the burgeoning strength of the United States Navy, ‘the only navy for which we need have regard’, and in respect of which the Admiralty required a decision of the Government as to whether it should be the standard against which the British fleet should be built. Japan, still Britain’s ally, could be ‘put aside for the moment whether as an individual opponent or as a partner in any possible combination against us’.1
Eric J. Grove

7. The Second World War

Abstract
The strategic situation at the outbreak of the war was much more favourable than that expected in the nightmares of the 1930s.1 The Royal Navy’s sole opponent was Germany, who had 21 larger U-boats at sea in the Atlantic and the Channel. Their orders were not to sink unarmed merchantmen without warning. U30, however, mistook the liner Athenia for an armed merchant cruiser and sank her without warning. The 112 passengers and crew lost convinced the Admiralty that the Germans had indeed begun unrestricted submarine warfare. It was therefore decided to put into effect the plan to introduce ocean convoys in the western approaches. This did much to neutralize the U-boats. The ill-considered policy of hunting them with fleet carriers was abandoned after Ark Royal had a lucky escape and Courageous was sunk. Although outward-bound convoys were only escorted to 15° west, the convoy system was able to reduce losses from 41 ships in the first month of war to 21 in November. By the end of 1939, nine U-boats had been sunk, three by escorting destroyers, two by patrolling destroyers, one by a British submarine, and three by the Royal Navy’s mine barrage in the Straits of Dover — which stopped Germans using that path to the Atlantic.
Eric J. Grove

8. The Postwar Navy

Abstract
The nuclear bombs that ended the war promised to make obsolete long wars in which sea power had been most relevant. Nevertheless, the Naval Staff at the Admiralty could console itself that it would be some time before nuclear weapons would wreak their strategic revolution in full. Even when they did, naval forces would play a part in their delivery (or threatened delivery). Moreover, there would be ‘conflicts between small nations … and threats to our own territory which may be settled without the use of atomic weapons and in which a more or less normal navy would play its usual part’.1 This was the key to the Navy’s survival strategy for the postwar period.
Eric J. Grove

9. The Falklands and After

Abstract
The Thatcher administration claimed to be pro-defence and able to solve the manpower problem by increasing service pay, but that only exacerbated the problem of funding the other aspects of the Royal Navy and the defence programme in general. After signs that the defence budget could not be controlled as well as the Prime Minister would have liked, a new economy-minded Defence Minister, John Nott, was appointed to sort out the situation. Nott recognized that the planned programmes of the services were still too large to be fitted within expected defence budgets. The Callaghan Government had signed up to a 3 per cent increase in real terms. This had been endorsed by Thatcher but, as Nott put it in his memoirs, ‘no-one in the government when I joined the MOD had suggested that the 3% annual growth target might last beyond 1983–4, yet public commitments to the equipment programme were being given on the assumption that 3 per cent volume growth would continue until 1989–90. This would have bankrupted the exchequer’.1 As Nott carried out a root-and-branch examination of the defence programme as a whole, the Naval Staff, led by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, found themselves very much on the defensive. Nott was not anti-Navy, as they suspected, but felt constrained to put the Navy’s major commitment, the contribution to NATO’s defences in the Eastern Atlantic (Eastlant), last in his list of priorities after the strategic deterrent, defence of the home base, and the land and air contribution to mainland Europe.
Eric J. Grove
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