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Cold War and the Royal Navy

The post Second World War Royal Navy saw a transformation as great as that which occurred in the last hundred years. At the CROSSROADS operation at Bikini in the summer of 1946, a single bomb in a single moment had crippled a fleet. The nature of warfare had changed. Many wondered if the day of the battleship and the big carrier was over.

On 29 January, 1947 the Government issued a statement which showed that they were proposing to scrap, dispose of, sell, or loan some 400 ships of the Royal Navy. The Government announced that it had been decided to scrap certain capital ships: "Nelson," "Rodney," "Queen Elizabeth," "Valiant" and "Renown." Nor were those the only ships, for the statement announcing that fact also said that several cruisers would be scrapped at the same time. That caused grave anxiety in the country. It was realised that the time of the run-down of the Fleet was approaching its maximum and that it had been decided to reduce capital ships whose names at one time were household words. It was reported that the Government was aiming at a strength of two battleships, ten aircraft-carriers, twenty cruisers, and 100 destroyers.

It seemed very wrong to some to throw them away. These battleships were symbols of power. Perhaps battleships were only symbols of power, but they count as invaluable resources, and they were considered in every country, friendly or hostile, throughout the world. There is an indefinite and unknowable value in old ships. No foreigner can tell what part they can play, what part they could play. There was nothing more thrilling to an English audience than the sight of a battleship contemptuously riding a stormy sea.

The Royal Navy's strategic impact was transformed with the introduction of nuclear powered and nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines. HMS Resolution, the first of the Polaris armed submarines, began operational patrols in 1968 replacing the RAF's bombers as Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent. In the 1990s Polaris was replaced by the Trident missile carried by the four huge Vanguard class submarines. The speed and endurance of conventionally armed submarines were transformed by nuclear power. It was no accident that the Navy's first nuclear powered submarine in 1963 was called HMS Dreadnought , the name of the revolutionary battleship of 1906. The last conventionally powered submarines were withdrawn in the 1990s and today Britain's submarine force is entirely nuclear powered.

The traditional aircraft carrier force, at its peak in the early 1960s, proved too expensive to retain and the last vessel, HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in 1978. However, a new type of small carrier with a mix of helicopters and Sea Harrier short take off/vertical landing aircraft was developed and HMS Invincible, Illustrious and Ark Royal entered service from 1980.

The battleship was largely obsolete and the most modern, HMS Vanguard, was scrapped in 1960. As early 12 1948 according to the White Paper, the Navy had only two battleships—not 20 ships of the line—no battle cruisers, four aircraft carriers, 15 cruisers and about 34 destroyers in full, active commission. Before the War it used to be the accepted thing that 70 cruisers were the minimum to take care of the trade routes of this country.

The design of escort ships was transformed after the Second World War. On 02 April 1952 Dr. Bennett asked "the First Lord of the Admiralty if he is aware of the increasing ugliness of naval ships designed since the "Dido" and "Town" class cruisers and the war-time fleet and 1642 "Hunt" class destroyers, culminating in the haphazard profile of the new "Daring" class destroyer; and if he will direct attention to the practicability of designing pleasant-looking ships without detracting from their fighting efficiency."

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas "Her Majesty's ships are designed to be fit for their purpose, namely, to fight with the maximum efficiency, and I can assure my hon. Friend that our latest warships will not be found wanting in this respect."

Dr. Bennett "In spite of a number of innovations having taken place since sail gave way to steam, it has never yet been impossible to design handsome ships. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the fighting efficiency of a ship is contributed to substantially by the keenness and fondness of the sailors in her for that ship, because of their appreciation of good lines in these as in other circumstances?"

Mr. Thomas "I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that I was on the "Diamond "only on Monday last, when I found that the men had a great affection for their ship. If he has any better or more attractive design himself, perhaps he will let me know."

Mr. I. Mikardo "Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that anybody at the receiving end of a naval shell is more reconciled to the effects of it if he knows it comes from a beautiful battleship?" Mr. Thomas "I must say that I rather doubt it."

Service men enlisted t from a kind of martial ardour, with a pride in having the finest equipment, and because their ships are admired for their obvious superiority. would prefer that when they put in at a foreign port those who visit them are prompted to admire the fierce line and the profusion of weaponry which was so apparent in the Soviet ships when they—sometimes simultaneously with ours—pay courtesy visits.

By the mid-1970s the imbalance in the Royal Navy reflects a continuous series of stop-start-cut compromises and, of course, financial stringency. The defence White Paper says that the prime purpose of the Royal Navy is to co-operate in NATO, but in view of the deficiencies one might well ask "To co-operate in doing what?"

What sort of action was the Royal Navy equipped for? Was it convoy protection? There were far too few vessels adequately to institute a convoy protection system. In the Admiralty the possibility of instituting convoy protection for ships bringing supplies from America to Europe, as in the First World War has been more or less discarded. One had only to consider the argument of Admiral Gorshkov, on the ratio of ASW to submarine activity, to realise that it would be wasteful and pointless to institute a convoy protection system in the old manner.

Was the Royal Navy equipped to conduct an opposed landing in hostile territory? Plainly it is not. It was lacking in both air support and Commando or close support vessels. There was no Commando carrier, because "Hermes" had been converted into an anti-submarine carrier. Was it equipped to conduct a search-and-destroy operation against raiders in distant oceans? Its vessels did not have the speed, the air support. the endurance, or the back-up from the Royal fleet auxiliary to make this possible.

Was the Royal Navy Suitably equipped to protect British fishing fleets? By 1976 the Navy was trying to protect the fishing fleet with expensive vessels designed for totally different purposes. Britain did not have economic and efficient means of protecting our fishing fleets. This may be disguished to some extent by the skill and dedication of the crews, but it remained a fundamental fact. The same was true of the Navy's ability to protectoffshore installations. The Royal Navy did not have the proper equipment to do this economically, efficiently or effectively.

Each successive confrontation between the Treasury and the Admiralty, each concession and compromise, altered the bias in the development of the Navy and magnifies these distortions. The result was that compared with the ships of the Soviets, or even of allies such as the French and the Germans, the vessels of the Royal Navy were under-armed and under-armoured, with curiously high freeboards, and with amenities aimed mainly, it would seem, at providing material for recruiting posters.

As aircraft and submarines began to take over the role of sinking surface ships, they became the primary targets of the escort's weapon systems. HMS Devonshire, the Navy's first guided missile armed destroyer, was completed in 1962. By the 1980s escorts evolved into anti-aircraft destroyers and anti-submarine frigates, each displacing about 4000 tons, the size of a small wartime cruiser.

The coming of nuclear weapons cast doubt on the possibility of a long war like the World Wars. It was uncertain if a new Battle of the Atlantic would occur, but the Korean War of 1950-1953 demonstrated the importance of naval forces in limited war.

By the late 1950s the Navy's main role was one of rapid crisis response 'East of Suez', especially in the Arabian Gulf and South East Asia. The Suez operation of 1956 showed the weaknesses of the amphibious fleet and as a result helicopter carriers and assault ships were introduced by the mid 1960s. The 1960s saw successful operations to protect Kuwait from Iraq and Malaysia from Indonesia. In 1967-1968 it was decided to withdraw from 'East of Suez' and concentrate on the NATO area. NATO strategy had re-emphasised the importance of naval power supporting the flanks of the European theatre and escorting reinforcements across the Atlantic. This ensured a substantial British fleet into the 1980s.

average annual running cost at average 1981–82 prices and including associated aircraft costs but excluding the costs of major refits
£ million
HMS "Invincible" 34.6
HMS "Hermes" 48.3
SSNs 7.5
SSKs (Oberon Class) 3.7
Type 21s 6.5
Type 22s 11.0
Type 42s 10.0
County class destroyers 7.0
Leander frigates 6.8
The Falklands War of 1982 was a remarkable demonstration of maritime power projection, retaking the islands over 8,000 miles from Britain. It emphasised the importance of the navy when its future was in some doubt; as a result many of the drastic cuts announced in the 1981 Defence Review did not take place.

Life at sea was transformed as 'broadside messing', in which sailors ate and slept in small groups, was replaced by 'centralised messing', sailors sleeping and eating in separate places. Bunks replaced hammocks and considerable effort went into improving conditions of service to attract the right kind and quality of personnel: the more technological Navy required people with greater qualifications and potential. Officer entry at schoolboy age was replaced by the mid-1950s by entry at eighteen. It became much easier for ratings to reach officer rank and by the 1990s one-third of officers entered by this route. Members of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) served at sea for the first time in the 1990s and the title WRNS was dropped as it became fully integrated with the Navy.

The Royal Navy ended the Twentieth Century more powerful relatively than it had been for some time and perhaps second only to the United States Navy in its ability to project power around the world.

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Page last modified: 15-07-2016 19:24:56 ZULU