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Royal Marines

Initially the supplies of Seamen, under a system of impress, were extremely precarious, and often inadequate to the public emergencies. Experience had also shewn that raw landsmen were most improper substitutes for this want, as the sudden change of life rendered them subject to immediate disease, and sea-sickness, at a time when their active services were required. These united causes originally suggested the expediency of forming an establishment of Marines, who were raised and embodied with the sole view of being a nursery to man the fleets. They were always quartered in the vicinity of the principal sea-ports, where they were regularly trained to the different methods of ship fighting, and to these various manoevers of a vessel, in which numbers were necessary. Being thus locally placed, their value was early felt by their exertions in equipping the squadrons fitted out, when but little confidence could be placed in the sailor, perhaps just impressed into the service.

The general principles and regulations that were instituted for the conduct of the Marine regiments, from their formation, to the close of the reign of King William III evidently shew that they were entirely devoted to naval purposes. On the 28th October 1664 an Order-in-Council was issued calling for 1200 soldiers to be recruited for service in the Fleet, to be known as the Duke of York and Albany's Maritime Regiment of Foot. As the Duke of York was The Lord High Admiral, it became known as the Admiral's Regiment. The Regiment was paid by the Admiralty, it and its successors being the only long service troops in the 17th and 18th century navy.

They were therefore not only soldiers but also seamen, who were part of the complement of all warships. In 1704, during the war with France and Spain, the British attacked the Rock of Gibraltar: 1,900 British and 400 Dutch marines prevented Spanish reinforcements reaching the fortress. Later, British ships bombarded the city while marines and seamen stormed the defences. These later withstood nine months of siege. Today the Royal Marines display only the battle honour "Gibraltar", and their close relationship with the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps continues.

Throughout the 18th and 19th century the Corps played a major part in fighting to win Britain the largest empire ever created. Marines were aboard the first ships to arrive in Australia in 1788. The policy of "Imperial Policing" took the Marines to the bombardment of Algiers in 1816, to the Ashantee Wars, and to the destruction of the Turkish Fleet at Navarino in 1827. In 1805 some 2700 Royal Marines took part in the great victory at Trafalgar. Closer to home, they maintained civil order in Northern Ireland and in Newcastle during the coal dispute of 1831.

Between 1898 and 1914, the two principal combat employments of Royal Marines took place in the Boer War, and in North China during the Boxer Uprising and the Relief of Peking, where, as a matter of fact, Royal Marines fought side by side1 with (and sometimes under the leadership of) the U. S. Marines likewise engaged in defense of Peking's Legation Quarter. During this period prior to World War I, the character of the duties of the Royal Marines varied in few if any respects from those being performed by the US Marine Corps. Each served afloat and, if any combat duties on shore were required, provisional units, sometimes as large as a regiment (in the US Marine Corps), were shaken together from whatever source was handiest.

By the outbreak of war in 1914, Britain had the largest fleet in commission in the world, with all ships above that of destroyer size having Royal Marines detachments. Onboard ship, marines were required to operate one of the main gun turrets, as well as secondary armament. Royal Marines also fought on land, notably in the amphibious assault at Gallipoli in 1915, together with ANZAC forces, and led the famous assault on the harbor at Zeebrugge in 1918.

At the outbreak of the Great War there was formed the so-called "Flying Column, Royal Marines," (soon to be redesignated as the Royal Marine Brigade), which had been conceived in 1912 as a kind of mobile expeditionary force. The composition of the Flying Column was one battalion of Royal Marine Artillery (known as the RMA) and three battalions of Royal Marine Light Infantry, or RMLI. These were the two normal internal subdivisions of the Royal Marines in those days, the RMLI being known as "Red Marines," and the RMA as "Blue Marines," from the distinguishing colors of their blouses (which exactly reversed the traditional US Army's color code of red for Artillery and blue for Infantry).

In later entity as the Royal Marine Brigade (and stripped of its artillery component, which was detached for service with the British Army), this unit in 1914 carried out a number of minor cross-channel expeditions to cover the flanks of the British Expeditionary Forces in Belgium and Northern France. Subsequently, in early 1915 the Brigade embarked in transports and moved to the Mediterranean, where it was kept afloat while the British fleet bombarded the Dardanelles, and the Turks at Gallipoli took imely warning of events to come. After the Dardanelles fiasco, the Royal Naval Division (still embodying the Marine Brigade) was sent to France and there it fought under Army control (as the 63rd Division) for the rest of the war. With the exception of the ships' detachments, which carried out their traditional missions, there was little (except their discipline and courage) to distinguish the Royal Marines in World War I from any equivalent or similar groups of Army troops. The Royal Marines in World War I had no distinct or unique role.

The Royal Marines remember 1923 as the year in which, due to budgetary reductions, the Royal Marine Artillery was abolished and the RMLI redesignated simply as Royal Marines. It was, in short, the year in which the Royal Marines lost forever their principal means of employing or training with combined arms. From this time on, the corps was destined to be an infantry organization. Correspondingly, from this time on its officers - especially those of command rank - lost their opportunity to acquire the indispensable "know-how" of the combined arms.

The United States Marine Corps and its aviation pioneered the science of amphibious warfare between 1922 and 1940; and by building its own successes upon the terrible failure at Gallipoli, the US Marine Corps found its distinctive modern mission - unlike the Royal Marines which were at the same time sinking slowly into military desuetude after being forcibly deprived of useful functions.

During World War Two some 80,000 men served in the Royal Marines, and they continued to operate at sea and in land formations. The Admiralty organized, in 1941, a Royal Marine Division, the first such formation of this size ever to be raised in the British corps, beginnmg with an infantry base of Marines supplemented by artillery and specialists borrowed from the British Army, this soon evolved into a wholly Marine organization. In 1943, the decision was finally reached to demobilize the Royal Marine Division and channelize all efforts of the corps into Combando work. The Royal Marine Commandoes (organized from two Royal Marine Special Service Brigades) thus constituted the primary organized Marine contribution to Britain's war. These originated from a single Marine Brigade, formed in 1939 to be an amphibious unit available to the British Joint Chiefs of Staff for amphibious missions. It was finally dissolved into individual Commando battalions which enjoyed the special distinction of being landed by boats manned by Royal Marine boat-crews. The year 1942 saw the formation of the first Royal Marines Commandos. 5 RM Commandos were among the first to land on D-Day, and two thirds of all the landing craft involved were crewed by Royal Marines. 16,000 members of the Corps took part in Operation "Overlord" in many roles, some even manning tanks.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the US Marine Corps and the Royal Marines were as alike as two military organizations could be. In the middle of the Twentieth Century, however, there was all the functional difference in the world between then. On New Year's Day, 1900, the strength of the Royal Marines was 19,000 and that of the US Marine Corps was 5,414. The principal mission of each body was conceived to be service afloat in ships' detachments, or naval security duties on shore. A little less than a half-century later, the strength of the Royal Marines was 13,350 and that of the US Marine Corps was 92,000. By the early years of the 21st Century, the Royal Marines numbered approximately 7,200 men, while the United States Marine Corps had about 180,000 Marines on active duty, with another 40,000 in the Marine Reserve.

As of 1948, Royal Marines on shore duty perform naval security missions (as do certain US Marine detachments); and were organized tactically into a number of specially-equipped infantry battalions designated as Royal Marine Commandos. Afloat, they carry out the duties which we would consider normal for Marines on board ship, and, in addition, other functions assigned in the US Navy to quartermasters (winding the chronometers); to ships' cooks (butchering); to printers (running print-shops aboard flagships); to steward's mates (acting as officers' servants); to musicians (providing bands for the Royal Navy); and to seamen (operating landing craft).

On the other hand, as is well known, a major portion of the US Marine Corps was formed into highly-specialized amphibious tactical units up to and including divisional strength, even in peace-time; and the traditional missions of Marines afloat and on Navy Yard guard-duty are, by law, secondary to the primary Marine Corps roles of amphibious development and maintenance of the US Fleet's expeditionary troops, the Fleet Marine Force (or FMF, as it is called).

From the foregoing general comparison, it is apparent that the developmental paths of the two Marine Corps diverged sharply. Unlike the US Marine Corps, the Royal Marines automatically came under Army discipline when serving on shore, and reverted to the Navy when afloat. The Corps actually has a regimental designation among the Regiments of Foot of the British Army. It was thus truly hermaphroditic in character, being almost equally of the Navy and of the Army, and thereby subject to winds which blow from many quarters. Inasmuch as the major amphibious missions assigned by law to the US Marine Corps have been denied to the Royal Marines, the Royal Marines seemed to possess no unique (important) mission of its own, as distinct from any other military component in the British defense establishment. On shore, it provided lightly-armed raiding detachments; afloat, it did everything from winding chronometers to butchering and waiting on table; in amphibious operations, with the exception of Commando work, it functioned as a wind-and-water service force: shore party, signalmen, boats' crews, and base-construction men.

After the war the Royal Marines spent much time in action in the Far East, including involvement in the Malayan emergency and in Borneo, and also in Korea, Suez, Aden, and Cyprus. In 1982, the Royal Marines played a major part in recapturing the Falkland Islands from the Argentinians, and in 1991 they participated in the Gulf War, mounting a sizeable humanitarian task force - Operation Haven, in support of the Kurdish people of Northern Iraq. This was the start of a particularly busy decade for the Royal Marines. In 1994 a commando unit flew to Kuwait following threats by Iraq. The next year the Royal Marines provided the commander and staff for the Rapid Reaction Force in Bosnia, and in 1997 and 1998 a Commando Unit flew to the Congo Republic to protect British interests. In the same period help was provided to the local populations of Montserrat in the West Indies following a volcano eruption, and in Central America following a hurricane. The last two years have seen elements of the Royal Marines on operations in Northern Ireland (where they have completed some 39 tours of duty since 1969), Kosovo, and Sierra Leone. In addition, while few ships now have the traditional RM detachment aboard, Royal Marines Protection Parties join ships as necessary, and have served in such diverse places as Albania, and East Timor, where they worked closely with Australian forces.

With the introduction and successful operational deployment of the Landing Platform (Helicopter), HMS Ocean, and the launch of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, as successors to the in-service Landing Platform (Dock) the amphibious capability of the Royal Marines is greatly increased, and becomes a key element in the country's capacity to intervene in areas of conflict overseas. This was proven by the ability of 40 Commando RM to remain in the Gulf area following exercises in Oman during October 2001, available to participate in the war in Afghanistan when needed. With further additions to the amphibious fleet, and a wide range of new equipment coming into service, the Royal Marines are as ready as ever to meet the nation's need for a flexible force that can poise at sea, and intervene in areas of trouble at an early stage.

On 11 April 2017 the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones confirmed that the Royal Marines would be restructured to better balance a growing Royal Navy. The move came as part of the Navy's regular review of its structure to ensure that it suits the operational demands of the 21st century, and is appropriately balanced for the future with 400 more personnel, more ships, new aircraft carriers and submarines entering front line service.Around half of the 200 roles being repurposed are backroom function roles, like drivers and administrative staff. Freeing these up to be carried out by Reservists and civilians will enable skills to be used more appropriately across the Navy.

The other half of the restructure comes as part of plans developed by 3 Commando Brigade, who are responsible for the deployment of the Marines, who decided it would be beneficial to the Corps to make 42 Commando a specialised Maritime Operations unit. A Royal Marines Commando performs roles ranging from maritime operations like countering piracy and protecting our trade routes across the globe, to land-based operations like warfighting and peace-keeping. Under this re-balancing, 42 Commando will become the specialised, go-to unit for maritime operations meaning some of their posts, like heavy weapons specialists, can be reallocated across the Navy.

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Page last modified: 12-04-2017 13:20:55 ZULU