I decided to expand on my recent ramble about the war graves which included the short description of the Battle of Trafalgar and Admiral Collingwood’s report on the battle – this has inspired me to write about the enormous – and unsung – influence that the Royal Navy has had in shaping our lives.
In modern times, it is difficult to imagine what our world and Britain would be like without the Royal Navy. It is this branch of our armed forces, which must include the Royal Marines, that has ensured that our shores have been virtually impossible to conquer since the 16th century – even though several of our neighbours have tried.
My dad was conscripted into the Royal Navy as a gunner in 1941, he was demobbed in mid-1946 and achieved the rank of acting petty officer, this has resulted in my interest in this subject and of many things military.
This is dad resting after almost singlehandedly beating the Japanese and Hitler, he is looking out over the Pacific and contemplating his journey home, 29 January 1946.
The age of discovery
I’m sure that as young schoolchildren we were allowed to think that Christopher Columbus was British, if we were told his real Christian name we could have put two and two together and asked ‘Ooh miss, please miss, Cristoforo Colombo sounds a bit foreign miss’. Columbus (to continue with his anglicised moniker) was actually an Italian appointed by Isabella I of Castile (central Spain) to investigate ways of bringing back gold, frankincense, myrrh and any other riches (notably spices) that could be traded or plundered.
While Columbus was sailing the ocean blue in 1492 – ostensibly to find a faster route to the East Indies – he accidentally landed in the Americas. He wasn’t the first person there, of course, it is suggested North American indigenous natives migrated from Asia over the Baring Straight thousands of years before Columbus. There is also evidence to suggest that the Vikings had also landed there. The Mayans and the Aztecs were happily sacrificing each other to the gods long before the Europeans arrived but none of these folks counted because they didn’t have guns it would seem.
The English monarchy, round about the time of the Tudors, also saw an opportunity to make lots of money by trading but also by employing privateers – legalised pirates with the royal seal of approval – to take what they could from the French and Spanish merchant ships. The famous examples were Sir Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher, this, of course, put French and Spanish noses out, as it would, and in turn, they built warships to protect their interests.
The English did the same, and the next 150 years or so of periodic skirmishes, battles and wars, culminated in the decisive victory at Trafalgar which was to establish the supremacy of the Royal Navy for the next one hundred years or so. Incidentally, England and Portugal formed a much earlier alliance when English crusaders helped King Alfonso I capture Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. As a result, Britain and Portugal have tended to leave each other alone, mostly.
There was also a large ship-building campaign during the time of the Commonwealth government of 1649 to 1660. This of course could not be described as a ‘royal’ navy but there were concerns within the republican government that the rest of Europe would take advantage of a potentially weakened Britain following the civil war, and also take revenge on those who had the temerity to execute the anointed king.
Following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 the British were able to build vast fleets of merchant vessels carrying out trade and commerce in every corner of the globe and also expanded their military might to protect their shipping and colonial interests abroad. Around the time of Trafalgar, a ship with more than 60 guns was called a ship-of-the-line and Britain had 136 of these ships. The larger ships with more than 100 guns were called ‘first rate ships of the line’.
HMS Victory, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship, had 104 guns on three decks, the smallest being 12 pounders, that is, each shot or cannon ball being equivalent to approximately five bags of sugar. The larger 32-pounders which were housed on the lower gun deck had shot (cannon balls) that were about the weight of 15 bags of sugar. A single broadside from a ship like Victory packed more weight of metal than every gun of Wellington’s army at Waterloo.
The well-trained British gun crews could reload and fire every 90 seconds, that is, the average weight of shot fired in a single broadside is approximately 500 bags of sugar every 90 seconds and just one bag of sugar fired at that speed would be enough to cut someone in half. It must have been a nightmare.
A chequered history
For more than 100 years Britain could boast the biggest fleet of merchant ships in the world and the Royal Navy was greatly instrumental in the eventual defeat of Napoleon in 1815.
The industrial revolution has also a great deal to thank for our shipping fleets, unfortunately along with this came our attempts at justifying the plundering of the wealth of other nations by suggesting we took the word of God and civilisation to the locals, even though the locals were managing perfectly-well-thank-you-very-much before we turned up. I suppose we could say we helped to put a stop to the practice of cannibalism and human sacrifice in some areas but no good deed goes unpunished.
I am reluctant to delve too far into the rights and wrongs of the navy’s part in the slave trade, although there are no rights at all of course. Slavery has gone on for thousands of years and is still carried on in some parts of the world. However, the Royal Navy had some part to play in slowing this evil trade following the British government’s abolition on 1 May 1807.
According to the exhibition ‘Chasing Freedom’ at the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, “Between 1807 and 1860, the Royal Navy, West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1,600 ships involved in the slave trade and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard these vessels”.
Farewell to the high seas
The sun has long since set on the empire and from the second world war we have had to tighten our belts somewhat; our foreign interests have shrunk and with it our shipping fleets. Britain’s merchant navy has now just 4% of the world deadweight tonnage, the Greek merchant navy has 23%.
Military vessels are another story entirely, the country with the largest military navy is China with 730 vessels, followed by Russia with 598, but it would appear that the Russian navy is badly led and their fleet badly maintained. North Korea has 519 and the United States comes in fourth with 484. The Royal Navy has 70 commissioned warships but in my humble opinion would give the Russians a good run for their money.
This was a photo taken in 2014, in the foreground is the 580 tonne HMS M33, an M29 monitor class vessel from WW1, it is the last surviving warship from the Gallipoli campaign, it is now restored to its former glory and on show in the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth – a fascinating place to visit if interested in all things navy. In the background is the light aircraft carrier and former flagship HMS Illustrious which was decommissioned later that year and scrapped in 2016, it was turned into cooking utensils and bridge foundations, a sad end to a mighty ship.