Polish Submarines


Wilk (12 April 1929)

Builder: Normand

Rys (22 April 1929)

Builder: Loire

Zbik (14 June 1931)

Builder: CNF

Displacement: 980 tons (surfaced), 1250 tons (submerged)

Dimensions: 257960 x 19940 x 13990

Machinery: 2 Normand-Vickers diesel engines, 2 electric motors, 2 shafts. 1800 bhp/1200 shp = 14/9 knots

Range: 7000 nm at 7.5 knots surfaced, 80 nm at 4 knots submerged

Armament: 6 x 550mm torpedo tubes (4 bow, 1 twin trainable external mount), total 10 torpedoes, 40 mines, 1 x 100mm gun, 1 x 40mm AA gun

Complement: 54

Notes: These submarines were larger versions of the French Saphir class. The Rys and the Zbik were interned in Sweden in September 1939, returned to Poland at the war’s end, and were scrapped in 1951 and 1954. The Wilk escaped to Britain in September 1939, became a training vessel a year later, and returned to Poland after World War II. It was scrapped in 1951.


Orzel (15 January 1938)

Builder: De Schelde

Sept (17 October 1938)

Builder: Rotterdamse

Displacement: 1100 tons (surfaced), 1650 tons (submerged)

Dimensions: 275970 x 22900 x 13940

Machinery: 2 Sulzer diesel engines, 2 electric motors, 2 shafts. 4740 bhp/1100 shp = 20/9 knots

Range: 7000 nm at 10 knots surfaced, 100 nm at 3 knots submerged

Armament: 12 x 550mm torpedo tubes (4 b o w, 4 stern, 1 x quadruple external trainable mount), total 20 torpedoes, 1 x 105mm gun, 1 x twin 40mm AA gun

Complement: 60

Notes: These submarines were designed by the Nederlandsche Verenigde Scheepsbouw Bureaux in `s-Gravenhage, in cooperation with a team from the Polish Navy. They incorporated many features of the earlier Dutch O. 16, including the external trainable mount. The hulls were entirely welded, and all controls were hydraulically operated. The Orzel escaped the German invasion of Poland to the United Kingdom and was mined in the North Sea on 8 June 1940. The Sept escaped and was interned in Sweden until the war’s end, when it returned to Polish service until it decommissioned on 15 September 1969

The Polish Navy two U-class submarines:
ORP Dzik – (ex HMS P52)

ORP Dzik (Boar) was a U-class submarine built by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness. She was laid down on 30 December 1941 as P-52 for the Royal Navy, but was transferred to the Polish Navy during construction. Launched on November 11, 1942, ORP Dzik was commissioned into the Polish Navy on December 12, 1942. Her name meant “Wild Boar” in Polish.
24 May 1943 Near Cape Spartivento, ORP Dzik fired a 4 torpedo salvo and damaged the Italian oil tanker Carnaro (8357 Brutto Register Tonnage). After the attack, two Italian corvettes dropped over 60 depth charges.
21 Sep 1943 ORP Dzik fired torpedoes in Bastia harbour, Corsica, France and sank the German tanker Nikolaus (6397, former Greek Nicolaou Ourania) and the German tug Kraft (333 Brutto Register Tonnage).
8 Jan 1944 ORP Dzik sank the Greek sailing vessel Elleni (200 Brutto Register Tonnage) with gunfire off Lesbos Island, Greece in position 39.37N, 25.43E.
ORP Dzik destroyed or damaged 18 surface ships both German and Italian with a total tonnage of 45,080 tons. She participated in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily, and also engaged enemy surface ships with her 76 mm cannon three times and the crew boarded two enemy ships. The ORP Dzik earned the Jolly Roger.
In July 1946, the Polish Navy decommissioned her and returned her to the Royal Navy.
In 1947, the ship was transferred to the Royal Danish Navy. She sailed as HDMS U-1 and was later renamed to HDMS Springeren. She was returned to the Royal Navy in April 1958 and scrapped.
ORP Sokół – (ex HMS Urchin)

ORP Sokół (Polish: Falcon) was a U-class submarine (formerly HMS Urchin) built by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness. Shortly after launching in September 1940 she was to be commissioned by the Royal Navy as HMS Urchin, but instead was leased to the Polish Navy due to a lack of experienced submarine crews. A sister boat to Dzik, both boats operated in the Mediterranean from Malta, where they became known as the “Terrible Twins”.

Shortly after her trials, the boat was handed to her Polish crew, in accordance with the Polish-British Military Alliance and amendments of 18 November 1939 and 3 December 1940. On 19 January 1941 the Polish banner was raised and the boat, commanded by Commander Borys Karnicki, was moved to Portsmouth. There she spent half a year patrolling the Bay of Biscay off the French port of Brest. In September she was moved to Malta, where she was attached to the 10th Submarine Flotilla. She took part in the naval runs on the Italian ports of Taranto and Naples. She also escorted numerous convoys in the Mediterranean. On 28 October of that year, Sokół achieved her first victory by heavily damaging the Italian auxiliary cruiser Città di Palermo. On 2 November in the Gulf of Naples she sank the 2,469-ton transport ship Balilla, with her sister HMS Utmost. On 19 November of the same year, she forced the anti-submarine nets and entered the port of Navarino, where she damaged the Italian destroyer Aviere. She was attacked by Italian torpedo boats and destroyers, but all of the depth charges missed and Sokół managed to escape from the harbour, sinking an additional transport steamer (5,600 tons) with three torpedoes. On 12 February 1942 she boarded and then sank the Italian wooden merchant schooner Giuseppina (362 tons) in the Gulf of Gabes.
On 17 April while in the port of Malta, she was heavily damaged by a German air raid and was forced to return to the shipyard in Blyth to receive repairs. By mid-1943 she had returned to the Mediterranean, where she continued to harass enemy shipment off the coasts of Italy, Northern Africa and in the Adriatic. On 12 September she rammed and sank the fishing vessel Meattini (36 tons). She took part in the allied blockade of the naval bases in Naples and Pula. Off the coast of the latter port, transferred by the Italians to Nazi Germany, Sokół sank a munitions transport (probably the 7,095-ton SS Eridania) and three days afterwards on 11 November the Italian schooner Argentina (64 tons). Between 4 November 1943 and 25 February 1944 she operated in the Aegean from the naval base in Beirut. Among the ships sunk in that period were two transport ships, four schooners and one cutter. In March 1944 both of the “Terrible Twins” left Malta for Great Britain where they were attached to the Dundee-based 9th submarine flotilla. After an additional four patrols off the coast of Norway, in the spring of 1945 she was designated as a training ship and was used by the Royal Air Force for training naval bomber pilots.

Altogether, during her wartime service Sokół sank or damaged 19 enemy vessels of about 55,000 tons in total. All of the commanding officers of the boat, (Lieutenant Commander Karnicki, Lieutenant Commander Koziołkowski and Captain Bernas) were awarded the Virtuti Militari. The full patrol records of the ORP Sokół are stored at the National Record Office, Kew, England.

TYPE 207 (1962)

These boats were very slightly modified versions of the earlier Type 201 class with upgraded sensors. To protect against the corrosion problems of the earlier boats, the first five vessels hulls received a coating of special zinc paint; the next four used a different, corrosion-resistant steel; and the U-1 and U-2 were new hulls built from magnetic steel incorporating all of the original machinery and basic equipment of the original U-1 and U-2. The U-4 through the U-8 were broken up between 1975 and 1977 and the U-1 and U-2 in 1993. The U-9 and U-10 became museum ships in 1993; the U-11 was modified as a target vessel that same year and became a museum ship in 2003; and the U-12 became a sonar trials b o a t in 1993 and was stricken in 2005. The Danish boats had small changes to suit local requirements and were decommissioned in 2003-2004. The Norwegian boats were classed as Type 207 and were built of magnetic high-tensile steel to endow them with deeper diving limits, and they had other minor variations from the German boats. The Stadt was scrapped in 1989; the Kinn was sunk as a target in 1990; the Ula was renamed the Kinn in 1988 and scrapped with the Utsira in 1998; the Utstein became a museum ship the same year; the Sklinna was scrapped in 2001. The Uthaug, the Utvaer, and the Kya were transferred to Denmark between 1989 and 1991 as the Tumleren, the Saelen , and the Springeren , and Denmark also received the Kaura for spare parts. They were decommissioned in 2004. The Skolpen, the Stord, the Svenner, and the Kunna were transferred between 2002 and 2004 to Poland as the Sep, the Sokol, the Bielek , and the Kondor, and Poland also received the Kobben for spare parts. The Polish boats remain in service.


Design work on this class began immediately after World War II as a medium submarine to replace the earlier S and Shch types. Detailed examination of German Type XXI boats strongly influenced the final design, which incorporated, in a less pronounced form, the figure-eight midsection and distinctive stern contours of these boats. There were many detail variations between different series of these submarines, mainly in the exact number and disposition of the guns. Large numbers of these boats were modified for special missions or experiments. Many also went to fleets within the Soviet sphere of influence: 5 to China (in addition to the 21 assembled there from Soviet-supplied components), 8 to Egypt, 2 to Bulgaria, 14 to Indonesia, 4 to Albania, 4 to Poland, 4 to North Korea, and one each to Cuba and Syria. By the early 1980s about 60 boats of the 215 built in the Soviet Union remained in service, and 18 still existed 10 years later.

Poland (four vessels, 1962–1986, retired)
ORP Orzeł (292)
ORP Bielik (295)
ORP Sokół (293)
ORP Kondor (294) – 10 June 1965 raising of the banner, 30 October 1985 lowering of the banner.


This class of long-range submarines was developed to replace the earlier Project 611 type. Like the Project 633 type, they were equipped with a substantially more advanced sonar outfit and could dive deeper than their precursors. In addition to the 17 boats built for export, 2 submarines were transferred to Poland in 1987 and 1988 as the Wilk and the Dzik . All the boats, both Soviet and foreign, were discarded in the 1990s.

ORP Orzeł (291) is a Polish Navy ‘Project 877E’ (Kilo-class) submarine. She is the third Polish submarine to bear the name Orzeł.
The boat was built by the Shipyard Krasnoe Sormovo in Gorky and was commissioned on 29 April 1986 at Riga. On 13 June of the same year Orzeł was transferred to Gdynia where she was named on 21 June. The submarine was assigned to the 3rd Flotilla based in Gdynia.



Ottoman Naval Development

In the fourteenth century, the illustrious historiographer, Ibn Khaldin recorded a prediction:

The inhabitants of the Maghreb have it on the authority of the books of predictions that the Muslims will yet have to make a successful attack against the Christians and conquer the lands of the European Christians beyond the sea. This, it is said, will take place by sea.

This prophesy was realized in the early sixteenth century in the form of the Ottoman navy. Nonetheless, the Ottomans have yet to be granted their place in world history as a seaborne empire. This is nowhere more apparent than in depictions of the reign of Bayezid II ( 148 1- 1512). Traditional historiography has characterized the reign of Bayezid as consisting of two halves: before and after the death of his brother Cem. The first half is dominated by Bayezid’s struggle to eliminate his brother, the challenger to the throne. Cem, whose unsuccessful bid for the Ottoman sultanate was supported by the Mamluk sultan Qa’it Bay, died in 1495. Bayezid’s reign after Cem’s death has been portrayed as a less than illustrious period of quiet consolidation. If, however, the second half of Bayezid’s reign is viewed as a period during which a powerful navy was built up, a navy capable of defending and supplying an empire extending far beyond the bounds of Anatolia, then the peaceful characterization of this period becomes somewhat less believable. Bayezid’s navy was used to suppress piracy, protect commodities shipping, and intimidate his enemies, present or potential. Ottoman naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean fostered the establishment of cordial Ottoman-Venetian trading relations, permitted the subordination of the Mamluk kingdoms (through naval and artillery aid) prior to the Ottoman conquest of Cairo, and allowed for a significant challenge to Portuguese seapower in the Indian Ocean. Seapower was both physical and rhetorical. The threat of the Ottoman navy was used by many states throughout the Mediterranean to gain diplomatic leverage. Nor was the Ottoman navy, as traditional historiography would have it, little more than a group of state subsidized corsairs. Seapower was a vehicle for developing Ottoman trading interests, securing the Ottoman coasts, and supporting the transport and provisioning activities required for Ottoman territorial expansion.

It was at the turn of the sixteenth century that the Ottomans firmly and decisively set out to use seapower as an avenue to “world” hegemony. Naval development began in earnest under Mehmed II. It continued under Bayezid who ordered “ships agile as sea serpents (naheng ahang gemiler)” constructed to fight the Venetians. The reign of Selim was a period during which the military and naval capabilities built up during Bayezid’s reign were utilized and expanded. The conquest of Cairo provided, in part, the revenue and the imperial ethos. Anatolia provided the construction materials and the infantrymen. Upon this foundation Selim was building a most formidable navy, and planning greater naval conquests at the time of his death. The only obstacle in his path was the shortage of skilled sailors. These aspirations became operational on a grand scale with an eastward expansion which halted only at the Indian Ocean in the reign of Selim’s son Suleiman.

After the campaign season of 1502, Sultan Bayezid launched both a major naval reorganization and a broad scale troop mobilization. This troop mobilization in the fall and winter of that year was a direct result of the military success and diplomatic challenge of Ismail Safavi in Iran. The naval reorganization was attributed by Venetian sources to the sultan’s wrath over the Venetian victory that year at Santa Maura. The overall victory in the Ottoman-Venetian wars, however, went decisively to the Ottomans and, by fall of 1502, negotiations were underway for a treaty which would leave Venice without Modon and Coron and liable for a ten thousand ducat annual indemnity to the Porte. Hence, the causes for Bayezid’s naval buildup must be sought elsewhere than in mere vengeance for the defeat at Santa Maura. These causes include the intentions to expand Ottoman Levantine possessions, to punish Rhodes for its attacks on Muslim shipping, and to provide naval support for Ottoman campaigns against the Mamluk and Safavid territories. Short years later a fourth cause was added: the provision of direct naval assistance to the Mamluks against the Portuguese in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

First, the Ottomans needed a navy revamped to fcus outside the Aegean and the Mediterranean. This navy was then directed to purposes of defense and expansion that later proceeded outward in concentric circles; the territorial conquests mirrored the spheres of Ottoman economic interest in the Aegean, Mediterranean, Red Sea, and eventually the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Vigorous shipbuilding activity was underway in the Ottoman arsenals during the wars with Venice from 1499 to 1503. Sadeddin mentions the preparation of a fleet of three hundred ships in the first year of the war. A German knight, Arnold von Harff, claimed, with considerable exaggeration, that he saw that same year eight hundred Turkish war galleys and countless other vessels in the harbor at Istanbul. Bayezid called in the entire Ottoman armada for repairs in the winter of 1500-1501 and ordered the preparation of for hundred ships including two hundred galleys mounted with large cannon, fifty heavy galleys, and for hundred fifty of the smaller galiots and fustas. This work took place at selected sites, with the armada at Midilli alone numbering some one hundred twenty vessels including forty galleys early in 1502. The sultan requisitioned laborers for the fleet, especially carpenters and caulkers, as well as building materials from Chios, a “request” that the Christian administration of the island could not afford to refuse.

This construction cannot be explained only as a requirement of the combat with Venice. By fall of 1502, it was apparent that a peace treaty was in the offing. In the intervening years before the conquest of Cairo in 1517, Venice and the Ottomans were at peace. Their naval relations, though characterized by a healthy distrust, were generally amicable. Yet, just as the peace treaty set aside the threat from the Porte’s primary opponent in the Mediterranean, Bayezid began a policy of naval expansion which would ultimately make the Ottomans the dominant naval power in the region. During this same time-, the French and Spanish were contenders for naval power in the western Mediterranean, the Portuguese gained control of the Indian Ocean, and the Rhodians remained an insistent, if essentially insignificant, naval threat of the Anatolian coast. Although the Spanish would become a formidable sea power, their success in the western Mediterranean was arguably a function of the direction-east-that the sultan chose for the utilization of his navy.

The Ottoman naval reorganization begun in the fall of 1502 was a three-stage operation. It involved the repair of the fleet, the dismantling of some ships for reconstruction and the building of entirely new ships. Reconstruction efforts were directed at the largest ships which were either taken apart or sold to private entrepreneurs. Materials from the ships, which were taken apart, were used to build heavy and light galleys. These efforts were aimed at producing lighter, more maneuverable ships, which were not only more adaptable to joint naval actions but were also less likely to be captured.

While these efforts were underway Bayezid ordered the mobilization of sixty to seventy thousand men, both oarsmen and sailors. This number is more than even a fleet of three hundred ships could utilize; however, it indicates that the Venetian authors of the reports were impressed with the sultan’s levy of seamen. The high number may also be an indication of the divergence between the number of sailors and oarsmen levied and the actual numbers who showed up. In order to finance the naval expansion, Bayezid combined a number of sources of income. He obtained some revenue from the sale of the largest ships. He ordered each of his sons to provide for the construction of six heavy galleys, and a number of his sancak begs to finance three light galleys each. In addition, the merchants of Salonica (both Greeks and Turks) were ordered to pay a tithe and to finance mariners. The fact that only the merchants of Salonica are mentioned as paying the special naval levy does not mean that it was limited to this city alone. There is, however, a certain logic to the idea of levies on the coastal merchants. They were likely to be engaged in commerce supplied by shipping along the Anatolian coast, from the Aegean islands, and across the Mediterranean from Beirut and Alexandria. This shipping was susceptible to corsair raiding especially on the part of the Rhodians. If the naval expansion was aimed, in part, at the protection of Ottoman shipping, then the merchants who profited from it were a likely source of revenue. The bulk of the financing for the fleet, however, came from the imperial treasury supplemented by the special levies such as the oarsman tax (kürekҫi akҫesi).

By the end of the year 1503, the Ottomans had an impressive array of ships at their disposal . In his report to the Venetian Senate, the returning bailo of Istanbul, Andrea Gritti, gave a detailed account of the Ottoman fleet and its activities. Gritti counted the Galata fleet as including thirty light galleys, twelve galleys bastarda, two galeazza (unnavigable), and some assorted fustas and gripos. At Gallipoli there were sixty galleys and fustas. Three of these galleys, with thirty, twenty-six, and twenty-two banks of oars respectively, had been constructed by an Italian shipbuilder named Andrea Dere. At Avlonya in the Adriatic the Ottomans had eleven galleys which had been seized during the war and nine fustas (mostly in bad order) . At Volissa on the west side of Chios were an additional eight heavy galleys and thirteen light galleys. Gritti’s account does not include estimates of naval forces at other Ottoman ports such as Macri and Samsun, but it is clear that Bayezid had a large fleet at his disposal which had not been retired at the end of the war.

The shipbuilder Dere is again mentioned in Leonardo Loredano’s report to the Venetian Senate in March 1507. His story illustrates the continuation of shipbuilding activity, gives some insight into the training of the Ottoman sea captains, and emphasizes the competition among states for skilled craftsmen. The sultan’s shipwright told Loredano that he had prospered while in the Ottoman service. He indicated, however, that he might consider leaving Istanbul if Venice came up with a sufficiently lucrative offer. This was especially so because Dere’s superior, the kapudan (captain-general of the Ottoman fleet) Daud Pasha, had died. When Daud was alive, Dere recalled, he would call his shipbuilder to his room and go over navigation charts with him, asking all about the Aegean ports, especially about Zara (a Venetian possession) and its defenses. After hearing this story, Loredano suggested that Venice would be well advised to try to persuade Dere to return to Italy, before the Ottoman navy benefited even further from his knowledge. Good shipwrights were a prized commodity in any case in the Mediterranean, even if they were not possessed of tactical information. In the end, however, Dere, saying that he had served the sultan for many years, seemed content enough to stay where he was.

Lack of a sufficient naval opponent and the expense of keeping large fleets manned insured that much of the Ottoman armada was demobilized at any given time. In the winter, the Ottoman fleet in the Bosphorus, consisting of one hundred twenty or so vessels, was beached and guarded by a large number of sentries. Meanwhile, however, the Ottomans had not ceased to manufacture great numbers of cannon, both iron and bronze, as well as other types of naval munitions. This production was facilitated by a large number of artillery masters at Istanbul working, according to Loredano, continuously. The Porte was able to produce sufficient artillery to arm its own expanding navy and to create a surplus as well. This surplus, in turn, would allow the Ottomans to provide cannon for the Mamluk fleet being prepared at Suez to challenge the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. While the bulk of the Ottoman armada remained demobilized in various naval stations, small fleets could be mobilized as needed for the various objectives of the state. Significant among these objectives was the protection of Ottoman commodities shipping through defense of the Anatolian coastal areas. Rumors persisted throughout the Mediterranean after 1503 that the Ottomans intended to launch an armada. But the Ottomans launched no major fleet offensive until 1515. During this time of relative peace, however, fleets of from fifteen to forty vessels were kept regularly cruising in the Aegean. These fleets provided transport, security against corsairs for Ottoman shipping, and general coastal defense. They were also used for commercial purposes and for special diplomatic missions.

Piracy was endemic in sixteenth-century seas, and the newly constructed Ottoman fleet seems to have been used primarily against corsairs. Piratic acts combined with a grain shortage prompted Bayezid in 1504 to send out eight armed galleys and fustas to prevent smuggling and the seizure of grain ships by pirates. These ships were instructed to punish Kara Durmuş, a corsair, who had acquired a small fleet in the course of the Venetian wars and was now operating in the waters near Chios, apparently under the patronage of the sancak beg of Manissa, Celal Beg. Kara Durmuş, with a fleet of twenty-two fustas, a brigantine and a galiota, was interfering with Ottoman shipping and raiding the Anatolian coasts. This number of vessels seems large for a single corsair, although most of the ships were the small and maneuverable fustas which could be operated in close to shore. Kara Durmuş may have formed loose and temporary alliances with other small-time corsairs, who united for defensive purposes during some raiding activities while at other times pursuing their interests individually. In 1505, a fleet, numbering fourteen to eighteen ships, under the command of Kemal Reis, a hero of the Ottoman-Venetian wars, was mobilized and charged with the task of pursuing Kara Durmuş and preventing corsairing activities based on Rhodes. This use of Ottoman vessels in patrolling activity suggests that a uniform definition of “navy” is inadequate to explain the nature of naval action in the sixteenth century. Visions of large-scale sea battles and of shipboard Muslim crusaders must give way to a more mundane version of Levantine sea power.

Union and USN Monitors

The distinction for participating in the first ironclad-to-ironclad clash must go to the Ericsson turret armorclad USS Monitor, the world’s first mastless ironclad. At the Battle of Hampton Roads (8 March 1862), Monitor faced off Confederate ironclad battery CSS Virginia in one of the very few naval battles fought before a large audience, lining the Virginia shore.

It is popularly supposed that Hampton Roads demonstrated that the day of the wooden warship had ended. It did no such thing; the armored Kinburn batteries had already taken the world’s attention almost six years before, the French La Gloire had been in service for the previous two years, and the magnificent seagoing British ironclad HMS Warrior for six months; and the world’s naval powers at the time had some 20 ironclads on the stocks. It would have been a peculiarly dense naval officer or designer who did not realize by March 1862 that ironclads would dominate the world’s fleets in the very near future. The main question would be what forms those ironclad warships would take.

The historic Battle of Hampton Roads did touch off a veritable monitor mania in the Union: Of the 84 ironclads constructed in the North throughout the Civil War, no less than 64 were of the monitor or turreted types. The first class of Union monitors were the 10 Catskills: Catskill, Camanche, Lehigh, Montauk, Nahant, Nantucket, Patapsco, Passaic, Sangamon, and Weehawken. (Camanche was shipped in knocked-down form to San Francisco. But the transporting vessel sank at the pier. Camanche was later salvaged, but the war was already over. Camanche thus has the distinction of being sunk before completion.) These ironclads, the first large armored warships to have more than two units built from the same plans, were awkwardly armed with one 11-inch and one 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbore. The Passaics were followed by the nine larger Canonicus class: Canonicus, Catawba (not completed in time for Union service), Mahopac, Manayunk, Manhattan, Oneonta, Saugus, Tecumseh, and Tippecanoe, distinguishable by their armament of two matching 15-inch smoothbores and the removal of the dangerous upper-deck overhang.

The eminent engineer James Eads designed four Milwaukee-class whaleback (sloping upper deck) double-turreted monitors: Chickasaw, Kickapoo, Milwaukee, and Winnebago. (Ericsson, on the other hand, loathed multiple-turret monitors, sarcastically comparing the arrangement to “two suns in the sky.”) Eads’s unique ironclads mounted two turrets, one of the Ericsson type (much to Ericsson’s disgust), the other of Eads’s own patented design: The guns’ recoil would actually drop the turret floor below the waterline for safe reloading; hydraulic power would then raise the floor back to the turret, wherein the guns could be run out by steam power. Eads’s two paddlewheel wooden-hull monitors, Osage and Neosho, designed for work on western rivers, were also unique. Although built to Eads’s designs, the two paddlewheel monitors mounted Ericsson turrets. All of the above monitors saw action in the U. S. Civil War. Completed too late for action were Marietta and Sandusky, iron-hulled river monitors constructed in Pittsburgh by the same firm that had built the U. S. Navy’s first iron ship, the paddle sloop USS Michigan.

Ericsson designed five supposedly oceangoing Union monitors: the iron-construction Dictator and Puritan, and the timber-built Agamenticus, Miantonomah, Monadnock, and Tonawanda.

The one-of-a-kind Union monitors were Roanoke, a cut-down wooden sloop; and Onondaga, also of timber-hull construction. Ozark, a wooden-hull light river monitor, had a higher freeboard than any Union monitor and also mounted a unique underwater gun of very questionable utility. None of the seagoing or the one-of-akind monitors saw combat.

Keokuk was an unlucky semimonitor (its two guns were mounted in two fixed armored towers and fired through three gun ports-a revolving turret would seem to have been an altogether simpler arrangement). The fatal flaw was in the armor, a respectable 5.75 inches, but it was alternated with wood. Participating in the U. S. Navy’s first attack on Charleston, South Carolina, Keokuk was riddled with some 90 Confederate shots and sank the next morning.

Aside from riverine/coastal ironclads, the Federals built only two broadside wooden ironclads, New Ironsides and Dunderberg (later Rochambeau, a super-New Ironsides, almost twice the former ironclad’s displacement), both with no particular design innovation. But New Ironsides could claim to be the most fired-upon ironclad during naval operations off Charleston, perhaps the most fired-upon warship of the nineteenth century, as well as the ironclad that, in turn, fired more rounds at the enemy than any other armored warship of the time. The broadside federal ironclad was formidably armed with fourteen 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and two 150-pound Parrott rifles, as well as a ram bow. Its standard 4.5-inch armor plate was far superior to the laminated plate of contemporary monitors. Whereas the monitors off Charleston suffered serious damage from Confederate batteries (and semimonitor Keokuk was sunk), New Ironsides could more or less brush off enemy projectiles and was put out of action only temporarily when attacked by a Confederate spar torpedo boat. During its unmatched 16-month tour of duty off Charleston, it proved a strong deterrent to any Confederate ironclad tempted to break the Union’s wooden blockading fleet off that port city, becoming the “guardian of the blockade.” Still, naval historians have tended to ignore New Ironsides and its wartime contributions because of the conservative design.

In light of their technological inferiority to British turret ironclads, it is difficult to understand why the Union’s Ericsson-turret monitors were also built by other countries: Brazil, Norway, Russia, and Sweden either built their own Ericsson-style monitors or had them built in other countries. (The Swedes, naturally enough, named their initial monitor John Ericsson.) The Russians constructed no less than ten Bronenosetz-class coast-defense monitors, and the Norwegians four similar Skorpionens. The Royal Navy ordered a class of four dwarf coastal ironclads that could be termed monitors, but they carried, of course, Coles turrets on breastworks well above the height at which they would have been mounted on Ericsson monitors, and they had superstructures. Furthermore, unlike the monitors, these coastal ironclads were in fact the diminutive template of the mastless turreted capital ship of the future.

The Union monitors, although an intriguing design, were in truth merely coastal and river warships; although several ventured onto the high seas, they only did so sealed up and unable to use their guns. Their extremely low freeboard (a long-armed man could have dipped his hand in the water from the deck) and tiny reserve of buoyancy made them liable to swamping, beginning with Monitor itself, which foundered off the North Carolina coast in December 1862. Monitor Tecumseh went down in less than two minutes after striking a mine at the Battle of Mobile Bay, the first instantaneous destruction of a warship, an all-too-common event in the twentieth century’s naval battles. Tecumseh was also the first ironclad to be sunk in battle, if one discounts two federal riverine armorclads sunk earlier at the Battle of Plumb Point Bend in May of 1862.

In fact, although the monitors might have been impervious to any Confederate gunnery, Southern mines destroyed the only three such warships sunk by the enemy: Patapsco, Tecumseh, and Milwaukee.(Monitor Weehawken foundered on a relatively calm sea in Charleston Harbor.)

The monitors also suffered from an extremely slow rate of fire; Monitor itself could get off only one shot about every seven minutes. Each shot required that the monitor’s turret revolve to where its floor ammunition hatch matched that of the hull; when firing, the two hatches were out of alignment to protect the magazine. And if an enemy shot hit where the turret met the upper deck, the turret could jam, something that apparently never happened to the many turrets built with Coles’s system.

In 1865, the U. S. Board of Ordnance obtusely argued that warships intended for sea service would be best with no armor at all. Yet at that very moment the Royal Navy had deployed five seagoing ironclads, including the magnificent pioneering Warrior and Black Prince, both warships with truly oceanic range, not to mention Defence, Resistance, and the timber-hull Royal Oak, Prince Consort, and Hector. The French, of course, years before had commissioned the seagoing La Gloire as well as Magenta and Solferino, the latter two the only ironclads ever to mount their main battery on double gun decks. (Magenta also has the melancholy distinction of being the first of the capital ships to be destroyed by mysterious explosion, a fate followed by about a score of such warships in the succeeding decades.)

In view of their design faults, plus their inferior and extremely slow firing guns and laminated armor, the monitors were a dead end in naval architecture from the start. The fact that Washington would consider the British sale of just two Coles turret rams to the Confederacy as grounds for war is a strong indication that the administration of President Abraham Lincoln realized the superiority of British-built turret ships to Union monitors.

Post-Civil War USN

The United States was in basically the same geostrategic position as was Great Britain. The British Isles had no land borders to defend and could thus pour most of its defense funding into its navy. The United States had only two very weak military powers along its two land borders and could thus embark on a great naval construction program, centered on battleships, and relegate its army over the years to something about the size of Romania’s.

Yet of all the naval powers, the United States held on most tenaciously to the coast-defense idea. The armored warships of the new navy, in fact, commenced with the construction of no less than ten big-gun coast-defense monitors. The first five of these were virtually Civil War-era near-derelicts supposedly repaired but actually newly constructed in order to circumvent congressional refusal to allot monies for any new warships. (The fiscal situation was so dire that several Civil War monitors were given to shipbuilders as partial payment for the new monitors.) The remaining five new monitors were actually constructed openly as new warships, as Congress voted funds for the new navy. These bizarre warships were armed with 10- inch and 12-inch guns and were heavily armored. They would participate in the bombardment of Puerto Rico and in blockade duty during the Spanish-American War, fairly well fulfilling their coastal purpose. Within a few years, they were universally denounced in the service as practically useless; their one virtue in later years was that their very low freeboard made them excellent submarine tenders. (One unimpressed contemporary U. S. naval officer described monitor Monterey as “a double-acting, high-uffen-buffen, doubleturreted, back-acting submarine war junk. . . .,” drawing “fourteen feet of mud forward and 16 feet 6 inches of slime aft, and had three feet of discolored water over the main deck in fair weather” (Padfield, 129). The French and the Russians also built coastal minibattleships, in limited numbers, but no new monitors. The Royal Navy and the Italian Navy also built monitors, but these warships were primarily ad hoc expedients to mount heavy guns from uncompleted battleships.

Royal Navy 1803

Goodbye My Lads by Fred Roe.
Lord Nelson waves goodbye to the crowd at Portsmouth. Lord Nelson joins his ship HMS Victory before the battle of Trafalgar.

Becalmed – HMS Victory in the Doldrums by Ivan Berryman.
Two of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s ships lie becalmed together, bathed in the soft glow of the setting sun. The 74-gun HMS Captain basks ahead of the mighty HMS Victory, the ship that would ultimately lead the British fleet into battle against the combined might of the Spanish and French fleets at Trafalgar in 1805.

At the time of the renewed outbreak of war in 1803, however, the Royal Navy was also a highly professional force. It was (in contrast to the army) in the hands of the educated sons of gentlemen of modest means, like Nelson. Relations between officers and men were, particularly under Nelson, generally excellent. At the top Pitt had appointed, as First Lord, Admiral Sir John Jervis, who had taken his new title of St Vincent from the battle which had saved England in 1797. A close second only to Nelson, it was ‘Jarvie’ to whom Britain owed most for her survival, then victory, at sea. Already aged sixty-nine in 1803, he had joined the navy the week of his fourteenth birthday, and by the time he was twenty-four he had witnessed Wolfe’s assault at Quebec, in command of the Porcupine. He was a square, oak-like, small figure, but with twinkling eyes, a man of irresistibly forceful personality, and with a dread reputation as a most stern disciplinarian. It was reputed that he had once administered a dozen lashes to a captain of the maintop who had failed to uncover during ‘God Save the King’.

During the alarming mutinies in Spithead and the Nore of 1797, which could have devastated the fleet had they spread, St Vincent (then Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean) had had to act with extreme measures. On the Marlborough, a ‘very bad ship’, he ordered a mutineer to be hanged from the yard-arm by his own shipmates; a launch with a ‘smashing carronade’ was sent alongside to blow the ship out of the water in case the order was refused. In another ship under his command, two homosexuals were hanged for their ‘unnatural crime’. Four mutineers were ordered to be hanged immediately, but, as it was a Sunday, St Vincent’s second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Thompson, proposed a delay. He was promptly sacked. The word went round: ‘If old Jarvie hears ye, he will have you dingle-dangle from the yard arm at eight o’clock tomorrow morning.’ Yet, though severe, ‘Jarvie’ was not a cruel man, and was respected both for his rigid sense of justice and for his hatred of unfairness. Like Montgomery in a later world war – and though quite out of phase with his own times – he was much harder on the officers than on the men; and he was correspondingly loved for it.

Having suffered a crushing blow during the ‘Terror’, when the guillotine had almost wiped out its officer corps, the French Navy had never really recovered. The quality of the French ships was often superior to that of the ageing British vessels, worn out by years of service (Nelson’s Victory, for instance, had been laid down in the 1760s), but discipline on board ship was poor. Perhaps more than to any other factor, the ability of British ships to stay at sea, and endure longer than the French – which would eventually decide the war – could be ascribed to that fierce, almost inhuman, discipline maintained by St Vincent. Under him, too, far-reaching reforms of pay and conditions were also carried out. When commanding the Mediterranean Fleet, he found more than one of his exhausted men-of-war to be worn out by nonstop operations: ‘altogether in such a crazy and infirm state, as to be totally incapable of a passage back to England’. After the period of the ‘Phoney Peace’ in 1802, Addington had imposed certain ill-chosen economies, and the navy’s ships were in a terrible state when St Vincent took over as First Sea Lord; but somehow he was able to transform its ‘hulks of dubious wood and canvas into a fighting fleet’ – and just in time to meet Napoleon’s greatest threat to England. An unflappable figure, it was ‘Jarvie’ who, during the 1803 invasion scare, had declared challengingly, ‘I don’t say the French can’t come. I say they can’t come by sea.’

Body and soul, he stood for the all-out, offensive blockade of Napoleon’s ports. He was replaced, briefly, by Lord Melville, who was in turn to be succeeded in April by Lord Barham. Very much Pitt’s appointee, Barham (previously Admiral Sir Charles Middleton) had resurrected the navy after the war with America. Although aged seventy-eight, he was still full of vigour, and knew more about reactivating ships than anybody in the business. In the short time that was to elapse before the ultimate showdown at Trafalgar, Barham was to prove the greatest naval administrator since Pepys.

Just below came a galaxy of brilliant sea commanders: ‘Billy-go-tight’ Cornwallis, the sixty-year-old Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Fleet; Collingwood, who had served so long at sea it was said his children scarcely knew him; Cotton, Calder, Cochrane and Pellew – and, above, the genius of the frail but fearless Nelson. It was they who maintained the superb standards boasted by the navy of that day. Ships-of-the-line, though minute by twentieth-century measurements, then represented the pinnacle of the high-tech and constructional skill of their age; Nelson’s Victory, for example, had been six years in building (it was already forty years old at the time of Trafalgar); it had required the felling of 2,500 oaks, had 27 miles of rigging and 4 acres of sail, displaced 3,500 tons, carried 104 guns and had cost £63,176 (about £3 million in today’s money). After decades of hard training, the British handling of these exquisite, yet primitive, pieces of equipment was unsurpassable, and so was the tactical seamanship of the commanders. When it came to the crucial factor of gunnery, nobody could concert a broadside with such deadly efficacy; it was something that Napoleon’s navy, for all its enthusiasm, could never emulate.

Yet, on the outbreak of war in 1803, England could count no more than fifty-five capital ships against France’s forty-two, though because Addington’s declaration had taken Napoleon by surprise only thirteen of these latter were ready for immediate service. Nevertheless, the margin was still uncomfortably slim by the critical spring of 1805 when – with Spain and Holland aligned against her as well – Barham had only eighty-three battleships in commission, and many of those badly in need of repair. But the spirit made up for much; putting to sea in May 1803, Nelson wrote to Emma Hamilton, ‘I have no fears,’ and the following year (to his friend, Alexander Davison):

I am expecting the French to put to sea – every day, hour and moment; and you may rely that, if it is within the power of man to get at them, it shall be done; and I am sure that all my brethren look forward to that day as the finish of our laborious cruise.

Of 1803–5 it could be said with truth that only the Royal Navy of St Vincent, Barham and Nelson stood between Napoleon and world domination. Fortunately for Britain, although sailors like the courageous, doomed Villeneuve would do their best, the French Navy, however, was never a high priority with Napoleon, any more than the German Navy was with Adolf Hitler, which was the fundamental reason why both would ultimately be defeated. Certainly, had the Royal Navy proved unable to prevent Napoleon landing a substantial force in England, her prospects would have been dim, for the British Army came out of a very different mould from the navy. It was, according to one contemporary description:

lax in its discipline, entirely without system, and very weak in numbers. Each colonel of a regiment managed it according to his own notions, or neglected it altogether; professional pride was rare; professional knowledge even more so. Never was a kingdom less prepared for a stern and arduous conflict.

The Royal Navy and the Lessons of 1914–1918 Part I

It is an axiom among historians that a knowledge of history can serve as a guide to the present. This is not to say that the present ought simply to imitate the past, for every human situation is indeed unique, but rather that individuals and groups should act to meet new situations partly on the basis of past experience. Armed forces have a particularly bad reputation for not taking this axiom seriously. Let us examine in some detail one case history, the Royal Navy after the First War, with a view to understanding how much that Service profited from 1914–18 and why it did not learn as much as it might have from its war experience.

The gruelling test of battle in the war naturally had brought to the fore a host of defects in the Royal Navy–in materiel, tactical doctrine, and system of command. What would the postwar Navy do about these shortcomings–that was the question. During the hostilities, the ‘Young Turks’, led by Captain H. W. Richmond, partly to assuage their bitter criticisms of the inefficiency of the Navy, looked forward to a postwar British version of ‘J’accuse’, to be followed by an era of reform which would capitalize on the lessons of the war. They were confident that the war would provide the will for, and create an atmosphere favourable to, reform. ‘The English won’t learn in peace,’ declared one of Richmond’s disciples, ‘but they can’t fail to learn from war. It may be 5 years, or 10 … but sooner or later the truth must come to light and a renaissance will result, followed by a sound system of education.’

Early postwar prospects were good. Before leaving the Admiralty at the beginning of 1919, the First Lord, Sir Eric Geddes, recommended to the Board of Admiralty the appointment of ‘a strong, critical, and as far as possible independently-minded Committee’ to examine ‘the naval position on the outbreak of war and the steps taken during the war to remedy defects and meet new requirements’. Captain Stephen Roskill says that this suggestion, ‘with its implied criticism of the Admiralty’s conduct of the war’, was not implemented. Early in 1919 the Admiralty took steps ‘to appoint Committees of Sea Officers to summarise the more urgent lessons of the War and to make recommendations as to future policy, whilst the experience of the War is fresh in their minds….’ Here again there was no immediate follow-up. The only two committees formed were the ‘Mitchell Committee’, appointed on 21 March 1919 to make a thorough investigation of what had gone wrong at the Dardanelles and on Gallipoli in 1915, and a Post-War Questions Committee in August 1919 (Rear-Admiral R. F. Phillimore, chairman) with narrow terms of reference. It was to ‘consider in the light of the experience of the war the military uses and values of the different types of war vessel’ and ‘consider and advise the Board of Admiralty on the part likely to be taken by aircraft, both in attack and defence’. A Government directive struck the examination of the naval air situation from the terms of reference. As regards the first charge, no doubt because of Admiralty sensitivity to what might emerge from a searching study, the Committee made a superficial examination of the pertinent experience of the war and put its imprimatur on the continuing predominance of the battleship (March 1920).

More promising was the work of the Naval Staff College, which was started at Greenwich in June 1919 on Sir Rosslyn Wemyss’s initiative to train officers for Naval Staff duties. Its very establishment proved that one all-important lesson of the war had not gone unheeded. As Lord Beatty, who succeeded Wemyss at the end of 1919, put it: ‘Such naval disasters as occurred during the war were the direct result of the lack of sufficient and efficient staff. … We paid very dearly for the experience which led to its formation and nothing should interfere with its development.’ The main object of the staff course training (the course was approximately nine months) was (and remains), in Admiral J. H. Godfrey’s words, ‘to broaden the mind to study war and to make officers think’. By 1939 the list of officers who had completed the course, or had served on the staff of the College, filled two pages of the closely printed Navy List. During the 1920s the Navy, generally, regarded staff officers with a good deal of suspicion, particularly those with really independent thoughts and ideas. This attitude had changed by the beginning of its second decade, and ‘it seemed to be universally accepted that the staff course should form part and parcel of a promising naval officer’s career, and that the qualifications for selection to the course were the same as those for promotion. Of the fifty-one executive officers who did the course during 1929 and 1930, eighteen have become Flag Officers.’ As part of its work, the Staff College did its best to study and absorb the lessons of 1914–18, and the evidence is that it made as good a job of it as could be expected. The battles of the First War were studied, Jutland above all, with personal talks by the leading admirals of that time–J. R. Jellicoe, W. E. Goodenough, and others–adding a realistic element. In 1936 Admiral Sir Reginald (‘Blinker’) Hall, the great wartime Director of Naval Intelligence, delivered a ‘magnificent’ talk on intelligence and on ways of communicating with those at sea. He also discussed trade protection, drawing on the experience of 1914–18.

The Tactical School was founded at Portsmouth Dockyard in 1924 (it was the proposal of Admiral Sir Frederic Dreyer, Jellicoe’s Flag-Captain at Jutland) to promote a more scientific study of naval tactics. It expounded the Battle Instructions (title changed in the summer of 1939 to Fighting Instructions), with a well-organized demonstration of Jutland on the big tactical board as the high spot. This was laid on to bring out the lessons to be learned. For the rest the officers did convoy exercises and staged imaginary fleet actions. Admiral of the Fleet Sir Algernon Willis has ‘always thought that the Tactical School did a good job and I believe this was the general opinion in the Service. The fact that the Navy never put a foot wrong “tactically” in World War II is generally attributed largely to the work of the Tactical School.’ I would not dispute this expert judgement, except to note that there was perhaps too much emphasis on fleet action as being the ultimate test of war. One must add that a lot of tactical experiment and investigation went on at sea, where it should, and was carefully analysed. All the same, as will be indicated below, not all the tactical lessons of the First War were learned.

The accepted doctrine of the Navy’s strategical ideas was supposed to have been enshrined in the Naval War Manual, first issued in September 1921 and revised in October 1925. There was little in it beyond a few catchwords pertaining to the ‘principles of war’ and generalities on ‘naval policy’, the ‘functions of the Navy’, ‘war plans’, and so on. A much fuller statement, completed in October 1938 by Commander John Creswell at the R.N. College, Greenwich, at the direction of the Admiralty, had not been issued when the war came.

In short, there was in the interwar years a fairly close study of the lessons–some of the lessons, at any rate–of the war, and certain principles were evolved and reforms instituted. It may rightly be claimed that British naval successes in the Second War can be attributed in part to these studies and exercises. Apart from the establishment of the Staff College, there were various ways in which the lessons of the First War had obviously been learned and were well applied. Thus, enemy reporting was much improved and the Navy had good success in solving the problem of a massed torpedo attack by destroyers on a battle fleet, which had hobbled Grand Fleet tactics. The Grand Fleet doctrine of not committing a fleet to night action was rejected, and improvements were introduced in night fighting (as through the introduction of star shell and improved searchlight control), with the reward of Matapan. Ernie Chatfield and W. W. Fisher in the Mediterranean in the early thirties placed great emphasis on night-action training. In the last prewar months the new DNI, Rear-Admiral J. H. Godfrey, was able to apply an important lesson of the First War–that Operations and Intelligence must work together, avoiding any semblance of secrecy. The neglect of this common-sense principle had had disastrous results at Jutland. There was a big improvement on the First War as regards initiative and leadership. Those in command of operations, even small ones involving perhaps only a few units, showed a high degree of initiative, in no small way regaining the confidence in, and capacity for, independent judgement of those captains of the old sailing days who usually had to rely on themselves. Staff work generally, ashore and afloat, was improved. ‘There was’, writes Admiral Sir Manley Power, ‘a tremendous change in the behaviour of Senior Officers in the period between the wars, particularly in their attitudes towards their staffs. Early ones resented having staffs thrust upon them at all. Chatfield, as C-in-C [Mediterranean, 1930–2], used his staff to the full, but officers venturing opinions uninvited were severely choked off. [A. B.] Cunningham, whom I served [1939–43], professed to despise Staff training, but thrived on controversy and encouraged it. One of his earliest remarks to me after I joined him was: “I hate Staff Officers who agree with me.” This made me a No man for the duration!’ ‘A.B.C.’ was typical of the new breed of senior officer–men like John D. Cunningham, B. H. (‘Bertie’) Ramsay, and James Somerville–who encouraged controversy.

There was after the First War tremendous room for improvement in inter-Service understanding and co-operation. ‘To appreciate the atmosphere in which the Dardanelles assault was hatched, one must accept the fact that Admiral [Sir A. K.] Wilson, Lord Fisher, and Lord Kitchener were incapable of co-operation and would have been deeply shocked at the idea of revealing a naval plan to a soldier, or a military project to a sailor.’ The lesson was learned. After the war the three staff colleges held a joint exercise every year (the one in 1935 was ‘The Recapture of Singapore’!), which welded together Royal Air Force, Army, and Navy officers from the staff and personal points of view. The creation of the Chiefs of Staff Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence in 1923, a body where the three Service Chiefs met as a team to work out a common strategy and advise the Government on defence, was another encouraging development in the same direction, as was the companion Joint Planning Committee. I should mention, too, the establishment in 1927 of the Imperial Defence College to ‘train a body of officers [from all three Services] and civilian officials in the broadest aspects of Imperial Strategy’. As a result, despite the fact that differences of opinion continued and good relations were bedevilled by the Navy–RAF feud over control of Naval Air, inter-Service co-operation in the last war in the strategic field, though far from perfect, particularly at the very top, was highly effectual.

But all this gives a false impression of what actually was achieved in the twenty years between wars in the way of profiting from the lessons of 1914–18. Much was done at Staff and War colleges and at the Tactical School, but it was not based on a really critical study of the past. Moreover, investigation focused on materiel problems. Ship design, questions of gunfire (success was achieved in the control and concentration of gunfire), the development of smoke screens, and the like absorbed the energies of Admiralty committees. Apart, however, from the Mitchell Committee on the Dardanelles in 1919, there was little attempt by these committees to study the larger problems and lessons of the war. The results of this neglect were most serious in the field of trade defence.

The Royal Navy in 1945


The last battleship of the Royal Navy, HMS Vanguard, with eight 15in guns in four turrets.

The Royal Navy in 1945 was a different service from the one that had gone to war in 1939. Manpower had actually peaked in mid-1944 and had already begun to fall but the number of ships was at its peak in 1945.

This was a modern navy and a well-balanced fleet, possibly more so than at any time in its history. The irony was that the two oldest aircraft carriers, Furious and Argus , had survived the war while all the other pre-war aircraft carriers had been lost. By this time, these two veterans were no better than hulks. In fact, those ships that had served through the war were almost all in dire need of a heavy refit as not only had they taken battle damage, but routine refits had been neglected because of the pressure on the Royal Navy to keep as many ships at sea as possible, while its three main bases were also subjected to heavy aerial attack. One man who joined Illustrious after the war recalls seeing much evidence of the damage done to the ship off Malta and then again while undergoing emergency repairs in Malta.

Yet, even at the war’s end, new ships were joining the fleet. One of these was the last battleship of the Royal Navy, HMS Vanguard, with eight 15in guns in four turrets. Serious consideration had been given to converting the ship before completion as an aircraft carrier, but this would have been a costly operation and the end result would have been too narrow in the beam to make an ideal carrier. The question was, of course, why was anyone ordering a battleship at this time? However, tradition dies hard and for the navies of the day, possession of a battleship was seen as a necessary status symbol. Many minor navies, especially in Latin America, kept battleships for many years afterwards, while others – for example, the Dutch, Australian, Canadian and Indian navies – all preferred the ‘modern’ option of an aircraft carrier.

While none of the Colossus and the extension of this class, the Majestic -class, ships saw action in the Second World War, they were involved in the Korean War and two saw service in Operation MUSKETEER, the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal Zone. More enduring was that having ordered these ships in large numbers, especially for ships of their size, many were immediately available for sale or transfer elsewhere. These two classes saw service with the navies of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, India and The Netherlands, and in some cases introduced these navies to carrier-borne air power for the first time.

As many as possible of the Lend-Lease auxiliary or escort carriers were returned to the United States but some were in no state to go back, with Dasher having blown up killing many of her ship’s company and others sunk or so badly damaged that they had to be scrapped and another, Biter , was loaned to the French as the Dixmude . Nairana , one of the few British conversions, was loaned to the Dutch as the Karel Doorman , the irony being that the want of air cover had seen the loss of the admiral of this name with his ship in the Battle of the Java Sea. The Dutch subsequently received a Colossus -class light fleet carrier, Venerable , and after returning Nairana to the Royal Navy their new ship was named Karel Doorman .

As the Royal Navy was run down from its wartime strength, the naval bases around the world filled up with redundant escort vessels, especially corvettes. Other ships were sold off. While many of the escort carriers returned to the United States were converted to merchant vessels, strangely few of those operated by the USN were converted. The Royal Navy kept one of the British conversions, the Pretoria Castle , for many years as a trials ship.

There were some problems with personnel, with those of the wartime ‘hostilities only’ category expecting to be released as soon as the war ended, but this was impractical. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy did not suffer the indiscipline, almost amounting to mutiny, that affected many Royal Air Force bases, especially in the Indian subcontinent.

One naval pilot, a lieutenant commander, managed to switch from the RNVR to the regular service, but was then disappointed to find himself demoted to lieutenant and left waiting for weeks for a new posting. Nevertheless, when he eventually did retire many years later it was as a captain. Less fortunate were those caught in training as pilots or observers when peace was declared. While still not commissioned as this did not come in wartime until flying training was completed, they found themselves posted to be trained as aircraft engine mechanics and all hopes of early commissioning lost. Worse, on being posted for training, their superior ‘officer potential’ led to extra harsh discipline being imposed on them until the newspapers found out about it.

The Post-WWII Navy

In contrast to the situation earlier in the century, the post-war Royal Navy included many national servicemen, although less than the Royal Air Force and far less than the British Army. Of those who did find themselves undertaking national service with the RN, many were Merchant Navy personnel whose national service had been deferred until their training was completed.

A substantial Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve were both maintained for many years until eventually these two categories were merged into a single Royal Naval Reserve. As the future of the Royal Navy was planned by an Admiralty committee known as the ‘Way Ahead Committee’, flying training for reservists was dropped, and eventually as the service contracted and national service ended, the RNR was mainly tasked with minesweeping. Other cuts saw the last battleship, Vanguard , first as the headquarters of the RNR and then eventually scrapped. Warspite had been withdrawn for scrapping soon after the war had ended and showed her displeasure by breaking her tow and ending up beached in St Michael’s Bay in Cornwall; Vanguard did the same, but off Southsea.


Aerial view of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Victorious (R38), taken circa 1958-1960, when the Royal Navy operated the Douglas Skyraider AEW.1.

The wartime aircraft carriers eventually were scrapped, except for Victorious which underwent a massive rebuilding to emerge with a half-angled flight deck and three-dimensional radar in the late 1950s, but she too was scrapped a few years later after a fire while under refit. Nevertheless, by the mid-1960s the Royal Navy had five aircraft carriers and two commando carriers. The latter were equipped with helicopters and could take a Royal Marine Commando brigade wherever it was needed; a legacy of the Suez campaign when the Royal Navy flew off the first heliborne assault.

Naval bases were cut. While the former RAF base at Hal Far in Malta was transferred to the Fleet Air Arm as HMS Falcon , the 1970s saw the Royal Navy’s presence run down and the base eventually closed as the Royal Navy left Malta after more than 170 years. Other major bases that were abandoned included Singapore and later Hong Kong after the territory was handed over to the Chinese People’s Republic. Today, only Gibraltar remains of the overseas bases and there is no longer a Mediterranean Fleet or, even in its much-reduced state, a Home Fleet. The various overseas squadrons and stations have all gone. Chatham was the only one of the three manning ports to close but it was followed in the 1990s by Rosyth. Today, the Royal Naval Reserve also has all but disappeared and its various ‘divisions’, small outposts around the coast, have gone.

Naval aircraft also changed. The first generation of jet aircraft such as the Supermarine Attacker was soon followed by the de Havilland Sea Venom and Armstrong-Whitworth Sea Hawk, but in the 1960s there was a major step forward. Starting with the Blackburn Buccaneer and then joined by the American McDonnell F-4M Phantom, carrier-borne aircraft suddenly became comparable with those based ashore. No longer was there a significant performance gap between aircraft designed to take off from ships and those based ashore. Both aircraft were also to see air force service.

The threat from low-flying aircraft also ended with Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft such as the Fairey Gannet, a development of the Royal Navy’s last fixed-wing anti-submarine aircraft, while this role passed to increasingly powerful and effective anti-submarine helicopters such as the Westland Sea King and later the Agusta-Westland Merlin.

The 1970s almost saw the end of the aircraft carrier with the previous decade having seen replacements, known as CVA.01 and CVA.02, for the Royal Navy’s two largest carriers, Ark Royal and Eagle , cancelled. Ark Royal and Eagle were modified, with the former able to operate McDonnell Douglas F-4M Phantom fighters, and their lives extended. A complete end to British fixed-wing naval aviation was avoided when the Hawker Siddeley Kestrel vertical take-off aircraft appeared and this evolved into the British Aerospace Sea Harrier, while the concept of the ‘through deck cruiser’ emerged as a cut-price light fleet aircraft carrier. The discovery that a Sea Harrier had a much greater range or warload when using short take-off aided by a ramp known as a ‘ski-jump’ settled the shape of British naval aviation, and also that of Spain and Italy, for some years.

The ski-jump was not the sole British contribution to carrier aviation. British naval officers had invented the angled flight deck that allowed aircraft to land and take off at the same time, and allowed a pilot landing to go round for another attempt if necessary. The mirror-deck landing system was another of these inventions that helped aircraft to land, while the steam catapult enabled ever-heavier naval aircraft to take off safely.

In the end, three ships of what was known as the Invincible class were built. The conversion of the Centaur -class carrier Hermes as an interim ‘Harrier Carrier’ and the delivery of the first Invincible -class carrier meant that the Royal Navy was able to recover the Falkland Islands which had been invaded by the Argentine Republic in 1982. Unfortunately, only two of the Invincible -class ships, Illustrious and Ark Royal , were kept in commission and then the Sea Harriers were scrapped, although of a more up-to-date mark than those that had rescued the Falklands. After that the remaining carriers were withdrawn, although Illustrious received a temporary reprieve as a helicopter carrier. In the meantime, the remaining Harriers were jointly manned by Fleet Air Arm and RAF personnel as ‘Joint Force Harrier’.

The number of escort vessels also fell sharply from more than 182 in 1958: first to around 80; then to 40; to 25 in 2008; and eventually to just 19 today. Escorts were no longer steam- or diesel-powered but powered by gas turbines and gradually all escorts had a helicopter landing platform and hangar with some of the Type 22 frigates able to carry two helicopters. In the interests of economy and extending range, later escorts were powered by diesel and gas turbine propulsion.

Mines are no longer swept, not even hunted and then swept, but instead are found by sonar with a remotely-controlled submersible used to destroy the mine. Meanwhile, mine countermeasures vessels (MCMVs) as they are now known are no longer built of wood but of glass-reinforced fibre.

The biggest change has been the introduction of the nuclear-powered submarine, of which the first in Royal Navy service was named Dreadnought . These vessels were initially all ‘fleet’ submarines or ‘hunter-killers’, meaning that their main role was to counter Russian missile-carrying submarines, but later the responsibility for Britain’s nuclear deterrent was passed from the RAF to the Royal Navy and four intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Resolution -class submarines were introduced to carry Polaris missiles. There should have been five boats of this class but, with the nation ever more concerned about economics than defence, the fifth boat was cancelled. When Polaris was replaced by a more potent missile, Trident, the Resolution -class boats were replaced by the Vanguard class, also of four vessels.

The rank structure has also changed. The rank of commissioned airman or gunner that replaced the warrant officer rank was abolished in the mid-1950s and those holding this rank became sub-lieutenants, but change is often reversed and after the introduction of fleet chief petty officers, the rank of warrant officer has returned. At the other end of the scale, with all three services abolishing five-star ranks, there is no longer a rank of admiral of the fleet. Indeed, given the continued run-down of the Royal Navy, one wonders how much longer a First Sea Lord will be able to justify the rank of admiral?

At present the Royal Navy has the two largest aircraft carriers it has ever operated, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales , under construction but there are no plans to operate both ships and in any case, there are insufficient escort vessels for both to put to sea safely in a potentially hostile environment. For the first time in history, the French Marine Nationale has more ships than the Royal Navy.

US Destroyers 1935-39





Historical Units: Sims, Hughes, Anderson, Hammann, Mustin, Russell, O’Brien, Walke, Morris, Roe, Wainwright, Buck.

Type and significance: This class of U. S. destroyer serves as an example of U. S. destroyer design upon the outbreak of World War II.

Dates of construction: All units were constructed between 1938 and 1939.

Hull dimensions: 348’4″ # 36′ # 12’10”

Displacement: 1,764 tons

Armor: None

Armament: Five 5″ guns, four .5″ AA weapons, eight 21″ torpedo tubes, and 10 depth charges.

Machinery: Turbines powered by three oil-fired boilers that produced 50,000 shaft horsepower.

Speed: 35 knots Complement: 190

Summary: All of the vessels in the class served in World War II. Sims, Hammann, O’Brien, Walke, and Buck were destroyed in the conflict. By 1948, the others were either scrapped or destroyed as test ships.

The high number of destroyers launched between 1935 and 1939 was spurred by rising world tensions and continued to include primarily large destroyers capable of extended operations in the Pacific. The first of these were eight ships of the Porter class, launched between 1935 and 1936, that filled the U. S. need for flotilla leaders. These can be classed as the first U. S. superdestroyers. The hull of Porter measured 381 feet, 1 inch by 37 feet by 13 feet, displaced 1,834 tons, and housed engines capable of 37 knots. Its armament consisted of eight 5-inch guns in four twin-gunned mounts that were fully enclosed by gun houses. Two of these were located in the bow while the other two were sited in the stern. As a result of this armament and the ship’s tonnage, Porter conformed to the London Treaty at a time that corresponded with the breakdown of the Second London Conference. The ship was also armed with eight 1.1-inch and two .5-inch AA guns as a reflection of the growing threat posed by the airplane. Finally, the vessel carried eight 21-inch torpedo tubes.

The Porter type was followed by six more classes launched up to the end of 1939 that yielded 52 new destroyers. The last of these, the Sims class, is an example of regular U.S. destroyer design upon the outbreak of war in Europe. The hull of Sims measured 348 feet, 4 inches by 36 feet by 12 feet, 10 inches and displaced 1,764 tons. It was armed with five 5-inch guns, four .5-inch AA weapons, and eight 21-inch torpedo tubes. The vessel’s engines generated a maximum speed of 35 knots.

In addition to ships of these general design specifications, the United States continued the production of superdestroyers. The Somers-class ships displaced 2,047 tons and carried an impressive primary armament of eight 5-inch guns and 12 21-inch torpedo tubes. The large displacement of these ships is evidence of the fact that by the time of their launching between 1937 and 1938 the United States had accepted the fact that the era of arms limitation was over. By this point, it was also clear to many that global conflict was once again a real possibility.