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The History of the Royal Navy - Part 5 (1945 - 2005)

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Navy helicopter and sea harriers on the flight deck of HMS Invincible, heading for the Falklands in 1982.
History of the Royal Navy
Part One - 882 - 1660 | Part Two - 1660 - 1815 | Part Three - 1815 - 1914 | Part Four - 1914 - 1945 | Part Five - 1945 - 2005

In the fourth Entry of this series (1918 - 1945), we looked at the consequences of two World Wars for both Britain and the Royal Navy. The age of the battleship had ended. It had been replaced by the aircraft carrier and millions of people had died while military technology had flourished. The nuclear age had just begun, and as Germany was carved into two, an uneasy peace began between NATO and the Eastern Bloc which would last for 46 years. In the meanwhile, though, the Navy would still be needed, even though the threat of invasion of the British Isles seemed to finally be over.

Can War Ever be Over?

Although the deadliest war the earth had ever seen was now over, the world still wasn't quite at peace. In 1946, the destroyer HMS Saumarez hit a mine in the channel between Corfu and Albania, with the Volage striking another as it came to the Saumarez's rescue. Meanwhile, the Navy was kept busy by the need to prevent an influx of immigrants into Palestine, which had become a British Mandate in 1920 and remained so until the controversial UN Partition Plan, which led to the separation of the mandate into Israel and Palestine. In the meantime, though, the Navy was tasked with intercepting boatloads of immigrants heading for the country. In 1949, HMS Amethyst came under fire while heading for Kiangyin on the Yangtze River in China. While Able Seacat Simon managed the rat problem on board the Amethyst, HMS Consort came to the rescue and destroyed the battery responsible for the shelling. The two ships eventually managed to escape to sea after travelling over 100 miles past several Chinese batteries.

The Korean War

The Korean War (1950 - 1953) was the first 'battle' of the Cold War, originating as a civil war between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea. Invaded by Japan in 1910, Korea had subsequently been liberated by the USSR from the north and the USA from the south, leaving two countries divided at the 38th parallel. Without permission from Stalin, North Korea began to invade South Korea in June 1950, and the fierce fighting that followed led to fears that another World War was on its way. A UN task force was sent to intervene, but as most countries including the USA had fully demobilised after the end of the Second World War, the majority of troops were supplied by British Commonwealth countries.

Douglas MacArthur, the commander-in-chief of the UN forces, decided to make an amphibious landing at Inchon, behind the North Korean front line. However, the tidal area around Inchon made it very difficult to land troops, and it was fortunate that the area was not heavily guarded. After UN involvement began, the Chinese also ended up entering the war (which dragged on until 1953), requiring strong naval support throughout. The war gave the aircraft carriers another chance to show their worth, with the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy launching Sea Spitfires, Fairey Fireflies and Hawker Sea Furies from their carriers. There was even an instance during the war when a Chinese MiG jet fighter was shot down by a propeller-driven Sea Fury launched by HMS Ocean.

The Suez Crisis

Until 1948, Britain held a firm grip on the Suez Canal, with the defence of India requiring the posting of British troops in Egypt. However, 1947 brought the independence of India and the end of the British Mandate of Palestine, leaving the UK with no reason to control the Suez Canal. In 1952, the King of Egypt was overthrown by the Egyptian Army, who created a new independent Arab government that had no interest in allowing the British to stay. Palestinian refugees poured into the Gaza Strip as it came under Egyptian control and the area became a flashpoint for fighting with the Israelis. Egypt then became involved, sending commando raids into Israel via Jordan. In July 1956, Egypt decided to nationalise the Suez Canal, and so by October Britain, France and Israel had begun to talk. France's interest was largely due to Egypt's support for Algerian insurgents.

That same month, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula1, with Britain and France offering to deploy around the Suez Canal to separate the two sides, Egypt quickly refusing. The UK and France used this as a pretext to invade, sending an amphibious force inland which was supported by three British and two French aircraft carriers. However, the landing force was too slow to prevent the Egyptians from sinking every last one of the forty merchant vessels currently in the Suez Canal, thus blocking it to all shipping. With help from the world's first helicopter-borne assault team, the canal was successfully captured. Meanwhile, though, economic pressure from the USA2 made both European powers withdraw in March of the next year, with the world's first UN peacekeeping force replacing them. Despite this, the Navy had learnt another important lesson and began to replace amphibious landing craft with helicopter carriers and assault ships such as HMS Intrepid.

Changing Surface Forces

The Navy's largest battleship, HMS Vanguard, was scrapped in 1960, as it became clear that it had become more or less obsolete. However, the early aircraft carriers also suffered the same fate, as they proved too expensive to run, the HMS Ark Royal being decommissioned in 1978. However, the lessons learned during the Suez Crisis and other limited-sphere battles showed that smaller carriers, wielding helicopters and Harrier jump jets, were the way forward. This led to the construction of the 'Through Deck Cruisers' HMS Invincible, HMS Illustrious and a new Ark Royal in the 1980s. Due to downsizing these ships had to be much smaller than proper aircraft carriers, but this was not too great a blow due to post-war innovations such as the steam catapult and ski-ramps that now allow aircraft to take off using much less space along with improvements in flight deck layout. The Through Deck Cruisers were all fitted with Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593s, the same engines used in Concorde.

Meanwhile, frigates and destroyers had begun to change as well. The days of long rows of ships firing broadsides at each other were long gone, and by the end of the two World Wars aircraft and submarines posed a much bigger threat. In 1962, the HMS Devonshire was the first destroyer to be rigged with guided missiles and soon all the destroyers were fitted with anti-aircraft technology, while frigates gained an anti-submarine role. The modern battle group was born, with a fleet of frigates and destroyers protecting a central aircraft carrier. This arrangement allows a Navy task force to project power across a wide area of open water and to remain at sea for quite some time.

Nuclear Submarines

The first nuclear bomb to be used in anger was dropped upon Hiroshima, Japan by the USA on 6 August, 1945, followed by a second on Nagasaki four days later. In 1953 the Soviet Union carried out their first H-Bomb test, leading to a nuclear stalemate between the West and the USSR. The USSR also built the first ballistic missile submarines, also known as SSBNs3 'boomers' or 'bombers', in 1955. These were nuclear-powered submarines armed with nuclear missiles, capable of lurking silently in the Atlantic Ocean for years before delivering their payload, should Doomsday actually arrive. The USA followed suit with its own SSBN in 1960, as did Britain in 1968, with France and China soon doing the same.

Although not all submarines were armed with nuclear missiles, most were soon powered by nuclear power plants, with this technology being developed before that of submarine-launched nuclear missiles. Unlike diesel-powered subs, which require air to run their engines in order to charge their batteries, those running on nuclear power rarely have to come to the surface. The Navy's first nuclear-powered sub, HMS Dreadnought, entered service in 1963 — the last conventionally-powered subs were eventually withdrawn in the 1990s. In 1968, the HMS Resolution became the Navy's first SSBN to enter service. Three more Resolution-class subs, known as Renown, Repulse and Resilience, were constructed in the late 1960s. These ships were armed with Polaris missiles and were superseded by the Vanguard class, which were built between 1993 and 1999 and include HMS Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilance and Vengeance. As the UK has no land-based nuclear arsenal, the Navy's SSBNs are responsible for carrying the UK's entire nuclear deterrent.

More Trouble

Despite the setback of the Suez Crisis, Britain remained determined to keep its finger in various pies in the area lying 'East of Suez'. The Navy's next task came in 1961, as ground troops were deployed in Kuwait to prevent Iraq from invading before Kuwait could become fully independent. This was an important move for the West, as Iraq wanted to force a reduction in Kuwait's oil exports in order to control market prices. Next came trouble in Tanganyika, as the British officer-led Tanganyikan army mutinied, leading the president to call for help. The Navy dispatched HMS Centaur with a company of Royal Marines, and the mutineers were forced to surrender after an anti-tank missile was used to force open the door to their barracks. However, a coup later that year meant that the Tanganyikan army ceased to exist, with Tanganyika and Zanzibar forming Tanzania.

More problems came in 1964 when Indonesia decided it would try to annihilate Malaysia, leading to guerrilla war and widespread rioting, followed by Indonesian raids on the Malaysian peninsula. The Royal Navy deployed many ships and some aircraft carriers to help defend Malaysia, as British and Australian Special Air Service commandos followed the attackers back over the border into Indonesia. Fortunately, in 1966, a coup d'état was orchestrated before the main body of the Indonesian army was used, though this may be down to the Western powers holding back with the knowledge that the coup was coming.

After the troubles in Malaysia were dealt with, the decision was made to end the Navy's 'East of Suez' policy and concentrate its influence on waters closer to home, thus allowing cuts to be made in Navy funding. Meanwhile, the Navy was tasked with blockading oil shipments to Rhodesia, as part of a UN sanction to prevent Rhodesia from becoming independent before a democratic system had been put in place, thus preventing a white minority leadership. The Beira Patrol, so-called because of its base at the head of Rhodesia's oil pipeline at Beira in Mozambique, lasted until 1975. Eventually, a black government under Mugabe came to power in what is now called Zimbabwe, though this dictatorship has more recently taken a turn for the worse.

The Cod Wars

Overfishing had long been a problem for Iceland, leading to the country extending its coastal fishing limit from four to twelve miles off the coast in 1958. This precipitated the First Cod War, which involved several ramming incidents as well as the firing of shots by Icelanders. However, the British eventually gave in, and it wasn't until 1972 that things reached breaking point. The lack of cod in the North Sea led Iceland to extend its fishing zone to 200 miles out from the Icelandic coast, while a new restriction on catch quotas led to the Coast Guard policing the new zone. Naturally, the 200-mile radius overlapped with British fishing areas, leading to the Second Cod War (1972 - 73) — the Icelandic Coast Guard used net-cutters to foil the British trawlers. By May 1973, the Royal Navy was forced to deploy warships alongside small fishing boats. Many incidents followed in which Icelandic ships were rammed by larger British frigates, though fortunately no shots were fired.

The Second Cod War ended with an agreement that 24 British trawlers could fish within the 200-mile band, but this treaty lapsed two years later in 1975, leading to the Third Cod War (1975 - 76). This was to be the last but most intense of the Cod Wars and involved shots being fired, many ramming incidents and 22 Navy frigates being deployed. The conflict only ended when Iceland threatened to close the NATO base at Keflavik, a move which would give the USSR free reign in the North Atlantic, thereby causing a conditional British withdrawal from the 200-mile band4.

The Falklands

A more serious crisis was precipitated in 1982 when Argentina invaded South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, which had been held by Britain since 1833, despite their location 300 miles off the coast of Argentina. The 80 Royal Marines stationed on the islands could do little, but soon the Royal Navy dispatched a fleet to the Falklands so quickly that they didn't have time to remove the nuclear depth charges on board the ships. Despite advice to the contrary, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided that it was possible to regain a territory 8,000 miles from the UK and so the Falklands War began.

Led by Rear Admiral 'Sandy' Woodward, destroyers and frigates taking part in exercises off Gibraltar joined carriers HMS Hermes and Invincible and three nuclear-powered submarines, as the task force under Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse headed towards the Falklands, while a group of ships split off to retake South Georgia. In the three weeks it took for them to get there US diplomacy failed to prevent war, so after taking the island and sinking the Argentine submarine Santa Fe, the fleet started to attack the Falklands. The Navy set up a 200-mile exclusion zone around the islands and began bombing raids on the Argentine positions around Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. Worried by the possibility of a pincer movement between the Belgrano to the south and a carrier force to the north, Woodward gave the order to sink any Argentine ships outside of territorial waters. This led to the opportunistic sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano by the submarine HMS Conqueror on 3 May, with tremendous loss of life. However, the rest of the Argentine fleet retreated to coastal waters, leaving the Argentineans with the options of air and missile attacks.

Although the Argentine Air Force began regular raids on the British fleet, Sea Harriers, armed with Sidewinder missiles launched from the Navy's carriers, proved their worth. The air defences on board the ships were effective enough to cause the Argentinians to make low bombing runs, some of which were so low that the bombs failed to explode. However, the Argentinians had another weapon up their sleeves in the form of Exocet missiles bought from the French. Though not used with much finesse, the missiles each had the ability to sink a ship, seeking out the largest target. The first Exocet was launched on 4 May and failed to explode, but drove straight through the hull of HMS Sheffield, causing the Type 42 destroyer to catch fire and give off acrid smoke as the rocket fuel of the Exocet ignited. The ship then slowly began to sink, and would have been salvageable had it not been for the storm that prevented her from being docked. A week later, the frigate Alacrity sank an Argentine supply ship in the Falkland Sound.

After UN talks failed on 20 May, the Navy launched a night raid at San Carlos in the East Falklands, with 3,000 troops taking the beachhead during a gale without a single casualty. The Argentine Air Force responded with several bombing raids, sinking the Type 21 frigates Ardent and Antelope along with another Type 42 destroyer, the Coventry. More problems came as two more Exocets were launched by the Argentinians; these were deflected away from most of the ships by decoys and hitting the Atlantic Conveyor, which took many of the Navy's Chinook helicopters with it as it headed for the bottom of the sea. Ground troops were forced to march across the island to reach their objectives, and as landing ships came in to assist on 8 June Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram were hit by bombs, causing the Galahad to sink with 200 troops on board.

However, the British Army had succeeded in reaching Port Stanley and began to take the high ground at Wireless Ridge and Mount Tumbledown, supported by Sea Harriers and naval bombardment of the Argentine positions. The Argentinians responded on 12 June by firing an Exocet at the County-class destroyer HMS Glamorgan, though the missile caused insubstantial damage and the ship was operational again soon afterwards. The Argentineans surrendered on 14 June, with the British troops taking 10,000 prisoners of war. However, 910 troops and three islanders had lost their lives during the war. The military government in Argentina fell soon afterwards, while Margaret Thatcher won the next general election by a landslide. Meanwhile, the Navy had successfully proved its worth, despite claims before the war that it could not cope without the help of an allied navy5 and should merely contribute to NATO. As a result, many of the drastic cuts laid out in the 1981 Defence Review didn't take place.

Post Cold-War

As the Soviet Union began to fall apart through glasnost and perestroika, the need for a large Navy became less and in 1990 several cuts were made, despite the Navy's performance eight years earlier. However, the Navy would still be needed, as things were starting to become unpredictable in a post-Iron Curtain world.

The first trouble came in 1990, as Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Kuwait, a move which had been in the making since Kuwait's independence in 1961. Backed by the UN, the USA assembled a multinational task force to push the Iraqis6 out of Kuwait, with hostilities beginning in February 1991. The Royal Navy sent several Type 22 frigates and Type 42 destroyers to the Persian Gulf, with the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal setting up operations in the Mediterranean. At one point, Iraq launched two Silkworm missiles at USS Missouri, one of which was shot down by a Sea Dart fired by HMS Gloucester7. Meanwhile, the Navy used helicopter-launched Sea Skua missiles to destroy most of Iraq's navy. Kuwait was liberated by March 1991 and the Gulf War ended soon after.

The Royal Navy was also involved in NATO actions such as blockading Bosnia during the Bosnian Civil War (1992 - 95), in which genocide was widespread, and intervening during the Kosovo War (1996 - 99), using naval-launched Tomahawk missiles to prevent Serbia from continuing to cause a mass exodus of Kosovans from their home country. Next came involvement in the 2001 USA/NATO invasion of Afghanistan, in which the Taliban8 were replaced by the more USA-friendly Northern Alliance. The United Kingdom has since been involved in several parts of the USA's 'war on terrorism', including the full invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. Unlike the Falklands War, these ongoing wars have not received solid support from the British public.

The Modern Navy

The Royal Navy has come quite a way from its origins, with changes occurring constantly throughout its history. The crew now sleep in triple bunk beds and eat in a separate mess hall, and conditions have improved onboard ship. The entry age for the Navy was moved up to 18 during the 1950s, and in the 1990s the Women's Royal Naval Service was integrated into the Navy. A typical service contract lasts for 22 years beginning at age 18, though it is possible to join up to six months before this age.

In 2004, the Ministry of Defence published the White Paper Delivering Security in a Changing World, detailing future changes to the Navy, which will continue to consist of fleets capable of projecting power across wide areas at sea. The Navy has a fleet of mine-hunters clearing old munitions from the seas, while a small patrol force including the ice-breaker HMS Endurance keeps an eye on the Falklands and South Georgia. Other patrol forces are posted in the North Atlantic to protect other Overseas Territories and are involved in counter-drug operations. The advent of computer technology has led to many changes in the available weaponry, including the introduction of the Goalkeeper, an autocannon turret which can automatically shoot down incoming missiles, in the 1980s. With the current surface fleet consisting of three carriers, more than thirty destroyers and frigates and a strong amphibious landing squadron, the Royal Navy is now arguably the second most powerful in the world9 and still retains an unmatched history and a tradition of excellence.

1A triangular land mass that sits directly east of the Suez Canal.2The USA were in the middle of talks with the USSR about the Soviet deployment in Hungary after the Hungarian Uprising and couldn't be seen to allow Britain to invade Egypt while condemning the USSR's actions in Hungary.3This stands for Ship, Submersible, Ballistic-missile, Nuclear-powered.4A maximum of 24 British trawlers were allowed inside the 200-mile limit, and the annual cod catch was limited to 50,000 tons.5Though the USA did not enter the Falklands War, they did provide some supplies and intelligence to the British.6Who were armed with guns given to them by the USA in the 1980s as part of a campaign to protect Iraq from Iran.7The Sea Dart was originally designed as an anti-aircraft missile and went beyond expectations when it managed to track and destroy the enemy missile.8Who during the 1979 - 1988 war between the USSR and Afghanistan were secretly supplied with weapons by the USA. Doesn't it just seem like the USA and NATO are there to keep the Navy busy?9After the US Navy, which represents a country with a population five times greater than the UK. Russia and China also have rather large navies, but with arguably less-advanced technology and less experience.

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