Historian Dan Snow charts the defining role the Royal Navy played in Britain's struggle for modernity.
Runtime: 60 minutes
Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World - Royal Navy - Netflix
The Royal Navy (RN) is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. Although warships were used by the English kings from the early medieval period, the first major maritime engagements were fought in the Hundred Years War against the Kingdom of France. The modern Royal Navy traces its origins to the early 16th century; the oldest of the UK's armed services, it is known as the Senior Service. From the middle decades of the 17th century, and through the 18th century, the Royal Navy vied with the Dutch Navy and later with the French Navy for maritime supremacy. From the mid 18th century, it was the world's most powerful navy until surpassed by the United States Navy during the Second World War. The Royal Navy played a key part in establishing the British Empire as the unmatched world power during the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries. Due to this historical prominence, it is common, even among non-Britons, to refer to it as “the Royal Navy” without qualification. Following World War I, the Royal Navy was significantly reduced in size, although at the onset of World War II it was still the world's largest. By the end of the war, however, the United States Navy had emerged as the world's largest. During the Cold War, the Royal Navy transformed into a primarily anti-submarine force, hunting for Soviet submarines and mostly active in the GIUK gap. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its focus has returned to expeditionary operations around the world and remains one of the world's foremost blue-water navies. However, twenty-first century reductions in naval spending have led to a personnel shortage and a reduction in the number of warships. The Royal Navy maintains a fleet of technologically sophisticated ships and submarines including an aircraft carrier, two amphibious transport docks, four ballistic missile submarines (which maintain the UK's nuclear deterrent), six nuclear fleet submarines, six guided missile destroyers, 13 frigates, 13 mine-countermeasure vessels and 22 patrol vessels. As of April 2018, there are 73 commissioned ships (including submarines) in the Royal Navy, plus 10 ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA); there are also five Merchant Navy ships available to the RFA under a private finance initiative. The RFA replenishes Royal Navy warships at sea, and augments the Royal Navy's amphibious warfare capabilities through its three Bay-class landing ship vessels. It also works as a force multiplier for the Royal Navy, often doing patrols that frigates used to do. The total displacement of the Royal Navy is approximately 407,000 tonnes (603,000 tonnes including the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Royal Marines). The Royal Navy is part of Her Majesty's Naval Service, which also includes the Royal Marines. The professional head of the Naval Service is the First Sea Lord who is an admiral and member of the Defence Council of the United Kingdom. The Defence Council delegates management of the Naval Service to the Admiralty Board, chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence. The Royal Navy operates three bases in the United Kingdom where commissioned ships are based; Portsmouth, Clyde and Devonport, the last being the largest operational naval base in Western Europe.
Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World - Postwar period and early 21st century - Netflix
Before the Falklands War, Defence Secretary John Nott had advocated and initiated a series of cutbacks to the Navy. The Falklands War though, provided a reprieve in Nott-proposed cutbacks, and proved a need for the Royal Navy to regain an expeditionary and littoral capability which, with its resources and structure at the time, would prove difficult. At the beginning of the 1980s, the Royal Navy was a force focused on blue-water anti-submarine warfare. Its purpose was to search for and destroy Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic, and to operate the nuclear deterrent submarine force. For a time Hermes was retained, along with all three of the Invincible-class light aircraft carriers. More Sea Harriers were ordered; not just to replace losses, but to also increase the size of the Fleet Air Arm. New and more capable ships were built; notably the Sheffield-class destroyers, the Type 21, Type 22, and Type 23 frigates, new LPDs of the Albion class, and HMS Ocean, but never in the numbers of the ships that they replaced. As a result, the Royal Navy surface fleet continues to reduce in size. A 2013 report found that the current RN was already too small, and that Britain would have to depend on her allies if her territories were attacked. The Royal Navy also took part in the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghanistan Campaign, and the 2003 Iraq War, the last of which saw RN warships bombard positions in support of the Al Faw Peninsula landings by Royal Marines. In August 2005, the Royal Navy rescued seven Russians stranded in a submarine off the Kamchatka peninsula. The Navy's Scorpio 45 remote-controlled mini-sub freed the Russian submarine from the fishing nets and cables that had held it for three days. The Royal Navy was also involved in an incident involving Somali pirates in November 2008, after the pirates tried to capture a civilian vessel. The global economic recession of 2008 had a significant impact on the Royal Navy resulting in the Strategic Defence & Security Review 2010 which made sweeping cuts to the Navy's budget. The Harrier aircraft were retired with some being presented to museums and the rest being sold to the United States for spare parts to keep their aircraft flying. The carrier Ark Royal and the remaining Type-22 frigates were all removed from service and sold for scrap. HMS Illustrious however, was retained through to 2014 in the LPH role, until HMS Ocean completed her refit. Plans were made to allow Illustrious to be retained as a floating museum, but by summer of 2016 she too was sold for scrap. The future of Albion and Bulwark is uncertain as funds may not be available to allow them to remain in service. The Royal Navy was to recive 12 Type 45 destroyers as a replacement for the older Type 42 class that was completly retired by 2013. The number was later reduced to 6 vessels, all in service by 2012. In 2015, the Royal Navy was deployed to the Mediterranean in the mission to rescue migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. By spring 2018, the Royal Navy had decommissioned HMS Ocean, as well as started the replacement of the River class Offshore Patrol Vessels. The first of the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers was undergoing tests and workups before her first fixed-wing aircraft arrive later in the year, and design work was underway for the new generation of nuclear deterrent submarines. By July 2017 the first of 8 new frigates was laid down, the Type 26 frigate. There is also plans to build up to 10 Global Combat Ships to replace some of the older frigates in the fleet.
The Navy began plans to replace its fleet of aircraft carriers in the mid-1960s. A plan was drawn up for three large aircraft carriers, each displacing about 60,000 tons; the plan was designated CVA-01. These carriers would be able to operate the latest aircraft coming into service and keep the Royal Navy's place as a major naval power. The new Labour government that came to power in 1964 was determined to cut defence expenditure as a means to reduce public spending, and in the 1966 Defence White Paper the project was cancelled. The existing carriers (all built during, or just after World War II) were refitted, two (Bulwark and Albion) becoming commando carriers, and four (Victorious, Eagle, Hermes, and Ark Royal) being completed or rebuilt. Starting in 1965 with Centaur, one by one these carriers were decommissioned without replacement, culminating with the 1979 retirement of Ark Royal. By the early 1980s, only Hermes survived and received a refit (just in time for the Falklands War), to operate Sea Harriers. She operated along with three much smaller Invincible-class aircraft carriers, and the fleet was now centred around anti-submarine warfare in the north Atlantic as opposed to its former position with worldwide strike capability. Along with the war era carriers, all of the war built cruisers and destroyers, along with the post-war built Tiger-class cruisers and large County-class guided missile destroyers were either retired or sold by 1984. One of the most important operations conducted predominantly by the Royal Navy after the Second World War was the 1982 defeat of Argentina in the Falkland Islands War. Despite losing four naval ships and other civilian and RFA ships, the Royal Navy fought and won a war over 8,000 miles (12,000 km) from Great Britain. HMS Conqueror is the only nuclear-powered submarine to have engaged an enemy ship with torpedoes, sinking the cruiser ARA General Belgrano.
After the Second World War, the decline of the British Empire and the economic hardships in Britain forced the reduction in the size and capability of the Royal Navy. All of the pre-war ships (except for the Town-class light cruisers) were quickly retired and most sold for scrapping over the years 1945–48, and only the best condition ships (the four surviving KG-V class battleships, carriers, cruisers, and some destroyers) were retained and refitted for service. The increasingly powerful United States Navy took on the former role of the Royal Navy as global naval power and police force of the sea. The combination of the threat of the Soviet Union, and Britain's commitments throughout the world, created a new role for the Navy. Governments since the Second World War have had to balance commitments with increasing budgetary pressures, partly due to the increasing cost of weapons systems, what historian Paul Kennedy called the Upward Spiral. These pressures were exacerbated by bitter inter-service rivalry. A modest new construction programme was initiated with some new carriers (Majestic- and Centaur-class light carriers, and Audacious-class large carriers, such as HMS Ark Royal, being completed between 1948 through 1958), along with three Tiger-class cruisers (completed 1959–61), the Daring-class destroyers in the 1950s, and finally the County-class guided missile destroyers completed in the 1960s.
HMS Dreadnought, the Royal Navy's first nuclear submarine, was launched in the 1960s. The navy also received its first nuclear weapons with the introduction of the first of the Resolution-class submarines armed with the Polaris missile. The introduction of Polaris followed the cancellation of the GAM-87 Skybolt missile which had been proposed for use by the Air Force's V bomber force. By the 1990s, the navy became responsible for the maintenance of the UK's entire nuclear arsenal. The financial costs attached to nuclear deterrence became an increasingly significant issue for the navy.
Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World - References - Netflix