Elizabeth II’s Navy 1952-2022
The passing of the Queen in September has encouraged historians to shine a light on the era of her reign – the 70 years between 1952 and 2022 – an extraordinary period in which the world fundamentally changed several times over. One particularly revealing way to look at this period is through the experiences of the Royal Navy.
It’s quite a story. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign the Royal Navy changed beyond all recognition. In 1952 the UK was still a global and maritime superpower with a large empire. It had the second largest navy, the largest shipbuilding industry and the largest merchant fleet in the world. The vast networks of seaborne trade routes were policed by a navy of a size and versatility that it was able to engage independently in most foreseeable types of conflict.
Today, the UK’s superpower role is much diminished, and its empire has gone. The nation’s shipbuilding industry and merchant fleet are shadows of their former selves. This change all happened in the shadow of the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the Falkands war, and the Cod Wars – just to name a few of the significant international maritime events of that time.
To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with the maritime historian Paul Brown author of Elizabeth’s Navy: Seventy Years of the Postwar Royal Navy
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From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. The passing of the Queen in September has encouraged us historians to shine a light on the era of her reign, the 70 years between 1952 and 2022, an extraordinary period in which the world has fundamentally changed several times over. Now one way to look at it is through the experience of the Royal Navy, and it’s quite a story. Throughout her reign the Royal Navy didn’t just change as you might suspect, it changed beyond all recognition. In 1952 the UK was still a global and maritime superpower with a large Empire. It had the second largest Navy, the largest shipbuilding industry, and the largest merchant fleet in the world. The vast networks of seaborne trade routes were policed by a navy of a size and versatility that was able to engage independently in most foreseeable types of conflict. Today the UK superpower role is much diminished and its Empire has gone. The nation’s shipbuilding industry and merchant fleet are shadows of their former selves. And this change all happened in the shadows of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Falklands War, the Cod War’s, just to name a few of the significant international maritime events of the time. So much has changed but the Royal Navy finds itself today with the challenge of exercising its power in a way entirely unforeseen in the 1950s. To find out more, I spoke with the maritime historian Paul Brown, author of Elizabeth’s Navy, 70 years of the post war Royal Navy. Paul is a member of the Society for Nautical Research and the Britannia Naval Research Association. He has also been secretary of the Naval Dockyard Society and a consultant to National Historic Ships, the UK’s authority on the preservation of historic ships and boats. I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. Here is the deeply knowledgeable and thoroughly engaging Paul.
Paul, thank you very much indeed for joining me today.
Dr Paul Brown
Thanks, Sam, it’s a pleasure.
Now it’s a fascinating topic this, I’m much more interested in it than I thought I was going to be. I thought it was just going to be 70 years of depression and things going wrong,and maybe it’s getting smaller. There was quite a bit of that but also there’s so much fascinating history here. Let’s start with the 1950s; paint me a picture of what’s going on here with the UK still being a global maritime superpower.
Dr Paul Brown
Well, that’s right. 1952, the start of Elizabeth’s reign, we have the second biggest Navy in the world after the United States, having been overhauled by them in the Second World War. And we still had a worldwide presence. I mean there was the big Home fleet, the Mediterranean Fleet, then there were squadrons in the South Atlantic, the West Indies, the Middle East, and the Far East. Britain, of course still had the world’s largest shipbuilding industry and the world’s largest merchant fleet. So part of the Navy’s role was traditionally protecting those trade routes. So we had a big Navy, we had 328 major ships, and I’ll use that term for anything of frigate size or submarine size or bigger. So we had 328 ships, plus about 400 smaller ships. Of the 328 bigger ones 147 were in reserve. So we had a big reserve fleet.
Yes, I was actually just looking at that,and I think this tells a real tale. So this is reserve, there are four battleships, three aircraft carriers, eight cruisers, forty five destroyers, and one hundred and thirteen frigates in reserve.
Dr Paul Brown
You’ve got to bear in mind two things. A lot of those ships were quite modern in the sense they were built during the Second World War. So although loads of ships were scrapped at the end of the Second World War a lot of the more modern ones were kept, so a big reserve fleet. Secondly, the Cold War had started. So NATO had been formed in 1948; Russia was building up its navy, particularly a large submarine fleet. It had 300 submarines either in service or building. So the reserve fleet was there as a contingency for all of that. So that still left about 170 major ships in service, so it was a pretty big fleet.
Yes, my grandfather was in the Navy then and he fought in the Cod War, we’re going to talk about that in a little bit. We used to sit in the dining room, and there was a large oil painting of the Coronation review. We sold the painting now which is a real shame, I’d like it over my table. But the Coronation review was a big moment, it was a chance to really shout about this fleet, wasn’t it?
Dr Paul Brown
Yes, I mean I think I described it as the last big Imperial hurrah, because it was the last review in which we could line up lines of frigates, destroyers, aircraft carriers, there were six aircraft carriers present. There were eight cruisers, there were twenty eight destroyers, thirty eight frigates, twenty eight submarines, and lots of other smaller and miscellaneous ships. So when the Queen went down the lines in the Surprise, which was a converted frigate, the Royal yacht Britannia was not yet completed. There was plenty to look at, there were Foreign and Commonwealth warships there as well, but predominantly the ships were British warships, and at the head of the lines was Vanguard, the last British battleship. By that time, as you mentioned, the other battleships were in reserve. The flagship of the Home fleet was Vanguard, and she was to remain in service for another three years before she was paid off into reserve. And I can remember as a very small boy going down to the beach at Stokes Bay and looking at the review of the Fleet in 1953 for the illuminations and fireworks display in the evening. I don’t remember seeing it in daylight though I probably did. But that view of everything in the evening with the firework display and so on left a big impression on me.
Yes, it’s actually a powerful start to this period, isn’t it? Because you then jump from there to where we are now, it’s so striking, the the loss of ships. Let’s just talk a little bit about what was happening in the 1950s. The Korean War was a significant moment, tell us about that.
Dr Paul Brown
Yes, the Korean War started in 1950 and lasted till 1953, when North Korea with the backing of China and Russia invaded South Korea, and the United Nations mobilised through the United Nations resolution an Allied fleet of American, British and about nineteen different nations, which was put together. And the role of the Navy was probably twofold with the aircraft carriers launching strike raids on the North Korean forces and infrastructure, and also keeping the coastal waters clear of North Korean warships, supply ships and so on. So the Navy had a big presence there during that time. It patrolled the west coast of Korea, the Royal Navy had the main role of dealing with the west coast of Korea, whereas the the Yanks were on the other side, and our aircraft carriers were heavily involved. HMS Ocean for example flew nearly 8000 sorties, and several other aircraft carriers did similar things, and aircraft from Ocean shot down at least one MIG jet, which was the only known occasion when a piston engine aircraft had shot down a jet aircraft. HMS Belfast fired over eight thousand six inch shells when she was bombarding. That was another aspect of it, bombardment of the shore by ships like Belfast and the other cruisers that were lying off shore. And the Korean War was seen as a kind of surrogate for the wider Cold War because of China and Russia being involved in backing North Korea. The Royal Navy, or the UK Government persuaded by the Royal Navy, woke up to the fact that we were going to need to modernise the Navy and build more ships because there was a complete suspension after the Second World War of building new warships. And so in 1951 orders were placed for six Porpoise class submarines, twenty seven frigates of four different classes, one hundred and sixteen coastal minesweepers and over seventy inshore minesweepers, because one of the big threats perceived was that the Soviets would extensively mine around our ports, and we would need a huge fleet of minesweepers. So nearly two hundred wooden minesweepers were built in the 50s. to deal with that. So it did give a spur if you like to the rebuilding of the Navy, and building types of warships that were now going to be needed, for example fast anti submarine frigates. The Germans at the end of the Second World War had started to perfect the idea of fast submarines and they had become more or less the norm by the early 50s. And our anti submarine ships that were defending the North Atlantic convoys and so on in Second World War were much too slow to deal with them. So we needed a whole new force of anti submarine frigates to counter the Soviet threat from its rapidly building submarine force. One way of doing that was to convert fast destroyers that had been built in the war, still quite new, into frigates, and over thirty of those were converted, but we also had to start building new fast anti submarine frigates, with the Whitby class for example.
Yes, let’s talk a little bit about the Cod War because that’s radically different to what was going on in Korea, and I think it’s a fascinating episode, I’d like to know a bit more about it. And we should say that the Cod War was a term coined by a journalist in 1958 I think. So it’s a bit tongue in cheek, it wasn’t a real war, it was more a kind of a dispute. Tell us about the Cod War.
Dr Paul Brown
Well, it was as you say, 1958, the first of three Cod Wars. At that time we had massive trawler fleets in places like Hull and Grimsby, and one of their prime fishing areas was off the coast of Iceland, and Iceland declared a big extension to its territorial waters.
Yes, it was out of the blue, it’s an extraordinary thing. It’s like suddenly they decided that they had more water than anyone else.
Dr Paul Brown
Yes, it was, and we of course, resisted that. And they started ramming our trawlers with their gunboats and patrol vessels. They only had a small Navy, but they caused havoc to our trawlers. And so the Navy had to send in frigates, some of the large ocean minesweepers that we had then and so on, to help protect those trawlers. The same happened in the early 70s, when there were two more Cod Wars. Our frigates were quite often involved in collisions with the Icelandic gunboats as they warded them off. So the trouble was Iceland had a sort of ace hand because that was a NATO base for America in particular, and they threatened to withdraw from NATO if we didn’t recognise their new territorial limits. So progressively between 1958 and about 1976 there was more and more recognition and wider and wider territorial waters for Iceland, which of course ended up with the abolition almost of our deep sea trawler fleet because it just wasn’t economic for them. They’d lost their prime fishing grounds.
Yes it’s a seriously astute move by the Icelanders, isn’t it, it’s quite impressive. I’d like to know who was behind that, who suddenly clocked that if they allow the Americans to land their bombers or whatever was going on in Iceland, then they could take more of the world seas for themselves. 1960s, things change, we’ve got a major economic downturn and this seems to be the moment that the wheels start coming off for the Navy.
Dr Paul Brown
Yes, in the early 60s and most of the 60s, we still maintained that worldwide presence of the Navy. But the economic situation, and the decline of course of the Empir, when many of those areas were gaining independence, meant that the Navy was going to have to change its role radically. And in the late 60s the Labour government decided to withdraw from east of Suez and also to run down the aircraft carrier fleet, which was primarily serving east of Suez. That all took effect by about 1971. We also lost our presence in the South Atlantic. We carried on, apart from the famous ice patrol ship in the Falklands area; we had to have some presence in the Caribbean because of our possessions there. And also we kept up some presence in the Arabian Gulf and the Middle East, because basically that was the one trade route we had to protect because of oil. So the Far East fleet, which had become the biggest fleet, the Navy had supplanted the Mediterranean Navy, that was rundown completely. I mean there had been a big buildup of the Far East fleet in the early 60s because of the Indonesian confrontation. This was when the Federation of Malaya gained independence and incorporated one or two other states like North Borneo and Sarawak to become Malaysia, and President Sukarno in Indonesia didn’t like the idea of this, particularly North Borneo, which he wanted to incorporate into Indonesia. And so there was a lot of infiltration of Indonesians into North Borneo in particular. So for two or three years there was a huge build up of the Far East fleet to deal with that situation and suppress all of that Indonesian activity. So by the end of the 60s, all of that was long past, and the aircraft carriers were going to be a thing of the past as well as the Far East fleet.
The advent of Polaris is an interesting stage in this isn’t it? So early 60s when you suddenly have nuclear armed submarine launch ballistic missiles; tell us about how that affected things.
Dr Paul Brown
Well, the RAF’s bomber force was ageing and had to be replaced, and one or two suggested replacements failed to materialise. And, of course, the Americans had already got by this time ballistic missile arms with nuclear warhead submarines. The latest development was Polaris, as you say, missiles. And this was through agreement, I think originally between McMillan and Kennedy. It was agreed that the British could acquire the Polaris missiles, we would make the warheads and the submarines, the Americans would supply the missiles themselves. The big advantage of these submarines was that they could not be easily detected and therefore they could be a deterrent, because after any nuclear strike we could retaliate because aircraft couldn’t strike at our ballistic missile submarines, whereas the V bomber base could be attacked. The whole key to these ballistic missile submarines, the Polaris submarines, was that the Russians should never know where they are when they’re on patrol. So four of those Resolution class Polaris submarines were built, and it was intended and indeed achieved, that one of them at least would always be on deterrent patrol somewhere unknown,. but within range at that time, of course, of all the key cities in the Soviet Union. And to this day that independent nuclear deterrent role is still held by the Navy, of course with Trident submarines. And their boast is that they have never had to suspend a patrol; that patrol has been continuous since 1968 when the first Polaris submarine went on patrol.
Yes, fascinating stuff. So you’ve got all of this going on around the coast of Russia and the North Sea, I suppose. But then in the 1980s we have the problem of the Falklands. Tell us in brief about what was going on there.
Dr Paul Brown
Yes, well, in the whole of the 70 years although the Cold War was the dominant force affecting our defence forces the Falklands was the biggest actual conflict. And of course the Government, the military Junta of Argentina, had orchestrated an invasion of the Falkland Islands; there had been claims over its sovereignty by them for many years. And nobody ever really thought it would come to this, although the Navy did have plans for such a contingency. And the Navy saw this as their big momen, particularly as a big defence review had been particularly savage with its cuts to the Royal Navy in 1981. Here was a chance in 1982 to salvage something in terms of their reputation and their size and their number of ships. And so then the First Sea Lord told Margaret Thatcher yes, we could mount a task force which could reclaim the Falklands even though they were 8000 miles away without any bases anywhere near them. So there were huge logistics issues and so on in supplying that task force which went down, and of course as we know, successfully retook the Islands through amphibious landings. The biggest threat it had to face was the Argentine Air Force and the Argentine Navy’s Fleet Air Arm with something like 200 strike aircraft up against our 24 Sea Harriers. So that was a real contest and sadly, as we know, six British ships were lost in the conflict, many lives were lost. But out of it came a lot of lessons really, because it was the first time nuclear submarines had been used in comba; guided missiles for the first time had been used in combat, and so on. So a lot of the new weaponry that had developed since World War Two was being tested out; so many lessons came out about what needed to be done to our ships, our aircraft, and so on, to face the kind of threats that they would meet from modern weapons systems.
Yes, it’s a fascinating period. and I urge everyone to listen to your previous podcast where we talked a bit about that in more detail. 1990s. So the key thing here is the end of the Soviet Union, a very important moment and a period, how did that affect the Navy?
Dr Paul Brown
Well, what was declared was the so called peace dividend., We wouldn’t need all these ships, all the submarines, all the sailors, because Russia, well, Soviet Union soon to become Russia only really, was in meltdown. Many of its ships were being laid up, they had big economic problems, they couldn’t repair and maintain their ships. So having said that it was said to be the end of the Cold War. That didn’t mean the Russians stop deploying their submarines with nuclear missiles, just like we had Polaris still at that time, but it did mean the government was able to take the opportunity, if you like, to run down the size of the fleet. I mean, the spending on defence had been eleven per cent of GDP in 1952. It ran down after the peace dividend to two and a half percent. During the latter part of the Cold War it had been around five to seven per cent. So we were halving our spending expenditure on defence a lot; quite a few nuclear submarines and the last of the conventional diesel submarines were paid off, as were quite a lot of frigates. It didn’t all happen overnight because it’s been a history of continuous salami slicing, but certainly in the early 90s, we saw some of the biggest reductions.
Yes, and the 2000s, initially with again different challenges, primarily Iraq and Afghanistan. Tell us a little about how the Navy fitted into that complicated jigsaw.
Dr Paul Brown
Again, in the 2000s there were big defence cuts. I remember just around the time of the big Fleet review at Spithead in 2005 quite a few ships were being paid off. There was the so called War on Terror going on in the Middle East in the so called second Gulf War, and then the Afghanistan campaign, where again with amphibious landings we landed troops in Helmand Province, and Royal Marines were amongst those, part of the Navy of course, who had to take that ground and keep it. And in fact the last Royal Marines didn’t leave Afghanistan till 2014. So it was a very protracted campaign. The Navy had a role as well, our submarines were launching Tomahawk cruise missiles at various land targets, as they have done in some of the other more recent conflicts. So really I think that decade was probably dominated by the Middle East invasion of Iraq, and then the the attempt to beat the Taliban in Afghanistan, and remove the threat through the so called War on Terror, which we know didn’t end well; the Taliban still ended up regaining control of Afghanistan.
And then thinking about what’s happening in the present day and responding to the growing threat of China, how is the Royal Navy trying to deal with that?
Dr Paul Brown
Well, things have moved on slightly, even from what I’ve got in my book. It’s one of the troubles of writing about current events that basically the Navy decided a couple of years ago that it would re-establish that presence in the Indo Pacific region, and they sent two new patrol ships out there. Now that wasn’t really going to put the frighteners on the Chinese too much I think; they’re permanently forward deployed there, with a roving brief but over a massive area in the Indo Pacific. Then last year, we had the first Task Force deployment to the Far East. All of this is to counter the perceived threat from China, which has been building up its armed forces dramatically, as of course has Russia since 2008. And now we’re beginning to see even more of a coalition between Russia and China emerging as we know. Anyway, that large task force, a seven months’ deployment led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the two aircraft carriers, went with a whole group of escorts and submarines out as far as the South China Sea and back as a demonstration if you like of our capability to still mount that kind of thing. The latest update on that of course, is that we intend to base one of our Astute class nuclear submarines in Australia, and share duties there with American submarines. Also with the French, because the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and our two aircraft carriers will share on a rotation basis the mounting again of Task Force deployments to the Far East. So whilst we won’t have quite anything like the same permanent presence we used to have we are developing a capability and more presence in the Far East.
Yes, let’s end by just talking about the autonomous mine hunting and minesweeping launches which are being built now because that takes us back to what you were saying, the 1950s, with all the money being spent on minesweeping. I think this is a fascinating developmen; tell us about the Royal Navy’s interest in autonomous craft?
Dr Paul Brown
Well, it’s part of their more general trend if you like towards autonomous systems; mine hunters have had a lot of the publicity so instead of having expensive mine hunters like the current Brecon and Sandown classes, we will have small launches which are autonomous, unmanned, to deal with mines. And this is happening in so many areas now, unmanned submersibles for example are coming into play. And we’ve already got this mine hunting capability being extended now into the Middle East where we’ve always had mine hunters. One of the disadvantages is that the old mine hunters could carry out other roles as patrol vessels, for example. So when they’re gone we lose yet more surface units in the Navy which can take on a multiplicity of roles.
Yes ,well, it’s fascinating to see how it’s going to develop. It’s a little concerning because I’m not entirely sure we’ve got enough vessels to protect our aircraft carriers or protect our nuclear subs.
Dr Paul Brown
Well, that’s part of the problem. In one sense we have a balanced fleet. so you could say that’s a positive because we maintain aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, strategic deterrent and even still an amphibious warfare force. But that then means it’s maybe balanced but it’s also spread very thinly. And we haven’t got enough nuclear submarines and escort, ie destroyers and frigates, to support and defend our aircraft carriers. We also haven’t got enough aircraft for the aircraft carriers. At any one time, only one of the two has F-35B Lightning jets on it and even they are not enough; they should be carrying something like twenty four When the Queen Elizabeth deployed to the Far East she had only eight plus ten American ones. Whilst the invesment in the two aircraft carriers has been impressive a lot of the aspects of the Navy that are needed to support it qnd to complement that role aren’t really present.
Yes, well a really interesting topic Paul, thank you very much indeed for sharing it with us today.
Dr Paul Brown
Thanks very much, sir.
Thank you all so much for listening. Now, if you’re interested in such contemporary issues that have been highlighted here, then please do check out a podcast I recorded in September 2021, in which I was invited to Portsmouth to interview the First Sea Lord, who speaks in great detail about the challenges that the Navy currently faces. A subsequent episode explored the question ‘Is Britain still a global power’, which is also well worth listening to? Please also check out our fabulous YouTube channels, a host of videos, I should probably say fleet or fleets of videos exploring our maritime past. We’re currently working on animating one of those brilliant cutaway drawings of a ship that shows all the goings on inside, you all know what I mean. You’ve seen them in countless maritime history books and online, but this is not a modern phenomenon. In fact, we’ve started with a very famous image from the late 17th century, the first rate warship, it’s going to be fantastic. So that will be coming soon on the Mariners Mirror podcast YouTube channel, but there’s tons of other material for you to spend several happy hours watching. In fact, it’s all so good that recently the monthly viewing figures for our YouTube channel have exceeded our listening figures for the podcast. This podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. And please do check out what both of those brilliant institutions are doing. In particular, please check out the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s latest project Maritime Innovation In Miniature in which they’re filming the world’s best ship models using the latest camera technology, it’s truly fantastic. To find it just Google Maritime Innovation In Miniature, that’s Maritime InnovationIn Miniature. And please join the Society for Nautical Rresearch; you can find them at @snr.org.uk, It’s a wonderful way to meet people and to find out about the maritime past from the very best scholars in the field.
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