Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Secret History Of The Royal Navy

The above clip is the second part of an official post-war documentary on the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Victorious. There is quite a lot of film footage of Royal Navy operations on Youtube, but, strangely, very little of it has been put up by nostalgic British people. Rather, the uploaders tend to be French, Spanish, Italian or Latin American (this one was put up by a fellow from Brazil). The film from which it was taken was produced in 1958, a mere two years after the Suez crisis, when one would imagine morale was at a low ebb, but still manages to convey the peppy atmosphere of the era.

Like most people, especially those of us brought up reasonably far inland, my knowledge of the Royal Navy since the Second World War has always been a bit hazy. I basically assumed that the majority of it was wound down straight after the war, then it embarrassed itself at Suez, then, almost as a punishment, it was reduced to the token force it is nowadays.

But this isn't so. The real trimming of the Navy didn't begin until about 1968 (after the 1966 Defence White Paper), and it was bigger than even the Russian Navy until the late 1970's. It's tempting to suspect that the austerity and rationing that was inflicted on the British people until 1956 was largely enacted to keep the Royal Navy in business.

So why has all this been forgotten? Is it accidental or deliberate? My own thesis on this, which I'm thinking of turning into a project, is that the British Empire, in an attempt to preserve itself, went into a kind of planned obsolescence by preserving its key bases by either maintaining direct control of them (Gibraltar, Cyprus to an extent), allowing independence where friendship could be expected (Malta, Singapore), relocating to nearby territories (Aden to Bahrain), or, more tenuously, maintaining an influence on local politics (Sri Lanka, Hong Kong).

Once the best that could be achieved was done, the RN could be wound down reasonably safely, although this process was temporarily upset by the crisis surrounding the Falklands (which were never a key base anyway). All of which is to say that the Empire went into a kind of hibernation, or perhaps more accurately went from being overt to covert, with battle fleets being replaced by arms sales and shady diplomatic operations. In this light, seemingly irrational events like Suez, Aden, Radfan and even the Falklands War appear a lot less bizarre than they do at first sight.

This is all very well, you may ask, but could the British Empire resurrect itself? I doubt it very much, personally, at least not on its own, but the strategic chain that runs from Gibraltar to Singapore will continue to be the nexus of British diplomatic effort, with the EU and the "special relationship" with the USA continuing as sideshows to distract the British public. Other people in the most unlikely countries will be paying closer attention, though.


William said...

Have you noticed how it's the army that gets all the media coverage now, rather than the navy or the air force?

Historically, the army was viewed with great suspicion. It always had a recruitment problem in the 18th and 19th centuries as the chances of being killed or maimed and being generally badly treated were so high. And unlike the navy or the RAF, it was pretty crap - losing or nearly losing lots of battles.

The MOD probably wouldn’t collaborate on that film about HMS Victorious now, as it’s not heroic enough. The navy and air force are so high tech now that there is little human action for the camera. Even though on an objective basis all those Afghan documentaries reveal what a terrible idea joining the infantry is.

Phil Knight said...

Yes, the Army used to overcome its recruitment problems by employing mercenaries - Wellington's army at Waterloo was 60% Dutch/Flemish/Hanovarian IIRC.

Even Afghanistan is largely becoming a drone environment though. The high-tech stuff is why we have all the overblown "heroic" Olympians/Remembrance Day palaver - to hide the fact that we're a people who unheroically prefer to kill from distance.

The new aircraft carriers are a puzzle, though. Are they really the folly they appear to be?

William said...

I think with a lot of military stuff it’s a kind of bluff - if the others have the piece of kit then you have to have one, even though it won't really used. It's over 60 years since nuclear weapons were used; there was a major tank battle; warships fired at each other; or the Parachute Regiment jumped into combat. Yet still we keep it all going.

David Kasper said...

Never a popular stocking filler was it?

Eventually overtaking 'workshop' stuff like Meccano on the market. With regards to your post, interesting that the toy was launched in 1966 - a year when 'national pride' got diverted elsewhere (pop music, sport, films). Plus the period 1956 - 1983 was when TV could mock the military in ways it hasn't/can't before or since.

Phil Knight said...

Why does that Action Man pic remind me of The Village People?

But regarding national pride, as crusty old Sir John Glubb put it, "the heroes of a dying empire are always the same: the athlete, the singer and the actor".

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