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.