The Royal Navy: Major Campaigns

Figure 1.--

The Royal Navy has been at the center of world affairs and major international conflict since its creation in the 16th century. The Royal Navy has helped to defeat a series of opponents for the most part countries goverened by authoritarian or dictatorial rulers (Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Hitler). The Royal Navy came to be a significant military force wieldy agressively against the forces of world empire persued by authoritarian and totalitarian rulers.

The Great Armada

English audacity and technology at sea laid the groundwork for the Royal Navy and command of the seas. Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins , and the other "Sea Dogs" bedelved the Spanish treasure fleet with Queen Elizabeth as a secret partner. The English then formed overseas trading companies and very modest colonization attempts were made in the Caribbean and North America by Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh. The long conflict with Spain was rooted in an English hunger for Spanish treasure and a commercial and maritime rivalry, but Philip II's desire to destroy the Reformation in the Netherlands and England was also a very important factor. This struggle culminated in Philip's decession to build a Great Armada. Spain in the 16th century was the preminent international power. The Spain as a result of the Reconquista had buily a powerful military capability. Spain and Portugal at the time had colonized or claimed of the known world and huge quantities of gold and silver flowed into Spain from its American colonies. This enabled Spain to build a hugenavy to maintain its colonial dominions. Phillip was a devout Catholic and determined to destroy the Protestant Revolution in his domanins in the Netherlands and to do the same in England. The depredations of the Sea Dogs had convinced him that he must act against England. He built at great cost an "Invincible Armada" of 125 ships which would link up with the Duke of Parma's army already deployed in the Spanish Netherlands to destroy Protestantism. The Armada would then be used to ferry the Duke's army across the Channel to England where it would march on London and seize the Queen. England would then be brought back to the True Faith at the point of Spanish swords. The Armada was placed under the command of the Duke of Medina Sedonia, a nobelman of limited naval experience. The Armada sailed in late May 1588 and reached the Southwest coast of England on July 19. Limited engagements were fought by Lord Howard and Francis Drake who commanded the English fleet. The more manueverable English vessels harassed the Spanish, using superior cannonery tomdamage several vessels and actually capturing one vessel. The Armada anchored at Calais, but found that the Duke of Parma and his army was not yet there. The English set fire-ships at the Spanish (July 28). Little actual damage was done, but the Spanish scattered to avoid the preceived danger. The principal engagement occurred at Gravelines and in an 8-hour running engagement, many Spanish ships destroyed or damaged (July 29). The Commander of the Armada, the Duke of Medina Sedonia, fearing defeat decided not to invade and return to Spain. The prevailing winds forced him to take a northerly route into the North Sea anfd around Scotland and Ireland. The English pursued the Spanish for 3 days, but returned to port when they exhausted their ammunition. Much more damage, however, was done by storms in the North Sea andd floundered in the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Only a small number of Spanish ships managed to reach Spanish ports. The destruction of Philip's Grreat Armada was a pivital turning point in history. Spanish naval power was ebbing despite the flow if gold and silver from the America. Britain was beginning its rise as a great naval power.

Dutch Naval Wars

The Glorious Revolution

The Glorious Revolution (1688) occurred in part because William of Orange saw it as essential for Dutch independence to keep the Royal Navy out of French/Catholic hands. James II was clearly taking Dngland into an alliance with Louis XIV and the Catholic powers of Europe.

Seven Years War

Revolutinary war (1776-83)

Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815)

The novels of C.S. Forester and his creation Cot. Horatio Hornblower have have helped create the popularimage of nacal warefare during the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was the dominant naval power of the 18th century. British naval power was an important factor in British defeat of the French in India. Even so, France was a rising naval pwer. It was the French fleet that made possible the American victory at Yorktown in the American Revolution. The naval fighting during the Napoleonic Wars was critical. {Mahan] The naval battles were not only to the outcome of the War, but to 19th and 20th century history. A French victory could have mean a blockade an isolation of Britain, perhaps even an invation. British naval supremecy made the Peninsular Campaign possible. Without the British fleet there would have been no blockade of French and other continental ports and thus less need for an invasion of Russia. The naval figting began during the French Revolution with the Battle of the Glorious First of June (1794). The fleet action in the Battle of the Nile (1798) resulted in the destruction of an entire French army, which Napoleon deserted. Nelson's climatic Battle if Trafalgur (1805) over the French and Spanish combined fleet gave Britain control of the seas for the rest of the century. It was the British ship Bellerophon intercepted Napoleon at sea after Waterloo as he attempted to flee to America (1815). [[Cordingly]

War of 1812

Crimean War (1856-58)

World War I (1914-18)

The German surface fleet, the pride of the Kaiser, which had played such an important role in turning the British against the Germans played only a minor role in the War. There were a number of small engagements including German shelling of fishing villages. The only major engagement was Jutland (1916). The German fleet performed well, but unable to overcome the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet. The small U-boat fleet, however, proved a major challenge to the British. Early in the War, U-boats sunk three British cruisers, astounding the public both in England and Germany. The Germans backed down unconditional submarine warfare when America protested the sinking of the Lusitania. The sinking of the Lusitania combined with the invasion of neurtal Belgium helped create the image of Germans in the American mind as modern day Huns. Making another effort to win the War, Germany in 1917 reimplemented unrestricted submarine warfare (March 1917), bringing America into the War (April 1917). The U-boat fleet succeeded in sinking 5,000 ships. That was an amazing 25 percentb of the Allied merchant fleet. The Allies attempted to determine how to sink U-boats and developed the depth charge. It was, however, the introduction of the convoy system that defeated the U-boat. The World War I U-boat was really a surfacre vessel that could sumbmerge. Against esorted convoys, it had little chance of success. In the end the German Navy only served to bring Britain and America into the War, ensuring Germany's defeat. An embittered German naval office, Karl Donnietz, confined in a British POW camp in 1918 was already planning Germany's strategy in the next war. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the Germans could had to surrender their fleet. The German High Seas Fleet sailed for Scappa Flow in 1919, but many of the officers scuteled their vessels rather than handing them over to the British.

World War II (1939-45)

The naval campaigns are often given superficial coverage in assessments of World War II in Europe. In fact, the most important battle of the War was the Battle of the Atlantic. Churchill was to write after the War that it was the the loss Battle of the Atlantic that was the only thing he feared. Battles could be lost or won, but the cutting of Britain's life lines to the Dominions and especially America would have made it impossible for Britain to have continued the War. It was no accident that Anglo-American military cooperation began in the North Atlantic well before America entered the War. Hitler on the other hnd gave lttle attention to the U-boat fleet until after the War began. Hitler and approved Plan-Z, a secret plan to prepare the Kriegsmarine for war with Britain by 1944. It involved the construction of seizemassive capital ships and two aircraft carriers. The Germans with U-boats, surface fleet, and long range aircraft hope to cut off Britain from its Empire and supply from the United States. Although neutral in the early years of the War, President Roosevelt was determine to support the Allies. A few days after the fall of France in 1940, a sjocked American Congress approvd the Naval Construction Act. The immediate impact of the fall of France in 1940 tremendosly increased the effectiveness of the German naval campaign, providing indespenseable French Atlantic ports. The Royal Navy had ben strongly depleted during the inter-war era by naval limitations traties. After France fell, the Royal Navy stood alone againt the German ans Italian navies. The Germans had a growing surface fleet and the Italian a fast modrn fleet that threatened to seize control of the Mediterannean. The the German u-boat operations proved highly effective, despite the fact that Hitler launched the War years beore the Kriegsmarine was prepared. Even before America entered the War, the U.S. Navy was deployed in the North Atlantic to protect British convoys. Anglo-American naval and scientific cooperaion resulted in the defeat of the u-boat campain by 1943. Combined with American construction of liberty ships, not only was Britain kept supplied, but America assembled a massive force of men and supplies in England that in 1944 was unleased on Hitler's Atlantic Wall.

Cold War

Falklands War (1982)


Herman, Arthue. To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World.


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Created: 2:59 AM 1/3/2005
Last updated: 11:10 PM 10/10/2012