Britannia ruled the waves

or, how the Royal Navy shaped the modern world

An extract from ‘Jack’s War’, a family story

The_Battle_of_Trafalgar_by_William_Clarkson_StanfieldTo understand Britain’s history you first need to know a little about the Royal Navy, because it shaped not only modern Britain but the modern world. Britain is an island nation and the Navy has always had a special significance. Its history has remained embedded in the national consciousness.

Today, many words and phrases we use originate from the Navy
such as: ‘showing the ropes’, taken aback’; ‘at a loose end’; to feel ‘groggy’ or ‘under the weather’; or granddad’s favourites ‘splice the mainbrace’ followed by ‘three sheets to the wind’. Amongst other things the Navy also taught us the habit of winning.

The Royal Navy is an integral part of the story of how this nation rose to global dominance without precedent in history and without equal, even today. The Royal Navy enabled Great Britain to build an empire on which the sun literally did not set, encompassing one-fifth of the world’s population.

But it also facilitated free trade and communication with every part of the globe. Thanks to its navy, the British Empire became the first truly global community, bound together by law, language and commerce and by British ships and sailors. It helped to free the continent from a succession of dictators, from Philip II of Spain and Louis XIV of France to Napoleon and Hitler. It ended the African slave trade, opened the Pacific Rim to international commerce, and established the bonds that hold together today’s world.

That Empire has now developed into a Commonwealth of Nations, 30% of the world’s population, a unique, voluntary and informal international association of sovereign states without racial prejudice.

We have been a Christian island for over a thousand years since St Augustine settled in Canterbury in 597, although Christianity was introduced into Britain shortly after the crucifixion. We have been a United Kingdom since 829 when Egbert became King of all England. He was the grandfather of Alfred the Great; who, some sixty years later built a fleet of warships, to defend the island against Viking invaders, thus founding the Royal Navy.

This institution developed over the years around a tradition of heroism, in which courage in battle and bravery in death was a byword. A military force very different from any other with a cast of individual and amazing people from the 15th century to the present day.

Sailors like John Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake, (1540?-95) who became the greatest seaman of his age, a professional who had acquired his extensive knowledge from an early age through practical sailing experience. He set sail from Plymouth to circumnavigate the world with four other ships in 1577, flying his flag in the Pelican.

During this epic voyage to avert a potential mutiny amongst his crews, he made a speech which is an example of his leadership quality. It was intended to create unity with no class distinction at sea. In that adventure he decreed, the ordinary seaman and courtier were of equal rank, by saying;

 “….I must have the gentlemen to haul and draw with the mariner, and the mariner with the gentleman ….I would know him that would refuse to set his hand to a rope, but I know there is not any such here.”

Francis Drake was a genuine hero and returned to England triumphant two years later in in the Golden Hind in 1580 (his ship the Pelican had been re-named).

He had become a millionaire by modern standards and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. In one of the most exciting summers in English history, equaled only by 1940, – in 1588 he led the English ships in defeating the vastly superior force in the ‘Spanish Armada’ as it sailed up the Channel and anchored off Calais.

Capt CookA century later under the keen interest of King Charles II the Navy became known as the ‘Royal Navy’. In the next century we find Captain James Cook (1728-79), a renowned naval surveyor, one of the best navigating masters sailing with Major-General James Wolfe’s famous expedition down the St Lawrence River to take Quebec from the French during the Seven Years War in 1759. He later went on to explore the Pacific, discovering and charting both islands of New Zealand.

The English Oak tree has a special place in our history too. Growing in our forests, it was the wood from which our great fleets were constructed from the time of Alfred the Great until the middle of the 19th century. ‘Heart of Oak’ is the official march of the Royal Navy. The music was composed in 1760 by Dr William Boyce who was Master of the King’s Band of Musicians. It reflected famous victories that year during the Seven Years War. The words were written by David Garrick (the celebrated actor-manager), who ran the Drury Lane Theatre in London –which still exists today.

”Come, cheer up, my lads, ‘tis to glory we steer, To add something more to this wonderful year;     To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves, For who are as free as the sons of the waves?  Chorus:   Hearts of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men, We always are ready; steady, boys, steady! We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.

The Napoleonic Wars produced another hero Horatio Nelson, (1758-1805) who had joined the Navy when he was twelve; becoming our greatest fighting admiral and the embodiment British sea power.

His inspirational leadership amongst his captains, –‘his band of brothers’ whilst explaining his new tactics –known as ‘the Nelson touch’, made him loved by officers and sailors alike. On board his flag-ship, HMS Victory on the morning, before the Battle of Trafalgar, Monday, October 21st 1805, he called the flag lieutenant: “Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, ‘England confides that every man will do his duty.’ You must be quick, for I have one more to make, which is for close action.” Pasco asked to be allowed to use “expects” instead of “confides” because “expects” was in Popham’s signal book, but “confides” would have to be spelt. “That will do, Pasco, make it directly,” Nelson said. And at 11:35 the most famous battle signal ever made was hoisted to the yards and mastheads of the Victory, ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’, earlier during a quiet moment in his cabin he composed a prayer;

May the Great God whom I worship grant to my Country and for the benefit of Europe in General a great and Glorious Victory, and may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it, and May humanity after Victory be the predominant feature of the British fleet….”

 Though Nelson died during the battle, (but not before learning of victory), the consequences of which prevented Napoleon from controlling the Mediterranean, eventually bringing peace to Europe that lasted a hundred years.

In the 1790’s the Royal Navy had pioneered the use of lemon and lime juice helping prevent scurvy. This is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C (found in fresh fruit and vegetables), once the scourge of sailors on long sea voyages, which when introduced helped save many lives.

The Royal Navy has been instrumental in many innovations and developments from navigational advances such as the marine chronometer and sextant, to charting and surveying the world’s seas and introducing the world’s first aircraft carrier.

After the First World War (1914-1919) it emerged victorious and with what was by far the strongest fleet in the world. Subsequent governments radically reduced the number of ships and sailors. However, much work had been done to improve tactics and equipment in surface action and night fighting (used to great effect at the battle off Cape Matapan), but still the Royal Navy had few equals in both by the late 1930’s.

The Second World War produced another great fighting Admiral, Andrew Cunningham (1883-1963) in the Mediterranean. The victor against the Italian fleet at Taranto (the first attack in history by carrier aircraft – the impressive effect was copied later by the Japanese at Pearl harbour), who typically in May 1941 at a low ebb in the country’s fortunes, facing the immanent defeat of British and Anzac troops on the island of Crete, against overwhelming German land and air attacks, ABC (as he was known in the service) sent this rallying signal concerning their withdrawal:

 “We must not let them (the Army) down. It takes the Navy three years to build a ship. It would take three hundred to build a new reputation”….

 So the Navy did what it had built up a reputation for at Corunna (1809) and Dunkirk (1940) it rescued the soldiers. During three dreadful nights despite many ships sunk, over half the garrison of 32,000 troops were evacuated and transported safely to Egypt.

The war at sea between 1939 to 1945 was the longest and greatest battle of all time, extending to every ocean and sea, and with more ships sunk and more lives lost than any earlier conflict. The Senior Service was in action on the first day, and the last. It demanded more of its sailors than any previous war, – this was also Jack’s War*.

* The story in an edited form has been published as ‘Struck by Lightning’ -see details in ‘About’

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