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Historical periods

The First World War and the Inter-war years 1914-1939

Battleship HMS Dreadnought which fought at the Battle of Jutland (Royal Naval Museum)
HMS submarine K6, one of the fast submarines built to accompany the Grand Fleet

The First World War 1914-1918

Britain went to war in August 1914. Having won the naval race with Germany, the British Empire controlled the seas for the duration of the conflict. Commanded by Admiral John Jellicoe , the Grand Fleet covered the North Sea and imprisoned the German High Seas Fleet within it, while those German forces elsewhere were dealt with by the middle of 1915. In the North Sea the battlecruisers under Admiral David Beatty had a successful clash with German light forces in the Heligoland Bight in August 1914 but were only able to sink the weakest German ship when they clashed with German battlecruisers at the Dogger Bank in January 1915.

Battle of Jutland

Problems with British signalling and doctrine were exposed on 31 May 1916, when the German fleet under Admiral Scheer, which set out to trap a part of the British fleet, encountered the whole Grand Fleet. The Battle of Jutland should have seen the destruction of the High Seas Fleet but the Germans got away having inflicted greater damage on the British. In August the Germans tried again to trap a part of the Grand Fleet as they had done in May. There was no contact between the fleets but the Germans were lucky to escape annihilation.

U-boats and the convoy system

In early 1917 the Germans restarted their unrestricted U-boat offensive against shipping, first tried in 1915, this time with great success. The Admiralty's initial response was ineffective. Admiral Jellicoe, now First Sea Lord, thought Britain's time was fast running out. There was great reluctance to adopt the time-honoured strategy of convoy, especially as the Grand Fleet used the possible escorts. Eventually, with America making destroyers available to augment British escorts, the convoy was adopted. Shipping losses went down to acceptable levels and the U-boat was neutralised. Britain's conventional blockade of Germany was more successful. Considerable hardship was inflicted on the Germans, who failed to adopt proper rationing systems. The blockade significantly added to the crisis in German morale that resulted from defeat on the Western Front in 1918.

War in the Air

The Royal Navy added to the effects of the blockade by bombing Germany from the air. The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was formed in 1915. It was difficult for the RNAS effectively to support the fleet until late in the war and it became, not a fleet air arm, but a general-purpose land based air force. The RNAS usually had better aircraft than the Army's Royal Flying Corps as the Admiralty was more experienced in managing technology than was the War Office. In 1917 competition for aircraft between the two services, together with dissatisfaction with Britain's overall air effort following German bomber attacks on London, led to the decision to create a unified Royal Air Force (RAF).

Gallipoli

HMS ArgusHMS Argus, the world's first aircraft carrier in dazzle camouflage The growing power of coast defences made the more offensive use of Britain's naval power more difficult. The main amphibious assault of the war occurred in the Dardanelles in 1915. It was hoped a force of largely of old pre-Dreadnought battleships might force its way through to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) to knock Turkey out of the war. This failed due to the guns and mines of the Turks. A campaign by Allied ground forces capture the straits and assist the passage of the fleet met with little success. The only successful part of this disaster was the withdrawal of the land forces by sea in early 1916.

Conclusion

Sea power is often a great 'enabler' and this was definitely the case in First World War. Although there was no crushing naval victory, the Royal Navy's command of the sea allowed troops and supplies to flow to the British armies in France and Flanders that defeated the might of the German Army. Indeed, the Royal Navy provided part of the land forces. In 1914 there were more reservists than ships to take them and the men were formed, together with the Royal Marines into a Royal Naval Division. It served with distinction in the Mediterranean and on the Western Front. Almost half of the Royal Navy casualties in the First World War were sustained by this land force.

The Inter-war years

The Washington Treaty

After the scuttling of the German fleet in 1919, the major naval powers were Britain, the USA and Japan. America was committed to out-build Britain and both sides prepared war plans. The Washington Treaty of 1922 agreed equality in battleships, battlecruisers and aircraft carriers between Britain and the USA. The agreement allowed Britain to lay down two new battleships, Nelson and Rodney, the only new battleships built anywhere in the 1920s. New large cruisers were also built and the fleet used the experience of the war to improve its tactical skills.

Times were hard for the Navy in the difficult economic conditions. Attempts to cut ratings' pay led to a strike at Invergordon in 1931 that caused a run on the pound, so symbolic was Britain's navy to her national image.

Naval Aviation

Shortage of funds was a major cause of the limited development of Britain's naval aviation in comparison with Japan and the USA. Providing the fleet with the support it needed was low on the RAF's list of priorities. Eventually, in 1924, as a compromise, a Fleet Air Arm was created as a specialist part of the RAF paid for by the Navy and manned by both RAF and Naval personnel. Not until 1939 was full Admiralty control asserted over the Fleet Air Arm and given these difficulties it was not surprising that it was smaller and less capable those of other nations.


Rearmament

HMS CourageousHMS Courageous, a giant light cruiser, built for Admiral Fisher's planned attack on Germany's Baltic coast 
When rearmament began in the 1930s the Royal Navy ranked between the top priority RAF and the Army in importance, an indication of how evolving technology had altered the overall strategic equation. New ships of all categories were laid down, intended primarily for fleet operations against a Japan. A base was constructed at Singapore from which this fleet could cover South East Asian waters. The Naval Staff calculated that Britain could fight one European power as well as Japan. When Hitler announced rearmament therefore Britain rushed to obtain agreement to limit German strength. Unfortunately, Britain's quarrel with Italy over Ethiopia created a third potential naval enemy. When war came in 1939 it was against Germany alone.

Further reading:

  • J. Goldrick "The Battleship Fleet: The Test of War 1895-1919" and G. Till "Retrenchment, Rethinking, Revival 1919-1939 in J.R. Hill (Ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy (Oxford, 1995). P.G Halpern, A Naval History of the First World War (Annapolis Md. and London, 1994).