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The Second World War 1939-1945

Aircraft carrier HMS Furious in November 1942
HMS Warspite, Admiral Cunningham's flagship in the Mediterranean
Tribal class destroyer, HMS Zulu which took part in the sinking of the Bismark

While the Royal Navy entered the Second World War with the world's largest fleet, the naval staff recognised that it could not fight Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously. In fact when war came it was against Germany alone. The German navy had not expected to fight until 1944 and was totally unprepared for war. Only two major surface ships were available for commerce raiding, one of which, Admiral Graf Spee, was scuttled after being damaged in action by three British cruisers in the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939. The British largely succeeded in containing the German surface fleet which usually acted, as in the First World War, as a 'fleet in being' to tie down the Royal Navy.

The most successful German ship was the battleship Bismarck which sank the largest British capital ship the battlecruiser Hood, as she broke out into the Atlantic in 1941. Bismarck was eventually crippled by Swordfish torpedo bombers from the carrier Ark Royal and then pounded to a wreck by the battleships King George V and Rodney. On 26 December 1943 the battlecruiser Scharnhorst was sunk off the North Cape by the Home Fleet, commanded by Admiral Bruce Fraser in the battleship HMS Duke of York. This was the Royal Navy's last big ship versus big ship gunnery duel.

The Germans occupied Norway in 1940. Their air force made it difficult for the British Fleet, defended by guns alone, to counter attack successfully. Where there was no air cover, however, the Germans suffered heavy losses, ten destroyers being sunk in the battles at Narvik. Fleet Air Arm dive-bombers flying from the Orkneys sank the cruiser Konigsberg, the first major warship to be sunk by aircraft. Germany's conquest of France in 1940 led to a major naval evacuation at Dunkirk and Hitler considering an invasion of Britain. The Royal Navy made such an enterprise impossible. Forces of destroyers and other small ships were massed to deal with the threat and it is unlikely that the German Air Force could have prevented them inflicting fatal damage on any invasion fleet.

Battle of the Atlantic

France's defeat also gave Germany's U-boats new Atlantic bases in their battle against the convoys from North America which kept Britain supplied. The Battle of the Atlantic which lasted from 1939-1945 was one of the most important and fiercely fought campaigns of the whole war.

War in the Mediterranean

The defeat of France created problems in the Mediterranean. The French fleet was there to look after Allied interests. Now that fleet might fall into German hands. A new British fleet, Force H, was created under Admiral Somerville both to replace the French fleet and attacked it at Mers El Kebir in one of the Royal Navy's unhappiest operations. Italy also entered the war. Admiral Cunningham's Mediterranean Fleet soon asserted its superiority over the Italians both at sea and in disabling half of their battleships in the daring night air attack on Taranto . The Germans were forced to come to Italy's aid with aircraft, and later submarines, which caused the British much difficulty and damage.

The Mediterranean campaign revolved around the island of Malta, where the British based surface ships, submarines and aircraft to attack the supplies for Italian and German armies in North Africa. Major convoy operations were mounted to sustain Malta and the island narrowly survived. As the balance tilted against the Germans and Italians, major landings were carried out in North Africa which led to the Mediterranean finally being re-opened as a shipping route. After the invasion first of Sicily then of Italy itself, Italy changed sides.

Amphibious warfare

The Second World War saw amphibious warfare undergo enormous development. Fleets of new ships and craft were developed for operations that grew from mere raids to fully fledged invasions. The greatest operation of all was 'Neptune', the maritime side of Operation 'Overlord', the landings in Normandy that began on 6 June 1944. This was commanded by the Royal Navy's greatest exponent of amphibious warfare, Admiral Bertram Ramsay , and most of the warships, from battleships to infantry landing craft, were British.

War in the Far East

Fully stretched by war against both Germany and Italy, the Royal Navy could do little to halt the Japanese onslaught that began in December 1941. The battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse were sent to Singapore to try to deter Japan but were sunk by Japanese Navy torpedo bombers. Singapore fell and the Royal Navy was driven from the waters of South East Asia. Only late in the war with the defeat of enemy naval forces in Europe did the Royal Navy reappear in Asia-Pacific waters in strength. In 1945 a large British Pacific Fleet commanded by Admiral Fraser and based around a powerful carrier force fought alongside the Americans in Japanese waters. Forces in the Indian Ocean were also scoring successes against major Japanese warships.

Conclusion

The Second World War was a major success for sea power. Germany had to be defeated on land but this was achieved by the amphibious landing of forces in the west and the Soviet forces in the east were kept in action by maritime supplies. Throughout the war the Royal Navy ran convoys to the Russian Arctic ports braving atrocious weather as well as attacks by aircraft, submarines and surface ships.

The Royal Navy fought well in the Second World War, better than in the First, but the price was high. Some 1,525 vessels of all sizes were lost, including 224 large warships. Over 50,000 British naval personnel lost their lives, a total more than all the men and women currently serving in today's Royal Navy and Royal Marines, and 20,000 more than in the First World War.

By 1945 the Royal Navy had grown to almost 900 major warships and a force of 866,000 men and women. Women had been allowed to serve in shore appointments the First World War but the Womens Royal Naval Service (WRNS) had been wound up afterwards. It was reformed for the Second World War and 'Wrens' became permanent features of a service that now faced the challenges of a troubled peace.

Further reading:

  • E.J.Grove, "A Service Vindicated" in J.R.Hill (Ed), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy (Oxford, 1995).
  • C. Barnett, Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War (London, 1991).