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Historical periods

Vanguard to Trident 1945-2000

Aircraft carrier Ark Royal and guided missile destroyer HMS Antrim on exercsie in the Bristol Channel
Aircraft carrier HMS Eagle shortly after modernisation in May 1964 with large Type 984 radar
Assault ship HMS Fearless with stern dock & flight deck clearly visible

The post Second World War Royal Navy has seen a transformation as great as that which occurred in the last hundred years.


The Royal Navy's strategic impact was transformed with the introduction of nuclear powered and nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines. HMS Resolution, the first of the Polaris armed submarines, began operational patrols in 1968 replacing the RAF's bombers as Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent. In the 1990s Polaris was replaced by the Trident missile carried by the four huge Vanguard class submarines.

The speed and endurance of conventionally armed submarines were transformed by nuclear power. It was no accident that the Navy's first nuclear powered submarine in 1963 was called HMS Dreadnought , the name of the revolutionary battleship of 1906. The last conventionally powered submarines were withdrawn in the 1990s and today Britain's submarine force is entirely nuclear powered.

Surface ships

The battleship was largely obsolete and the most modern, HMS Vanguard, was scrapped in 1960. The traditional aircraft carrier force, at its peak in the early 1960s, proved too expensive to retain and the last vessel, HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in 1978. However, a new type of small carrier with a mix of helicopters and Sea Harrier short take off/vertical landing aircraft was developed and HMS Invincible, Illustrious and Ark Royal entered service from 1980.

The design of escort ships was transformed after the Second World War. As aircraft and submarines began to take over the role of sinking surface ships, they became the primary targets of the escort's weapon systems. HMS Devonshire, the Navy's first guided missile armed destroyer, was completed in 1962. By the 1980s escorts evolved into anti-aircraft destroyers and anti-submarine frigates, each displacing about 4000 tons, the size of a small wartime cruiser.

Changing roles

The coming of nuclear weapons cast doubt on the possibility of a long war like the World Wars. It was uncertain if a new Battle of the Atlantic would occur, but the Korean War of 1950-1953 demonstrated the importance of naval forces in limited war.

By the late 1950s the Navy's main role was one of rapid crisis response 'East of Suez', especially in the Arabian Gulf and South East Asia. The Suez operation of 1956 showed the weaknesses of the amphibious fleet and as a result helicopter carriers and assault ships were introduced by the mid 1960s.

The 1960s saw successful operations to protect Kuwait from Iraq and Malaysia from Indonesia. In 1967-1968 it was decided to withdraw from 'East of Suez' and concentrate on the NATO area. NATO strategy had re-emphasised the importance of naval power supporting the flanks of the European theatre and escorting reinforcements across the Atlantic. This ensured a substantial British fleet into the 1980s.

The Falklands War of 1982 was a remarkable demonstration of maritime power projection, retaking the islands over 8,000 miles from Britain. It emphasised the importance of the navy when its future was in some doubt; as a result many of the drastic cuts announced in the 1981 Defence Review did not take place.

In the 1990s the need for maritime power in an uncertain post-Cold War world was clearly illustrated in the Gulf War of 1991, the Adriatic and elsewhere. The intention to build two new large aircraft carriers, announced in the Strategic Defence Review in 1997, illustrated the greater importance attached to expeditionary warfare.

Social change

Life at sea was transformed as 'broadside messing', in which sailors ate and slept in small groups, was replaced by 'centralised messing', sailors sleeping and eating in separate places. Bunks replaced hammocks and considerable effort went into improving conditions of service to attract the right kind and quality of personnel: the more technological Navy required people with greater qualifications and potential.

Officer entry at schoolboy age was replaced by the mid-1950s by entry at eighteen. It became much easier for ratings to reach officer rank and by the 1990s one-third of officers entered by this route. Members of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) served at sea for the first time in the 1990s and the title WRNS was dropped as it became fully integrated with the Navy.

The Twenty-First Century Navy

The Royal Navy ended the Twentieth Century more powerful relatively than it had been for some time and perhaps second only to the United States Navy in its ability to project power around the world.

There are sixteen nuclear powered submarines, some of which are armed with nuclear ballistic missiles or conventionally armed Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles. The surface fleet combines three aircraft carriers with over thirty capable destroyers and frigates, an amphibious squadron recently reinforced with a new helicopter carrier and one of the most proven flotillas of minehunters in the world. It is a worthy successor to the fleets of the past whose unmatched tradition of excellence provides a powerful stimulus to the men and women of the Royal Navy today.

Further reading:

  • E.J. Grove, Vanguard to Trident: British Naval Policy since World War II (London, 1987) J.R. Hill, "The Realities of Medium Power, 1946 to the Present"and N. Friedman, "The Royal Navy and the Post-war Naval Revolution 1946 to the Present" in J.R. Hill (Ed), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy (Oxford, 1995).