*** Royal Navy major campaigns

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 wieldrd agressively against the forces of world empire persued by authoritarian and totalitarian rulers. It first protected slavers and then helpedd end the slasver trade. It proved to be a key instument in defeafting Imperial Germany in World War I. A much reduced Royal Navy would be pitted aginst the Axis powers in World War II.

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.

Pirates and Privateers

Pirate is a Greek word (peiratēs) which came to mean brigand. Ancient Greek traders were a cross between merchants and pirates. A major problem for the Romns were pirates. The Royal Navy is primarily associated with fighting pirates but in a fact began to become a major force by engaging in piracy, actually legalized piracy called privateering. England did not bhave a major fleet until well into the modern age. As a result of Coloubus' voyage (1492), Spain created a huge empire in the New World. And along with Portugal opened up trade with the East. Soon large numbers of merchant vessels were plying the world's oceans with highly valuable cargoes. None were more valuable than the Spanish Treasure ships that sailed from the Caribbean to Spain. The Spanish colonies produced hhuge quantities of gold and silver and other valuable. This upset the European ballamce of power. And with Protestant Reformation (1517) helped finanve Spanish attempts to destroy the Reformation. England did not at first have colonies and when they did begin founding colonies did not find gold and silver. So they began letters of marque--privateering. This also launched the golden age of piracy. Some of these privateers became piratates. Of course for the Spanish or other countries with cargo shps beuing attacked, there was little dufference. Privateers were private individuals commissioned by governments to carry out quasi-military activities. They would sieze ships od desinated nations and provide a share to the Crown. They even pillaging towns where the gold and silver might be stired. The English privateers were the best known, the most famous of all privateers is probably Englishman Francis Drake (El Drago), one of several Sea Dogs. Their privations were part of the decision by Philip II to send the Great Armada against England. Drake and the other Sea Dogs amassed fortunes plundering Spanish treasure ships and settlements. Elizabeth I issued the letters of mnarque and received a portion of the trasure. The use of privateers allowed a relatived poor state, like England to project maritime power beyond the capabilities of their small regular navies. Privateering was lucrtive business, and privateers would often go beyond their commissions and attack vessels that thery were not autorized to attack. Outlaw pirates might operate with the tacit approval of a government but without the written legal authorization given to privateers. This was done when a country did not want to risk war. Modt pirates were eventully caught nf hanged, especially after England became Britain and developed its own empire and substanyial navy. One pirate whobwas nerver caught was Henry Every (various spellings). He had a short, but extremely lucrative career. His ship Fancy and other shipps happened on a ship of the Indian Mugal Emperor Aurangzebthe Ganji-Sawai (1695). The ship held Muslim worshipers returning from thebJaj as well as hge sums of gold, silver, and other valuables. Everyn murdered the men and raped the women. The sailed away to the Bahamas. What followed isv believed to be the world's first international manhunt. He was never found. He apparently pretended to be a slaver and then disappered. [Kole, p. A7.] The British Parliament authorized Vice-Admiralty (maritime) courts (early-18th century). They appointed seven commissioners in the colonies to carry out legal proceedings, primrily against pirates. The commissioners were selected from naval and Caribbean officers who were struggling with local pirates. The pirates were allowed no representation in these courts. Most were sentenced to hang. Some 400 - 600 pirates were executed as a result. There is another related term -- corsair. Here the British were not as involved as in the Caribbean. The Corsairs were Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean Sea (late-14th century to the early-19th century). This began at the time that Islamic society began to decline and Europe began to rise with the Renaissance. This created lucrative European targets close to the Muslim North African ports. The Ottoman Empire was vying with the Christian states of Europe, especially Spain. The Ottomon lost major naval bttles such as Lepanto (1571) and gradually lost effective control over North Africa. The Corsairs became known as the Barbary Pirates--from Berber. Britain found it cost effective to pay tribute rather thn militry operations. After the Revolution (1783), American merchantmen lost the protection of the Royal Navy. Eventually America would wage its first overseas war agaisdt the Barbary Pirates (1801-05). Soon after France began to colonize North Africa ending Corsair era.

Dutch Naval Wars

Dutch Wars are commonly referred to as the Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars. This is an appropriate term for the first two wars. The third war was, however, a very different matter. It went far beyound the Anglo-Duch nval rivalry and eventually involved most of Europe. As a result the Dutch Wars seems the most appropiate term to use. The English played a major role in securing the independence of the Netherlands. And usually the Dutch and English were on the same side of European conflicts. Never-the-less, the English fought three naval wars with the Dutch during the 17th century. The more important ones were conducted by Stuart King Charles II who maintained close relatioins with England's traditional enemy France. The Dutch Wars are thus somewhat of an anomaly in England's basic policy of resisting foreign domination of the Low Lands. The Wars were fought as naval engagements. One important outcome was the English seizure of New Amsterdam which became the English colony of New York.

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

Revolutionary War (1776-83)

The British throughout the Revolutionary War held the initiative and largely controlled the conduct of the fighting, taking advantage of the mobility afforded by the powerful Royal Navy and command of the sea. The British launched most of the offensives and the Colonists were left to defend as best they could. The one time the British lost control was only for a short period, but it was distrous. A French naval force after the Battle of the Capes (1881) allowed the Colonists and the French to destroy Cornwalis' army at Yorktown. The hard-pressed Colonists could not afford to properly equip the Continental Army, let alone a navy. So the only possibility was a navy on the cheap--priveteering. This was a natural progression from the pervasive smuggling that developed in the Colonies to avoid British trade restrictions, especially the Navigation Acts. The privateers authorized by Congress could keep half of the proceeds that they took. And there were plenty of targets. And the privters proved costly to British trade, raising the cost of the War for thevBritish. About half of the British merchant fleet at the time of the Revolution was involved in the Atlantic trade between Britain and the Colonies. The most famous American naval officer was John Paul Jones. Less well known is his rival, John Manley. The Americans were not capable of fleet actions, but they could take on individual Royal Navy ships. And Jones even engaged the British in the Channel. Besides the prizes taken, American naval operations not only disrupted the trade between Britain and the colonies, but drove up insurance rates. The Continental Navy waged a campaign that was a mixture of asymeterical warfare and thinly desguised piracy. Wealthy Colonists financed privateers, both as a patriotic action and to profit financially. {Patton] The Revolutionary War is one of the few campaigns the Royal Navy lost.

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

The one bright spot for the Americans in the War of 1812 was the performance of the fledgeling United States Navy. The British victory at Trafalgar (1805) was so overwealing that few in America thought America could challenge the Royal Navy. It would assume that America could easily conquer Canada in a land invasion, but a war at sea would be hopless. President Madison was about to lay up the American frigates when some of the captains met with him and convinced him to let them sail. The Royal Navy was shocked when American frigates won a series of single-ship engagements with British frigates. This was in part because American frigates were designed as slightly larger vessels. The Admiralty had to eventually issue the embarassing order to its frigate captains that they should refuse to give battle in single ship engagements. The captains and crew of the frigates Constitution and United States were lauded as herps. The U.S. Navy was very small, however, and no match for the Royal Navy. The British thus gradually were able to effectively blockade the major American ports making it impossible for the American figates to sail. While the American frigates lifted the morale of the American public, it was privateers that had aeal impact on the British. American privateers harassed British shipping, seizung large numbers of merchant vessels and driving up insurance rates. The United States had a very long coasline. And while the Royal Navy effectively botteled up the American figates, it did not have the capability of blockading every small port. Thus large numbers of privateers continued to defy the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy did, however, cut off American trade with Europe and the Caribbean and had a serious impact on the American economy. It drove New England to consider secession and would have bankrupted the Federal Government if the War had continued another year. (Import duties were the Federal Government's principal source of incomd.) The Royal Navy also gave the British the ability to stike at will anywhere along the coast. A force landed in Chesapeake Bay burned Washington. A force landed near New Orleans, howver, was decimated by the Americans.

Anti-Slavery Campaign

The United States banned the importation of slaves (1808). There was, however, only minimal enforcement by the U.S. Navy. It was the Royal Navy that eventually ended the slave trade. The slave trade had been a lynch pin in the triangular trade that has been a key element of the British economy and helped bring great wealth to Britain. It had in part helped to finance the growth of the Royal Navy. The expansion of the British merchant fleet under the protection of the Royal Navy resulted in Britain dominating the slave trade by the 18th century. British ships beginning about 1650 are believed to have transported as many as 4 million Africans to the New World and slavery. The British Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars banned the slave trade (1807). This was a decision made on moral grounds after a long campaign in Britain against slavery at considerable cost at a time of War. After Trafalgar (1805) the powerful British Royal Navy could intercept suspected slave ships under belligerent rights. After the cessation of hostilities this became more complicated. The only internationally recognized reason for boarding foreign ships was suspected piracy. Thus Britain had to pursue a major diplomatic effort to convince other countries to sign anti-slavery treaties which permitted the Royal Navy to board their vessels if suspected of transporting slaves. Nearly 30 countries eventually signed these treaties. The anti-slavery effort required a substantial effort on the part of the Royal Navy. The major effort was carried out by the West Coast of Africa Station which the Admiralty referred to as the ‘preventive squadron’. The Royal Navy from this station for 50 years conducted operations to intercept slavers. At the peak of these operations about 25 ships and 2,000 officers and men were deployed. There were about 1,000 Kroomen, African sailors, operating West African Station. The Royal Navy deployed smaller, shallow draft vessels so that slavers could be pursued in shallow waters. Britain also targeted African leaders who engaged in the slave trade. A British forced in one operation deposed the King of Lagos (1851). The climate and exposure to filthy diseased laden slave ships made the West African station dangerous. The officers and men were rewarded with Prize money for both freeing slaves and capturing the ships. The Royal Navy's task in East Africa and the Indian Ocean was even more difficult. This was in part because of the support for slavery among Islamic powers (both Arabian and Persian). The slave trade persisted into the 1860s, in part because of the continued existence of slavery in the United States. Even though the slave trade was outlawed in America, the American Navy was not used to aggressively inters=dict the slave trade. This did not change until President Lincoln signed the Right of Search Treaty in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. Spain abolished slavery in Cuba (1886). Brazil abolished slavery (1888).

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.

Patton, Robert H. Patriot Pirates.


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Created: 2:59 AM 1/3/2005
Last updated: 6:01 PM 8/12/2023