Royal Navy – Cold War



British Royal Navy HMS Ocean, amphibious assault ship (R), leading NATO warships.

The United Kingdom’s Royal Navy (RN) was gradually streamlined and downsized during the Cold War, shifting its strategic capability from that of a surface fleet to one that primarily employed submarines and antisubmarine warfare. In 1945 Britain still maintained naval bases around the world. Its domestic fleet bases were located at Portsmouth, Devonport, and Chatham. There was also a dockyard at Rosyth in Scotland. Overseas bases were situated in Malta; Ceylon; (Trincomalee); Singapore; and Simonstown, South Africa (near Capetown), with Gibraltar and Bermuda serving as dockyards. In 1954, the navy had more than 600 vessels and a regular force strength of 117,700. By 1991, its active-duty force had been downsized to 60,000. During 1950-1990 there were major reductions in the number of aircraft carriers (from 12 to 3), cruisers (from 29 to 0), destroyers/frigates (from 280 to 51), and conventional submarines (from 66 to 9).

The financial realities of waging the Cold War had a major impact on Great Britain beginning in 1951, the year after the outbreak of the Korean War, when military expenditures doubled. At that time, British troops were already in Malaya and Hong Kong in response to perceived communist threats. The RN was a major participant in the Korean War, utilizing aircraft carriers (the Glory, Ocean, Theseus, and Triumph); cruisers (the Birmingham, Belfast, Jamaica, Kenya, and New Castle); destroyers (the Charity, Cockade, Comus, Consort, and Cossack); frigates (the Alacrity, Black Swan, Heart, Morecome Bay, Mounts Bay, and Whitesand Bay); a hospital ship (the Maine); and other vessels. RN aircraft employed in Korea included the Sea Fury, Firefly, and Seafire.

Prior to the Korean War, the RN experienced several incidents in the Mediterranean and the Far East. In 1947, the Mediterranean Fleet had attempted to stem the tide of illegal Jewish immigrants from Europe to Palestine. In 1949, the destroyers Saumarez and Volage, during a show of force against the communists, struck mines off the coast of Albania, resulting in the loss of forty-four lives. Also in 1949, the frigate HMS Amethyst came under attack by Chinese communist forces when it patrolled up the Yangtze River. In 1951, the RN responded to the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute by imposing a blockade on the port of Abadan to prevent oil from being exported.

In 1956 Britain, France, and Israel carried out a coordinated attack on Egypt. During the Suez Crisis, the RN dispatched the aircraft carriers Eagle, Albion, and Bulwark to the Canal Zone. In that conflict, the Ocean at Port Said launched the first helicopter-borne amphibious landing in history. The Suez Crisis revealed serious shortcomings in Britain’s military reach and indicated that it was no longer able to undertake major unilateral military action. Britain’s military position was also affected by the hydrogen bomb. A Defence White Paper of April 1957 concluded that “the role of naval forces in total war is uncertain.” Conscription came to an end that same year, and greater reliance was placed on nuclear weaponry. The same year, after successfully lobbying the United States to amend its Atomic Energy Act, British officials were able to purchase from the Americans a nuclear propulsion plant for the first British nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought.

The Dreadnought, commissioned in 1963, represented a new strategy. From this point in the RN, traditional aircraft carriers declined in importance. HMS Ark Royal, the last such vessel, was decommissioned in 1978. Beginning in 1980, smaller carriers-the Invincible, Illustrious, and Ark Royal- transported helicopters and vertical-lift Sea Harrier jets. Beginning in the 1970s, a Polaris submarine fleet of four boats-the Resolution, Repulse, Renown, and Revenge-also strengthened Britain’s nuclear capability. Each submarine could carry sixteen missiles armed with nuclear warheads with a striking range of 2,500 nautical miles.

Despite naval spending cuts during the 1960s and 1970s, defense costs remained high, and by the early 1980s there was pressure for an even leaner military. On 25 June 1981, Secretary of State for Defence John Nott submitted to Parliament “The United Kingdom Defence Programme: The Way Forward.” This report recommended a strategic emphasis on Europe, in conjunction with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces, with less emphasis on global capability. Since the British Army and the Royal Air Force were already largely oriented toward West European defense, the brunt of the cuts was earmarked for the RN. Fortunately for the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the crisis in the Falklands broke out prior to the implementation of this new approach.

In 1982, Britain went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. It was Britain’s first engagement with a modern navy since 1945 and proved a challenging undertaking, as it was fought 8,000 miles from the British Isles. During the Falklands War, the RN provided essential reach and support for a British expeditionary force to reconquer the islands from Argentina. In all, the United Kingdom committed 117 ships and 27,000 personnel, led by Rear Admiral John “Sandy” Woodward. On 2 May 1982, the British nuclear-powered submarine Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. Under Argentine Air Force attack with French-made Exocet missiles, Britain lost the Type 42 destroyers Sheffeld and Coventry, the Type 21s Antelope and Ardent, the landing ship Sir Galahad, and the container ship Atlantic Conveyor. British war dead tallied 255, with another 777 wounded. The war prompted British officials to reconsider their drastic downsizing of the RN.

In 1991, Britain began replacing the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with larger Tridents. With the end of the Cold War, aside from the submarine-missiles deterrent, the RN’s primary role has been antisubmarine warfare, which was aided by three antisubmarine warfare carriers lifting Sea King antisubmarine and early warning helicopters.

References Armitage, M. J., and R. A. Mason. Air Power in the Nuclear Age. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983. Childs, David. Britain since 1945: A Political History. London: Routledge, 2001. Hill, J. R., ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Murfett, Malcolm H. In Jeopardy: The Royal Navy and the British Far Eastern Defence Policy, 1945-1951. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pimlott, John, ed. British Military Operations, 1945-1985. New York: Military Press, 1984.

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