How about this for historical irony? Only two days after the biggest defence cuts since 1945, and the day after a spending review that will change the face of Britain as we know it, Royal Navy warships in harbour are dressed overall in honour of Britain’s greatest ever naval victory.
21 October 1805
On 21 October 1805 off Cape Trafalgar in Spain Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson‘s fleet closed with the combined French and Spanish fleet, commanded by Admiral Villeneuve. Nelson proposed a revolutionary tactic, sailing two Squadrons into the enemy line at right angles, in order to split the French and Spanish into three and engage and defeat them piecemeal. Previous convention had been for fleets to sail in line parallel to each other, pounding away but making a decisive result difficult. But the ‘Nelson touch’, as outlined to his Captains by Nelson prior to the battle, brought about a pell-mell battle where the British crews superior gunnery almost always won out against the French who had been bottled up in port for long periods.
The victory at Trafalgar was the high water mark of British sea power, building on a fighting ethos and reputation that went back to Drake, and other lesser-known figures such as Vernon, Hood, Hawke and Howe. The daring and spirit shown by Nelson on that day in 1805 became a byword for British naval action, and men such as Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham expanded upon this example.
Modern historians and politicians may like to ignore Trafalgar and its significance (mainly given that we decimated the French and Spanish fleets), but it did mark the beginning of the end for Napoleon, a dictator who waged war across Europe and caused the deaths of millions. Trafalgar limited Napoleon’s ambitions, to the point where he was eventually defeated for good at Waterloo in 1815. 50 years peace in Europe was the result.
Whilst the British Empire had its origins far earlier than 1805 – the fleets of Henry VII and Henry VIII, the defeat of the Armada, anti-piracy operations in the West Indies and the growth of British India – Trafalgar heralded a prolonged period of British control of the worlds seas, that lasted arguably until the Second World War. Control of the seas allowed Britain to extend a commerical empire across all four corners of the globe, in North America, the Carribean, Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific.
21 October 2010
Only two days ago it was announced that the Royal Navy would be losing one aircraft carrier immediately and one soon after, one major landing ship, one destroyer, four frigates, and an auxilliary landing ship. This will leave the Royal Navy without air cover of its own, paper-thin amphibious capability (which is pointless anyway without air cover to protect it) and woefully short of escort hulls. Essentially, a whole task group is being mothballed.
Ever since 1805 British officers – and indeed sailors – have been brought up and trained that they are the ancestors of Nelson, Collingwood, Hardy and their men, and that even though weapons, ships and uniforms may change, the spirit remains the same. During the First World War Admirals and the public longed for a ‘second Trafalgar’ that would cripple the German fleet. And even though large fleet actions are a thing of the past, the sprirt has still been there – witness the service of officers such as Gerard Roope, William Hussey and David Wanklyn in the Second World War, and David-Hart Dyke, Chris Craig and John Coward in the Falklands. History matters.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the days of the British Empire and Britannia ruling waves are a distant memory, but even so since 1945 Britain has been riding the tail end of the global influence wave, thanks to the manner in which Britain and the Royal Navy are respected around the world. That respect will be a distant memory.
Not only are we talking about global influence and defence. Since time immaterial the Royal Navy has been a central part of British culture – Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column, Rule Britannia, Hearts of Oak, Portsmouth, Greenwich… people who go to see have always been romanticised, whereas soldiers are frequently seen as the scum of the earth.
It’s probably too early to tell, but 19 October 2010 may well be the day on which British Sea Power really did sail into the sunset. There is not much, after all, that you can do with a clapped out Helicopter Carrier, one main landing ship, three auxilliary landing ships and 19 Destroyers and Frigates of varying quality.