Royal Navy

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Royal Navy
Logo of the Royal Navy.svg
Founded1546; 477 years ago (1546)[1]
RoleNaval warfare
Part of
Slow – Westering Home (de facto)

The Royal Navy (RN) is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. Although warships were used by English and Scottish kings from the early medieval period, the first major maritime engagements were fought in the Hundred Years' War against France. The modern Royal Navy traces its origins to the early 16th century; the oldest of the UK's armed services, it is consequently known as the Senior Service.

From the middle decades of the 17th century, and through the 18th century, the Royal Navy vied with the

Dutch Navy and later with the French Navy for maritime supremacy. From the mid-18th century until the Second World War, it was the world's most powerful navy. The Royal Navy played a key part in establishing and defending the British Empire, and four Imperial fortress colonies and a string of imperial bases and coaling stations secured the Royal Navy's ability to assert naval superiority globally. Owing to this historical prominence, it is common, even among non-Britons, to refer to it as "the Royal Navy" without qualification. Following World War I, it was significantly reduced in size,[7] although at the onset of World War II it was still the world's largest. During the Cold War, the Royal Navy transformed into a primarily anti-submarine force, hunting for Soviet submarines and mostly active in the GIUK gap. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its focus has returned to expeditionary operations around the world and it remains one of the world's foremost blue-water navies.[8][9][10]

The Royal Navy maintains a fleet of technologically sophisticated ships, submarines, and aircraft, including 2

mine-countermeasure vessels and 26 patrol vessels. As of January 2023, there are 72 operational commissioned ships (including submarines as well as one historic ship, HMS Victory) in the Royal Navy, plus 13 ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA); there are also five Merchant Navy ships available to the RFA under a private finance initiative. The RFA replenishes Royal Navy warships at sea, and augments the Royal Navy's amphibious warfare capabilities through its three Bay-class
landing ship vessels. It also works as a force multiplier for the Royal Navy, often doing patrols that frigates used to do.

The Royal Navy is part of

admiral and member of the Defence Council of the United Kingdom. The Defence Council delegates management of the Naval Service to the Admiralty Board, chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence. The Royal Navy operates from three bases in Britain where commissioned ships and submarines are based: Portsmouth, Clyde and Devonport, the last being the largest operational naval base in Western Europe, as well as two naval air stations, RNAS Yeovilton and RNAS Culdrose
where maritime aircraft are based.


As the seaborne branch of HM Armed Forces, the RN has various roles. As it stands today, the RN has stated its six major roles as detailed below in umbrella terms.[11]

  • Preventing Conflict – On a global and regional level
  • Providing Security At Sea – To ensure the stability of international trade at sea
  • International Partnerships – To help cement the relationship with the United Kingdom's allies (such as NATO)
  • Maintaining a Readiness To Fight – To protect the United Kingdom's interests across the globe
  • Protecting the Economy – To safeguard vital trade routes to guarantee the United Kingdom's and its allies' economic prosperity at sea
  • Providing Humanitarian Aid – To deliver a fast and effective response to global catastrophes


The English Royal Navy was formally founded in 1546 by Henry VIII[12] though the Kingdom of England had possessed less-organised naval forces for centuries prior to this.[13]

The Royal Scots Navy (or Old Scots Navy) had its origins in the Middle Ages until its merger with the English Royal Navy per the Acts of Union 1707.[14]

Earlier fleets

During much of the medieval period, fleets or "king's ships" were often established or gathered for specific campaigns or actions, and these would disperse afterwards. These were generally merchant ships enlisted into service. Unlike some European states, England did not maintain a small permanent core of warships in peacetime. England's naval organisation was haphazard and the mobilization of fleets when war broke out was slow.[15] Control of the sea only became critical to Anglo-Saxon kings in the 10th century.[16] In the 11th century, Aethelred II had an especially large fleet built by a national levy.[17] During the period of Danish rule in the 11th century, the authorities maintained a standing fleet by taxation, and this continued for a time under Edward the Confessor, who frequently commanded fleets in person.[18] After the Norman Conquest, English naval power waned and England suffered naval raids from the Vikings.[19] In 1069, this allowed for the invasion and ravaging of England by Jarl Osborn (brother of King Svein Estridsson) and his sons.[20]

The lack of an organised navy came to a head during the

Hundred Years War emphasised the need for an English fleet. French plans for an invasion of England failed when Edward III of England destroyed the French fleet in the Battle of Sluys in 1340.[22] England's naval forces could not prevent frequent raids on the south-coast ports by the French and their allies. Such raids halted only with the occupation of northern France by Henry V.[23] A Scottish fleet existed by the reign of William the Lion.[24] In the early 13th century there was a resurgence of Viking naval power in the region. The Vikings clashed with Scotland over control of the isles[25] though Alexander III was ultimately successful in asserting Scottish control.[26] The Scottish fleet was of particular import in repulsing English forces in the early 14th century.[27]

Age of Sail

A late 16th-century painting of the Spanish Armada
in battle with English warships

A standing "Navy Royal",

Elizabeth I, England became involved in a war with Spain, which saw privately owned vessels combining with the Queen's ships in highly profitable raids against Spanish commerce and colonies.[29] The Royal Navy was then used in 1588 to repulse the Spanish Armada, but the English Armada was lost the next year. In 1603, the Union of the Crowns created a personal union between England and Scotland. While the two remained distinct sovereign states for a further century, the two navies increasingly fought as a single force. During the early 17th century, England's relative naval power deteriorated until Charles I undertook a major programme of shipbuilding. His methods of financing the fleet contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War, and the abolition of the monarchy.[30]


War of the Grand Alliance which marked the end of France's brief pre-eminence at sea and the beginning of an enduring British supremacy.[34]


In 1707, the


Chesapeake campaign. On the Great Lakes, however, the United States Navy established an advantage.[43]

Between 1815 and 1914, the Navy saw little serious action, owing to the

Confederation of Canada and naval control of the Halifax Yard was transferred to the new Royal Canadian Navy in 1905) as bases for naval squadrons with stores and dockyard facilities. These allowed control not only of the Atlantic, but it was presumed also of the other oceans. Prior to the 1920s, it was presumed that the only navies that could challenge the Royal Navy belonged to nations on the Atlantic ocean or its connected seas. Britain would rely on Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, to project power to the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean via the Suez Canal after its completion in 1869 and relying on amity and common interests between Britain and the United States (which controlled transit through the Panama Canal, completed in 1914) during and after the First World War, on Bermuda to project power the length of the Western Atlantic, including the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and eastern Pacific, from the Arctic to the Antarctic - originally, the area controlled from Bermuda (and Halifax until 1905) had been North America, until the 1820s, then absorbed the Jamaica Station to become the North America and West Indies Station, and after the First World War absorbed the eastern Pacific Ocean and the western South Atlantic to become the America and West Indies Station until 1956.[44][45][46][47][48][49][50][51][52][53] During this period, naval warfare underwent a comprehensive transformation, brought about by steam propulsion, metal ship construction, and explosive munitions. Despite having to completely replace its war fleet, the Navy managed to maintain its overwhelming advantage over all potential rivals. Owing to British leadership in the Industrial Revolution, the country enjoyed unparalleled shipbuilding capacity and financial resources, which ensured that no rival could take advantage of these revolutionary changes to negate the British advantage in ship numbers.[54] In 1889, Parliament passed the Naval Defence Act, which formally adopted the 'two-power standard', which stipulated that the Royal Navy should maintain a number of battleships at least equal to the combined strength of the next two largest navies.[55] The end of the 19th century saw structural changes and older vessels were scrapped or placed into reserve, making funds and manpower available for newer ships. The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 rendered all existing battleships obsolete.[56] The transition at this time from coal-fired to petrol-powered ships would encourage Britain to colonize former Ottoman territories in the Middle East, especially Iraq.[57]


The Royal Navy played an historic role in several great global explorations of science and discovery.

North-West Passage, these voyages are considered to have contributed to world knowledge and science.[60]

In the late 18th century, during a four year voyage Captain George Vancouver made detailed maps of the Western Coastline of North America. In the 19th century Charles Darwin made further contributions to science during the second voyage of HMS Beagle.[61] The Ross expedition to the Antarctic made several important discoveries in biology and zoology.[62] Several of the Royal Navy's voyages ended in disaster such as those of Franklin and Scott.[63]

World Wars

Heavy cruiser HMS York berthed in Admiralty Floating Dock No. 1 at the Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda
, 1934.
would result in the reduction of the Royal Navy's presence in the region, and the station ceased to exist with the abolishment of the role of its Commander-in-Chief in 1956

During the

First World War, the Royal Navy's strength was mostly deployed at home in the Grand Fleet, confronting the German High Seas Fleet across the North Sea. Several inconclusive clashes took place between them, chiefly the Battle of Jutland in 1916.[64] The British fighting advantage proved insurmountable, leading the High Seas Fleet to abandon any attempt to challenge British dominance.[65] For its part, the Royal Navy under John Jellicoe also tried to avoid combat and remained in port at Scapa Flow for much of the war.[66] This was contrary to widespread prewar expectations that in the event of a Continental conflict Britain would primarily provide naval support to the Entente Powers while sending at most only a small ground army. Nevertheless, the Royal Navy played an important role in securing the British Isles and the English Channel, notably ferrying the entire British Expeditionary Force to the Western Front without the loss of a single life at the beginning of the war.[67]

At the end of the war, the Royal Navy remained by far the world's most powerful navy. It was larger than the U.S. Navy and French Navy combined, and over twice as large as the Imperial Japanese Navy and Royal Italian Navy combined. Its former primary competitor the Imperial German Navy was destroyed at the end of the war.[68] In the inter-war period, the Royal Navy was stripped of much of its power. The Washington and London Naval Treaties imposed the scrapping of some capital ships and limitations on new construction.[69]

The lack of an Imperial fortress in the region of Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean was always to be a weakness throughout the nineteenth century as the former North American colonies that had become the United States of America had multiplied towards the Pacific coast of North America, and the

hydrophones, were developed.[71]

At the start of World War II in 1939, the Royal Navy was still the largest in the world, with over 1,400 vessels.

Operation Dynamo, the British evacuations from Dunkirk, and as the ultimate deterrent to a German invasion of Britain during the following four months. The Luftwaffe under Hermann Göring attempted to gain air supremacy over southern England in the Battle of Britain in order to neutralize the Home Fleet, but faced stiff resistance from the Royal Air Force.[74] The Luftwaffe bombing offensive during the Kanalkampf phase of the battle targeted naval convoys and bases in order to lure large concentrations of RAF fighters into attrition warfare.[75] At Taranto, Admiral Cunningham commanded a fleet that launched the first all-aircraft naval attack in history. The Royal Navy suffered heavy losses in the first two years of the war. Over 3,000 people were lost when the converted troopship Lancastria was sunk in June 1940, the greatest maritime disaster in Britain's history.[76] The Navy's most critical struggle was the Battle of the Atlantic defending Britain's vital North American commercial supply lines against U-boat attack. A traditional convoy system was instituted from the start of the war, but German submarine tactics, based on group attacks by "wolf-packs", were much more effective than in the previous war, and the threat remained serious for well over three years.[77]

Since 1945

After the Second World War, the decline of the

Post-Cold War

Following the conclusion of the Cold War, the Royal Navy began to experience a gradual decline in its fleet size in accordance with the changed strategic environment it operated in. While new and more capable ships are continually brought into service, such as the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, Astute-class submarines, and Type 45 destroyers, the total number of ships and submarines operated has continued to steadily reduce. This has caused considerable debate about the size of the Royal Navy, with a 2013 report finding that the current RN was already too small, and that Britain would have to depend on her allies if her territories were attacked.[81] The financial costs attached to nuclear deterrence have become an increasingly significant issue for the navy.[82]

Royal Navy today


Supply Officers). Present-day officers and ratings have several different uniforms; some are designed to be worn aboard ship, others ashore or in ceremonial duties. Women began to join the Royal Navy in 1917 with the formation of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), which was disbanded after the end of the First World War in 1919. It was revived in 1939, and the WRNS continued until disbandment in 1993, as a result of the decision to fully integrate women into the structures of the Royal Navy. Women now serve in all sections of the Royal Navy including the Royal Marines.[84]

In August 2019, the Ministry of Defence published figures showing that the Royal Navy and Royal Marines had 29,090 full-time trained personnel compared with a target of 30,600.[85]

In December 2019 the

Navy Command by five.[86] The fighting arms (excluding Commandant General Royal Marines) would be reduced to Commodore (1-star) rank and the surface flotillas would be combined. Training would be concentrated under the Fleet Commander.[87]

Surface fleet

Aircraft carriers

The Royal Navy has two

F-35 Lightning II. Queen Elizabeth began sea trials in June 2017, was commissioned later that year, and entered service in 2020,[89] while the second, HMS Prince of Wales, began sea trials on 22 September 2019, was commissioned in December 2019 and was declared operational as of October 2021.[90][91][92][93][94] The aircraft carriers will form a central part of the UK Carrier Strike Group alongside escorts and support ships.[95]

Amphibious warfare

Amphibious warfare ships in current service include two

landing platform docks (HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark). While their primary role is to conduct amphibious warfare, they have also been deployed for humanitarian aid missions.[96]

Clearance diving

The Royal Navy

clearance diving unit, the Fleet Diving Squadron, was reorganised and rebranded to the Diving and Threat Exploitation Group in 2022. The group consists of five squadrons: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, and Echo.[97][98] The Royal Navy has a separate diving unit, a special forces unit, the Special Boat Service.[99]

Escort fleet

The escort fleet comprises

frigates and is the traditional workhorse of the Navy.[100] As of July 2021 there are six Type 45 destroyers and 12 Type 23 frigates in active service. Among their primary roles is to provide escort for the larger capital ships—protecting them from air, surface and subsurface threats. Other duties include undertaking the Royal Navy's standing deployments across the globe, which often consists of: counter-narcotics, anti-piracy missions and providing humanitarian aid.[96]

guided missile destroyer