Elizabeth’s Navy: Seventy Years of the Postwar Royal Navy
by PAUL BROWN
(Osprey Books – £45)
ISBN 978 1 78914728 5497 1
At the time of writing this review, Dr Brown is just about to be awarded the Anderson Medal for his book, Abandon Ship: The Real Story of the Sinkings in the Falklands War. I feel that Elizabeth’s Navy could equally have been a contender for the award.
In short, I really enjoyed this book, and I would certainly recommend it to members. On first receiving it from the Reviews Editor, I did what everyone will do, and flick through the pages. I was soon engrossed in looking at the pictures of warships from the past, Vanguard, Ark Royal, Eagle, my dad’s old ship, the cruiser Liverpool, to name but a few. I loved doing this, and repeatedly dipped in and out of the book, reading the detailed and informative captions which accompanied each photograph, enjoying seeing how the ships evolved through the decades. Of course, several of the more recent photographs are in colour, which certainly increases the book’s overall appeal and attractiveness.
Next, I settled down to read the text. Dr Brown has organised his book into seven chapters, ‘The Big Navy: 1952-1959’, ‘Rebuilding The Navy: 1960-1969’, ‘Eastern Atlantic Focus:1970-1979’, ‘The Falklands Decade:1980-1989’, Peace And War:1990-1999’, ‘Millennium Retrenchment: 2000-2009’, ‘Broadening Horizons:2010-2022’and written a comprehensive summary of the decade, detailing the challenges and changes faced by the Royal Navy, following this with several pages of warship photographs. I’m sure that both serving and retired members will enjoy reading these sections. Of course, one could become despairing, reading of the decline in fleet and manpower numbers. The Royal Navy numbered 328 ships of frigate or submarine size in 1952, and 153,000 personnel, compared with around 127 ships of frigate or submarine size and 89,000 personnel in 1970 and 41 ships of frigate or submarine size and 28,120 personnel in 2010.
By 2022 the navy only had 32 major ships and 43 smaller ships and, in Dr Brown’s words, “…..It no longer had a worldwide network of bases and had a much-reduced capacity to protect trade routes…..” And does the Royal Navy really have an admiral and at least two commodores for every ship of frigate size and above, as suggested on page 8? Just looking at the numbers then, the story of the navy since the 1950s seems to be a depressing one of falling personnel, cuts to defence budgets, premature retirement of ships, and what Dr Brown refers to as a glacial pace of new construction of new warships and the lack of aircraft to allow both Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales to embark F-35s, and it all seems quite discouraging. Add to this, the cost and construction overruns and the poor image sometimes portrayed in the media, and things could be described as bleak for the Royal Navy.
Times are certainly challenging, and despite political rhetoric are likely to remain so, especially in a world that seems to be coming more, and not less, polarised, politically. Yet one thought that I was left with, rightly or wrongly, was that ‘twas ever thus. What Dr Brown’s book makes clear is that, whether it was Korea, Suez, Indonesia, or any of the numerous conflicts that Britain has been involved in, the Royal Navy performs. It may not have the ships, may not have enough personnel, and certainly may not have the money, but what it does have is the professionalism, expertise and the positive, ‘can do’ confidence to perform on behalf of the British public, whether they realise it or not.
Possibly things will get better. Possibly new construction, in adequate numbers is really just down the line, but maybe not. Perhaps what the Royal Navy needs to do more of is to actively work to get the message out to people, online and through the, admittedly risky, use of documentaries like the recent ones showcasing Queen Elizabeth. We seem to be a sea-blind nation now, and the navy may need to work harder to try to even this out.
Apologies. I’m getting on a ‘hobbyhorse’ of mine. What about the book? Well, yes, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the photographs, and I enjoyed reading Dr Brown’s text. I learnt things I didn’t know about. I’m sure that the book will stimulate discussion of the Royal Navy’s past, present and future role and I would recommend it to members.