THE POWER AND THE GLORY: ROYAL NAVY FLEET REVIEWS FROM EARLIEST TIMES TO 2005

February 2, 2022
Posted by: ANDY FIELD

Steve Dunn calls his book a “threnody”. No, me neither, I had to reach for my dictionary to discover that this means: ‘…a song of lamentation, especially on someone’s death…’. Steve Dunn aims to celebrate the contribution the Royal Navy has made to British life, “…..told through the medium of a monarch’s review of, and relationship with, his or her fleet…..”. He wants his readers to be reminded of past glories and made aware of present-day pitfalls. It certainly did that for me. My regret is that those who probably should read it, probably won’t.

Parts 1 & 2 introduce the reader to the reasons behind Reviews, be they inspecting the fleet before battle, warning off potential enemies, celebrating a victory, or impressing the public or Parliament, before covering the beginnings of naval reviews, from the 14th century, through the Stuart and Hanoverian reigns and into the heyday of Reviews, the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Queen Victoria reviewed her fleets over a dozen times often to impress visiting monarchs and dignitaries with Britain’s naval power. As the century progressed, the growth of railways allowed members of the public to travel to Portsmouth on excursion trains, buy steamer tickets and sail around the fleet themselves. Public opinion thus became increasingly important to the navy, so much so that prominent officers, and sympathetic members of the press, were able to claim that the Royal Navy was numerically and qualitatively inferior to other navies.

The result was the 1889 Naval Defence Act and the Royal Navy’s ‘Two  Power Standard’. By 1897’s Diamond Jubilee Naval Review, there were 165 Royal Navy warships present, all drawn from Home waters, although some were obsolete. When, in 1899, the German Kaiser reviewed British battleships, the Daily Mail  reported that there were “…..not many of them, and not the most expensive things in this class of goods. But they look pretty good samples for shop-window samples…..”.

Good enough, at least, to impress a Kaiser! But the Royal Navy had been resting on its laurels, and a ship’s efficiency was judged on how smart she looked. Lacking war fighting experience, officers were judged on their ability to perform complex squadron evolutions. Nevertheless, the navy remained popular with the public. Adverts and games with naval themes were commonplace and children throughout the country wore sailor suits on special occasions.

Reviews continued, ships no longer painted black, white, and buff, but the more warlike, “battleship grey”. King George V held a Review in 1910, before his official Coronation Review of 1911, with another, for MPs,  in 1912.  Reviews were expensive and the Secretary of the Treasury minuted, “……I can conceive of no reason at all why it should take place this year…..”. He was ignored and to add insult to injury, there was a second Review in the same year.

After the Great War, Reviews continued, the 1935 Silver Jubilee Review of 157 ships, drawn from the Home and Mediterranean fleets. Of course, there was also the infamous 1937 Coronation Fleet Review, widely remembered for Lieutenant Commander Tommy Woodrooffe’s ‘well oiled’ radio commentary, following lavish entertainment in Rodney’s Wardroom.

Steve Dunn’s last section, ‘Ebb Tide’, is self-explanatory. From the 1953 Coronation Review onwards, Britain’s status as a World and naval power declines, so that by 1977’s Silver Jubilee Review, only 98 vessels were reviewed. According to the editor of Jane’s, the Royal Navy was now a second division navy. Moving into the 1990s cuts continued as the ‘peace dividend’ was cashed in. By 2005, the year of the International Festival of the Sea, a “…..sort of floating, Blairite, ‘Cool Britannia’…..”, and the ‘Trafalgar 200’ Review, the Royal Navy had only 65 ships out of the total of 170 being reviewed, and of these, only 32 were surface combatants. By 2019 The Sun was lamenting the further decline of the fleet, with only 20 major surface combatants out of a total of 75 ships, but still, apparently,  plenty of ‘brass hats’.

That brings Steve Dunn’s book up to date. But this seemingly innocuous book raised questions for me about today’s Royal Navy and herein lies its value. Why, I wondered,  has the navy declined? ‘Sea blindness’, economics, politics, or American antipathy to a strong Britain? What is the navy for, in 2022? If we need a navy, do we need SSBNs? And was Max Hastings right when he wrote  in The Times in May 2017, that, “…..the navy needs a substantial number of cheap and cheerful warships rather than carriers that are just yachts for admirals…..”

Listening to Boris Johnson’s promises for future expansion, one could be optimistic. Steve Dunn isn’t. Dunn asks whether, if Britain is serious about trading with the wider world outside of the EEC, “…..would this trigger a renewed interest in matters naval…..?” His conclusion?  “…..Probably not…..”