Empire of the Seas
Heart of oak
The Royal Navy of the United Kingdom is the oldest of HM Armed Forces (and is therefore known as the Senior Service). From the beginning of the 18th century until well into the 20th century it was the most powerful navy in the world, playing a key part in establishing the British Empire as the dominant world power from 1815 until the early 1940s. In World War II the Royal Navy operated almost 900 ships. During the Cold War it was transformed into a primarily anti-submarine force, hunting for Soviet submarines, mostly active in the GIUK gap. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its role for the 21st century has returned to focus on global expeditionary operations.
The Golden Ocean
During the early 17th century England's relative naval power deteriorated and a new threat emerged from the slaving raids of the Barbary corsairs, which the Navy had little success in countering. Charles I undertook a major programme of warship building, creating a small force of powerful ships, but his methods of fund-raising to finance the fleet contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War. In the wake of this conflict and the abolition of the monarchy, the new Commonwealth of England, isolated and threatened from all sides, dramatically expanded the Navy, which became the most powerful in the world.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the Royal Navy was the largest in the world, but until 1805 its forces were repeatedly matched or exceeded in numbers by a combination of enemies. Despite this it was able to maintain an almost uninterrupted ascendancy over its rivals through superiority in financing, tactics, training, organisation, social cohesion, hygiene, dockyard facilities, logistical support and, from the middle of the 18th century, warship design and construction.
Between 1815 and 1914 the Navy saw little serious action, owing to the absence of any opponent strong enough to challenge its dominance. It succeeded in maintaining the huge advantage it had built up over all potential rivals despite the comprehensive transformation of naval warfare brought about by steam propulsion, metal ship construction and high-explosive munitions, which required the complete replacement of war fleets.