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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Royal Navy

Pre-war to present


The Royal Navy is traditionally the oldest part of the British armed forces, founded during the reign of Henry VIII, and so is known as the 'Senior Service'.

The Royal Navy was run by the Admiralty. The Admiralty staff controlled the Navy through various commands and stations - North and South Atlantic, China (Singapore), America and the West Indies and the East Indies Stations. Each had varying numbers of ships. There were also home commands, responsible for defending British waters, and Western Approaches command, based at Liverpool, which was responsible for the Battle of the Atlantic.

The Navy's main power was concentrated in its two main fleets, the Home Fleet based in the Orkneys and the Mediterranean Fleet, based at Alexandria in Egypt. A third - the Eastern Fleet - was formed in Singapore in December 1941 and became the basis for the British Pacific Fleet, the largest of the war.

In terms of personnel, the Royal Navy was made up of three elements. There were the men of the regular navy. There were the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), officers and men with previous service or professional Merchant Navy officers and there were the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), which consisted only of officers who had either volunteered since war began or joined the Navy after conscription. These eventually constituted three-quarters of the total officer strength of the Royal Navy.

Those serving in the Navy were divided into Branches, the Seaman's Branch being the largest, but also Engineering, Medical, Supply, Instructional, Paymasters and Chaplains Branches.

The Fleet Air Arm was founded in 1937 to provide naval aircraft and pilots. It was, like the RAF, organised in squadrons. It expanded rapidly during the war. In 1939, it possessed 232 largely obsolete aircraft operating mainly from five aircraft carriers; by 1945 there were 1,336 front-line aircraft operating from more than 50 carriers.

The Royal Navy Submarine Service concentrated on attacking enemy shipping, but was often also responsible for landing agents and special forces on enemy shorelines. The major operating areas for British submarines were in Norwegian waters, the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the Far East. Submarines proved their value and importance as a supreme strategic weapon, but the risks were high - one in three submariners who served in the Second World War were killed.

The Royal Marines had traditionally helped man the guns of larger warships, but their role was rapidly expanded so that they became a striking force for amphibious warfare as well as a mobile force for defending British naval bases overseas.

In addition, the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was re-founded in 1939, having initially been established in the First World War. Members of the Service were known as 'Wrens'. The Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service provided nursing staff at all naval hospitals

The Royal Navy played a key role in keeping Britain supplied with food, arms and raw materials and in defeating the German campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. It was also crucial in defending sea routes which enabled Allied troops to fight all over the world. Naval supremacy was also vital to the success of amphibious operations such as the invasions of Sicily, Italy and Normandy. In the course of the war, more than 50,000 members of the Royal Navy lost their lives.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.


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