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Friday, July 8, 2011

Naval Gazing

First things first. I'm a naval historian, I write naval fiction, I've been a warship-spotter since almost before anoraks were invented. And like many, many others, I think that the government's cuts to the navy are idiotic - although probably unlike many others, I'd put quite a lot of the blame for the navy's woes on several generations of largely mediocre senior officers, determined at all costs to acquire ever more extensive pieces of kit - even if only to spite the RAF, and only in ever decreasing numbers, as with the increasingly farcical aircraft carriers, the Type 45s and the Astute class subs. (These grandiose pretensions and claims to have the most advanced destroyer/submarine/drinks cupboard in the world cause much amusement elsewhere, notably on the other side of the pond.) Some of the admirals in questions might perhaps have made moderately competent middle managers at internationally reputable organisations like, say, News International or Lehman Brothers, but successors of Drake or Nelson? I think not.

That said, some of the 'facts' being pumped out by opponents of the 'Strategic Defence Review' (a title reminiscent of Voltaire's definition of the Holy Roman Empire) are both downright wrong and actually dangerous, because they undermine the very strong and reasoned case that can be made against cuts in the Royal Navy. Sorry to single out just one, @ThinkRoyalNavy on Twitter, but this assertion - Royal Navy's trained numbers dips below 34,000. It's [sic] lowest probably since the Mary Rose Sank - is simply daft. OK, we could probably quibble for several hours about the definition of the word 'trained', but from the 1650s to the 1690s, well over a hundred years after the Mary Rose sank, the active fleet in wartime numbered on average some 25,000 men, only about 3-4,000 in peacetime (the great majority of years), and it would only have gone consistently above 34,000 well into the eighteenth century. Here's another example that appeared in the Twittersphere in the last week - HMS Cornwall & HMS Gloucester both decommissioned today, first time in history of Royal Navy 2 ships decommissioned on same day. And before that, when the Ark Royal left the fleet, we had Sky News and others screaming that never since 1588 had the Royal Navy been without a ship of that name! Well, not unless you conveniently ignore the years 1638 to 1914, I suppose...and as for two ships never being decommissioned on the same day? I haven't undertaken the exercise, but I think I'd be willing to bet good money that any trawl of the Admiralty records for, say, 1919 or 1945-6 would reveal far more than two being decommissioned on very large numbers of days.

So to conclude - yes, let's campaign long and hard against the mindless salami-slicing of the Royal Navy by careerist, here-today-gone-tomorrow, bottom-line-obsessed politicians, but please, please, please, let's not try to do so by deliberately or inadvertently distorting the very proud truths of that navy's history.

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