Sea Stories

Who Scuttled Britain’s Navies

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For over 400 years the great maritime powers of Europe waged sea wars to curb or destroy Britain’s predominance as a maritime nation. All failed and by 1900 Britain without question ruled the waves.

The Golden Jubilee Naval Review of 1887 was impressive. An even larger event was planned to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee a decade later.

In total 165 British warships assembled at Spithead and gradually formed themselves into four lines, every five miles in length. These vessels included 21 battleships and 56 cruisers. It was claimed that the total number of ships presented was greater than the combined strength of the other Great Powers.

It was a remarkable display of naval power, although it was the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII who inspected the fleet, rather than Queen Victoria, now too frail to attend.

Her Majesty’s yacht, HMY Victoria and Albert for several days steamed up and down the lines of ships and then anchored off the Renown. The Prince then received the English and foreign admirals on board ship.

From 1939 to 1975 Britain’s Merchant Navy was omnipotent. The crews of the British Merchant Marine vessels numbered over 200,000 highly skilled British seamen.

These officers and ratings were trained in the United Kingdom’s National Sea Training Schools, naval colleges, and attended constant courses in the disciplines of seamanship.

In 1960, one British shipping company alone boasted it could put a ship into any port in the world within 24-hours. Most British vessels were constructed in British shipyards and were British flagged.

SS America 1947

Founded in the 17th century, Britain’s merchant fleet between the two world wars was the largest in the world. By 1939, a third of the world’s merchant ships were British. In the maritime city of Liverpool, it was thought every family had a relative serving in the British Merchant Navy.

Today’s British merchant marine accounts for only 3 per cent of the tonnage carried. It is estimated that the total number of seamen serving in the since decimated service is a little over 20,000, many if not most are of non-British extraction.

MV Columbia Star docking in Los Angeles

The Merchant Navy’s sharpest and indeed its terminal decline occurred from 1955.  By 1975, ‘the navy that once ruled the waves’ had shrunk and was mainly ferry-based transport with foreign crews.

A seaman trained as a 16-year-old deck rating early in 1959 at the British Sea Training School, Sharpness, in Gloucestershire. A seaman has the distinction of being one of the last surviving seamen who served on the RMS Britannic.

The 27,000-tonne vessel was the last of the White Star Line’s ocean liners (1834 – 1960). The White Star fleet was best known for the RMS Titanic and the great liner’s ill-fated voyage.

A seaman went on to sail under the flags of nearly 20 different British registered shipping companies. By the time he had reached the age of 24-years of age the young seaman had visited and worked in over 60 countries throughout various parts of the world.

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