The end of History….

By Dr Chris Ware


With HMS Illustrious paying off and HMS Queen Elizabeth named but not due run sea trials until 2016 and be fully operational until 2020, it will fall to HMS Ocean to fill the role as both Flagship of the Royal Navy and helicopter platform. However as Illustrious leaves service it begs a bigger question what do we want the Royal Navy to be able to do? If in due course we have both the Queen Elizabeth and Princes of Wales, and that is a very big if, they would be powerful players when they receive fixed wing aircraft.  However with a limited number of frigates and destroyers will the RN be a single battle group Navy able to put carrier and escorts, both sub and surface, into theatre, but with few ships left for anything else?



This speaks to a larger issue, which may seem unrelated, the fate of Illustrious once she leaves the Navy. Preserving ships is not cheap, what are we trying to say by doing so? That we were a sea power, however in a changing world Britain has to be mindful of cost and of what the nation can afford? Is that the lesson of history? Perhaps not. Historically Britain has had a Navy even when it seemed she could not afford one. People like the idea of visiting historic ships, both naval and merchant, but what they forget is that to create history you have to participate, and in unstable world sea power is even more important. Illustrious is worth saving because she of what she has done.

ill goodbye illust binki

Not Chatham House Rules!

On Friday 10 June HMS Illustrious, the second of the Royal Navy’s three Invincible class light aircraft/helicopter carriers, was moored just upriver from GMI. At 22,000 tons, and at 209 metres long, she is a big ship – but just half the size of the Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth that will replace her – eventually. Initially conceived as a Harrier-carrier, and able to carry 22 of the Short-Take-Off-Vertical-Landing (STOVL) planes, she has been both a light aircraft carrier, in that role, and a helicopter carrier, able to carry 22 helicopters. There could be no more appropriate place to hold a conference to mark the 70th anniversary of the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic, which took place in May 1943.

The Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from 1939-1945 was probably the most crucial part of the Second World War for the UK’s survival and the subsequent liberation of western Europe. It lasted, from 1939-1945, when the last German submarines surrendered at (London) Derry, in Northern Ireland. The ‘Battle of the Atlantic Anniversary Seminar’, organised by the Royal Institute of International affairs, Chatham House, took as its theme, appropriately enough, ‘The Navy’s Role in resilience and Prosperity’. Unusually, the famous ‘Chatham House rule’ – that information gleaned might be used but not attributed to Chatham House, the speaker or the occasion, was waived. This one was on the record. So you can cite this blog!

When Royal Navy ships put it in to port for supplies, the purser and his or her team scour the hinterland for the best provisions, and London had been no exception. The Navy cooks – always superb – had produced the most impressive lunch, including truly spectacular dressed crab. With the new Billingsgate fish market just two kilometres away, at Trafalgar Way, West India Docks, Isle of Dogs, that would have been a no-brainer!

HMS Illustrious at Greenwich, 9-13 May 2013

After a welcome by Commodore Neil Brown of the Naval Staff, and Commander Keri Harris, the Second-in-Command, Professor Andrew Lambert from King’s College London opened proceedings with an account of the momentous conflict, and some interesting comparisons with now. The United Kingdom had not been self-sufficient in food production – never mind luxuries like tea and wine – since the 1780s. By 1939 the United Kingdom needed one million tons of provisions a month imported by sea.  In contrast, the United States was – and still is – self sufficient.  But, Professor Lambert noted, even at the worst moment of the Battle of the Atlantic there were more reserves of food and fuel in the UK than there are now, with our ‘just-in-time’ economy! 

A key point, reinforced in the questioning, was that the Royal Navy had responded well to the experience of World War I and the battle with the U-boats, including, for example,  the development of sonar.  But the plan was to contain German U-boats in the North Sea – which the Navy succeeded in doing until the fall of France in May 1940.  As Professor Lambert  laconically observed ‘you don’t plan for your Allies to collapse’. Good point.  After May 1940 the U-boats could operate out of French ports and far into the Atlantic (including off the coast of the United States). With U-boats loose in the Atlantic convoys bringing Lend-Lease and other  supplies from North America became targets. The stakes were suddenly raised. 

However, another crucial and countervailing development in 1940 was the German invasion of Norway.  Again, it is not widely known, but as a result most of the Norwegian merchant fleet headed for the UK, and became available as part of its merchant navy.  It took two years for the Germans to sink an equivalent number of ships.

By May 1941, however, the Germans believed the convoy system was cracking under the strain and sent the powerful surface raider the battleship (BB) Bismarck out to finish the convoys off. The sinking of the Bismarck was one crucial point in the battle.  The entry of the United States into the war in December 1941 further changed the dynamic.  The United States and Canada were no longer just supplying the UK. From then on, in operation Bolero, they were turning the UK into the jumping-off point for the invasion of north-west Europe.

Professor Lambert identified the Russian arctic convoys as the Royal Navy’s greatest ever success.  Those supplies got through in the face of a surface, submarine and air threat and the appalling weather. 

During the Battle of the Atlantic 783 U-boats were destroyed.  Laconically, again, Professor Lambert concluded,  ’75 percent fatal casualties was the German U-boat breaking point’. It was a  tough business.

Another Lambert, Dr Nicholas, from the Royal United Services Institute picked up the theme of the UK’s dependence on the sea. In 1914 the world economy was as ‘globalised’ as now, as a result of several revolutions.  In addition to the introduction of steam ships, there had been the introduction of undersea and trans-oceanic cables, permitting instant communication, and a revolution in financial services with credit easy to obtain and manage.  The UK’s national debt in 1914 was £650 million, a huge sum for the time. This global, interconnected system was rudely shocked by the First World War. Between 1914 and 1939, with the financial crises of 1929 and 1931, the world economy actually shrank.  As a result it was easier to keep it working in 1939. By 1940-41, some 55 percent of the UK’s GDP was devoted to war production, a figure never exceeded anywhere else, apart from the Soviet Union later in the war.  There was a draconian system of price controls, labour controls and rationing.  By 1941 the UK had exhausted its overseas credit.  Everything was sacrificed to win the war, without thought for the future.  The Atlantic became a pipeline along which war materiel was pumped from the US and Canada to the UK.  Yet, paradoxically, the UK’s vulnerability to disruption of its imports and supplies is greater now than it was in 1914.

After an excellent presentation by Dr Douglas Guilfoyle of University College, London, on modern challenges and the Law of the Sea, the seminar then addressed they key modern issues of the role of navies in resilience and the role of navies in prosperity. Rob Bailey from Chatham Hose explained the role of the oceans in food security, explaining that although we tend to think of the key chokepoints in terms of energy security – the Bosphorus, Suez Canal, Bab-el-Mandeb and Strait of Hormuz – they are just as vital for shipments of grain, which does not grow well in the Middle East. As a historical not, we might also recall that some 400,000 people died of malnutrition in Germany in 1914-18 as a result of the Allied blockade. In 2008-09 30-40 percent of Somali food requirements were met by UN food aid, so Somali piracy, which forced cessation of these shipments hit Somalia very badly.

Adjoa Anyimadu of the Africa Programme at Chatham House  addressed the naval response to piracy and the lessons to be learned from the Indian Ocean. She began by summarising the international presence, with three forces:  the EUNAVFOR and Operation Atalanta; the US-led Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 and Nato’s Operation Ocean Shield. To this we should add the one-nation contributions of China, Russia and Japan. She cited Oceans Beyond Piracy’s estimate that in 2012 Naval operations in the Indian Ocean cost more than £1 billion. Given that Somalia is a failed state, international naval action is legitimate.  The situation in west Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, where, in contrast to the Indian Ocean, piracy is on the increase, is quite different.  Here, there are Governments with authority over their territories and some rule of law. Therefore, a similar type and scale of Naval operations is unlikely.  However, there are still lessons to be drawn from the Indian Ocean. These are:

  • Capacity building – helping the local authorities to help themselves –  is crucial.  This not only applies to building coastguard and marine policy forces but the helping the shore authorities as well;
  • Intelligence gathering and information sharing is vital, including the use of new technology such as Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), helicopter cameras and so on.  This is not only useful for providing advance warning but also to assist prosecution later on;
  • Conducting multinational operations helps develop relationships between navies and nations;
  • Navies must engage with the coastal communities whence piracy and armed robbery at sea emanate. In Somalia this has taken time but encouraging the coastal communities to see themselves as stakeholders who will benefit from seeing an end to piracy has worked.  In one case, international forces have intervened to provide medical treatment for sick Somalis on board ships.  Although this was regarded as possibly too dangerous, it worked. 

Bob Dewar, also of the Chatham House Africa programme, then addressed the key issue of IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated)(the Us in that order, OK?) fishing .  He began by citing Kofi Annan, that ‘human security’ was ‘not purely military’, in terms of political violence, but also embraced health, food, the environment, human rights and the rule of law.

IUU fishing is the worst maritime threat that west Africa faces, costing that part of the world an estimated $1 billion  (as against between $9 bn and $22 bn worldwide). In West Africa, however, fish resources are really important.  The UK MoD has set up a centre in Nigeria to support the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) Maritime Strategy, and countering IUU fishing plays an important part of this.  It is not just the value of the fish, but also the lost revenue from licence fees and landing fees. 

Alex Vines OBE, the Head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House added to the unwelcoming picture of the Gulf of Guinea, pointing out that in addition to IUU fishing, other maritime crime accounted for another $1 billion.  Nigeria, Benin and the surrounding area are in the same insurance category as Somalia.

Douglas McWilliams, Chief Executive and Professor of Commerce at Gresham College, gave the final keynote speech. His World Economic League Table forecasts were fascinating. In 2012, the US was still the world’s largest economy, with China second,  Japan third, Germany fourth, France fifth and UK sixth.  In 2022 the top three will remain the same, with India fourth and Brazil fifth, Germany sixth, Russia seventh, UK eighth and France ninth.  But China will overtake the US in about 2025, as many have predicted. The prospect for the UK was surprisingly optimistic.  Consumer spending currently accounts for 70 percent of the UK economy and exports 30 percent.  By 2022, his group’s forecast indicates, consumer spending will have dropped to 50 percent and exports risen correspondingly. Eric Grove, from Salford University, a well-known maritime historian, was sceptical.’And what’, he said, ‘are we going to export?’ But Professor McWilliams stuck by his figures, guessing that ingenuity and high-tech I inventiveness would create the products.  Seaborne trade was down from its 2007 peak but was now growing again.  There will be plenty of imports and exports for the Royal Navy to protect.

The seminar concluded at 17.00.  The following days – Saturday and Sunday – Illustrious was open to the public.  If you want to see what the public saw, click on the links, below.


Chris Bellamy.