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The Royal Navy (RN) is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. Although warships were used by English and Scottish kings from the early medieval period, the first major maritime engagements were fought in the Hundred Years' War against the Kingdom of France. The modern Royal Navy traces its origins to the early 16th century; the oldest of the UK's armed services, it is known as the Senior Service.

From the middle decades of the 17th century, and through the 18th century, the Royal Navy vied with the Dutch Navy and later with the French Navy for maritime supremacy. From the mid 18th century, it was the world's most powerful navy until the Second World War. The Royal Navy played a key part in establishing the British Empire. Due to this historical prominence, it is common, even among non-Britons, to refer to it as "the Royal Navy" without qualification.

Following World War I, the Royal Navy was significantly reduced in size,[7] although at the onset of World War II it was still the world's largest. During the Cold War, the Royal Navy transformed into a primarily anti-submarine force, hunting for Soviet submarines and mostly active in the GIUK gap. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its focus has returned to expeditionary operations around the world and it remains one of the world's foremost blue-water navies.[8][9][10] However, 21st-century reductions in naval spending have led to a personnel shortage and a reduction in the number of warships.[11][12]

The Royal Navy maintains a fleet of technologically sophisticated ships, submarines, and aircraft, including two aircraft carriers, two amphibious transport docks, four ballistic missile submarines (which maintain the UK's nuclear deterrent), seven nuclear fleet submarines, six guided missile destroyers, 13 frigates, 13 mine-countermeasure vessels and 26 patrol vessels. As of January 2021, there are 79 operational commissioned ships (including submarines as well as one historic ship, HMS Victory) in the Royal Navy, plus 13 ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA); there are also five Merchant Navy ships available to the RFA under a private finance initiative. The RFA replenishes Royal Navy warships at sea, and augments the Royal Navy's amphibious warfare capabilities through its three Bay-class landing ship vessels. It also works as a force multiplier for the Royal Navy, often doing patrols that frigates used to do. As at March 2019, the total displacement of the Royal Navy was approximately 407,000 tonnes (641,200 tonnes including the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Royal Marines).[13]

The Royal Navy is part of Her Majesty's Naval Service, which also includes the Royal Marines. The professional head of the Naval Service is the First Sea Lord who is an admiral and member of the Defence Council of the United Kingdom. The Defence Council delegates management of the Naval Service to the Admiralty Board, chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence. The Royal Navy operates from three bases in the United Kingdom where commissioned ships and submarines are based: Portsmouth, Clyde and Devonport, the last being the largest operational naval base in Western Europe, as well as two naval air stations, RNAS Yeovilton and RNAS Culdrose where maritime aircraft are based.


As the seaborne branch of HM Armed Forces, the RN has various roles. As it stands today, the RN has stated its 6 major roles as detailed below in umbrella terms.[14]

  • Preventing Conflict – On a global and regional level
  • Providing Security At Sea – To ensure the stability of international trade at sea
  • International Partnerships – To help cement the relationship with the United Kingdom's allies (such as NATO)
  • Maintaining a Readiness To Fight – To protect the United Kingdom's interests across the globe
  • Protecting the Economy – To safeguard vital trade routes to guarantee the United Kingdom's and its allies' economic prosperity at sea
  • Providing Humanitarian Aid – To deliver a fast and effective response to global catastrophes


The Royal Navy was formally founded in 1546 by Henry VIII[15] though the Kingdom of England and its predecessor states had possessed less organised naval forces for centuries prior to this.[16]

Earlier fleets[edit]

During much of the medieval period, fleets or "king's ships" were often established or gathered for specific campaigns or actions, and these would disperse afterwards. These were generally merchant ships enlisted into service. Unlike some European states, England did not maintain a small permanent core of warships in peacetime. England's naval organisation was haphazard and the mobilization of fleets when war broke out was slow.[17] In the 11th century, Aethelred II had an especially large fleet built by a national levy.[18] During the period of Danish rule in the 11th century, the authorities maintained a standing fleet by taxation, and this continued for a time under Edward the Confessor, who frequently commanded fleets in person.[19] After the Norman Conquest, English naval power waned and England suffered naval raids from the Vikings.[20] In 1069, this allowed for the invasion and ravaging of England by Jarl Osborn (brother of King Svein Estridsson) and his sons.[21]

The lack of an organised navy came to a head during the Baron's Revolt, in which Prince Louis of France invaded England in support of northern barons. With King John unable to organise a navy, this meant the French landed at Sandwich unopposed in April 1216. John's flight to Winchester and his death later that year left the Earl of Pembroke as regent, and he was able to marshal ships to fight the French in the Battle of Sandwich in 1217- one of the first major English battles at sea.[22] The outbreak of the Hundred Years War emphasised the need for an English fleet. French plans for an invasion of England failed when Edward III of England destroyed the French fleet in the Battle of Sluys in 1340.[23] England's naval forces could not prevent frequent raids on the south-coast ports by the French and their allies. Such raids halted only with the occupation of northern France by Henry V.[24] A Scottish fleet existed by the reign of William the Lion.[25] In the early 13th century there was a resurgence of Viking naval power in the region. The Vikings clashed with Scotland over control of the isles[26] though Alexander III was ultimately successful in asserting Scottish control.[27] The Scottish fleet was of particular import in repulsing English forces in the early 14th century.[28]

A late 16th-century painting of the Spanish Armada in battle with English warships

Age of Sail[edit]

A standing "Navy Royal",[15] with its own secretariat, dockyards and a permanent core of purpose-built warships, emerged during the reign of Henry VIII.[29] Under Elizabeth I England became involved in a war with Spain, which saw privately owned vessels combining with the Queen's ships in highly profitable raids against Spanish commerce and colonies.[30] The Royal Navy was then used in 1588 to repulse the Spanish Armada. In 1603, the Union of the Crowns created a personal union between England and Scotland. While the two remained distinct sovereign states for a further century, the two navies increasingly fought as a single force. During the early 17th century, England's relative naval power deteriorated until Charles I undertook a major programme of shipbuilding. His methods of financing the fleet however contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War, and the abolition of the monarchy.[31]

The Commonwealth of England replaced many names and symbols in the new commonwealth navy, associated with royalty and the high church, and expanded it to become the most powerful in the world.[32][33] The fleet was quickly tested in the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654) and the Anglo-Spanish War (1654-1660), which saw the conquest of Jamaica and successful attacks on Spanish treasure fleets. The 1660 Restoration saw Charles II rename the Royal Navy again, and started use of the prefix HMS. The navy however remained a national institution and not a possession of the crown as it had been before.[34] Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, England joined the War of the Grand Alliance which marked the end of France's brief pre-eminence at sea and the beginning of an enduring British supremacy.[35]

HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar, is still a commissioned Royal Navy ship, although she is now permanently kept in dry-dock

In 1707, the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed by the Act of Union, which had the effect of merging the Scottish navy into the Royal Navy. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Royal Navy was the largest maritime force in the world,[36] maintaining superiority in financing, tactics, training, organisation, social cohesion, hygiene, logistical support and warship design.[37] The peace settlement following the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1714) granted Britain Gibraltar and Menorca, providing the Navy with Mediterranean bases. A new French attempt to invade Britain was thwarted by the defeat of their escort fleet in the extraordinary Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759, fought in dangerous conditions.[38] In 1762 the resumption of hostilities with Spain led to the British capture of Manila and of Havana, along with a Spanish fleet sheltering there.[39] British naval supremacy could however be challenged still in this period by coalitions of other nations, as seen in the American War of Independence. Rebel colonists were supported by France, Spain and the Netherlands against Britain. In the Battle of the Chesapeake, the British fleet failed to lift the French blockade, resulting in Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown.[40] The French Revolutionary Wars (1793–1801) and Napoleonic Wars (1803–1814 & 1815) saw the Royal Navy reach a peak of efficiency, dominating the navies of all Britain's adversaries, which spent most of the war blockaded in port. Under Admiral Nelson, the navy defeated the combined Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar (1805).[41]

The Battle of Trafalgar, depicted here in its opening phase

Between 1815 and 1914, the Navy saw little serious action, owing to the absence of any opponent strong enough to challenge its dominance. During this period, naval warfare underwent a comprehensive transformation, brought about by steam propulsion, metal ship construction, and explosive munitions. Despite having to completely replace its war fleet, the Navy managed to maintain its overwhelming advantage over all potential rivals. Due to British leadership in the Industrial Revolution, the country enjoyed unparalleled shipbuilding capacity and financial resources, which ensured that no rival could take advantage of these revolutionary changes to negate the British advantage in ship numbers.[42] In 1889, Parliament passed the Naval Defence Act, which formally adopted the 'two-power standard', which stipulated that the Royal Navy should maintain a number of battleships at least equal to the combined strength of the next two largest navies.[43] The end of the 19th century saw structural changes and older vessels were scrapped or placed into reserve, making funds and manpower available for newer ships. The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 rendered all existing battleships obsolete.[44]

World Wars[edit]

During the First World War, the Royal Navy's strength was mostly deployed at home in the Grand Fleet, confronting the German High Seas Fleet across the North Sea. Several inconclusive clashes took place between them, chiefly the Battle of Jutland in 1916.[45] The British fighting advantage proved insurmountable, leading the High Seas Fleet to abandon any attempt to challenge British dominance.[46] In the inter-war period, the Royal Navy was stripped of much of its power. The Washington and London Naval Treaties imposed the scrapping of some capital ships and limitations on new construction.[47] In 1932, the Invergordon Mutiny took place over a proposed 25% pay cut, which was eventually reduced to 10%.[48] International tensions increased in the mid-1930s and the re-armament of the Royal Navy was well under way by 1938. In addition to new construction, several existing old battleships, battlecruisers and heavy cruisers were reconstructed, and anti-aircraft weaponry reinforced, while new technologies, such as ASDIC, Huff-Duff and hydrophones, were developed.[49]

At the start of World War II in 1939, the Royal Navy was the largest in the world, with over 1,400 vessels[50][51] The Royal Navy provided critical cover during Operation Dynamo, the British evacuations from Dunkirk, and as the ultimate deterrent to a German invasion of Britain during the following four months. At Taranto, Admiral Cunningham commanded a fleet that launched the first all-aircraft naval attack in history. The Royal Navy suffered heavy losses in the first two years of the war. Over 3,000 people were lost when the converted troopship Lancastria was sunk in June 1940, the greatest maritime disaster in Britain's history.[52] The Navy's most critical struggle was the Battle of the Atlantic defending Britain's vital commercial supply lines against U-boat attack. A traditional convoy system was instituted from the start of the war, but German submarine tactics, based on group attacks by "wolf-packs", were much more effective than in the previous war, and the threat remained serious for well over three years.[53]

Since 1945[edit]

After the Second World War, the decline of the British Empire and the economic hardships in Britain forced the reduction in the size and capability of the Royal Navy. The United States Navy instead took on the role of global naval power. Governments since have faced increasing budgetary pressures, partly due to the increasing cost of weapons systems.[54] In 1981, Defence Secretary John Nott had advocated and initiated a series of cutbacks to the Navy.[55] The Falklands War however proved a need for the Royal Navy to regain an expeditionary and littoral capability which, with its resources and structure at the time, would prove difficult. At the beginning of the 1980s, the Royal Navy was a force focused on blue-water anti-submarine warfare. Its purpose was to search for and destroy Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic, and to operate the nuclear deterrent submarine force. The navy received its first nuclear weapons with the introduction of the first of the Resolution-class submarines armed with the Polaris missile.[56]

Post-Cold War[edit]

Following the conclusion of the Cold War, the Royal Navy began to experience a gradual decline in its fleet size in accordance with the changed strategic environment it operated in. While new and more capable ships are continually brought into service, such as the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier, Astute-class submarine, and Type 45 destroyer, the total number of ships and submarines operated has continued to steadily reduce. This has caused considerable debate about the size of the Royal Navy, with a 2013 report finding that the current RN was already too small, and that Britain would have to depend on her allies if her territories were attacked.[57] The financial costs attached to nuclear deterrence have become an increasingly significant issue for the navy.[58]

Royal Navy today[edit]


Britannia Royal Naval College

HMS Raleigh at Torpoint, Cornwall, is the basic training facility for newly enlisted ratings. Britannia Royal Naval College is the initial officer training establishment for the navy, located at Dartmouth, Devon. Personnel are divided into a warfare branch, which includes Warfare Officers (previously named seamen officers) and Naval Aviators,[59] as well other branches including the Royal Naval Engineers, Royal Navy Medical Branch, and Logistics Officers (previously named Supply Officers). Present-day officers and ratings have several different uniforms; some are designed to be worn aboard ship, others ashore or in ceremonial duties. Women began to join the Royal Navy in 1917 with the formation of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), which was disbanded after the end of the First World War in 1919. It was revived in 1939, and the WRNS continued until disbandment in 1993, as a result of the decision to fully integrate women into the structures of the Royal Navy. Women now serve in all sections of the Royal Navy including the Royal Marines.[60]

In August 2019, the Ministry of Defence published figures showing that the Royal Navy and Royal Marines had 29,090 full-time trained personnel compared with a target of 30,600.[61]

In December 2019 the First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin outlined a proposal to reduce the number of Rear-Admirals at Navy Command by five.[62] The fighting arms (excluding Commandant General Royal Marines) would be reduced to Commodore (1-star) rank and the surface flotillas would be combined together. Training would be concentrated under the Fleet Commander.[63]

Surface fleet[edit]

HMS Queen Elizabeth, a Queen Elizabeth-class supercarrier on sea trials in June 2017

Amphibious warfare[edit]

Amphibious warfare ships in current service include two landing platform docks (HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark). While their primary role is to conduct amphibious warfare, they have also been deployed for humanitarian aid missions.[64]

Aircraft carriers[edit]

The Royal Navy has two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, currently undertaking sea and aircraft trials, which are both due to enter naval service within the next few years. Each carrier cost £3 billion and displaces 65,000 tonnes (64,000 long tons; 72,000 short tons).[65] The first, HMS Queen Elizabeth, commenced flight trials in 2018. Both are intended to operate the STOVL variant of the F-35 Lightning II. Queen Elizabeth began sea trials in June 2017, was commissioned later that year, and entered service in 2020,[66] while the second, HMS Prince of Wales, began sea trials on 22 September 2019, was commissioned in December 2019 and is due to enter service in 2023.[67][68][69][70] The aircraft carriers will form a central part of the UK Carrier Strike Group alongside escorts and support ships.[71]

Escort fleet[edit]

The escort fleet comprises guided missile destroyers and frigates and is the traditional workhorse of the Navy.[72] As of September 2020 there are six Type 45 destroyers and 13 Type 23 frigates in active service. Among their primary roles is to provide escort for the larger capital ships—protecting them from air, surface and subsurface threats. Other duties include undertaking the Royal Navy's standing deployments across the globe, which often consists of: counter-narcotics, anti-piracy missions and providing humanitarian aid.[64]

HMS Duncan, the Type 45 guided missile destroyer

The Type 45 is primarily designed for anti-aircraft and anti-missile warfare and the Royal Navy describe the destroyer's mission as "to shield the Fleet from air attack".[73] They are equipped with the PAAMS (also known as Sea Viper) integrated anti-aircraft warfare system which incorporates the sophisticated SAMPSON and S1850M long range radars and the Aster 15 and 30 missiles.[74]

HMS Kent, the Type 23 Frigate designed for anti-submarine warfare.

16 Type 23 frigates were delivered to the Royal Navy, with the final vessel, HMS St Albans, commissioned in June 2002. However, the 2004 Delivering Security in a Changing World review announced that three frigates would be paid off as part of a cost-cutting exercise, and these were subsequently sold to the Chilean Navy.[75] The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review announced that the remaining 13 Type 23 frigates would eventually be replaced by the Type 26 Frigate.[76] The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 reduced the procurement of Type 26 to eight with five Type 31e frigates to be procured.[77]

Mine Countermeasure Vessels (MCMV)[edit]

There are two classes of MCMVs in the Royal Navy: seven Sandown-class minehunters and six Hunt-class mine countermeasures vessels. The Hunt-class vessels combine the separate roles of the traditional minesweeper and the active minehunter in one hull. If required, the Sandown and Hunt-class vessels can take on the role of offshore patrol vessels.[78]

Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV)[edit]

Five Batch 2 River-class offshore patrol vessels entered service between 2018 and 2021. These have Merlin-capable flight decks.

In December 2019, the modified ‘Batch 1’ River-class vessel, HMS Clyde, was decommissioned, with the 'Batch 2' HMS Forth taking over duties as the Falkland Islands patrol ship.[79][80]

HMS Protector, a Royal Navy Antarctic patrol ship

Ocean survey ships[edit]

HMS Protector is a dedicated Antarctic patrol ship that fulfils the nation's mandate to provide support to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).[81] HMS Scott is an ocean survey vessel and at 13,500 tonnes is one of the largest ships in the Navy. The other survey vessels of the Royal Navy are the two multi-role ships of the Echo class, which came into service in 2002 and 2003. As of 2018, the newly commissioned HMS Magpie also undertakes survey duties at sea.[82]

Royal Fleet Auxiliary[edit]

The Navy's large fleet units are supported by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary which possesses three amphibious transport docks within its operational craft. These are known as the Bay-class landing ships, of which four were introduced in 2006–2007, but one was sold to the Royal Australian Navy in 2011.[83] In November 2006, the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band described the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels as "a major uplift in the Royal Navy's war fighting capability".[84]

Submarine Service[edit]

HMS Astute, the first Astute-class nuclear submarine

The Submarine Service is the submarine based element of the Royal Navy. It is sometimes referred to as the "Silent Service",[85] as the submarines are generally required to operate undetected. Founded in 1901, the service made history in 1982 when, during the Falklands War, HMS Conqueror became the first nuclear-powered submarine to sink a surface ship, ARA General Belgrano. Today, all of the Royal Navy's submarines are nuclear-powered.[86]

Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBN)[edit]

The Royal Navy operates four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines displacing nearly 16,000 tonnes and equipped with Trident II missiles (armed with nuclear weapons) and heavyweight Spearfish torpedoes, with the purpose to carry out Operation Relentless, the United Kingdom's Continuous At Sea Deterrent (CASD). The UK government has committed to replace these submarines with four new Dreadnought-class submarines, which will enter service in the "early 2030s" to maintain a nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet and the ability to launch nuclear weapons.[87][88]

Fleet Submarines (SSN)[edit]

Seven fleet submarines are presently in service, three Trafalgar class and four Astute class. Three more Astute-class fleet submarines will eventually replace the remaining Trafalgar-class boats.[89]

The Trafalgar class displace approximately 5,300 tonnes when submerged and are armed with Tomahawk land-attack missiles and Spearfish torpedoes. The Astute class at 7,400 tonnes[90] are much larger and carry a larger number of Tomahawk missiles and Spearfish torpedoes. HMS Audacious was the latest Astute-class boat to be commissioned.[91]

Fleet Air Arm[edit]

The F-35B will be operated from the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) is the branch of the Royal Navy responsible for the operation of naval aircraft, it can trace its roots back to 1912 and the formation of the Royal Flying Corps. The Fleet Air Arm currently operates the AW-101 Merlin HC4 (in support of 3 Commando Brigade) as the Commando Helicopter Force; the AW-159 Wildcat HM2; the AW101 Merlin HM2 in the anti-submarine role; and the F-35B Lightning II in the carrier strike role.[92]

Pilots designated for rotary wing service train under No. 1 Flying Training School (1 FTS)[93] at RAF Shawbury.[94]

Royal Marines[edit]

Royal Marines in Sangin, 2010
Royal Marines Band Service members beside HMS Duncan in 2010

The Royal Marines are an amphibious, specialised light infantry force of commandos, capable of deploying at short notice in support of Her Majesty's Government's military and diplomatic objectives overseas.[95] The Royal Marines are organised into a highly mobile light infantry brigade (3 Commando Brigade) and 7 commando units[96] including 1 Assault Group Royal Marines, 43 Commando Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines and a company strength commitment to the Special Forces Support Group. The Corps operates in all environments and climates, though particular expertise and training is spent on amphibious warfare, Arctic warfare, mountain warfare, expeditionary warfare and commitment to the UK's Rapid Reaction Force. The Royal Marines are also the primary source of personnel for the Special Boat Service (SBS), the Royal Navy's contribution to the United Kingdom Special Forces.[97]

The Corps includes the Royal Marines Band Service, the musical wing of the Royal Navy.

The Royal Marines have seen action in a number of wars, often fighting beside the British Army; including in the Seven Years' War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, World War I and World War II. In recent times, the Corps has been deployed in expeditionary warfare roles, such as the Falklands War, the Gulf War, the Bosnian War, the Kosovo War, the Sierra Leone Civil War, the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. The Royal Marines have international ties with allied marine forces, particularly the United States Marine Corps[98] and the Netherlands Marine Corps/Korps Mariniers.[99]

Naval bases[edit]

The Royal Navy currently uses three major naval port bases in the UK, each housing its own flotilla of ships and boats ready for service, along with two naval air stations and a support facility base in Bahrain:

Bases in the United Kingdom[edit]

  • HMNB Devonport (HMS Drake) – This is currently the largest operational naval base in Western Europe. Devonport's flotilla consists of the RN's two amphibious assault vessels (HM Ships Albion and Bulwark), and half the fleet of Type 23 frigates. Devonport also homes some of the RN's Submarines service, including two of the Trafalgar-class submarines.[100]
HMS Albion during HMNB Devonport's Navy day, 2006.
  • HMNB Portsmouth (HMS Nelson) – This is home to the future Queen Elizabeth Class supercarriers. Portsmouth is also the home to the Type 45 Daring Class Destroyer and a moderate fleet of Type 23 frigates as well as Fishery Protection Squadrons.[101]
  • HMNB Clyde (HMS Neptune) – This is situated in Central Scotland along the River Clyde. Faslane is known as the home of the UK's nuclear deterrent, as it maintains the fleet of Vanguard-class ballistic missile (SSBN) submarines, as well as the fleet of Astute-class fleet (SSN) submarines. By 2020, Faslane will become the home to all Royal Navy submarines, and thus the RN Submarine Service. As a result, 43 Commando (Fleet Protection Group) are stationed in Faslane alongside to guard the base as well as The Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport. Moreover, Faslane is also home to Faslane Patrol Boat Squadron (FPBS) who operates a fleet of Archer class patrol vessels.[102][103]
HMS Vigilant alongside Faslane Naval Base
  • RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron) – Yeovilton is home to Commando Helicopter Force and Wildcat Maritime Force.[104]
A Merlin HC3 and Wildcat AH1 both of Commando Helicopter Force, based at RNAS Yeovilton.
  • RNAS Culdrose (HMS Seahawk) – This is home to Mk2 Merlins, primarily tasked with conducting Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Early Airborne Warning (EAW). Culdrose is also currently the largest helicopter base in Europe[105]
A Royal Navy Merlin HM2 at RNAS Culdrose.

Bases abroad[edit]

  • HMS Jufair (Bahrain) – The home port for vessels deployed on Operation Kipion and acts as the hub of the Royal Navy's operations in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Indian Ocean.[106] Vessels based there include the 9th Mine Countermeasures Squadron,[107] RFA Cardigan Bay and HMS Montrose.[108]
  • UK Joint Logistics Support Base (Oman) – A logistical support facility which is strategically located in the Middle East but outside the Persian Gulf.[109]
  • British Defence Singapore Support Unit (Singapore) – A remnant of HMNB Singapore which repairs and resupplies Royal Navy ships in the Asia Pacific.[110]
  • Gibdock - A former Royal Navy dockyard in Gibraltar which is still used for docking, repairs, training and resupply.[111][112]

The current role of the Royal Navy is to protect British interests at home and abroad, executing the foreign and defence policies of Her Majesty's Government through the exercise of military effect, diplomatic activities and other activities in support of these objectives. The Royal Navy is also a key element of the British contribution to NATO, with a number of assets allocated to NATO tasks at any time.[113] These objectives are delivered via a number of core capabilities:[114]

  • Maintenance of the UK Nuclear Deterrent through a policy of Continuous at Sea Deterrence
  • Provision of two medium-scale maritime task groups with the Fleet Air Arm
  • Delivery of the UK Commando force
  • Contribution of assets to the Joint Helicopter Command
  • Maintenance of standing patrol commitments
  • Provision of mine counter measures capability to United Kingdom and allied commitments
  • Provision of hydrographic and meteorological services deployable worldwide
  • Protection of Britain and EU's Exclusive Economic Zone

Current deployments[edit]

The Royal Navy is currently deployed in different areas of the world, including some standing Royal Navy deployments. These include several home tasks as well as overseas deployments. The Navy is deployed in the Mediterranean as part of standing NATO deployments including mine countermeasures and NATO Maritime Group 2. In both the North and South Atlantic, RN vessels are patrolling. There is always a Falkland Islands patrol vessel on deployment, currently HMS Forth.[115]

The Royal Navy operates a Response Force Task Group (a product of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review), which is poised to respond globally to short-notice tasking across a range of defence activities, such as non-combatant evacuation operations, disaster relief, humanitarian aid or amphibious operations. In 2011, the first deployment of the task group occurred under the name 'COUGAR 11' which saw them transit through the Mediterranean where they took part in multinational amphibious exercises before moving further east through the Suez Canal for further exercises in the Indian Ocean.[116][117]

The RN presence in the Persian Gulf typically consists of a Type 45 destroyer and a squadron of minehunters supported by an RFA Bay-class "mothership"

In the Persian Gulf, the RN sustains commitments in support of both national and coalition efforts to stabilise the region. The Armilla Patrol, which started in 1980, is the navy's primary commitment to the Gulf region. The Royal Navy also contributes to the combined maritime forces in the Gulf in support of coalition operations.[118] The UK Maritime Component Commander, overseer of all of Her Majesty's warships in the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters, is also deputy commander of the Combined Maritime Forces.[119] The Royal Navy has been responsible for training the fledgeling Iraqi Navy and securing Iraq's oil terminals following the cessation of hostilities in the country. The Iraqi Training and Advisory Mission (Navy) (Umm Qasr), headed by a Royal Navy captain, has been responsible for the former duty whilst Commander Task Force Iraqi Maritime, a Royal Navy commodore, has been responsible for the latter.[120][121]

The Royal Navy contributes to standing NATO formations and maintains forces as part of the NATO Response Force. The RN also has a long-standing commitment to supporting the Five Powers Defence Arrangements countries and occasionally deploys to the Far East as a result.[122] This deployment typically consists of a frigate and a survey vessel, operating separately. Operation Atalanta, the European Union's anti-piracy operation in the Indian Ocean, is permanently commanded by a senior Royal Navy or Royal Marines officer at Northwood Headquarters and the navy contributes ships to the operation.[123]

From 2015, the Royal Navy also re-formed its UK Carrier Strike Group (UKCSG) after it was disbanded in 2011 due to the retirement of HMS Ark Royal and Harrier GR9s.[124][125] The Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers form the central part of this formation, supported by various escorts and support ships, with the aim to facilitate carrier-enabled power projection.[126] The UKCSG first assembled at sea in October 2020 as part of a rehearsal for its first operational deployment in 2021.[71]

Command, control and organisation[edit]

The titular head of the Royal Navy is the Lord High Admiral, a position which was held by the Duke of Edinburgh from 2011 until his death in 2021 and since then remains vacant. The position had been held by Queen Elizabeth II from 1964 to 2011;[127] the Sovereign is the Commander-in-chief of the British Armed Forces.[128] The professional head of the Naval Service is the First Sea Lord, an admiral and member of the Defence Council of the United Kingdom. The Defence Council delegates management of the Naval Service to the Admiralty Board, chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence, which directs the Navy Board, a sub-committee of the Admiralty Board comprising only naval officers and Ministry of Defence (MOD) civil servants. These are all based in MOD Main Building in London, where the First Sea Lord, also known as the Chief of the Naval Staff, is supported by the Naval Staff Department.[129]


The Fleet Commander has responsibility for the provision of ships, submarines and aircraft ready for any operations that the Government requires. Fleet Commander exercises his authority through the Navy Command Headquarters, based at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth. An operational headquarters, the Northwood Headquarters, at Northwood, London, is co-located with the Permanent Joint Headquarters of the United Kingdom's armed forces, and a NATO Regional Command, Allied Maritime Command.[130]

The Royal Navy was the first of the three armed forces to combine the personnel and training command, under the Principal Personnel Officer, with the operational and policy command, combining the Headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Fleet and Naval Home Command into a single organisation, Fleet Command, in 2005 and becoming Navy Command in 2008. Within the combined command, the Second Sea Lord continues to act as the Principal Personnel Officer.[131] Previously, Flag Officer Sea Training was part pf the list of top senior appointments in Navy Command, however, as part of the Navy Command Transformation Programme, the post has reduced from Rear-Admiral to Commodore, renamed as Commander Fleet Operational Sea Training.[132]

The Naval Command senior appointments are:[133][134]

Intelligence support to fleet operations is provided by intelligence sections at the various headquarters and from MOD Defence Intelligence, renamed from the Defence Intelligence Staff in early 2010.[136]


Portsmouth dockyard during the Trafalgar 200 International Fleet Review. Seen here are commissioned ships from; the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Greece, Pakistan, Ireland and Nigeria.

The Royal Navy currently operates from three bases in the United Kingdom where commissioned ships are based; Portsmouth, Clyde and Devonport, Plymouth—Devonport is the largest operational naval base in the UK and Western Europe.[137] Each base hosts a flotilla command under a commodore, or, in the case of Clyde, a captain, responsible for the provision of operational capability using the ships and submarines within the flotilla. 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines is similarly commanded by a brigadier and based in Plymouth.[138]

HMNB Clyde, Faslane, home of the Vanguard-class submarines

Historically, the Royal Navy maintained Royal Navy Dockyards around the world.[139] Dockyards of the Royal Navy are harbours where ships are overhauled and refitted. Only four are operating today; at Devonport, Faslane, Rosyth and at Portsmouth.[140] A Naval Base Review was undertaken in 2006 and early 2007, the outcome being announced by Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, confirming that all would remain however some reductions in manpower were anticipated.[141]

The academy where initial training for future Royal Navy officers takes place is Britannia Royal Naval College, located on a hill overlooking Dartmouth, Devon. Basic training for future ratings takes place at HMS Raleigh at Torpoint, Cornwall, close to HMNB Devonport.[142]

Significant numbers of naval personnel are employed within the Ministry of Defence, Defence Equipment and Support and on exchange with the Army and Royal Air Force. Small numbers are also on exchange within other government departments and with allied fleets, such as the United States Navy. The navy also posts personnel in small units around the world to support ongoing operations and maintain standing commitments. Nineteen personnel are stationed in Gibraltar to support the small Gibraltar Squadron, the RN's only permanent overseas squadron. Some personnel are also based at East Cove Military Port and RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands to support APT(S). Small numbers of personnel are based in Diego Garcia (Naval Party 1002), Miami (NP 1011 – AUTEC), Singapore (NP 1022), Dubai (NP 1023) and elsewhere.[143]

On 6 December 2014, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office announced it would expand the UK's naval facilities in Bahrain to support larger Royal Navy ships deployed to the Persian Gulf. Once complete, it will be the UK's first permanent military base located East of Suez since it withdrew from the region in 1971. The base will reportedly be large enough to accommodate Type 45 destroyers and Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.[144][145][146]

Titles and naming[edit]

Type 23 frigates or "Duke class" are named after British dukes.

Of the Navy[edit]

The navy of the United Kingdom is commonly referred to as the "Royal Navy" both in the United Kingdom and other countries. Navies of other Commonwealth countries where the British monarch is also head of state include their national name, e.g. Royal Australian Navy. Some navies of other monarchies, such as the Koninklijke Marine (Royal Netherlands Navy) and Kungliga Flottan (Royal Swedish Navy), are also called "Royal Navy" in their own language. The Danish Navy uses the term "Royal" incorporated in its official name (Royal Danish Navy), but only "Flåden" (Navy) in everyday speech.[147] The French Navy, despite France being a republic since 1870, is often nicknamed "La Royale" (literally: The Royal).[148]

Of ships[edit]

Royal Navy ships in commission are prefixed since 1789 with Her Majesty's Ship (His Majesty's Ship), abbreviated to "HMS"; for example, HMS Beagle. Submarines are styled HM Submarine, also abbreviated "HMS". Names are allocated to ships and submarines by a naming committee within the MOD and given by class, with the names of ships within a class often being thematic (for example, the Type 23s are named after British dukes) or traditional (for example, the Invincible-class aircraft carriers all carry the names of famous historic ships). Names are frequently re-used, offering a new ship the rich heritage, battle honours and traditions of her predecessors. Often, a particular vessel class will be named after the first ship of that type to be built. As well as a name, each ship and submarine of the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is given a pennant number which in part denotes its role. For example, the destroyer HMS Daring (D32) displays the pennant number 'D32'.[149]

Ranks, rates, and insignia[edit]

The Royal Navy ranks, rates and insignia form part of the uniform of the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy uniform is the pattern on which many of the uniforms of the other national navies of the world are based (e.g. Ranks and insignia of NATO navies officers, Uniforms of the United States Navy, Uniforms of the Royal Canadian Navy, French Naval Uniforms).[150]

1 Rank in abeyance – routine appointments no longer made to this rank, though honorary awards of this rank are occasionally made to senior members of the Royal family and prominent former First Sea Lords.

Custom and tradition[edit]

The Queen and Admiral Sir Alan West during a Fleet Review


The Royal Navy has several formal customs and traditions including the use of ensigns and ships badges. Royal Navy ships have several ensigns used when under way and when in port. Commissioned ships and submarines wear the White Ensign at the stern whilst alongside during daylight hours and at the main-mast whilst under way. When alongside, the Union Jack is flown from the jackstaff at the bow, and can only be flown under way either to signal a court-martial is in progress or to indicate the presence of an admiral of the fleet on-board (including the Lord High Admiral or the monarch).[151]

The Fleet Review is an irregular tradition of assembling the fleet before the monarch. The first review on record was held in 1400, and the most recent review as of 2009 was held on 28 June 2005 to mark the bi-centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar; 167 ships from many different nations attended with the Royal Navy supplying 67.[152]


There are several less formal traditions including service nicknames and Naval slang, known as "Jackspeak".[153] The nicknames include "The Andrew" (of uncertain origin, possibly after a zealous press ganger)[154][155] and "The Senior Service".[156][157] British sailors are referred to as "Jack" (or "Jenny"), or more widely as "Matelots". Royal Marines are fondly known as "Bootnecks" or often just as "Royals". A compendium of Naval slang was brought together by Commander A. Covey-Crump and his name has in itself become the subject of Naval slang; Covey Crump.[156] A game traditionally played by the Navy is the four-player board game known as "Uckers". This is similar to Ludo and it is regarded as easy to learn, but difficult to play well.[158]

Navy Cadets[edit]

The Royal Navy sponsors or supports three youth organisations:

  • Volunteer Cadet Corps – consisting of Royal Naval Volunteer Cadet Corps and Royal Marines Volunteer Cadet Corps, the VCC was the first youth organisation officially supported or sponsored by the Admiralty in 1901.[159]
  • Combined Cadet Force – in schools, specifically the Royal Navy Section and the Royal Marines Section.[160]
  • Sea Cadets – supporting teenagers who are interested in naval matters, consisting of the Sea Cadets and the Royal Marines Cadets.[161]

The above organisations are the responsibility of the CUY branch of Commander Core Training and Recruiting (COMCORE) who reports to Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST).[162]

In popular culture[edit]

The Royal Navy of the 18th century is depicted in many novels and several films dramatising the voyage and mutiny on the Bounty.[163] The Royal Navy's Napoleonic campaigns of the early 19th century are also a popular subject of historical novels. Some of the best-known are Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series[164] and C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower chronicles.[165]

The Navy can also be seen in numerous films. The fictional spy James Bond is a commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR).[166] The Royal Navy is featured in The Spy Who Loved Me, when a nuclear ballistic-missile submarine is stolen,[167] and in Tomorrow Never Dies when a media baron sinks a Royal Navy warship in an attempt to trigger a war between the UK and People's Republic of China.[168] Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was based on Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series.[169] The Pirates of the Caribbean series of films also includes the Navy as the force pursuing the eponymous pirates.[170] Noël Coward directed and starred in his own film In Which We Serve, which tells the story of the crew of the fictional HMS Torrin during the Second World War. It was intended as a propaganda film and was released in 1942. Coward starred as the ship's captain, with supporting roles from John Mills and Richard Attenborough.[171]

C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels have been adapted for television.[172] The Royal Navy was the subject of an acclaimed 1970s BBC television drama series, Warship,[173] and of a five-part documentary, Shipmates, that followed the workings of the Royal Navy day to day.[174]

Television documentaries about the Royal Navy include: Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World, a four-part documentary depicting Britain's rise as a naval superpower, up until the First World War;[175] Sailor, about life on the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal;[176] and Submarine, about the submarine captains' training course, 'The Perisher'.[177] There have also been Channel 5 documentaries such as Royal Navy Submarine Mission, following a nuclear-powered fleet submarine.[178]

The popular BBC radio comedy series The Navy Lark featured a fictitious warship ("HMS Troutbridge") and ran from 1959 to 1977.[179]

See also[edit]

  • List of ship names of the Royal Navy (a full historical list)
  • Bibliography of 18th–19th century Royal Naval history
  • Future of the Royal Navy
  • Her Majesty's Coastguard
  • The Royal British Legion
  • The Royal Hospital School
  • Her Majesty's Naval Service
  • "Rule, Britannia!", song


  1. ^ Since April 2013, Ministry of Defence publications no longer report the entire strength of the Regular Reserve; instead, only Regular Reserves serving under a fixed-term reserve contract are counted. These contracts are similar in nature to the Maritime Reserve.
  2. ^ In Royal Navy parlance, "commissioned ships" invariably refers to both submarines and surface ships. Non-commissioned ships operated by or in support of Her Majesty's Naval Service are not included.
  3. ^
    Middle Ages – 1707
  4. ^
    Middle Ages – 1606
  5. ^ The rank of Admiral of the Fleet has become an honorary/posthumous rank, war time rank; ceremonial rank; regular appointments ended in 1995.
  6. ^ This rank was phased out in 2014 but re-instated in 2021


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  • Chet, Guy (2014). The Ocean is a Wilderness: Atlantic Piracy and the Limits of State Authority, 1688-1856. University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 978-1625340856.
  • Clodfelter, Michael (2017). Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492–2015. McFarland & Co Inc. ISBN 9780786474707.
  • Grimes, Shawn T. (2012). Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887–1918. Boydell. ISBN 9781846158179.
  • Harding, Richard (2005). The Royal Navy 1930–2000: Innovation and Defence. Frank Cass. ISBN 9780203337684.
  • Howard, David Armine (2003). British Sea Power: How Britain Became Sovereign of the Seas. Carroll & Graf. ISBN 9780786712496.
  • Hyde-Price, Adrian (2007). European Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Challenge of Multipolarity. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-1134164400.
  • Kennedy, Paul (1989). The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. London: Fontana. ISBN 9780049090194.
  • Nelson, Arthur (2001). The Tudor navy: the ships, men and organisation, 1485–1603. Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 9780851777856.
  • Potter, E. B. (1984). Sea Power: A Naval History. Naval Institute press. ISBN 9780870216077.
  • Rodger, N.A.M. (1997). The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660–1649. 1. Harper Collins. ISBN 9780006388401.
  • Rodger, N.A.M. (2004). The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815. 2. Penguin. ISBN 9780141026909.
  • Rose, Lisle A. (2006). Power at Sea: The Breaking Storm, 1919–1945. 2. University of Missouri Press. ISBN 9780826216946.
  • Sondhaus, Lawrence (2001). Naval Warfare, 1815–1914. New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415214780.
  • Stanton, Charles (2015). Medieval Maritime Wartime. South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Maritime. pp. 225–226.
  • Willmott, H. P. (2009). The Last Century of Sea Power, Volume 1: From Port Arthur to Chanak, 1894–1922. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253352149.
  • Willmott, H. P. (2010). The Last Century of Sea Power, Volume 2: From Washington to Tokyo, 1922–1945. Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253353597.
  • Wilson, Ben (2013). Empire of the Deep: the rise and fall of the British Navy. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 9780297864080.
  • Winfield, R. (2007). British Warships of the Age of Sail 1714–1792: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth. ISBN 9781844157006.

Further reading[edit]

  • Beatson, Robert (1790). Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727 to 1783. 3. Strachan. OCLC 937652092.
  • Brown, D. K.; Moore, George (2012). Rebuilding the Royal Navy: Warship Design Since 1945. Seaforth. ISBN 9781848321502.
  • Browning, Reed (1993). The War of the Austrian Succession. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780312094836.
  • Clowes, William Laird; Markham, Clements Robert, Sir.; Mahan, Alfred Thayer; Wilson, Herbert Wrigley (1897–1903). The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to present. I. London : Samson Low, Marston, Co. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  • Clowes, William Laird; Markham, Clements Robert, Sir.; Mahan, Alfred Thayer; Wilson, Herbert Wrigley (1897–1903). The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to present. II. London : Samson Low, Marston, Co. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  • Clowes, William Laird; Markham, Clements Robert, Sir.; Mahan, Alfred Thayer; Wilson, Herbert Wrigley (1897–1903). The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to present. III. London : Samson Low, Marston, Co. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  • Clowes, William Laird; Markham, Clements Robert, Sir.; Mahan, Alfred Thayer; Wilson, Herbert Wrigley (1897–1903). The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to present. IV. London : Samson Low, Marston, Co. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  • Clowes, William Laird; Markham, Clements Robert, Sir.; Mahan, Alfred Thayer; Wilson, Herbert Wrigley (1897–1903). The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to present. V. London : Samson Low, Marston, Co. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  • Clowes, William Laird; Markham, Clements Robert, Sir.; Mahan, Alfred Thayer; Wilson, Herbert Wrigley (1897–1903). The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to present. VI. London : Samson Low, Marston, Co. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  • Simms, Brendan (2008). Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780465013326.

External links[edit]

  • Official website
  • History of the Royal Navy
  • Sea Your History – Royal Naval Museum
  • Royal Marines Museum
  • List of sunken ships of the Royal Navy on the wrecksite
  • Navy News – Royal Navy Newspaper

Video clips[edit]

  • Royal Navy's channel on YouTube
  • TwoSix Royal Navy Communication's channel on YouTube