Royal Navy – Demise of Hearts of Oak

As we approach Christmas I always – as a former serviceman – think about and remember that there will Royal Navy personnel who will be at sea or on duty over the holiday period.

What I find amazing this year is that those on duty equates to 10% of the senior service which if my maths are correct means the Royal Navy is now composed from the First Sea Lord to the most recent recruit of 30000 souls.

This week the new Minister of Defence – Gavin Williamson MP – having been warned that any further cuts to the armed services would lead to a rebellion amongst his own MP’s was pontificating on how he and his Government have supported and saved the Royal Navy .

The opposition as we have now come to expect were very vocal in claiming the opposite.

So who – if any of them – is telling the truth?

Historically of course the Royal Navy was the strength on which our small group of geographically insignificant islands built its economic wealth.

The start of such wealth and it has to be said also it’s political and military strength was the result of a remarkable Naval Victory that took place on the 21st October 1805 at a widely unknown place called Trafalgar.

The defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleets gave Britain control of the seas.

It was a control that brought unimagined wealth to these islands and a recognition that for Britain to be free and democracy to be maintained the priority was to keep the ‘shipping lanes’ open.

This was never more necessary or greater illustrated than during the 1914-1918 World War, when the combined forces of the Grand Fleet made up of the Royal Navy, the Royal Australian and the Royal Canadian Navy defeating the German Navy at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 allowing the free and unencumbered movement of supplies and men to the front lines for the remainder of the War.

In World War 2 it was the Royal Navy who kept the supply lines across the North Atlantic open and whose courage and fortitude was matched by that of the Merchant Navy who never flinched from the challenge.


In 1982 it was the Royal Navy who once again put to sea to travel over 8,000 miles to reclaim the Falkland Islands and without who we wouldn’t have been able to launch the land offensive.

It will not have escaped the reader’s attention that the Falkland Island had come under the protection of Britain some 150 years earlier in 1832 only 27 years after Trafalgar.

What people – and perhaps it is the fault of the Royal Navy themselves for not blowing their own trumpet loud enough – is the other tasks the Royal Navy are constantly involved in from what was called ‘Aid to Civil Power’ – in simple terms helping after natural disasters such as floods in Bangladesh – to preventing drug and arms trafficking.

In themselves mostly unrecognised and unrewarded but essential tasks and duties carried out by those serving in what I still maintain, man for man, woman for woman ( I refuse to refer to serving personnel as ‘persons’) is the best Navy in the world

The question and perhaps more importantly is whether the UK could mount a Falkland type operation today?

The answer to which is that we couldn’t

Opposition politicians – as we have come to expect in a world where anything a politician says is treated as a cross between a deliberate lie and political opportunism – are saying that blaming the cuts to the Royal Navy on the economic necessity to support the austerity measures is dishonest

Quite frankly the opposition and especially Labour are in no position to crow because they are largely responsible for starting the decline.

When I joined the Royal Navy in 1969 I was one of 89000 which by the arrival of Labour in Government in 1997 had fallen to 45000 or in the simplest of terms throughout my time of service – mostly under Conservative Governments – the Royal Navy had halved.

Tony Blair and his Minister of Defence – George Robertson MP – promised that they would stop the decline and support the Royal Navy.

By the time Labour was replaced as the Government in 2010 the Royal Navy had been cut to 37000 a drop of 20%.

So much for opposition political promises.

I can’t help thinking when Labour politicians stand up in the House of Commons complaining that recruitment to the Royal Navy and the other armed services has fallen as a consequence of the current Governments policy that they have conveniently forgotten that it was they who scrapped the Royal Tournament which was the best recruitment tool ever devised.

Taking a slight digression –

The reason George Robertson MP gave for scrapping the Royal Tournament in 1999 was that it was to ” jingoistic, militaristic and smacked of celebrating Britain’s imperialistic past”

For someone who was so anti-military he did well for himself by resigning his Cabinet post in 1999, accepting a Peerage and going to become the Secretary General of NATO

The reality of modern-day military is that spending billions of pounds on a replacement for Trident is nonsense and putting aside any and all arguments about the moral side of having nuclear weapons, the money would be better spent on conventional naval forces.

There is a good economic reason on which this view is based in that it would provide employment for thousands of people and allow the UK to rebuild the shipbuilding skills that have been lost by the closure of such places as on the River Tyne.

It will also provide the necessary infrastructure and supply lines to provided humanitarian support across the world which is surely better than a nuclear missile delivery system such as Trident.

Perhaps an unintended and immeasurable consequence would be that such a policy would promote democracy through peaceful means rather than by force.

If there is one thing history has shown us “Winning the hearts and minds of people” has never ever been achieved by force or threats.

You only have to look at the Vietnam and two Iraq Wars to verify how not preparing for peace whilst waging war comes back to haunt the so called “victors.”

History will also show that whatever they claim in the 20 years since 1997 successive Governments have ripped the Heart out of the Royal Navy for which they should -but are unlikely to be -ashamed.

It will take a remarkable politician driven by principles and foresight to put the Hearts of Oak back into the Royal Navy and will take at least another 20 years to achieve.

Sadly they are qualities and principles I don’t recognise in those currently in and those who aspire to sit in Westminster.

So is it goodbye to ‘Hearts of Oak’?

Thankfully it still resides in those who currently and those who have served who at least have the integrity and commitment so obviously lacking in our political masters.