Royal Navy in WW2 and The Imperial Gift

Operation Drumbeat

Negotiations on the fate of the Royal Navy after the Great Escape in the United States were still in progress in Washington when the delegates saw something strange out to sea. Three large fires burning. As news came in, the disaster became more evident. The cruiser Brooklyn had been torpedoed and sunk along with the oiler Neosho she had been accompanying. The Coast Guard Cutter Roger B Taney had been picking up survivors when she too was torpedoed. To make matters worse, when bodies started to wash ashore the next day, it was painfully obvious that the German submarine had machine-gunned the survivors of the three ships in the water. This was just the start. The German submarine onslaught was vicious, brutal and highly effective. In the first week, 70 merchant ships, totaling 350,000 tons, four cruisers and twelve destroyers had been sunk. Shipping along the East Coast came to an almost complete standstill. The situation peaked when the aircraft carrier Enterprise was torpedoed and sunk less than 500 yards off Sandy Hook.

The US Navy was rat-trapped. It had kept Japan out of the war by heavily reinforcing its Pacific fleets in Hawaii and the Philippines. Drawing on forces there opened the possibility of Japan striking into the Pacific. At the same time, the situation off the East Coast could not be allowed to continue. At that point, inspiration set in. The attacks meant that the US was now in WW2, that made it a Commonwealth Ally. The Great Escape had brought out over 100 destroyers with experienced and skilled crews who were itching for a chance to get back at the Germans. Operating out of Canadian and American bases, those destroyers were thrown into the convoy battles off America's East Coast almost from the first day. And bloody battles they were, neither side gave not expected quarter.

The deaths of the Coast Guardsmen on Roger B Taney had enraged the American population. In the savage fighting off the Atlantic seaboard, American and British ships routinely applied "Roger B Taney Justice" and machine-gunned or hanged German submariners as pirates. It had probably never occurred to the German captain responsible that Americans saw their Coastguard as a humanitarian and rescue service not as a combatant arm. In fairness it should be pointed out taht the Germans were also horrified by the atrocity and conducted a detailed investigation to find the guilty commander. This was unsuccessful and teh commander responsible for the crime has never been identified. As a result, the German submariners responded to what they saw as murder of their survivors by routinely killing American and British seamen struggling in the water after their ships had been torpedoed. The cycle of bitterness, anger, revenge and retaliation reached its climax, first in the Battle of the Orkneys and then, of course, in The Big One.

The addition of the Royal Navy ships to the fighting was probably critical, more as a matter of timing than anything else. The full fury of the German onslaught was already ebbing as submarines ran out of torpedoes and the long supply lines across the Atlantic took their toll. The British brought their skills at convoy organization and escorting as well, multiplying the effectiveness of the American destroyers and the newly-arriving destroyer-escorts. Another critical area was minesweeping, The German Navy had included a mine laying into their US campaign, exploiting the American Navy's total lack of experience in modern mine warfare. In effect, the USN was taught this art by the Royal Navy and American mine warfare ships showed a very strong British design influence.

The RN submarine fleet had a very successful breakout with limited losses although the passages were very slow passages due to precautions including night only recharging. The large Thames class were carrying valuable cargos and went straight for Canada while the smaller types headed for Iceland/Greenland RV to refuel and took a very long and miserable time to cross. Submarines were still trickling into East Coast ports two weeks after the surface ships had arrived.

Initially, at least, the smaller UK submarines had a relatively successful war. Working from Iceland/Murmansk they patrolled the North Sea and British seaboard/Irish sea, The larger T class submarines patrolled the Bay of Biscay, initially from Iceland but later from the Azores. Eventually, they found their primary European niche as resistance supply boats with a particular role in picking up allied air crew. Eventually, the submarines were moved out to the Far East where the USN left any potential underwater war to the RN.

The Royal Navy presence did something else, something unanticipated. With such a powerful battleforce on the East Coast, the US Navy was able to send its carriers and battleships to the Pacific, ensuring the Japanese would not be tempted into movement. It took almost a year for the combination of Royal Navy strength and expertise and the flood of American production to drown the U-boat threat. For that time, there was no doubt about the Royal Navy's role, function and deployment. It was the key to the Battle of the Atlantic.

Redeployment and Redistibution

By the end of 1943, the Battle of the Atlantic was won. The German submarines had been defeated, decisively so and the Atlantic was being turned into an Allied lake. German submarines continued to venture out, but the hunting groups of escort carriers and destroyer escorts tracked them down and killed them. Now, the US Navy was gearing up for its counter-attack. Despite its valiant service over the last year, the majority of the RN was unsuitable for the type of war the USN was now planning to wage against Germany. The ships just didn't have the range to work across the Atlantic, and its main strength in the battleline had little application. The carriers didn't carry the air groups or have the range needed for the coming war on mainland Europe. However, the RN once again filled needs in an unexpected way. It represented a pool of ships that could fill in other areas while the US Navy concentrated its strength against Germany.

One such area was Canada, supporting the convoys running out of Iceland to Russia. In the German offensives of 1941 and 1942, the Kola Peninsula had been hard-pressed, but even after the Finns had tried to come across behind the Ladoga-Onega lake line it had held out. Even when the Germans had reached the great bend of the Don, Archangel and Murmansk had held out, aided by some of the best defensive country in the world. The terrain, where it wasn't swamp, was mountainous and even the German alpine troops coming over from Norway had little fortune. Eventually, Archangel and the Kola Peninsula were left to wither on the vine. Only, they didn't. With the convoys running in they became a bleeding ulcer that helped drain German forces. Even Petrograd held out, amid scenes of starvation and misery that resounded around the world. The Canadian-based Royal Navy played a critical role running between Iceland and Murmansk, with dips into the North Sea and general harassment on the northern flank, as well as watching the Iceland Gap. In the great scheme of things, it was perhaps a sideshow, but not an unimportant one, at least potentially. It could have been just one forgotten aspect of the great Russian war, lost to public memory in the glare of many suns except but for one thing. It was to cut that convoy supply line that Germany committed its Navy in 1945, a decision that lead directly to the Battle of the Orkneys. Known best for Admiral "Wild Bill" Halsey's famous remark when he heard the German battleships were challenging his fleet carriers "Ain't that just like the Krauts. Bringing their fists to a gunfight, the Battle of the Orkneys destroyed any pretence the Germans had to maintaining sea power.

Despite that, the RN made its biggest contribution to the war effort is in the east. The USN had transferred power west to deter the Japanese, but after the crisis was averted, they would have more pressing needs for the manpower if not the ships in the Atlantic. The British battle line that is of so little use in the Atlantic would be of great value in Singapore. It was, however, a deterrent role, a never-ending but passive commitment to keep a watching brief on the IJN and its the perfect job for the RNs battle line. A major factor there was that the RN could use a British-built infrastructure, base and support network, freeing up American facilities for the offensive against Germany. And so, the British Far East Fleet was founded. It consisted of:

Force Z (Base Singapore) Mission To Deter Japanese thrusts to the south and to hold out until reinforcements could arrive
CVs Illustrious, Victorious and Formidable
BBs King George V, Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Anson and Howe
CA/CL. 4 Dido, 4 Southampton, 4 Fiji
DDs Surviving, J/K/L/M class

Force H (Base Trincomalee) Mission Strategic Reserve for Far East
CV Furious
BCs Hood, Repulse, Renown
CA/CLs 4 County, 4 Southampton
DDs Surviving Tribals

Force G (Base Simonstown) Mission South Atlantic security
CA/CL 4 County class, 4 Arethusas
DDs 12 A- I class

Force K (Base Sydney) Mission Southern Pacific security
CV Ark Royal
BB Queen Elizabeth, Valiant, Warspite
CA/CL 4 Didos, 4 Southamptons, 2 Belfasts, 5 Leanders
DDs 18 A- I class

The rest of the fleet, centered around Nelson and Rodney, remained in Canada, escorting convoys.

This fleet structure remained in place until early 1947.

War's End.

By late 1946/early 1947 the Admiralty staff had started to look to the future. It is not entirely clear how much they knew about The Big One, then only months away, but any sensible organization could see the writing on the wall to some degree at least. Although they still technically controlled their ships, in many respects they no longer owned them. It was also painfully obvious that after the war Britain will not be able to even think of affording to run a big navy, and wouldnt have an Empire to run either. So, the logic went, since the balance of power in the Commonwealth was shifting to the Dominions, then it would be advisable to make the division as sensible as possible to get the maximum benefit from dispersing such a huge resource. Cynics might also point out that, if this took a lot of work, it was not as if they had anything better to do.

Manpower was the first consideration. It was decided that the only fair way of handling the situation was to let every man make his own pick of destination. To do anything else would not only be discrimination against those who fate put in more attractive circumstances, but the Dominions wouldnt stand for it. They were developing quickly and were already bidding hard to attract skilled workers, so an open market place suited them fine. In reality, it turned out that five years had allowed a substantial proportion of the crews to put down roots and they wanted to stay where they were. After the consequences of The Big One sank in, people who wanted to return to a to their homes found patriotism, links to family, home sickness sense of duty in helping to rebuild conflicting with the fear engendered by the nuclear devastation of Germany and dismay at the prospect of making a life in a starving and broken Europe

The Imperial Gift

It was at this point where Winston Churchill cemented his reputation as a great peace-time Prime Minister. Australia, India and Canada were already competing for who would dominate the post-war Commonwealth. As we know now, none of them did; Australia and India drifted into The Triple Alliance while Canada maintained its close contacts with the UK. Nevertheless, then, the competition was real and it raised the specter of a very messy and bloody free-for-all as jackals descended on the dying Motherland. Churchill made one of his most memorable speeches, comparing the Dominions to sons who had grown into fine, strong and honorable adulthood and now stood firmly on their own feet. As such, they should have their fair share of the family estates to help them build their own destinies. Having set the tone and made the dispersal of the Navy an Imperial Gift in recognition of valiant efforts, the Dominions fell into line. They were still, of course out for all they get their hands on, but they realized that an ordered dispersal was in everyones interests, and they let the RN act as Umpire. It was a fitting end to 300 years of history, and it allowed the RN to take a back seat with dignity.

The Division.


Australia was unique that it already had a reasonably large and capable Navy including two County class cruisers, three improved Leanders and two normal Leanders that had been part of the New Zealand Navy prior to that country's absorption into Australia as their eighth state. These had been reinforced by four modified Tribal class destroyers. The Imperial Gift arriving from the UK included two aircraft carriers, Illustrious and Victorious, the remaining County and Leander class cruisers and half the remaining J/K/L/M/N class destroyers. Australia also put in a claim for, and was awarded, nearly the entire Royal Fleet Auxiliary. With a mobile, relatively modern fleet, Australia was in the power projection business. However, the most interesting part of the Australian experience was the battleships. The three surviving Queen Elizabeths had been left in Australia more by accident as anything else. Queen Elizabeth, Valiant and Warspite were laid up almost immediately. Eventually, Queen Elizabeth and Valiant were returned to the UK, making the voyage as transports and being broken up on arrival.

However, Warspite had a different fate. As it happened, the RAN needed an accommodation ship in Melbourne; Warspite was available, suitable and had no more pressing requirements. She served as an accommodation ship through the early and middle 1950s then was assigned as the drill ship for HMAS Cerberus (which is the RAN's basic training centre). In that role, she was almost forgotten until the mid-1970s when, in a clearance of old tonnage, "Drill Ship Cerberus" was included on the scrapping list. According to his memoirs, Admiral Preston was on the verge of signing the scrapping order when he wondered why the training center had a 600-foot long drill ship. He then broke out in a cold sweat when he realized he had nearly signed the scrapping order for HMAS Warspite Through the dedicated efforts of many volunteers, the old lady was fully restored and is now the centerpiece of the Royal Australian Navy museum and cultural center at Sydney.


Despite its eclipse and long occupation, Britain was still the dominant power in Europe and required forces that illustrated the fact. The question was how to maintain an effective Navy without destroying the country. The kernel of the British post war fleet was the five KGV class battleships. In fact, these were two separate classes. King George V, Prince of Wales and Duke of York were British built, while Anson and Howe had been completed in America with different armaments and fire control systems. These two latter ships were probably the most modern and capable battleships available to the RN. Anyway, nobody else wanted them. The three early ships were quickly scrapped while Howe and Anson soldiered on until the late 1950s. The RN also got the two most modern of the armored carriers, Formidable and Indomitable. That gave them a foot in the door and an experienced cadre of trained naval aviation for later construction. The core of the cruiser fleet was the Southampton and Fiji classes, giving them a round dozen cruisers with no less than 144 6 inch gun barrels. The big problem was destroyers; most of the fleet was worn from hard service and losses had left the squadrons mixtures of different types. The Royal Navy was actually happy to receive the bulk of the older destroyers; their scrap metal was useful and they would last long enough to maintain continuity while not being new enough to depress the chances of new construction. This proved to be a prescient decision and Britain quickly became renowned for its innovative and effective destroyer designs.


Canada had little in the way of naval ambitions, its actual force requirements took money and commitment, but they were just too comfortable next to the US to get very enthusiastic about defense except in wartime. Their demand for warships was purely political. Although they received both Nelson and Rodney, the two battleships were scrapped almost immediately. They also received Furious to provide a training center for naval aviation; again, the ship was scrapped within a few years. The backbone of the Canadian fleet was the Dido class cruisers and Tribal class destroyers, the cruisers were cheap to run while the Tribals were large enough to cope with the savage North Atlantic. This fleet slowly evaporated due to age and poor construction standards and, by 1960, the Canadian Navy was reduced to the surviving Tribals and a handful of post-war frigates,


India's primary objective was building a nation and its Navy was primarily oriented towards showing the flag and prestige. They also had the manpower to run large crew units. They therefore made an unexpected bid for the three battlecruisers and got them before they could change their minds. Hood, Repulse and Renown went to India along with Ark Royal. In fact, India lacked the resources and trained naval aviators to run the carrier properly and she spent most of her short remaining life tied up alongside. Repulse and Renown were scrapped in the mid-1950s but Hood soldiered on until 1960 when she was returned to the UK where she has been preserved as a museum ship in Portsmouth. The Indians also made a strong case for the County class cruisers and secured six of them. The J/K/L/M/N class destroyers were split evenly with Australia.

South Africa

South Africa was the easiest. It faced little in the way of naval threats so it retained the two Belfast class cruisers and a mixed group of eight old A-I class destroyers and a quartet of submarines. This was essentially a feedstock navy, intended to train crews and keep the naval forces in the area alive.

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