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Why we have a Royal Navy

Find out about the Royal Navy's history and what they do


Why do we have a Navy?

We’ll be looking at what the Navy does, and why we have it. We went to Chatham Docks to find out a bit more.

For around 400 years ships were built and repaired at Chatham, helping the Navy to keep our country safe and secure from oversea invaders.  It’s like the name in the patriotic song – “Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules the Waves”.

Britannia certainly HAS ruled the waves over a long time… but why do we need to rule the waves?  Why is a Navy important anyway?  Well it helps to think about the kind of country Britain is.

Britain is an island – we’re surrounded by water.  And before the invention of the plane or the building of the Channel Tunnel, the only way to and from mainland Europe, or further afield, was by boat!

Everything had to come by sea – and most still does today – just think about those giant container ships and oil tankers.  And for as long as there have been boats, London’s been hugely important to this trade – because of the River Thames.
Cutting from the sea, right into the heart of London, from Roman days through the Middle Ages and into Victorian times, the Thames was one of London’s main highways. Barges and river boats brought fish, wood and wool to the City, while hundreds of watermen in small rowing boats ferried people up and down.

Sometimes those coming to London by sea didn’t want to trade with us… they wanted to INVADE us!

From the Romans to the Vikings, Spanish to the Germans, they’re have been many people who have had their eye on us.  Probably the best known invaders where the Romans nearly two thousand years ago and the Normans in 1066.

To make sure would never be invaded again, over the centuries, Monarchs strengthened their fleets… but as people travelled the world farther than ever before they needed more boats and more powerful fleets to both protect our shores, and our trade wherever it was across the world.

It was King Henry VIII in the 16th century who decided to make a permanent fleet to secure our country.  He commissioned docks to build and repair the ships, setting the foundations here at Chatham and so our Navy was born.

For around 400 years, the Royal Navy was the largest in the world, making Britain a superpower across the world.  Today, it’s still one of the largest navies in the world with 98 ships. The Surface Fleet forms the backbone of the navy, with mine hunters, frigates, destroyers and assault ships. The Submarine Service silently patrols the oceans and is responsible for our nuclear deterrent.

Fleet Air Arm is the Navy’s aviation branch, extending its reach using helicopters from ships and bases.  The Royal Fleet Auxiliary is a civilian-manned flotilla that provides the Navy with logistic support to help maintain operations worldwide.  And not forgetting the Royal Marines.

The Royal Marines are some of the most highly trained soldiers in the Armed Forces – undergoing the longest training under the most arduous conditions.  For their final test they must complete one of the toughest endurance courses.

They must work their way through two miles of tunnels, pools, streams, bogs and woods, then run four miles back to camp, all while in combat equipment and carrying a weapon, and all in less than 72 minutes. That’s only just over an hour!  Not sure I’d want to do that!  And then at the end, they have to get six out of 10 shots on target in a shooting test.

All ships in the Royal Navy are called “Her Majesty’s Ships” – or HMS for short, because by constitution the Queen owns them and has command over them.

The Royal Navy operates out of three main naval bases – Portsmouth, Devonport and Faslane. From here, ships are deployed (that means sent on military missions) across the world, from the seas surrounding the UK to the Southern Ocean sending a powerful message that Britain is committed to world affairs.

In the seas around the UK, the Navy’s offshore patrol ships protect fishing grounds and carry out anti-pollution, search-and-rescue and maritime policing duties. The Navy also has hydrographic ships that carry out vital surveying the seas, keeping the charts of the seas around the UK and the world up to date.

In the Navy you could be anywhere in the world.  But it’s easy to keep in contact with family and friends.  Everyone at sea gets 20 minutes of free satellite calls a week and there’s email access generally wherever you are. Friends and family can also send letters and parcels when you’re at sea.

There’s so much that the Royal Navy does.  Why not visit one of the National Museum of the Royal Navy? There are 6 museums to go – find out about the Royal Navy operating on the sea, under the sea, on land and in the air.

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Life in the Armed Forces

Find out about Life in the Armed Forces

More From Life in the Armed Forces