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PETER HITCHENS: Britain needs a proper Navy to frighten off foes instead of this nuclear fantasy that’s probably unusable  (even if we could get the rockets to ignite)


King Charles II proclaimed in the ‘Articles of War’ of 1661 that ‘It is upon the Navy, under the good Providence of God, that the Wealth, Prosperity and Peace of these Islands depend’.

And he was absolutely right. In a rather moving moment in the 1958 film Dunkirk (so much better than the recent version), the camera lingers on these words, displayed in a Naval station, as weekend sailors, about to take part in the famous rescue of the British Army from the beaches of France, formally accept the authority of the Senior Service.

For, while much is rightly made of the RAF’s role in the Battle of Britain in 1940, it was in fact the Navy which saved the country from disaster, over and over again.

The sea, our greatest defence, is worth perhaps 60 armoured divisions and saves us from maintaining a vast army like those of continental nations.

But it is only a moat if we have a fleet to control it. Otherwise, the moat becomes an open door.

Royal Navy destroyers smashed their German counterparts at Narvik in April 1940, with the superior seamanship, discipline and gunnery which had been maintained afloat during the long inter-war years while most people were asleep.

Mortally wounded on the bridge of HMS Hardy, Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee tersely signalled to his fellow commanders ‘Continue to engage the enemy’ before expiring without fuss, in the tradition of the service.

But after that encounter, Hitler’s fleet was no longer capable of escorting an invasion across the Channel, as it proved. They never even tried.

In fact the Germans did not build a single landing craft. They knew that ‘Operation Sealion’ would almost certainly be torn to pieces before it ever drew near the English coast.

Destroyers were once again crucial at Dunkirk. The ‘Little Ships’ did what they could, but it was the vulnerable workhorses of the Navy which made the evacuation possible. It was a near thing.

Of the 176 destroyers with which Britain had started the Second World War, only 68 were still fit for service in home waters after the evacuation. Hence Churchill’s reluctant decision to cede bases to the USA (our first handover of national territory to the Americans since 1776) in return for 50 obsolete American warships.

The rocket was successfully expelled from HMS Vanguard’s launch tube with a blast of ‘gas and steam’ but the engines failed to ignite and it plopped embarrassingly into the Atlantic

The rocket was successfully expelled from HMS Vanguard’s launch tube with a blast of ‘gas and steam’ but the engines failed to ignite and it plopped embarrassingly into the Atlantic

The rundown of the force in the years since has been deeply shocking, made worse by the embarrassing habit that our ships have developed of breaking down

The rundown of the force in the years since has been deeply shocking, made worse by the embarrassing habit that our ships have developed of breaking down

It would not be long before they were fully engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic, the merciless war against the U-boats – which we so nearly lost that it was the only thing that kept Churchill awake with worry.

I should mention here (because it is why I care so much about this subject) the Russian convoys in which my late father took part, which helped to ensure victory on the Eastern Front – and which have rightly been described as the worst journey in the world.

He wouldn’t talk about it, except the brief, exhilarating moment when his ship was involved in the sinking of the German raider Scharnhorst. Even then he remembered with misgivings just how few of the German ship’s sailors they managed to rescue from the freezing sea.

But note that above I say that ‘only 68’ destroyers remained fit for service by the summer of 1940. We now possess fewer than 20 comparable ships.

You might say that we cannot possibly expect to have a Navy as big as we had in the days of Empire, and this is true. On D-Day in 1944, the Royal Navy managed to muster 900 British warships in the Channel, to support the invasion. That peak will obviously never be reached again.

But the decline has gone far beyond what is justified by economy or common sense. Until the 1980s, when I worked as a defence reporter, it was a set rule that this country always maintained ‘about 50’ frigates and destroyers.

The rundown of the force in the years since has been deeply shocking, made worse by the embarrassing habit that our ships have developed of breaking down. In 2016, expensive new destroyers failed because their engines could not cope with the warm waters of the Persian Gulf.

Perhaps it was lucky that only six of the intended 12 were ever built. As we ceaselessly learn, they are not alone.

The embarrassing repeated failures of the two vast new aircraft carriers are close to becoming a national joke – and what are they for anyway?

When they do put to sea they must borrow aircraft from the RAF and (even more troubling) from the US Marines. We lack the necessary vessels to escort and guard them. In a real war they would be targets rather than assets.

And no serious effort is being made any more to keep a significant warship near the Falklands to deter another Argentine attack. If we lost the islands to a surprise invasion again, we simply do not possess the ships necessary to retake them.

We are also losing the men and women without whom warships must be (and sometimes are) laid up uselessly in harbour. The problem is familiar to all our Armed Forces.

Experienced people leave and are not replaced. The burden increases on those who remain, and so more of them quit.

So the vital core of knowledge and discipline, on which the Navy would have to build in an emergency, is so small that it may not be able to cope.

This foolish failure to prepare has been as bad among the Tories as it has in the Labour Party. Always short of money, they have preferred to spend the nation’s cash on almost anything else, and they will get away with it until the day when it is far too late.

Now, not next year, is the time to address this. As Rudyard Kipling put it in another time ‘Do ye wait for the spattered shrapnel ere ye learn how a gun is laid? For the low, red glare to southward when the raided coast-towns burn? (Light ye shall have on that lesson, but little time to learn.)’

And here we come to real difficulty. How can we pay for proper Armed Forces, good enough to deter any attacker, strong enough to defend us and keep our sea-lanes open if bad times come again?

And the answer was provided on January 30 when for the second time in recent years, the launch of an American Trident missile from a British submarine failed.

In June 2016, the missile veered off in the wrong direction and had to be destroyed. In the more recent episode, the rocket was successfully expelled from HMS Vanguard’s launch tube with a blast of ‘gas and steam’ but the engines failed to ignite and it plopped embarrassingly into the Atlantic.

Back in May 1994, I watched the first such (successful) launch from a nearby US Navy vessel off Cape Canaveral and was struck by the continued dependence of this country on the USA.

I recalled a furious explosion of wrath from Mrs Thatcher some years before when an unwise civil servant told reporters (including me) that the missiles were in effect, leased from Washington, though the boats and warheads were ours.

But the other problem is the gigantic cost of maintaining and renewing a system designed for a Cold War superpower. As leading military figures, such as the late Field Marshal Edwin Bramall, argued, the spending sucks the rest of the Defence budget dry.

And in return for what? Israel, a country in much more danger than us, maintains a modest but effective nuclear deterrent without such a vast outlay. And I expect the Israeli weapons work.

Do ours? It looks questionable. And can we continue to keep these delicate vessels at sea all the time? We only have one on patrol. It only takes one accident, and our fabled deterrent ceases to exist.

Such an accident took place in February 2009, when HMS Vanguard bumped (at low speed) into a French nuclear missile submarine, Le Triomphant, while both were nosing silently around the surprisingly small area of the ‘Eastern Atlantic’ where these boats generally lurk.

Both subs returned to port, for major, costly repairs. I’d prefer a proper navy that could frighten off a foe to this fantasy of global power that is probably unusable even if they can get the rockets to ignite.



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