|SEA SERVICES PEOPLE, PLACES
Portsmouth is the traditional home of the Royal Navy and the port on the south coast of
England is a veritable cornucopia for those who are interested in naval history or in
today's navies. The Log called there in July.
Located about an hour and a half by train from London, Portsmouth is a large city.
However, all of the major attractions are within easy walking distance from the
Portsmouth Harbor train station.
Portsmouth is dominated by its large Royal Navy base. In 2002, Britain divided its
surface fleet into two flotillas, one of which is based at Devonport and the other at
Portsmouth. As a result, grey ships populate the harbor view, although sadly, several
are reserve ships or ships awaiting scrapping.
The Royal Navy is transforming from a navy primarily directed at anti-submarine
warfare to a more flexible force that can adapt to a variety of missions. By necessity,
during this transition period, ships designed for the Cold War are performing new
missions. However, the UK is also building new ships. These will be more versatile
and more efficient with smaller crews and increased reliance on technology.
With the end of the Cold War, the Royal Navy like the U.S. Navy, has had to
justify its existence to a general public that is skeptical that it needs a navy. The RN
has pointed out that 95 percent of Britain's trade travels by sea and a quarter of a million
people are employed in maritime businesses. In addition, since Britain is a permanent
member of the United Nations Security Council and a founding member of NATO, it
has world obligations. Nonetheless, the size of the fleet has been reduced significantly.
In its annual publication Broadsheet 2007 the Royal Navy pointed out that such
reductions are approaching a dangerous level: "We are entering an era where high-
intensity conflict demands a defined number of highly capable platforms, yet global
instability requires that higher levels of routine global presence be maintained, with the
capability to surge as events dictate. Consequently, we could be approaching a 'tipping
point' where further reductions in hull numbers, capability or logistic support could have
a disproportionate impact on the effectiveness of the fleet to support government policy
in the round."
As in Norfolk, Virginia, there are harbor tours that give visitors a close view of
the warships. Blue Boats tours leave from a landing adjacent to the train station. A
larger boat is operated by the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and leaves from that
In port were two of Britain's three aircraft carriers. The UK has recognized that
aircraft carriers give a nation a flexible, rapid means of projecting power in the current
world environment. Accordingly, aircraft carriers are the cornerstone of the
expeditionary forces around which UK planners are modeling the new Royal Navy.
HMS ILLUSTRIOUS (R06) is the U.K.'s High Readiness Strike Carrier. The U.K.
has adopted the Tailored Air Group concept in which the number and mix of aircraft
embarked is "tailored" to the role that the ship will be performing. Since ILLUSTRIOUS
is the strike carrier, she carries more fixed-wing aircraft (RN and RAF Harriers) than
sister-ship HMS ARK ROYAL (R07), which is the U.K.'s High Readiness Commando
Helicopter Carrier. The ship also has a sophisticated communications system which
enables her to be used as a command and control platform when operating with a task
ILLUSTRIOUS is 22,000 tons and is powered by four gas turbine engines, which
give her a top speed of over 30 knots. The ship participated in the the First Gulf War
and in the War in Afghanistan. Built in 1982, ILLUSTRIOUS underwent a two-year refit
in 2002, designed to extend her service life to 2012.
In January 2008, ILLUSTRIOUS deployed as flagship of a combined task group,
which included USS COLE (DDG 67), that took her to the Mediterranean, the Middle
East and the Far East. She had returned to Portsmouth for an extensive maintenance
period before returning to sea for exercises in U.K. waters in the fall.
Also in port was HMS INVINCIBLE (R05) (See The Log Summer 2004 at p. 8).
The oldest of the three British carriers, INVINCIBLE is being held in low-readiness
reserve. Indeed, her propellers could be seen lying on the flight deck. However, this
veteran of the Falklands War will remain available to the Royal Navy until 2010.
The Royal Navy plans to replace all three of its carriers with the two largest ships
ever built for the Royal Navy, HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and HMS PRINCE OF
WALES, which are to enter service in 2014 and 2016. While plans for these carriers
have not been finalized, the concept is to build these ships with ramps similar to those
on Britain's existing carriers. This should enable the ships to use the VSTOL version of
the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. However, these carriers will be fitted for, but not
equipped with, catapults and arrestor gear so that they can be modified to operate
aircraft requiring a catapult launch and arrested recovery. According to First Sea Lord
Sir Jonathon Band, these ships "will form the core of the most capable mobile strike
force outside of the US and will represent a quantum step up in military capability for
the UK's Armed Forces."
Turning to the port’s historical attractions, the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is a
complex of museums and exhibits that is surrounded by the Navy base. It is quite
extensive and contains some of the most important ships in British naval history.
Proceeding chronologically, the first major exhibit is the MARY ROSE, the only
16th century warship on display anywhere in the world. When Henry VIII came to the
throne in 1509, England had declined into a lesser power, having lost all of its medieval
possessions on the European continent except Calais. Henry was determined to restore
England to a leading role in Europe. In addition, he was concerned about England's
traditional enemies France and Scotland. Accordingly, he decided to expand the English
Henry’s expansion program centered upon the construction of two large ships. One
of these was named after Henry's favorite sister, Mary - - a rose being the emblem of the
Tudors, Henry's family. The ship was 500 tons when built and differed from earlier
English ships not only in size but in her caravel design. This design facilitated having
gun ports along each side which enabled MARY ROSE to be one of the first ships
capable of firing a broadside. MARY ROSE was completed in 1511.
For most of her career, the MARY ROSE was the flagship of the English fleet,
fighting in a number of battles against French and Scottish ships. In a battle off the
French port of Brest in 1512 she crippled the enemy flagship, and is said to have brought
down her mainmast with a single shot. In addition to her armament of bronze canons,
she carried archers and early firearms.
In July 1545, the French were preparing to invade southern England. Accordingly,
the English fleet gathered near Portsmouth in the waters between the mainland and the
Isle of Wight known as The Solent. On 19 July, a French fleet appeared and just as the
battle was beginning, the MARY ROSE heeled over and sank.
The reason for the sinking is unclear but it does not appear to have been due to
any actions by the French. Rather, it is believed that when the sails were raised the ship
heeled to such a degree that water entered through her gun ports. There were only 30
survivors out of a crew of approximately 500.
The MARY ROSE sank through the silt at the bottom of The Solent and came to
rest on the underlying clay. Since she sank at a 60 degree angle, her starboard side was
covered by the silt. As a result, it was preserved while the port side was eroded away.
In 1967, the wreck was located through the use of side scan sonar. Nearly 28,000
dives were made to the wreck site by archeologists and those working to recover the
ship and her artifacts. The remains of the ship were raised in 1982.
Visitors should not expect to see a fully restored ship. Rather, the ship consists of
the one remaining side, which is housed in a large building where it is being sprayed by
chemicals in order to counteract the effects of being in salt water for 500 years. There
is also a museum with canons, bows, and other artifacts from the ship.
The crown jewel of the Historic Dockyard is HMS VICTORY - - the longest
serving ship in commission. Built for the Seven Years War in the 1760s, VICTORY
was not completed until after that war ended and so spent 13 years in reserve before
being commissioned in 1778 for the American War of Independence. Today, the ship is
the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command of the Royal Navy.
VICTORY is a 104-gun first rate ship-of-the-line. She is 227 feet long, 52 feet
wide and has a displacement of 3,500 tons. Approximately 6,000 trees were used in her
construction. The overall weight of a broadside fired by VICTORY was 1,148
pounds. Her top speed was 11 knots.
Although she fought in the American Revolution (against the French), the French
Revolutionary Wars and in several engagements in the Napoleonic Wars, the reason that
she is remembered and preserved today is that she was Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson's
flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson was the son of a country parson who earned
his title and his rank through a series of spectacular victories over the French, Danish
and Spanish fleets.
In October 1805, a combined French and Spanish fleet gathered off the coast of
Spain in order to support Napoleon's planned invasion of Britain. In a break with
established doctrine, Nelson formed the smaller British fleet into two columns, attacked
at a 90 degree angle and broke the enemy line of battle in two places. The result was a
lopsided British victory that not only secured British naval supremacy during the
remainder of the Napoleonic Wars but for more than a century after.
Nelson insisted that VICTORY be at the fore of one of the attacking columns. As
a result, she was heavily damaged and had to be taken under tow following the battle.
Fifty-seven of her 820-member crew, including Lord Nelson, were killed and 102
VICTORY was repaired and saw active service until 1812. Following an
extensive re-build, she was placed in reserve until 1824 when she was made the flagship
of the Port Admiral. In 1831, she was recommended for disposal but the First Sea Lord
happened to be her former captain Thomas Hardy who had served under Nelson and he
refuse to sign the order.
After a re-fit in 1888, VICTORY assumed her present role as flagship for the
Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command. Then, in 1922, VICTORY was restored
to her 1805 appearance and, in 1991, another extensive restoration program was
launched to get her ready for the Bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005.
Today, VICTORY sits in a dry dock with her tall sides and masts soaring above
the dockyard. Like USS CONSTITUTION, the ship is manned by serving officers and
enlisted personnel. Admission to the ship is by ticket. At certain times of the year,
there are guided tours. During the remainder, visitors can walk the ship on their own
using a comprehensive plan of the ship that explains all the areas of interest. Members
of VICTORY's Corps of Guides are on hand to answer questions.
The third major exhibit is HMS WARRIOR, a Victorian warship built in 1860.
This was a time of technological change and the French had incorporated some of these
new technological developments into their fleet. WARRIOR was built as a response.
She was bigger, faster and more heavily armed than any other warship afloat.
WARRIOR was the world's first iron-hulled, armored warship powered by steam as well
WARRIOR is not as famous as VICTORY. She did not participate in any sea
battles or even fire her guns in anger. Nonetheless, she was a very successful ship.
Because WARRIOR so far out-classed anything else afloat, no one dared to challenge
her. Thus, she was an important contributor to maintaining the Pax Britannia - - the long
period in the 19th Century during which there was no major war between the European
The ship's armament included both breachloaded 40 pounders and muzzle-loaded
68 pounders. Most of the main battery was housed in an armored citadel 213 feet long
and 22 feet wide that was protected by 4 inch iron plates attached to 18 inches of solid
teak. In tests, the most powerful guns of the day could not penetrate this armor, even at
point blank range.
Under steam, she could do 14.3 knots while under sail she could do 13 knots.
Using both, she could make 17.5 knots. When she was proceeding just under sail, her
telescopic funnels were lowered so as not to obstruct the wind and her screw propeller
was raised out of the water to reduce drag.
Because this was a time of rapid technological change, WARRIOR only spent 10
years in active service and 12 years in reserve. After that, she deteriorated through a
series of undignified roles including being used as a floating workshop and as an oil
In 1979, she was rescued and 8 million pounds was spent restoring her to the way
she looked in 1860. After nine years of restoration work, she was brought to Portsmouth
where she rides at anchor just inside the gates of the Dockyard.
The restoration work was superb. The ship looks as if the crew had just gone off
for shore leave. The officers' living quarters, the sailor's hammocks, the galleys, the
engines, the guns, the small arms - - everything is there to see.
There is much more to the Historic Dockyards than the three major ships. There is
the Royal Naval Museum with artifacts, paintings and exhibits relating to the history of
the Royal Navy. Action Stations is an interactive gallery dedicated to showing what life
is like in the modern navy. In addition, there are several smaller ships and boats.
Across the harbor in neighboring Gosport is the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. There
is a ferry that leaves from the Portsmouth Harbor railroad station and takes passengers
to the town of Gosport. The museum is a short walk from there. Alternatively, the Blue
Boats harbor tour stops at the Submarine Museum and passengers who disembark to see
the museum can continue the tour on a subsequent boat.
Dominating the museum is HMS ALLIANCE, a 281-foot long A-class submarine
that rests on concrete pylons above the waters of the harbor. Due to this placement of
the boat, there has been considerable corrosion and the exterior is not in good condition.
(Prince William is spearheading a fundraising drive to conserve the boat). The interior,
however, has been well-preserved and the guided tour is interesting and informative.
Built in 1945, ALLIANCE was designed to be a long range submarine for use in
the Pacific against the Japanese in World War II. However, the war ended before she
could go to sea and as a result, the sub was not commissioned until 1947 and served
during the Cold War until 1979. She could do over 18 knots on the surface but only 8
It is interesting to contrast ALLIANCE with USS BECUNA (SS 319), which is now
a museum in Philadelphia. BECUNA was built two years before ALLIANCE and is
slightly larger 1,800 tons (surfaced) versus 1,360 tons. Yet, the British boat seems not
as cramped. The British felt that in a boat designed for such long range missions, crew
comfort was a priority. The American boat, on the other hand, had to accommodate
the machinery needed to drive her at 15 knots underwater. Of course, neither boat has
the room of even an early nuclear submarine such as USS NAUTLIS (SSN 571), now a
museum in New London.
Also on display at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum is HOLLAND I, Britain's
first submarine commissioned in 1901. John Holland, an Irish-American emigrant,
designed the first practical submarines in the second half of the 19th century. His first
successful boat, launched in 1878, was funded by Irish nationalists who saw it as a
means of challenging the British fleet. Such dreams came to naught but in 1900,
Holland's Type 6 submarine was accepted by the U.S. Navy.
Although not entirely convinced of their value, that same year, the Royal Navy
contracted with the Electric Boat Company to have Vickers Maxim build under license
five boats that were a larger version of Holland's Type 6. The first of these, HOLLAND
I, could travel up to 20 miles underwater at a speed of seven knots and dive up to a
depth of 100 feet. The power plant consisted of a gasoline engine and 60 battery cells
for use underwater. She was armed with three 18 inch torpedoes and was intended for
By 1913, HOLLAND I had become obsolete and was consigned to the breakers.
However, the small boat sank off of Wales while under tow. In 1981, the wreck was
located by a Royal Navy minesweeper and HOLLAND I was salvaged the next year.
However, then began a battle with corrosion. A chemical solution was applied and the
sub placed on display. However, this failed to halt the ongoing corrosion brought on by
having soaked for nearly 70 years in salt water. Accordingly, the museum put the sub
into a tank filled with 800,000 litres of sodium carbonate. In 1998, the tank was drained
and it was determined that the corrosion had been halted.
Today, HOLLAND I is on display in an environmentally-controlled building. The
museum has decided not to attempt to restore the boat to its service condition. Rather,
visitors see just the original boat complete with corrosion damage. Nonetheless, one
can go inside and see the remaining Jules Verne-era machinery and instruments. Perhaps
the most interesting thing about it is seeing that today's undersea giants stem from
something so small and primitive.
In addition to these two major exhibits, the Submarine Museum has a British X-
craft two-main submarine and a German midget submarine from World War II. There is
also a large exhibit hall with artifacts and exhibits from Britain's submarine service.
Included are the periscope and the captain's quarters from HMS CONQUER, which form
part of a multi-media exhibit about the sinking of the Argentine cruiser BELLGRANO
during the Falklands War.
There is more to see in Portsmouth than the Navy. Housed in the officer's quarters of a
Victorian barracks is the Royal Marines Museum detailing that service's history going
back more than 300 years. Also, there is the D-Day Museum that includes a tapestry
depicting the invasion in a style similar to the Bayeux Tapestry's depiction of the
Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Fort Nelson has one of the largest collections of
artillery and re-enactors give demonstrations. In short, there is much to see and learn in
Visiting the Home of
the Royal Navy
A LOOK AT THE NAVAL ATTRACTIONS
OPEN TO VISITORS TO PORTSMOUTH,
BY RICHARD H. WAGNER
(Originally published by the Navy League of the United
States, New York Council in The Log, Summer 2008).
|Its all about ships
HMS Victory. Lord Nelson's flagship at the Battle
of Trafalgar and still a commissioned warship.
Above left, HMS Warrior,
the most powerful ship of
Above right: HMS
Alliance is the central
attraction at the
Submarine Force Museum.
Left: HMS Lancaster
Right: HMS Manchester
Below: HMS Invincible,
veteran of the Falklands
War, waits in reserve.