The British Armed Forces

The Royal Navy

Royal Navy officers and midshipmen, 1830s-1890s

Caption: Royal Navy officers and midshipmen, 1830s-1890s

The British armed forces were organized somewhat differently from other major European armies. Because of their island location, the British were not as concerned about land invasions. As long as their navy was able to fend off enemy fleets, they did not really need fortifications or major armies on their own territory. The navy was their principal and preferred line of defence. The Royal Navy was truly the senior service, in terms of both size and prestige.

Ultimate authority for major strategic policies concerning the Royal Navy around the world rested with the Admiralty Board. Then came a number of agencies such as the Navy Board, which was responsible for financial and technical matters, the Marine infantry, supply, health and hydrography, and finally the Transport Board, which organized convoys.

The hundreds of ships in the Royal Navy were grouped into squadrons. The admiral of a squadron lived on board a large warship flying his pennant, with subordinate admirals or captains, depending on the size of the squadron, under his command. Every ship, large or small, was commanded by an officer. For a large ship, command went to a seasoned captain supported by numerous lieutenants and ensigns; a young ensign could be placed in command of an armed schooner. Under the officers came the midshipmen, or officer cadets, youngsters who experienced the school of hard knocks for several years before obtaining their certificates. Lower down were the non-commissioned officers specializing in sailing, artillery, etc., who supervised the seamen. Finally, to defend the ship and keep order among the crew, each ship carried a marine detachment.

The Royal Navy had numerous naval bases in Great Britain and around the world. From the Canadian coasts, it controlled the North Atlantic and the North Pacific to provide security not only to the British but to Canadians as well. Thus the Royal Navy played a very important role in Canadian military heritage. It guarded Canadian coasts for a long time, while benefiting from the outstanding geostrategic positioning of the bases - an unparalleled advantage that Canada owed to its links with Great Britain. The ships and seamen posted to Canadian bases were British, but they played a role identical to that of the Canadian navy in the twentieth century.