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History of the Navy

Updated on November 26, 2016

It was in the Mediterranean Sea that navies, as such, first made their appearance in history. The Egyptian kings probably had ships specially designed for fighting as early as 3000 B.C. Crete reached its height as a great sea power about 1600 B.C. However, the greatest and widest-ranging of these early navies belonged to the Phoenicians.

The Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, on the coast of what is now Lebanon, grew rich from the enterprise of their merchant sea captains. They founded colonies in Spain and North Africa and voyaged as far as Britain. While most of their ships were designed for carrying cargo, they also developed slim, narrow war galleys, built for speed rather than carrying capacity, to protect their commerce.

The Phoenicians were noted for their skill in seamanship and navigation arid were. admired for the strict discipline of their crews. However, they do not seem to have created a true naval establishment under state control. Their fighting ships were Simply escorts for commerce or, in later times, were hired or drafted by land powers that lacked navies of their own. The Athenian Navy. The first organized, government-supported navy was the Athenian navy. The Greeks had been sea venturers and sea traders from very early times. When the tide of Persian conquest rolled westward into Asia Minor, the Greeks began to realize that control of the sea was vital to their safety as well as their prosperity.

The father of the Athenian navy as a permanent arm of the state was the brilliant strategist Themistocles. Athens reaped the reward of his foresight in 480 B.C., when the fleet of the Persian king Xerxes I was destroyed at Salamis. The Persian army, which had already entered the city of Athens, had to retreat because it could no longer be supplied. The rapid rise of Athens to naval and commercial supremacy among the Greek states followed. Though later exhausted in the Peloponnesian War, Athens recovered and more or less dominated the Aegean until finally overwhelmed by the army of Philip II of Macedonia in 336 B.C.


In the western Mediterranean, meanwhile, Carthage was rapidly extending its dominions. Carthage developed a strong war fleet based on a secure naval arsenal. Its navy protected the city's trade with colonies in Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily and along the African coast, However, the naval power of Carthage was subject to political uncertainties and the parsimony of its governing oligarchy. The city's eventual defeat by the Roman republic in the Third Punic War was due largely to the superior political stability of the Romans and to their ingenuity in copying Carthaginian warships and naval practices.

Greek and Roman Galleys

In the naval warfare of the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and the Romans, most of the actual fighting was done by coming to close quarters and boarding the enemy. The war galleys usually had a ram, a timber beak shod with bronze or iron, that could smash a hole in the side of an enemy galley. However, conditions did not always permit this weapon to be used effectively.

Hand-to-hand fighting with sword and spear usually decided the outcome of naval battles. War, galleys habitually carried a detachment of well-armed fighting men, and when several galleys were jammed together, as often happened, the rowers left their benches, seized weapons, and joined in the fight. Such missile weapons as bows, slings, and stone-throwing machines, the first naval artillery, were also used in sea battles.

Sails were used for propulsion while cruising and for entering and withdrawing from action when the wind was favorable. However, for tactical maneuvering when battle was about to be joined, oars were favored as being more dependable than the wind. The strength of the rowers had to be carefully husbanded; 7 knots was about the utmost in speed and could only be kept up for a very short length of time, as when an opportunity for ramming appeared.

When the Roman Empire rose on the ruins of the republic, Rome found itself undisputed master of the Mediterranean. To the empire the sea was simply a military highway, undisputed except by pirates, whose fleets at times became so large as to require the attention of strong naval forces. This sea power enabled imperial authority to reach and rule all the Mediterranean lands. Even after the Western Roman Empire had finally disintegrated from the combined effects of internal decay and the overland assaults of barbarians, the well-organized fleets of the Eastern Empire helped preserve imperial rule at Constantinople for another 1,000 years against the onslaughts of invaders.

Naval Decline and Revival

There was no corresponding naval development in western Europe during the early Middle Ages. One consequence was that Viking freebooters in their "long ships" were able to ravage and plunder almost at will along the coasts and up the river estuaries of Europe. It was in response to these attacks that Alfred the Great built the first English navy in the 9th century A.D.

The next two centuries saw the rise of the Italian cities of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa as great maritime powers. Their navies relied at first on war galleys that were not too different from those of ancient Rome. They generally cruised along coastlines or from headland to headland. Since they did not have much room for carrying stores, they had to be constantly supplied from land or by supply ships.

Gradually, the galley was replaced by the heavily timbered sailing ship. The size and structural strength of these ships increased as mariners began venturing into the stormy Atlantic Ocean. The use of cannon aboard ship also became feasible. The last great fleet action in which galleys were used was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Meanwhile, the shape of the naval future was already appearing in the English and Dutch navies, with their great cannon-armed sailing ships.

Advances in the art of navigation, improved ships, and the new science of naval gunnery were the three chief elements of this revolutionary change in naval warfare.

The traditions of the Royal Navy had their origins in the reign of Elizabeth I, in the exploits of her sea captains, of whom Francis Drake is the most famous.

It was Drake and his fellow captains who defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 and freed both England and Holland from the threat of Spanish invasion. Then these two sea powers, who were also rival traders, became enemies for a time. The Dutch Wars of the 17th century saw the development of the capital ship, the sailing ship of the line, which was to dominate the naval scene until the coming of the Age of Steam.

The Ship of the Line

The cannon had become the decisive naval weapon, and a ship of the line was constructed so as to bring as much gunpower into action as it could be made to carry. The essential part of its design, which remained unchanged in principle for nearly two centuries, was the inclusion of two or three gun decks below the upper deck. The guns, on wooden carriages, were fired through ports cut in the ship's sides. The ship had to carry enough men to work the guns in action and to handle the sails at the same time, if necessary.

At first, gunnery and ship handling were separate vocations. The earliest ships of the line were commanded by officers whose main business was fighting, while a sailing master and his mates, subordinate to the captain, dealt with such matters as steering, making and taking in sail, navigation, and the stowage of supplies. But experience soon proved that a ship of the line, or any gun-armed sailing warship, was a fighting unit and that success in battle depended on ship, sails, and guns being commanded as a unit by one man who understood the qualities of all.

From this experience developed the professional naval officer and from this period dates the real distinction between armies and navies.

In the British navy the old title of general of the sea was replaced by the naval rank of admiral, and the captain of a ship of the line was recognized as the equal of an army colonel commanding a regiment. Naval powers also began to develop government departments, called admiralties, for the control and administration of naval affairs. The shore establishments required for the support of the new oceanic navies included dockyards for building and repairing ships, ordnance factories, and facilities for storing and issuing spars, canvas, cordage, ammunition, and a wide variety of other supplies.

Ships of the line were rated according to the number of guns they carried. In the mid-17th century, ships of 50 guns or more were considered fit to "lie in the line of battle," but by the end of the 18th century the average British ship of the line had 74 guns, and larger ones, with up to 120 guns, were not uncommon. For the protection of commerce, scouting, and similar duties, frigates of from 28 to 50 guns were used, and still smaller craft, such as corvettes, sloops of war, brigs, and schooners, performed a great miscellany of naval tasks.

British Supremacy

British security and prosperity depended on keeping control of the sea approaches to the British Isles and the trade routes to overseas possessions that fed British commerce. As an island power, Britain did not have to maintain a great army for defense against predatory neighbors. Relieved of this burden, it could afford to keep a fleet of invincible power. None of its rivals on the continent of Europe could hope to equal the Royal Navy because the defense of land frontiers had to be their primary military consideration.

During the long period from the late 17th century until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, France was Britain's principal rival in maritime trade and colonial expansion. The French navy was consistently over-matched by the Royal Navy. Time after time, France turned to the use of small warships and privateers against British merchant shipping. This policy never proved decisive, although it exacted a heavy economic toll from British commerce. Because France was unable to wrest control of the sea from Britain, it lost its great colonial empires in North America and India. However, when the British allowed the French to gain temporary naval superiority in the western Atlantic in 1781, they in turn lost their best-developed North American colonies.

In general, British mastery at sea, coupled with the islanders' realization of dependence on their navy, resulted in great weight being given to naval considerations in high policy decisions. In the councils of France and other continental powers, their less successful sailors were always overshadowed by the soldiers. Of even the great Napoleon, the French historian Jurien de la Gravière has written that "Nothing was lacking to his military genius save a comprehension of the difficulties of war at sea."

A long period of relative peace followed the final defeat of Napoleon. This was the century of the "Pax Britannica." There were no world wars in this century because the weight of British sea power supported British diplomacy in preventing any such catastrophe for British commercial interests from developing. This period also saw unprecedented advances in education, science, and technology-advances which, among other consequences, revolutionized the navies of the world.


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