Command of the Ocean – A Unique 250 Year Strategy

The supremacy of the Royal Navy is a remarkable story of national strategy sustained over centuries. From the later Stuart monarchs to the early 20th Century, British economic dominance was achieved from three superiorities – agricultural productivity, foreign trade and the Royal Navy –working in synergy.

It was not automatic that the Royal Navy came to dominate its competitors – rivals such as Spain, France, Holland and Germany all threatened over this long era. However, by incredible national unity of purpose, England then Britain built a naval capability that delivered Command of the Ocean.

Key strategic elements were:

  • Seamanship and Gunnery – a traditional strength from Tudor times, bolstered by a large merchant marine.
  • Harbours and Wind Gauge – a geographic blessing.
  • Money – through agriculture and trade, Britain was wealthy. She had competitive advantage in sophisticated tax systems, yielding double the revenues of the French state. The Navy vote was always the biggest budget item. Government bonds were issued at significantly lower interest than Continental paper.
  • Administration – over time, the administration of Naval Victualing, Supply, Treasury and Admiralty became specialized and highly competent.
  • Leadership – Admirals were promoted from hardened captains on merit – no Royal Princes. In battle, admirals had great autonomy of decision and action.
  • Supply and Manufacturing – supply was outsourced to a myriad of specialized factories and yards in Britain and worldwide. Inventories were positioned around the globe.
  • Science and Engineering – often via the Royal Society, new discoveries in metallurgy, machinery, navigation, chemistry, etc. found their way to the Navy.
  • Medicine and Food Preservation – to keep ships at sea over long blockades or expeditions, the health of seamen drove new medical discoveries, e.g. prevention of scurvy.
  • Threat – being Protestant, Britain was always threatened by hostile Catholic powers.

But the over-riding reason for this astonishing strategic success was the unwavering will of British society expressed through its Parliament. While the Army and foreign affairs were Crown portfolios and thus capricious, the Navy and Exchequer were always the domain of Parliament. Unlike its European enemies, Britain had a government representing an enterprising, educated and acquisitive middle class who knew the Navy’s role was critical in enabling and defending commercial and industrial supremacy and profit. The voters required that Britain remain forever on a defensive war footing. Led by Parliament, this prodigious naval effort was integrated throughout the nation in a complex web of management, systems, competencies, logistics and resources.

Main source: “The Command of the Ocean” N.A.M. Rodger