When Britannia ruled the waves

Once upon a time, the Royal Navy was more than just an armed service. It was a passion.
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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Navy ed. J.R.Hill, Oxford, pounds 25

This collection of essays declares itself the definitive one-volume history of the Royal Navy, and concludes with an assessment of the Navy in 1993 - a naval service, the editor says, ''of which the nation can be proud''. The truth is that the nation is neither proud nor ashamed of the Navy. It doesn't care two hoots about the Navy, except perhaps as the subject of rather embarrassing television films. Like Britain itself, the Royal Navy reached its true finale with the Great Victory of 1945: since then it has simply been, as everyone knows, just a contributory flotilla to the admiralty of the Americans.

National self-consequence is in poor taste now, but half a century ago nobody could possibly have sneered when the King of England crossed the English Channel in one of his warships, Royal Standard at the mainmast, to observe the invasion of Normandy. The immense maritime operation had been overwhelmingly a British achievement; around the King's ship milled a vast grey fleet flying the White Ensign; everyone knew that whatever kind of cock-up the British Army made of things, the Royal Navy would do its job with dignity and efficiency. It must be difficult for a later generation to realise the place the Navy then held in the pride and affection of the British people.

The book begins with the statutory references to round-ships, the Cinque Ports and the Battle of Sluys, and dutifully concludes with a chapter or two about NATO, the Falklands and all that; but it is in effect a grand memorial to a lost infatuation, which was really born with Nelson. The Nelsonic story itself, its dash and its sacrifice, its emotional comradeship, its romantic fallibility, for more than a century summed up the British people's feeling about their Navy: and to many of those who served in it, too, the Navy was more than just an armed service, but a kind of passion - ''a two-fisted, free-living, implacable, tragic, jovial, splendid service'', Admiral Lord Charles Beresford once wrote of it in a rare moment of lyricism.

The 14 eminent contributors to this book certainly do not let emotion run away with them. A professor at Cornell, the officer in charge of the Australian Navy's tactical development cell, a distinguished naval architect, a hydrographer of the Navy, a chairman of the Society for Nautical Research, sundry academics and defence analysts, they are all pre-eminent in their various fields, but are not by and large tuggers at the heart-strings. Nor are they, of course, mere propagandists. There is no hiding the incompetences, paltry rivalries, foolish economic decisions, misjudgements and bigotries which have so often weakened the British Navy; but now that the story is really ended, there is no denying either the historical truth that all in all the Navy won. It battled through to the end, often losing a fight but seldom losing a war, and the British people were right to see in it an epitome of what was best and strongest about themselves.

Admiral Hill, the exemplary editor of the work, of course makes the point that naval history is not just ships, sailors and strategy. Economics, sociology and politics all got their due attention, and the illustrations include not only the usual portraits of admirals, prints of smoke-shrouded ancient victories and photographs of peculiar Victorian battleships, but also some lovely paintings, reproduced in colour, to remind us that the Navy often played upon the sensibilities of artists, too. I don't think there is much revisionist writing in the collection, and there is little of the creative fire that raged through Corelli Barnett's recent history of the Navy in the Second World War: but there is steady judgement, able writing, and of course profound knowledge (though I may perhaps be forgiven the impertinence of pointing out that the Battle of the Taku Forts was not, as Andrew Lambert has it on page 182, ''Jacky'' Fisher's baptism of fire...).

Mr Lambert, in an otherwise impeccable essay on the Navy and the Victorian Empire, says that the Taku battle was the Royal Navy's only significant defeat in the 19th century. There were plenty to come in the 20th, though. Humiliating reverses in the First World War, diverse shambles in the Second, demonstrated that the Royal Navy's Nelsonic pre-eminence was lost already. Pathos was not among the qualities ''Charlie'' Beresford saw in his beloved Victorian Navy and it is distressing even now to read of the disadvantages under which, all too often through no fault of its own, the Navy struggled towards its end: rickety Swordfish biplanes lumbering heroically but generally vainly towards the enemy; poor old unreconstructed Hood, up against the Bismarck; Prince of Wales with no air cover, out- gunned MTBs; Dudley Pound, with his fatal brain tumour already developing, scattering the convoy PQ17 to its fearful destruction.

But it won. In those days the British saw their Navy in the context of a long and mighty tradition - the most famous exemplar of a great nation with an epic history. Who sees the Royal Navy in those terms now? Foreign Anglophiles perhaps, but very few Britons. Only those of more than a certain age will still get a thrill of pride from this handsome book: just as only a few elderly romantics, pausing to contemplate the roster of names on the naval war memorial on Plymouth Hoe, the majestic titles of the fleets once dispersed across the oceans, the terrible battle-honours, the long, long register of men lost at sea in so many distant half-forgotten actions - only a few of us still have to wipe away a tear.