Michael Bywater: Never happier than when up on the poop deck

The army bark. The RAF swap acronyms, staccato. But the naval commander says , ‘When you’ve got a moment, Number One, I’d be awfully glad if you could just ...’
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It worked for Palmerston; perhaps (he may have reasoned) it would work for Gordon Brown: when things get tough, the tough send in a gunboat.

In this case, it wasn't actually a gunboat but a nine-year-old Landing Platform Dock, the HMS Albion. You may well have watched the happy evacuees stumbling ashore at Pompey this week, beaming at their deliverance from nightmare trips across Europe to fetch up in Abbey National, or "Santander" as it's now known. They were clearly delighted to be home, clutching their little white packages. "Navy cake," someone suggested. Unlikely; that's RN slang for homosexual activity.

All the same, their travails having turned them into a pack of racing snakes, they'd have got some scran – maybe a couple of cackleberries, maybe a tram-smash, perhaps they even got to yaffle a chunk of Acting Rabbit out there on the hoggin. Only the best for the guests of the Andrew.*

Logistically, it wasn't the greatest success. It began with an announcement that the Ark Royal and two other might vessels were right now steaming to... well, to an unknown destination, somewhere in France. Not a hundred per cent helpful to the stranded travellers. "It's going to be all right, children. Mister Brown is sending the Navy to pick us up." "But where, Daddy?" "Ah." Well fair dos. You can't have Johnny Islamic Terrorist knowing where the Ark, the Albion and the Ocean are actually headed. Playing right into his hand. Asking for trouble. Bad show, won't wash, no can do. Frankly: ram it.

But nationally... nationally, it could hardly have been better. Even if, at last report, the Ark and the Ocean were still at sea, ambling round in no particular order, the very idea of Sending In The Navy speaks deeply to the British national consciousness in a way the Army (violent, shouty, covered in mud and sand, getting blown up and shot and crippled for life) and the RAF (technocratic wide boys zooming around in expensive toys) simply are not. We see the Army, abseiling through windows, yomping about, skulking round corners, coming home in coffins and wheelchairs. We see the RAF, at air shows and fly-pasts. We hardly ever see the Navy; but – perhaps for that very reason – they are more embedded in our national soul. The Royal Navy – the Senior Service – has sex appeal.

For a supremely professional and, nowadays, highly technological fighting force, it is oddly affable. Think of the Army and you think of some Colour Sergeant-Major, shouting. Think of the Navy and it's all John le Mesurier, murmuring, Noël Coward in In Which We Serve, a duffel-coated Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea. It's Aubrey and Maturin in Master and Commander, Captain Hornblower, Commander James Bond, RN.

There was a legendary (perhaps even mythical, though Danny La Rue developed his drag act during his time in the Andrew) gun director on, it was said, HMS Hood who had been a female impersonator in civvy street. Gun crews were said to look forward to action because when the moment came he would murmur into the intercom the magnificently Naval command: "Fire, dears." There's the difference. The Army bark their orders. The RAF exchange acronymic staccato over the R/T. But the Naval command is never "Go! Go! Go!" but, rather, "When you've got a moment, Number One, I'd be awfully glad if you could just ..."

We have, of course, been at it a long time. Homer provides the founding myths for Europe, but while the rest of them chose the Iliad, we have traditionally focused more on its sequel, the Odyssey: the story of a naval officer trying to navigate home against all the odds. For their successors, the Romans, seas were an obstacle to be crossed with the minimum of fuss, barely mentioned; for the Greeks, the sea was the thing itself; think of Xenophon's men jostling frantically for a view. "Thalassa! Thalassa!" they cried: "The sea! The sea!"

England itself had a standing fleet, funded from general taxation, at least as far back as the 11th century. In mediaeval times, it fell into decline; merchant ships were pressed into service as required. The Royal Navy as we now know it – the Senior Service – was built up by Henry VIII. After the Battle of Beachy Head in 1690, the Bank of England itself was set up to raise funds for British defence. In under a fortnight it raised £1.2m, more than half of which went to rebuilding the Navy.

Nor, of course, is it simply the Royal Navy which is imprinted in the British DNA. The sea is there, and where there is sea, there are ships. The perfidious French may have turned away Dan Snow's magnificent neo-evacuation of the stranded in France (for obscure but, it being France, undoubtedly commercial and vested considerations) but the instinct was there: show anyone else half-a-dozen rigid inflatable boats and they'll see a risk assessment that needs doing; show them to a Briton and he'll see the nucleus of a navy, just as the Man of Charmouth earlier this week saw not an iron bedstead and a pile of wooden boxes, but a boat, in which he put to sea and had to be forcibly repatriated by the coastguards.

You can always tell the Britons aboard any ship: we're the ones trying to weasel our way on to the bridge; we're the ones who deny any susceptibility to seasickness; we're the ones out on the bow in a wild sea, our hands behind our backs, leaning forward, beaming like apes. We are each, in the words of Elizabeth Speller's poem "Finistère", "the salted man" who "leans in / To the force of the wind and the rough, wet air". Even the Briton in his 15HP hired boat puttering round his holiday island is, in his mind's eye, a seafarer, and no mistake that the Last Night of the Proms used to end with Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs. They dropped it in 2008 – the BBC, as so often, like would-be trendy vicars, embarrassingly behind the curve – but it could be brought back this year, its contents almost a narrative of the ash-doomed holiday, from "Bugle Calls" to "Jack the Lad", then (Santander in mind) "Farewell and Adieu", "You Spanish Ladies", "Home Sweet Home" and ending up with "Rule Britannia" – politically incorrect, but see how James Thomson's poem associates ruling the waves with the avoiding of slavery. To lose the sea is to lose liberty.

Naval chiefs, many of them such salted men as to be almost encrusted, would agree with the sentiment as much as they have disagreed with Gordon's LPD diplomacy. While Boris Johnson's parents, Stanley and Jenny, were "thrilled to be boarding this magnificent vessel", naval officers described it all as, among other less printable remarks, "inappropriate" and "political gesturing". A note of bitterness? Very probably. The recent orders for new warships are denounced by the Save The Royal Navy campaign as "window dressing for the election" and point out that cuts in men and matériel have led to chronic understaffing and lack of capacity which might seem odd in a country where 90 per cent of our international trade travels by sea.

Dan's Armada and the Santander expedition might have, in practical terms, achieved little. But they might just encourage us to wake up and smell the ozone. In the meantime, we have been left with another song for the (if it should happen) revived Fantasia. In the words of Cynthia Asiama, left behind at Santander: "But when they got to port, they refused to let us on, and we had to watch it sail a-wa-a-a-y". All together now ...

*Glossary: Racing snake: very thin person; Scran: something to eat; Cackleberry: boiled egg; Tram smash: Bacon and tinned tomatoes; Yaffle: to snarf up, eat greedily. Acting Rabbit: Meat pie; Hoggin, the: The sea; The Andrew: The Navy; Ram it: I respectfully decline to carry out your instructions