Empire of the Deep, by Ben Wilson

review published on January 22, 2014. Reviewed by jj redfearn

A gripping narrative tells the story of the major events and battles that have protected Britain’s coasts and trade since 793AD and later projected its power around the globe. Picking out the key players and highlighting their actions and influence has been done skillfully. Covering in an easily readable way everything from 8th century viking raids to the commercial warships that protect convoys through the Gulf today must have been an enormous challenge.

Empire’s theme is the simple question, “What’s the navy for?”. Because that defines what type of vessels it needs, what are its strategy and tactics, how much resource goes into it, how many ships and submarines and aircraft does it have. The answer has changed over time, and often when the navy’s been in decline the answers straight out of QI – Nobody Knows.

Wilson shows that three factors power a strong navy: a sizeable merchant fleet that can deliver large numbers of trained seamen at short notice; a strong shipbuilding industry that can rapidly design and build new and innovative fighting vessels; lots and lots of money. Britain today does not have a strong independent navy.

Once you have a powerful fleet you need proper strategy in how to use it and good tactics on how to fight it. For Britain, Wilson shows that the best strategy for a thousand years was to control the Western Approaches, that part of the Atlantic that leads into the Bristol and English channels. From there fleets can: blockade the French Atlantic and Northern coasts, countering the threats from Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany; convoy or protect merchant trade into or out of UK waters, bringing raw materials and foodstocks in and sending high-value goods out; and deter or intercept invasion fleets or sweep up the Channel to counter threats in the North Sea.

Good naval tactics depend on the capabilities of the ships, the power and range of the weapons and the discipline of the crews. When in the 16th century the fleet was a few mostly privately hired small ships with powerful and rapid firing guns up against an opposition with heavy ships, fewer guns and big crews intent on grappling and boarding the tactic was harry from a distance, fend them off and let the weather do its worst. Later, equally matched sailing fleets at sea needed different tactics. Attack from windward and you controlled the start of the battle. Break through the enemy line and engage from leeward and they couldn’t run away. Don’t start shooting until you were within yards of the enemy. That way your guncrews were fresh when accuracy and speed meant most, not already half exhausted by ineffectual shooting at long range. Rake the enemy as you passed through their line if you could. Sea chases, attacks on anchored ships, raiding ports and storming coastal cities all needed their own clear and defined tactics.

Throughout history senior naval officers had to be strategists, tacticians, diplomats and politicians. They had to ensure their ships had repair and recuperation bases, were manned and supplied, were in the right places at the right times. Communication In battle was often all but impossible, so officers had to know what they should do in any circumstance and to have enough confidence and initiative to do it. Hence senior officers had to ensure their officers knew what tactics would be employed in what circumstances and empower them to act accordingly without orders. They had to ensure crews were disciplined, healthy and highly trained. The best commanders, from the fifteenth century to today, were all but unnecessary once the enemy came in sight. They’d done their job already.

All of which lessons were rapidly forgotten at the end of each bout of hostilities and had to be relearned over and over again.

Wilson shows how the role of the navy has changed over time. In the early days it was a means of moving troops quickly to where they were needed, mainly for defense of the nation. When battles at sea became possible, through advanced ship design and gunnery, it became a force intended to keep invaders away from Britain’s coasts. Britain could rarely defeat an enemy once they’d landed. Later on it became an instrument of trade, ensuring the freedom of the seas for trading vessels of any nation and globally enforcing the anti-slavery laws introduced by Britain in 1807. By the 20th century Britain was no longer a resource rich nation and other industrial powers with more resources and more people had risen, able to outproduce and outspend on their navies. The navy’s role became defensive again. Two world wars bankrupted the country and the navy inevitably shrank, confused politicians changing and rechanging its shape and size as they slowly came to terms with Britain’s reduced status and role. Wilson carefully points out there was good reason for the Queen to review a flotilla of rowing boats on the Thames instead of the fleet at Portsmouth during the Jubilee.

Excellent book providing insight into how much and how often Britain has been threatened from the sea, how it had to dominate there to defend itself, and how vital its navy has been to the development of the modern world. The vital question it poses, and that has not for the 21st century satisfactorily been answered, is what is today’s Navy for?


An extract from The Buy Side, by Turney Duff


An extract from Mike Rutherford’s The Living Years

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