views updated Jun 11 2018


NAVY. Up to the late fifteenth century, permanent navies with ships built only for warfare were unimportant in Europe. Wars at sea were fought with infantry weapons and they could be used on merchantmen temporarily armed for war. Maritime cities with many large cargo carriers could rapidly form powerful navies, and mercantile power was easily converted into sea power. The only specialized warships were the oared galleys, but they could be built quickly in large numbers when a war began. The sea power of a state became visible only during wars. One part of this system was retained in most early modern navies as, to a considerable extent, they were manned with seamen recruited from the mercantile marines. In peacetime, only a nucleus of seamen was employed by the navies. Permanency was created by warships, dockyards, and cadres of leaders, which gradually became corps of officers.

The introduction of heavy guns able to damage ships at a distance stimulated the development of specialized, heavily built, sailing warships that could carry such guns, use them efficiently in combat, resist gunfire, and stay at sea during long periods of time. Guns and specialized warships were expensive, and only states were able to make major naval investments. The size of the permanent navies became increasingly important for the control of the sea for offensive and defensive purposes and for diplomatic influence. Guns and warships also gave states a new role as the most efficient protectors of private shipping. The growth of the European navies reflected both the improved efficiency of a specialized technology and the increased centralization of resources to the states.

Galleys and sailing warships had different capabilities, and they were often regarded as parts of different organizations. Most Mediterranean galleys were of about the same size in all navies. There was a general rise in their size from the mid-sixteenth century to the early seventeenth century, but otherwise galley navies can be measured by number of galleys. In contrast, sailing warships were built in widely different sizes at the same time and size increased over time. The average size of European ships-ofthe-line grew from around 1,200 modern displacement tonnes in 1680 to 2,400 displacement tonnes in 1790. Consequently, the number of ships is of limited value in comparing the navies.

The displacement, that is, the weight of the ship including stores, began to be used to measure size in the eighteenth century. For earlier centuries, approximate displacements can be calculated from dimensions, contemporary tonnage calculations, or the size of crews. This makes it possible to compare different navies and measure fluctuations over time with one measurement that reflects fighting power and manpower requirements. Typically, galleys that relied on muscle power for their propulsion had about one man per tonne displacement. Sailing warships in the latter half of the seventeenth century had manning establishments that required around one man to three tonnes displacement while eighteenth century warships normally had around one man to four tonnes.


The early permanent navies in the Mediterranean developed with the traditional galleys as the main component. Their rise was closely connected with the power struggles for control of the Greek archipelago and Italy and trade in the Mediterranean Sea. In 1450, only Venice had a major peacetime galley navy. Up to about 1500 the Ottoman and Venetian navies increased in size during the struggle for control of Greece. After that, the Italian Wars (14941559) stimulated the growth of the French and Spanish galley navies. The latter included the naval resources of Sicily and Naples. The Papal States, Tuscany, Genoa, and the Order of St. John on Malta developed minor galley navies. Finally, from the 1540s to the 1570s, the great contest between Spain and the Ottomans led to a dramatic increase in the galley navies. In terms of manpower (including chained oarsmen) and requirement of provisions, they were the largest concentrated military forces of the sixteenth century. Logistical problems often made them sluggish in operation.

The end of the imperial contests in the Mediterranean around 1580 was followed by a major reduction

The Mediterranean Galley Navies
Approximate number of galleys in continuous service and in reserve
  1500 1525 1550 1575 1600 1650 1700 1750
Venice 150 120 150 175 150 75 50 20
The Ottoman Empire 200 100 125 300 100 100 30 15
Spain - 15 60 150 70 40 30 -
France 10 20 50 20 - 36 42 12
The Papal States 3 3 3 6 10 5 5 4
The Order of St. John 3 3 4 4 5 6 8 4
Tuscany - - 5 6 6 6 6 -
Genoa - 1 1 3 6 10 6 6
Naples . . . . . . . 4
A hyphen indicates that the state existed but it had no navy. A period means that the state did not exist at that date (and consequently no navy could exist). Naples was part of the Spanish monarchy from around 1500 to 1713/14. The Dutch Republic was created in a revolutionary process around 1580.
SOURCE: Glete, 1993.

of the galley navies, which continued during the seventeenth century. The limited utility of oared forces was revealed during two wars between Venice and the Ottomans (16441669 and 16841699), and both powers reduced the number of galleys. They were now primarily used for routine patrols and transfer of troops, and all major Mediterranean powers created sailing navies as their main force at sea during the seventeenth century. In the first half of the eighteenth centuries galleys were abolished or cut down to insignificant numbers, and by the end of the century they had disappeared in the Mediterranean.


Sailing warships with guns began to be built by several states in the decades around 1500. They were few in number and major fleets were still formed by requisitioned or hired merchantmen. Merchantmen often protected themselves by sailing in convoys. Early sailing, gun-armed navies were developed primarily by states without strong mercantile marines: Portugal, France (Brittany), England, Denmark, and Sweden. They were closely related to royal ambitions to explore new technology in order to control coasts, territories, and trade routes, but a sailing navy was not regarded as necessary for great power status. The Habsburgs, who controlled Spain and the Netherlands with their large mercantile marines, for a long time did not develop naval power in the Atlantic, and for the French kings the sailing navy usually had a low priority. The Mediterranean powers preferred galleys, which at least up to the mid-sixteenth century proved viable as a weapons system in competition with sailing warships, which were still in their infancy.

The sailing navies grew during the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century without entirely replacing temporarily armed merchantmen as an important instrument of warfare. Experience of war such as the Anglo-French contests up to 1559, wars in the Baltic in the 1530s and 1560s, and the Anglo-Spanish confrontation from 1585 to 1603 showed that specialized gun-armed warships had considerable advantages over traditional great cargo carriers provided with infantry and a few guns, which were gradually abolished as combatants. Merchantmen built to carry a substantial number of guns, and specialized for trade in contested waters such as the Mediterranean and the East and West Indies, became useful as temporary warships from the late sixteenth century up to the 1650s and 1660s. The English, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, and Swedish navies were reinforced by considerable numbers of armed merchantmen during major wars, and Venice fought the war with the Ottomans from 1644 to 1669 with hired English and Dutch merchantmen. Armed merchantmen were used for the European penetration of the Indian Ocean and the China Seas, and they remained the main European

Major Sailing Navies, 15001650
Total displacement (in 1,000 tonnes) of warships owned by state navies or, in the case of Spain, on long-term charter by the states. Portugal and Spain were governed by the same Habsburg monarchs. All figures are approximate and figures in parentheses are uncertain.
  1500 1520 1545 1570 1600 1630 1650
England 5 14 15 14 27 31 49
France (10) (12) (5) (3) - 27 21
Portugal ? ? ? ? . . (25)
Denmark ? (8) (8) 15 11 19 22
Sweden - (1) 7 21 24 17 28
Spain - - - 3 (50) (50) (30)
The Dutch Republic . . . . (20) 40 29
A hyphen indicates that the state existed but it had no navy. A period means that the state did not exist at that date (and consequently no navy could exist).
SOURCE: Glete, 1993.

force at sea in this area until the early nineteenth century.

It is not meaningful to look for a European balance of power at sea in this period, but powers who were antagonists, such as Denmark and Sweden in the Baltic and Spain and the Dutch in Western Europe, attempted to balance each other. The English and French navies were primarily maintained for control of the Channel, although the French civil wars rendered France almost powerless at sea from the 1560s to the 1620s. The absence of a French threat gave the English the opportunity to deploy the navy in the Atlantic during the war against Spain (15851603). The sixteenth-century Portuguese navy, of which too little is known to quantify its size, was primarily developed for control of the sea route to India. When Portugal was united with Spain in 1580, it formed the nucleus of a new Habsburg navy.


The three Anglo-Dutch maritime wars from 1652 to 1674 and the rise of the new strong monarchy in France was the start for a major growth and transformation of the European fleets. Armed merchantmen were still chartered in large numbers during the first Anglo-Dutch Wars, but they proved deficient in combat with major warships. The English and the Dutch fought several intense battles for control of the Channel and the North Sea. It became obvious that fewer large ships with heavier guns had an advantage over more numerous smaller ships. This realization resulted in a long-term increase in the size of warships and made it uneconomical to use armed merchantmen in naval warfare. Tactics changed to make full use of large ships, which could continuously fire heavy broadsides and resist enemy gunfire. Growing corps of sea officers developed professionalism and a new doctrine that emphasized disciplined battle lines and well-drilled gun crews. Improved foundry technology made it possible to produce cheap iron guns that reduced the cost of permanent naval armament.

The naval conflicts between England and the Dutch were influenced by competition about trade and colonies. The French fleet expanded dramatically in the 1660s mainly as a result of increased royal power. It gave France naval supremacy over its traditional antagonist Spain as the Spanish navy declined

The Three Largest Sailing Navies, 16501720
  1650 1660 1670 1680 1690 1700 1710 1720
England 49 88 84 132 124 196 201 174
The Dutch Republic 29 62 102 66 68 113 119 79
France 21 20 114 135 141 195 171 48
SOURCE: Glete, 1993.

to a medium-sized force in the latter half of the seventeenth century. France could also challenge the two great maritime powers at sea in conflicts that predominantly were Continental. However, the combined Anglo-Dutch navies gained superiority at sea over France in the 1690s and could use their navies to support allies in the Mediterranean and for military actions on the Iberian peninsula in the early 1700s. French naval power collapsed in the 1710s and Great Britain emerged as the dominant sea power. Britain retained this position until the twentieth century, and other great powers were reduced to more or less successful challengers of British supremacy over the European and transoceanic sea-lanes.

The first of these challenges came from a new combination of naval powers, France and Spain, which began to act as allies in the eighteenth-century struggle over colonies and trade in America and Asia. The new Bourbon regime in Spain launched an ambitious Atlantic naval policy that made Spain into the third largest naval power in Europe for most of the century. During the war of 17391748, both Bourbon powers were defeated by Britain at sea. They started major programs of new construction, but the war of 17561763 resulted in a victory for Britain, partly because Spain joined the war after France already had suffered large losses at sea. During the 1760s and 1770s French and Spanish battle fleet strength outpaced the British by a wide margin, and during the War of American Independence the combined Bourbon navies were frequently able to place severe limits on British operational freedom on sea and on land. France and Spain continued with large shipbuilding programs in the 1780s, with the intention to renew the challenge against Britain in future contests in the Atlantic.

The other two Atlantic powers, Portugal and the Dutch Republic, preferred neutrality during most of the eighteenth century. Both were primarily interested in defense of their worldwide empires of trade and colonies, but not in expansion. Portugal had maintained a navy of around 20,000 to 25,000 tonnes after it regained independence in 1640, increasing it to 25,000 to 35,000 tonnes in the eighteenth century. The Dutch navy was kept steady at a level of 60,000 to 70,000 tonnes from the 1720s to about 1780. The failure of the Dutch policy of neutrality in the War of American Independence forced the Dutch to join the Atlantic naval race and increase the navy to around 120,000 tonnes during the 1780s.

In the Baltic, Denmark and Sweden remained the only major naval powers up to the early 1700s, when Russian conquests of Swedish-controlled territories made it possible for Russia to build a navy. Sweden and Denmark traditionally regarded it as important that the other power should not be able to control the Baltic Sea, and this shaped their naval policy. Russia under Peter I rapidly created a major navy and for most of the eighteenth century, the Danish, Swedish, and Russian navies were of the same magnitude. Denmark usually had the largest battle fleet, but the other two navies also maintained large oared flotillas of galleys, oared frigates, and, by the 1780s, gunboats. By 1790, the Swedish navy had to a considerable extent become an archipelago fleet. Oared vessels were intended for cooperation with the army along archipelagic coasts, not for the open sea. From around 1780, the Russian navy began to expand and created a new fleet in the Black Sea. This was a part of Catherine II's expansionist policy in the Balkans, and it was the beginning of a period when Russia was a major European power at

The Three Largest Sailing Navies, 17201790
  1720 1730 1740 1750 1760 1770 1780 1790
Great Britain 174 189 195 276 375 350 372 473
France 48 73 91 115 156 219 271 324
Spain 22 73 91 41 137 165 196 253
SOURCE: Glete, 1993.
The Baltic Sailing Navies, 16501790
  1650 1675 1700 1725 1750 1775 1790
Denmark-Norway 25 29 46 47 66 83 87
Sweden 28 35 53 34 45 50 48
Russia - - - 55 59 75 145
A hyphen indicates that the state existed but it had no navy.
SOURCE: Glete, 1993.

sea, replacing Spain in the nineteenth century as owner of the third largest battle fleet.

In the Levant, Venice and the Ottomans began to build sailing navies in the 1670s, although information about the latter navy is incomplete. Both navies had reached a size of around 40,000 tonnes by 1700. The Venetian navy did not expand further but the Ottoman navy grew to one of the largest in Europe, with a strength of around 60,000 tonnes in the 1720s. Both navies were gradually reduced as a result of the long period of peace in the eastern Mediterranean after 1718, and the Ottoman navy was unprepared for the new challenge from Russia in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea from 1768 on. The Turks responded with a new expansion from a low level to about 70,000 tonnes in 1790. Russia had by then a fleet of around 45,000 tonnes in theBlack Sea, while Venice since the mid-eighteenth century had maintained a navy of around 20,000 tonnes.

The total size of the European sailing navies was around 200,000 tonnes in 1650, around 750,000 tonnes in both 1700 and 1750, and almost 1.7 million tonnes in 1790. After that they declined markedly. Rising timber costs and reduced naval ambitions in several European states in the wake of a series of British naval victories during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars limited further growth.

See also Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars ; Armada, Spanish ; Galleys ; Italian Wars (14941559) ; Shipbuilding and Navigation ; Shipping .


Acerra, Martine. Rochefort et la construction navale française, 16611815. 4 vols. Paris, 1993. Broad survey of French naval administration, shipbuilding and technology.

Bruijn, Jaap R. The Dutch Navy of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Columbia, S.C., 1993. A comprehensive synthesis of modern scholarship.

Dull, Jonathan R. The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 17741787. Princeton, 1975. Emphasizes the importance of naval strength.

Glete, Jan. Navies and Nations: Warships, Navies and State Building in Europe and America, 15001860. 2 vols. Stockholm, 1993. Navies and naval technology as parts of the state formation process. Displacement calculations in this article are from this book.

Guilmartin, John Francis, Jr. Gunpowder and Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century. London and New York, 1974. A reevaluation of galley warfare and the introduction of guns at sea in general.

Harding, Richard. Seapower and Naval Warfare, 16501830. London, 1999. Broad survey of the role of the sailing battle fleets in history.

Lavery, Brian. The Ship of the Line : Vol. 1, The Development of the Battlefleet, 16501850; Vol. 2, Design, Construction and Fittings. London, 19831984. British battleship development in its technological, administrative and political framework with a list of British ships-ofthe-line.

Lyon, David. The Sailing Navy List: All the Ships of the Royal Navy: Built, Purchased and Captured, 16881860. London, 1993. A detailed and intensively researched work of reference.

Modelski, George, and William R. Thompson. Seapower in Global Politics, 14941993. Seattle, 1988. A quantitative approach to long-term trends and fluctuations of political power.

Phillips, Carla Rahn. Six Galleons for the King of Spain: Imperial Defense in the Early Seventeenth Century. Baltimore, 1986. Spanish warship technology and naval administration in the seventeenth century and its institutional framework.

Symcox, Geoffrey. The Crisis of French Sea Power, 16881697: From the Guerre d'Escadre to the Guerre de Course. The Hague, 1974. The critical phase in European naval history when France lost the initiative to the maritime powers.

Teitler, Gerke. The Genesis of the Modern Professional Officer Corps. Translated by Mrs. C. N. Ter Heide-Lopy. Beverly Hills, Calif., 1977. The development of sea officer corps in the largest navies.

Jan Glete


views updated May 18 2018

navy. ‘For the regulating and better government of H. M.'s, ships of war and forces by sea, wherein, under the good Providence of God, the wealth, safety, and strength of the Kingdom is so much concerned’ (Preamble to Naval Discipline Act, 1661); ‘Fishermen, yachtsmen … river boatmen … manned their craft with volunteer crews and rushed them to the assembly point, although they did not then know for what purpose they were required’ (Admiralty communiqué, The Times, 4 June 1940). Separated by three centuries, these records of mid-17th-cent. aspiration in the wake of Cromwellian successes against Dutch and Spaniards, and mid-20th-cent. summons of all seafarers from Sussex to East Anglia to rescue at Dunkirk the only army the nation possessed, proclaim the importance of naval power for an island. The first is a perception of state interest which dates back well beyond the Armada to the reign of Elizabeth I's grandfather Henry VII, and has never ceased to apply, while the second invokes the duty owed the realm by the subject best equipped to discharge it. That obligation can be traced back to Æthelred II's plight under Danish attacks at Sandwich in 1006, and probably to Alfred's native-found ships at Poole, again resisting the Danes, in 897. Yet few aspects of the crown's prerogative power were more strenuously questioned through the 17th, 18th, and 19th cents. than that to impress the subject for sea service. Not until 1853, when fixed terms of service in the navy and pension rights were made statutory, did age-old constraints cease to be obnoxious. There seems poetic justice that the first Victoria Cross was won by a non-commissioned seaman in the Crimean War.

Britain's place in the ‘Viking World’ was rendered most definitive through the person of Cnut (1016–35). King, or overlord, also in Denmark (1019) and Norway (1028), no English monarch had such distant dominions again until Charles II in the later 17th cent. Cnut's navy seems not to have been a personal apanage but an auxiliary, its periods of service specifically fixed by financial provision. In 1051 it was dispensed with by Edward the Confessor out of economy, though this Norman-raised king may also have intended to ease the succession to his crown of the rich and ecclesiastically regenerated Normandy. William I had continuous trans-channel ferry needs during his reign, after the first crucial shipment of an army to Pevensey in September 1066; and he, William II, and Henry I may have made some 40 Channel crossings in all. Portsmouth, a nascent naval base by the reign of John (1199–1216), or Southampton were their usual destinations. But did they pretend to naval power beyond such dictates, or occasionally commandeering the resources of English merchants trading with Scandinavian, Flemish, or, later, Gascon ports? By the end of the 12th cent. the Cinque Ports had long enjoyed privileges from the crown in return for an annual provision of ships and men. Through the 13th cent. these ports, joined by Winchelsea and Rye, provided the ‘drive’ for assembling royal fleets, though under Henry III (c.1255) they so resisted his weak authority that Henry had to look to the east coast shipbuilding ports. By this time the oared single sail ‘long ship’ or galley, still predominant in northern waters and the Mediterranean, was ceding place to wider-beamed and higher-sided vessels, furnished with fore and stern castles. These were more difficult to manœuvre, but they could carry bowmen and projectiles in their castles and were more suitable for boarding an enemy, even if oar-power remained the handiest means finally to position a warship. Edward III's victory over the French at Sluys in 1340 must have featured such ships; and before the 14th cent. was out there was vital sail evolution through the development of the three-masted ship. The age-old side rudder also gave place to the stern-post rudder aligned on the keel, facilitating steering a few points off the wind.

The evolution of the navy in the 15th cent. has to be seen in the context of an ever-increasing volume of trading voyages, to Iceland, the Baltic ports, to the Basque coast and Portugal, and then the Newfoundland Banks. The east coast coal trade needed many ships, and Hanseatic competition in the shipment of English cloth to the processors in the Low Countries had to be countered. More distant trades made big ships economic: in 1400–25, 68 per cent of crown-hired ships were of less than 100 tons burthen, but by 1451 that percentage had dropped to 52. The three great ships of Henry V were each over 550 tons; the Grace Dieu of 1420, whose timbers yet lie in the Hamble river, was of over 1,000, though she may never have put to sea. These ships were unique, and possibly uniquely unserviceable. Around 170 years later, when England faced the Armada in 1588, only 14 of the 177 private ships enlisted for service were over 200 tons, and only 5 of the 34 ‘Queen's Ships’ exceeded 500 tons. The late medieval small ship had a durable progeny in the navy of the Tudors, the dynasty which truly founded the navy with its yards at Portsmouth, Chatham, Deptford, and Woolwich, and which fostered native gun-founding. In 1546, Henry VIII's last year, the Navy Board was formed from the navy's principal officers: it was destined to serve as the executant of the fleet's construction, maintenance, and supply, the country's largest industrial undertaking until the 19th cent. The names of Hawkins, Pepys, and Barham are inseparable from its record, strained though the board's relations with the policy-making Board of Admiralty often were. The critical change in warship design came during the 40 years before 1588, the removal of the medieval ‘castles’ in favour of a lower superstructure, with ships' sides pierced for guns on wheeled carriages, which made for some ease of movement between decks and allowed for recoil. Through to the coming of the steam-powered ‘ironclad’ this was the basic character of the warship; the teamwork, ensuring high rates of fire, inculcated in motley crews described in the 18th cent. as of ‘naturally generous dispositions though turbulent, fearless, or, rather, thoughtless of consequences’, made a singular contribution to Britain's awesome repute at sea in the century of Vernon, Hawke, Rodney, and Nelson.

When in June 1808 Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Wellington) spoke in Parliament of the navy as ‘the characteristic and constitutional force of Britain’, he was expressing a national sense of obligation to a service which, resolutely administered by Middleton (Barham) since 1778, and liberally provided for by Pitt in the 1780s, had earlier withstood the unprecedented challenges of the American War and had next reaped the laurels of victory under exceptional commanders. In the years to come the navy played a crucial role in supporting Wellington in the Peninsula. Wellington's logistical back-up had been prefigured, however modestly, by the first wintering of a British fleet in the Mediterranean in 1694–5; but few developments in Britain's Atlantic economy were more spectacular than the doubling of her exports to the Caribbean after 1808, following the Anglo-Spanish entente. At long last, and following Trafalgar, the book was closed on one of the most abiding and distracting of Britain's strategic preoccupations: the security of the West Indies possessions had exercised the minds of all thinking naval officers, as well as commercial lobbies, since the age of William III. This concern lay close to the beginnings of Britain's commercial empire in the 16th and 17th cents.—the Levant Company 1592, the Virginia Adventurers 1609, the Royal Africa Company 1660, above all the East India Company 1600—all undertakings calling for ships which must dwarf the warships of Elizabeth I. Some traces of her fleet's tonnage possibly survived even in the great battle fleets sent out under Cromwell; but by the time of Pepys's ‘30 ship’ building programme of 1677, ‘your ships’ as he reminded Parliament, there may have been an average burthen tonnage of 1,200 for ships of over 70 guns as against 940 in 1660. The navy finally became ‘royal’ in name under Charles II, and it was of incalculable importance for its future self-identity that there was, deliberately, no discrimination against that religious dissent among seamen which had afforded the Cromwellian navy its special pugnacity.

The first steam-powered vessels in the navy were the paddle-driven frigates/sloops of the 1820s, but the navy's ships in the Crimean War did not look much different from those of 75 years before. Even Warrior, Britain's first screw-driven ironclad (1860), retained sail-power after modifications in 1887. Within the period 1867–90 there was a breath-taking acceleration in the power of warships, but seamen of all ranks lacked the training to exploit these advances. During the incipient naval race with Germany in the 1890s there emerged, in the fascinating and powerfully prophetic educator John Arbuthnot Fisher, the man who drove the navy into the 20th cent. What has to be understood about his 18,000-tons displacement Dreadnought, with her 21-knot speed (launched February 1906), is that such a ship was waiting to be built: turbine and not reciprocated engine driven, and with a provision of uniformly heavy guns ensuring straddling salvoes of the highest possible accuracy. Yet Dreadnought was rapidly overtaken by more powerful and faster sisters, and she herself played little part in the First World War. Though included in the 1922 scrapping programme, Dreadnought had served her turn through her very launching and her specifications became common currency across the world. But at the end of his life (1920) Fisher was convinced that air power was inseparable from sea power in any future conflict, and that the capital ship had had her day—a glimpse of what was to happen in the Second World War to the Prince of Wales, Repulse, and Hood. The mine, the torpedo, and the submarine had already set the pace of change; and at the Coronation Review of 1953 only one British battleship remained, the 42,000-ton Vanguard, which had never seen action. Accompanied though she was at Spithead by five major aircraft carriers, these great ships lay among myriad smaller vessels of a versatility of purpose which would have won the approbation of a Fisher—and a Nelson.

David Denis Aldridge


Grove, E. , Vanguard to Trident (1987);
Hattendorf, J. B., and Knight, J. B. (eds.), British Naval Documents 1204–1960 (Aldershot, 1993);
Lewis, M. , The Navy of Britain (1949).


views updated Jun 11 2018


At the start of the American Revolution (1775–83), members of the Continental Congress (see Continental Congress, First ) debated the value and necessity of establishing an official navy. Everyone knew the British navy was the most powerful naval power, and those opposing a U.S. navy believed challenging the British Royal Navy was foolish.

In the meantime, General George Washington (1732–1799) announced he had taken command of three armed schooners under Continental authority and planned to intercept any British supply ships near Massachusetts . And so, on October 13, 1775, the Continental Navy was established, and eventually the U.S. Navy adopted that date as its official birthday.

On March 27, 1794, Congress ordered the construction of six frigates. Three of those ships began service in 1797: the USS United States, the USS Constellation, and the USS Constitution. The U.S. Navy participated in the War of 1812 (1812–15) and the Mexican-American War (1846–48). But it was during the American Civil War (1861–65) that naval power played a most significant role. For the first time in naval history, ironclad warships were used in combat. After the war, the navy was largely ignored and all but disappeared.

The Navy did not do much during World War I (1914–18), but it played a major role in the combat of World War II (1939–45), especially in the Pacific campaign. By the end of that conflict, the U.S. Navy had added hundreds of new ships and owned more than 70 percent of the world's total naval vessels of 1,000 tons (907 metric tons) or more. The Korean War (1950–53) was fought by Navy forces, which provided extensive air and gunfire support as well as minesweeping efforts. The Navy did not rest after the war, but continued to develop new weapons systems and vessels. Some of those systems were put to use in the Vietnam War (1954–75).

The Navy's elite forces are known as SEALs. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) authorized the establishment of Navy SEALs on May 25, 1961. Their duties include conducting unconventional warfare, counterguerrilla warfare, and secret operations in both ocean and coastal waters. This elite group undergoes eleven months of special training. Although their specialty is underwater operations, they are expected to be ready to serve in the desert, the jungle, and the arctic as well.

The U.S. Navy was a key player in special operations and strike missions in several conflicts of the twenty-first century, including the Iraq invasion (2003–) and the ongoing War on Terrorism, in which campaigns have taken place in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Asia.

As of February 2008, the U.S. Navy included more than 333,000 active duty personnel and 127,000 reserve personnel. In active service were 279 ships and more than 3,700 aircraft.


views updated Jun 08 2018

na·vy / ˈnāvē/ • n. (pl. -vies) 1. (often the navy or the Navy) the branch of a nation's armed services that conducts military operations at sea. ∎  the ships of a navy: a 600-ship navy | we built their navy. ∎ poetic/lit. a fleet of ships.2. (also navy blue) a dark blue color: [as adj.] a navy-blue suit.


views updated May 23 2018

navy †ships, shipping; (arch.) fleet XIV; state's ships of war XVI. — OF. navie ship, fleet — popL. nāvia ship, boat, coll. formation on L. nāvis ship; see NAVAL, -Y3.


views updated Jun 08 2018

navy See Navy; Royal Navy


views updated May 23 2018


a fleet of ships, 1330; the sailors or crew, collectively, 1648.