Changing American Perceptions of the Royal Navy Since 1775

John B. Hattendorf
Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History, U.S. Naval War College

There are many dimensions to a navy. At its most obvious, a navy is an expression of a nation’s power, but at the same time it is a microcosm of a nation, representing its industrial and technological capacities as well as reflecting the nature, character, and spirit of its people and its institutions. While a navy is a national creation that fully reflects its parentage, a navy also exists within the much broader and very different context of world affairs—the arena of competing powers and national interests that has deadly enemies as well as neutrals, friends, and allies. Outside Britain there is a wide spectrum of viewpoints from which to view the Royal Navy. The view from the United States of America is but one among many, but it presents a changing kaleidoscope of viewpoints. Over two hundred and forty years, the American Navy has viewed the Royal Navy as rebellious colonies, as a minor-power navy fighting a superpower navy, as a role-model, as a peer-competitor, and then as its closest ally as a great power navy. 1

In the beginning. Without an established and well-organized state bureaucracy, the process of creating a navy in America was a slow and hesitant one. 2  As the political crisis between Britain and her American colonies grew into an open rebellion in 1774 and 1775, the Royal Navy was the superior naval power in the world, although at this point the French Navy had potential superiority in its unmanned ships in reserve at Brest, Toulon, and Rochefort, with additional Spanish ships-of-the-line that might come available in a Franco-Spanish alliance. 3  On opposite sides of the Atlantic, both the British and the Americans were initially reluctant to engage in an all-out naval conflict. In 1775, American representatives gathered in the Continental Congress and were beginning the 15-year long process during which they eventually examined and debated nearly every fundamental aspect of representative democracy. While some expressed radical ideas about complete independence others were reluctant to take any steps that would preclude an advantageous political solution for the American colonies within the British Empire. 4 One of those steps that might be a serious disadvantage, some believed, was the creation of an American naval force. 5

At the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the subject of a navy came up for debate in 1775. One of South Carolina’s representatives, Christopher Gadsden, who had served years before in the Royal Navy as a purser, believed that the Royal Navy was not so formidable as many feared. He suggested that the Americans could easily start a navy by capturing some of the smaller British cutters, sloops, and schooners. In New England, John Adams made a similar argument. 6 June 1775. Christopher Magra, The Fisherman’s Cause: Atlantic Commerce and the Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution. (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 182-183.]  Other members of Congress slowly came to see that there might be a role for American naval forces. First, they thought about using small armed vessels adapted from merchant service to capture larger warships from the Royal Navy and, thereby, acquire purpose-built warships and trained sailors. Second, they saw an opportunity to force British forces to evacuate Boston by interrupting their supply lines stretching across the Atlantic. Third, American merchants believed that, with armed ships, they could effectively evade the British blockade of American ports. 7

The American patriots faced a number of practical military necessities in fighting British forces ashore that required maritime support. Several American commanders developed ad hoc arrangements to meet these needs. These local initiatives were far from the establishment of a formal American navy to oppose the Royal Navy, but they were precursors that eventually led to the creation a national navy. In his Autobiography, John Adams recalled that opposition to having a navy was “very loud and vehement.” 8 The very idea of intercepting and attacking British forces at sea was “represented as the most wild, visionary, mad project that had ever been imagined.”

It was an infant, taking a mad bull by his horns; and what was even more profound and remote, it was said it would ruin the character, and corrupt the morals of our seamen. It would make them selfish, piratical, mercenary, bent wholly upon plunder &c. &c. 9

An ardent naval advocate, Adams’s life experience on the Massachusetts seacoast and his career as a lawyer in dealing with maritime cases placed him as a leader in this cause. 10 Eventually his arguments and those of others, the Continental Congress moved forward with the first step on 13 October 1775 toward establishing what came to be called the Continental Navy. As a member of the Congressional Naval Committee, John Adams wrote the original draft 11 of the navy’s organizational principles and rules for the newly established Continental Navy, 12 adapting them directly from the Royal Navy’s Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea. 13

One of the greatest challenges for Congress was to find an effective administrative organization to support the fleet. A number of approaches were tried, ostensibly based on British models that included the establishment of a Navy Board and even a Board of Admiralty. The management of naval affairs became increasingly challenging. Seeking to know more about how the Royal Navy managed its affairs, William Ellery, a Rhode Island member of the Marine Committee, wrote to a knowledgeable friend at home, William Vernon:

. . . I should be glad to know what is the Office of Commissioners of the Navy, and that you would point it out particularly; unless you can refer Me to some author who particularly describes. The Conduct of the Affairs of a Navy as well as those of an Army We are yet to learn. We are still unacquainted with the systematical management of them, although We have made considerable Progress in the latter. 14

Others also assumed that the British approach to naval management would be the best to emulate, but no one among the American leaders had any knowledge of naval administration or knew how the Admiralty or the Navy Board managed the Royal Navy. 15

During its ten-year existence, the Continental Navy played a very limited role. Its purpose was to contribute to a civil war between American Englishmen and Englishmen at home in Britain and to a revolution that brought independence to the thirteen United States of America. In this, the Continental Navy’s role was one of several maritime equivalents of the peoples’ and partisan warfare ashore. While the Navy complemented the privateering activities that more precisely fit this characterization, the Navy did serve with some effectiveness during the war in undertaking some vital tasks for the nascent revolutionary government that could not effectively be given to privateers, such as showing the flag in foreign waters, carrying government funds, and delivering official diplomatic representatives. These were vital functions that underscore the Navy’s role in the development of the American State, yet it was no match for the power of the Royal Navy, which largely eliminated it as a threat. The critical maritime role in the war fell to the French in alliance with the new American republic. It was the French Navy that was able to create a local maritime supremacy in the waters in and around Chesapeake Bay in 1781 that contributed directly to the surrender of the British Army at Yorktown.

The Early Republic. With the recognition of American independence in 1783, the young United States saw no immediate need for a navy and had neither the financial capacity nor the effective central administrative to sustain one. The last ship of the Continental Navy was sold in 1785 and the young country was left with no armed force at sea. From the British point of view, this was the best situation. Those in Britain and British North America who were knowledgeable about American affairs saw danger in even allowing Americans the right to fish on the Grand Banks. In 1783 as the peace negotiations were being completed, a British newspaper, The Public Advertiser, reported the views of “a Country Member of Parliament” who felt that allowing Americans to use the Atlantic fisheries would have “at one stroke annihilated our navy” and “put an end to our existence as a commercial nation.” 16 He and others saw the fisheries as the traditional nursery of a navy that would lead Americans, along with the French, to train up to 80,000 seamen. They feared that the United States could create a navy, leaving Britain in a position where, as another writer in The Public Advertiser noted, “it will be in vain for us to defend any of our possessions.” 17

In fact, there was no immediate fear of that happening. It would be seven years before the United States put any armed maritime force to sea and that occurred in 1790 with the U.S. Revenue Marine’s Cutter Service, the earliest predecessor element of the current U.S. Coast Guard. It was only in 1794, after American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean began to suffer from attacks by North African corsairs, that the new republic saw the need to establish a permanent naval service. Before that time, American merchant shipping had benefited from Portugal’s containment of North African corsairs around the entrance to the Mediterranean and in the western Mediterranean. When the war against Revolutionary France led Britain to urge Portugal to make peace and stop her diverting war with the North African states, neutral Americans were left to fend for themselves.

While this was an important impetus that led to the formal establishment of the permanent American navy, Americans were having a serious debate about the purpose and function of navy. There were two factions. On one side, there was the group that has come to be called the “navalists,” who saw the Royal Navy as its model. For them, the new navy should be the most effective expression and symbol of the nation’s power, honor, and prestige as well as a potent and capable and effective fighting force that played a major role in the world balance of power as an instrument of political influence. Their ideal was to use American naval force as an arbiter in world politics. This navy’s potential capabilities could serve as a continual deterrent to aggression as well as show America’s power abroad while her ships protected American commerce and interests abroad. In opposition to this view, another group, who have come to be called the “anti-navalists.” This group saw use for a navy, but argued that the navalists’ vision was impractical and far too costly. Their navy would be a sea-going militia force, smaller in size, with vessels whose capabilities were limited to a very few vessels operating singly on distant stations with the emphasis in home waters on coastal protection and the suppression of piracy. 18  For much of the first century of the new country’s existence, the anti-navalists held sway over American naval policy, but there remained a constant tension between the two viewpoints. By and large, the leaders of the young nation was satisfied to accept the benefits that came indirectly to the United States from the Royal Navy’s exercise of global naval power, while it focused on westward expansion across the North American continent. As Andrew Jackson told the American people in his inaugural address as President in 1829, the United States had “need of no more ships of war than are requisite to the protection of commerce.” 19

It was this type of thinking that led to building the large frigates that eventually made a mark in the Anglo-American War of 1812. Starting from the concept of the typical French and British frigates of the 1790s, American shipbuilders sought to design a small number of frigates for a small navy that would be an overmatch for possible opponents. Thus, they applied the scantlings of a 74-gun ship to a frigate that “in blowing weather would be an overmatch for double-deck ships, and in light winds to evade coming to action.” 20

A basic and recurring theme in the American naval view of the Royal Navy was the American desire to be recognized as a separate and independent nation and naval service. It was this that caused such deep American resentment over the impressment of seamen. In 1805, Captain John Shaw wrote the American consul at Gibraltar, “I wish the British Commanders to observe that our Service is very independent, and I hope our commanders will never let slip any insult which they offer to pass with Impunity.” 21 During the Anglo-American War of 1812-1815. American naval officers did not question British competence as fighters and seamen, but they were offended if they thought their British counterparts were questioning their honour. Secretary of the Navy William Jones lauded Captain John Rodger’s voyage in USS President across the Atlantic to the Norwegian coast and into the Arctic as “another proof of the exaggerated power and fictitious omnipresence of the British Flag.” 22 Yet an American naval rating saw his British counterparts as “hard fellows on salt water.” 23 When James Durand, a Connecticut seaman, was impressed for service in HMS Narcissus, he recalled that “only lately I had quitted the service of the U. States after enduring everything. The thought of serving with the British fleet touched every nerve with distress and almost deprived me of reason.” 24

The Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The victories of the American frigates over the smaller British frigates during the first part of the War of 1812 soon developed a life of their own and became in the late 19th and early 20th century historical writing an important part of American patriotic culture, helping to develop public pride in American naval heritage as well as providing a new dimension to public support for current naval construction. 25

As the new American steel navy began to take shape from the 1880s onward, a small group of American naval officers began to turn to historical study as a means to find the fundamental principles of naval warfare as technological change revolutionized the physical characteristics of navies. 26 The most famous of these men was Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S. Navy, whose series of four books on the “Influence of Sea Power” in the period between 1660 and 1815, showed in detail the strategic effectiveness of the Royal Navy. He famously declared that “the world has never seen a more impressive demonstration of the influence of sea power upon its history. Those far distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world.” 27 In his third Sea Power volume, Mahan wrote on the War of 1812. Unlike other American writers, he saw the story of that war as a cautionary tale for the United States and a negative influence in America’s national history. “Not by rambling operations, or naval duels, are wars decided, but by force massed, and handled in skillful combination,” 28 Mahan cautioned. “It matters not that the particular force be small. The art of war is the same throughout; and may be illustrated as readily, though less conspicuously, by a flotilla as by an armada; by a corporal’s guard, or the three units of the Horatii, as by a host of a hundred thousand.” To complete his series, Mahan’s final volume was his Life of Nelson, “a study . . . of the one man who in himself summed up and embodied the greatness of the possibilities which Sea Power comprehends,—the man for whom genius and opportunity worked together, to make him the personification of the navy of Great Britain.” 29 “Thenceforward,” Mahan wrote, “the name of Nelson is enrolled among those few presented to us by History, the simple mention of which suggest, not merely a personality or a career, but a great force or a great era concrete in a single man, who is the standard-bearer before the nations.” 30

Mahan’s historical works earned him great praise in Britain, bringing him honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge as well as an audience with Queen Victoria. They even earned him a proposal that he accept an honorary commission in the Royal Navy, which he politely, but firmly, declined. 31 Mahan clearly expressed the world’s admiration for the Royal Navy. In an interview published in early August 1914, Mahan noted “You people in England do not realize the immense admiration felt all over the world, yes, and in Germany also, for the British Navy. Speaking from my standpoint, as an American, I tell you that there is only one navy in the world, and that the others are mere striplings by comparison.” 32, in Seager and Maguire, eds, Letters and Papers of . . . Mahan, vol. 3, p. 701.]  While not underrating his own or any other navy, he noted “by comparison with the British, every navy still has much to learn.” 33

While praising the Royal Navy as a model for others, Mahan was also interested in practical cooperation. In the first decade of the twentieth century, American naval officers were observing the establishment of the first Dominion naval forces. They could see that how they would be part of the larger capabilities of the Royal Navy, although American naval officers seemed not entirely aware of the debates and issues arising between the Cabinet in London, the Admiralty, the Colonial Office, and the various Dominion governments about these forces. One of the earliest American comments about Dominion naval forces came even at the very opening years of the twentieth century in the context of discussion about what was then turned “imperial federation.”

In July 1904, Mahan was the guest of honor at a luncheon in London hosted by the Imperial Federation (Defence) Committee. The well-known writer on imperial defence issues, Sir John Colomb, was in the chair. In introducing Mahan to the distinguished group that had gathered for the occasion, Colomb declared:

The object of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, in its truest aspect, is not to make wars, but to prevent them. And I take it that the Navy of which Captain Mahan has been a distinguished ornament, has, with ours, that common mission in the future. The great American Commonwealth of which Captain Mahan is a distinguished citizen, and the British Empire, of which we are all ourselves citizens, have a great common interest in the peace of the sea. 34

Colomb went on to draw Mahan’s attention to the words of William B. Dally, who had been attorney general, and briefly colonial secretary, in New South Wales during the 1880s, had suggested “Let there be one Navy, under the rule of a single Admiralty – a Navy in which the colonies shall be as much integrated as the Mother country, which shall be theirs as well as hers, and on which they may all rely in time of danger.” 35

Mahan’s response to all this was revealing. Linking the United States to this issue, Mahan commented, “. . . as the sympathies of the people who speak the same tongues widen, like those of the various communities under the British flag and our own are doing, that as they grow together there will be an approximation of the period which we have heard much¾the federation of the world.” 36

Six years later in 1910, Commander William S. Sims visited London in command of the battleship USS Minnesota and expressed similar sentiments. Sims, who would later become the U.S. Navy’s most famous and successful commander in World War I, had been born in Port Hope, Ontario, in 1858 and was raised there until the age of ten, when his American-born father and Canadian mother moved their family to the United States. During his port visit in 1910, the Lord Mayor of London ended a week of courtesy calls, parties, and festivities by hosting Sims with the officers and men of Minnesota to a luncheon at Guildhall on 3 December 1910. In a closing speech of thanks, Sims declared “If the time ever comes when the British Empire is seriously menaced by an external enemy, it is my opinion that you may count upon every man, every dollar, every drop of blood, of your kindred across the sea.” 37  His remarks were enthusiastically applauded by those present, but earned Sims a public reprimand from President William Howard Taft. Half a dozen years later in 1917 in the midst of the war with Germany, Taft noted “The ways of history are strange. When I was President I reprimanded an officer for saying exactly what he is doing now. That officer was, Commander, now Vice Admiral, Sims in command of the American Navy in Europe.” 38

Simultaneously, there was a separate current in American naval thinking. In the late 19th century, officers in both the U.S. Army and the U.S Navy were influenced by the successes of the German General Staff in Prussia’s wars and began to think about various contingency plan, an idea that was entirely new in American thinking.   The U.S. Navy was vastly outnumbered by the Royal Navy, and it seemed the most dangerous possible enemy, even if not the most likely. 39

Mahan himself drafted the first American naval war plan in 1890 based on a concept for a weak U.S. Navy to operate with a defensive-offensive strategy. This was appropriate to a small power and kept the American main battle fleet in port, waiting for an opportune moment to attack its larger adversary, while minor American squadrons were stationed in Puget Sound on the Pacific coast and on Lake Ontario. 40 “Any attempts against the British islands themselves, in the present relative strength of the two navies, is plainly impracticable. The belligerents will meet in the Western Hemisphere,” 41 Mahan predicted and then went on to say “Canada lies at our mercy, unless the British navy by action on our coasts can stay our hand.” 42  To do this, he forecast that the Royal Navy would need to use 24 ships to maintain a constant blockade of New York, with a reserve held at Halifax bringing the total to 30 warships. 43

In 1911-12,a war game based on the American contingency plan for war between the United States and the United Kingdom, by now named War Plan RED, was the subject that students at the Army War College. In contrast to earlier plans, it now suggested a reason why war might occur between the two countries and looked at the situation with a global perspective. The war game scenario was based on a situation in which RED (Britain) had caused BLUE (i.e., the United States) to declare war, when RED dispatched an Army division and a mounted brigade, totaling 22,000 men in fast transports, escorted by the first cruiser squadron sailing from Southampton to reinforce the army in Canada, and landed at Quebec. 44 In considering the roles of Australian, Canadian, and Indian naval forces in this scenario, the American naval officers saw the greatest use of these forces in partially manning the Royal Navy’s local squadrons on the Australian station, East Indian Squadron, and in reserve positions in Canada, thereby allowing the equivalent number of regularly trained officers and men for active service in the war against the United States. 45

The Great War.The United States remained neutral in the First World War until April 1917, when German attacks on shipping made that stance no longer an acceptable one. In 1917 and 1918, the United States Navy operated successfully in close cooperation with the Royal Navy in European waters with Admiral Sims in command of U.S. Naval Forces in European waters. An American squadron of battleships joined the Grand Fleet, while destroyers, naval aircraft, and transports carried out a wide range of cooperative operations. 46 Not all in the U.S. Navy were as happy as Sims was to be working with the Royal Navy. When the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels initially sent Sims to London in 1917, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William S. Benson, registered another opinion when he cautioned Sims: “Don’t let the British pull the wool over your eyes, we would as soon fight them as the Germans.” 47

The experience of American naval officers in operating with the Royal Navy was both positive and negative. As shown earlier with the American attitudes in the War of 1812 period, American naval officers were proud of their service and their new and improved ships. Henry A. Wiley, who had commanded the battleship USS Wyoming in the sixth battle squadron of the Grand Fleet, recalled:

I think we excelled the British in shooting. Of course, we were not put to the test in battle, and I don’t know how we would have fared under fire. Our ships were not as rugged as the British ships, and our fire-control system probably would not have stood up as well as theirs under heavy, well-directed fire. Our system of turret firing was superior, I think, and we could have delivered a greater weight of metal in any given time under normal conditions. 48

Anglo-American naval cooperation was very effective in this period and led to at least one major change to the United States Navy: a change in naval officer uniform design that endures to this day. On 17 March 1919, the U.S. Navy adopted for the first time a double-breasted, blue uniform jacket that was inspired directly by the Royal Navy’s uniform. While this also reflected current taste in civilian clothing, it was also a tribute to the close connection developed with the Royal Navy. The only major difference was that Americans used two vertical rows of six brass buttons, rather than the eight used by the Royal Navy, and with a star rather than a curl on the sleeve with the gold rank insignia. 49

At the same time that this uniform change took place in 1919, the peace negotiations at Paris raised great tension between the United States and Britain. While both agreed on the basic questions in dealing with the defeat of the Central Powers, major disagreement took place when the United States demanded naval parity with Great Britain with a United States Navy that was “second to none”. The so-called “Naval Battle of Paris” took place in March 1919, in which Americans showed their suspicions about British claims for continued naval supremacy and feared that that Britain’s supremacy and use of naval blockade against Germany might lead to a blockade against American ports in a future conflict. For this reason, American naval officers proposed that Germany retain a small naval fleet as a counterweight to the Royal Navy. For the same reason, they considered, too, the idea of a League of Nations naval force.

In analyzing the post-war situation, American naval planners first saw a number of reasons why a future war between the United States and Great Britain would be unlikely. Among these factors were the economic dependence of Great Britain on the United States, the proximity of Canada to the United States, and the possible lack of colonial support for a war against the United States unless British dominions saw it as a just war. 50 On the other hand, there were a number of reasons why a future war might break out. The main issues here were the disparity between British and American views of freedom of the seas, particularly in regard to belligerent rights. American naval officers were particularly sensitive to Britain’s reluctance to codify maritime international law and to apply the most liberal interpretation of belligerent rights on the High Seas and saw this as one of several reasons for maintaining a navy equal to Britain’s. As an example of the type of crisis that could arise, the U.S. Naval Advisory Staff in Paris used a Canadian contingency as an example:

. . . if Canada should attempt to gain her independence from Great Britain by force, and if the United States remained neutral, it is the British contention that Great Britain could blockade every port of the United States and could so regulate our imports that we could spare none for exportation to Canada. This is not International law, but an application of the law of force to neutrals. The only reply is the presence of a potential [U.S. naval] force that will secure the abandonment of the contention. 51

The Washington Naval Disarmament Treaty of 1921-22 formally established the principles of nominal naval parity with Britain that the United States had been seeking during and immediately after World War One, 52 although the Unites States did not immediately build up to treaty strength, allowing the Royal Navy to remain numerically and qualitatively superior through the 1920s. Nevertheless, American naval officers remained distrustful of Britain. While they acknowledged war was unlikely, they still believed the Royal Navy might be used in its traditional role to protect and to further British trade at the expense of American interests. The underlying cause for such a war would most likely be a British attempt to promote its weakening trade situation by attacking the United States, its principal economic competitor. 53

In 1923, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence Monthly Information Bulletin reported that former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had said that the only country that gave any concern for a future war in the near future was the United States and that the points of friction between them were (1) the Irish question, (2) naval rivalry, and (3) the debt. 54

If such a war took place, British planners saw the eastern Atlantic, Canada, and the Far East as the most likely theaters for it to play out. 55 Yet, American naval planners looked at the same contingency more narrowly in terms of the defense of the western hemisphere. By 1930, the American War Plan RED was still basically a defensive plan in which CRIMSON [Canada] played a central role with the worst case scenario of British forces invading the United States from Canada. At this point, American war planners saw Canada as the most sensitive target and productive target that they could attack in a war with Britain. Even as late as 1930, American officers could not easily imagine Canada remaining neutral. Backed up by extensive analysis through war games at the Naval War College, American naval plans called for an attack on Halifax and other ports to prevent British forces from reaching Canada with the U.S. remaining in a defensive position waiting for an opportunity to engage. 56

World War II. During the interwar period, the separate, technical and professional development of the two navies had created two complementary bodies of professional experience and knowledge. Naval leaders in both countries were well aware that an exchange of information could be profitable, but the grounds upon which such an exchange could took place developed only very slowly. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the United States again remained formally neutral, but also began a range of activities to assist Britain even while remaining neutral. 57

The very first steps were private initiatives, beginning in September 1939 only a few days after World War Two began, when the first of a small group of 22 Americans took up an opportunity to become officers in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, the first citizens of the United States to become sea officers in the Royal Navy. The initial volunteer, William E.G. Taylor, received his RNVR commission on 14 September 1939 and the last of the twenty-two, Peter G. Morison, the only son of the famous American naval historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, was commissioned on 10 November 1941, just barely a month before Germany declared war on the United States. Another, Draper Kaufman, retired as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, famous for having first organized what was the forerunner of the U.S. Navy SEALs. He had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933, but poor eyesight had initially prevented him from getting his U.S. Navy commission. He recalled that he had received very effective training to become a sub-lieutenant in the RNVR at HMS King Alfred at Hove. He found the ten-week “Y” scheme course “excellent, very well run. . . . They did a superb job, for instance on indoctrination into the Royal Navy. Not stuffy. People might think that it might be, but it wasn’t at all—the history of the Royal Navy, that you should be darned proud to wear the uniform and that sort of thing.” 58

In the formal relations between the two services, a firm working basis was established by the summer of 1940. At first, this liaison developed between the separate technical offices in the Admiralty and the office of the U.S. Naval Attaché in London, but with so many different areas involved, this soon proved to be an unsatisfactory approach. In order to profit more effectively from British knowledge and experience, American naval officers with competence in specific areas were sent to London to examine matters within their own areas of knowledge. The first to do this was Lieutenant Commander J.N. Opie III who arrived in London in June 1940 to look into mine sweeping arrangements and report back to the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships. He was followed by a number of others with assignments in specific areas. Most officers stayed for just a few months, while a few stayed longer. Lieutenant Commander Joseph H. Wellings was the first to be sent to study fleet operations and tactics, and he stayed for ten months from September 1940 to June 1941. On his return to America, he had the good fortune to be in HMS Rodney, when she was temporarily diverted from her passage to Boston, Massachusetts, for repairs to participate in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. Wellings’s numerous letters, reports, and diary reveal much about an American’s reaction to the Royal Navy. As he wrote to his wife in October 1940, “I find the English eat more than we do, and in addition more often. I find their habits quite interesting. It is remarkable how they differ from ours when after all we have so much in common.” 59 Later, while in HMS Hood, Wellings participated in a shipboard New Year’s Eve celebration.   As the ships’ bell struck 16, he was amazed to see the wardroom tables cleared away, a bagpiper playing, and observe the admiral, captain, staff, wardroom, gunroom, and warrant officers dancing. “Such a comradeship one would never suspect from the English who are supposed to be so conservative. I was impressed very much. Such spirit is one of the best British assets. This spirit will go far to bring about victory in the end.” 60

The ABC (American-British-Canadian) staff talks that began in January 1941 laid the formal basis for high-level cooperation between the two services in preparation for the time when the United States entered the war. These were not easy negotiations and involved some serious differences of opinion. Some of the leading Americans had memories of their experiences and observations of the Royal Navy as junior officers during the First World War that influenced their outlook in different ways during Anglo-American naval relations between 1941 and 1945.

For example, Admiral Harold Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations from 1939 to early 1942, and Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, in London between 1942 and 1945, had served on the staff of Admiral William S. Sims in London in 1917-1918. After the war, he had attended the Naval War College. Having had that experience, he wanted to avoid the quickly arranged ad hoc arrangements of that period and to replace them with well-planned and organized relationships that were firmly established before entering the war. Thus, as Chief of Naval Operations, he had been the organizer and mentor for the ABC-1 talks in early 1941. 61

Stark’s successor as Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, had been the flag lieutenant to Admiral Henry T. Mayo, the commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet during World War One. In this assignment, Commander King had travelled with Mayo and had the rare opportunity for an American naval officer to observe many of the senior British naval officers in command, including Beatty, Jellicoe, and Sturdee, as they interacted with Admiral Mayo during his visit to Britain and the Grand Fleet in 1918. King thought Sims, “a show-off” 62 and he did not like the way that Sims had allowed American ships to be taken under British overall command. He wanted the U.S. Navy to operate independently and not to be under any other country’s control. 63 King had a strongly nationalistic viewpoint that has often been misinterpreted as being anti-British in his viewpoint. As a student at the Naval War College in 1933, King had written in his thesis,

Our strengths have virtually reduced Great Britain to second place. . . . Great Britain must be considered a potential enemy not in questions of security, but as to matters involving our foreign trade, financial supremacy, and our dominate position in world affairs. 64

King’s long-held viewpoints along these lines surfaced in a number of ways during World War II. In explaining his priority for the war in the Pacific over that in the Atlantic, King observed:

The British have been managing world affairs for well over three hundred years, ever since the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. I personally felt that the allies would lose the war against the Japanese unless we stopped them in a few weeks or months. . . . It seemed to me that the British ‘egged’ the U.S. on to accept their ideas since they were already fighting the Nazis when the U.S. entered the war and also since the Nazis were close by and the Pacific was far away. . . . I can’t get over the idea that the U.S. people had been sold a ‘pig in a poke’ at that time and were in the well-known situation of having been worked into a concept (even a real obsession) of British origin rather than to look out for the basic interests of the U.S.A. throughout the entire world. 65

In 1951, Admiral Lord Cunningham recalled in his published memoirs that Admiral King had been “at times rude and overbearing”. 66 The day after several American newspapers quoted this, 67  King recorded a memorandum for the record in which he recalled an incident during the summer of 1942 that had prompted Cunningham’s remarks. Cunningham, as head of the British Admiralty Delegation in Washington, had come to his office to ask if more destroyers could be made available for the North Atlantic convoy to Britain. At that time, King was using every available vessel and was, at the same time, busily engaged in setting up “Operation Torch” for North Africa. “I therefore interpreted Cunningham’s query as a ‘needle’ directed at me—and I was indeed very abrupt (rude) with him—and purposely so.” 68

In general, however, the naval relations between the U.S Navy and the Royal Navy were remarkably good and made for a very effective collaboration. American naval men and women clearly respected the professionalism and expertise of their British naval counterparts, although friction arose in a number of areas from differing approaches in training, procedures, and operational planning as well as in ascertaining which of the two navies should play the leading role for a particular function. This was apparent in a number of well-known instances, for example, in naval intelligence collaboration, during the planning for the D-Day operation, and during the operations of the British Fleet in the Pacific.

The Cold War and After. In 1946, it was apparent that the United States would need to take on a number of global responsibilities that the Royal Navy had previously exercises, beginning with Britain’s mantle in the Middle East. The United States Navy was deeply influenced by Royal Navy operational patterns and approaches. 69 In addition, the Second World War command organization, as it eventually evolved during the war, provided the fundamental model for this as it did for postwar naval cooperation through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation after 1949. 70  The gradual development, over the following forty years, of standardized procedures, equipment, supplies, and communications for multilateral naval operations, removed many the inter-service problems that the Royal Navy and the U.S Navy had experienced during World War Two. In this, for example, the Standing Naval Force, Atlantic, overcame what had appeared to be insuperable practical obstacles to become an effective force, and a model for other formal and ad hoc arrangements. 71  Through the NATO arrangement as well as through bi-lateral shared nuclear submarine technology 72 and other initiatives, the two navies grew increasingly more at ease and with less friction in their working relationships. Some clear differences remained. During the Cold War, Americans observed, among other things, the quality in sea training as well as the depth of knowledge that executive and engineer branch officers in the Royal Navy displayed, along with the ways that this compared and contrasted with the more generalist approach to officer knowledge and training in the United States Navy.

To conclude, as the vicar of Kew, the Rev’d Charles Caleb Colton, put it in the early nineteenth century, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” A telling example of this might be found in an echo of the Royal Navy’s long tradition of Trafalgar Night dinners. In the year 2000, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jay L. Johnson, announced that the U.S. Navy would pause to celebrate its heritage by beginning the annual practice of having a “dining in” to mark the anniversary of the battle of Midway,

one of the most decisive sea battles in world history . . . won, not by superior numbers or daunting technology, but by the courage and tenacity of sailors who fought a vicious air and sea battle against overwhelming odds. 73

Thus continues the long relationship and the changing kaleidoscope of viewpoints through which the American Navy has viewed the Royal Navy from being an enemy and infant offspring to peer- competitor and close ally.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

  1. The views and information in this paper express the independent research and academic judgments of the author and do not in any way reflect any current official policy of the United States of America, the United States Navy, or the U.S. Naval War College. This paper was originally presented at “The Navy is the Nation Conference,” held at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, 18-19 April 2012.
  2. For the first studies of early American naval administration, see Charles Oscar Paullin, “The Administration of the Continental Navy of the American Revolution,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, (September 1905), reprinted in Paullin’s History of Naval Administration (Annapolis: Naval Institute, 1986); Paullin, The Navy of the American Revolution: Its Administration, Its Policy, Its Achievements. (Cleveland: Burrows Brothers, 1906); Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, 1912, 1940, reprinted (New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962), chapter 2 “Naval Administration and Organization, pp. 20-58.
  3. Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 19.
  4. Raymond G. O’Connor, Origins of the American Navy: Sea Power in the Colonies and the New Nation. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994), pp. 16-17.
  5. Richard Buel, Jr., In Irons: Britain’s Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 79-80.
  6. Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. I, pp. 628-629: John Adams to Elbridge Gerry, [7
  7. Magra, The Fisherman’s Cause, p. 186.
  8. Clark, ed., NDAR, vol. 2, p. 308, fn 2: Journal of the Continental Congress, October 6, 1775: extract from John Adams’s Autobiography.
  9. Ibid.
  10. As early as 1755, Adams had written “…we have (I may say) all the naval Stores of the Nation in our hands, it will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas, and then the united force of all Europe, will not be able to subdue us.” Robert J. Taylor, Mary-Jo Kline, and Gregg L. Lint, eds., Papers of John Adams, vol. 1 (1977), available online at Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed. .C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2007. John Adams to Nathan Webb, 12 October 1755, with Comments by the Writer Recorded in 1807.
  11. Clark, ed., NDAR, vol. 2, p. 1189: Autobiography of John Adams, November 28, 1775
  12. Clark, ed., NDAR, vol. 2, p. 1109: Journal of the Continental Congress, November 23, 1775.
  13. First published in 1731, it is not yet been determined which edition Adams used. The most recent edition was the eleventh edition, published in 1772. For a list of the editions published between 1731 and 1790, see Thomas R. Adams and David W. Waters, comps., English Maritime Books Printed Before 1801. (Providence: John Carter Brown Library, and Greenwich: National Maritime Museum, 1995), items 1418-1429.
  14. Morgan, ed., NDAR, vol. 7, p. 79: William Ellery to William Vernon, Providence, November 7, 1776.
  15. For a modern historical study of British practice at the time, see Daniel A. Baugh, British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965) and “The Eighteenth Century Navy as a National Institution, 1690-1815,” in J.R. Hill, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 120-160. There was at least one available source that did provide an outline of British naval administration, but no evidence has yet been found that it was known or used by American officials at this time. See Josiah Burchett, A Complete History of the Most Remarkable Transactions at Sea (1720), a Facsimile Reproduction with an Introduction by John B. Hattendorf. (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints for the John Carter Brown Library, 1995). Burchett provided the outline of the Royal Navy’s administrative structure in the preface to this work.
  16. “A Country Member of Parliament” in Public Advertiser, 13 February 1783, quoted in P.J. Marshall, Remaking the British Atlantic: the United States and the British Empire after American Independence. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 51.
  17. “Piscator” in Public Advertiser, 12 February 1783, quoted in P.J. Marshall, Remaking the British Atlantic, p. 51.
  18. Craig l. Symonds, Navalists and Antinavalists: the Naval Policy Debate in the United States, 1785-1827. (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1980), pp. 11-25.
  19. Quoted in Ibid, p. 235.
  20. Joshua Humphries in ca. 1794, quoted in Tyrone G. Martin, A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of Old Ironsides. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997), p. 4.
  21. Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1939-1944), vol. 6, p. 126: John Shaw to John Gavino, 19 June 1805. I am grateful to Dr. Kevin McCranie for drawing my attention to this quotation and the two that follow.
  22. National Archives, RG 45; Letters from the Secretary of the Navy to Officers. Microfilm M149, Reel 11, 226: William Jones to John Rodgers, 26 February 1814.
  23. Charles Denison, ed., Old Ironsides and Old Adams: Stray Leaves from the Log-Book of a Man-of-War. (Boston: W.W. Page, 1846). p. 10.
  24. James R. Durand, The Life and Adventures of James R, Durand . . . written by himself. (Originally published 1820, then with commentary New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926, reprinted Sandwich, MA: Chapman Billies Inc, 1995), p. 49.
  25. On this subject, see Mark R. Shulman, Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Power, 1882-1893. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995).
  26. See Hattendorf, “History and Technological Change: the Study of History in the U.S. Navy, 1873-1890” in John B. Hattendorf, Naval History and technological Change: Collected Essays. (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing, 2000), pp. 1-16.
  27. A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812. (Boston: Little Brown, 1892), vol 2,, p. 118.
  28. A.T. Mahan, Sea Power in its Relation to the War of 1812. (Boston: Little Brown, 1905), vol. 1, p. v.
  29. A.T. Mahan, The Life of Nelson: the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain. (London: Sampson, Marston, Low, 1897), vol. 1, p. v.
  30. Ibid.
  31. William D. Puleston, Mahan: The life and work of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939), p. 180; Robert Seager II and Doris Maguire, eds, Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan. (Annapolis: Naval institute Press, 1975), vol. 2, p. 512: Mahan to J.B. Sterling, May 31, 1897.
  32. A.T. Mahan, “The British Navy: Fragment of a Newspaper Interview”, no place, no date [early August 1914
  33. Ibid.
  34. Captain A.T. Mahan on Imperial Federation. Speech delivered at a dinner of the Imperial Federation (Defence) Committee on July 6th, 1904. The Right Hon. Sir John Colomb, K.C.M.G., M.P. in the chair. (London: Imperial Federation (Defence) Committee, 1904)., pp. 1-2.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Quoted in Elting E. Morison, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942), p. 281.
  38. Ibid., p. 284.
  39. Steven T. Ross, American War Plans, 1890-1939. (London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2002), p. 7.
  40. Robert Seager II and Doris Maguire, eds., Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1977), vol. III, pp. 559-578: “Contingency Plan in the Case of War with Great Britain, December 1890.”
  41. Ibid., p. 559.
  42. Ibid., p. 561
  43. Ibid., p. 564,
  44. Ibid., p. 7.
  45. For more on this subject, see John B. Hattendorf, “Commonwealth Navies as Seen by the United States Navy, 1910-2010,” in Richard M. Gimblett, ed., The Canadian Navy and the Commonwealth Experience: From Empire to Independence (forthcoming).
  46. See E.E. Morison, Sims; Williams S. Sims, The Victory at Sea (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1920, reprinted Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984, with an introduction by David F. Trask); William N. Still, Jr., Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I. (Gainesville FL: University Press of Florida, 2006).
  47. United States Congress, Sixty-Six Congress, Second Session, Naval Investigation: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Naval Affairs—Unites States Senate. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1921), vol. II, pp. 1883-93, 1917-19, 1992, 3139. Sims attributed this quote to Benson during the testimony, raising an issue about the authority of the CNO. I am grateful to David Kohnen for drawing my attention to this quotation.
  48. Henry A. Wiley, An Admiral from Texas. (New York: Doubleday Day, Doran, & Co.,1934), p. 209.
  49. James C. Tily, The Uniforms of the United States Navy. (New York: Thomaas Yoseloff, 1964), p. 244.
  50. Michael Simpson, ed. Anglo-American Naval Relations, 1917-1919. Publications of the Navy Records Society, vol. 130. (Aldershot: Scolar Press for the Navy Records Society, 1991), p. 579: Document 435: U.S. Planning Section, early 1919.
  51. Ibid., p. 603: Document 448: Memorandum of the U.S. Naval Advisory Staff, Paris, 7 April 1919.
  52. J. Kenneth McDonald, “The Washington Conference and the Balance of Power, 1921-22,” in John B. Hattendorf and Robert S. Jordan, eds., Maritime Strategy and the Balance of Power: Britain and America in the Twentieth Century. (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 189-210.
  53. Christopher M. Bell, “Thinking the Unthinkable: British and American Naval Strategies for an Anglo-American War, 1918-1931,” The International History Review, vol. XIX, no. 4 (November 1997), pp. 757-1,008.
  54. “British Dominions,” Office of Naval Intelligence. Monthly Information Bulletin. No 7 (1923), pp. 2-23. Lloyd George quoted at p. 22.
  55. Bell, ‘Thinking,” pp. 799-800
  56. Bell, “Thinking,” p. 802; Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919-1941. (Newport: Naval War College Press, 1980), pp. 99-112.
  57. See James R. Leutze, Bargaining for Supremacy: Anglo-American Naval Collaboration, 1937-1941. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977); Malcolm H. Murfett, Fool-Proof Relations: The Search for Anglo-American Naval Cooperation During the Chamberlain Years, 1937-1940. (Singapore University Press, 1984); Patrick Abbazia, Mr.Roosevelt’s Navy: The Private War of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, 1939-1942. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975).
  58. Reminiscences of Rear Admiral Draper L. Kauffman, U.S. Navy (Retired). Oral History series. (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1982), quoted in Eric Dietrich-Berryman, Charlotte Hammond, and R.E. White, Passport Not Required: U.S. Volunteers in the Royal Navy, 1939-1941. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), p. 48.
  59. John B. Hattendorf, ed., On His Majesty’s Service: Observations from the British Home Fleet from the Diary, Reports, and Letters of Joseph H. Wellings, Assistant U.S. Naval Attaché, London 1940-41. (Newport: Naval War College, 1983), p. 44: Letter to Mrs. Wellings, 20 October 1940.
  60. Ibid., p. 85: Diary, 31 December 1940.
  61. B. Mitchell Simpson, III, Admiral Harold R. Stark: Architect of Victory, 1939-1945. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), p. 125, 129,-130, 136-137; Thomas B. Buell, Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. (Boston: Little Brown, 1980), p. 135.
  62. Buell, Master of Sea Power, pp. 48-53.
  63. Buell, Master of Sea Power, p. 278.
  64. Naval War College Archives, RG 13: Student theses, 1934: Captain Ernest J. King, “The Influence of the National Policy on the Strategy of a War;” Also quoted in Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919 – 1941. (Newport: Naval War College Press, 1980), p.   I am grateful to David Kohnen for drawing my attention to this and the following two quotations.
  65. Naval War College, Naval Historical Collection. Ms. Coll. 37: Thomas B. Buell and Walter Muir Whitehill Collection on Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. Box 7, folder 7: “Random Notes” by Walter Muir Whitehill, ca. 1945.
  66. Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope,
  67. The U.S. newspapers carried an Associated Press story that was carried in the Washington, D.C. Sunday Evening Star and The Boston Globe, among other papers on 1 April 1951.
  68. Naval War College, Naval Historical Collection. Ms. Coll. 37: Buell and Whitehill Collection on King. Box 7, folder 7: Memorandum for the Record, 2 April 1951.
  69. Richard A. Best, “’Co-Operation with Like Minded Peoples:’ British Influences on American Security Policy, 1945-1949. (Westport, CT: Garland Publishing, 1986), pp. 96 ff.
  70. Sean M. Maloney, Securing Command of the Sea: NATO Naval Planning, 1948-1954. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995), pp. 5-46.
  71. Hattendorf, “NATO’s Policeman on the Beat: The First Twenty Years of the Standing Naval Force, Atlantic, 1968-1988,” in Hattendorf, Naval History and Maritime Strategy, pp. 187-200.
  72. See, Peter Nailor, The Nassau Connection: The Organisation and Management of the British POLARIS project, (London: H.M.S.O, 1988).
  73. CNO NAVADMIN 164/99, R 041653Z JUN 99, subject: Naval Heritage.

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