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Captain Jeremy Stocker, Planning the Postwar Fleet Volume 1; 1944 – 1950 Vol 171 (2024) 

This is the first volume edited for the Navy Records Society to deal with the post-1945 Royal Navy. It begins in January 1944, the point at which serious thought started to be given to the size and shape of the postwar Fleet. It concludes with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, an event which upset many previous planning assumptions and initiated a short-lived rearmament programme. Subsequent volumes will continue the story through the 1950s and beyond.
By the beginning of 1944 Italy had already been defeated and victory against Germany some time in 1945 looked increasingly sure, though the war against Japan was expected to last well into 1946 at least. For the first eighteen months of the period, therefore, planning the future fleet was based on postwar requirements in Europe but a continuing war in the Far East to which Britain intended to make a substantial contribution.
The sudden and unexpected Japanese surrender in August 1945 immediately removed the latter requirement, and without the Navy having suffered the heavy losses of modern ships that were anticipated. But the new Labour Government led by Clement Attlee faced a fresh challenge – an economic crisis that necessitated immediate retrenchment to reduce spending on the Armed Forces and, as important, to release manpower for the civilian economy. Large parts of the Navy’s new construction programme were cancelled but the wartime fleet and residual building programme enabled the Fleet to ‘live off the fat’ of the wartime years for some time. The War left another legacy in that, lacking any better information, planning assumed a third Battle of the Atlantic much like the previous one.
By 1947 the incipient Cold War with Russia and continuing worldwide interests and responsibilities provided a basis for longer-term planning to begin. 1957 soon became the planning date for the future fleet as that was when it was assumed – on scant evidence – that war with the Soviet Union would become more likely. Renewed economic crises in 1947 and again in 1949 derailed plans almost as soon as they were developed.
The imperative to reconcile economic realities with the pressing need to modernise an increasingly obsolescent fleet resulted in the ‘Revised Restricted Fleet’ of 1949. This included a huge and largely unmodernised Reserve Fleet awaiting a call to arms in the event of mobilisation. Plans for new construction remained very modest and a steady stream of newly completed ships was almost entirely delayed wartime construction. It was also apparent that most of the Navy’s carriers would be unable to operate the larger, heavier, faster aircraft of the 1950s. Manpower remained a perennial issue, especially the retention of Regulars.
The establishment of the NATO alliance brought force commitments which Britain always struggled to meet. Then the outbreak of the Korean War caused planning to start again with fresh assumptions and revised targets.



Samuel Bentham, Inspector General of Naval Works, 1796-1807, Letters and Papers edited by Dr Roger Morriss. 

Samuel Bentham, Inspector General of Naval Works, 1796-1807, built successful ships, advocated non-recoil gunnery and introduced steam powered machinery into the dockyards. The facilities he created at Portsmouth remain as a memorial to his ambition. As a technologist and ideologue, he straddled the 18th and 19th centuries and helped to create the steam navy. Yet, in virtually everything he did, he courted controversy, not least because he recognised vested interest and, like his elder brother, Jeremy, pursued the interest of the public by commitment to the Principle of Utility.

Trained in the royal yards as a shipwright, Bentham went to Russia in 1779 and entered the service of Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin. There he fostered his talent for invention and innovation, developed the concept of the Panopticon and learned the value of individual responsibility. Having equipped the flotilla of small craft that fought and defeated the Turkish navy in the Black Sea, he returned to Britain in 1791 aged 34 as a Brigadier General.

Attached to the Admiralty from 1795, he aimed to enlarge the capacity and efficiency of the dockyards, as measured by the turn-around speed of ships refitting and undergoing minor repairs. He admired ‘mill practice’ and developed the Wood and Metal Mills at Portsmouth to demonstrate the ability of the navy to become as efficient as private industry. To this end, he aimed to use contemporary science, logical thinking and education to enhance yard productivity. Economy naturally depended on cultural factors and in 1800 he advanced a programme of administrative reform based on personal accountability, detailed accountancy and central control.

Bentham was supported by First Lords Spencer and St Vincent, but avoided involvement in the latter’s Commission of naval inquiry into abuses in the naval departments. However, he aggravated members of the Navy Board by the works he directed at Portsmouth and he aroused their apprehension by his obvious ambition and condemnation of collective responsibility. In 1805 he was sent to Russia on a mission to build ships for Britain. That proved abortive. Yet, while he was away, his Admiralty post was abolished by the Commission of naval revision and in 1808 he was obliged to accept the post of Civil Architect and Engineer at the Navy Board. In 1812 that post too was dissolved and Bentham was forced to wait until 1815 for his pension and Russian expenses.

A brilliant man of extraordinary capabilities, a polymath who planted many modern ideas in the civil departments of the navy, Samuel Bentham was nevertheless a challenging figure. He has been too little known: his Mechanist and friend, Simon Goodrich, advised him he was regarded as a ‘strange creature’ at the Navy Board. Yet in 1812 he left his record of Services which became a source of guidance during the post-war rationalisation. The Whig government of 1806 also admired his ideas and, in conjunction with those of his brother, they continued to have influence in the nineteenth century when the Whigs returned to power.  


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