Planning the Postwar Fleet Volume 1, 1944 – 1950

Vol 171 (2024), Jeremy Stocker

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.


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