The USN vs. the Royal Navy

From the battle of Lepanto to the mid-19th century.
BuckBradley
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The USN vs. the Royal Navy

Post by BuckBradley » Thu Oct 03, 2019 4:14 am

I am NOT trying to start a flame war here gents. In combat vs. each other, both sides gained plenty of laurels. Both sides were the best (ship v. ship) that the other ever faced.

Why did the USN do so much better vs. the RN than anyone else? You would think that the French (with their money, history, infrastructure, experience) would be much better placed to do well against the RN, but...

Your thoughts?

Thanks in advance.

Why did the USN have so much greater successes

Francis Marliere
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Re: The USN vs. the Royal Navy

Post by Francis Marliere » Thu Oct 03, 2019 8:46 am

Despite having a long coastline, France is more a 'land' country than a 'naval' one, and for centuries had difficulties in building a strong navy.
France has long boundaries, especially with Germany and Spain, which in the last centuries, were dangerous foes. So the priority for France was always to have a strong army. Being unable to maintain at the same time a strong army and a strong navy, France could havea good navy only when the country did not have to manage a land war.

Moreover, French Navy had during the pas centuries serious problem to man the ships. While in England many people live near the sea and could become sailors rather easily, most French men were peasants without neither knowledge nor taste for the sea. Most sailors of the sail navy came from a single region, Britany, and that limited the number of ships that the French navy could man.

Last, it was difficult to etablish a naval policy in France. For centuries, there were leaders who understood the value of a navy (such as under Colbert in the XVIIth century or Georges Leygues in the inter wars years) and others who did not. The story of the French Navy is a succession of efforts to build a fleet, decline, rebuilding from scratch and so on.

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wadinga
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Re: The USN vs. the Royal Navy

Post by wadinga » Mon Oct 07, 2019 9:50 pm

Fellow Contributors,

I feel Buck may have been unduly influenced by a very limited number of single-ship actions instead of picking up the whole picture as exemplified by this from the excellent Wikipedia "War of 1812"
Historian Troy Bickham, author of The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812, sees the British as having fought to a much stronger position than the United States.
Even tied down by ongoing wars with Napoleonic France, the British had enough capable officers, well-trained men, and equipment to easily defeat a series of American invasions of Canada. In fact, in the opening salvos of the war, the American forces invading Upper Canada were pushed so far back that they ended up surrendering Michigan Territory. The difference between the two navies was even greater. While the Americans famously (shockingly for contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic) bested British ships in some one-on-one actions at the war's start, the Royal Navy held supremacy throughout the war, blockading the U.S. coastline and ravaging coastal towns, including Washington, D.C. Yet in late 1814, the British offered surprisingly generous peace terms despite having amassed a large invasion force of veteran troops in Canada, naval supremacy in the Atlantic, an opponent that was effectively bankrupt, and an open secessionist movement in New England.
The point was, it was bad for business and with Napoleon defeated (yes I know he came back like Freddy Krueger) the RN did not need to steal American sailors for its ships anymore.

Despite Francis' precis, until a certain Corporal of Artillery took over, with his land-centric views, the French Royalist Navy had wrestled, often very successfully with the Royal Navy for control of the World's oceans for nearly 200 years. One might point out, the fledgling USA only came into being at all as a result of the efforts of the French Royalist Fleet to frustrate British plans to snuff out the Rebellion. How were the helpful French repaid? By the export of rebellion to their own country, and thus the execution of their rulers, the institution of the Terror, and the emergence of a dictator intent on grinding the rest of Europe under his heel. Lack of interest in the French revolutionary navy ended up with it being ill manned and trained, and easily bested, even against numerical odds.

All the best

wadinga
"There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!"

dunmunro
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Re: The USN vs. the Royal Navy

Post by dunmunro » Tue Oct 08, 2019 2:46 am

BuckBradley wrote:
Thu Oct 03, 2019 4:14 am
I am NOT trying to start a flame war here gents. In combat vs. each other, both sides gained plenty of laurels. Both sides were the best (ship v. ship) that the other ever faced.

Why did the USN do so much better vs. the RN than anyone else? You would think that the French (with their money, history, infrastructure, experience) would be much better placed to do well against the RN, but...

Your thoughts?

Thanks in advance.

Why did the USN have so much greater successes
In almost every USN victory the odds were heavily stacked against the RN. Even in the Chesapeake vs Shannon battle, Chesapeake was the nominally more powerful vessel with a larger crew (which was often the decisive factor in the age of sail) and a heavier armament.

Byron Angel
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Re: The USN vs. the Royal Navy

Post by Byron Angel » Tue Oct 08, 2019 1:54 pm

Francis Marliere wrote:
Thu Oct 03, 2019 8:46 am
Despite having a long coastline, France is more a 'land' country than a 'naval' one, and for centuries had difficulties in building a strong navy.
France has long boundaries, especially with Germany and Spain, which in the last centuries, were dangerous foes. So the priority for France was always to have a strong army. Being unable to maintain at the same time a strong army and a strong navy, France could havea good navy only when the country did not have to manage a land war.

Moreover, French Navy had during the pas centuries serious problem to man the ships. While in England many people live near the sea and could become sailors rather easily, most French men were peasants without neither knowledge nor taste for the sea. Most sailors of the sail navy came from a single region, Britany, and that limited the number of ships that the French navy could man.

Last, it was difficult to etablish a naval policy in France. For centuries, there were leaders who understood the value of a navy (such as under Colbert in the XVIIth century or Georges Leygues in the inter wars years) and others who did not. The story of the French Navy is a succession of efforts to build a fleet, decline, rebuilding from scratch and so on.
- - -

Quite agree with all the above. Permit me to add one additional comment. France also faced the necessity of maintaining two separate fleets and their supporting coastal infrastructure: one for Atlantic service and another for Mediterranean service. It was always difficult to coordinate the two, more so after the British seizure of Gibraltar.

B

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Re: The USN vs. the Royal Navy

Post by Byron Angel » Tue Oct 08, 2019 3:47 pm

dunmunro wrote:
Tue Oct 08, 2019 2:46 am
BuckBradley wrote:
Thu Oct 03, 2019 4:14 am
I am NOT trying to start a flame war here gents. In combat vs. each other, both sides gained plenty of laurels. Both sides were the best (ship v. ship) that the other ever faced.

Why did the USN do so much better vs. the RN than anyone else? You would think that the French (with their money, history, infrastructure, experience) would be much better placed to do well against the RN, but...

Your thoughts?

Thanks in advance.

Why did the USN have so much greater successes
In almost every USN victory the odds were heavily stacked against the RN. Even in the Chesapeake vs Shannon battle, Chesapeake was the nominally more powerful vessel with a larger crew (which was often the decisive factor in the age of sail) and a heavier armament.
- - -

A couple of hopefully helpful comments:

The early US victories in frigate vs frigate actions that caused such consternation in Great Britain were indeed the result of odds stacked in favor of the Americans. But the stacking of those odds was not solely a function of the much greater size and weight of fire of the American ships. In fact, the RN had on more than one occasion emerged victorious in actions between smaller British frigates and much larger French 24-lbr frigates. In general, the British statistical calculus (see Clowes on this point) that evolved over the course of the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars was that the cross-over point (i.e. likelihood of victory starts to fall below 50pct) in a one-on-one British vs French frigate action was reached when the French frigate held a 3:2 superiority in nominal weight of broadside. The countervailing British advantage lay in their much better trained, experienced, disciplined officers and crews.

Between Trafalgar and the outbreak of the War of 1812, the RN had undertaken a massive expansion of the number frigates, sloops and smaller coastal cruisers in order to enforce the announced comprehensive blockade of continental Europe. Doing so, however, resulted in Great Britain itself finally hitting the wall in terms of naval manpower - in terms of both trained seamen and qualified officers. Since "the American War" was viewed as a distinctly secondary theater compared to confronting Napoleon in Europe, it was the lesser quality ships (both in terms of physical condition and crew fitness) that were committed by the Admiralty to American waters. The American navy, by contrast, with no hope of matching Great Britain in terms of size of fleet, had opted for a very small navy (which was all they could afford) whose core was a small class of individually very large, powerful and fast frigates under the command of the best available officers, amply manned by the very best quality sailors available, trained and outfitted to the highest degree possible. The early engagements of the war shows all these factors in play in various degrees. Ultimately, the British reaction was to greatly reinforce their presence in American waters, both in numbers and quality.

- - -

As regards crew strength, I do not necessarily see it as a decisive factor during this period. The RN, as a rule, was fairly frugal in its manning standards (increasingly so as the Napoleonic wars dragged on) and commonly fought and won from a position of relative inferiority in crew numbers.

- - -

Re Chesapeake vs Shannon, the difference in broadside weight of fire was IMO not all that important: James claims +10pct in favor of Chesapeake; Roosevelt, allowing for short weight of American balls, claims approximate parity. At the sub-50 yard shooting range, both ships counted 25 guns on their broadside. At the end of the day, the action was decided by the accuracy of the British fire, their wise choice of ammunition and good fortune in the early disablement of Chesapeake's fore topsail which caused her to fly up into the wind and be taken aback. Broke's superb preparation and training of HMS Shannon and her crew during his seven years in command showed on that day (finest frigate in the RN at that time). By contrast (IMO) over-confidence on the part of Captain Lawrence and a brand new crew on their first foray after re-fit materially contributed to the early loss of USS Chesapeake.

FWIW.

B

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wadinga
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Re: The USN vs. the Royal Navy

Post by wadinga » Tue Oct 08, 2019 3:52 pm

Fellow Contributors,

Even in the period when Revolutionary France had relatively poorly trained crews, often penned in harbour by British close blockade, forces from the south of France could pass Gibraltar with impunity, and challenge British dominance. From Wikipedia entry on Pierre-Charles Villeneuve:
After an abortive expedition in January, Villeneuve finally left Toulon on 29 March 1805 with eleven ships of the line. He evaded Nelson's blockade, passed the Strait of Gibraltar on 8 April and crossed the Atlantic with Nelson's fleet in pursuit, but about a month behind owing to unfavourable winds. In the West Indies Villeneuve waited for a month at Martinique, but Admiral Ganteaume's Brest fleet did not appear. Eventually Villeneuve was pressured by French army officers into beginning the planned attack on the British, but he succeeded only in recapturing the island fort of Diamond Rock off Martinique. On 7 June he learned that Nelson had reached Antigua. On 8 June he and his fleet were able to intercept a homeward-bound convoy of 15 British merchant vessels escorted by the frigate HMS Barbadoes and the sloop or schooner HMS Netley. The two British warships managed to escape, but Villeneuve's fleet captured the entire convoy, valued at some five million pounds. Villeneuve then sent the prizes into Guadeloupe under the escort of the frigate Sirène.[3] On 11 June Villeneuve set out for Europe with Nelson again in pursuit.
Which is longer, the coastline of Britain or France? Immaterial. Besides we "impressed" experienced sailors from other nations to swell the numbers, hence a Causus Belli for the war of 1812.

Suffren, De Tourville, De Grasse etc were successful French Admirals against the British but I made an error earlier, there was a long gap between the French invading the Isle of Wight in 1545 (when the Mary Rose sank), with our brief attack on the French at La Rochelle in 1627-8 followed by more prolonged naval rivalry from the Battle of Bantry Bay 1689 and onward for over a century culminating at Trafalgar.

Of course the Dutch navy did rather well against us too, on occasion, including in 1667, sailing up the River Medway near where I live, capturing and towing away the flagship HMS Royal Charles, and burning other ships they did not want.

On balance I put the sailing USN in a somewhat distant third place behind these other seafaring nations.

All the best

wadinga
"There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!"

OpanaPointer
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Re: The USN vs. the Royal Navy

Post by OpanaPointer » Tue Oct 08, 2019 4:58 pm


Byron Angel
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Re: The USN vs. the Royal Navy

Post by Byron Angel » Tue Oct 08, 2019 7:35 pm

wadinga wrote:
Tue Oct 08, 2019 3:52 pm
Fellow Contributors,
Even in the period when Revolutionary France had relatively poorly trained crews, often penned in harbour by British close blockade, forces from the south of France could pass Gibraltar with impunity, and challenge British dominance.

Which is longer, the coastline of Britain or France? Immaterial. Besides we "impressed" experienced sailors from other nations to swell the numbers, hence a Causus Belli for the war of 1812.

Suffren, De Tourville, De Grasse etc were successful French Admirals against the British but I made an error earlier, there was a long gap between the French invading the Isle of Wight in 1545 (when the Mary Rose sank), with our brief attack on the French at La Rochelle in 1627-8 followed by more prolonged naval rivalry from the Battle of Bantry Bay 1689 and onward for over a century culminating at Trafalgar.

Of course the Dutch navy did rather well against us too, on occasion, including in 1667, sailing up the River Medway near where I live, capturing and towing away the flagship HMS Royal Charles, and burning other ships they did not want.

On balance I put the sailing USN in a somewhat distant third place behind these other seafaring nations.

All the best

wadinga
Passing the Strait of Gibraltar with impunity - Use of the phrase "with impunity" rather overstates the case. Not likely, in the case of a state of war with a British naval presence in the W Mediterranean. Even if no British forces are present in the Strait, no French squadron of any size could pass the Strait without being observed by someone - Nelson's initial news of Villeneuve was obtained from a Ragusan merchant ship which had sighted the French passing through the Strait. It is also worth keeping in mind that Villeneuve did not slip through the Strait undetected by the British themselves; he was sighted near Cadiz by Orde's squadron. But Orde withdrew before Villeneuve's superior numbers and failed to send out any sort of sighting report (which pretty much ruined his career). Where was Nelson? As CiC Mediterranean, he had bet on Villeneuve heading into the E Mediterranean, while a dire shortage of frigates had left him operationally blind in terms of covering other possibilities.

Re the naval wars of the latter half of the 17th century. I consider honors were shared more or less equally among the French, the English and the Dutch. The Dutch, even if numerically inferior at sea after the 17th century, were dangerous and hard-fighting opponents to be accorded careful respect ..... as the British casualty rolls show at Dogger Bank and even as late as Camperdown. The French were GB's greatest rival at sea up to the early 18th century, when (IMO) Louis XIV did Great Britain a great favor by allowing the French navy to waste away into such a state of strategic inferiority as to deliver to GB a victory of the greatest import in the Seven Years' War. The French navy of Louis XVI was revivified under the hand of Choiseul and effectively performed the role of midwife in the birth of the United States of America. Sadly, the French Revolution delivered a blow to the French navy, from which it has yet to recover.

In terms of ranking of the sailing navies, I concur with your assessment.

In closing, methinks you dismiss too easily the problems of operationally coordinating a navy with two heads in the era of sail. Coastline distances? The voyage from Brest to Toulon = ~1800 nm, which represents a passage of at least 20 days (assuming favorable winds over the entire passage). Making a rendezvous at sea? It would be most difficult to predict a meeting day within +/- a week. It's complicated when one starts thinking about all the balls that have to be kept up in the air.

FWIW.

B

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wadinga
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Re: The USN vs. the Royal Navy

Post by wadinga » Wed Oct 09, 2019 12:43 pm

Fellow Contributors,
Sadly, the French Revolution delivered a blow to the French navy, from which it has yet to recover.
That's a bit harsh! It was pretty powerful from the mid 1850s onward, and innovative with ships like La Gloire. It was far too large and dangerous to be allowed to fall into the hands of the Germans in 1940.

The coastline bit was about manning vessels with people who live near the sea. France has a lot of coastline.

Since the guns on Gibraltar couldn't hit Villeneuve and there was no way of getting information to Nelson or home except by sailing ship taking weeks, the fleet passed with impunity. Having started my career at sea using short wave radio and progressed through to satellite communication I can imagine the difficulties of communicating in the previous centuries. And the advantages- no interference from Mission Control.

After looking at the first few entries in the Spanish Naval Victories thread I am contemplating reducing the sailing USN's ranking to fourth.

All the best

wadinga
"There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today!"

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