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Second Sea Lord's Trafalgar Night Speech

21 October 2017
Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock OBE, Second Sea Lord and Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, delivered a speech at Trafalgar Night on board HMS Victory on 21 October 2017.

Your Grace, My Lord Howe, Secretary Of State, Ministers of State, Under Secretaries of State, Admirals, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Randolph [Churchill], your famous great-grandfather once said that “a country that forgets its history has no future”.  This evening, we have the chance not only to remember that history but to be part of it for a short while.

Portsmouth Naval Base has existed since 1194, and our nation’s history is all around us. This is the place where the industrial revolution started, with the first steam production line anywhere in the world and significantly earlier than the much vaunted Ford Model T production line. The Georgian architecture which surrounds us is some of the finest in the country.  At one time, it was the largest industrial centre in Europe and today the world’s largest conventional aircraft carrier is here, the very mark of this nation’s 21st Century industrial capability, and our continuing ambition. 

And yet, what stands at the very heart of this, the oldest naval base in the world, in the second oldest dry dock in the world, is a wooden ship. This ship. 

So here we are tonight, aboard this icon of our nation’s maritime history, to commemorate the 212th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and with it the life and death of Britain’s greatest naval hero: Vice Admiral Horatio The Lord Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronte, Knight of the Bath and Vice Admiral of the White.

I must also say that to dine in such wonderful company would have been right up Nelson’s street and, of course, we are joined by a direct descendant of a previous Admiral who dined in this very cabin, the First Earl Howe, whose flag flew from the HMS Victory’s mainmast in 1782 and again in 1790.

If Nelson could have seen our sailors and marines at work in the Caribbean in recent weeks, I think he would be proud

Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock

Now I think the events of October 21st 1805 are well known.

On the eve of Battle, Nelson assembled his captains. He explained his plan of action and left each of them with a clear understanding of their responsibility.

By forming his 27 ships-of-the-line into two columns, he would break the enemy line of 33 ships at the middle and the rear, forcing an engagement at close quarters in which the Royal Navy excelled.

It was bold, it was audacious – but it was risky too, exposing the British ships to the full force of the enemy’s guns before they were in position to return fire.

Yet Nelson’s captains had complete faith in his instructions and, in return, he trusted each of them to do what was necessary as the Battle unfolded.

The French and Spanish sailors fought valiantly. Rear Admiral Chevallereau - let me assure you, from our records there was no doubting their bravery that day.

But Nelson looked after his men very personally. They were better trained, better fed and morale was higher, and they fought harder as a result, despite having fewer ships and fewer guns.

As the two fleets became entangled, Nelson’s last signal – “Engage the Enemy more closely” – was calculated to press home this psychological advantage at the moment of maximum benefit.

Then as the fighting reached its height, Nelson was struck by a fatal musket ball.

But it mattered not – the Battle was already won.


With the defeat of the Combined Fleet, Britain was secure from invasion.

The Royal Navy was now able to concentrate its efforts on the protection of British trade while simultaneously supressing that of the French.

With Trafalgar, Napoleon’s ambition to dominate the seas and forge a global empire had sunk beneath the waves.

Napoleon instead sought to strangle Britain’s trade with Europe, but this was countered by Britain’s ability to continue trading with the rest of the world. 

Strategically constrained, Napoleon was forced into ever more desperate measures, beginning with the invasion of Spain and culminating in his fateful decision to invade Russia.

Meanwhile, freed from the financial imperatives of homeland defence, Britain was able to take a position of leadership in the coalitions that followed.

By 1810, the British Army had more than 100,000 troops in the field – but was subsidising four times as many men among the allied armies.

Far from being won on the playing fields of Eton, the outcome of Waterloo had been set in train - at sea - ten years earlier.

As Wellington would later say, “If anyone wishes to know the history of this war, I will tell him that it is our maritime superiority which gives me the power of maintaining my army while the enemy are unable to do so.”

The rest is history.

Backed by free trade policies at home, the Royal Navy became the guardian of an ever-expanding maritime network, and Britain rose to become the workshop of the world and the mother of Parliaments.

Trafalgar was truly the making of modern Britain.

Maritime Investment

 Today, our nation stands at another strategic crossroads.

Irrespective of our decision to leave the European Union, Britain remains committed to continental security, to our bilateral agreements, to our place in the world and, of course, our permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Royal Navy’s current leadership of two of NATO’s four maritime task groups.

It is a commitment that will continue to deepen as we respond to a strategically emboldened and technology advanced Russian Navy above and below the waves, and we must drive our own national engineering capabilities hard to ensure they understand and deliver on the extraordinary responsibility that we carry together.

And yet as we address these security challenges close to home, we too must look outwards, to the global trading opportunities that will secure the UK’s continued prosperity in the years ahead.

I firmly believe that the Royal Navy’s capabilities are matching political expectation at the very moment the United Kingdom looks to strengthen and expand its international reach.

This summer, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth commenced sea trials and her sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, was formally named.

With their air group of fifth generation fighters, they will provide the United Kingdom with a continuous carrier strike capability – a powerful new conventional deterrent to complement our existing submarine-based nuclear deterrent. True modern deterrence.

But the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth Class has been but a part of our national investment and we see renewal across each of our Fighting Arms.

On the River Clyde - where we yesterday witnessed Lady Fallon name the offshore patrol vessel HMS Medway - our investment over the next decade and beyond is truly impressive.

It begins with the five OPVs – the first of which HMS Forth is undergoing her sea trials - and will continue with the eight Type 26 frigates, with construction of HMS Glasgow now underway.

In Barrow-in-Furness, four further Astute-class attack submarines are under construction, together with the first of our four new Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines.

In the United States, our Fleet Air Arm aviators have been working hand-in-glove with the Royal Air Force to bring the F35B Joint Strike Fighter into UK service.

The need for us to have the right pilots is obvious and through rigorous management and some terrifically innovative approaches we have reduced the holdover for RN Pilots to only 6 months compared to the historic and cross-defence norm of 24 months - meaning more pilots on the front line, much more quickly.

We have also been very fortunate to have been provided with Fast Jet seats and training by the Marine Nationale. These vital opportunities mean we are ready to deliver air power from the sea today; Rear Admiral Chevallereau, I must thank you for your nation’s contribution to the generation of our Continuous Carrier Capability.

Meanwhile, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary has taken delivery of two Tide-class tankers, with two more to follow next year, and the Maritime Reserves has established a new battlestaff cadre, ready to support future Carrier operations.

And finally, the Royal Marines are rapidly re-rolling into special purpose task groups that can operate from the carriers - and from all our vessels – in response to the growing security challenges in the world’s cluttered and contested coastal waters.

Those of you who know the history of the Corps will understand that by heading back to the sea in this way, the Royal Marines are returning to the roles in which they have demonstrated such dexterity and skill over three-and-a-half centuries. 

Marines stood on the deck of this ship, and have stood on the decks of Royal Navy ships in every battle and in every war, and they are bound into our naval future in every way. 

We take nothing for granted. We have complex manpower challenges to work through and must ensure we drive industry harder to deliver the capabilities we need for the money we have. However, I am clear that, in equipment terms, the Royal Navy’s future is more secure today than it has been for some time.

As Napoleon discovered, navies are strategic in nature.

The political and economic challenges of developing the necessary instruments of strategic maritime power are enormous and for most countries prohibitive, but the UK is now past that stage.

And so once again, our maritime investment gives us that most precious political and military commodity of all – choice.

In today’s Royal Navy, our nation has the means to protect our interests at home and meet our commitments in Europe, but also to support its growing economic ambitions in the world.


This is not a journey the Royal Navy takes alone.

Just as Nelson’s Navy enjoyed ‘strength in depth’ so the Queen Elizabeth-class project drew on the manufacturing and technical expertise from every part of our country.

This project breathed new life into limp but once-mighty shipyards, sustaining hundreds of businesses and creating thousands of new jobs and apprenticeships.

Now the challenge is to maintain the momentum.

The recently published National Shipbuilding Strategy charts a course for a stronger more dynamic industrial sector that can deliver the Government’s ambition to increase the size of the Fleet for the 2030s but also help British firms compete on the international market.

A week before the Strategy was announced I was almost laughed out of a meeting with maritime industries when I exposed my wish for a General Purpose Frigate for £250 million.  Two weeks later at DSEI, I was faced by 3 embryonic consortia and around 8 designs for a GP Frigate for whom the price of £250 million was “no problem”.  Secretary of State, I suggest the competition you demanded is well and truly on.

It will take sustained political commitment and investment to grow the Navy, but I think we have already proven we are up for the task

Because by delivering a larger fleet through the Type 31e, we can strengthen and expand the Royal Navy’s reach to provide the persistent global presence upon which military and trading alliances are built - a truly Global Navy to support Global Britain, within a framework of modern deterrence.

Beyond shipbuilding, we also look to an array of new technologies, from autonomous systems and laser weapons to artificial intelligence-assisted decision making.

The Secretary of State will recall seeing our new energy weapon, Dragonfire, a system that was unheard of in 2015 when I returned from the US and demanded we move our research in this area from physics labs to operational output.  As a result, today we have a capability demonstrator that will fire in 2019.

You will have also seen the brilliant creative thinking seen from some of the UK’s brightest engineers thanks to our Nautilus100 work.

Innovation and digital technology will keep the Royal Navy ahead of the threat in the years to come, and will allow us to demonstrate the power of British expertise and British innovation to a global audience, and it will generate high value, high worth industry.

Underpinning all our strategic maritime ambitions is the ability to meet the relentless demand for skills in science, technology and engineering.

That’s why the Royal Navy is working with companies from across defence and maritime sectors to sponsor a growing number of University Technical Colleges – not only in Portsmouth and Plymouth, but from Aston and Derby to Reading and Scarborough, supporting nuclear, cyber, aeronautical, marine and mechanical engineering skills, and ensuring STEM is at the heart of learning.

We don’t expect every student who passes through these Colleges to join the Navy. But we do want to play our part to help them develop the skills required for a successful and rewarding career - because this, more than anything else, will be the foundation for our nation’s security and prosperity in the years ahead.

So today, as was the case with Trafalgar, navies are strategic in nature.


 Of course, the most important element will always be the young men and women serving at the sharp end of operations. 

On the eve of Battle, Nelson prayed for “humanity after victory to be the predominant feature of the British fleet”

If Nelson could have seen our sailors and marines at work in the Caribbean in recent weeks, I think he would be proud.

Thanks to clear direction and preparation led from the MOD, RFA Mounts Bay was on station with her embarked Wildcat Helicopter and Commandos as the hurricane swept through the region.

She was able to deliver immediate help from the outset, demonstrating once again the importance of a globally deployed Navy.

Mounts Bay was later joined by the Lead Commando Group and by HMS Ocean, supported by reservists and civil servants, both in theatre and back home. Working with the RAF, the Lead Commando Group was fully deployed within the time expected.

It really has been a team effort, and shows how much we can achieve when we come together as a Nation, working with DFID, the FCO and other government departments.

And of course, we’ve been doing this while continuing to deliver the UK’s Nuclear Deterrent, continuing to meet our commitments to NATO and protecting British citizens and British interests at home and overseas.

It’s not always easy – demands on the Navy are growing while public spending remains tight, not just in the UK but across the West.

But whatever challenges we face, we must never allow the nation to lose sight of how hard our sailors and marines are working on our behalf.

There are so many examples from the past year…

Like the Royal Marine who risked his life when his own boat became pinned against the rocks as he tried, against hope, to resuscitate two refugee children who had been plucked from the Aegean.

Like the young air engineering technician from HMS Monmouth, who this spent 30 minutes dangling on the end of a winch and being repeatedly swamped by waves, as he rescued a stricken mariner in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Or like the 700 young men and women, drawn from all across our United Kingdom, who are serving in the nation’s future flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth.

For almost a third of them, this is their first time at sea.

But they are bright, motivated and hugely excited.

And like all those who worn a naval uniform since 1805, they are doing their best to live up to Nelson’s example of courage, duty and sacrifice.

So please stand – and drink in silence – to the immortal memory of Horatio, Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte and Vice Admiral of the White, and to the memory of those who fell with him.  The Immortal Memory

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