VE Day 60 Years: Heroism On The High Seas - The Navy In World War Two

By Graham Spicer | 15 April 2005
Shows a photo of a large ship being launched with a crowd of onlookers

Launch of HMS Belfast in 1938. © Imperial War Museum

The Second World War saw British and Allied sailors in action across the globe, from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the oceans of the Far East. Thousands of ships were sunk in the battle to control vital supply routes, outwit the deadly German U-boats and support the air and land campaigns. Their contribution to the war, in the often harsh environment at sea, was huge.

The Imperial War Museum London is a good place to start finding out more about this massive contribution to the last war with its War at Sea 1939-45 exhibition, and there are many museums across the country looking at particular aspects of the Navy’s involvement in the conflict.

The British Naval Fleet’s main anchorage in both world wars was at Scapa Flow in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, and is famously known as the place where the remains of the German Navy were scuttled at the end of WWI.

photo shows a long steel warship near moored on a river

HMS Belfast had an eventful war - she was mined, and served in the North Sea, Normandy landings, and the Far East. © Imperial War Museum

At the start of World War Two war the British fleet was caught by surprise at Scapa Flow. In October 1939, a German U-boat sunk HMS Royal Oak at her moorings with the loss of 833 men. Scapa Flow also saw aerial attacks from the Luftwaffe, causing the first civilian death of the war. Its visitor centre has an important collection recording the role the Royal Navy played in Orkney in both world wars.

There are also the hundreds of war graves of the men who lost their lives in WWI’s Battle of Jutland, those from HMS Royal Oak, and graves of the German men who died there in both world wars.

Perhaps the best place in the UK to see what it was like to serve in the Navy during the war is at HMS Belfast, at its final resting place moored on London’s River Thames. HMS Belfast was the largest and arguably most powerful cruiser in the Royal Navy during WWII.

Shows a black and white photograph of a merchant seaman covered in oil and leaning on rail, sitting on the deck of a ship.

Merchant seamen faced the daily risk of U-boat attack. More than 3,000 merchant ships were sunk during the conflict. © Imperial War Museum

Launched in 1938, it had an eventful career and early in the war was mined when leaving the Firth of Forth in Scotland. After a three-year refit it set out to protect the Merchant Navy’s Arctic convoys who were supplying Soviet forces on the Russian Front. She was involved in the Battle of the North Cape that led to the sinking of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst and subsequently provided naval support to the Normandy landings.

After D-Day HMS Belfast moved to the Far East, but the Japanese had surrendered by the time she had got there. The Life at Sea exhibition contained within her bows shows what it was like for the sailors aboard.

Britain depended on essential imports from the USA and Canada for the war effort, and Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic exhibition charts the fate of the sailors involved and also looks at the contribution of Liverpool as the largest and most important port linking Britain with North America.

Shows a photo of a man in a black coat looking into a periscope

Periscope up! The Merseyside Maritime Museum shows what life was like for seamen during the Battle of the Atlantic. Courtesy Merseyside Maritime Museum

The Cruel Sea exhibition, currently showing at the Aberdeen Maritime Museum until July 16 2005, also chronicles the war as experienced by the men of the Merchant Navy in the Atlantic and beyond.

During World War Two 3,194 merchant ships were sunk by U-boats and warships, with some 30,000 merchant seamen losing their lives. The exhibition focuses on the personal memories of the men involved and the important, sometimes understated, contribution they made to the war effort.

German submarines threatened Allied shipping throughout the war, and Historic Warships at Birkenhead, which boasts the largest collection of 20th century preserved warships in Europe, displays U-boat U534, sunk at the end of World War Two by an RAF plane and salvaged in 1993.

Shows a black and white photo of men and women working at a long desk.

Military intelligence gathering was crucial and codebreakers at Bletchley Park helped warn of planned naval attacks. Courtesy Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park was the secret centre where the Enigma and Lorenz codes, used to scramble German military communications in the war, were broken. Many details are still shrouded in secrecy, but its museum now explains its wartime role.

Bletchley is significant in explaining the naval hsitory of World War Two because, not only was the first German enigma code-sending machine captured by a British submarine but the subsequent efforts of the code breakers stationed there were instrumental in helping to break the naval blockade of shipping routes.

Throughout the war Bletchley codebreakers intercepted and quickly decoded German communications. Many of the advances made there also paved the way for the modern computer.

In 1939 the Admiralty regained full control of all aircraft embarked on its ships, and by the end of the war there were 3243 pilots and 53 operational aircraft carriers - there had been only 406 pilots and 8 carriers at the war’s start. The Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovil looks at the history of the Navy’s own air force, and also shows a Japanese Okha suicide flying bomb used against Allied ships in the Far East.

Shows a photo of a large black military submarine which has been taken out of the water

HMS Alliance was launched in 1947 after the war had ended, but is still the best place to see what life would have been like for submariners during WWII. Courtesy Royal Navy Submarine Museum

The Royal Navy Submarine Museum’s centrepiece, HMS Alliance, was commissioned in 1947 after the war had ended, but the museum is still one of the best ways to find out about the history of British submarines in World War Two. At the start of the war Britain had 58 submarines available, but by the end of the conflict had deployed around 270.

More than 2,000 men were killed in the 73 British submarines that were lost, one of which was HMS Swordfish, assumed sunk by German destroyers in the Bay of Biscay in November 1940. The wreck was not found until 1983 and has been officially declared a war grave. The Bembridge Maritime Museum and Shipwreck Centre on the Isle of Wight tells its story, with the help of underwater photographs and press cuttings.

As the Allies planned to invade Europe, the navy was to have a pivotal role. The D Day Museum in Portsmouth traces the planning and execution of the invasion that was to help successfully liberate Europe and bring the war in the West to an end.

Visit the main 24 Hour Museum VE Day index page to find out about Their Past Your Future Events and to explore World War Two-related resources - including trails, features, news and reviews.