The Journalist’s Guide To Writing About The Royal Navy

Inspired by the consistently dreadful coverage of naval matters in the British media, as highlighted by such recent stories as ‘300 admirals and captains for 19 warships’ (thank you, the Daily Fail) and the announcement of the closure of the shipbuilding yard at Portsmouth.

  1. Firstly, and above all, not all warships are ‘battleships’. The battleship is [a] a specific type of warship [b] old [c] big [d] very, very big. Thus to describe a frigate or (worse) a minesweeper as a ‘battleship’ is essentially the same as describing a Cocker Spaniel as a Rottweiler: all three ships are warships, just as the Cocker and the Rott are both dogs, but that’s about as far as the similarity goes.
  2. The Royal Navy does not have ’19 warships’. It has 19 destroyers and frigates, but these are not the only types of warships. There are bigger ones (e.g. helicopter carriers and assault ships) and smaller ones (e.g. minesweepers and patrol boats). There are even some that go under water: these are called ‘submarines’. But still no battleships (see point 1).
  3. And while we’re talking about submarines, a ‘nuclear submarine’ is nuclear powered, but not necessarily nuclear armed. Please don’t scare people needlessly by getting this wrong, as when any of the really ancient nuclear submarines currently in service break down, or when any of the really new and vastly expensive ones being built to replace them, umm, break down.
  4. A dockyard is not necessarily a shipbuilding yard, and vice-versa.
  5. A dockyard is not necessarily a naval base, and vice-versa.
  6. Therefore, the recent announcement of the closure of the BAE shipbuilding facility at Portsmouth doesn’t mean that [a] the naval base is closing (it isn’t) [b] the dockyard is closing (it isn’t, because it already closed in 1984).
  7. The same announcement doesn’t mean ‘the end of warship building in England’. Submarines (which are types of warships, but still not battleships – see points 1 and 2) are built at Barrow-in-Furness.
  8. And don’t try to wriggle out of it by saying you meant ‘the end of surface warship building in England’, because surface warships are still built at Appledore – where the yard is currently building parts of the new aircraft carriers, plus two new patrol ships for the Irish Navy. (Incidentally, these have been named James Joyce and Samuel Beckett; I see some wits in the comments forums on the Irish media have suggested that future ships could be named Oscar Wilde or Bono.)
  9. The Royal Marines are a part of the Royal Navy, not the army. (The clue is the word ‘marine’, which means ‘something to do with the sea’. As in ‘submarine’ – see point 2 – which adds the Latin word ‘sub’, meaning ‘under’ rather than the pale, spotty cretin with no life who messes with your copy for no good reason.)
  10. Every warship is commanded by a captain, but he doesn’t have to be a Captain. He could be a Commander, although a Commander isn’t necessarily a captain, or a Lieutenant-Commander, or even a Lieutenant. He could also be a she. Clear? Good.
  11. A Captain in the navy is a very senior rank; a Captain in the army is a fairly junior one. It helps to get this right, especially if one is invited to wardroom or mess dinners (but don’t worry, you won’t be).
  12. Finally, and just as importantly as point 1: just because you can’t see the Royal Navy every day – either in the flesh or on TV – doesn’t mean that it’s not doing a vitally important job, and is absolutely essential to the wellbeing of the nation. Please remember this simple mantra: in extremis, no navy, no Playstations. (Not to mention not a lot of food and precious little oil.) In that sense, the navy is a bit like the people who keep the sewers working: invisible but indispensable. So, yes, a bit like God, if you believe in – oh, sorry, of course, you’re a journalist. So please stop hacking people’s phones and obsessing about royal charters, and get back to the really important business of getting simple facts right. 

Breaking news: Since I originally wrote this blog, the dear old BBC – i.e. the supposed gold standard of journalistic accuracy in Britain, if not the world outside of North Korea – has reported the despatch to the typhoon-hit Philippines of HMS Illustrious, ‘the Royal Navy’s largest aircraft carrier’. Well, yes it is, in the sense that it’s currently the navy’s only ship that was originally built as an aircraft carrier; but as it’s now officially a helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean is bigger, and is thus the largest warship in the Royal Navy.



  1. Serena says:

    Journalists seem to be all at sea these days when it comes to ships. In the wreck domain, ‘floundered at sea’ is quite common – I’ve spotted it on museum displays too. And a ship adrift without power is always ‘stranded’.


  2. My first visit, very interesting and enjoyable. I will return, regards.


  3. HurstLlama says:

    People have already covered the points about the RN not having any minesweepers and submarines not being ships, so I’ll just mention that HMS Illustrious was not “originally built as an aircraft carrier”. She was designed as an anti-submarine command cruiser, or in the parlance of the time, a through-deck cruiser.

    The fact that Illustrious and her two sisters were designed to operate a small number of fixed wing aircraft for fleet defence did not make them aircraft carriers. The fact that I can drive my little Honda around the circuit at Silverstone does not make it a Formula 1 racing car.


    • Jason says:

      I thought it was a “through-deck cruiser” because they weren’t allowed to buy an aircraft carrier so they just called it something else.


      • Meister says:

        True. In fact the Invincible class as originally conceived was not designed to carry Harriers at all, only ASW helicopters. It was only when the design was later enlarged to allow for the future inclusion of 5 Sea Harriers that a limited fixed wing capability became a possibility.

        The Sea Harriers were primarily intended to counter Soviet reconnaissance aircraft which provided targetting information for submarines and surface ships. They were not regarded as a serious fleet air defence asset, and in any case 5 aircraft would not be sufficient to provide a continuous CAP.

        There was no firm commitment to the Sea Harrier until 1975, two years after Invincible had been laid down, and the design was modified to include the ski jump ramp whilst she was under construction. With hindsight, the RN was extremely fortunate to pull the whole thing off and RN fixed wing naval aviation could very easily have ended in 1978 with the decommissioning of Ark Royal.


  4. SimonK says:

    Navalgazer – while we are all being pedantic may I point out that a meteorologist/oceanographer (HM) is in fact a warfare officer! It’s a sub-specialisation of the Warfare Branch!


    • JohnG says:

      Aye SimonK – people in glass houses eh?! It should be noted that the majority of the non-specialist press take most of their information direct from MOD press releases, so maybe be the anti-media vitriol should be directed a little close to home.
      As to the blogger’s cheap shot about the press hacking phones, he should remember that the only reason he knows about that story is because the press (The Guardian) exposed it!


  5. siwhi says:

    Reblogged this on siwhi's Blog and commented:
    As an Ex RAF type person this sort of lazy journalism about any of the armed forces is irritating, excellently put!


  6. Wills says:

    Whenever this sort of stuff gets topside of you remember this………

    We are just a bunch of talking monkeys, floating in space on a piece of organic rock.

    Should put it into context.


  7. JohnG says:

    To be fair, the BBC comment about the UK’s ‘largest aircraft carrier’ would likely have come straight from an MoD press release. As the saying goes – feed sh#t in and get sh#t out (not sure that is a saying, I might have just made it up).


  8. James Campbell says:

    To help assuage all those Wafus out there shouting at their TVs and newspapers, there is no RAF Culdrose, RAF Yeovilton. Not all Air Sea Rescue helicopters are RAF, just the rather uncouth yellow ones.


  9. David Walsh says:

    How presumptuous this!


  10. You have obviously forgotten the first rule of journalism: Nev er let the facts get in the way of a good story


  11. navalgazer says:

    A few more:

    The Naval Service includes the Royal Navy, Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marines, the Royal Marines Reserve and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

    While the Naval Service totals around 33,000 personnel, only 26,000 of these serve in the Royal Navy.

    HMS should not be prefixed with the word “the”. One would not say “The Her Majesty’s Ship”.

    If HMS Illustrious (22,000 tons) is a “mighty warship”, what is USS George Washington (104,000 tons)?

    The Royal Navy only has 40 admirals if you count The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales, King Olav of Norway, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Prince Michael of Kent, NCP Car Parks founder and naval philanthropist Sir Donald Gosling, former First Sea Lords Sir Edward Ashmore (aged 93) and Sir Benjamin Bathurst (aged 77), the Naval Surgeon General, etc.

    There are six Royal Marines generals in the Naval Service. They are not Royal Navy admirals but are often counted as such by the media.

    A Sub Lt, Lt, Lt Cdr or Cdr (never to be abbreviated as Cmdr) is not a “Senior Officer”.

    WOs (Warrant Officers), CPOs (Chief Petty Officers) and POs (Petty Officers) are not comissioned officers. Collectively, CPOs and POs are ‘Senior Rates’. Collectively, those of lower rank (Leading rates and Able rates) are ‘Junior Rates’. CPOs and below are all known as ‘Ratings’.

    Captain RN is a rank equivalent to Colonel in the Army or Group Captain in the RAF. The Captain of a ship does not have to hold the rank of Captain RN and someone holding the rank of Captain RN does not have to be the Captain of a ship. Someone holding the rank of Captain RN is not necessarily a warfare officer. He or she could just as easily be a doctor, dentist, engineer, logistician or meteorologist/oceanographer.

    Where relative rank is concerned, the opposite of ‘Superior’ is ‘Subordinate’, never ‘Inferior’.


  12. Jason says:

    A submarine is a “warship” without being a ship?


  13. FouliesandClips says:

    ‘The HMS….’ So annoying.. Even experienced, so called ‘senior’ broadcasters in the BBC do that. Please stop it.


    • JohnG says:

      You wouldn’t say ‘an Royal Air Force Tornado’ but you would say ‘an RAF Tornado’ as it scans better. The same is true in some instances with ‘the HMS…’ as opposed to the grammatically correct ‘HMS…’ etc. Please don’t let it annoy you.


  14. Woo says:

    And what about “The HMS ….”? She’s not a ‘The’ like a foreign warship, she is Her Majesty’s Ship. You wouldn’t refer to the Queen as the Her Majesty. Are there any journalists who can still speak english out there?


  15. Bubblehead says:

    Excellent. But please get it right when talking about ‘minesweepers’; the Royal Navy doesn’t have any! We have ‘mine hunters’ which detect mines using high frequency sonar and then destroy them using remote underwater vehicles or divers.


    • Hoist with my own petard, and deservedly so – thanks! But then, I was a child of the ‘Ton class’ era, so they’re probably still etched in my memory. Loved those little ships.


  16. Grant says:

    Furthermore, moving (probably, but not necessarily) onto land, not all machine guns are heavy machine guns, even though medium, or even light ones can be quite heavy. It’s a calibre thing. And not all artillery is heavy artillery, despite even the lightest field artillery pieces are heavier than heavy machine guns. Still we have to sometimes not be too precious about our terminology. In 1939 if you had explained that a frigate could be as big and fast as a destroyer, but not designated as such if its primary role wasn’t anti-aircraft,you would have got a snort from behind a salt rimed beard, or indeed if you had explained to Jack Aubrey that three masts weren’t necessary for a vessel to be called a ship, let alone a frigate, you would have been assaulted by several “‘pon my word Davies”s.


  17. Vicki says:

    Thanks for talking sense!
    I agree with all your comments.


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