On Twitter recently I came across a 2013 blogpost written by historian J. D. Davies entitled ‘The Journalist’s Guide to Writing About the Royal Navy’. The advice therein seems to be pretty good. However, the opening seemed a bit odd. Davies writes:
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.
For whatever reason, in his post he does not actually address the ‘300 admirals and captains for 19 warships’ claim, so I thought I would devote a stray half an hour of my time to the subject.
So where did the Daily Mail allegedly (Davies provides no source for the quote) get its figure of 300 from? By referring to the Navy List (now known as the Navy Directory) for 2013 it is not difficult to see from where it was obtained. If one adds up all officers of the ranks of Captain, Commodore, Rear-Admiral, Vice-Admiral and Admiral (not including Admirals of the Fleet, nor medical branch officers with their Surgeon X titles) one gets very near to 300 – by my count 299.
This is misleading, however, as these ranks do not differentiate between the three (dare I say it) principle branches of the Royal Navy: Warfare, Engineering and Logistics. Simply put, warfare officers are the ones who take charge of ships and command fleets. If one trawls through the alphabetical list of active officers to identify their branch then the situation becomes more complicated. By my count there were 156 Warfare branch officers in the rank of Captain and above: one Admiral, four Vice-Admirals, 17 Rear-Admirals, 28 Commodores and 106 Captains, or half the total. The only admiral to be employed (and thus have his branch specified) was the First Sea Lord, at the time Sir George Zambellas.
By comparison the Engineering Branch had two Vice-Admirals, seven Rear-Admirals, 17 Commodores and 78 Captains. Logistics had one Vice-Admiral, no Rear-Admirals (somehow), eight Commodores and 21 Captains.
In August this year the Warfare branch officially had 20 Rear-Admirals and above, 30 Commodores and 100 Captains. Engineering had ten Rear-Admirals and above (one of whom is now Second Sea Lord), 20 Commodores and 90 Captains (a surplus of ten over requirements!). Logistics had no Rear-Admirals and above, ten Commodores and 20 Captains. The surplus in Engineering aside, the proportions have remained roughly the same even if the total number has shrunk ever so slightly.
I will leave it to the reader to decide whether 150 Warfare branch officers of the rank of Captain and above is required. Clearly the Navy and the Ministry of Defence believe so. Regardless of how many warships are in the fleet, it clearly will not be the lot of every Captain command one in that rank. Looking at the Royal Navy’s website there would appear to be only six Captains currently employed in command of warships afloat, the rest being commanded by Commanders and below (in August the Navy had 400 Warfare branch commanders, 30 more than required).