The tradition of Navy Days dates back to the 1920s when the Royal Dockyards were open to the public for “Navy Week”. Under various names and formats these events were held every year (except during WWII) until the RN finally gave up on Navy Days with the Meet your Navy event at Portsmouth in 2010.
Besides a wide variety of ships open to visitors, Navy Days in the 1970s until the 2000s typically included flying displays, river and basin displays, parachute jumps, the Royal Marine band, static displays and stalls and much more. There was something for all the family. It is difficult to see any downside to staging these events. The public, particularly in the naval towns got to see and understand what the navy does and had a great day out. The local tourism benefited from an increase of visitors. Above all it was a powerful public relations exercise for the Navy while a large share of the monies raised went to supporting the work of naval charities.
The Navy maybe small but it can be done
The SDSR of 2010 was a body blow to the RN and its is understandable that a service down to a bare minimum of ships and personnel felt that Navy Days was a commitment that could be dispensed with. The RN remains very much under that same pressure but in 2016 there has been a significant change to the operating patterns of the last few years. Much of the RN surface fleet is alongside or in UK waters this summer. This is to allow ship’s companies a good leave period in an effort to retain personnel and build bridges after too many broken promises in the past. There is also a Russian threat that demands ships be kept closer to home and there is the regular autumn Cougar deployment to prepare for. However with most of the surface fleet in our naval bases for August, and presumably for the next few summers to come, it is harder to argue there are no ships available for display for just two or three days.
Navy Days duty was never particularly popular amongst sailors but it only requires quite small numbers to man the ship when open to visitors. With sensible management it would have only minor impact on summer leave and duty rosters. There is still an obvious shortage of RN ships available when compared to the past, however it is quite possible to ‘pad out’ what is on display by inviting vessels from foreign navies and other maritime organisations. In the past many foreign warships have participated, historic ships, vessels from the Army, Trinity House, the British Antarctic Survey, the Sea Cadets, and others have all been part of the show.
Security concerns have sometimes been cited as a reason not to hold Navy Days. In the 1980s there was a sharp rise in IRA attacks on mainland Britain but the RN did not flinch. Security was increased, strict bag searches were introduced and below decks access to ships was reduced. Naval bases are inherently secure and can monitor and control who enters with much more ease than many of the other venues currently used for armed forces events.
The much smaller Dutch navy manages to stage thriving Den Helder Navy Days events most years. It is also interesting to note that despite having fought a war sustaining considerable loses and damage, as well as supporting continuing commitments in the South Atlantic, the RN still managed to stage a slightly-scaled down “Plymouth Open Days” run over 4 days in August 1982.
The battle for hearts and minds
While canceling Navy Days may have made sense at the time, it has been to the detriment of the RN in the long-term. Navy Days had a big impact on the public perception of the service and is also just one of the many unhelpful ingredients of a growing sea blindness in the UK. One does not tend to forget the warships you have actually stood on and the sailors you met on board, people then follow the activities of the ship with a more personal interest. At a time when the RN needs political and public support to ensure it is funded properly, abandoning the biggest opportunity for the public to have access to its navy is counter-productive. The recruitment aspects are also significant. A single Navy Days is unlikely to have a big impact, but over several years many children are denied seeing the navy first hand and are less likely to consider the RN as a career.
Individual ships are open to visitors in ports round the UK quite frequently and they often over-subscribed but this is no substitute for the thousands that would attend Navy Days. The best effort in the last few years has been a a sideshow at the Bournemouth Air Festival. Up to 4 ships are anchored off the beach and a few lucky members of the public can visit by pre-booked boat trips. The RNAS Yeovilton and Culdrose Air Days are excellent events to that promote naval aviation but fundamentally the navy is about ships.
While the RN is increasingly out of sight and out of mind, the RAF is in attendance at around 45 airshows every summer. 26 of them are can be considered major airshows with the RAF hosting several and providing aircraft including the Red Arrows & Typhoons, plus ground displays. Of course with hundreds of aircraft that can fly all over the country for flypasts and air displays the RAF has the advantage in maintaining a high public profile. It is therefore even more important the RN does not shoot itself in the foot by not opening up a naval base once a year. Ironically while naval enthusiasts have virtually nothing to attend, aviation enthusiasts are up in arms because, out of more than 40 airshows on offer, a handful have been cancelled (due to tighter regulations and higher costs resulting from the Shoreham Air Show disaster in 2015).
By the time the two aircraft carriers are complete, every person in Britain will have contributed an average of £110 through their taxes to the cost. Perhaps it is only fair a few taxpayers get the opportunity to really appreciate them close up. With the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth, there is an obvious centrepiece for Navy Days that would be a huge public attraction. The largest vessel ever built for the RN has the capacity to cope with crowds and to some extent mitigate for the inevitably small number of other RN vessels on show.
There would be significant work to be done behind the scenes but with a little imagination the RN, renowned for its organisational and presentational ability can make this happen. It could be done without a big impact on operational priorities while having a huge benefit to the profile, understanding and support for the service. Let’s bring back this much-loved institution, alternating between Devonport and Portsmouth every year.
This article was inspired by a comment on Twitter by the excellent Gabriele Molinelli.
Main image: Meet your Navy, the last Navy Days to date, Portsmouth 2010 just before the carnage of the SDSR.
- British Airshow Calendar 2016 (Britishairshows.com)
- International Festival of the Sea, Portsmouth 2005 (You Tube Video)
- Portsmouth Navy Week 1930s (Pathe News)