Naval History and the Royal Navy: An Interview with Former First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band

Sir Jonathon Band

Sir Jonathon Band

On 20 November, the Naval Historical Foundation interviewed First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, GCL, DL, who presently serves as Chairman of Trustees of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN). The NMRN represents an amalgamation of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (Portsmouth), Royal Marines Museum, (Southsea), Fleet Air Arm Museum (Yeovilton), and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum (Gosport). The NMRM also maintains responsibility for the upkeep of HMS Victory located at the historic Portsmouth Dockyard.  

As the former leader (his tenure as First Sea Lord and Chief of Staff was between 2006-2009) of a naval service having a much longer history than the U.S. Navy, Band offers some insights on how naval history impressed him, how it has been taught and utilized within the Royal Navy, and how it has been employed in efforts to eradicate “Sea Blindness” amongst segments of the British population. Summations and excerpts from the interview below will indicate that in some areas, the Royal Navy has been very effective in integrating its use of history. In other areas, work still needs to be done.

Surprisingly, the man currently having responsibility for the care of much of the Royal Navy’s historical assets came from a non-naval background:

I can’t exactly remember when I made the ultimate decision [to join the Navy] but I remember I was a small child. I was brought up in Kenya in Africa [his mother was a farmer and his father had served with the British military], and while I was a kid, there was something about the Navy that appealed. I remember seeing an aircraft carrier that came to Mombasa and my father was an ex-military man. I was attracted to an outdoor life, a bit of adventure and travel. So that made me look into it and what I found I liked. I definitely don’t come from a strong naval background, my godmother was the nearest and she was the granddaughter of a naval officer.

At the time that I was interested in the navy, the standard entry into the navy was shifted from 16 years of age to 18 years of age. If you were going in as an officer in our equivalent of the naval academy [Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth], you basically went in from what you Americans would call a high school. Instead of going to a civilian university you went into the naval college where in those years most people went for three years of which the middle year was spent at sea – it was essentially a three year training package. In fact, while I was in the process of joining the navy, they started a scheme whereby they sent a small number of us to a civilian college after completing the first two years. I was on that scheme. I was sent to a civilian university, Exeter in the West Country, where I studied social studies.

Asked about how naval history fit into the curriculum at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Band responded:

The naval training philosophy when I went through the first year was very much teaching you discipline — teaching you the code of the Navy. It was quite practical. There was a lot of boat work, there was drill, there was training in navigation and seamanship, sufficient so that when you went to sea for three months, you did a sailor’s role, although you were an officer candidate. And then you came away after that first year as a disciplined young man and you went off and did a year of sea training where you basically went to one or two ships and spent time in the various departments. You would come back to Dartmouth for the third year, which was known as the academic year, and it was in that year that you learned amongst other things, naval history and strategy.

The history [taught] was more operational history – campaigns, battles. There was, needless to say, quite a bit on Nelson, but they really didn’t, as one understood it, pull out the command aspects as much as I thought they could have, looking back, with good effect. They rather assumed that all of the issues involving ethos and values were imbued because you were at the college. I think we are also talking at that stage – we are talking about the late 60’s – where a good number of us had come from private education at the high school level that there was an expectation that you knew the history anyway, and I was lucky because my mother was a very keen historian so I was not short of a grounding in history.

Addressing a follow-on question on whether many of his classmates were descendants of navy officers, Band noted how this was not the case at Dartmouth in the late 1960s:   

In fact in my actual year, there were a small number who were sons of naval officers or sons of serving naval officers, there were a couple of Admirals sons. Just before I joined in the early 60s there was a whole raft of Admirals sons who joined the navy; interestingly enough, very few of them survived very long and they decided to go elsewhere. Then there was a period in the early 1970s when it was slightly out of vogue to follow father. And then more recently, a number of my contemporaries have had sons, and now daughters, who have joined.

It was a rebellious time. If you remember at the time I was at the naval college there were major riots as there was Vietnam War business going on, there were huge riots in Paris where the government nearly fell to the students. Looking back it was pretty exciting times.

Band then discussed the hierarchy of British naval history:

Well Trafalgar/Nelson have always had top billing. We have Trafalgar Day, that’s our day. Every year wherever the navy is there is a commemoration – a Trafalgar dinner in the officers’ mess. So all of us, if we happen to get anywhere in the Navy wind up having to give a Trafalgar night speech – so we all read the books and we all know to some extent what happened at that battle. But that is separate to the overall use of history to illuminate today.

There are of course many other good historical samples: The Glorious First of June, Howe’s battle; the Georgian period battles, Camperdown against the Dutch, Battle of St. Vincent, The Nile and Nelson’s other victories. Before that we were at war with France for centuries. The defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588 is one of the high points. There are certain admirals who were more famous than others. Interesting enough, a current naval historian, Andrew Lambert from Kings College in London published a book on admirals two or three years back on the admirals who made a difference [Admirals: The Naval Commanders who made Britain Great, Faber and Faber (2008)] and he starts Lord Howard of Effingham who of course lived in the reign of Elizabeth the 1st with Drake. He then goes on to Robert Blake, George Anson, Samuel Hood, William Parker, obviously Nelson, and then in the later years he picks out Fisher, Beatty, Cunningham of the Second World War who was Commander in Chief in the Mediterranean. Jutland is studied – operational win, tactical loss. I suppose in the Second World War what is studied is the Battle of the Atlantic which went on for years and then there were the incidents, which were hardly battles in the sense of Jutland, but they were big naval incidents of note, such as the sinking of the Hood, the subsequent sinking of Bismarck, the battle of Taranto and the battle for Crete in the Mediterranean; sinking of the Schornhorst off North Cape; and then there were losses and wins in the Far East, the loss of Prince of Wales and Repulse, and then joining up with the Americans in the last part of the Pacific War. So it’s a mixture of people and campaigns.

And so since I missed my third year at Dartmouth because I was off at university studying politics, economics and things, I was only broadly aware of what I missed. But subsequently as we have turned our officer training from an academy, which you still have [the USNA], to essentially a college that takes students from civilian universities and makes into naval officers along the ROTC system, there is simply not enough time in the syllabus to teach the history. And that became very evident when I rose up through the Navy and had a series of commands and a series of juniors officers with little knowledge, for example, I would point out we were going past Cape Matapan, and they would not realize this was a location of a great Royal Navy event whether it was good or bad.

It [history] is quite a difficult thing to teach, unless you are one who naturally soaks it up which I did because of my mother. You know when you are young and you are learning the skills of your trade and profession and are running around getting fit, you are then stuck into a lecture hall and then given a not terribly well taught history lesson…well you know what I mean.

In response to a question of how the Royal Navy provided the U.S. Navy many of its traditions, Band discussed his exchange tour with the U.S. Navy. He served in Belknap prior to the fatal collision with John F. Kennedy and shared these observations:

I got off [Belknap] just before the collision and four of my division were killed in the collision. Once one gets over the point that this is real history versus short-term memory

I think the United States Navy is very proud of its history. Clearly like all the great navies in the world there are people you look to from your historical perspective and there is no doubt that the timing of creation of the United States Navy with the operational and strategic circumstances of the day, where the Royal Navy was the world’s great navy, it was bound to be that it was something you the USNs studied and copied.

And there is no doubt if you read about your founding fathers they held the Royal Navy in high esteem, even though at times we were beaten in battle by you. I think they understood the professional, in many ways the middle class nature of the sea captain in the Georgian period, the professional warrior at sea. You gained a respect for that so when you created your navy you tended to pick up a lot of peoples customs. A lot of the U.S. Navy’s customs clearly come from the Royal Navy.

By the time I was in the U.S. Navy, your navy had gone through the 200 years of aspiring, copying, equaling, and then becoming the great navy of the world in place of the Royal Navy.  I think the customs and the ethos were similar. There are differences in emphasis. I think the U.S. Navy from the very beginning put a higher premium on technology than we have, starting with the design of your great frigates and then with the developments of the Civil war and then the development of the submarine. I think your ethos, your values, your doctrine has always had a stronger equipment and technology focus than ours. While I think our doctrine has always been slightly stronger in the human element, in the training, and the profession of staying at sea and being gritty and tough. They are two sides of the same coin.

During the Falklands campaign Band served as the Flag Lieutenant to the Commander-in-Chief Fleet Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, a prime position to observe one of the more significant naval confrontations of the latter 20th century. Asked if historical perspective helped shape the campaign, Band observed:

No I don’t think the history impacted the strategic planning. I think when people first heard of it they asked “Falklands, where is that?” There was a battle of the Falklands in 1914. It was one of those coaling stations and people viewed it as the end of the world and beyond. A few of us had been aware when the Argentinians had threatened the islands in the previous decade, a few of us – I wasn’t, but a friend of mine was – were deployed down there in a ship to act as a deterrent.

So a few of us knew of it, but I don’t think history really formed any of the backdrop. I mean the facts of life were that in 1982 we were still in the heart of the Cold War, and a commentator described the Falklands campaign “as the wrong war against the wrong country in a wrong place for probably for the right reason.”

There was no real contingency planning. That operation was largely planned from start to finish from “Oh my gosh its happened, we are in trouble here.” Because in a way it was the first major activation of the Royal Navy since the Suez campaign we kept full records and assessments – because we record well our history and campaigns. And because of the huge historical perspective that came out of the history books and the files about the long range logistic and weather challenge and all that. So once we realized what we were facing we dug deep into a great pond of experience.

But for my generation it was our first war. I would say that my nation, my navy, my generation, the generation that I was to represent in the Navy, we came of age because of the Falklands. We learned the lessons that our predecessors and their predecessors learn in war – ships sink and that things can turn on a penny, that there is good luck and there is bad luck and there is good planning and there is bad planning and there is room from drill. I think in the end we relearned more lessons than we learned for the first time. In the end we pulled through because I believe of the superiority of our command, our warfare knowledge, our people and our training rather than our technology.

Responding to a follow-on question on how the Royal Navy documented such actions as the Falklands, Band noted:

We have deck logs, every ship over the centuries has written a report of proceedings where the captain have written down the events of the ship. During what I call the big events, dispatches are formally written, there’s a campaign chronicle written, where major papers, instructions and commands are recorded and bound and kept. We have a historical branch which is part of the naval staff – its down in Portsmouth geographically – but its part of the naval staff construct. So if you go into a campaign you can consult on what’s needed to support the campaign, or if you are looking for argumentation. Certainly when I was involved in the policy debate on whether or not the United Kingdom should continue to invest in aircraft carriers, the historical branch was useful to remind us of what carrier airpower achieved at Suez, Korea, and the great Pacific battles of yours and the Med for us.

So there is a huge amount there to pull up or pull down on which way you look at it. In my generation most of it was not held at the ship level because in those days most of it was not digitized. More is digitized now, although not as much as one would like. There is still a lot of turning it out. But we have a Naval Records Society. In fact the latest book they just put out is all of the policy paperwork as the Royal Navy got its air arm back from the Air Force just prior to the start of the Second World War. It’s a 300 page book of extracts of Admiralty Board papers and reflections. There’s a lot there.

Speaking on how the Falklands campaign positively contributed to the reputation and heritage of the Royal Navy Band observed:

It did. There were many people in Europe who I would say were not on our side. There was people who thought it anachronistic for us keeping on these islands. Why the hell are they yours? How are they logically yours and that was the argument with the Argentinians on sovereignty? So I think there were a number of people who were not necessarily against us but I’m not sure they were with us. But you have to applaud the fact that the Navy, on short notice, deployed, went 8,000 miles, led that campaign, retook the islands, and did what we did. So it certainly reinforced the credibility of Britain as an independent country. It certainly did a lot of good for the standing of the Royal Navy and I think our friends noted what we did, as did our potential enemies such as the Soviet Union.

I realized early on from the privileged position I was in, as the Commander-in-Chief’s right hand man, that I was privy to the politics as well as the military side of it. I think I realized that this was a very significant campaign which if not successfully executed in a political or military sense would be terribly damaging to this country. I think one realized the uniqueness of it. I don’t think it hit me while it was happening because in a way, it was a relatively short campaign – start to finish was three months. It didn’t seem short at the time, but it had a certain tempo to it. There was not time for much reflection.

When you look at doctrine on amphibious warfare and the ratios of attackers should have over defenders, and then examine how many ships we could lose and what would be the likely casualty rate – and you go “wow” this is very significant for what my generation was used to. And it was lucky in a way that there were in Thatcher’s government two grandees of the Conservative Party who had been in the Second World War. One, the Attorney General actually had suck in two ships and the other was a tank commander at D-Day. These were people with wartime memories were still in positions of influence and were able to provide a benchmark for some of the things we were contemplating doing and what we thought. So I think we realized what we were doing was significant. But the full significance of what we achieved was not clear until the end, because at the time we were concentrating on helping the people down there win.

Band then went on to command the minesweeper HMS Soberton, the frigate HMS Phoebe, the frigate HMS Norfolk, and the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. Asked if injecting history and heritage as part of his command approach, Band responded:

I hope I didn’t go over the top, but certainly I believed that the Royal Navy’s history is really an important part of today. There is that old saying that if you don’t know where you have been, you don’t have a clue where you are going is really true, and I think one of our strengths is that we have this fantastic history. We may be challenged today, but our forebears were challenged before us and their success gives you comfort — it gives you confidence. It’s not arrogance but there is a certain operational confidence bound on experience and on probably winning more than losing. How do you learn that and how do you do that is by reading it up and by telling people. So wherever I’ve gone with a ship I have always used the geography of where we are going to teach the history and relevance of it and when we were here last time and what we did. And there are not very many parts of the world where there isn’t something that involves Royal Navy history which you can bring to bare whether it’s the Mediterranean campaigns of World War I or World War II or you are going back to the Georgian navy with the great battles with the French and Spanish. Or other areas, for example, in the Pacific you could look at what the Pacific Fleet and the United States Navy achieved.

We also have a very famous book in the Royal Navy called The Royal Navy Day-by-Day which is a historical book which has entries listed for every day of the year of key historical events. So if I were to turn up today which is November 20th, looking at my copy in my study, today was the Battle of Queberon Bay. Admiral Hawke defeated the French on the 20th of November 1759. And then you go through and during the Second World War the Sturgeon sank a German trawler, a corvette sunk a German U-Boat on this day, there was minelaying going on in 1944, and a new class of submarine, Astute was launched in 2009. We have that book on every ship so one can put information on daily orders or in talks.

While in command of Illustrious during the mid-1990s, Band supported NATO operations in Bosnia and the understanding of non-naval history was also of importance:

Absolutely, apart from the naval history is the broader history. If you don’t know what happened in the Balkans in the late 19th century and early 20th century, there is hardly a hope of understanding what happened when Yugoslavia broke up at the end of the Communism period. You have got to understand Serbian, Croat, the Muslim influence.

Promoted to Rear Admiral in 1997 and Vice Admiral in 2000, Band became the Deputy Commander-in-Chief Fleet in May 2001. Upon his promotion to Admiral in August 2002, Band assumed the post of Commander-in-Chief Fleet. In these billets, he became involved in plans to commemorate the bicentennial of Trafalgar:

We sat down as a Navy Board and saw this was a great moment and asked ourselves how we could use the 200th Anniversary. Clearly there was a commemorative aspect of the Royal Navy at that time but we were also determined to use that historic occasion to serve as a launch pad to fight what a number of us had seen as “Sea Blindness.” The seemed to be a void in the understanding of the sea, the relation of the Navy and the nation, and the Navy and commerce. So we tried to use it as an educative program going forward. I must say I think we did the first looking back part brilliantly, once we persuaded the BBC to play its past. As for fighting the Sea Blindness and trying to make a case for naval power, I’d have to say we were less successful. We found that a greater battle, a greater challenge.

It was a big thing to do and the right thing to do but it becomes all absorbing, which one has to be careful of because of course, it was a strong period of operational activity with the Navy supporting Iraq campaign, the post-9-11 business, and of course we were into the initial forays into Afghanistan. So it was a busy operational time which we needed to balance the commemoration with the support for current operations.

Having been appointed in 2006 as First Sea Lord, Band served as a Chief of Naval State for a Navy involved in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, the importance of documentation was discussed:

In the 90’s and the early 20’s we had slightly gone away from our laborious record keeping that we had done previously. So I remember as C-in-C refreshing nstructions regarding doing reports of proceedings and stuff like that. I think the historical branch has had a more buoyant period in the past ten years. I think its quite often the case that until you get the discipline, the stricture, the demands of warfare and real live operations you don’t realize that historical records and observations actually have such huge strength and certainly now our historical branch is very much closer wired into operational thought, operational preparation, doing insightful battlefield history, campaign history, staff rides and all those sorts of things.

Asked to provide an example of a staff ride Band responded:

3 Commando Brigade, which is our equivalent to the Marine Corps – or the fighting element of it – has twice been to Afghanistan to lead the British force structure and I think on both occasions, the Commander in preparing the staff basically got the historical branch to use a historical presentation – one was D-Day on the Brittany Coast –to get the staff to do the assessment and to get the staff to work together as they would when they would be in operations.

I remember doing it once with a flag staff and we used the Battle of Anzio in the Italian campaign. It was as much about generic staff procedures that needed to be followed, but it got people away from their daytime desks and got them thinking operationally, and working together as they would in the field.

It’s [staff rides] very difficult at sea which is why we often use amphibious type operations where you still got the reality of the beach and the shore. But you know you can still get a tremendous amount by reading the history and getting the details by looking at the records of what happened. There’s a tremendous amount you can gain.

Retiring from active duty in 2009, Band went on to become Chairman of the Trustees of the National Museum of the Royal Navy and the recent restructuring and how that came about became the focus of the remaining portion of the interview:

Back in 2004 or 5, the Navy Board had a really interesting meeting whereas instead of worrying about todays’ operations and lack of people and who we need to train, we looked at our wider Navy, the charitable set-up and our museum set-up and those sorts of things. When we looked at our museum set up we said “this is pretty disjointed – We had a very good sailing navy museum in Portsmouth – and of course we have the Victory which was still owned by the Crown and is the national flagship – we had a fantastic museum for the Royal Marines, for the submariners, for the aviators, but nowhere did we really tell the whole Navy story.” From the late 19th century into the early 20th century, from the Dreadnaught onwards, there was hardly anything. There’s Warrior, we have HMS Belfast a cruiser from the Second World War. So we were not very joined up. So what we decided we needed to do was to create a National Museum of the Royal Navy, get all of these charitable museums to work together. And of course it just happened that it was created after I had left the Navy so I guess in a naïve sort of way that I wrote my own job description.

So essentially the museum was created in 2009 and I took over as its chairman within a year. We now have integrated the museums in a business company sense where we are a family with subsidiary companies with charitable objects and we are working together. In the two and a half years we have been in existence, we have gone ahead with the restoration of the submarine Alliance at the Submarine museum. We’ve taken control of the HMS Victory from the government and we’ve placed it in the charitable trust within our museum set-up. We’ve just started to build on a new set of galleries that will describe what we have been up to in the past 120 years which will be open in time for the commemoration of the First World War. We are setting up affiliates around the country and we will do that abroad too. As you know we have had increased interaction with our friends in America – it’s exciting times. Another project at the moment is to save HMS Caroline which is a First World War cruiser which is sitting rather unloved in Northern Ireland. So there lots on and its fun to do.

Before 2009 the museums were civil servant run with a mixture of grant money from the government and private charitable giving. They were national charities, semi-funded by the government to achieve various educational purposes. The differences today are 1) we consolidated so the government gives the museum the grant and we disperse it as we see the need, and 2) the scale of it is very much greater, and 3) the proportion of public and private money is changing by the day with much greater private endowment.

Asked on how he is succeeding in attracting private sector support Band responded:

I’m not going to give away all my trade secrets but I think there is no doubt that the Royal Navy is a great brand and its history is also a great brand, and everyone in the world who knows anything about the sea has heard about HMS Victory. Nelson is an internationally known figure. So if you can put the right package together there are people who will support you, particularly if you bias it towards whatever their interest is whether it be technology or education or training.

The area where we have really not been organized is dealing with those currently serving and those retired. We have traditionally have gone to corporations, companies, charitable trusts, but I’m determined, since these museums are the Navy’s museums and every sailor and marine can go in them for free, to have a much stronger membership with our family and our ex-family-our retired family.

HMS Victory was essentially MOD ship which had been preserved by the government since 1923. The ship had basically been an at sea hulk until 1923. In 1923 it was positioned in a drydock where it had been ever since. Over time it has had various monies spent on it but for one reason or another, the challenge of keeping her going had got steeper and steeper. Other priorities meant funding was inadequate and she was deteriorating.

Before the National Museum, you had to have some charitable construct which was linked to the navy and we didn’t have that, but with the National Museum of the Royal Navy we created a big enough structure to allow the option to transfer the ship from the Government to a charitable trust. The main attraction of that is the Trust can attract private funds whereas no one is going to give money if its openly government.

But obviously to do this we needed some benefactors to kick it off and we received a fantastic offer from the Gosling Foundation which, offered a significant amount of money under the condition that they wanted the ship to be transferred to a trust, and wanted the Ministry of Defence to match this funding to get the process going – and that’s what we achieved. So HMS Victory is now part of the HMS Victory Preservation Trust which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Museum for the Royal Navy, has its own trustees, has a task, which is basically to plan and execute its refurbishment over the coming years, and that is what is does. It has certain monies from endowments, it has certain monies from the government, and we will need to raise more. But we now have a workable solution.

The ship still does have a commissioned status. One of the agreements is that although the Government gifted the ship to the Trust we have essentially leased the ship back to the Navy to continue to act as the First Sea Lord’s Flagship.

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  1. colin hatton


    Many thanks, very informative. I am currently sailing on Queen Victoria. Yesterday the ship was used as a venue for fund raising for HMS Victory. Afterwards I talked to the senior navel man leading the team but cant recall his name. I asked him some questions but as happens he had to catch his transport, his next venue is in New York, and as he left I recalled another two questions I should have asked. He gave me his name but I have forgotten it (called old age!) Could you let me have his name. Many thanks and good luck with fund raising for this very worthy cause.
    Colin Hatton

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