First Sea Lord's Trafalgar Night speech in Washington DC

Topic: PeopleSenior leaders

Admiral Sir Philip Jones, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, delivered a speech on Trafalgar Night in Washington DC at a dinner hosted by Her Majesty's Ambassador to the United States of America. Here is the original script.

Your Excellency, Admiral Richardson, Ladies and Gents,

The poet Byron once described Nelson as “Britannia’s god of war”, and for the Royal Navy he is a semi-divine figure. Today his flagship HMS Victory is preserved as a shrine to his memory and a reminder to today’s sailors and marines that the values of Nelson, and his Navy, are now theirs to maintain; and she flies my flag as First Sea Lord to symbolise this.

Of course, of the 13,000 sailors in the British Fleet, 1200 were born outside the UK - including 380 from the United States. Back then, we took anyone who was up for a fight….

Having visited Boston only last month, I know that the United States Navy also understands the value and symbolism of this kind of heritage. Even today, it’s a huge honour to serve in HMS Victory, and we only send our very best sailors there. Having now met some of them, I know the same to be true for those posted to USS Constitution. 

While I was there, I made the mistake of pointing to a collection of cannonballs and asking my guide whether they were the same ones used in the War of 1812. 

“No Sir” said the young sailor, tactfully, “as far as I know you still have all of those…”


At Trafalgar, the British fleet was outnumbered and outgunned, but was vastly superior in training, experience and skill. 

Nelson sought to press home this advantage. By forming his ships into two columns, he would break the enemy line at the middle and the rear, isolating and neutering a third of the enemy fleet and trapping the rest in a fight to the death.

Amidst the ensuing smoke and chaos, signalling would be all but impossible. Nelson looked to his captains – the so-called ‘band of brothers’ - to use their own initiative.

“No captain can do much wrong”, he told them, “if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”

So when Nelson was carried below deck, with the fatal musket ball lodged in his spine, the absence of the Commander-in- Chief had no bearing on the outcome of the battle, because every man and boy knew exactly what to do. 

Admiral Villeneuve would later lament that “in the British fleet, every captain was a Nelson”.

Nelson inspired in others the confidence they required to do their very best. 

And by the time hostilities ceased, eighteen enemy ships had been captured or destroyed, without the loss of a single British ship.

Strategic Consequences of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar put to bed once and for all any hopes Napoleon may have had to cross the English Channel.

But, as we know well, sea power is strategic in nature, and Trafalgar also established the conditions that would progressively enable Napoleon’s eventual defeat on land.

In 1805, Britain was not fighting alone: she was part of a grand coalition. 

Victory at sea was the spur that her continental partners required to fight on.

The Prime Minister, William Pitt, put it best when he remarked, “England has saved herself by her exertions and will, I trust, save Europe by her example”.  

Today, the UK’s national security is indivisible from that of continental Europe; the recent decision to leave the European Union does not change that.

The Royal Navy is still sending ships and people to support the EU-led mission against people-traffickers and arms smugglers in the Mediterranean. We still lead EU Naval Force Somalia.
In the longer term, NATO will remain the cornerstone of our defence. 

Our position of maritime leadership within the Alliance is perhaps best demonstrated by the bi-annual Exercise Joint Warrior off Scotland, the latest of which draws to a close tomorrow, and has involved 31 ships and submarines and 67 aircraft from 14 partner nations. 

Shared interests and values - not to mention our geography – will always bind our defence to that of the continent. 

But as an island nation and a trading power, Britain’s interests have always been global. 

Nowhere is this more apparent today than in the Gulf, where we are working closely with the US 5th Fleet, and all our partners under the Combined Maritime Forces banner, to promote stability, combat terrorism and to keep the shipping lanes open and safe for world trade.

Nelson would recognise the responsibility, having experienced his first taste of action as a midshipman protecting convoys of merchant ships between India and the Gulf. 

Now that our Government seeks to extend the UK’s economic partnerships post-Brexit, the Royal Navy stands ready once again to be melded and aligned for best effect with our nation’s growing global ambition.

Nuclear Deterrence

So the UK’s commitment to maintaining our place in the world is undiminished and nothing demonstrates this better than our continued investment in maritime power.

There is another special anniversary today. 56 years ago – Trafalgar Day 1960 - Britain’s first nuclear-powered submarine was launched by Her Majesty the Queen.

This revolutionary vessel had a British hull, but her reactor was American and her design heavily influenced by that of the USS Nautilus. 

That submarine was called Dreadnought.

It is one of the most famous names in the long history of the Royal Navy, having been borne by no fewer than 9 previous vessels. 

A previous Dreadnought sailed with Sir Francis Drake to repel the Spanish Armada; 

Another was present with Nelson at Trafalgar, where her gunnery was acknowledged to be the most devastating of any ship present;

But the most famous of all was the eighth Dreadnought – a battleship so advanced that it rendered all others obsolete at a stroke. 

And it was 99 years ago this December, that the United States Navy sent four of its own dreadnoughts to join the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow.

Today, the name remains synonymous with technical accomplishment and fighting power: not just in the United Kingdom, but around the world. 

It therefore gives me enormous pleasure to announce that Her Majesty the Queen has graciously approved that the name Dreadnought will return, as the lead boat and class name for the Royal Navy’s successor ballistic missile submarines.

In the early 2030s, the tenth HMS Dreadnought will slip beneath the waves on her maiden patrol, as will the USS Columbia, the first of the US Navy’s next generation submarines.

Both will carry the same Common Missile Compartment, designed by a team of naval architects drawn from both our countries. 

The symbolism of this should not be lost. 

No two other nations in the world are prepared to cooperate so closely over such sovereign and supreme strategic capabilities. 

No two other navies have the political will, the technical ability or the professional trust to make it possible.

As the largest, quietest, submarine ever conceived by the Royal Navy, and the first to be designed to accommodate both male and female submariners from the outset, the future HMS Dreadnought is already worthy of this revolutionary name.

But she will also embody the continuing strategic partnership between our two nations.

And together, the Dreadnought and Columbia classes of submarine will be the ultimate guarantor of transatlantic and NATO security through the 2030s, the 2040s and beyond.

Carrier Strike

Of course, this is just one element of the UK’s sustained investment in strategic maritime power.

The Royal Navy is very proud to have delivered the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent continuously for the past 47 years. 
Shortly we will be entrusted to deliver the nation’s primary conventional deterrent, in the form of Carrier Strike.

It is 18 years since this project was initiated, and there have been many twists and turns along the way. 

But 2017 is the start of a new chapter for the Royal Navy, and for our Royal Marines, as we introduce the first of these two ships, and modernise the rest of the Fleet around them.

We could not have reached this point without your help. 

This help has included the experience we have gained working with US Carrier Strike Groups in the Gulf and embedding our people within them to acquire the long lead specialist skills; the loan of personnel from the US Coastguard; and, of course, our growing partnership with the US Marine Corps.

We are delighted by the recent announcement that UK and US Joint Strike Fighters will operate together from the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth during her first operational deployment.

Tonight, on behalf of the Royal Navy, I would like to thank you not only for this practical support, but also for the unwavering faith which you have shown towards this ambition over many years. 

And the message I would like to leave you with tonight is that the military and political capital you have invested in the Royal Navy is capital well spent.

For years the United States has been looking to its European partners to take on a greater share of responsibility for security on our side of the Atlantic; and through our investment in strategic maritime power – and with your help – the United Kingdom is responding to that call.

The Royal Navy may not be as big as in Nelson’s time but our sense of responsibility has not changed.

This continued investment is a powerful sign that far from being a diminished nation, withdrawing from the world, the United Kingdom has both the intent and the means to protect our interests, shoulder our commitment and support our partners across the globe.

And the arrival of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers is the beginning, not the end of the Royal Navy’s ambition. 

If you seek an example, look no further than the West Coast of Scotland, where the Royal Navy’s Unmanned Warrior exercise has been unfolding, alongside Joint Warrior, over the past fortnight. 

It features 50 robotic vehicles and autonomous systems from 40 companies.  

No Navy has ever brought together so much experimental technology in such a large and complex live exercise, and we have been privileged to host teams from a number of US Navy commands.

So while I am aware that the balance of our partnership has very much favoured the Royal Navy in recent years, it is my sincere belief that this continuing renaissance of ours will also open new and mutually beneficial opportunities for cooperation in the years ahead from which you can also benefit.


Let me draw to a close by bringing this back to Nelson.

The Age of Sail may seem remote from the challenges of the 21st Century.

But the lessons of Nelson’s life, and the values he represents, are timeless. 

Leadership and courage, duty and sacrifice - these do not change from one generation to the next.

We like to think of them as Royal Navy values – we certainly try to live by them.

But, in truth, they are universal and, more than anything else, in this world which is becoming, sadly, less certain and less safe, it is our common interests, and our shared sense of duty and responsibility, that bind our two navies together. 

So, like Nelson, we must be bold in facing our challenges. We must be aggressive in defence of our values and we must be ambitious in pursuit of our aims.

And I look forward to our partnership becoming stronger and deeper in the years ahead, as we continue to emulate the kind of mutual trust and instinctive understanding that existed between Nelson and his ‘band of brothers’.


This continued investment is a powerful sign that far from being a diminished nation, withdrawing from the world, the United Kingdom has both the intent and the means to protect our interests, shoulder our commitment and support our partners across the globe.

Admiral Sir Philip Jones