A Brief History of BRNC
The story of officer training and education in the Royal Navy is the story of Britain. At the turn of the last century Britain was at the height of her power. The Empire was at its full extent and its people confident that Britannia would continue to rule the waves well into the twentieth century. However, beneath the veneer of Imperial power and prosperity the seeds of Britain’s decline were already sown. Other empires and economies were beginning to grow and looked jealously towards Britain. In order to keep these new, aspiring powers at bay Britain would once again have to turn to the Royal Navy to provide her security. In two world wars the Navy managed to ensure that Britain was able to survive until victory, but by the second of these conflicts Britain’s power was all but exhausted. Nevertheless, despite being overtaken by the two new superpowers of the Cold War, Britain and the Royal Navy continued to function as an essential bulwark against communism and totalitarianism. Since the end of that conflict the Royal Navy has once again emerged as an important tool of national interests from the fight against international terrorism to the more traditional maritime role of protecting valuable trade and economic interests from piracy on the high sea. Throughout this period of change in Britain’s fortunes, coupled with the massive technological changes that have taken place over the last century and a half, so the means and methods of preparing young men and women to be the future Officers of the Royal Navy have also evolved.
The Royal Navy first came to Dartmouth in 1863, when the naval college was accommodated onboard the wooden hulks HMS Britannia and Hindostan. Dartmouth had been chosen for the purpose as it combined the benefits of both a good natural harbour in the River Dart with the isolation that would protect its youthful cadets from the dangerous temptations of larger port town. However by the end of the nineteenth century dramatic advancements in technology and deteriorating international relations had rendered the hulks obsolete and inadequate. Consequently in 1898 the foundations were laid for a modern, shore-based college. With the inspiration of royal architect Sir Aston Webb the new college was clearly built to impress, in bricks and mortar, that the Royal Navy remained confident in its task, as carved in stone on the front of the building, to promote Britain’s ‘wealth, prosperity and peace.’
The new college finally opened its doors to the first fifteen-year-old cadets in September 1905. These boys had already spent two years at the Royal Naval College Osborne, on the Isle of Wight and were destined to spend a further two years at Dartmouth before becoming Midshipmen. The naval education they were to receive, introduced by First Lord of the Admiralty Lord Selborne, and inspired by Second Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, was revolutionary by the standards of the day, emphasising the importance of practical engineering, science, history and modern languages. However, within a decade war broke out and the effect was immediately felt at Dartmouth as the entire College population, including cadets, were mobilised and sent to join the fleet. Amongst those boys sent away were thirteen cadets who were to be among the fatalities on board HMS Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue, in September 1914; the youngest were just fifteen years of age.
The College was to become a casualty of war itself during the Second World War when in September 1942 it was bombed. Miraculously there was to be just one fatality, a Petty Officer Wren Ellen Whittall, who had the double misfortune of being in the ladies’ toilets when she died. In addition there had been significant damage to the main building as a result of which staff and students were evacuated to Eaton Hall in Cheshire. The war-scarred building was eventually taken over by the US Navy as its local headquarters in the run up to the D-Day landings in 1944.
After the war, major changes were to ensue, culminating in the introduction of an all 18-year-old entry in 1955, thus transforming Dartmouth from public school to tertiary college. In 1977 the Women’s Royal Naval Service moved their officer training from Greenwich to Dartmouth, the full integration of female and male training eventually merging in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the increasing number of students continuing into higher education saw the average age of entrance to BRNC rise to become ten years older than the cadets who joined a hundred years earlier.
As today’s Young Officers enter Britannia Royal Naval College they do so in the footsteps of generations of Royal Naval Officers, from legendary admirals such as David Beatty, John Jellicoe, Andrew Cunningham and Henry Leach; to national heroes such as Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Lt. Commander G B Roope awarded the Victoria Cross in 1940. Generations of the Royal Family have also been among the College’s former cadets, from Kings George V who was a cadet onboard Britannia with his brother the Duke of Clarence, to Edward VIII and George VI a hundred years ago, to Princes Charles and Andrew and the Duke of Edinburgh, who as a cadet at Dartmouth met his future wife, HM Queen Elizabeth II.
Despite the many changes, not only to the College but also to the Royal Navy and indeed the nation, the College continues to deliver the same core aims and objectives that it has always done. Its mission remains the same: to train and educate naval officers for the demanding challenges of the front line.
First Published April 2011 By The Dart