A navy is an organized maritime military force belonging to a nation, capable of anything from protecting a coast to extending a nation's sphere of influence with the use of seacraft and sailors. Navies differ from other military forces in that they command a fleet of ships, which can range greatly from patrol boats to submarines, from battleships to aircraft carriers - each with their own specialized purpose and mission. Most modern nations have a navy, although historically nations had legislated a form of government-hired piracy for protection and offensive purposes. A naval force can help protect trade, trade-routes, and ports of trade. It can also help in keeping unwanted ships from entering ports, monitor cargo transport, create a general presence on the high seas, and secure supply routes and naval supremacy during times of war. Of course, some nations such as the United States delegate coastal patrol and importing duties to a "Coast Guard" while leaving non-coastal duties to the Navy, though most nations do not. Landlocked nations often have a skeleton navy or no navy at all; whereas countries bordering the sea, or bodies of water connecting them to the open oceans often require one.
When examining military history, naval history is only predated by that of armies, or land forces, which date back to nearly the beginning of time. Naval warfare traces its origins to the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.E., when the Greek navy, under the command of Themistocles, engaged in battle defending Athens from 1,200 Persian naval vessels. The ships were practically open, row-powered boats with raised platforms from which archers could fire arrows. Ships would also sail close to an enemy vessel, throw down a make-shift boarding bridge to rush soldiers on board for hand-to-hand combat. These early "galleys" developed into more enclosed ships, in which ramming and boarding with soldiers was a common tactic.
Warships cannot operate without manpower. Different types of ships require crews of varying sizes. Aircraft carriers are practically floating cities, home to over 5,000 sailors, whereas submarines may only need a crew of 35. Since civilized and organized navies have come about, the sailors aboard have almost always been classified into general enlisted sailors and officers. The officers run the boat and its operations, make leadership decisions, and the highest officer (in English, usually referred to as the Captain or skipper) has command of the ship and its crew. Before radio communication allowed ships to contact their higher command echelons, the Captain was the supreme authority aboard a warship at sea, making the determination of what to attack, where to go, and the jurisdiction to even dispense punishments (even death) upon crew members. The enlisted crew on the other hand is tasked with keeping the ship in order and functioning, handling navigation, manning the engines or sails, cooking the food, cleaning the ship, firing the ship's arms, and so on.
Each navy's personnel has a ranking system of some sort. It offers a ladder system of ranks for both the enlisted men and the officers; however, the systems and titles vary so greatly between each navy that listing a single system here would not be correct. In earlier days, the men (that is to say the "enlisted" of the ship) were often slaves forced into work aboard a ship. The officers (who were not slaves but received some sort of compensation or honor by being a naval officer) were there mostly to keep the slaves in check and to prevent a mutiny, something feared by most ship Captains throughout history.
Ship design has varied more than anything else in the history of the world's navies. Naval technology has won or lost battles for the crew. The earliest ships were either driven by manpower (usually oars) or sail and were mostly wooden constructions - some as small as a canoe; others large, magnificent beasts. As technology and civilizations developed, ship designs progressed as well. However it wasn't until the 19th century that the use of the sail ships fell into general disuse for military navies. Iron-armored ships and engine propelled ships began to appear. There were many developments in power, beginning with steam powered boats progressing to other fossil fuel burning engines. "Ironclad" ships were quickly adopted once their development came into practice as any wooden ship would take on significantly more damage than an ironclad in most battles. Recently, other forms of propulsion have come onto the scene, most notably nuclear power plants to drive electric engines. Armor and construction have also advanced accordingly.
Each Navy has developed different ships to meet certain needs. Battleships have been known as the king of all warships, being the largest of warships and fitted with heavy (usually 13" - 17") deck guns for the purpose of engaging other ships. Frigates are multipurpose medium sized vessels, originally sail and manpowered, but modern frigates have of course adopted modern propulsion systems. Corvettes are small, fast attack boats not designed to stand in battle as a battleship, but to deliver a quick blow and retreat. Submarines were developed around the US Civil War for silent attacks underwater. As subs became more of a problem for their adversaries, Destroyers were constructed to combat submarine warfare. There are multitude of other warships, from small patrol boats and landing craft, to huge aircraft carriers, dreadnoughts, and ships of the line.
Since the history of navies, ships, protocols, customs, and tradition cannot be greatly detailed in one node, I have provided links to other worthwhile writeups that cover a broad spectrum of general knowledge and historical topics. (These are strictly naval in nature, not general maritime noding).
- ADMOT - Hand signal system for Navy pilots
- ASDIC - Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee
- LSO - Landing Signal Officer
- RAST - Helo tie down system
United States Navy
British Royal Navy
Other Warships: A small sampling of international & historical ships
Parts of Ships
Major Battles at Sea
Significant People in Naval History
If you have, or come across a node that you think belongs in this list, by all means please /msg me
and I will gladly add it. I also welcome to other suggestions, comments, and hate-mail.
Sources for summary:
Ingersoll, The Book of the Ocean
US Navy website, www.navy.mil
Royal Navy website, www.royal-navy.mod.uk
panamaus for grammatical assistance and node advice