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Plymouth's proud naval history

By Laura Joint
BBC Devon

Princess Victoria arriving at Devonport, 1833
Princess Victoria arriving at Devonport, 1833

Ever since the days of Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada, Plymouth has played a key role in Britain's naval history.

From 1588, when - according to legend - Drake played bowls on Plymouth Hoe while contemplating the threatened Spanish invasion, right up until the nuclear-powered submarines of the 21st century, the port has been at the heart of the nation's maritime defences.

In fact, it could be argued that Plymouth's naval heritage goes back even further - to 700BC, when a site at Mountbatten was the premier port in England.

And in the 14th century, Plymouth was used as a base for operations against France.

But it was Drake and his Elizabethan contemporaries, John Hawkins and Sir Walter Raleigh, who really put the port on the map, where it has remained.

Devonport is currently the largest naval base in Western Europe.

It is home to the Royal Navy's amphibious ships, HMS Ocean, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark; 11 Type 22 and Type 23 frigates; and seven Trafalgar-class nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines.

Warships at Devonport
Warships at Devonport

HMS Ocean, at 20,500 tones, is the Royal Navy's largest ship. Devonport also has the hydrographic ships in the navy's surveying squadron.

The docks have the Royal Navy's surface ship refitting facilities and it is the only base in the UK equipped to carry out nuclear submarine refits - not just for the T-class subs, but also for the Vanguard class.

For the 300 years up until the final Devonport-built ship, HMS Scylla in 1971 (the ship was deliberately wrecked for use as a diving site in Whitsand Bay near Plymouth in 2004), the port built over 300 vessels.

The man behind the establishment of a naval yard at Devonport was King William III (William of Orange).

He was appalled at the lack of dock facilities, and ordered a naval base be built. An Act of Parliament was passed, releasing money to purchase land and develop the site.

The Dock on the Hamoaze came into operation in the 1690s and was to become the greatest naval port in the world.

The port played a major role in the Napoleonic Wars, supporting Nelson and the Duke of Wellington in the ultimate defeat of Napoleon.

In the early years, the growing dockyard town was called Plymouth Dock. But local people didn't like the name and in the 1820s they petitioned King George IV for a new name. They succeeded, and from 1 January 1824, the area was re-named Devonport.

Queen Victoria later gave approval for the Plymouth yard to be renamed Devonport Yard.

The Royal William Yard at Stonehouse
The Royal William Yard at Stonehouse

From 1825-35, the Royal Navy's grand victualling yard was built at Stonehouse. Designed by eminent architect Sir John Rennie, the stores at The Royal William Yard ensured all the men on Britain's navy ships had sufficient supplies of food and drink.

The yard remained the navy's store until the early 1990s. It is now a prestigious development of homes and businesses. Stonehouse was also home to the Royal Naval Hospital - now part of the Millfields residential development.

The construction of the Breakwater was also key in the development and expansion of the naval port, by providing sheltered anchorage.

In 1833, the importance of the dockyard was shown by the visit of the then Princess Victoria, four years before she was to become Queen Victoria.

In the early years of the 20th century, Devonport was the greatest naval port in the world.

The Great North Yard extension doubled its size in 1905 (the removal of material from the sea to help with the building work has been blamed for the loss of Hallsands, the South Hams fishing village which was destroyed by the sea in 1917).

By now, steam ships had replaced the wooden vessels previously made and run from the port.

Between 1883 and the start of the First World War in 1914, Devonport built 17 battleships, five Dreadnoughts, two battlecruisers and 14 cruisers.

Women working at the dockyard during WWII
Women working at the dockyard during WWII

The Devonport fleet played a big role in WWI - five of the 14 ships lost in the Battle of Jutland in the North Sea in 1916 were based at Devonport. It was the major sea battle of the war, with the loss of thousands of lives.

Plymouth again made a huge naval contribution in WWII, with ships taking part in the Battle of the Atlantic and the D-Day landings.

However, the docks - together with much of the city - suffered terrible damage in Luftwaffe bombing raids.

The forces needed all the help they could get during WWII, and, for the first time, women were employed as engineers at Devonport dockyard. During those years, there were around 18,000 people working at the docks.

The work of the yard has chopped and changed since the end of the war, to reflect changing times. And the docks again played a role in the most recent major naval engagement, the Falklands Conflict in 1982.

State-of-the-art ships and nuclear-powered submarines are the latest vessels to be based at Devonport, which has seen investment in recent decades - most notably, the £1 billion nuclear submarine facilities.

And in March 2009, the Ministry of Defence announced a contract to service Royal Navy vessels, valued at almost £560m.

The dockyard, which is operated by Babcock Marine, currently employs some 4,000 people.

* Historical information provided by Charles Chrichton, retired commander of Devonport naval base. Photo of women at work at Devonport also provided by Charles Crichton.

Image of Princess Victoria: copyright National Maritime Museum, London.

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