Rule Britannia – A New National Flagship?


In the approach to the Diamond Jubilee next year, another crop of well-meaning groups and individuals are coming out with proposals for a new Royal Yacht.

HMY Britannia


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John Major may have been a greatly underestimated Prime Minister, creating the growth in the British economy that was squandered by the Blair/Brown Regime, but his indecision over the Royal Yacht lost Britain a very valuable asset.

In the dying days of the Major Administration, John Major funked a very important decision. HMY Britannia had reached the stage where she either needed a major refit or a replacement. It should have been a very simple decision that even the second National Socialist Government, under Atlee, had managed to take as they tried to drive Britain into bankruptcy.


Clem Atlee – One comment of the time was “an empty taxi pulled up and Atlee got out”, but on the Royal Yacht he made a sound and principled decision

The Atlee Government had failed in its original efforts to cozy up to Stalin and the USSR as the only major National Socialist Regime to survive World War Two. It had managed to fritter away US aid, which other European governments, including Germany, had managed to wisely use to rebuild their war-shattered countries. Even in this total mess, similar to, but less extreme than, the next two National Socialist Governments managed to leave, Atlee managed to take a sound decision to order a new Royal Yacht. In part this was a sentimental decision as the King was overtaken by cancer. King George VI derived satisfaction from the planning of the new vessel even though he died before it could enter service. In part, Atlee was also motivated by a desire to take the decision out of the political arena, knowing that the electorate would soon throw his miserable bunch of incompetents out of power and return Winston Churchill to sort out the Labour mess.

Whatever the combination of situations and political motives, the ordering of a new Royal Yacht was an important decision and the specification for the new ship was very well drawn.


British Royal Yachts

British Monarchs had used Royal Barges and Royal Yachts for centuries. In the days of Henry VIII, land travel was slow and risky. As a result the national arteries were the rivers and coastal waters. Monarchs did not travel beyond British shores except to France, when they sailed in warships with a strong armed escort. That situation did not change until the Twentieth Century when members of the Royal Family traveled to India and other parts of the Empire. When they traveled it was by major warship where there was accommodation that could be made available to the Royal Party. The first modern Royal Yacht was the Victoria and Albert which may have been a model in some ways for HMY Britannia but was not a successful vessel. She was tender and there was a fear that she could capsize in poor conditions. As a result, she was never able to undertake the voyages that her successor routinely undertook.

The Duke of Edinburgh and the Princess Elizabeth were both involved in the design and furnishing of HMY Britannia. The John Brown Shipyard came up with an outstanding solution to the constraints of budget, presence, and style.

To keep the costs low but produce a vessel that looked like a real ship, HMY Britannia was based on a ferry and equipped with a turbine power system fueled by bunker oil. At that time, bunker fuel was the main fuel for Royal Navy vessels. To further demonstrate frugality, the vessel was designed to be operated by Royal Navy personnel and able to serve in time of war as a forward hospital ship. She was fitted out in the style of a country house, lacking only an open fireplace (because RN regulations required two sailors to stand by a fireplace ready to extinguish the fire to save the ship). She was tastefully and comfortably furnished, rather than being a lavishly equipped palace afloat.

HRH, The Duke of Edinburgh was a very valuable part of the design process as a serving naval officer who had also sailed on HMY Victoria and Albert. The old Royal Yacht had also served the process by keeping alive a cadre of Royal Yachtsmen so that the new vessel would be crewed by the Royal Navy with all of the considerations that were important to a Royal Yacht but not required in military service at sea.

HMY Britannia was a phenomenal success, not only projecting a favourable image of Britain, but also serving as a business promotion tool. No one has ever fully coated the huge contribution HMY Britannia made to British exports, other than to appreciate that it was many times the total cost of building and operating the vessel. She also helped in a number of emergencies and one example was evacuating British citizens from civil war in South Yemen. The signal to head for the evacuation beach was received as the Wardroom was in the middle of a delicately balanced darts match with the Petty Officer’s Mess. FORY (Flag Officer Royal Yacht) left the match to begin planning but, in the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, the darts match continued to its natural conclusion. As the last evacuees were being loaded and accommodated in the Royal Apartments, news of a second group arrived. HMY Britannia steamed to a new beach and took off all evacuees by the light of car headlamps ashore.


HMY Britannia is a major Scottish tourist attraction. Although the Thames or Portsmouth would have been a more logical location to exhibit the retired Royal Yacht, Forth Ports have provided an impressive museum centre alongside the vessel which has been very well maintained.

John Major funked the decision to refit or repair the Royal Yacht and the incoming Phony Blair was more interested in buying himself a luxury airliner as Blair Force One at more than three times the cost of a replacement for HMY Britannia. Later he said he regretted his decision, not least because he never got a Blair Force One. By then it was too late to reverse his decision and HMY Britannia had become a popular and well-maintained tourist attraction in Scotland.

There have been several attempts to promote a new Royal Yacht but the most serious proposals are now emerging on the back of the Diamond Jubilee planning, and a growing national appreciation that Britain has to break free of the clutches of the Little Europeans, unelected Eurocrats in Brussels, who have been planning to break up the United Kingdom and merge the pieces with other European countries. The building of a new Royal Vessel would be a potent symbol of a rebirth of British national pride as the country struggles out of the economic disaster created by the Blair/Brown regime.

The difficult questions are –

Should the new vessel be described as a National Flagship, a Royal Yacht, or simply and appropriately Her/His Majesty’s Ship.

What form should a new Royal Vessel take?

How should she be funded?

What roles must she be equipped for?

Who will crew her?

These are the questions that can combine to sink the project because many projects are primarily driven by other motives and lack clarity of purpose for a Royal Vessel.

Deciding on a description of the vessel is very important. Within maritime tradition, “Yacht” would still be appropriate, but detractors would seize on this to suggest it was a very expensive toy for the privileged few, as they did when HMY Britannia was a highly profitable and hard working tool for the projection of Britain. “Flagship” is close to describing the primary role of presenting Britain favorably to other countries, but it does suggest a military vessel, as flagship of a fleet. HMS would be appropriate for a larger vessel by demonstrating that it was a ship rather than a boat or yacht. That still leaves a suggestion of warship and returns the consideration to “Yacht”. If, like HMY Britannia, the new vessel was primarily a Royal Vessel used for State Visits, trade missions, and as an auxiliary in time of war, the simple solution may be either HMS, or HM Royal Ship.

The same care is required in selecting a name. As HMY Britannia is now a tourist attraction, “Britannia” would be confusing, as would “Albion”, with a warship of that name. It may be appropriate to consider “Elizabeth and Phillip” taking the precedent of “Victoria and Albert”. “UK” looks uncomfortably like uck. “Great Britain” is another option, commemorating the engineering triumphs of British shipbuilding. The name is very important for its symbolism.

There are those who believe she should be a square-rigged sail training ship crewed by young people drawn from all Commonwealth countries. Others believe she should look like an oligarch’s gin palace afloat, Others believe she should be a floating exhibition centre. Some have even suggested that one of the two new super carriers should be converted rather than giving it away to France. In each case, the proposals are driven by other or additional motives.

The first role of a new Royal Yacht should be to serve as a flagship for Britain. That suggests that, like HMY Britannia, at the time of her design and building, she should be a modern design that has a presence stronger than her size, although there are many who would argue that a business promotional role demands a larger vessel than HMY Britannia and the use of components designed and/or built in Britain, along the lines of the floating exhibition ship constructed by Mitsubishi in their own shipyards. That suggests a design more like a cargo vessel where the hold space creates an environment to set out a permanent exhibition that could be open to large numbers of visitors.

What the design of HMY Britannia achieved outstandingly was a design that for its time was modern and clean, looking like a much larger vessel, and which was enhanced by a very high standard of paint work and attention to detail. Even today, she looks modern and purposeful, just waiting to put to sea again.

For much of her career, HMY Britannia did not sail off with the HM The Queen aboard, visit all planned destinations and return with The Queen still aboard. Normally, she sailed out to a point where the Queen came aboard, arrived at the first destination and used the Royal Yacht as a base. Then, HMY Britannia was sailed off for the next engagement and the Royal party flew to meet her. That allowed the Royal Party to make use of the speed of aircraft to shorten the time away on a Royal Visit, but pack in the maximum number of engagements. When aboard, HM The Queen was well protected and a Royal Navy warship served as close escort. During a voyage, HMY Britannia would be used for other purposes without the Queen, but normally with at least one other member of the Royal Family aboard. Trade missions were hosted aboard and many contracts were won by British Companies. Some of the more remote parts of the Commonwealth are only reached by boat and Britannia made it possible for the Royal Family to visit these small islands. The Official history of HMY Britannia demonstrates just how full a program was applied to every voyage. Meticulous planning ensured that no opportunity was missed to use the Royal Yacht to project Britain and British interests.

That raises the important question of who should be in control of voyage planning and events. There is a very strong argument that a new Royal Vessel should be under the joint control of the Royal Household and the Royal Navy because those organizations have a very long and successful record of organizing impressive events and operating ships that represent Britain.

Since HMY Britannia was designed, there have been many changes in marine technology. HRH The Duke of Edinburgh always wanted HMY Britannia to have a refit, where the bunker-oil-fueled turbine power was replaced by more economic diesel or diesel-electric power which would also allow her to be refueled at sea from RN Fleet Auxiliaries, now that the last bunker oil vessels had been withdrawn from service. A modern Royal Yacht would be best served by the type of diesel-electric power plants used for cruise ships, or by gas turbines as used on warships.

If the new vessel is to be used as a trade mission, it would need to be larger than HMY Britannia and set out differently to fully cater for this mission. The experiences with HMY Britannia showed that, even as a smaller ship than might have been built, HMY Britannia was unable to dock at some of the islands visited (some islands had no ship dock of any kind) and that required the Royal Party to take a ship’s boat to sometimes difficult landings. Since those days, some islands have built airfields, but only large enough for helicopters or small turbo prop commuter airliners. There can also be other events that make the docking of a Royal vessel undesirable and require an alternative method of landing. It also has to be considered that HM The Queen may be in robust health, and may enjoy the long active life achieved by the late Queen Mother, but that does not mean she should not be accorded more comfortable landings and greater safety. There is also a case to be made for deliberate provision to enable people with disabilities to join and leave the vessel, in comfort and safety under all conditions, making a floodable dock and ship’s boats equipped for wheelchair access desirable.

Fortunately, modern technology offers solutions although these imply a larger vessel than HMY Britannia, and a consequently higher cost.

Modern technology would allow a larger vessel to be crewed by fewer people and be able to make port without assistance, where a larger vessel, sixty years ago, would have required tugs for berthing. British companies continue to develop and market advanced marine equipment and a new Royal vessel would make an ideal showcase for this technology. However, although technology allows for a reduced crew, the ceremonial and promotional role for the vessel would require appropriate accommodation, in addition to Royal Apartments, including accommodation for Royal Marine Bandsmen.

That a larger vessel would be unable to sail as close to some small islands is less important because, since HMY Britannia was designed and built, there is much more choice in how to disembark the Royal Party. A new vessel would have to be equipped to operate helicopters and it is highly desirable that at least one should be hangered aboard. Some private yachts now routinely carry one or two helicopters, although they tend to be smaller aircraft. A Royal vessel would require a larger aircraft and cost considerations might require a twin engine military machine that would be flown by the RN’s FAA or RAF aircrew. A helipad can be built at relatively low cost because it is a reinforced deck area that requires a clear area around it. When designed into the vessel from the start, the helipad adds very little cost. To base aircraft on the vessel requires a hanger and other facilities for maintenance and fuelling. When HMY Britannia was designed, the only helicopter in limited experimental use afloat for the RN was the Sikorski Hoverfly. This was manifestly unsuitable for Royal transport. When suitable helicopters became available and joined the Royal Flight, the cost of converting HMY Britannia to operate and carry helicopters would have been significant and technically challenging. Similarly, assault ships had not pioneered the floodable dock. Once built, adding a floodable dock to HMY Britannia would not have been possible, when this feature proved a considerable enhancement of beach landing capability from a vessel off-shore.

It is desirable that the vessel contain a wet dock that would be capable of accommodating a Royal Barge, and/or landing craft, and/or hover craft. The wet dock is now a common facility for assault ships and can be scaled down to reduce cost, although an ability to carry landing craft and/or hover craft already in British military service may offer lower equipment costs and allow equipment for warships to be used. Operating from a floodable stern dock permits small craft to deploy in higher sea states without compromise of comfort or safety. It also enables a higher rate of embarking or disembarking which is a very helpful feature for trade missions where the vessel is moored offshore.

The great question has been historically seen as funding. To put it into perspective, a new Royal Vessel would cost between £100,000,000 and £200,000,000. However, that compares with presidential aircraft costing more than £300,000,000 and providing very limited accommodation and little capability beyond simple air transport that is already available by chartering commercial airliners and even taking seats on scheduled air services. Given the maintenance nature of aircraft, a single presidential jet is unlikely to prove adequate and several machines would be required. Even before the Royal Vessel starts paying its way by supporting trade missions, much of the cost of building would be cycled through British companies, providing British jobs. Such a project would breath fresh life into British shipbuilding and establish a renewed reputation for high quality maritime technology. As such, a new Royal Vessel could be funded by Government even in the current period of economic danger.

The alternatives are to either attempt to raise funds by donation, or to attract commercial sponsorship. Norway raised the money after World War Two for a new Royal Yacht from public subscription, demonstrating that potentially Britons could directly fund the cost of building by private donations, with the State taking over funding of running costs and defraying some of those costs by directly charging commercial companies for exhibition facilities aboard. However, the most effective way of funding the vessel is to treat it as a national asset and a funding responsibility on HM Government.

There is one new factor that has not been considered historically. HM The Queen is Head of the Commonwealth and Head of State of a number of other countries. As Britain is poised on the brink of charting a new and independent course from the EU there is a persuasive argument that a new Royal Vessel should include Commonwealth countries. Australia’s AUSTAL shipbuilding company has designed some fine multi-hull vessels and is building warships in the US for the US Navy. A multi-hull design, built collaboratively in a British shipyard could be worthy of consideration, drawing components from other Commonwealth countries and possibly drawing some funding for what might be a Royal Commonwealth Ship. This would also honour the heritage of maritime trade which built Britain and the Commonwealth and create a Confederate grouping that should have followed on from Empire, where nations sharing a common language and heritage worked together in co-operation to promote freedom, free trade and to assist developing nations.

In considering the crewing of a new Royal Vessel, it would be most appropriate to depend on Royal Yachtsmen, drawn from Royal Navies. If the new vessel was to be a Royal Commonwealth Ship, Royal Navy personnel could be posted to the vessel together with personnel from the other Royal Navies of the Commonwealth. That does not exclude the possibility of enabling young people from youth organizations participating in specific voyages, but it would ensure the highest standards of professional seamanship in the crew.

A final consideration that is not as tongue-in-cheek as it might first appear is to use one of the two new aircraft carriers that will initially not have any aircraft. Rather than making a present of one carrier to France at British expense, it would make more sense to retain this important asset and make the most effective use of it. The precedent is that blue water Royal travel before HMY Britannia was by major warship, such as the Royal Tour by the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, aboard a battle cruiser, taking him to India. It would be practical to use sectional construction to erect compartments in the hanger spaces to provide Royal Apartments, with exhibition and entertainment space. Those compartments could be struck down at any time to allow the vessel to return to duty as an aircraft carrier. The operational costs would be greater but rather less than making a present to France and construction costs would be very modest. As a vessel projecting British and perhaps also Commonwealth interests, a converted super carrier would be very impressive.

Whatever form a new Royal Vessel might take, its contribution to Britain would be significant. If it was to be part of a new alignment of the Commonwealth, it would make a significant contribution to all the Commonwealth countries, including Britain.


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