A ship contracted by the British Government to maintain navigational installations made its way through the North Sea waves seven miles off the coast of Essex.
As the crew passed a Second World War fort, they noticed an incongruous sight: on top of its tower lay a pretty teenage girl, sunbathing.
The men let loose a barrage of lascivious comments. In answer, two warning shots rang out into the air and two more across the bow of their boat, Vestal.
The sunbather that sunny May day in 1968 was 19-year-old Penny Bates. The gun was fired by her 15-year-old brother Michael.
‘They were making indecent comments to my sister,’ he later explained indignantly.
But Michael was not simply defending his sister’s honour. He was defending his realm, of which the Bates family were the rulers and inhabitants.
The fort, a metal platform the size of two tennis courts, perched on top of two concrete legs rising 60ft above the waves, was the self-styled ‘Principality of Sealand’.
The fort (pictured), a metal platform the size of two tennis courts, perched on top of two concrete legs rising 60ft above the waves, was the self-styled ‘Principality of Sealand’
Michael and Penny were often stationed on the fort alone to defend it while their parents, Roy and Joan Bates, were away on business.
It was a duty they took extremely seriously. A photo of Penny shows her posing with two guns in her hand, a couple of Molotov cocktails visible behind her.
‘It was normal to us – we didn’t know anything different,’ Penny said later in life. ‘Bit of a weird upbringing, isn’t it?’
The Bates family’s unconventional life on Sealand – ruling it and repelling all efforts to invade or undermine it – is a tale of English eccentricity at its most extreme. And they were joined over the years by a cast of adventurers and rogues.
Sealand was built in 1942 as one of four tower-forts designed to defend the Thames Estuary from Nazi bombers.
A photo of Penny Bates shows her posing with two guns in her hand, a couple of Molotov cocktails visible behind her
The structures were abandoned by the Government at the end of the war and Roughs Tower is the only one still intact – thanks to maverick war hero Roy Bates, who had been badly wounded at Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944.
Tall, dark and handsome, in 1948 he married Joan, a beauty queen, six weeks after meeting her in a Southend dance hall.
They settled down but Roy found civilian life dreary. One day, he dramatically threw his bowler hat and briefcase into the sea and bought a boat.
The couple started a fishing business but it did not bring in enough money for their growing family – Penny was born in 1949 and Michael in 1952 – so they tried various ventures, including a chain of butchers and an estate agency. But Roy was always on the lookout for a real adventure.
And in 1965 he found one in those strange military structures faintly visible on the horizon from the Essex shores and begging to be explored.
Pirate radio had sprung up in the 1960s in response to the stale offerings from the BBC which seldom played pop music.
And so, as enterprising DJs figured out a way to broadcast from somewhere beyond the reach of UK law and with the territorial claims of most countries extending only three miles from shore, why not broadcast from a ship?
Sea-based broadcasting duly began in 1964 with Radio Atlanta and Radio Caroline in the Thames Estuary. The Government deemed them ‘radio pirates’, turning the broadcasters into folk heroes.
Roy Bates (died October 2012) and his wife Joan with son Michael and David Barren pictured on Fort Rough off Harwich, Essex
With his teenage children keen listeners, Roy sensed an opportunity. In January that year, he and Michael took their fishing boat to explore one of the abandoned forts, Fort Knock John, a time capsule beset with rust and the excrement of countless birds.
Roy immediately saw potential for establishing a radio station.
Already, the forts were a hot commodity among radio pirates. One station, Radio City, had sent engineers to ready it for occupation.
But Roy had already commissioned a broadcasting antenna and had no intention of slowing his plans. In late October, he set out to take the fort with the help of some local ruffians.
They clambered up the towers, manhandled a few of Radio City’s men and left two teenagers on Knock John as sentries.
But Radio City retaliated, ejected the teenagers and restaked its claim. An incensed Roy returned – climbing up a rusty derrick to the deck while dodging a barrage of wood and metal projectiles.
He stood on deck and proclaimed: ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law.’ Radio City conceded defeat.
Roy imagined tax-free company registration, TV stations, a lottery system, the issuing of passports, stamps and coins, flags of convenience and the conferring of titles
Roy rapidly learned how to run a radio station. Adverts for DJs were placed in newspapers, offering £12 a week. Bates made no bones about the fortitude required for the job.
The trip from the shore to the fort took at least three hours and DJs could be out there for weeks at a time.
Getting on to the fort entailed a treacherous climb up a ladder to the rickety landing stage. DJs were also expected to clean the place, make their own food and haul fuel.
Roy called his station Radio Essex and its first test signal was broadcast on October 27, 1965. He recorded much of the advertisement copy in his Southend living room, splicing recordings with Scotch Tape.
It was the first station in Europe to run around the clock, and it quickly attracted a steady listenership.
Folklore has it that at one point a fledgling rock group called The Rolling Stones paid a visit to the Bates home to play a tape of their music for on-air consideration. ‘What a load of bloody c**p,’ Roy said after listening to it.
While also keeping up his other businesses, his crew was once abandoned for 17 days on the fort with only four days of provisions.
‘We’d eaten the contents of the dustbin – the potato peelings and such, and we were reduced to a huge drum of Heinz salad cream and another big drum of Maxwell House coffee,’ one remembered.
The crew were abandoned for 17 days and forced to eat potato scraps
The crew members were emaciated and with the beginnings of scurvy when they were taken ashore.
Despite the week-long storms, antennas collapsing, intermittent starvation and dehydration, Radio Essex was revolutionary fun.
The music, camaraderie and pranks made it a joyful enterprise, enthralling Penny and Michael when they visited on breaks from boarding school.
But the violations of copyright law and streams of untaxed revenue rankled government officials, who decided to clamp down on pirate radio, starting with Radio Essex.
Roy was charged with broadcasting illegally, the prosecution arguing that Knock John Fort was within British jurisdiction as its three-mile territorial reach began at a sandbank.
The first set of Sealand stamps were issued in 1969 and feature famous explorers. The idea was to fly letters with the stamps to Belgium, where they could be slipped into the postal bloodstream
He was found guilty and fined £200 (£3,680 in today’s money). Soon, he was reduced to selling pieces of furniture to keep things going. Yet he was determined to continue.
‘No war is won until the last battle is fought,’ he declared.
He set his sights on another fort, Roughs Tower, the furthest from the coast, at least six miles away and therefore beyond British jurisdiction. It was occupied by Radio Caroline as a resupply station. But this did not stop Roy.
At about 10pm on Christmas Day, Roy, Michael and company pulled their boat alongside Roughs Tower. The Caroline DJs were just about to cut the turkey when the visiting party thudded on to the deck, armed with iron bars.
The Radio Caroline crew quickly acquiesced to the demands of these ‘hard b******s of the North Sea’ and an uneasy truce was brokered, with each crew stationing a few of their people on the fort at a time.
Michael, then 14, found life as a radio pirate far more exciting than his oppressive boarding school, so in spring 1967 he begged his parents not to make him return there. Incredibly, his parents agreed, and Michael soon became a fixture on Roughs Tower.
The following spring, one of the Caroline men was badly injured and while he was taken ashore by the only other crew member, the Bates family used the opportunity to claim the fort as their own.
Michael acted fast to solidify the defences – placing old tanks and bits of metal on the edge of the fort, ready to be pushed down on to any threatening boats.
Michael made a substantial stash of Molotov cocktails. Local reporters were shown the fort’s arsenal: six shotguns, a flame-thrower and two air rifles. Fuel and supplies were stockpiled, too.
All was quiet until June 27, 1967, when the Radio Caroline crew, backed by a former police inspector and a mob of Gravesend dockers and local heavies, sailed out to retake the fort.
Michael made the first move, lobbing a warning bomb that exploded but was quickly extinguished by the lapping waves. Next, he tossed a barrage of petrol bombs and gas cylinders at the invaders and fired an air rifle at them.
One man managed to jump on to the ladder dangling from the fort but Michael’s rain of bombs had set the Radio Caroline ship’s deck on fire. It was carrying five tons of fuel oil, so the crew rushed to put out the blaze, leaving the man dangling on the ladder for several hours. A lifeboat eventually came to retrieve him, and the invaders retreated.
That raid was one of at least eight attempts on the fort in the summer of 1967. During the final attempt, Michael was awoken by the sound of an inflatable puttering up to the fort in the middle of the night.
Opening a hatch, he lit a Molotov cocktail and dropped it straight down on to the boat, which erupted in flames, forcing the would-be raiders to jump overboard.
When the parent vessel pulled up to retrieve the men, Michael peppered the captain with air-pistol fire.
Not surprisingly, the boat retreated. Equally unsurprisingly, concerns about what was happening on Roughs Tower reached the highest levels of government, with the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, taking a close interest. It was decided the ‘squalid operation’ must be closed down. But how?
A government agent was sent to Roy Bates’s Southend home to persuade him to hand over the fort in exchange for a small sum, but Roy declared: ‘I’d rather die than surrender.’
On one occasion, a boatload of Royal Marines approached and tried to convince Michael and his mother – the only people there at the time – to hand it over, claiming that Roy had already sold it. Joan and Michael, carrying loaded pistols, refused to believe them.
The Marines, who had been instructed not to use violence, retreated. The official plot had failed.
It was not bribery or explosions that finally defeated pirate radio but a new copyright law enabling the BBC to play pop music. One by one, the pirate frequencies disappeared.
But Roy had another idea for making his fort financially sustainable: he would declare Roughs Tower his own country. He reasoned that UK law would not apply, and it could have many commercial advantages – as well as cocking a snook at the government.
The constant rain of bombs set the Radio Caroline ship’s deck on fire
It turned out it was not only theoretically correct, but legal too.
Roy decided the new country would be a principality – a sovereign territory. This wasn’t for vanity. The Bates family simply didn’t have the time to develop a constitution or political infrastructure.
Roy imagined tax-free company registration, TV stations, a lottery system, the issuing of passports, stamps and coins, flags of convenience and the conferring of titles. And so, on September 2, 1967, the Bates family and a handful of guests assembled on the fort’s platform to raise the new flag and transform Roughs Tower into the world’s newest nation, the Principality of Sealand.
Joan became Princess Joan, Roy was Prince Roy, Michael and Penny were Crown Prince and Princess. The national motto was E Mare Libertas – From The Sea, Freedom.
The first few months on Sealand were rough. As well as the gruelling five-hour journey to get there, all supplies had to be transported from the family’s mainland home by bus, dinghy and fishing boat.
‘It was hours and hours on the boat going chug, chug, chug,’ Penny recalled. ‘I used to sit there in a blanket and think, “For God’s sake, will someone kill me please?” It was horrible, horrible.’ They lived on tinned and imperishable foods but resupply missions were infrequent and unpredictable. ‘Rationing was a way of life on Sealand,’ said Michael, who taught himself to fish from the fort.
The family trawled for lobsters with home-made pots. Five- gallon drums of drinking water were carried up the rope ladder. When levels ran low, they relied on rainwater.
Heating oil was prone to run out too, so all the family could do in the freezing cold was to wrap themselves in blankets.
Penny grew tired of subsisting for stretches at a time on biscuits made from flour and distilled sea water. Missing the fun of pirate radio, she wanted to lead a normal social life rather than being isolated on a metal platform. So she left the fort, to her family’s dismay.
Inevitably, Sealand’s existence was about to be challenged.
In November 1967, a Royal Navy minesweeper on a depth-surveying mission got within 100ft of the micro-nation. It was confronted by Michael – again – raising a pistol. ‘Clear off!’ he yelled.
He fired warning shots in the air and then unloaded the rest of the clip in the waters in front of the boat. The Navy vessel retreated.
Despite the severity of the incident, the Crown declined to prosecute, as the location was too complicated.
‘I do not think this would be a suitable case with which to test the question of jurisdiction, even if a criminal charge becomes feasible,’ wrote an official from the Ministry of Defence.
Investors said they’d build a casino there – but then they staged a coup
This disinclination to press charges could be seen as a suggestion that the Sealanders were in control of their territory. The Crown thus began looking into other clandestine options for taking the fort, which was still considered government property.
The perfect opportunity came when Michael shot at the crew of the navigation vessel as they ogled his sunbathing younger sister.
He and his father were charged with violating the Firearms Act of 1937 and arrested when they set foot on shore.
But at court, the judge decided they could not be found guilty because British law didn’t reach as far as Roughs Tower: the government had no legislative power over Sealand. Their sovereignty confirmed, the jubilant Sealanders were ready to introduce their country to the global stage.
As befitting its nation status, Sealand issued its own stamps in 1969 – although these were not recognised by the International Postal Union – and its own coins in 1972. The front featured Princess Joan, while on the back was a ship.
Then, in 1973, Roy went into business with a group of German investors who wanted to turn Sealand into a nation-state of apartments, casinos, drug stores, heliports, hotels, duty-free shops, a radio station and even an oil refinery.
But the Germans were not content with investing. In 1978, they staged a coup.
Landing by helicopter, they took Michael, alone on the fort, by surprise, tied him up and kidnapped him to Holland where he was later released.
At last, invaders were in control.
But the Bateses were determined to retake their country. ‘No crook will rule Sealand. I will blow it up first!’ Roy declared.
They assembled a small group of armed men and flew to Sealand by helicopter. As the sun rose at dawn, they descended by ropes, dropping out of the sky like avenging angels. Michael fired a sawn-off shotgun and the Germans immediately surrendered. A few minutes and a black eye or two later, the counter-coup had succeeded. But Sealand’s troubles were far from over. To Roy’s horror, several criminals across the world were found to be using forged Sealand passports.
Meanwhile, plans to launch more radio stations on Sealand fizzled out, along with the idea in the 1980s to set up Sealand TV as a fifth channel for the UK.
As the age of the internet dawned, there were attempts to turn the fort into an offshore data haven but these, too, failed. Then, in 2006, disaster struck: Sealand caught fire when a generator exploded, causing £500,000 damage.
The Bateses considered selling their beloved principality, with an asking price of €750million. But the sale came to nothing.
Over the years, the fort had been called a ‘quixotic financial sinkhole’, a ‘ramshackle, rusting scrap heap’, an ‘ugly, wind-battered concrete slab’, ‘an industrial-era Stonehenge’, a ‘grotesque marine oasis’.
All these descriptions were superficially accurate but don’t do justice to the heart of the place or adequately express its spirit.
However, as Roy Bates aged, it was difficult to reconcile the unremitting hardiness of his early years with the confines of a body that simply wasn’t up to the same tasks.
In the early 2000s, he and his wife retired to Spain, with Michael named ‘Prince Regent’ of Sealand and taking over the running of the fort.
Roy, the original Prince of Sealand, died in 2012, aged 91.
Today, none of the Bates family lives on Sealand. Instead, they pay two caretakers to look after the fort on alternate fortnights.
However, Michael remains Prince of Sealand, determined to fulfil his unspoken promise to his father to keep their private country afloat.
Its status as an independent micro-nation appeals to people around the world: athletes have competed on its behalf in international competitions, such as the World Cup Kung Fu, while people have planted its flag on top of mountains such as Everest.
Through its website, merchandise and titles are sold around the world: you can become a knight of Sealand for £99.99, or a duke for £499. Sales are brisk.
It remains the world’s most enduring micro-nation, a self-sustaining operation that has lasted more than 50 years.
When once asked by a reporter why he took it over, Roy Bates replied: ‘I’ve asked myself that question many times and I’m damned if I know the answer.
‘But it was a challenge, and I can’t resist a challenge.’
© Dylan Taylor-Lehman, 2020
- Sealand, by Dylan Taylor-Lehman, is published by Icon on September 3 at £16.99. Offer price £13.59 (20 per cent discount) until August 30. To pre-order, call 020 3308 9193 or go to mailshop.co.uk/books. Delivery charges may apply.