The Royal Navy: "Britannia Rules the Waves..."

By Norman Polmar

Britannia has provided magnificent support to us throughout this time, playing such an important role in the history of the second half of this century.

She concluded her remarks, "It is with sadness that we must now say good-bye."

The Britannia served Queen Elizabeth for her entire reign, carrying her and her family on holidays and—more important—on official visits around the world. Her last major cruise was undertaken last summer, when the ship sailed to Hong Kong to participate in ceremonies marking the return of the island territory to China on 1 July 1997. During such cruises, the Britannia traveled more than one million miles and made 697 overseas port visits. (Queen Elizabeth went ashore from her last cruise on Britannia on 22 November 1997, and that night the ship made her final trip while in commission from London to Portsmouth.)

Like the hauling down of the Union Jack at Hong Kong and—even more telling for the Royal Navy—the closing of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich this past fall, the retirement of the Britannia brings to an end another historic chapter of British naval history. But this obviously was a very personal ending for the Royal family. The Daily Telegraph reported:

One can only guess what was running through Royal minds. The Queen's eyes seemed to mist up in the emotion of the moment. The Princess Royal resorted to a handkerchief a couple of times. The Prince of Wales appeared most mournful of all, occasionally shaking his head, while Prince Philip stared with gritted teeth.

It was the Queen herself who apparently realized that the era of floating palaces was over. On 23 June 1994, Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind announced the demise of the royal yacht:

The Queen has made it known that in the light of changes in the pattern of royal visits since the yacht was built, she does not consider a Royal Yacht to be necessary in the future solely for the purposes of royal travel.

For the next three years, the Conservative government debated whether and how to replace the Britannia . One party leader declared, "Conservatives build royal yachts, not scrap them." Meanwhile, the challenging Labour Party attacked the yacht, and Prime Minister John Major could not decide which side of the issue to support. But all became academic with the Labour victory of May 1997. The Labour government decided that it had better uses for the approximately $90 million that a replacement yacht would cost.

The Britannia will be handed over to a group in either Manchester or Edinburgh to be maintained as a museum. The cost of keeping the ship in pristine condition will be considerable, and the government reserves the right to step in at some future date and scrap the ship if certain standards are not met. With the British population's fascination if not reverence for the Royals, it is expected that (for a charge) a large number of visitors will tread the polished wooden decks of the Britannia .

Indeed, several of the Royals, naval officers, and others have declared that they would rather see the ship scrapped than risk her rusting away as a tourist attraction. "End Britannia's life now and let us remember her as she is," declared Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, the only surviving member of the Board of Admiralty of 1951, which took the decision to build the Britannia .

That decision led to an attractive one funnel, three-mast yacht. With elaborate quarters for her passengers, the ship was conceived to be converted to a hospital ship in wartime, with a helicopter platform and beds for 200 patients. Fin stabilizers reduced roll in bad weather, and the latest navigation devices were provided. All three masts, from which flags normally flew at all times, were hinged to permit passage under low bridges. (Unlike other naval vessels, the Britannia flew the Union Jack when under way, as did escorting ships.)

Always immaculate, she had a blue hull with gold trim; the upper works were white, with a buff funnel.

The Navy crew members were all volunteer, and were referred to as "yachtsmen" instead of "sailors." When decommissioned, the Britannia was the only Royal Navy ship with a flag officer permanently assigned—the Flag Officer Royal Yachts. His duties included supervising planning for Britannia missions, including protocol, security, and logistics.

Although many Britons are questioning the future role of the Royal family, the banks were lined with thousands of people when the Britannia departed London and when she arrived at Portsmouth on her final cruise. Private groups are examining the possibility of financing a new royal yacht, but it is unlikely that such a scheme would be successful.

Rather, it appears likely that HMS Britannia will be the end of another chapter in Royal Navy history.


Norman Polmar is an analyst, consultant, and author specializing in naval, aviation, and science and technology issues. He has been a consultant or advisor on naval-related issues to three U.S. senators, the Speaker of the House, and the Deputy Counselor to the President, as well as to the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He has written or coauthored more than fifty published books and numerous articles on naval, aviation, technology, and intelligence subjects.

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