HMS Prince of Wales finally sets sail for historic Nato drills after week of setbacks for UK warships

Both the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers had failed to depart from Portsmouth harbour for Nato military exercises in the past 10 days

Tom Watling
Monday 12 February 2024 19:11
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HMS Prince of Wales sets sail for Nato exercise

HMS Prince of Wales finally set sail for the largest Nato maritime exercise in 40 years on Monday – a day after its initially planned departure was cancelled at the last moment.

The ship was meant to leave on Sunday to replace HMS Queen Elizabeth, which failed to depart from Portsmouth Harbour a week earlier due to an “issue” found in final checks with the starboard propeller coupling.

No official reason was given for the cancellation of the Prince of Wales’ departure, but on Monday it finally set sail from Portsmouth Harbour, cheered on by family members and supporters.

Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales sets sail from Portsmouth Harbour to lead the largest Nato exercise since the Cold War

It will replace its sister warship for exercise Steadfast Defender off Norway, where more than 40 vessels will be stationed.

Before it set sail, security minister Tom Tugendhat had admitted it was unacceptable that both of Britain’s multibillion-pound aircraft carriers had failed to leave port this month for the vital military exercises.

HMS Queen Elizabeth will now head to Rosyth in Scotland to receive repairs to address “wear and tear”, according to the Royal Navy.

Asked what had happened with the Prince of Wales, Mr Tugendhat told LBC: “I’m afraid it’s not something I can explain; that’s a matter for the MoD [Ministry of Defence] and I’m going to have to ask some questions about it.

“But I’m sure the First Sea Lord is looking at this right now. Admiral Key has commanded an aircraft carrier in the past and will no doubt be all over the details of this and making sure they set sail as soon as possible.

“It isn’t acceptable that we have such expensive and important items of kit sitting in the dock when they should be out defending our interests abroad.”

The MoD did not provide a reason why HMS Prince of Wales failed to depart on Sunday but a spokesperson said it will set off soon “subject to suitable tide and weather conditions”.

Mr Tugendhat was then forced to brush away mocking comments on Monday morning that the state-of-the-art aircraft carrier could only sail on a sunny day when the tide is going the right way.

“That is absolutely not correct,” the security minister said. “Our warships are capable of operating in ... practically all weather.

“The reality is we have a completely capable navy with some extraordinary sailors who are able to equip and deploy our vessels around the world.”

Thousands watch HMS Prince of Wales set sail from Portsmouth Harbour on Monday

But two cancellations in a week due to “wear and tear” have been a source of embarrassment for the Royal Navy.

People lined the walls of Portsmouth Harbour to watch the 65,000-tonne Prince of Wales depart on Sunday.

But after MoD police boats had secured the area and the harbour mouth was closed to traffic – the normal protocol for the departure of a carrier – the channel was reopened and the Prince of Wales failed to leave the jetty.

It is unclear if the sailing was cancelled before the carrier was set to leave or whether it had made its first movements from the jetty at Portsmouth naval base.

One member of the public who had come to wave off the carrier said: “I hope it hasn’t broken down again.”

After about 20 minutes, the hundreds of people gathered to see the ship started to disperse as word spread that it was not leaving. In August 2022, HMS Prince of Wales broke down shortly after leaving Portsmouth due to a propeller shaft problem.

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