The Queen’s former private secretary, Lord Charteris, was once asked the secret of her indefatigability and memorably replied: ‘The Queen is as strong as a yak.’
He went on: ‘She sleeps well, she’s got very good legs and she can stand for a long time.’ He might also have added that, for most of her reign, she also had her Yacht.
Rear Admiral Sir Robert Woodard well remembers the day in 1990 when he went to see the Queen on being appointed Flag Officer Royal Yachts, as Britannia’s captain was known. Would it be helpful, she asked him, if she were to offer her own thoughts on the role of the Yacht? He said it would.
‘People who know us at all know that Buckingham Palace is the office,’ she began, ‘Windsor Castle is for weekends and the occasional State thing and Sandringham and Balmoral are for holidays. Well, they aren’t what I would call holidays. For example, there are 90 people coming to stay with us at Balmoral this summer.
‘The only holiday I get every year is from Portsmouth the long way round to Aberdeen on the Royal Yacht, when I can get up when I like and wear what I like and be completely free. And if you as Flag Officer Royal Yachts can produce the Royal Yacht for my summer holidays, that’s all I ask.’
The Queen (pictured on board in 1971) once described a trip on the Royal Yacht Britannia from Portsmouth the long way round to Aberdeen as her ‘only holiday of the year’
For the person with surely the most abnormal position in British national life, the Yacht offered the one thing the Queen craved — a spot of normality. Britannia would be a place for fun, for mischief and — in a world governed by ritual and tradition — for the spur-of-the-moment.
Diplomat Sir Roger du Boulay and his wife joined the Yacht for a week in 1974 during his years as Resident Commissioner of the New Hebrides. They were astounded one night when dinner was followed by the ship’s entertainment — ‘an elaborate pantomime’ — in front of the Royal Family and the crew, with the Queen acting as wardrobe assistant.
‘It involved the equerry taking the part of a Polynesian beauty,’ says du Boulay. ‘I remember him sitting on the floor and I remember seeing the Queen kneeling on the floor. He was stripped to the waist and she was fitting a brassiere on to him. It was an extraordinary sight!’
ABOARD, informality would go a long way — but it had its limits. John Gorton, former Prime Minister of Australia, later recalled one beach barbecue with the family during a 1970 tour of Australia, when the royal party decided it was time for a swim.
‘Princess Anne was thrown in and then Prince Philip,’ he said. ‘I was sitting next to Her Majesty and I was just about to throw her in but I looked at her and something about the way she looked at me told me that perhaps I shouldn’t. In the end, the Queen was the only one who stayed dry.’
As both a ship and a royal residence, Britannia was unique. There was no other palace in which the Royal Family would seat their guests on cheap wicker chairs (purchased by Prince Philip during a Hong Kong stopover in 1959), just as there was no other Royal Navy ship in which orders were delivered in complete silence and by hand.
The Yacht was certainly not a new idea — nor would it even be a new design. To save time, the Admiralty copied the existing designs for a pair of North Seaferries, while adding a more regal bow and stern. Crucially, the draft (the depth below the waterline) was reduced to allow entry to the remotest Commonwealth ports.
Undoubtedly the favourite method of travel for the Queen and her family, Britannia was the last in a line of royal yachts dating back to the reign of King Charles II and would still be showing the world how to make an entrance — and exit — up to the threshold of the 21st century.
On April 8, 1953, two months before her Coronation, the Queen was in Scotland for the launch. The name would remain a closely guarded secret up to the very moment the Queen announced it.
How she masked a galloping rage
During a royal cruise back from Finland in May 1976, as Britannia was passing from the Baltic through the Kiel canal, the crew were asked to alert the Queen when the Yacht was passing a well-known stud.
The request went astray and the Queen missed her horses. Her quiet fury was obvious the moment she appeared for dinner. A chilly silence prevailed as the officers present nervously took their seats, whereupon they were treated to a fascinating display of royal anger management.
The Queen suddenly put her napkin over her face. She then slowly peeled it down to reveal a monarch transformed, smiling warmly and changing the subject. ‘It was like a magic trick,’ says one of the guests. ‘Suddenly, here was this new smiley Queen. It was quite extraordinary. And Prince Philip did the same thing.’
It was not merely a revealing illustration of iron self-control, but also provides a sense of the way the Queen feels that life is one unending performance, even on home territory among close confidantes. Though reprieved, the crew of Britannia would never make that mistake again.
A crowd of 30,000 — including 7,000 children and 300 striking steel-platers, who had voted to abandon their three-week strike for an hour to see the Queen launch their handiwork — had assembled inside the John Brown shipyard. Dressed in black, for the court was still mourning the recent death of Queen Mary, the Queen departed from the usual ship-launching script. ‘I name this ship Britannia. I wish success to her and to all who sail in her.’
No one is entirely sure why she did not invoke the Almighty with the customary words, ‘May God bless all who sail in her’. Perhaps the Queen felt it was inappropriate to exhort God to bless herself.
Though the Admiralty had been unenthusiastic about a name that, in their view, was too Anglocentric and not worldly enough, Britannia was the favoured choice of the Queen and the Duke. It was also hugely popular with the public.
However, despite having been launched, Britannia was not ready for the start of the great post- Coronation tour in which the royal couple circumnavigated the world via the South Seas, New Zealand and Australia.
Most of that tour was spent aboard a chartered cargo-liner, the Gothic. Then, in April 1954, Britannia arrived in the Libyan port of Tobruk where the Queen and Prince Philip were piped aboard for the first time, joining five-year-old Prince Charles and three-year-old Princess Anne who had sailed from Portsmouth to accompany their parents on the latter stages of the tour.
Such were the formalities of international diplomacy that the Queen and the Duke were expected to have tea with King Idris of Libya before being reunited with the children they had not seen for months. Not that the young passengers were unduly troubled.
Two Royal Yachtsmen were given additional duties as lifeguards, a role known throughout Britannia’s years of service as ‘Sea Daddy’ or ‘Sea Nanny’. The young passengers were having the time of their lives.
‘We were kept very busy,’ recalls Princess Anne. ‘There were lots of things to do, all sorts of places to go and things to keep clean, scrubbing and polishing.’
She can remember enjoying a pedal car in the shape of the Yacht and a rubber swimming pool, while, even now, the Prince of Wales can still recall the smell as the rum ration was issued. He was also mesmerised by the sight of all the rusting wartime wrecks still littering the port of Tobruk, after some of the worst fighting of the North African campaign. War still loomed fresh in so many minds.
The day after the Queen boarded on that first voyage, a Sunday morning service was held in the Royal Dining Room, conducted by the ship’s captain, Vice-Admiral Conolly Abel Smith.
He duly recited the traditional prayer for the Queen, the Queen Mother, the Duke, Prince Charles and ‘all the Royal Family’ — at the end of which a small voice broke the silence.
‘He hasn’t prayed for me, Mummy,’ said Princess Anne, and the entire congregation burst out laughing. Here was a moment that would set the tone for Britannia’s next one million miles.
At the end of that tour, Britannia returned to Portsmouth for initial alterations. Throughout the Yacht’s years at sea, it would serve as a secure, ocean-going palace-cum- embassy-cum-trade-platform. Purely in commercial terms, it would repay its costs many times over. But above and beyond that, Britannia was the nearest the Queen has ever had to her ‘own’ home. All the other palaces and castles were inherited. All had been furnished and equipped by her predecessors over 40 reigns.
WITH Britannia, though, the Queen and the Duke could experiment with their own ideas and choose everything from the light fittings to the carpet with the help of architect and interior designer, Sir Hugh Casson.
‘The Queen is a meticulous observer with very strong views; there was no question of showing her a drawing room and her saying: “All right, that will do,” ’ he wrote later.
‘She had definite views on everything, from the door handles to the shape of the lampshades.’
The Queen in the engine room of the Royal Yacht Britannia in 1994, watched by the Duke of Edinburgh and Admiral Bob Woodward, to mark the ship’s millionth mile on the same engine
While the Queen asked for a light, homely atmosphere in her sitting room, the Duke wanted his to be more of a study, with darker wood, a leather-topped writing desk, plenty of book space and a display case housing a model of his first command, HMS Magpie.
They would also choose different layouts for their connecting bedrooms on the Shelter Deck above. The Queen preferred a bright floral decor and lace-embroidered bed linen, while the Duke had selected a darker finish.
He had also given specific instructions about his own linen. There were to be no lace borders on anything. The following year, the Yacht embarked on a summer cruise to Scotland via the west coast.
Along the way, there would be picnics in the sand dunes of Wales where a local harbourmaster, helping to lift the children ashore, was reduced to tears on being informed that he was carrying the future Prince of Wales onto Welsh soil for the first time.
The Prince could test the patience of some of the crew, however. En route to the Isle of Man, he kicked his football over the side and asked his ‘Sea Daddy’ if he could get it back.
The request was passed up to Vice-Admiral Abel Smith, who agreed that it might be a useful exercise in seamanship to lower a boat to retrieve it. The Prince regarded this as enormous fun and, soon afterwards, cheekily kicked his ball over the side once more. He never saw it again.
It was a challenge for any outsider to drop into this well-oiled machine, with all its quirks and unusual rules, no matter how senior you might be. Sir Robert Woodard recalls taking command in 1990. By then, he had flown both jets and helicopters from aircraft carriers, had commanded a frigate and a destroyer and had taught both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York along the way.
He was running the Royal Navy’s submarine base at Faslane when he received a call about the Britannia job (he was dressed as Father Christmas at the time). But even he had to adapt. ‘When you are in command of a warship, you fall in the ship’s company and you say: “This is the way this ship is going to run.” If you went on board the Royal Yacht, it really was their home. They’d train you in their ways pretty quickly.’
The officers were not averse to a few pranks, either. Sir Robert’s predecessor had left him strict instructions that the Queen insisted on her Flag Officer wearing his best uniform at all times on family cruises. ‘Complete rubbish,’ chuckles Sir Robert. ‘It was Hawaiian shirts and sandals!’
The Queen was greatly amused on the first occasion that Woodard appeared in full uniform. ‘Wool? . . .’ she ribbed Sir Robert. ‘Over the eyes? . . . Being pulled?’
Entertainment was a key part of life in the Yacht, particularly when the Royal Family were on board. There might be deck tennis or ‘horse racing’, involving model horses progressing across the deck according to the roll of giant dice.
A bat in the royal bedroom
Britannia’s official history records the night during a 1959 tour when one of the officers on duty, Captain North Dalrymple-Hamilton, received an agitated call from the Queen’s dresser, Margaret ‘Bobo’ MacDonald.
Everyone knew that Bobo — a formidable Scot — was not to be crossed. So one can only imagine the reaction of Britannia’s duty officer as ‘Miss MacDonald’ came on the line with the words ‘There is a bat in the Queen’s bedroom and Her Majesty does not like bats.’
There was not a moment to lose. The Queen was at a dinner ashore, but would soon be returning.
With a fellow officer and a pair of tennis rackets, the enterprising Dalrymple-Hamilton managed to ‘down’ the unfortunate bat with moments to spare — only to spot another one flapping around in the Royal Drawing Room.
Films were always popular, if a little stressful for the young officer appointed as ship’s projectionist. Commodore Anthony Morrow, who had three spells in Britannia and was her last captain, first arrived as a junior officer in 1965.
He has vivid memories of screening the first James Bond film, Dr No, in front of the Queen and Duke, plus a cross-section of the ship’s company, drawn by ballot. Fortunately, film selection was not his task. That was a job for the Queen’s Equerry, with a proviso that there should not be ‘too many writhing sheets’.
Every voyage would include a concert party just like the one that Sir Roger du Boulay had watched en route to Fiji. The different sections of the ship would go to a great deal of trouble with their costumes and routines.
‘That was naval life at that time in every ship,’ says Anthony Morrow. ‘We didn’t have all the modern stuff like iPads. We had to ad-lib it and provide entertainment to keep the troops happy.’
All guests were expected to take part, including royal ones. During a visit to New Zealand, a bare-chested Earl Mountbatten of Burma performed his own version of the Maori haka.
Britannia veterans can even recall one occasion when the Queen was reluctantly persuaded to appear in a sketch as herself, at the behest of the medical officer.
As she remarked afterwards: ‘The Surgeon Commander got me to do that. If he does it again, he won’t be a Surgeon Commander much longer.’
One of the more memorable routines during Britannia’s later years was a clod-hopping display of Irish dancing, as the ship’s petty officers attempted a version of the musical Riverdance, wearing gumboots.
Former MP Frank Judd (now Lord Judd) was surprised to end up as part of the entertainment during his time as the Foreign Office minister ‘in attendance’ for part of the Queen’s 1979 tour of the Persian Gulf.
‘There was a lot of fun,’ he recalls. ‘They said: “Frank, you are part of the Household now and it’s the custom on the ship to put on an entertainment and we’d rather like you to be part of it.” I have a treasured photograph of me leading the chorus with Prince Philip and the Queen there.’
He remembers leading his group, including the Queen’s press secretary, in a fancy-dress variation of an old Forces number, with a chorus of ‘Bum, titty, bum, titty, bum’. As far as he can remember, it went down well. ‘The message we got was that the Queen thoroughly enjoyed it.’
All the Royal Family have special memories of Britannia. All took part in the Yacht’s final farewell tour around the UK in 1997.
And all were there, with one notable exception, for the immaculate but painful ceremony to mark her decommissioning in Portsmouth on December 11, 1997. The Queen Mother preferred not to take part. This was where the Queen had enjoyed so many family moments — not just with her own family, but with her ‘family of nations’.
What’s more, her children had grown up with the Yachtsmen, a band of brothers who had spent more time attached to a single ship than the crew of any other ship in the Royal Navy.
As a naval wife, mother and daughter herself, it is not surprising the Queen was upset, famously welling up as the television cameras moved in.
In a world that increasingly appreciates the value of ‘soft power’ — the triumph of influence over coercion — many still find it baffling that a leading maritime nation like Britain could have disposed of an asset as valuable as the Royal Yacht.
HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh on board HMY Britannia in March 1972
But ultimately Britannia’s demise was down to bad timing and political incompetence.
In the mid-Nineties a substantial refit was required. Shortly before the 1997 election, the Conservative government announced that it would build a new yacht with a budget of £60 million.
But it had failed to follow a political golden rule, that major undertakings involving the Crown require cross-party agreement.
Tony Blair’s New Labour was not consulted and duly opposed the idea, which thus became an election issue. Not surprisingly, on being elected a few months later, the Labour government declined to commission a new yacht.
Blair would later admit to me that it had been a mistake to get rid of Britannia in the first place and that he would have retained it, if he had been elected sooner.
The Royal Family determinedly avoided becoming involved in what was clearly a political matter and thus strictly off-limits. Hence the brevity of the mournful speech by the Prince of Wales to the ship’s company on the night of Britannia’s retirement, the shortest after-dinner address of his life.
‘I just want to get blindly, madly drunk,’ he declared and sat down again, to thunderous applause. His audience knew exactly how he felt.
Adapted from Queen Of The World by Robert Hardman, (Century, £25). © Robert Hardman 2018.
To order a copy for £20 (offer valid to September 20, 2018; p&p free), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.