Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:05 pm
This is HMS Queen Elizabeth. She and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales are the largest warships the Royal Navy has ever had, and their home port is HM Naval Base Portsmouth, on England’s south coast. Portsmouth is well-known for its naval heritage: this is, after all, the home of Horatio Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, which he commanded and died on at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. But people have been using Portsmouth Harbour far longer than that – probably since the days of hollowed tree trunks – for trade and travel as well as, more recently, for a naval base. Flanked by the city of Portsmouth and Portsea Island to the east, with the mainland town of Gosport to the west, Portsmouth Harbour is an enormous natural anchorage with a narrow, easily defended, harbour entrance. At the mouth of the harbour is the Solent, the busy stretch of water between mainland England and the Isle of Wight. As well as being a naval base, Portsmouth is a commercial ferry, freight, fishing and pleasure port. Sitting by the waterside watching the sea traffic come and go is a favourite pastime; there’s always something going on. It is perhaps best enjoyed whilst nursing a pint of HSB outside the Still and West on the Point – a narrow spur jutting into the harbour at Old Portsmouth. If you’re really brave, a boat tour of the harbour provides a seafarer’s perspective and takes in views of whichever ships happen to be visiting at the time. One of the most popular tours runs from a pier near HMS Warrior, the world’s first armour-plated iron-hulled warship, within the historic Royal Navy dockyard. In parallel with an idea of what can be seen in the 21st century, let’s provide a little historical context and try to get inside Portsmouth Harbour. Trust me, we can only skim the surface.
At the northern head of Portsmouth Harbour, the Romans constructed Portchester Castle, probably known as Portus Adurni, one of a string of forts they built to defend Britain in the 3rd century AD. After the Romans came the Saxons, then the Danes. In 897AD, Alfred the Great of Wessex assembled part of his fleet in Portsmouth Harbour, before defeating the Danes in a pitch battle in the Solent. King Harold Godwinson mustered his fleet there too, in anticipation of Norman invasion in 1066 – had it been deployed, history might have taken a different course. The port and the town inevitably developed together and Portsmouth has been one of England’s premier ports since medieval times. It was used as an embarkation point by successive kings seeking to retain or claim lands in France: Henry II, John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward III, Henry V – all set sail with armies from Portsmouth Harbour. And the French paid several return visits too, attacking and burning Portsmouth four times in the 14th century.
Richard I (the Lionheart) made Portsmouth a Royal Borough in 1194 and his brother, wicked King John, established the first known Royal Dockyard – though it was short-lived – in 1212. It was under the Tudors, though, that Portsmouth’s Harbour and Naval Dockyard began to be developed more seriously. Stone fortifications were added during the reign of Henry VII and in 1495 the world’s first dry dock was constructed. Under Henry VIII, the whole town began to be surrounded by defensive ramparts, a chain – Ye Mightie Chaine of Yron – was established at the mouth of the harbour between Portsmouth and Gosport to prevent unwelcome visitors entering, and fortifications were constructed elsewhere on Portsea Island and Gosport to defend the town and its haven against attack. In July 1545, a French invasion fleet of some 175 ships faced 80 defending English vessels in the Solent and Henry, witnessing the unfolding battle personally from one of these new fortifications, Southsea Castle, watched in horror as the Mary Rose, built in Portsmouth and pride of his fleet, sank beneath the waves in front of him. By establishing the Navy Board and Office of Admiralty, Henry actually laid the foundations for the Royal Navy, which was formally established in 1661.
It would have been intriguing to have been anchored in Portsmouth Harbour down through the centuries, witnessing great comings and goings, and experiencing the world getting smaller. Imagine seeing tobacco, potatoes and turkeys, when these and other hitherto unknown products arrived in British ports for the first time. Queen Elizabeth I was just one of several monarchs who visited Portsmouth to review the fleet as the docks, and the town, grew. There were great events too. Charles II’s bride, Catherine of Braganza, landed at Portsmouth and the couple were married in the town in 1662, possibly in what is now the Royal Garrison Church. Tradition has it that, on landing, Catherine drank some English beer and immediately sent word to her ship for tea; the first cup of tea to be drunk in England, some say (not actually true, it was introduced in the late 1650s). In 1692, an Anglo-Dutch armada of more than 100 ships gathered in the harbour prior to defeating the French at the Battle of Barfleur. In 1787, the First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth – 11 ships holding 1,480 men, women and children who would establish the penal colony that became the first European settlement in Australia. Also that year, HMS Bounty under the command of Captain Bligh set sail from Portsmouth for Tahiti, to gather breadfruit. Incidentally, the modern practice of body tattoos in Europe probably dates from sailors bringing the custom home from Polynesia; the word comes from the Tahitian tatau.
By 1801, the Royal Navy consisted of 180 ships of the line – the massive wooden walls that could fire broadsides at enemy ships – and 684 other vessels; I wonder how many were based at Portsmouth? Nelson, one of Portsmouth’s adopted heroes, embarked from the beach, outside Portsmouth Harbour, in September 1805. In 1807, the growing dockyard took on a new pay clerk, John Dickens; his son Charles was born in Portsmouth in 1812. From 1808 the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, which had the job of ending the slave trade, was based at Portsmouth. Prison hulks, old ships, no longer suitable or safe for the world’s oceans, were adopted to incarcerate criminals – and others – and moored in Portsmouth Harbour. In 1813, 18,000 French prisoners of war were held captive inside these prison hulks at Portsmouth, or behind the walls of Portchester Castle.
Human remains have been uncovered on Burrow Island, a tidal island on the Gosport side of the harbour owned by the Ministry of Defence and where there was once a fort. The island is known locally as Rat Island and is known to have been a burial ground for convicts and prisoners of war.
As Britain’s Empire expanded, so did its navies – and Portsmouth; by the mid 19th century it was the most heavily fortified town in Europe, if not the world. On the eve of the Great War, King George V reviewed the fleet at Spithead, just outside Portsmouth Harbour; it included 24 of the latest Dreadnought class battleships (the first, HMS Dreadnought, was launched in Portsmouth Harbour in 1906), 35 other battleships, 49 cruisers, 78 destroyers and hundreds of smaller craft – a total of 640 vessels drawn up in twelve lines.
The prominence of Portsmouth Harbour as a naval base ensured that it, the town and surrounding area, were all heavily bombed during World War Two. And it was yet again used to assemble and embark an invasion force, because this was one of the English ports from which Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe, was launched on D-Day 6th June 1944. Portsmouth was the headquarters and main departure point for the military and naval units destined for Sword Beach on the Normandy coast. One observer, looking down on the harbour from Portsdown Hill to the north, commented that there were so many ships and landing craft to be seen that it seemed as though it would be possible to walk from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight across their decks. (Southwick House, behind Portsdown Hill, was the operational HQ for the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, and underneath Fort Southwick, one of a chain of Victorian Forts on the hill, was the naval communication nerve centre.)
One of the more bizarre stories to emerge from Portsmouth Harbour is the mystery of Lieutenant-Commander ‘Buster’ Lionel Crabb OBE GM. Crabb was an accomplished underwater diver, who had left the Royal Navy; something of a hero, as well as a chain-smoking heavy-drinking eccentric. In April 1956, Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin and the First Secretary of the USSR’s Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, were on a goodwill visit to Britain. They travelled on the cruiser Ordzhonikidze, escorted by two destroyers, and docked at Portsmouth’s South Railway Jetty. The day before they arrived, Crabb had booked into the Sally Port Hotel in Old Portsmouth with one Bernard Sydney Smith, an agent of the Special Intelligence Service, or MI6. Early in the morning of 19th April, Crabb eased himself into the gloomy waters of Portsmouth Harbour and swam under the Ordzhonikidze, apparently to photograph its hull, propellers and rudder. Unfortunately, he did not resurface. Attempts to hush up Crabb’s disappearance became futile when the Russians asked their hosts that evening why a frogman had been spotted in the water near their cruiser. Fourteen months later, a headless, handless, corpse was found floating in Chichester Harbour, just down the coast. The authorities decided the body was Crabb and buried it in Portsmouth’s Milton Cemetery. But was it? And what happened? Was Crabb killed by the Russians, MI6, or did he meet an accident? Or did he defect? The mystery of this, let’s face it, ill-considered cock-up, remains to this day.
Portsmouth Harbour witnessed the departure of another invasion force on 5th April 1982 as a naval task force headed by HMS Hermes and Invincible left Portsmouth Harbour for the Falkland Islands, which had been invaded by Argentina. The task force returned in July, having retaken the islands.
So, toward the end of our harbour tour, HMS Diamond slipped inexorably out of harbour, past the Isle of Wight ferry, gliding elegantly past the Round Tower, ship’s company lining the deck, escorting helicopter flying overhead. Sleek, powerful, yet slow to anger, she is a greyhound of the sea; heading for the Middle East, she would be away for 9 months, at least. The walls, and the top of the Round Tower, were lined with people, many of them undoubtedly relatives of those serving aboard. It was an emotional moment yet, somehow, reassuring. For reasons I still can’t quite fathom, I felt absurdly grateful, and, yes, proud. At the risk sounding banal and clichéd, it did strike me that all of this – Diamond, the other ships, everything around me – could be part of Britain’s national DNA; an island, populated by the descendants of a succession of invaders and immigrants since time out of mind, not one of them living farther than 70 miles from the sea…
Clearly, it was time for a beer.
The harbour tour that runs from the pier near HMS Warrior is included in the ticket price for all attractions – eg, Victory, Warrior, Mary Rose – at the Historic Dockyard.