The story of Sealand is one I found so fascinating that I had to write about it. I came across it when I was writing a short post about 'Sealand Titles' which is a company which bestows noble titles (the likes of Sir/Dame, Lord/Lady and even Duke/Dutchess).
What follows is a story of grit, determination and eventually freedom... and it takes place just offshore of Felixstowe.
What is Sealand?
To the untrained eye, Sealand looks like a steel and concrete platform in the middle of the sea. For all intense and purposes, it is. The story of this lonesome platform is quite a bit more interesting.
As the second world war took full swing, the British government built platforms in the sea to serve as remove defensive fortifications against potential German invaders. Many of the forts were thrown up in a hurry and, while the plan was to build them in international waters, many were deemed illegal as they were in international waters. One of the many was Fort Roughs Tower; now Sealand. The legal range of territorial waters is 3 miles, yet Fort Roughs sat 7 miles from the coast.
The military installations were abandoned in the 1950s due to their illegal nature and planned demolition of the forts was started. Interestingly, Fort Roughs was left alone and had been deserted (res derelicta and terra nullius - legal terms for abandoned land) and legally could be viewed as extra-national territory.
Roy Bates & The Pirate Radio
A Major in the British army (Royal Fusiliers), Roy Bates occupied one of the many old Forts and established a pirate radio station in the early 1960's, and named it 'Knock John. A 'pirate radio' was a common occurrence at the time as many sought to bypass the broadcasting rules which ensured the BBC had a monopoly on formal broadcasting.
The popularity of so-called 'pirate radio' came from its contrast to the stuffy BBC; they played pop music and had entertaining presenters. Roy's station was affectionately named 'Radio Essex'.
Obviously, the UK government did not take kindly to the station or the occupation of the fort, and Roy fought a number of unsuccessful legal battles to retain the right to stay on the fort - which fell within 3 miles of the UK shoreline.
Roy, undeterred, set his sights on Fort Roughs, an identical fort to 'Knock John', 7 miles out to sea (and outside UK jurisdiction). His occupation of the fort took place on Christmas Eve 1966 (it would have been freezing) and was much more complicated than it sounds. The family needed to 'turf out' rivals using gunfire and Molotov cocktails. Roy's initial intention was to re-establish his radio station, but another cunning plan came to mind. He declared the fortress a sovereign state.
Roy claimed 'Jus Gentium' (Law of Nations) over the fort which was legal 'Terra Nullius' (Nobody's Land), and the Principality of Sealand was declared. As many states do, they marked the occasion on the 2nd of September 1967 (Roy's Wife, Joan's Birthday) by raising a new national flag and bestowing the title of 'Princess' to Joan (very romantic).
The Battle of Sealand
To nobody's surprise, the British Government was not happy, and they did what they could to discredit the newly born state. It was described as the 'Cuba off the east coast of England'.
In true scorned government fashion, they sent in the heavies. A military operation was quickly put together to destroy and remove the remaining forts located in international waters. For days the Bates family watched as the other structures were blown into the sky, and the debris passed them by.
The operation took place close by the newly established Sealand, which was withered under a threatening barrage of abuse from the passing tug boats. One ship steamed within 50 feet of the island and was promptly warned off with a shot from Michael, the then 14-year-old son of Roy (with his 16-year-old sister).
The incident sparked another legal struggle, where Roy and Michael were summoned to the crown court in Chelmsford under the 'firearms act' in November 1968. The legal team for the pair put forward arguments, backed by laws, from the 17th century.
“This is a swashbuckling incident perhaps more akin to the time of Sir Francis Drake, but it is my judgment is that the UK courts have no jurisdiction.”
The Invasion and Reoccupation of Sealand
This is a long story, so I will try to keep it as brief as possible. The story goes, in 1978, Roy and Joan had big plans for Sealand and entered talks with Alexander Gottfried Achenbach, a former diamond dealer, who offered to help expand the single fort into a network (potentially including a coffee shop).
While Roy and Joan were in Austria, finalising the plans, the family were betrayed. Michael was working alone on the fort when a helicopter arrived and dropped of a number of German associates (led by a Lawyer named Pütz). He was beaten, tied up and held captive, before being dropped off in the Netherlands without a passport or money.
Thanks to the help of an understanding (and sympathetic fisherman) Michael was taken back to the UK mainland where he reunited with his parents (who weren't particularly happy with him).
They gathered a couple of friends, armed themselves and set to retake the fort by repelling from a helicopter. A single blast of a shotgun was all that was needed to bring the German invaders to heel.
The re-occupiers established a tribunal where the other international conspirators were freed, but Pütz was held for his actions. As a Sealandic national he was tried for treason: he was fined 75000 Deutsche Marks, and made to wash toilets and make coffee.
He is lucky he wasn't shot, as is customary in the UK.
The severity of the diplomatic fallout ramped up when a representative from the Federal Republic of Germany (Dr Neimoller) turned up to negotiate the release of Pütz. This interaction is part of what the Sealanders claim to be a formal indication of their official statehood.
The full stories about the nation have been formed into a book (which you may find here).
Is Sealand A Legal Country?
The answer to whether Sealand is a legal sovereign state is seemingly very complicated. The answer seems to be as much yes, as it is no. It depends on who you speak to and whose legal opinion you take.
Based on some observations from online articles, it seemed that the British government had quite enough of the Sealanders, and their response was to quite simply ignore them after a time. It seems to suggest that legally, they would not like to admit that Sealand is a Sovereign state, but legally they cannot challenge the claim.
Michael Bates mentioned also that all you need to do is fulfil the criteria of the Montevideo Convention which details population, territory, and governmental capacity to enter into negotiations with another state (which makes the negotiation with the German representative so important).
In those respects, it can be argued that Sealand is indeed a legal country, and it does not seem as though there has been a robust rebuttal of their rights.