Aircraft carrier visit a real sign of Liverpool’s global renaissance

Arrival of HMS Prince of Wales in the Mersey demonstrates the return of Liverpool’s status as a truly global port city. Peter Elson reports

HMS Prince of Wales
HMS Prince of Wales berthed in the River Mersey. Picture courtesy of the Royal Navy

 

HMS Prince of Wales sailed majestically into the River Mersey for a week-long visit and her arrival illustrated of Liverpool’s growing importance and the return of its status as one of the world’s premier port cities.

More than 20,000 members of the public snapped up tickets to step on board what is the Royal Navy’s biggest and most advanced warship. And tens of thousands made a pilgrimage to view her from the shore during the eight days she spent in the Mersey.

Liverpool is practically the only non-Royal Naval port which can accommodate the brand new aircraft carrier’s vast 65,000 gross tonnes bulk, 284m (932ft) length, 11m (36ft) draft and flight-deck (the size of three football pitches) with its huge 17m (55ft) overhang either side of the hull.

It was also, in part, a home-coming for the carrier as her flight deck, hangar and sections of accommodation were built at Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead, directly across the river from her berth at Liverpool Cruise Terminal.

This was a significant contract for Cammell Laird, along with similar work for her earlier sister ship HMS Queen Elizabeth, creating thousands of direct highly-skilled shipbuilding, administration and ancillary jobs in the supply chain. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance overseeing this work even occupied a large office block on the CL shipyard site.   

HMS Prince of Wales’ visit is surely another vindication of building the £17m Liverpool Cruise Terminal and landing stage more than 10 years ago, as Liverpool is the only UK port which can berth huge ocean-going military, passenger and other mercantile ships practically in the city centre.

HMS Prince of Wales
HMS Prince of Wales arriving in the Mersey. Picture courtesy of the Royal Navy
HMS Prince of Wales
HMS Prince of Wales at Liverpool Cruise Terminal. Picture by Tony McDonough

 

Just two days earlier Virgin Voyages’ first enormous brand new cruise liner Scarlet Lady (2,700 passengers, 110,000 gross tonnes) called at Liverpool en route to New York and Miami – the first winter transatlantic sailing to the US since 1966. 

Few of the thousands of visitors from this ‘ship mad’ city, enjoying the carrier’s visit in bright, sharp winter weather, probably ever expected to see the world’s biggest ships back in Liverpool after ocean liner passenger traffic from the original Princes Landing Stage was finally annihilated in 1972 by cheap mass jet air travel.

Since then, the global cruise industry has mushroomed thanks to the pioneering Carnival Cruise Line, which started operating 40 years ago with two redundant Liverpool liners, SS Empress of Britain and SS Empress of Canada, from Miami, successfully rebranding them as ‘The Fun Ships’ to dispense with the stuffy image of cruising.

Fast forward and over the last decade one million cruise passengers and crews from 500 ships have been disgorged into the city, creating entirely new businesses and jobs to serve them. What other UK city has benefitted from such a colossal £72m tourism boost, as if from nowhere, which has transformed its local economy? 

Talking to LBN, Prince of Wales’ commanding officer, Capt Darren Houston, was thrilled with the incredible welcome for his brand new ship (with many Liverpudlians in the 700-plus crew), which was only commissioned in December 2019.

“Given HMS Prince of Wales is affiliated to Liverpool, I’d like to return here as often as operations permit as it’s important to bond with the local community, but there are now so many cruise liners coming in, it’s a problem getting a berthing slot. I guess we’ll just have to elbow them out of the way.” he joked.

Standing in the middle of the four-and-a-half-acre flight deck, overlooked by the Royal Liver Building, he added: “I am delighted to be in charge of the Royal Navy’s latest and biggest-ever warship.

“We’ve been planning this visit for six months and had two Mersey pilots. This is a tough river to navigate and we planned our arrival to the minute on the tide and turning on the ebb into the landing stage. In spite of the rough weather it was achieved right on time.

“It’s really important to have a ‘carrier navy’ as it gives us more choice having a strike force capability, especially in a post-Brexit world. It also gives much more flexibility having a more global navy able to undertake a peace-keeping role and going into some difficult areas.

“It was sad to see the previous generation of carriers go, but after a 10 year gap with the completion of Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth we now have Europe’s premier carriers. We’re now back to being a ‘carrier navy’ nation and there are only five others in the world besides Britain: the US, France, Russia, India and China, with the latter two building up their fleets.

“China has just completed its third carrier and we need to be in the game on the world stage to play a proper and effective role to fulfil our NATO and United Nations Security Council membership commitments.

“We shall meet our 2% GDP for NATO with our two carriers and use what we’ve got to be most effective. They’re vital to NATO and shall be joining in with the US task forces as the only two ships in the world built around the Lockheed Martin F35B.   

“However anything is vulnerable, especially a big ship like this, but we shall be well protected by a fleet of Type 45 and Type 26 destroyers and our own aircraft of 36 F35s and four helicopters.”

Captain DJM Houston
HMS Prince of Wales’ commanding officer, Capt Darren Houston. Picture courtesy of the Royal Navy
Peter Elson
LBN’s Peter Elson on board HMS Prince of Wales. Picture by Jason Roberts

 

Lt Cdr Martyn Mayge, the vessels chief navigator, said: “We’ve undergone trials off western Scotland and are on our way to do more off the South coast. The ship handles like a dream and we’ve a lot of power.

“As Liverpool is one of the few ports able to take us, it’s a priority to be here and open to visitors. The public need to see what they’ve paid for and that this ship represents the UK’s revitalised dominant maritime prowess.”

With a projected operational lifespan of 50 years, Capt Houston is adamant that the £6bn cost for the pair of carriers is “great value for tax payers’ money.”

Clearly then rumours about the death of British shipbuilding are premature. If the UK can build enormous warships of this complexity, why can’t British shipyards like Cammell Laird have a slice of building cruise liners like those yards in Italy, Germany, France and Scandinavia?

Their cost bases can’t be any lower than those in the UK. One benefit of being out of the EU is that the UK won’t have to comply with Brussels diktats on shipbuilding quotas.

Is it seriously better to have a big portion of Merseyside’s potential shipbuilding workforce perpetually laid-up on Universal Credit, rather than pursuing meaningful and purposeful careers to their own and the city region’s emotional and economic benefit?

My part in the proud link between HMS Prince of Wales and Liverpool

One of the proudest times in my career on the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo was the part I played in the affiliation of HMS Prince of Wales to Liverpool.

Interviewing Cdre John Madgwick, prior to his retirement in 2009 as Royal Navy Northern Regional Commander, in true hack-like manner I asked if he had a final story up his sleeve for a scoop. Like a real pro, he replied, “Yes, why don’t I say that the new aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales will be affiliated to Liverpool?”

To which I replied: “If you say it, I’ll write it!” With the result we duly got our front page scoop – and 10 years later here is the carrier in Liverpool amid much fanfare as the city’s ship. There is historical reasoning behind this affiliation, as the previous HMS Prince of Wales, a King George V battleship, was completed at Cammell Laird in 1940 during the Second World War.

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