As evening set in during the 1960s, people of all ages, genders, races, and creeds in the UK would change the tunes of their radios. BBC bulletins were exchanged for rock and roll blasted from international waters beyond the authority of the UK parliament. These stations directly challenged the strict regulations the British government placed upon radio waves and the dominance the BBC, the only licensed broadcaster in the country, had in broadcasting. The most popular of these stations was the “All Day Music Station” of Radio Caroline 199 and Wonderful Radio London 266.
This movement saw many significant changes occur within British broadcasting. In 1967, the BBC was restructured into four radio stations, with Radio One specifically dedicated to more popular music of the time. DJs from pirate radio stations became more integrated into mainstream broadcasting and maritime laws were changed to expand British territorial waters to gain sovereignty over the radio ships anchored in international waters. The dynamic of radio entertainment throughout the UK was changed forever, and as popular music became more common, broadcasts from international waters decreased. Though some stations like Radio Caroline still transmit from their ship Ross Revenge, it is permanently docked in the River Blackwater.
But perhaps more significant were the geopolitical implications of pirate radio. One such instance saw an entire self-proclaimed sovereign state established off the coast of Suffolk to broadcast freely. This culminated in what is now known as the Principality of Sealand.
During the Second World War, several Maunsell Forts were built to defend Britain in the event of aircraft attack. Following the War, these forts were decommissioned by the Royal Navy and Army as they were illegally constructed in international waters. Britain’s territorial limits were based on the ‘three-mile rule’ from the coastline. For the better part of two decades these forts lay empty, but their location and remoteness proved perfect for the growing pirate radio movement. DJs would get in boats, sail three miles offshore, and began playing mere meters outside of British jurisdiction.
In 1965, Paddy Roy Bates, a former Major in the British Army and fisherman, established Radio Essex on the “Knock John” tower. Though a small station that began with the power of 25 watts, the tower held a working U.S. Air Force radio that allowed Radio Essex to become the first 24-hour pirate radio broadcast station.
While the station presenters were all new to the practice, the Station came to produce DJing legends who would go down in the Pirate Radio Hall of Fame. Guy Hamilton, David Sinclair, Roger Scott, and Mark West (later known as Mark Wesley) joined with no prior on-air experience. Vince “Rusty” Allen served as the program director for the entire station, with his only experience coming from managing a band in years prior. It was these men who captured audiences of 30,000 across the entire country; they played all the popular music that the BBC refused to. However, the long arm of the British government soon caught up with the Station.
In November 1966, Roy Bates stood trial for broadcasting without a license, a violation of the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1949. Despite his claim that Radio Essex was broadcast from international waters, the court found him guilty and fined him £100. Though the station continued to broadcast illegally, it went off the air on Christmas Day 1966 due to a lack of funding.
To combat these proceedings, Bates moved his equipment to the Roughs Tower, the only tower absolutely defined outside of British territorial limit. But Bates was not the first to see the potential of this location for broadcasting purposes. This tower was already claimed by operators from Radio Caroline. It was crossroads like these where pirate radio was truly symbolic of pirates. Bates arrived at the fort and began establishing his own station while it was left abandoned by Radio Caroline forces. It was when Radio Caroline operators returned that Bates and his team had to repel them with Molotov cocktails and automatic pistols. Skirmishes like these occurred frequently when clashes over station sovereignty occurred, sometimes costing DJs or programme directors their lives.
In June 1967, Bates ultimately claimed victory against the Caroline forces by beating them back with Molotov cocktails and guns, providing him with the Fort.
Despite having the broadcasting equipment to do so, Bates did not relaunch his pirate radio station. Instead, he declared independence from the UK on 2 September 1967, his wife Joan’s birthday, and renamed the Roughs Tower “Sealand.”
Bates’ claims of sovereignty were immediately contested. The battle between the Caroline forces and his own soon saw him and his son Michael arrested by the British Navy. The court dismissed the case and affirmed that Roughs Tower was in fact outside of British territorial waters. It was this move that gave Bates’ claims to a sovereign Sealand legitimacy.
Bates spent the rest of his life creating and developing the Principality of Sealand. The British government did not see a reason to evict Bates, as the nation posed no threat or justification to use force to stop him. As Sealand was born, Bates created a constitution, flag, currency, a national anthem, and the issuing of passports for what Bates described as the smallest country in the world. But soon that self-described country would face what most countries end up facing at some point in their development: war.
Looking for ways to make money, the Bates family tapped in on certain suspicious business agreements. Bates was approached by businesspeople to build casinos on Sealand, American churches to use the base to broadcast religious messages to Russia, and even the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to use Sealand for undisclosed purposes. None of these dubious plans ever left the ground or generated significant issue until 1978.
In 1978, a German businessman Alexander Achenbach contacted Bates hoping to turn Sealand into an island resort with a hotel, casino, and duty-free shops. Achenbach remains somewhat of an elusive figure but has been identified as a grifter who wanted to use Sealand for money-laundering purposes. Achenbach offered Bates $1million for the Sealand, an offer which Bates contested, asking instead for $10million. Achenbach then invited Roy and Joan Bates to Austria to negotiate the price.
While the Prince and Princess were away, Achenbach sent forces to Sealand to hold the Bates’s son Michael hostage. They locked Michael in a room for four days with the option of taking a fishing boat to England, Holland, or remaining locked up. Michael was taken to Holland where he befriended the fisher and was able to get a flight home to his grandmother’s house in England. Roy and Joan did not know about the incident until they met Michael at his grandmother’s.
In August 1978, the Bates’s initiated their plan to take back the fort from Achenbach. They used a helicopter to take Sealand by surprise and captured Achenbach’s forces by only firing a warning shot. They held the forces as prisoners-of-war until a fishing boat took all but one back to Germany. The one who stayed was Gernot Putz, the leader of the Achenbach forces who had been given a Sealand passport by Bates before the hostage incident occurred. Because Putz had citizenship to Sealand, Roy Bates decided to put him on trial for treason.
Putz pleaded guilty and stayed on Sealand for six weeks doing chores as a community service alternative to being fined (which he could not pay considering Sealand did not accept foreign currency). Putz’s wife went through the German embassy to contact the British Foreign Office to try to get Putz out of ‘prison.’ The British government said they could not help as Putz was not imprisoned on their territory, further legitimizing Sealand’s sovereignty. A German ambassador even came to Sealand, had his passport stamped with a Sealand immigration pass, and conducted negotiations to try to get Putz back to Germany. They failed, but Putz was released a few days after the visit from the German official. However, the whole ordeal led to the de-facto recognition of Sealand, in accordance with the Montevideo Convention on Statehood in 1933.
The Montevideo Convention stated the criteria for statehood was that States must have a permeant population, defined borders, and government, and the capacity for international relations. The visit from the German diplomat verified the last point in the criteria for statehood. But it was the penultimate point on government that would cause trouble for Sealand and its legitimacy.
Following the Bates’ victory in the retaking of Sealand, Achenbach establish a rebel government that had been displayed by the family (or as he referred to them: ‘pirates’). He began issuing fake Sealand passports throughout the international criminal underworld. Groups showed up throughout the world who created fake Sealand passports, diplomas, loans, and licenses to help criminals play on the statehood of Sealand and potentially provide certain immunities for them. The Bates family simply denied the legitimacy of the passports and denounced the rebel government.
Despite long and unsuccessful attempts to get in business with other parties, Sealand was able to generate profits on its own. An online store that is frequently visited sells t-shirts, deeds to territories, and nobility titles.
Paddy Roy Bates died on 9 October 2012, leaving Michael in charge of Sealand as the Prince Regent. Michael still serves as the Prince of Sealand and has written Principality of Sealand: Holding the Fort to spread the story of the nation.
As for Sealand, it has been described by author Dylan Taylor-Lehman as the ‘grandparent of micronations.’ Around 400 exist today and can be found of all sizes and all forms of government across all continents. Some, like the Principality of Filettino in Italy, claim sovereignty of the local government over the national government. Others, like Molossia in the US, are run in a dictatorial banana Republican fashion. Whatever purpose micronations serve, it has certainly never been easier to become a dual citizen, a high-ranking official, or marry into a royal family.
Written by Sam Marks
(“Episode 171: Sealand (8.27.21)” n.d.)
(“Radio Caroline – Caroline’s History” n.d.)
(“Roy Bates” n.d.)
(Zumerchik and Danver 2010)
(“The Radio Essex Story” n.d.)
“Episode 171: Sealand (8.27.21).” n.d. Accessed November 19, 2021. https://thisiscriminal.com/episode-171-sealand-8-27-21/.
“Radio Caroline – Caroline’s History.” n.d. Accessed November 19, 2021. https://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/#history/history.html.
“Roy Bates.” n.d., sec. unknown section. Accessed November 19, 2021. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/roy-bates-lzkmx0wxxdr.
“The Radio Essex Story.” n.d. Accessed November 19, 2021. https://www.offshoreradio.co.uk/odds76.htm.
Zumerchik, John, and Steven Laurence Danver. 2010. Seas and Waterways of the World: An Encyclopedia of History, Uses, and Issues. ABC-CLIO.