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Offshore Pirate Forts & Sealand

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Pirate Radio
The offshore Maunsell forts, or towers, which interested the pirate radio operators of the Sixties, were originally World War II military facilities built to protect the coastal sea lanes and were essentially of two designs.
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Pirate Radio

ss Red Sands, Shivering Sands and Great Nore were Army constructed, originally consisting of seven separate towers, each set on four concrete legs supporting a steel structure 100ft above sea level and connected by narrow catwalks. The towers were towed out on specially constructed barges, two at a time, and set into the sea bed. Red Sands was put in place between July 23rd and September 23rd 1943 at 51.28.62 North 0.59.60 East and Shivering Sands between September 18th and December 13th 1943 at 51.29.95 North 1.04.48 East.

Great Nore tower had been completely uninhabitable since the mid-fifties and was demolished in 1958 as it was blocking the main approach to the Thames ports.
Both types were designed to house various gun installations ( quite visible on many pictures ) to combat the twin threats of enemy aircraft and E-boats.

Sixties Pirate Forts
Station Map

They were all designed by Guy A.Maunsell, who submitted many designs to the military for consideration, and were constructed by Holloway Brothers at Gravesend in Kent. The Army Forts were constructed in 1942 subsequent to the successful construction and deployment of the Navy forts. Each Army construction followed the same basic design, comprising of a Bofors gun tower, a control tower, four AA gun towers and a searchlight tower which were arranged with the control tower at the centre, the Bofors and AA towers arranged in a semi-circular fashion around it with the searchlight tower being positioned further away but still linked directly to the control tower via a high level walkway.

Horse Sand Fort It is worth noting that a great variety of sea forts were constructed around the UK during WW2 but did not figure significantly in pirate radio activities either due to location (broadcast range) or non-existence - most were destroyed immediately after the war as they interfered with shipping lanes. Had they survived, it would have been interesting to see whether they would have attracted the interest of would-be radio stations. The attraction of the Thames forts was, of course, that they still existed and were perceived to be outside British territorial limits.
The Solent forts, typified by
Horse Sand Fort, were also used in the second world war but had originally been constructed between 1861 and 1880 as part of a defence system against the threat of Napoleon and became known as 'Palmerston's Folly'. The chain of forts runs all round inland Portsmouth and out into the Solent.

The original navy forts weighed 4500 tonnes and their armament consisted of two 4.5" guns mounted on the main decks, four Lewis machine guns and two Bofors 40mm guns on the upper deck with the central wood and steel tower supporting a radar scanner dish.
There was one other marine structure in the area at the time was also considered by many to be one of the 'pirate' towers. This was
Gunfleet and was a kind of lighthouse, looking like a water tank on stilts - not dissimilar to one of the single sections of the Army forts. The forts were not a popular posting and were abandoned wholesale by the military at the end of the war after which ownership became a matter of opinion as they were generally considered to be situated in international waters and not subject to any particular mainland jurisdiction. In fact, the War Office seemed to be rather keen to pass responsibility for them onto other government departments having tried, unsuccessfully, to sell them off in 1963. This didn't really matter, of course, as they were doing no harm and were of no real practical use to anyone - until pirate radio came along!


By an extremely questionable interpretation of an obscure passage in the Geneva International Convention of the Sea, 1958, which was ratified in September 1964 by the British government in an Order in Council:

'The ( Thames ) estuary may be considered as a bay if the area of water within the bay exceeds that in a semi-circle drawn, with a 24 mile baseline, across the indentation in the coast'

... and another debatable decision which considered sandbanks visible only during unusually low tides at certain parts of the year to be part of the British mainland, all of the towers, except Roughs and Sunk Head, were declared to be inside territorial waters and therefore subject to prosecution under the Wireless and Telegraphy Act. The area of water in the bay, 683 square miles as calculated by a Ministry of Defence naval surveyor, was only 5 square miles more than that inside the theoretical semi-circle!

The last military maintenance teams were withdrawn from the towers in the winter of 1958/59 and by the Sixties all the offshore towers were already in a state of considerable neglect and disrepair, offering at best only a bare minimum of facilities and were to prove impossible to supply for long periods during bad weather.
This is part of a description of Shivering Sands, which was the home of RADIO CITY. The fort had lost one of its towers when a ship ran into it, killing four people:
". . . one section had collapsed and another was standing all alone where the walkways had collapsed."

Sixties Pirate Forts


Also, being in open sea areas and constructed largely of metal, they were natural lightning conductors. On Red Sands, D.J. Paul Beresford of RADIO 390 was actually struck by lightning, not only surviving but managing to broadcast his usual programme only hours later! Even on good days huge build-ups of static electricity were apparently a problem and there are many recounted tales of station staff being thrown some distance after carelessly grabbing metal door handles. Minor things like that, however, didn't seem to be any deterrent to the more determined pirate radio station operators. The planned final destruction of the towers commenced on 21st August 1967 when a team of 20 Royal Engineers demolished the upper sections of Sunk Head using 2200lbs of explosives, in front of a specially invited audience of television and press reporters, with a blast that could be seen both from the Radio Caroline ship and by Roy Bates on Roughs tower six miles away. During 1967 Roy Bates had declared the platform, which is supported by 75ft concrete pillars, to be an 'independent nation' named Sealand and proclaimed himself monarch.

Later that year the Royal Navy attempted to remove him from the structure but abandoned the attempt when they were met with warning shots fired from the tower. Following this incident legal action was brought against him by the government but was subsequently dropped when the courts ruled that they had no jurisdiction outside British territorial waters. During 1978 Sealand was invaded by some Germans who then proceeded to claim ownership of the fort. Roy launched a counter-offensive, capturing a German prisoner in the process which necessitated the German Embassy to send an envoy to negotiate his release. 'King' Roy and 'Queen' Joan still occupy the site periodically and have put considerable effort into having its independence internationally recognised. This cause was dealt a blow in 1987 when the U.K. extended its territorial waters from 3 miles to 12 miles. Their current claim depends on whether it can be legally established that its independency was recognised before that date, in which the 1967 court ruling seems to lie in their favour.

Roy Bates

Roy of Sealand proclaimed the Constitution of the Principality on 25th September 1975. Gradually, items of national identity were produced such as the flag of the Principality of Sealand, a national anthem, stamps and its own currency - gold and silver coins designated as Sealand Dollars. 'Official passports' for the Principality of Sealand were issued to people who had, in some way, helped the birth of Sealand but were never at any point for sale.

In August 1978, a number of Dutchmen employed by a German businessman arrived at Sealand, ostensibly to discuss potential business dealings. In Roy's absence they kidnapped his son Michael and took Sealand in a coup d'etat. Roy recaptured Sealand with his own 'troops' and imprisoned the usurpers as prisoners of war, during which time the governments of both Germany and The Netherlands petitioned for their release. They did ask England for diplomatic intervention but were turned down, with the British government explaining that they made no claim on the territory and citing the court decision as reason for their refusal. The others had no choice but to recognise Sealand's sovereignty and Germany even went so far as to send a diplomat to negotiate for the release of the German 'prisoner'.

The Dutch prisoners were the first to be released under the Geneva Convention which requires the release of all prisoners when a state of war does not exist. The sole German continued to be held as, at some stage, he had apparently accepted a Sealand passport and was technically guilty of the crime of treason. Prince Roy, in the interests of Sealand's reputation, eventually released the man without charge.

On 1st October 1987 Britain extended the limit of its territorial waters from 3 nautical miles to 12, but had been beaten to the punch by Roy who, the previous day, had declared his own extension of Sealand's territorial waters to a similar distance to ensure that access to Sealand could not be blocked by British territorial waters. To date, no official agreement has been signed between Sealand and Britain regarding the resulting overlap in claimed jurisdiction but a general policy of dividing the area between the two countries down the middle has been unofficially followed. International law does not allow the claim of 'new' land by the simple extension of sea rights and so Sealand's sovereignty was still guaranteed. Under this law, neither 'country' can claim rights to any part of the nother that falls within its 'new' boundary and it is to its credit that Britain has made no further attempts to take Sealand but still treats it as an independent State. Following a ruling by the DHSS, Prince Roy pays no British National Insurance during the time he spends on Sealand.

There was another incident involving firearms in 1990 when warning shots were fired at a ship that had strayed too near Sealand. The crew of the ship subsequently made formal complaints to the British authorities but, despite Britain's severe prohibition of firearms, the government chose not to pursue the matter indicating that the Home Office still considers Sealand to be outside their umbrella of control.

During 1997, a number of forged Sealand passports started turning up across the world, some of which were apparently used to open bank accounts in various countries under false names. Less than 300 official genuine pasports were in existence therefore it was unlikely that the items would be detected as forgeries due to the fact that hardly anyone had ever seen one. The source was eventually traced back to the same the same German who had unsuccessfully attempted to take Sealand by force.

He had created an unofficial 'Sealand Business Foundation' that allegedly sold over 150,000 fake passports before being found out, resulting in the curious facty that there are now probably 500 times as many forged Sealand Passports in circulation than official ones. Apparently, a large number of the passports were being sold to people leaving Hong Kong during the Chinese reoccupation for a dollar each.
During early 2000 Spanish police brought action against criminals that had set up a website selling fake Sealand 'passports' which are suspected of having been used by illegal arms and drug-dealing rings. One of these fake 'passports' was also encountered by police investigating the murder of fashion mogul Gianni Versace.

The current government of the Principality of Sealand states that "The Principality of Sealand recognises 'jus gentium' and has undertaken to regulate any activity with a view to compliance with 'jus gentium' and international law or to have it regulated." The acceptance and recognition of the Principality as an independent state, or country, has been demonstrated frequently over the last thirty years by both European and other States, but particularly Britain, which has stated unequivocably on a number of occasions that it has no jurisdiction within Principality territorial limits or that it takes no interest in events occuring within the jurisdiction of the Principality. In addition, many legal experts have carefully examined the arguments for and against Sealand sovereignty and have agreed with unanimity that 'jus gentium' applies as the basic principle of law supporting Sealand's independence.

Due to failing health, Prince Roy has more recently reviewed the arrangements that have been in place for decades and, looking towards the future of the Principality, appointed his son, Prince Michael, the Prince Regent as 'Sovereign pro tempore' by Royal Decree in 1999.

In June of 2000 an Anguillan-based company called HavenCo announced preliminary plans to locate its servers and satellite uplinks on the Sealand platform provided its independent status could be validated. That company now exclusively leases offices and operations centres in Sealand, where it offers, and is able to offer, unparalleled security and independence to users who wish to take advantage of its Internet colocation services. The purpose of this is to allow companies using its servers to avoid the government scrutiny which will be made possible by laws to be taken up by the U.K. and U.S.A. although HavenCo insist that it will not allow any form of illegal trading. Sealand, of course, has no laws regarding the control of data traffic.

More and larger pictures of the pirate forts may be found in my Image Gallery and there are some fabulous pages in pirate links

All Original Material
SixtiesCity 2009