Michael Bates (right) in 2007 with a member of his security team, Alan Beale, approaching Sealand
Yet the “hard as nails” Bates family have put their lives on the line on more than one occasion to remain the undisputed monarchs of their self-styled kingdom since 1966. For them it’s certainly not just two giant concrete legs rising out of the sea to support a thin metal platform measuring 120 feet by 60 feet – roughly the size of two tennis courts. “There is a very powerful family bond with Sealand which is difficult to explain but it won’t be broken,” says ruling monarch Crown Prince Michael Bates, 68, in a rare and exclusive interview.
He is currently involved in discussions with Hollywood filmmakers planning a movie about Sealand, and a book is published this week chronicling its fascinating history. Suddenly, Sealand is attracting an awful lot of attention, mainly because of a public yearning for wild tales of English eccentricity.
Built in 1942 by British engineer Guy Maunsell, it was one of a handful of his so-called Maunsell naval forts put up off the East Coast to stall a German invasion force which never arrived. Marines occupied the forts to pound enemy aircraft with 28lb anti-aircraft shells, destroying 22 planes, one submarine and 33 doodlebugs, a record which justified the cost of building them.
However, at the end of the war the forts were abandoned. Their purpose had been served and nobody knew what to do with them. For years, they lay empty and unloved, convenient rest stops for passing seagulls.
Then former soldier Roy Bates, Michael’s father, had a brainwave. Injured in fighting in Italy in 1944, Roy hadn’t adapted well to life in civvy street.
After literally hurling his bowler hat and briefcase into the sea near his home in Southend, Essex, he told his wife Joan, a former beauty queen he married in 1948 – six weeks after meeting her at a dance hall – he wanted to lead a more exciting life.
He bought a boat and adapted well to the rigours of North Sea fishing but found it difficult to make a good living. The couple also tried running a chain of butchers and an estate agents, but neither business satisfied Roy’s yearning for adventure.
The Bates family raise their standard on Sealand in the 1970s
While sailing off Essex, Roy became fascinated with the naval forts. When he learned that one, Knock John, was being used as a base for a pirate radio station he decided to set up his own.
With the help of some Southend musclemen, Roy turfed off Radio City and claimed Knock John as the base for his pirate station, Radio Essex, which began broadcasting on October 27, 1965.
As the listenership grew, advertisers started coming on board but the authorities took a dim view of his activities on Knock John Fort and successfully prosecuted him for broadcasting illegally.
Paying the £200 fine meant genuine hardship, so, undeterred, he decided to take over another fort, called Roughs Tower, which was further out in the sea and did not come under British jurisdiction.
The only problem was the pirate radio station Radio Caroline was using Roughs Tower as a base. But that issue was resolved when Roy and his mates arrived with iron bars on Christmas Day 1966. Unsurprisingly, the Radio Caroline crew agreed to share the platform.
However, the first chance he had, Roy took the opportunity to seize full control and ejected the competition.
“I was a 14-year-old lad at a private school in Wales at the time, but I loved visiting Roughs Tower in the holidays,” recalls Michael.
Roy certainly needed him to shore up their defences, especially when Radio Caroline unsuccessfully attempted to retake the tower. To deter them Michael tossed molotov cocktails down from above.
A later attempt was foiled when one of Michael’s petrol bombs started a fire on the invaders’ boat. His sister Penny, who was three years older, was also on hand to brandish weapons at any aggressor trying to land on what had now become the self-styled Principality of Sealand.
“One of the guns we had was taken from a German soldier my dad shot while he was fighting in Italy,” says Michael.
“The other was a 9mm Beretta Dad brought back from the war.”
There is a famous picture of Penny brandishing the weapons on Sealand, sending a clear signal to anyone else thinking of muscling in. Force would be met with force.
Sealand’s first rulers, ex-soldier Roy Bates and his wife Joan
Other weapons in the Bates’ arsenal included a flamethrower and shotguns. Old gas canisters were strategically placed to drop on unwelcome vessels arriving with the intention of scaling the dangling rope ladder, the only way to get to the platform.
The defiance of 6ft 3in “hard as nails” Roy Bates was drawn to the attention of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who instructed the armed forces to switfly reclaim the fort.
But when Royal Marines arrived, Michael and his mother armed themselves with weapons and made it clear they would not leave without a fight. Rather than risk bloodshed, the Marines beat a retreat.
On another occasion, when the crew of a navigational installation boat came a bit too close and made cheeky remarks to a sunbathing Penny, then 19, Michael fired a couple of warning shots across their bow.
However, by then Penny was tired of holding the fort and wanted a more normal life back in Southend.
“My father was very demanding,” admits Michael. “I don’t blame my sister for not sticking with it. It was a strange kind of upbringing for sure.”
Inside the former fort
Penny told Dylan Taylor-Lehman, author of the new book, that life as a Princess was not all it was cracked up to be. Just getting to the principality was gruelling.
“It was hours and hours on the boat going chug, chug, chug. I used to sit there in a blanket and think, ‘For God’s sake will someone kill me please’. It was horrible, horrible.”
While Michael kept himself busy securing defences and fishing for lobsters over the side, Penny survived on rationed tin food and biscuits made from flour and distilled sea water. When the water tanks ran dry, they had to rely on rainfall.
In the late Sixties and Seventies, Sealand stamps, passports and coinage were produced to satisfy the curiosity of an increasing number of people.
There were also plans to go into business with some Germans who wanted to build a casino, a heliport and duty-free shops.
But while Roy and Joan were discussing the options in Salzburg, the crafty Germans teamed up with some Dutch allies and staged a coup. “I was on Sealand when I heard a helicopter approaching,” Michael recalls. “We had a big mast to stop helicopters landing but they came down on a winch and said my father had signed a contract with them to sign the fort over to them.
“I knew my dad would never do that. I kept tellimg them I needed to speak to my father. I was armed but I didn’t really know what to do.”
The principality’s passports
By now, effectively kidnapped, Michael was locked up in a room for several days. When he was finally let out there was a physical fight.
“They tied my ankles together and my wrists and I heard one say they were thinking of throwing me over the side.”
He was forced off the platform and despatched back to land. But after regrouping with his father and friends, they vowed to take back Sealand and, appropriately, employed a helicopter pilot who had worked on James Bond films to assist them.
“When we took the fort back it was the biggest adrenaline rush in my life,” Michael says. “Sliding down a rope with a shotgun around your neck is very exciting.”
After he fired one shot in the air, order was restored and Sealand was back in the hands of the Prince of Sealand, Roy Bates, who died peacefully in 2012, aged 91.
After the death of his mother Joan in 2016, Sealand was pretty much run by Prince Michael, although Penny, now 70, takes a close interest. Michael’s grown-up sons Liam and James spend time on Sealand, along with caretakers to deter potential invaders.
Sealand: The True Story Of The World’s Most Stubborn Micronation is published on Thursday
Through the Sealand website, knighthoods can be purchased for £99.99 and dukedoms for £499. England cricketer Ben Stokes was given an honorary lordship, along with the singer Ed Sheeran. Founder Roy has become a revered figure among Sealand supporters who see him as a patriotic ex-serviceman who fearlessly realised his swashbuckling dream to create his own kingdom, complete with its own black, white and red flag.
When a journalist once asked him why he took over the fort, Roy replied: “I’ve asked myself that question many times and I’m damned if I know the answer. But it was a challenge, and I can’t resist a challenge.”
Michael spends most of his time in Southend with his Chinese wife Mei, who served in the Chinese army. Last year he faced the rather more pleasurable challenge of judging a beauty pageant in China, just one of the many perks of being a Prince.
“Life is a lot quieter now but we’ll never give up Sealand. You never know what will happen but we’re ready for anything,” he says with a laugh. If the movie version of Sealand is made, the scriptwriters certainly won’t be short of material.
Sealand: The True Story Of The World’s Most Stubborn Micronation by Dylan Taylor-Lehman (Icon Books, £16.99) is published on Thursday. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via www.expressbookshop.co.uk