History of HMS Prince of Wales

Seven previous ships have been named after the heir to the throne from a French privateer captured in the late 17th Century to a battleship with a brief but eventful career.

After a three-year dalliance with an armed merchantman in the 1750s, the first Prince of Wales built for the Royal Navy was a 74-gun battleship which was frequently engaged with the French in the 1770s.

Prince of Wales No.4 was a ‘budget’ battleship – possessing the firepower of a late 18th-Century battleship, but not as solidly built as vessels such as HMS Victory. These Boyne-class ships proved to be unpopular for their poor seakeeping, but it didn’t stop them being heavily committed.

In Prince of Wales’ case, she fought throughout the Napoleonic Wars, including the preliminaries to Trafalgar (but not the decisive battle itself).

The fifth Prince of Wales never entered active service, overtaken by technology. She was laid down as a traditional sailing battleship, converted into a steamship, but the same year she was launched, HMS Warrior was built, rendering all existing ships of the line obsolete. Instead, the Prince of Wales was converted to a training vessel for officer cadets in Dartmouth as HMS Britannia – the forerunner of today’s Britannia Royal Naval College overlooking the Devonshire town.

To the days of steel now and the sixth Prince of Wales, a pre-dreadnought battleship which served through the first half of World War 1, transporting Royal Marines to Belgium in the first weeks of the conflict before spending the next two years in the Mediterranean. She ended her days as an overflow accommodation ship in Portsmouth.

The seventh Prince of Wales was the second of the King George V battleships built to meet the growing global threat to peace in the mid-30s. She was still being tested in May 1941 when she was dispatched with HMS Hood to intercept the German battleship Bismarck. The Hood was blown up by her German quarry, while the Prince of Wales suffered heavy damage to her bridge in particular. Despite numerous mechanical problems with her turrets, the battleship scored hits on the Bismarck which forced her to cut short her sortie.

Prince of Wales returned to port for repairs while the rest of the Home Fleet hunted down and sank Hitler’s flagship. Once repaired Prince of Wales took Churchill to Newfoundland for an historic meeting with President Roosevelt, then she was ordered to the Mediterranean to support the Malta convoys.

Finally she was sent to the Far East, flagship of Force Z, intended to safeguard Singapore and deter Japanese aggression in the region. The Japanese attacked anyway and when Prince of Wales and the battle-cruiser Repulse sailed to intercept a reported enemy force, they were pounced upon by Japanese bombers while returning to Singapore.

Both British ships were sunk in around two hours, with the loss of over 800 lives.