Warship HMS Prince of Wales departs for largest Nato exercise in 40 years

Family members and supporters cheered off the HMS Prince of Wales as it departed for the largest Nato maritime exercise in 40 years on Monday.

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier’s journey had been postponed at the last moment on Sunday as it was about to set sail to replace its sister ship which was forced to cancel its own deployment a week ago.

The fleet flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth had been expected to depart from Portsmouth Naval Base last Sunday to lead the largest Nato exercise since the Cold War, involving more than 40 vessels.

But the sailing of the £3 billion warship was called off at the last minute after an “issue” was found in final checks with the starboard propeller coupling.

Since the cancellation was announced, the crew and base workers have been preparing HMS Prince of Wales to take over HMS Queen Elizabeth’s role in Exercise Steadfast Defender off Norway.

HMS Prince of Wales
Crowds watch as the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales sets sail from Portsmouth Harbour on Monday (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Watching the HMS Prince of Wales leaving Portsmouth, parents Julie and Mark Benton were waving off their son Ethan on his first deployment.

Mr Benton said: “That’s a really proud moment for us. This is his first deployment, he joined when he was 17 and this is what he wanted to do from school. And here he is 19 years old and he’s living his dream and couldn’t be better.

“It’s a really big deal for him. A big deal for us as a family, and he’s following in his grandfather’s footsteps as well.

“We’re really, really proud of him.”

The family had travelled from Wrexham, north Wales, to see off their son who was “disappointed” when the departure was delayed from Sunday.

But Mr Benton added: “All the crew have worked ever so hard to get the ship ready in such a short space of time, that’s fantastic.”

Also in Portsmouth on Monday was mum-of-two Monika Holton who, with her eight-week-old baby and toddler, was waving off her husband who is the second navigator of the warship.

The 31-year-old said: “I’m pretty excited, pretty anxious. Life is a little bit stressed and hectic, he’s my lifeline and he’s going away for some time.

“I’m also very excited. It’s a big exercise for the ship, for the crew. I’m just excited for him.”

She said the one week’s notice before his deployment was “quite a shock to the system” but added that the delay to the ship’s departure meant the couple could enjoy an early Valentine’s Day dinner.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said on Sunday that the sailing had been postponed but did not give a reason for the last-minute change.

He said: “The aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is due to sail from Portsmouth soon, subject to suitable tide and weather conditions.”

HMS Prince of Wales
Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales setting sail from Portsmouth (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Earlier on Monday, security minister Tom Tugendhat said of the delay that it was “not acceptable that Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is sitting in dock when it should be out “defending our interests abroad”.

Asked what had happened to HMS Prince of Wales on Sunday, Mr Tugendhat told LBC: “I’m afraid it’s not something I can explain – that’s a matter for the MoD (Ministry of Defence), and I’m going to have to ask some questions about it.

“But I’m sure the First Sea Lord is looking at this right now. Admiral (Sir Ben) Key has commanded an aircraft carrier in the past and will no doubt be all over the details of this and making sure they set sail as soon as possible.

“It isn’t acceptable that we have such expensive and important items of kit sitting in dock when they should be out defending our interests abroad.”

Defence secretary Grant Shapps said it had been a “monumental effort” to get the ship immediately ready in just one week rather than with 30 days’ notice.

He said: “The ability to deploy hundreds of crew to make ready one of the world’s most complex aircraft carriers within a week is testament to the skill and ability of the Royal Navy.

“In an increasingly dangerous world, where it is more important than ever that we stand united with our allies, HMS Prince of Wales will send a powerful message of collective security and deterrence at the head of this multinational strike group.”

The carrier’s logistics officer, Lieutenant Commander Chris Barnett, said in less than a week the crew have brought on board approximately 70,000 sailor day rations, the equivalent of £400,000 of food, alongside 30,000 toilet rolls and spare parts, medical stores and more.

The HMS Prince of Wales will be at the centre of Nato exercises involving more than 20,000 UK military personnel.

The warship will lead a carrier strike group of eight ships, four of them British, supported by US, Spanish and Danish vessels.

Commodore James Blackmore, commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group, said: “The UK has an unwavering commitment to Nato and collective deterrence and defence of the Euro-Atlantic region.

“There is no better demonstration of that than HMS Prince of Wales being at the heart of the upcoming Nato maritime exercises, the largest in over 40 years.”