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HMS Prince of Wales – the magnificent backdrop for two Atlantic Charters

Boris Johnson and Joe Biden on the beach in Cornwall with HMS Prince of Wales on the horizon
10 June 2021
The new Atlantic Charter – signed within sight of new aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales – echoes the original agreement 80 years ago.

Then, as now, Britain’s Prime Minister and America’s President agreed to work together to help forge a fairer, freer, better world.

HMS Prince of Wales sailed in waters off Carbis Bay in Cornwall – where Prime Minister Johnson and President Biden agreed a 21st-Century revised charter to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow

The Portsmouth-based warship is in the middle of aviation trials, including her first training with F-35 Lightning stealth fighters earlier this week.

In the summer of 1941, her namesake was instrumental in ensuring the original landmark document – actually a joint declaration of principles by Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt rather than an agreement or treaty.

Then brand-new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, recently repaired after being badly damaged in battle with Hitler’s flagship Bismarck off Iceland at the end of May 1941, carried the British premier and his staff to the key conference.

It took four-and-a-half days for the warship to reach Placentia Bay in Newfoundland as she battled heavy seas which forced her to leave her escorting destroyers behind, following a route which kept her away from known U-boat concentrations – thanks to codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

They hope to see established a peace which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want

Atlantic Charter, Point 6

Churchill and his staff used the time to prepare for the conference and found the US president and his staff waiting for them in Placentia Bay aboard the cruiser USS Augusta with a protective umbrella of aircraft overhead and destroyers on the water.

Having spent the entire crossing on the bridge to ensure a safe passage, the battleship’s Commanding Officer, Captain John Leach, came down to the quarterdeck to watch Churchill and Roosevelt exchange greetings from their two ships. After the exertions of the crossing, a journalist observed Leach had “tired blue eyes, and a weary, but contented smile.”

The discussions between the two leaders touched on the war in Europe and the looming war in the Far East, but most of the talks focused on the post-world war and creating a better future for all.

Agreed by the British Cabinet in the small hours of August 11 1941 and by the two leaders themselves the following day, the ‘charter’ (Churchill used the term later in Parliament) was never signed.

With rather nebulous aims and objectives, and with Britain’s fortunes at a pretty low ebb in the summer of 1941, the charter did not have a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of ordinary Britons initially.

But it cemented the bond between Britain and the US and shaped – and continues to shape – the post-WW2 world… and post-WW2 UK, pledging an end to colonial rule and self-determination for nations, a lessening of trade barriers and increased global economic cooperation, freedom of the seas, improved social welfare.

In doing so the declaration laid down the foundations of the new world order after 1945: the end of the British Empire, much of the Welfare State, NATO, the United Nations and GATT trade agreements between nations.

HMS Prince of Wales would play no role in that new world, sadly. She was sunk by the Japanese in December 1941 with HMS Repulse with the loss of more than 800 lives, including Capt Leach.

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