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Sailors share proud memories of serving with the King

3 May 2023
A fine leader filled with humanity, humour and a keen sense of duty.

That’s the verdict of sailors who served with the King during his five action-packed years in the Royal Navy.

On the eve of the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III, those who served with the then (Sub) Lieutenant Wales have shared their memories – and their hopes for him as our monarch.

The King served in the Royal Navy between 1971 and 1976 – you can find a round-up of his naval career here – rising from rookie sub-lieutenant fresh out of Britannia to command of a minesweeper.

In between he tried his hand at submarine escape, qualified as a helicopter pilot, took on some of the Royal Marines’ commando training and earned his spurs as a ship handler.

Prince Charles’ first ship upon completing his training at Dartmouth was guided-missile destroyer HMS Norfolk, the very embodiment of the ‘white heat of technology’ of Britain in the mid-to-late 1960s.

Once at sea, it was Sub Lieutenant Wales’ task to learn about life aboard and understand the roles of sailors in Norfolk’s many departments.

That included, says junior artificer Bob Brown, “a fascinating lecture on boiler water testing during which Prince Charles kept us in stitches with a string of jokes.”

Leading Writer Roger May reintroduced Charles to the complex admin side of running a 6,000-tonne cutting-edge warship and upwards of 500 sailors, such as sorting out pay, travel arrangements, local currencies when visiting foreign ports.

Ports like Toulon on the French Mediterranean coast where memories of the prince’s Aston Martin understandably stand out – he gave more than one shipmate a lift around the sprawling naval base.

Other were impressed by Prince Charles’ seafaring abilities. Former clearance diver Petty Officer John Friar served in seven ships, five of them small Ton-class minesweepers, including HMS Bronington which the future monarch commanded for most of 1976.

Lieutenant Wales was “without doubt, the best ship handler by far. Believe me, if he had been rubbish, I would say so. 

“He was not a good sailor in that he got very seasick, but then again, so did Nelson.”

Bronington’s second-in-command – and therefore Prince Charles’ right-hand man – was Lieutenant Roy Clare, the future captain of HMS Invincible and rear admiral, who describes Lieutenant Wales as “a model of leadership”.

He continues: “He was apt to go around the ship, talk to people, hear their stories, share moments with them – as a good commanding officer should.

“He was a good leader, really good at understanding that it’s not about ‘top down and telling’, but listening, helping people to be the strongest they can.”

It was unbelievable! I got to meet all the Royal Family, sat and had a drink with Lord Mountbatten and listened to his sea stories. It doesn’t get better than that. Memories to last a lifetime.

John Friar

John Friar believes the future monarch’s time in the Navy broadened his horizons and “gave him a view of the other side of life which he had never seen close-up.

“He was very approachable and had time for his crew. He seemed fascinated at times with the crew as I suppose it was the first time he had been confined as he was on a small vessel in close contact with some ‘shady characters’! It certainly wasn’t a chosen crew and we had our fair share of misbehaving.”

Prince Charles left HMS Bronington at the end of 1976, which brought down the curtain on his active naval career.

The ship, her men and the Service all left their mark.

“The Navy’s influence on everyone who has ever served in it is long lasting and profound,” Admiral Clare said.

In the years since, Prince Charles has joined shipmates at reunions, including hosting one for Bronington shipmates at Clarence House about a decade ago.

Afterwards, the former sailors decamped to a nearby hostelry to continue reliving good times… and were joined by their former skipper, who cancelled his next engagement… much to the consternation of his staff.

“Was their pride at serving with Prince Charles?” says John. “It was unbelievable! I got to meet all the Royal Family, sat and had a drink with Lord Mountbatten and listened to his sea stories. It doesn’t get better than that. Memories to last a lifetime.

“He seems to be going from strength to strength and be a monarch for everyone. So I will raise a glass to him and the Queen on Coronation Day.”

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