The Epic War For Sealand: The World's Realest Fake Country
We all love a good loophole, to the point that the average person reacts to finding a coupon with no “one per purchase” disclaimer, much like Genghis Khan seeing an enemy host break before his horsemen. But what if you could find a loophole so good that it effectively lets you start your own country, free from the rule of law? Well, that’s happened exactly once in modern memory, and oh boy, did it get weird.
Vril Seekers, Nazi Submarines, And The Worst Writer Of The 1870s
In October 1998, German police stormed a disused chicken farm in Brandenberg. They were followed by scientists armed with Geiger counters, who swept over the property, searching for nuclear or chemical weapons. Meanwhile, the farm’s owner, who had been dragged away with a hood over his head, claimed diplomatic immunity and ordered the arresting officers to “report immediately to…the UN, so that your transport to a suitable war crimes prison can be arranged.” He eventually explained that he was Johannes Seiger, prime minister of the Principality of Sealand, and that he alone possessed the mighty power of Vril, a mystical technology destined to change the world.
Vril was invented by the Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who is best remembered for the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night,” a line considered so cliche that there’s a popular contest to come up with an even worse opening sentence for a book. In 1871, Bulwer-Lytton published Vril, The Power Of The Coming Race, a novel about a subterranean race of enlightened Aryan superbeings with a powerful energy source known as Vril. Despite being a made-up concept from a terrible novel, a number of spiritualists came to believe in the existence of Vril, most notably the Thule Society, a German occult group that played an important role in the early history of the Nazi party. Basically, imagine if the bad guys in the first Hellboy movie got all their mystical ideas from Harry Potter.
According to Seiger, the Nazi leadership faked their own deaths at the end of the war and fled to Antarctica in a fleet of high-tech submarines. There they discovered the underground superbeings from the novel, who entrusted them with the secrets of Vril. They later passed the information to Seiger, who claimed Vril would provide a clean energy source capable of powering the entire world. He added that German police had no authority to arrest the prime minister of another country and demanded they release him immediately so he could continue with his work.
This was all deeply mystifying to the poor cops, who had been summoned after Seiger sent a series of threatening letters implying he was in possession of radioactive material and chemical weapons. They were even more surprised to learn that Sealand appeared to be a real place. But just where was this mysterious country, and how did it get mixed up with a German lunatic and his imaginary Nazi superweapons?
The Rise Of The Radio Pirates And The Deadly Battle For Shivering Sands
Shoeburyness is a small town in southeast England. It’s well known for its beach, where you can curl up in a sort of defensive ball and Google flights to Barbados while the wind whips Dutch coins at you from across the Channel. But if you go on a clear day and squint out to the sea, you might be able to make out a series of strange concrete structures rising on bird-like legs from the waters. These are the remains of Shivering Sands, a WWII-era sea fort built to defend Britain’s coastline from Hitler’s war machine. As it turned out, the fort was attacked only once -- in 1966, when a gang of hired toughs scrambled aboard and attacked the illegal radio station that had been secretly operating out of the rusting stronghold.
As dawn broke, word of the daring raid reached the station’s owner, a music promoter and occasional club DJ named Reginald Calvert (this being the era when “it’s DJ Reginald!” was not taken as a signal to mob the nearest fire escape). Calvert had made his fortune managing Screaming Lord Sutch, a horror-themed pop star who later became famous for repeatedly running for parliament. But he soon saw an even more lucrative opportunity in the emerging field of pirate radio. Back in the ‘60s, the BBC had an official monopoly on UK radio, subjecting listeners to an inhumane diet of light opera and patriotic banjo music. As a result, illegal “pirate” stations began transmitting rock and roll from ships off the British coast. Calvert realized that the old sea forts would be the perfect base for a pirate station and established Radio City on the Shivering Sands in 1964.
But like any lucrative criminal activity, pirate radio soon fell prey to violent turf wars. When goons attacked Shivering Sands and destroyed a transmitter, Calvert knew exactly who to blame: Oliver Smedley, the founder of Radio Atlanta. In a rage, he drove to his rival’s house, where he became locked in an undignified shoving match with the housekeeper before Smedley produced a gun and shot him dead. A jury subsequently found Smedley not guilty on self-defense grounds (the brief unsolved kidnapping of a key witness also helped). The case became a media sensation, and serious questions were asked in parliament about reining in the radio pirates. Which was terrible news for a pirate named Roy Bates, who had recently seized control of a sea fort from Radio Caroline, sparking a small-scale ocean war between the two stations.
Bates had originally founded his Radio Essex station on a fort named Knock John but later dislodged Radio Caroline from the Roughs Tower fort, which was further offshore and away from the authorities. Radio Caroline responded by launching a number of boat-based attacks on the fort, which Roy and his teenage son Michael fought off with Molotov cocktails. At one point, a Radio Caroline guy was abandoned when his comrades retreated, leaving him dangling from a ladder high above the ocean for several hours. After Calvert was killed, the British government became determined to get Bates off the fort before his own feud turned equally deadly. Under extreme legal pressure, Bates decided to double down -- by declaring independence from the United Kingdom.
The Great Sealander-British War Of 1967-68
Like many of the sea forts, Roughs Tower was more than three miles from the British coast, which meant it was technically outside of British legal jurisdiction. In 1967, the Bates family declared the fort to be the independent nation of Sealand, as ruled by Grand Prince Roy, his wife Queen Joan, and their son Prince Michael. Meanwhile, the British government had become determined to put a stop to their high-seas shenanigans by evicting the family and destroying Roughs Tower once and for all. The stage was set for the great Sealander-British War of 1967-68.
Now, obviously, this was going to be an asymmetric war. Sealand’s arsenal consisted of several pistols, an air rifle, homemade Molotov cocktails, and a teenage boy (Prince Michael having been pulled out of school to help defend the kingdom). Meanwhile, Britain’s own resources included 147 warships, almost 90,000 sailors, and several dozen Yellow Sun thermonuclear warheads. Frankly, it looked like being the most one-sided military campaign since the time the Allies accidentally dispatched 34,000 troops to assault a completely empty island (taking a mere 300 casualties in the process). But the Bates family were determined to hold out, and Royal Navy vessels passing too close to Sealand soon found themselves under fire from the fortress.
Now as it turned out, firing a .22 pistol at an armored minesweeper from several hundred feet away did not do any noticeable damage, but the Navy was outraged all the same. However, the government felt that raiding the fort might cause bad publicity. Instead, they simply waited until Roy Bates came ashore to do the weekly food shopping, at which point they arrested him. And honestly, if all wars could be ended by luring the opposing general into a Tesco and tackling him into a biscuit display, then what a happy world this would be.
But then an incredible twist took place. When Bates appeared in court on various firearms charges, the judge ruled that since Sealand technically lay outside of British waters, then British laws didn’t apply there, even if the inhabitants were all British citizens who actually lived in Essex most of the week. Bates walked free, boasting to the newspapers that the decision had officially recognized the independence of Sealand. Meanwhile, the British government was tired of dealing with the issue and decided to just quietly ignore it from then on. Against all the odds, the Sealanders had won. They were now free to run their country as they pleased.
Aquatic Golf Courses, Sinister Professors, And A Suitcase Of Deutschmarks
Unfortunately for the Sealanders, the question quickly arose as to what one actually does with a decaying old fortress lodged in the bit of ocean where the color blue goes to die. The radio piracy market had entered a major slump in 1967 when someone at the BBC actually listened to rock music and announced, “Hey, this electric soundwave’s the gold beans, daddio!” (Disclaimer: We do not know how people in the ‘60s actually talked.) The BBC promptly set up a new pop music station and lured away all the best pirate DJs with promises of better pay and less scurvy. In the face of this competition, Bates was forced to shut down Radio Essex for good, leaving him with no way to actually make money from Sealand.
The Sealanders spent the rest of the ‘60s bombarding various foreign embassies with requests for diplomatic recognition, all of which were thrown directly into the burning garbage can labeled “insane people, do not reply” that embassies keep for such occasions. They also vaguely promoted plans to turn the fort into a tourist hotspot, even though “come visit my rusting ocean stronghold beyond the reach of the law” tends to attract only tourists with brand new life insurance policies and a significant other who suddenly seems very interested in coffin brochures. As the ‘70s rolled around, the Sealanders found themselves at something of a loose end. And that’s when the Germans arrived.
Nobody seems to really know who Professor Alexander Achenbach was or what he was supposed to be a professor of, although he was billing himself as a diamond dealer in the early ‘70s when he made contact with Prince Roy. Professor Achenbach claimed to represent a German consortium interested in helping develop Sealand. It’s not clear who his backers were, or if he even had any, but the Germans certainly brought a new vigor to Sealand, producing glossy brochures promising a multi-million dollar expansion of the platform to include a hotel, casino, and even a golf course. And while the Bates family had been content to spam world governments with letters demanding recognition, the Germans took to actually showing up at the embassies of impoverished countries, brandishing a suitcase full of cash and promising “investment” in return for establishing diplomatic ties.
The Bates clan was extremely impressed and quickly made Achenbach Sealand’s prime minister because when you meet a mysterious stranger with a sinister aura, the first thing you want to say is, “Will you be my grand vizier, please?” As you won’t be surprised to learn, Achenbach had his own plans for the principality, and he had no intention of letting the royal family stand in his way. In 1978, the professor lured Prince Roy and Queen Joan to Salzburg to discuss plans to sell Sealand. Meanwhile, a helicopter took off from the Netherlands and headed towards Sealand, where only Michael Bates remained to guard the fort.
Aerial Attacks, Dutch Mercenaries, And The Sealand Civil War
In August 1978, Prince Michael was surprised by the arrival of a helicopter containing Achenbach’s lawyer and a group of Dutch mercenaries, who held him prisoner inside the fort for two days before dumping him on a passing boat to Rotterdam. He later returned to Essex to meet up with his parents. They were not particularly sympathetic, with Queen Joan accusing him of “throwing our life’s work away” by not defeating the intruders in some kind of high seas kung-fu super battle. But Prince Roy knew that there was no time for Noah Baumbach-style family drama when Michael Bay-style action was called for. If the prime minister was trying to stage a coup, then the royals would have to fight back.
Fortunately, the family was friends with a professional stuntman who had flown helicopters for the James Bond films. He agreed to pilot a daring aerial raid to retake control of Sealand. Meanwhile, the Bates clan rounded up a gang of burly fishermen armed with shotguns and set out for the fort. In keeping with military tactics, the chopper approached under cover of darkness, using heavy seas to mask the sound of its approach. As dawn broke, Prince Roy rappelled a hundred feet onto the fort, gun in hand. He was followed by Michael, who unfortunately fell as he hit the deck, causing his shotgun to go off and almost hit his father in the back, which almost never happens to James Bond.
Alarmed by these trigger-happy intruders, the mercenaries promptly surrendered and were locked inside the fort, where they were forced to do the dishes for several weeks until a very confused German diplomat arrived to negotiate their release. The Bates family had regained control of their kingdom -- or so it seemed.
Dream Warfare, Versace’s Murder, And Sealand’s Hijacking By Organized Crime
By the early ‘90s, there was a booming global trade in fake passports. Some cases were fairly straightforward, like the time the top US immigration official in Honduras turned out to have been using his position to sell phony passports to criminals in Hong Kong. But there were also stranger groups like the Sovereign Dominion of Melchizedek, which was supposedly an independent country controlling a Pacific atoll, a Caribbean island, and 16,000 square miles of Antarctica (where it was run by one “Harvey Penguini”). The Dominion was, in reality, the brainchild of a con artist known as Branch Vinedresser, who used it to sell fake passports to thousands of impoverished Asian migrant workers, who were told they could be used for visa-free travel to a better life in the US.
The US authorities eventually moved to shut the Melchizedekers down, prompting the Dominion’s president to inform a startled attorney-general that “I will do metaphysical battle with you in your dream state. And if you interpret your dreams correctly, you will know that I am the victor.” But numerous other fake countries soon popped up to take its place. Fortunately, Sealand had too much integrity to get involved in such shady activities. Or at least that’s what the Bates family thought until 1997, when the fashion designer Gianni Versace was shot dead in Miami. Versace’s killer was the serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who was found with a Sealand passport when he committed suicide a week later. This mystified the royal family, who knew they had issued no such passport. To find the answer, they would have to venture to a dark and dangerous place -- the Internet.
Now, the Bates clan were not the most tech-savvy. In the late ‘90s, Sealand’s official website was www.fruitsofthesea.demon.co.uk/sealand, which gave us 19 different computer viruses just from typing out the URL. But when they tried typing “Sealand” into Mr. Fancy’s Askatorium or whatever search engine people used in the ‘90s, they discovered a much more accessible page claiming to be Sealand’s official site and offering passports for sale to the highest bidder. And further investigation revealed that the site was linked to the same group of Germans who had tried to seize control of Sealand in the ‘70s.
As it turned out, Professor Achenbach had refused to accept defeat after the royal family recaptured Sealand. Instead, he set up the Sealand government-in-exile, claiming to be the rightful ruler of the principality. The government-in-exile quickly moved into the fake passports business, as well as bank fraud and a truly bizarre attempt to buy former Soviet weaponry from the Russian Mafia and smuggle it to Sudanese militias. By the ‘90s, the trade of Sealand documents had become a major international crime ring, raking in millions of dollars by selling fake passports and diplomas for $1000 each. Since Sealand itself had never been recognized by any other nation, the authorities now found themselves with the difficult task of prosecuting the sale of fake passports from a country that was, itself, fake.
Nazi Gold, Black Helicopters, And The Dark Secrets Of Spanish Bingo
Meanwhile, the government-in-exile was meandering into some strange areas. They became associated with Helmut Gaensel, a former Czech government official who spent decades hunting for the fabled treasure of Stechovice, a hoard of Nazi gold supposedly buried in the Czech countryside as the Red Army closed in at the end of the war. Gaensel claimed to have been given a secret map to the treasure by the Nazi colonel who oversaw the burial. After the Cold War ended, Gaensel began conducting major digging operations in a failed attempt to find the treasure. At the same time, he was working with Achenbach to establish Caribbean shell companies for the Sealand government-in-exile, although what role they played in his treasure hunt remains unclear.
After Achenbach died, control of the German Sealand passed to Johannes Seiger, who took the government-in-exile in the direction of even more Nazi-adjacent conspiracy theories. They began selling “Vril generators,” small devices that promised to use the secrets of cosmic Vril power to provide nearly unlimited energy. Their website began filling up with photos of UFOs and shaky footage of mysterious black helicopters. After Seiger sent a letter demanding that the city of Berlin be cleared for “security reasons” and strongly implying that he had access to nuclear weapons, the German police swooped down on his farm, where he was stockpiling surplus Soviet military hardware.
Meanwhile, the Sealand passport racket continued unabated until 2000, when Spanish police swooped on a bingo hall in Madrid that turned out to be the headquarters of the whole operation, as though the scam wasn’t evil enough without bringing bingo’s good name into disrepute. Naturally, everyone involved tried to claim diplomatic immunity because, “My fake passport says you can’t arrest me for making fake passports,” is an ironclad legal argument. Although the remains of the government-in-exile continue to make the occasional post about Vril, they’ve been out of the passport game for good since then.
This was all to the relief of the Bates family, who were fine with a little radio piracy and the occasional gunfight with the Royal Navy -- the country was cited for shooting at passing warships as recently as 1990 -- but drew the line at anything more than that. In fact, a later attempt to use Sealand as an offshore data haven fell apart after the family realized it would involve copyright infringement and thus jeopardize Sealand’s standing as a “responsible member of the world community.”
In reality, the legal loophole that made Sealand unique vanished in 1987, when Britain expanded its territorial waters from three nautical miles to twelve. Since then, Sealand has officially been within British waters and technically subject to British law. The Sealanders have resolutely ignored this, insisting that the fort remains a sovereign state. Since they’re not really bothering anybody, nobody objects, much in the same way you might humor the guy down the street who claims his mancave is the Grand Duchy of Basementia. But for a while, Sealand was different from all the other micronations out there. The Bates family actually found a little slice of territory where they could make their own laws, and the occasional helicopter raid aside, they mostly used it to play rock music and hang out. If that’s not worth celebrating, then what is?