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Britain’s biggest warship has sailed for Norway to lead an international task group in one of the most important military exercises in a generation.

In just seven days, the Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier ship’s company made rapid preparations to be ready to lead the Royal Navy’s involvement in the largest NATO exercise since the Cold War – Steadfast Defender.

The ability to rapidly deploy another carrier to an urgent task underlines the importance of having two aircraft carriers, providing flexibility and the ability to project power around the world.

The crews of both ships and dockyard staff have worked around the clock to prepare HMS Prince of Wales to sail with everything she needs.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said: “I would like to congratulate the crew of HMS Prince of Wales for their hard work and dedication in rapidly preparing the ship for departure. 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.”

“I am immensely proud of how my ship’s company and their families have responded to this short-notice tasking,” said Captain Will Blackett, HMS Prince of Wales’ Commanding Officer. “We have managed to bring the ship from 30 days’ notice to immediate readiness in just one week.

“This has been a monumental effort by the whole enterprise, including HMS Queen Elizabeth, Portsmouth Naval Base, and our numerous defence and industry partners. HMS Prince of Wales is now ready to go; we are all looking forward to delivering the mission.”

The carrier’s Logistics Officer, Lieutenant Commander Chris Barnett, added: “In less than a week we have brought onboard approximately 70,000 sailors days rations – £400,000 of food – with 450 pallets of stores and 30,000 toilet rolls; not to mention spare parts for F-35 Lightnings, Merlin and Wildcat helicopters, cold weather kit, and medical stores. It has been an amazing effort from all involved.”

HMS Prince of Wales is taking the place of her sister, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is unable to participate due to an issue with her propeller shaft coupling.

The aircraft carrier will be at the heart of combined exercises involving the alliance forces, Steadfast Defender – a huge demonstration of NATO’s resolve, unity and capability involving more than 20,000 UK military personnel alone deployed across Scandinavia and northern Europe.

HMS Prince of Wales will lead a carrier strike group of eight ships – four of them British, including frigate HMS Somerset and two Tide-class tankers from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary – supported by US, Spanish and Danish vessels.

They form one of the most potent naval forces of the exercise – an allied fleet of 40 vessels, drawn from more than two dozen nations, committed to the seagoing element of Steadfast Defender, which will take place off Norway’s Arctic coast from late February into March.

The carrier brings the capability of her F-35B Lightning stealth fighters from 617 ‘Dambusters’ Squadron at RAF Marham, submarine hunting and airborne early warning Merlin Mk2 helicopters from RNAS Culdrose, and battlefield Wildcat helicopters of 847 Naval Air Squadron from RNAS Yeovilton.

Before heading for Norwegian waters, HMS Prince of Wales is conducting a week’s training in the North Sea with her air group to hone the skills of the 780-strong ship’s company – plus nearly 600 men and women embarked with the F-35s and helicopters.

“I cannot emphasise enough how much hard work has been required over the last week to put us in the position we are now in with an ability to sail HMS Prince of Wales as part of my Carrier Strike Group,” said Commodore James Blackmore, Commander UK Carrier Strike Group, in overall charge of the ship, her air power and escorts.

“My admiration and thanks extend not only to the sailors onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, but also their families, and our contractor partners ashore and the wider team at HMNB Portsmouth that have worked so diligently over the past week.

“That myself and my battlestaff are now afloat in an aircraft carrier that was preparing for a substantial maintenance package just seven days ago is a remarkable achievement and a tribute to the professionalism, commitment, and good humour of all involved.”

Once the work-up is complete, the Prince of Wales task group will move to the High North and Exercise Nordic Response – the maritime element of Steadfast Defender – with the emphasis on protecting northern Norway, Sweden and Finland to defend the Nordic nations from ‘attack’.

Commodore Blackmore added: “We all now turn our eyes fully to Steadfast Defender as we prepare to join up with other NATO ships and embark the aircraft, including Lightning F-35B, Merlin and Wildcat helicopters, that make a carrier strike group such a potent and unique military capability.

“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.”

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