The nation’s last ‘Harrier carrier’ today bowed out of service after 32 years at an emotionally-charged ceremony in Portsmouth.
The White Ensign was lowered for the last time as sailors, former crew, ex-commanding officers and VIPs bade farewell to HMS Illustrious.
Pictures: LA(Phots) Alex Knott and Nicky Wilson
WITH the roar of Sea King and Merlin engines almost drowning out the strains of Sunset, the White Ensign was lowered aboard HMS Illustrious and the age of the ‘Harrier carrier’ came to an end.
Some 300 friends and family, plus many of her former commanding officers watched several hundred members of the ship’s company formed up in divisions in the carrier’s shadow for the hour-long decommissioning ceremony.
The service in Portsmouth on a rather sullen late summer’s morning – attended by local, national and international media – was the last act in a 32-year-career.
The ship’s friend Lady Chatto was guest of honour, inspecting the guard of honour, while several previous COs inspected the other divisions and the HM Band of the Royal Marines Collingwood, who provided suitable nautical music throughout proceedings.
Chaplain Fr David Conroy told all present that Illustrious and those who served in her had given “32 years of faithful service to the nation at home and abroad. Friendships have been forged, careers built and this magnificent ship has been a faithful and trusted friend.”
For Capt Mike Utley, the last in a long line of Lusty’s commanding officers, he “always knew this day would come” and when it did, his ship and his ship’s company would go out heads held high.
“Illustrious has been much, much more than just steel, aircraft and clever technology. She’s been our home and the centre point of our lives and a focal point for our families, our Service, and our country.
“HMS Illustrious has a reputation for excellence and success. This is a wonderful ship and her legacy will stand us in good stead.”
It fell to ABs Vicky Hennessy and Charlie Dodds to perform the honours of lowering the Ensign for the last time.
Timed to perfection as they lowered the Navy’s standard was the fly past by Lynx and Wildcats, different variants of the Sea King, Merlins and an Apache gunship, directly over the ship.
Neatly folded, the final ensign was presented by the carrier’s most senior rating Executive Warrant Officer Ian Wilson to hand to Capt Utley as a keepsake.
And thus did the Illustrious story come to an end.
It is one which has figured large in the lives of Cliff and Thomas Hardcastle.
Cliff joined Lusty in build on the Tyne – the first of two drafts to the ship – while his son has been assigned to her three times in his career as a leading airman looking after fliers’ safety and survival equipment. As a baby, he was also christened aboard; his name is carved in one of Illustrious’ bells.
“For me decommissioning is obviously poignant and a sad occasion. I’ve always had Illustrious in my heart,” said Cliff.
“I joined her when she was brand new, which was an experience as an 18-year-old – the banks of the Tyne were lined with people to see her off, even though the fighting in the Falklands had just ended. And now my son is there on Illustrious’ final day in the Navy. There can’t be too many people with connections with the commissioning and decommissioning.”
As a naval airman it was his job to marshal Sea Harriers and helicopters safely around Illustrious’ flight deck. “It was a great job. Working outside on the flight deck was just what I wanted.
Above all, you never forget the comradeship. You worked with guys you’d never met before and after two weeks you the best of friends.”
His fondness for the ship is shared by his son.
“I’m sad to see her going because she’s a fantastic ship. I’ve served on her three times, my father served on her twice,” the leading hand said.
“So I have spent a lot of hours on board and have a lot of memories. That’s what you miss – the crew you’ve served with, the friends you make.
“Illustrious has had a good career and I’m proud to have served on her.”
The act of decommissioning will now be followed by the dispersal of the ship’s company throughout the RN (some to her successor, HMS Queen Elizabeth), while useful/sensitive equipment is removed.
The last sailors will leave the ship in December. A decision on her fate has yet to be made but Whitehall wants to see the ship preserved as a lasting tribute to all who served on the Invincibles.