HMS Illustrious returns to Portsmouth for final time

HMS Illustrious was welcomed back in style today (July 22) as she returned home to Portsmouth for the last time.

The Navy’s helicopter and commando carrier, which has clocked up 900,000 miles on operations throughout the world during her 32-year career, is being withdrawn from service and will be decommissioned later this year. 

A flypast comprising Apache, Merlin, Lynx and Sea King helicopters flew over the ship as she entered Portsmouth Harbour and dozens of families lined the jetty to cheer home the veteran carrier.

Bringing the ship into her home port for the last time was a poignant moment but the welcome we received was tremendous.

Captain Mike Utley, last Commanding Officer of HMS Illustrious

Illustrious is succeeded by HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy’s larger, younger and more capable helicopter carrier which has just returned to service following a £65 million refit. The Ministry of Defence has invited tenders from private companies, charities and trusts to secure HMS Illustrious’ future. 

The second of the Navy’s three Invincible-class aircraft carriers, Illustrious was built by Swan Hunter shipbuilders on the Tyne and launched by Princess Margaret in December 1978.   Work to complete the 22,000-tonne ship was speeded up during 1982 after the outbreak of the Falklands War. Although the conflict ended before work was finished, Illustrious rapidly deployed and played an important role in the aftermath. So quickly was she deployed, her commissioning ceremony took place at sea en route to the Falklands on June 20 1982. 

During the 1990s Illustrious helped maintain the no-fly zone over Bosnia and in 1998 operated in the Arabian Gulf carrying out similar roles over southern Iraq. She was soon called into action again in 2000, leading a task group aimed at restoring peace and stability to Sierra Leone. The following year she played an important part in the war on terror in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks in America, staying in the region for several months. 

In 2006, along with Type 42 destroyer HMS Gloucester, Illustrious helped in the evacuation of British citizens from Beirut caught up in the Israel-Lebanon crisis. She hit the television screens in 2008 as the star of Channel 5’s six-part documentary Warship which followed her deployment to the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East and south-east Asia for a series of exercises and diplomatic visits to 20 ports. 

And she made headlines around the world last year when she was diverted to assist with disaster relief operations in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. 

Captain Mike Utley, the ship’s 18th and last Commanding Officer, said: “Bringing the ship into her home port for the last time was a poignant moment but the welcome we received was tremendous. I’m extremely proud of what the ship has achieved and about what my team has achieved.  

"I have mixed feelings but all with a complete optimism for the future given what the navy has got coming, Ocean is back out after an extensive refit and we were at HMS Queen Elizabeth's naming just a few weeks ago." 

Warrant Officer Steve Barr was serving on board Illustrious when it was commissioned on its way to the Falklands.  "I've got mixed emotions, it's sad but tinged with the fact that it's retiring and I'm retiring next year so I'm happy to spend more time with my family.  

"Also this is the old technology and the new ships are coming in."