HMS Illustrious, the Royal Navy’s flagship, returned to her home port of Portsmouth on 22 July 2014, for the last time. Earlier that day she had handed over her duties as the RN’s helicopter carrier to HMS Ocean. Ocean was built as an amphibious assault ship, so for the first time (I believe) since 1918, the RN does not have a purpose-built aircraft carrier in commission. Of course, although Illustrious had been built for the Fleet Air Arm’s Sea Harrier jets, she had only carried helicopters since the SHARs were withdrawn and retired in 2010. Illustrious‘ fate was sealed in the same defence review that axed the Harriers and her sister, Ark Royal. A review was carried out as to whether Illustrious or Ocean would be retained in the long term, and the latter was chosen.
HMS Illustrious appearing above the horizon off Portsmouth as she returns home for the last time
Illustrious , or ‘Lusty’ as she is affectionately known, was the second of the three Invincible-class ‘Harrier carriers’ designed around the Hawker-Siddeley Sea Harrier fleet defence and ground attack fighter. The class was intended primarily as an anti-submarine warfare platform with some capability for fleet defence and strike. While the ships and their air groups were a compromise, conflicts such as the Falklands and Kosovo proved them to be more effective and useful than had been hoped.
When the Falklands conflict erupted, Illustrious was still under construction at the Swan Hunter shipyard. Her completion was brought forward three months and she commissioned at sea en route to Portsmouth, before sailing to the South Atlantic to relieve her sister HMS Invincible, two months after Argentinian forces surrendered.
Illustrious approaching Portsmouth harbour, escorted by tugs spraying water in salute
HMS Illustrious is a name now firmly associated with aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy. The fourth Illustrious was the first of the groundbreaking armoured fleet carriers in WW2, and served in a multitude of campaigns and operations during and after the Second World War.
(For some superb photos of the first carrier Illustrious’ role as a test and training carrier in the 1940s and 1950s, courtesy of Dave Bull’s brilliant collection see this page on prototypes and this page on twin-engined types).
Illustrious later deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Southern Watch, policing the ‘no fly zone’ South of the 32nd parallel, a limit imposed after the Gulf War of 1991. Later she took part in Operation Deny Flight during the Bosnian conflict. This operation provided a number of lessons for the Fleet Air Arm for the improvement of the Sea Harrier’s strike capabilities, and also led to the decision to deploy RAF Harrier GR.9s aboard the Invincible Class to further enhance the vessels’ ability to project power.
Illustrious also provided invaluable help for more peaceful operations, including the evacuation of civilians from Sierra Leone and Lebanon in the 2000s. During a major exercise, COUGAR 13, in 2013, Illustrious was diverted to help relief efforts after a severe hurricane hit the Philippines.
Illustrious fires a salute on her final return to home port
The ship underwent a refit at Rosyth in 2003, which involved changes that allowed her to be reconfigured between the light aircraft carrier and helicopter carrier roles. This was intended to enable her to remain in commission until 2014, when, it was hoped, the new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers would be available. Sadly, that date has since slipped.
In addition to Illustrious‘ vital combat and humanitarian activity, she has served in numerous exercises and ‘flag flying’ operations. Illustrious‘ profile was further boosted in 2005 when she was the focus of the 6-part Channel 5 documentary ‘Warship’. One of the ship’s last functions was to be present at the naming of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of the RN’s two new aircraft carriers.
Illustrious’ crew line the rails as she returns to Portsmouth for the last time
On a blazing hot July day, Illustrious met her successor HMS Ocean in the Solent for a brief ceremony, and headed finally for Portsmouth. Just before midday, the distinctive twin-funnel profile was visible on the horizon, just hull-up. Rather than waiting around the entrance to the harbour, as is the usual procedure, three of the four tugs that were assigned to bring Illustrious into her berth headed out to meet her along with the pilot launch.
The crowds began to gather in earnest before 1.00pm, and within half an hour, the Portsmouth seafront was packed. Many were sad to see Illustrious, the last of the Harrier Carriers, decommission, and felt that with events in Ukraine and the Middle East, now might not be the best time to lose a ship of Illustrious‘ capabilities. There is not avoiding the fact, however, that Illustrious is 32 years old, and the longest-serving carrier in RN history by some margin.
A final view of HMS Illustrious before she sails into Portsmouth for the last time
As Illustrious approached the waiting crowds, a tug took station off either bow and, with fire-hoses, saluted the retiring ship. Lusty replied with her saluting gun – I didn’t count how many shots were fired but it was quite a few. One for every year in commission, perhaps?
As she passed through the harbour entrance, her paying-off pennant stretching a flypast of aircraft from the various air arms she has been associated with in her history overflew the carrier. First, two Army Apaches, then an RAF Merlin, a Royal Marines Sea King, a RN Merlin, and an RAF Chinook. In a nod to her fixed-wing heritage, a FRADU Hawk made a flyby, and then, finally, the thundering Royal Navy Heritage Flight Hawker Sea Fury delighted the crowds with a short display. It was an appropriate way to end a sad moment, with a reminder that the RN will have fixed-wing ‘carrier air’ in the not-too distant future.
The Royal Navy Historic Flight’s beautiful Hawker Sea Fury salutes the last purpose-built aircraft carrier in RN service for the time being