Farewell to HMS Illustrious

Today, 7th December 2016 saw the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious towed away from Portsmouth for scrapping in Turkey.  Why should we care?

Launched nearly 38 years ago in mid-December 1978, and commissioned in June 1982, “Lusty” (as she was known) was the middle sister of the three Invincible-class aircraft carriers – HMS Invincible and HMS Ark Royal being the other two – all manufactured by the famous Tyneside shipbuilding firm of Swan Hunter.  She served in a time when ship-to-ship combat was largely a thing of the past, and indeed as an aircraft carrier, that would never have been her primary role anyway.   But the part that she played was no less important than that of her forebears, not just as a cog in the war machine, but for humanitarian purposes too – all over the world.

Although her construction was accelerated due to the onset of the Falklands War – she was actually commissioned on the North Sea en route to the South Atlantic! – she was still on her way when the war reached its conclusion six days later, and therefore didn’t see active service in that conflict.  Despite that, she played a key role in operations around the islands in the post-war period – relieving HMS Invincible in the August, she served as a floating airfield until the runway at the island’s RAF base – the one bombed by Vulcan XM607 in the Black Buck raids – was repaired.

She carried Harriers and Sea Harriers – their vertical take-off capability being particularly useful here! – very successful strike aircraft that were finally retired from RAF service at the end of 2010 – as well as helicopters.  She lost her aircraft in 2010 following the “Strategic Defence and Security Review”, but continued to carry the helicopters.  This is a role now carried out by the “Mighty O”, HMS Ocean.  An aircraft carrier, however, is something that the Royal Navy does not currently have – and will not have, until the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales and their F-35 Lightnings take to the seas in around 2020.

HMS Illustrious served in most major conflicts that occurred during her lifetime – including the Cold War – but missed both the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars as she was undergoing refit on both occasions.  All three Invincible-class aircraft carriers were to be found in the Adriatic Sea during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s.  A no-fly zone was established over Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1992 by the UN and “Operation Deny Flight” was a NATO operation intended to enforce it.  The aircraft flying from the carriers on the operation were able to continue their work even when poor weather prevented jets taking off from bases on dry land, e.g. in Italy.

In January 2000, HMS Illustrious sailed to the Middle East, whereupon her Sea Harriers engaged in “Operation Southern Watch”, part of the ongoing military operation to enforce a no-fly zone declared over Iraq in an attempt to protect Shi’ite Muslims from aerial attack by Saddam Hussein’s forces.  A notable humanitarian diversion for the vessel in the spring of the same year came when she and her helicopters assisted in providing relief to Mozambique after catastrophic floods which followed five weeks of constant rain.  Approximately 750 people died and 44,000 were rendered homeless, and the helicopters (from the UK as well as from Germany, South Africa and Malawi) performed a vital role by lifting people to safety from the disease-ridden waters.  Later in the year, she (and her Harriers) took part in “Operation Palliser”, the British military intervention in Sierra Leone.

HMS Illustrious was again in the headlines for benevolent purposes in July 2006, when she took part in “Operation Highbrow”; a mammoth lift of British citizens from war-torn Lebanon, by both sea and air, necessitated by the onset of what was to be a month-long war fought between Israel and Hezbollah.  The navy’s efforts were essential – Beirut’s airport could not be used as it had already been damaged in the fighting – but they were not without risk, as the harbours from which they sailed were under bombardment too.  In what has been widely described as the largest evacuation since Dunkerque, 4,400 Britons were evacuated, largely by HMS York and HMS Gloucester which performed a “shuttle” service from Lebanon to Cyprus, assisted by HMS Bulwark – but aside from serving as a command centre, “Lusty’s” role was in fact in the aerial lift.  The Chinooks belonging to HMS Illustrious played their part, in many cases taking people to the aircraft carrier herself, out in the Mediterranean.

In November 2013, HMS Illustrious was in the Gulf when she received orders to proceed immediately to Singapore, take on stores and then proceed to the Philippines in order to work on disaster relief operations following “Typhoon Haiyan”, which ultimately resulted in the deaths of more than 6,300 people and destroyed the homes of more than 2 million, and is commonly understood to be the most intense typhoon on reaching landfall on record.  This was just another in a long tradition of humanitarian missions on the part of our armed forces, and HMS Illustrious, along with HMS Daring and an RAF Globemaster, represented $131 million, a contribution of higher value than any other nation.  Following the successful completion of its role in the aftermath of the disaster, HMS Illustrious returned to the UK.

Decommissioned on 28th August 2014, there were a number of bids to purchase the ship for preservation – including from the City of Hull which wanted it as the kernel of a maritime museum – however these eventually came to nothing, despite an MoD spokesman telling The Telegraph in 2014 that “the MoD hopes to preserve the legacy of the Invincible-class aircraft carriers by installing HMS Illustrious as a lasting tribute to the personnel who served on all three of the carriers”.

Perhaps, however, some sort of tradition won over in the end.  In 1948 (despite only being the leader of the opposition at the time) Winston Churchill insisted that the Second World War cruiser HMS Ajax was scrapped, rather than sold or preserved, in order to retain its proud legacy and history which included successes at River Plate, in the Mediterranean and on D-Day.  The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious is destined to be yet another famous ship remembered to future generations only through history books, monuments, street names in seaside towns, and conversations in hushed tones in honour of a true giant of the seas.

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