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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Riding the rails of a lost country

Ironically, “Ostalgia” is big business.  Over a quarter of a century since Communist East Germany ceased to exist, nostalgia for it has never been more popular.  It seems that, with almost as much haste as the traces of the former country were wiped away following the fall of the Berlin Wall, people are now scrambling to experience what life was like behind it.

You can drive a Trabant car in convoy around East Berlin on an innovative sightseeing tour, then stay at painstakingly styled themed hotels.  You can purchase clothes, food and all manner of other items of “reborn” Communist brands, recreated by popular demand.  You can have your photo taken at Checkpoint Charlie in front of a replica border hut, with men dressed up as border guards.

Yet all of these experiences are in some way synthetic. This part of the world has experienced so many changes since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, that it is nigh on impossible to recreate “everyday life” in any setting.  After all, this was a country where you could realistically expect your intercity train to be powered by steam right up until the late 1980s.  Today you can flash through the Sachsen-Anhalt countryside on some of the world’s most modern trains at speeds of up to 300 km/h.

Stepping off the modern electrified German commuter railway at Freital-Hainsberg station, though – a mere 12 minutes’ ride from the centre of Dresden – is like stepping back in time.

As the crowded electric trains zip in and out upstairs, an altogether slower pace of life exists at the station’s lower level.  Every two hours or so, every day, a narrow-gauge steam train quietly slips away, often fairly empty – especially out of season.  However, this is no tourist-orientated recreation of days gone by.  This is an operation that has remained largely unchanged since it opened in 1882.

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Awaiting departure from Freital-Hainsberg

The former East Germany retains a number of these tiny steam railways – but most have only survived by switching their focus to catering for tourists; the sound of the steam engines being accompanied by the excited laughter of children and the snapping of the shutters of countless coach tour passengers’ cameras.  Some others use modern diesel trains on some services as a more cost-effective method of operation.  This, the “Weisseritztalbahn”, has largely escaped that, and thus retains that Holy Grail of “Ostalgics” – genuine authenticity.

The railway winds its way for 14 kilometres up the narrow, heavily forested valley into the scenic East Ore Mountains, criss-crossing the river as it goes.  The train makes five intermediate stops along its way – largely wayside shacks at which nobody boards and nobody alights – before skirting the reservoir at Malter and pulling into the station at Dippoldiswalde.  This village, of only 140 inhabitants, is an unlikely terminus, and serves mainly as a popular base for mountain walks.  Indeed, the East German leadership placed a great deal of emphasis on encouraging outdoor leisure activities, and even in the technological age, this is something that many here still like to do.

The railway formerly continued for a further 12 kilometres from Dippoldiswalde to the one-time tourist resort of Kurort Kipsdorf – however this section still awaits reopening after it sustained severe damage during the catastrophic Central European floods of 2002.

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Heading up the valley

The last round trip of the day departs from Freital-Hainsberg at 18:42, and although sacrificing some of the scenery, a trip on it as dusk gathers is very highly recommended indeed.  The virtually empty, atmospherically illuminated train eases its way up the valley, the only sounds being the cacophonic echo of the engine’s roar, the gentle drum beat of the wheels on the rails, and the rushing water of the river.  In that moment, it might not be 2016 at all; this is exactly the experience of everybody who has travelled this route by train before – not just during the years of German division, but indeed back though two world wars and as far as 1882.  Suddenly, you are a world away from the bustling city centre of Dresden, in spite of it being still only a handful of kilometres away.

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Inside the Weisseritztalbahn train

Ultimately, the hordes who hope to experience a slice of life from the time of the Berlin Wall will most likely spend far more than the €15 Weisseritztalbahn fare, for a far less authentic product.  Yet everyday life for most East German citizens was not necessarily the clichés of Stasi persecution and political propaganda.  For a small investment of time and money, here you are offered the sounds, sights and indeed smells of days gone by – and little could be more “East German” than a ride on some authentic public transport, through some idyllic countryside, in order to enjoy some relaxed outdoor pursuits in a tranquil and scenic environment.

HMS Onslaught, 1960-1991

D832 "Onslaught" nameplate

Isn’t it strange to know that something is historically significant, but that most of us may never find out exactly why?

Today I enjoyed a ride behind the only currently operational ex-British Railways “Warship” Class locomotive – no. D832 Onslaught – at the East Lancashire Railway, a heritage railway centred on the town of Bury, roughly 10 miles north of Manchester.

The “Warships” were born out of the British Railways Modernisation Plan of the mid-1950s – directly replacing steam traction on the routes of the former Great Western Railway – and were essentially a scaled down version of the highly successful West German V200 class.  In the best tradition of the GWR, they all carried names on a theme – in this case, Royal Navy vessels – the irony being that these locomotives of impeccable German pedigree were named after a number of particularly renowned ships that, just 15 years previously, had played key roles in the defeat of Germany in World War 2.  Indeed, the destroyer HMS Onslaught herself was a veteran of convoys both in the Atlantic and off Scandinavia (where she was credited with putting the finishing touches to the destruction of the U-boat U-472 which scuttled itself in March 1944) and also of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

Following the sale of the destroyer HMS Onslaught to the Pakistani Navy in 1951, the name has been re-used by the Royal Navy just once – for an Oberon class submarine, pennant number S14 – which was coincidentally launched from Chatham Dockyard exactly 56 years ago today: Saturday 24th September 1960 – is of the same vintage as the locomotive, and is the subject of these ramblings.

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The Oberon class were conventionally (i.e. non-nuclear) powered patrol submarines and were designed as a key British weapon for the Cold War.  At 295ft in length – equivalent to the proverbial football pitch – and carrying a crew of 65, they were sizeable enough beasts, yet intended to be stealthy, hunting down their Russian peers preferably without being detected.  Being both smaller and quieter than their nuclear counterparts, these diesel-electric submarines were deemed more appropriate for this type of work.  A total of 27 were built – 13 for the Royal Navy, with others for Canada, Australia, Brazil and Chile.

Following commissioning in 1962, HMS Onslaught first saw active service from Singapore during the Borneo confrontation (when fighting broke out after the creation of Malaysia in 1963) then during the British withdrawal from Singapore later in the decade.

However, it is what happened later in her life which is open to conjecture – the details remain classified information.  What is commonly accepted is that HMS Onslaught and her sisters spent a considerable amount of time in the Baltic Sea in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, engaged in clandestine operations against the Soviets at the height of the Cold War.  Iain Ballantyne in his book “Hunter Killers” recounts how HMS Onslaught once spent seven weeks in the Baltic with 17 intelligence specialists crowded on board, alongside her usual crew.  It has even been reported fairly extensively that British submarines even sent commandos ashore in the Soviet Union.  That in itself would be interesting enough, but it has also been suggested that commandos were secretly sent ashore to neutral nations on the other side of the Baltic – Finland and, particularly, Sweden.  These two countries formed a buffer between NATO and the Soviet Union and therefore were, usually passively, politically volatile during the Cold War.  They would definitely have been a target for Soviet invasion if they decided to mount an offensive heading West.  Sweden was aware that there were submarine incursions into its territorial waters on an increasingly frequent basis as the 1980s progressed – these were generally accepted as being of Soviet origin – but could they in fact have been Royal Navy?  Perhaps they were testing Sweden’s responses and anti-submarine infrastructure, to investigate what may happen if the Soviets did actually attempt an invasion?  The entire Cold War was shrouded in mystery and (particularly) suspicion, even of one’s own “friends”.

Britain has apparently publicly maintained that its Oberons were never in the Baltic.  They certainly have not admitted to any such covert operations within Scandinavia.  But the very fact that any information on the broad subject remains top secret, might be taken by the cynics among us as a hint that there remains something worth hiding…

What might HMS Onslaught and her sister vessels have been looking for?  More importantly, what might they have found?  It is possible that we will never find out, but equally, it is possible that our entire understanding of the Cold War may shift if we do.

HMS Onslaught was decommissioned in 1990 and scrapped in Turkey in 1991.  However, eight Oberons have survived in various forms around the world, and a number can be visited – although just one of them is in the UK.  Whereas HMS Onslaught was the penultimate Navy warship manufactured in Chatham, and did not survive; the final one, HMS Ocelot (S17), has returned “home” to the Kentish town, to form an important part of the Historic Dockyard Chatham attraction.  HMS Ocelot, too, retains her Cold War secrets – one day, we may know more about the service life of these enigmatic vessels.