HMS Illustrious – the last of the Royal Navy’s Invincible-class aircraft carriers – was decommissioned at Portsmouth Naval Base today (August 28), marking the end of her 32-year career. The ship’s White Ensign was lowered for the final time during the decommissioning ceremony in front of hundreds of guests, ending an era which began with the launch of her sister ship HMS Invincible in 1977.
Illustrious is being replaced as the nation’s helicopter carrier by HMS Ocean which has just undergone a £65m refit. She will eventually be replaced by two new 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers being built for the Navy – HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. Principal guest at the ceremony was Lady Sarah Chatto whose mother Princess Margaret launched HMS Illustrious in 1978. Fifteen of the ship’s 17 former commanding officers also attended along with dozens of veterans.
Captain Mike Utley, the ship’s commanding officer, said: “It has been a great honour to be the final Commanding Officer of HMS Illustrious. This is a symbolic day in the history of the Royal Navy as we lowered the Ensign for the final time on the Invincible Class. We say goodbye to Illustrious with sadness and pride as we remember her outstanding history but also excitement as the Royal Navy looks to the future and HMS Queen Elizabeth.”
One of the 450 crew members on parade was Leading Airman Thomas Hardcastle who was christened on board Illustrious in 1983. His father, Cliff, joined the ship as an 18-year-old in 1982 when she was commissioned at sea en route to the Falklands.
Thomas said: “I’ve served on her three times, my father served on her twice. 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 – she’s a fantastic ship.
The Ministry of Defence is looking to preserve HMS Illustrious as a lasting tribute to the personnel who served on all three of the Invincible-class aircraft carriers. Bids from private companies, charities and trusts to secure her future are currently being considered and it is a condition of sale that HMS Illustrious must remain in the UK.