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Portland's naval history ends as last warship sails

The senior service has ended its association with the Dorset base whose strategic importance goes back centuries. Will Bennett reports
Portland, the Dorset naval base which played a crucial role in two world wars and trained generations of British sailors, bade farewell to its last Royal Navy warship yesterday.

As the frigate HMS Argyll left on the voyage along the coast to Devonport, Portland - a victim of successive rounds of defence cuts costing thousands of jobs - prepared to become a commercial port.

The departure of the Type 23 frigate was a low-key affair. On board the pounds 200m warship was Rear-Admiral John Tolhurst, Flag Officer Sea Training, who is moving his command to the Plymouth base.

He said the move was sad but had been decided on for sound financial reasons. Asked about plans to turn the base into a commercial port, he said: "I hope it is a success, and provides the jobs I hope the locals can look forward to."

The sale of the 150-year-old base to a local consortium is expected to be completed in March. It is being shut down under a 1992 defence cost cutting exercise which expects to save pounds 70m over 10 years.

Its closure and that later announced of the adjacent HMS Osprey naval air base, which is due to shut in 1999, will cost the area about 4,500 jobs and will leave a pounds 40m hole in the area's economy, according to a study carried out for Weymouth and Portland borough council.

Three years ago, 41 per cent of the local workforce had defence-related jobs and the council prepared an economic plan to try to help recovery.

Portland Port Ltd, the consortium planning to buy the base, aims to turn the site, which includes Europe's largest man-made harbour, into a commercial port and create "a centre of regional economic activity" to help replace the lost jobs. Initially, there are plans for a roll-on/roll- off Continental ferry service, calls by cruise ships, a marina and yacht repair facility and major sailing events in the huge harbour.

Other possible future projects include a fishing harbour and fish handling centre and the renovation of historic coastal fortifications.

The strategic significance of Portland was first realised by King Henry VIII, who built two castles to protect the approaches. It became a naval base in 1845 when convict labour built a breakwater using 4 million tons of stone.

The base was bombed by the Germans in the Second World War and later nearly half a million American troops embarked at Portland to take part in the D-Day landings.

After the war the base became a sea training centre. Since then almost every ship in the Royal Navy has at some time taken part there in training programmes, including simulated warfare. Part of the Falklands task force sailed from Portland.