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'Sad' day as Ark Royal returns home for the final time

The commanding officer of HMS Ark Royal said it was a "sad" day today as the aircraft carrier returned to its home port for the final time.

The Royal Navy fleet flagship arrived at Portsmouth Naval Base, Hampshire, following a farewell tour of the UK including Tyneside and Clyde, Scotland, after being axed in the Government's defence review.

Crowds of people braved the cold and ice to wave home the ship, flying a decommissioning pennant the length of the vessel, as it sailed into port for the last time through a thick fog.

Ark Royal's farewell voyage took it around the north of Scotland and on into Newcastle, where it was built by Swan Hunter at Wallsend.

During the trip, it had its ammunition removed and four Harrier GR9 pilots took off from the deck for the last time marking the end of service for the jump jet, which is also being axed.

A flypast by the Harriers this morning was cancelled because of the weather conditions.

Last month, the Queen made a farewell visit to the ship at Portsmouth at an event held to mark the ship's 25th anniversary in service.

Commanding officer Captain Jerry Kyd said: "There is no question that there is a certain amount of sadness attached to this final deployment.

"But it is also an opportunity for us to celebrate the silver jubilee of this fine ship and for us to show her off once more.

"She has played a very important role throughout her history and we have always been lucky enough to draw great affection and support from the British public wherever we go.

"For me, personally, I have been exceptionally proud to serve as her captain - my very first job after finishing my initial officer training 25 years ago at Dartmouth was in the then-brand new HMS Ark Royal.

"It is therefore a great honour for me to be able to command her farewell tour as her last captain.

"I am very fortunate to be at the helm of an exceptional crew, whose professional skills will be re-allocated and valued in the wider Royal Naval service, long after the ship herself has been decommissioned - so her work and memory will continue to serve the Royal Navy well.

"I am only too aware that this famous ship and her iconic name mean so much to so many, but although Ark Royal will be decommissioned, the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers are vastly more capable and provide the Royal Navy with an exciting future."

The Government decision to decommission the Ark Royal three years early and also cut the Harrier force has been criticised by several retired Royal Navy admirals, including Admiral Lord West of Spithead.

In a letter to The Times, Lord West - a former Labour security minister - wrote: "What is certain is that to fail to stand by the United States, when they have supported us in Europe over some 70 years, would be a mistake.

"The dispatch of a carrier, its small air wing and a Tactom-armed nuclear submarine, should any such crisis escalate, is just the sort of commitment an ally such as the United States requires. Nothing else in our military inventory has similar flexibility and 'adaptability'.

"What will be the next strategic shock? I cannot predict it - nor can the Government. To lose our maritime strike capability in such dangerous times is short-sighted."

The Ark Royal is set to be formally decommissioned next month with a farewell parade being held in Portsmouth to allow the city's residents a chance to give the ship and its 750-strong crew a final send-off.

The aircraft carrier is the fifth Ark Royal. The first saw battle in 1588 and smashed the Spanish Armada.

The latest, and possibly last, saw active service in the Balkans and the second Gulf War.

It will be replaced by the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carrier, which will not come into service until the end of the decade. They will carry F35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

The role of flagship will initially be taken on by amphibious assault ship HMS Albion.