Navy warship rescues troops and civilians

Hundreds of Britons stranded by the air chaos were heading home on board a Royal Navy warship tonight.

HMS Albion left Santander in northern Spain at lunchtime carrying more than 450 troops returning from Afghanistan and about 280 holidaymakers.

Among those on board were a group of teenage boys on a football tour and Stanley Johnson, the father of London Mayor Boris Johnson, who was held up returning from a trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Mr Johnson senior said he was "absolutely thrilled" to be on his way back to Britain, adding: "You could say it is a bit of Dunkirk spirit."

The troops returning home from Afghanistan included soldiers, members of IX Squadron RAF, which operates Tornado jets and is based at RAF Marham, near King's Lynn, Norfolk, and medics from 33 Field Hospital based in Gosport, Hampshire.

Caught up in the disruption caused by the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud that grounded flights across northern Europe, they flew first to Cyprus, where they had to wait before flying on to Spain to be picked up by HMS Albion.

Major Angus Henderson, 40, of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, said he wanted to get back to Britain to see his wife and three small children and attend the funeral of a young comrade killed in Afghanistan.

He said: "How many modes of transport have I been on? I have lost count now - planes, buses and now ships."

Some of HMS Albion's crew have given up their berths for the travellers, but others will have to sleep on camp beds below deck. The menu on board is said to include fish and chips and curry.

The ship is expected to arrive in Portsmouth tomorrow night.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced yesterday that another two Navy vessels, aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and commando helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, had also been deployed to rescue British travellers stuck on the Continent.

But these ships are still awaiting orders - and ferry companies say there is no shortage of space on their routes from France to Britain, although many services from Spain are now fully booked.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said today: "As the Prime Minister made clear this morning, the Government is looking at a number of ways to help British citizens stuck abroad get home.

"HMS Ocean and HMS Ark Royal are poised and ready for tasking if directed.

"In the meantime HMS Ocean is making use of the time by conducting routine training in the English Channel and HMS Ark Royal is preparing for her next deployment off the south coast of England."

This is not the first time the UK has mounted a seaborne operation to recover stranded Britons.

Hundreds of small boats helped the Navy to evacuate more than 300,000 Allied troops from around Dunkirk in northern France in May and June 1940 after they were cut off by German forces.

In July 2006, UK warships, including the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and the commando assault ship HMS Bulwark, were involved in rescuing about 4,400 people, including more than 2,500 British nationals, from Lebanon during the war between Hezbollah and Israel.

HMS Ocean and HMS Ark Royal are not currently needed but they will remain on standby ready to bring British travellers home from northern European ports, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said.

He told the BBC: "If they're needed, we think it's prudent to have them on standby in case there is an extra demand or when there is an extra demand so that every available option is being used to get people home.

"I think it's right that since we're urging British people who are on the Continent to make their way to the northern ports, that we ensure that once they get there they're dealt with as quickly as possible.

"Fortunately, there's significantly increased ferry and train capacity, and at the moment that is sufficient.

"But if it isn't, we'll make sure that HMS Ocean and HMS Ark Royal, if needed, are used."