With a diverse list of 710 passengers – soldiers returning from Afghanistan, families with young children and the elderly, including the father of London mayor Boris Johnson – the amphibious assault ship, HMS Albion, set sail yesterday from northern Spain to England in the first rescue by the Government of Britons marooned abroad by Iceland's volcano eruption.
There had been a near mutiny at the dockside at the port of Santander when people who had travelled across Spain and from beyond were told that there was not enough room for everyone on board.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office insisted that it advised people to travel to the Spanish port only if they had been guaranteed a place in the ship. In the event Commander Geoff Wintle of the Albion made an executive decision. "We're going to get everyone on. Nobody is being left behind," he declared.
All were glad to be heading home. Mr Johnson's father, Stanley, who had been on holiday to the Galapagos Islands, said: "I am absolutely thrilled. This is the Dunkirk spirit." Standing near him Major Angus Henderson, of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, said that he was anxious to get back in time for the funeral of one of his men, 20-year-old Fusilier Jonathan Burgess who was killed fire earlier this month.
The aircraft-carrier HMS Ark Royal and the helicopter-carrier HMS Ocean will also be picking up stranded travellers, although no decision had been made by yesterday afternoon as to where from.
The evacuees were "most welcome" on the 40-hour voyage to Portsmouth, during which they were to have a fish and chip supper last night and curry for lunch today, but, HMS Albion's commander added, there were some rules which needed to be followed. "This is a warship so the civilians will meet some austere conditions. We will provide as many camp beds and sleeping bags as we can, but I'm afraid this is not a five-star hotel. There will be food, they'll get fresh rations, but there is a dry policy on board and there won't be any drinking going on."