Final voyage nears its end as a mighty warship loses battle against cash cuts

ON BOARD, the smiles have a touch of forced cheerfulness. As the days tick away to the moment when the Royal Navy bids farewell to its flagship, there is sadness in the eyes of the company of 700 souls who have such fierce pride in the ship that is their home for so many months of the year.

This is not just another warship, or just another victim of swingeing defence cuts. Ark Royal carries with her such a weight of tradition, stretching back to the 16th century, that every voyage, every action, writes another line into British military history. Now though, that history is drawing to its close, and there appears to be no future for the warship affiliated to Leeds, the city that in the depths of the Second World War mounted a phenomenal fund-raising effort to raise 9m to build a new Ark Royal.

The brutal reality of grim Government finances dictates that when this, the fifth ship to bear the name Ark Royal, sails into her home port of Portsmouth on December 3, her story is all but over. Labour left a 38bn black hole in the defence budget, and the pride of the navy is being sacrificed as part of 4.7bn cuts, along with the Harrier jump jets that flew from her. Britain will be without a ship that can launch aircraft until 2019, when two new carriers will be launched – a decision that critics within the armed services believe leaves a dangerous gap in our defences.

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Amid the sadness on board, there is also a touch of sardonic humour. As four Harriers landed on the flight deck for the last time as the ship headed for Newcastle to bid farewell to the Tyne, where she was built and launched in 1981, the pilot of one placed a hand-written "For Sale" notice in the cockpit. A couple of hours later, the people of Tyneside welcomed the ship back to its birthplace for a last time, a crowd gathering on a hillside at Tynemouth to cheer her into the river.

Sale is also one of the options for Ark Royal, though along with preservation as a floating museum, the least likely. Scrap – referred to euphemistically as "recycling"by the Ministry of Defence – is the most probable fate, with at least some of the exceptionally high-quality steel used in her construction ending up as the blades in disposable razors.

The process of decommissioning is already under way. The ship's bell and the honours board that chronicles actions by earlier ships that bore the name Ark Royal, reaching back to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, are packed away in the giant hangar below the flight deck which can accommodate 20 warplanes.

The ship's weaponry was stripped out during a stopover at Loch Long, north-west of Glasgow, before Ark Royal headed through heavy seas off the north of Scotland on its way to the Tyne, and then via a detour to Hamburg, towards Portsmouth and obsolescence.

Yet even though the Government has ruled that Ark Royal has no place in a slimmed-down navy, its work continued on this farewell tour of Britain. As the ship ploughed through 12ft waves off the Pentland Firth, its below-deck operations room was monitoring the movements of a suspicious freighter off the south coast of England. The vessel, registered in eastern Europe, is suspected of drug-running, and those manning it could hardly suspect that they were being watched from hundreds of miles away and their details passed to HM Customs and the Serious and Organised Crime Agency.

The final voyage is not just about the ship. It is also about the crew. As part of the defence cuts, 5,000 navy personnel will go, and among those on board there is uncertainty. The conversations in the messes are about jobs being lined up, or jobs hoped for, or, for the older ones, retirement after 30-odd years.

Most, though, are a long way off that, in their 20s, 30s or 40s. Yorkshire and the north-east have been traditionally fertile recruiting grounds for Ark Royal, and there is a strong streak of northern pragmatism amongst those whose future is unclear.

Second navigator Lieutenant Matt Duce, 33, from Featherstone, is the ship's longest-serving officer, having been aboard for two-and-a-half years. He hopes for a shore-based posting at Fareham, in Hampshire, but is still awaiting confirmation.

The decision to decommission Ark Royal came as a blow. "The first couple of weeks, there was a noticeable dropping-off in morale," he said. "Now we're at sea again, it has come back up, and we're determined to get it right and give Ark Royal a great send-off, but everyone is nervous about where they'll go next. It's sad, it really is, because if you mention Ark Royal to anybody, their ears prick up and they will bend over backwards to help you."

Morale matters to this crew. Warfare technician Richard Clough, 36, from Leeds, said the decision to scrap the ship had brought its company closer together.

"There is a bit more closeness since the spending review. We were all shocked, nobody could see this coming, and now we're all facing being farmed off to other places.

"It's been such a stalwart of the navy that it's going to be very sad and emotional to see it go. It's just a great place to be. I've spent a lot of time on different platforms, but Ark Royal is totally different. It's so steeped in history, and standards here are a lot higher."

Uncertainty also hovers over Second Lt James Buchan, 27, from Baildon, who gave up a job with a firm of headhunters in Leeds to join the navy two years ago. He is still training. "The training you get on here is second to none because of the range of skills on offer on a carrier, so losing that is a real blow."

For steward Louise Sandy, 19, from Thorngumbald, near Hull, the announcement came just three months after she joined Ark Royal, at the point where she had settled in and made friends. "I was gutted," she said. "I was meant to be on here for four years, and I'm still waiting to see what I get."

For some, like air traffic controller Lt Andy Haywood, 29, from Otley, who oversaw the arrival of the last Harriers to land on board, the future is more settled. A return to Yorkshire and a job at RAF Linton-on-Ouse beckons, but he already looks forward to returning to sea aboard the new carriers when they enter service.

"The fact is that the cuts have got to happen, so we have to look to the future. There are three air traffic controllers on here, and on the new carrier there will be 13, and the likelihood is that I'll be there. I want to be there when the first jets come on board."

The crew is due in Leeds in February to salute the city's long-standing association with Ark Royal. Since October 1973, the ship has enjoyed Freedom of Entry, allowing its company to march through the streets on civic occasions.

There are mementos of the city on board, and the warmth of the people of Leeds is appreciated by the entire crew. Ark Royal's executive officer, Commander Rob Bellfield, said: "It is really important to us to say how strong these connections are between us. That affinity, the strength of our relationship, and the remembrance of how Leeds raised all that money for the Ark Royal is very special to us."

The shock of Ark Royal being declared surplus to requirements ran through all ranks. Her commanding officer, Captain Jerry Kyd, said: "It was sad, and it did come as a shock. A lot of hard decisions were being taken in a number of areas, but as much speculation as there was, you never think it will happen to you. We have to look to the future, and the challenge lies in mitigating and managing the transition.

"It is not for us in the front line to question decisions that have been taken, it is our job to get on with it."

And that is what Ark Royal will do for the few days that remain to her as the pride of the Royal Navy – get on with it. The ship's motto is "Zeal Does Not Rest", and its crew never does. Round the clock, even as the clock ticks towards the end, they monitor the seas around Britain. The sadness is that zeal is not enough to save Ark Royal from the scrapyard.

Leeds's place in naval history

THE special bond between Ark Royal and Leeds was forged during the darkest days of World War Two.

It was in November 1941 that the city decided to adopt the third Ark Royal in advance of Warship Week, planned for early 1942 to raise money for the war effort. But days later, on November 13, the ship was torpedoed 30 miles from Gibraltar, sinking 14 hours later.

The people of Leeds had set a target of raising 3.5m for a new hull and some refitting, but the loss of the carrier prompted them to aim for 5m for a new vessel. The fund-raising was so successful that it eventually raised 9m – equivalent to a third of a billion now – with the new Ark Royal being commissioned in 1955.