After a lifetime of service in the Falklands, Iraq and West Africa, a phalanx of sailors doffed their caps and dipped their heads as HMS Illustrious was towed away to a Turkish scrap yard.
There had been high-minded plans to turn her into a floating hotel, museum or even a UK centre for powerboats. Instead, she will likely end up as tin cans.
As the 22,000 tonne ship, affectionately known as “Lusty”, sailed from her home at Portsmouth Naval Base for the last time yesterday, she was a shadow of her former self. Her paint and her engines had gone, and it took a tug to pull her into the Solent.
In a final twist of irony, her final destination will be the same dismantling yard that had taken apart her sister vessel, HMS Ark Royal, Leeds’s adopted ship, three years ago.
Illustrious was formally decommissioned in August 2014 after 32 years of service. The taxpayer will recoup about £2m from her sale.
Her loss has left the service without a fixed-wing aircraft carrier until the first of the next generation of carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is commissioned next year.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said: “Over three decades Illustrious set the highest standards for service that the Royal Navy will continue with HMS Queen Elizabeth when she arrives into Portsmouth next year.
“Backed by a rising defence budget, our new aircraft carriers will lead a growing Royal Navy as Britain steps up to defend our country and our interests.”
Captain Jerry Kyd, former commanding officer of HMS Illustrious and current CO of HMS Queen Elizabeth, added: “Lusty provided a world-class service to the Royal Navy and we bid her goodbye with fond memories.
“As she leaves Portsmouth I’m looking forward to the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will ensure that we remain a global maritime power.”
Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, former First Sea Lord and CO of Illustrious, said: “It’s a sad day but it’s better to describe it as a day of reflection and to think about your time on the ship concerned and I was lucky enough to command her for two years.”
Illustrious is the last of the Invincible class of aircraft carriers which included the Ark Royal and Invincible which were introduced into the Navy in the 1980s.
The carrier, which was built by Swan Hunter shipbuilders on the Tyne and launched by Princess Margaret in December 1978, had its entry into service brought forward so it could assist in the Falklands War effort.
The warship’s deployment was so rushed that its commissioning ceremony took place at sea en route to the Falklands on June 20, 1982. A more formal ceremony took place on its return.
During the conflict, it relieved its sister ship HMS Invincible in providing a floating airfield for aircraft unable to use the islands’ damaged RAF base. Illustrious then went on to support the forces in Afghanistan, served in the Bosnian and Sierra Leone conflicts and also helped evacuate Britons during the Lebanon war in 2006.
In 2008, the carrier became the star of Channel 5’s documentary, Warship, which followed its deployment to the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East.
Its final mission, in 2013, was to assist in the efforts to distribute disaster relief in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.