HMS Illustrious – A Fine Line Between Affordability, Reason and Future Preservation

Amid cheers and no doubt, a great many tears earlier this week, the sight and sound of the last of Britain’s three Invincible class carriers, HMS Illustrious, as she ‘steamed’ into her home port of Portsmouth for the very last time must have been an occasion that those fortunate to witness it will surely never forget. For the many thousands of sailors and airman who, over the period of thirty-two years that HMS Illustrious was to be a commissioned ship in the Royal Navy, had spent time aboard her retirement will not only be a time for reflection but also one seen as marking the end of an era.

I have never been quite sure why but there is such an allure and love by the British public for aircraft carriers but my hope is that it is because of the inextricable link that aircraft carriers provide between air and maritime power. That link will of course continue when at some future point we re-engage certain elements of carrier strike capability within the two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales that are currently under construction.

Three years ago it was the turn of HMS Ark Royal V to receive the cheers and thanks of a grateful nation as she steamed into the very same port. Before her it was HMS Invincible in 2005 and before her, the last true conventional aircraft carrier HMS Hermes which, having been laid down in 1944, launched in 1953, commissioned in 1959 and decommissioned by the Royal Navy in 1984 was then sold to India where she would became INS Viraat – a fine ship and one that amazingly is still in active service today.

I reserve my main comments in respect of the ‘future’ for HMS Illustrious to the last five paragraphs of this particular ‘Commentary’ piece. Leaving aside the current MOD proposal, announced in 2012 that, if possible, HMS Illustrious should be preserved in some form or another I suspect that if there ever was a well-reasoned case to preserve a decommissioned Royal Navy aircraft carrier, it should have been the 24,800 ton fourth HMS Ark Royal to bear that name. Launched by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1950, the fourth Ark Royal was finally commissioned by the Royal Navy on the 22nd February 1955. She would become the flagship of the Royal Navy until decommissioning at her home port of Plymouth on the 14th February 1979.

Speaking personally, I know of no other Royal Navy ship in the post second world-war era that the British public endeared itself to more than the fourth HMS Ark Royal, and in saying this I do not neglect the huge love and respect that the British public also had for HMS Hermes during her role in the Falklands war. I count myself having been fortunate to have once walked the boards of what was indeed a very fine ship and that through her long period in service carried a wide range of aircraft and helicopters including Gannet, Sea Vixen, Scimitar, Phantom, Buccaneer, Whirlwind, Wessex and Sea King. Ark Royal was also used for trials of the VSTOL Hawker P1127 VSTOL and Harrier GR1 aircraft.

It may also be worth recalling here that such was the public affection for HMS Ark Royal lV realised that the well-loved Evening Standard cartoonist ‘Jak’ even drew a half page drawing on the day of her decommissioning. Sadly, with defence of the realm having been allowed to fall quite so low on the public agenda today I rather doubt that we will see the like of such public interest being shown again. More’s the pity!

There was in fact a very reasonable and well thought out plan to save and preserve HMS Ark Royal 1V and the Ark Royal Preservation Trust was founded for that very purpose. Headed by Vice Admiral Sir Richard Smeeton who had flown his flag as ‘Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers’ during the third and fourth of Ark Royal’s commissions the plan was that the fine ship should be moored at Greenwich as a museum and centre for education and nautical research. Sadly, scuppered by MOD determination to scrap her, the plan came to nothing and on September 22 1980 Ark Royal left Plymouth under tow to Cairnryan for scrapping.

Whether or not a sound case exists for HMS Illustrious to be retained as a lasting tribute and legacy to work done through her 32 years of Royal Navy service, is perhaps rather less of an issue than the point that if she is to avoid the breakers yard it is realised that long term preservation and conservation does not come cheap. The danger in this day and age is that, having made the promise that Illustrious will be saved, they fall for a nice sounding plan put forward by a group of fly-by-night individuals only interested in making money. Illustrious, if she is to be saved, and I make no comment as to whether it is right that she should, deserves a lot better than being cast into the hands of those that may not have her best interest at heart. My concern and my view is that if she is to be ‘saved’ whatever is done to achieve that aim is done with the best interests of this fine ship and all those that sailed on her in mind, and for the best of reasons as opposed to the potential of turning the ship into a rather different type of commercial proposition.

My real fear is that rather than see Illustrious preserved for the greater good of would-be sailors, soldiers and airmen, and perhaps used as place of learning or as a maritime educational centre, that under a banner of so-called preservation Illustrious could find herself being used as a heliport on the Thames Estuary or perhaps even being used for some other logistical transit and storage based purpose. Heaven forbid that either of those suggestions would end up being the case but please be warned that such heady commercially based ideas are already in the minds of individuals that deep down are only interested in the prospect of making money over and above showing respect for military traditions. My point is that if Illustrious is to be saved we should ensure that she stays out of less than scrupulous hands. Again, I repeat the point, I am less than clear over the relevance of preservation of Illustrious, unless of course she could in part be retained as a working ship for training purposes combined with a dignified role that allows the public to access.

In saying the above, note that three years ago, following the premature withdrawal of HMS Ark Royal, plans had been put forward to turn HMS Ark Royal V into a helipad that would be moored in the Thames Estuary not that far away from London City airport. The aim was that this would serve those wealthy enough to travel by private helicopter to the Olympic Games which were being held nearby. The notion that, backed apparently by the military we were led to believe, that a former Royal Navy ship should be used for such a purpose and purely for commercial ends was quite appalling. In fact the proposal was certainly not backed by the military but by some of those that had spent time in service with the military or as part of the Reserves.

The very thought that, particularly given the huge cost of ongoing maintenance required to keep a ship of this size in a workable, fit for purpose and safe condition, that the most likely scenario would be that she would be allowed to gradually rust away eventually becoming little more than a flat-topped hulk was enough to make the blood boil. Thankfully, if not necessarily for the purest of reasons, the heliport plan was scuppered by Mayor Boris Johnson.

I sincerely hope that any suggestion that HMS Illustrious might also be turned into a heliport is, for the self-same reasons, quickly thrown overboard. There may well be a case to preserve Illustrious, but if there is then we must make sure that we do this in the best traditions of what the ship was designed to do and of what, properly funded, she might still be able to do in the future as a maritime educational institute and centre of training excellence perhaps in the future along with being a ship that the public is able to access.


CHW (London 25th July 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Tel: 07710 779785

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