People watch as HMS Illustrious is towed from Portsmouth Docks. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
The former Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, known to her crews down the years as Lusty, left Portsmouth naval base for the last time on Wednesday, bound for a Turkish scrapyard. Former crewmembers and their families were joined by onlookers on the harbour walls to give three cheers and wave goodbye as the vessel set off.
The Illustrious, launched on the Tyne by Swan Hunter in 1978, was still being fitted out when the Falklands war began in 1982. It was rushed into service, but by the time it arrived in the South Atlantic, the hostilities had ended.
It went on to take part in combat operations in the Balkans, Iraq and Sierra Leone, and latterly in humanitarian work such as helping to deliver aid in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013.
A six-part documentary, Warship, broadcast on Channel 5 in 2011, followed the Illustrious during deployments in the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East and south-east Asia.
Although efforts were made to retain Illustrious as a museum piece or a hotel, the Ministry of Defence decided none of the bids were viable and instead decided to sell it to the scrapyard for £2.1m.
David Stares, 51, from Fareham, who served as an able seaman aboard Illustrious between 1982 and 1985, told PA: “She was a lovely ship. She was cutting-edge technology. Now she’s gone despite a lot of people wanting to save her. She was a brilliant ship, great crew – she was a large family.”
The carrier had to be moved from its berth in Portsmouth so that work could begin on harbour and dockyard renovations in preparation for the arrival next year of the first of two new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth. The second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, is scheduled to arrive a year later.
Captain Jerry Kyd, former commanding officer of HMS Illustrious and now commanding officer of HMS Queen Elizabeth, said: “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.”
The defence secretary, 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.”
The navy’s surface fleet has been dwindling, with the number of frigates and destroyers now at a level that a Commons defence select committee report this month described as “woefully low”.
Some navy analysts have argued that instead of two big-budget carriers – potentially vulnerable to airstrikes, given ever more sophisticated technology – the money would have been better spent on expanding the number of frigates and destroyers.
The decision to scrap the carrier was taken as part of the 2010 defence review, and it left service in 2014. It is the last of the Invincible class of aircraft carriers that included the Ark Royal and Invincible.