Fitting tribute to HMS Ark Royal

FAREWELL ... Tynesiders pay a list visit to HMS Ark Royal in November 2010.
FAREWELL ... Tynesiders pay a list visit to HMS Ark Royal in November 2010.

BRITAIN has dispatched its most advanced destroyer, HMS Dauntless, to the South Atlantic as Argentinian opposition to our sovereignty of the Falkland Islands re-ignites.

It is the Navy very publicly keeping faith with an outpost of this sea-going nation.  

It’s only a pity that we haven’t kept faith with the Navy.

The decision to decommission the fleet flagship, HMS Ark Royal, built here on the Tyne, still seems like a bad joke. You somehow still expect the Government to suddenly slap its knees and giggle: “Nearly had you!”

Except, God help us, it isn’t a joke.

This most totemic of ships is to pass into history: only the nature of her humiliation – conversion to a school in China, an artificial reef for sports divers to cavort on – is as yet undecided.

Back in the early 1990s, I had the extraordinary privilege of going aboard Ark Royal at sea.

She fulfilled every preconception I had of the exercise of British sea power: of the watchful guardian, of the tender heart in an iron fist.

And it says as much about her place at the heart of the Royal Navy that her 12 commanding officers, from the day she was handed over, to her decommissioning under the Strategic Defence Review, have contributed to a book dedicated solely to her.

And what a book. HMS Ark Royal: Zeal Does Not Rest is a comprehensive and lovingly compiled valediction, in words and pictures, to a ship that, in her own way, has touched all those associated with her.

Ark Royal, the fifth ship to bear the name in a history going back 500 years to the Spanish Armada, was laid down at Swan Hunter’s at Wallsend a few weeks before Christmas 1978. Following a subsequent defence review, it was thought at one point that she might not be completed, or go straight into reserve.

Her future was safeguarded only when the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 made it clear that three carriers needed to be retained.

In early 1985, she completed her last docking on the Tyne, at Hebburn Dock. On June 28, she departed for her new home at Portsmouth – albeit with a lot of jobs unfinished, it transpires, the result of the possibility of imminent closure hanging over the Walker yard.

As her first commander, now Vice Admiral Sir James Weatherall, recalls: “We accepted the ship with her internal state still far from beautiful.”

There were more than 10,000 defects, and 140 Swan Hunter employees – including 40 women cleaners – worked solidly over subsequent weeks to help bring the ship up to in-service standard, ready for her acceptance trails and ‘shakedown.’

She was finally commissioned on November 1, 1985.

Almost immediately, she found a place in the public’s affections. Who could believe that a ship would receive fan mail! Subsequent years would see Ark Royal steadfastly at the centre of British naval operations overseas, from Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 to the Iraq War of 2003.

That she acquitted herself well is beyond debate.

Vice Admiral Sir Alan Massey, who commanded the Ark in 2002-2003, wrote four years later: “... the Iraq war has become deeply immersed in controversy ... but this should never be allowed in the slightest to demean or diminish the quality and value of all that was achieved at sea, on the ground and in the air during that perilous period,”

Ark Royal paid her last visit to the river of her birth in bitter winter weather towards the end of 2010. For those of us who watched her go alongside, in freezing mist, at North Shields, it was a mournful occasion.

Naval historian Eric Grove and Alastair Graham, former senior weapon engineer aboard Ark Royal, have made a superb job of this book – while leaving the reader in no doubt as to their opinion of the decision to dispose of the ship, and the hiatus that will exist before the next generation of carriers and aircraft reach full capability.

* HMS Ark Royal: Zeal Does Not Rest 1981-2011 is published in hardback by Maritime Books, price £29.99.

* Cookson Country readers can purchase the book for £5 off, by quoting ‘Shields Gazette.’

For credit card orders and inquiries, telephone 01579 343663, or send a cheque made payable to Maritime Books to Maritime Books, Lodge Hill, Liskeard PL14 4EL, specifying ‘Ark Royal Book.’