The Royal Navy’s former aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious left Portsmouth for the last time on 7 December 2016 following a 32-year career during which she covered more than 900,000 nautical miles. With the aid of tugs, Illustrious set sail for a ship-breaking facility in Turkey where she will be dismantled.

Illustrious was second of the Navy’s three Invincible class aircraft carriers, and she was built by Swan Hunter on the Tyne, being launched by Princess Margaret in December 1978. She commissioned in 1982 after completing a successful mission during the Falklands War.

Illustrious’ completion had been speeded to allow her potential use in the Falklands War and, unusually, she was commissioned at sea on 20 June 1982, just six days after the Argentine capitulation. She subsequently sailed south to relieve her sister in providing air defence for the reoccupied Falkland Islands until a permanent Royal Air Force presence could be established.

During her service, the ship took part in a range of operations, including intervention in Sierra Leone’s civil war in 2000, evacuating UK nationals from the Lebanon in 2006 and delivering humanitarian aid after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013. The decision to scrap her was taken in the 2010 SDSR and she left service in 2014, leaving the Royal Navy with no aircraft carriers.

Illustrious will now be recycled by Leyal Ship Recycling Ltd following a two-year open competition seeking to retain part of all of the ship for heritage purposes in the UK. Attempts to save her failed, with some wanting her converted into a museum and hotel, but the Ministry of Defence dismissed the proposal as too expensive.

Photo by Andrew Cooke

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