HMS Liverpool’s Libya war heroes were hailed as ‘inspirational’ by Britain’s defence secretary as the warship made an emotional homecoming to Portsmouth yesterday.
Philip Hammond flew out to the ship in the Solent to address the 250 sailors who spent seven months battling Colonel Gaddafi’s troops.
He said: ‘Your bravery and professionalism is inspirational to us all. From the whole nation, thank you for what you’ve done.’
Liverpool’s Libya mission ended on October 31 after the capture and killing of Colonel Gaddafi last month.
She was the first warship since the 1982 Falklands War to return from sea having come under enemy fire.
More than 1,000 people lined the seafront and Portsmouth Naval Base jetty to cheer the ship’s triumphant return.
Liverpool was shot at 10 times by pro-Gaddafi troops armed with rockets, which missed the ship.
The destroyer returned fire on 12 occasions – the first time a navy ship has blasted her 4.5in gun in anger since the Iraq war in 2003.
On his first naval visit since taking over as defence secretary last month, Mr Hammond told sailors: ‘You should be proud of the part you have played in creating a space to allow the Libyan people to get rid of a tyrant and end a dictatorship which lasted for 40 years.
‘We should not forget this was a dictatorship which sponsored international terrorism which we in Britain have borne the brunt of for several decades.’
Sailors spoke of the gun battles off the Libyan coast.
Lieutenant Commander Steve Gott, 46, from Stubbington, said: ‘Being fired on is something that nobody expected to happen.
‘It was always possible that threat was there but it came as a bit of a surprise when it first happened.’
Lt Cdr Gott said the crew’s training kicked in, adding: ‘The most humbling thing was some of the guys who are only 19 or 20 years of age took it in their stride and reacted exactly how you want them to react.
‘When it was all over you’d take a couple of deep breaths, look each other in the eye and ask “did that really just happen?”.’
Able Seaman William Mallinder, 20, of Portsmouth, said: ‘It was a whole new experience for me. I never imagined actually doing what I had joined up to do. It has been an incredible time.’