AS HMS Ark Royal’s white ensign was lowered for the final time, a chapter in naval history was brought to an end.
Sailors and their families yesterday bid a final farewell to the major casualty of the government’s defence cuts – the former flagship of the fleet.
During the moving ceremony the Royal Marines band played We are Sailing – Rod Stewart’s famous tribute to the previous Ark.
But for at least the next 10 years, the Royal Navy won’t be sailing any kind of aircraft carrier.
The First Sea Lord and 900 family and friends of the ship’s company watched on in silence as sailors performed the last duty on Ark Royal at Portsmouth Naval Base.
The ship, which served in Bosnia and Iraq, paid off three years ahead of schedule as the government attempts to plug a £38bn black hole in the Ministry of Defence budget.
Yesterday was the last time many sailors would set foot on the ship.
Engineer Mark Knevett, 24, who has only ever served on Ark, said: ‘There were a lot of emotions when the flag was getting pulled down for the final time.
‘It’s the end of an era. It might be a lump of metal to people who are not in the navy but for us it’s our home. It’s where we live.’
His mum Anne Sessions, 50, burst in to tears as she recalled her father serving on the previous Ark Royal in the 1960s.
She said: ‘I’ve grown up in a naval family so it’s very emotional for me.’
The ship’s last commanding officer, Captain Jerry Kyd, was more upbeat about the occasion.
He said: ‘The whole British public can be tremendously proud of this ship, her crew and what she’s done for the country.’
Critics say Britain needs more ships at a time when the world has never looked so uncertain.
But Capt Kyd said it was ‘tremendous’ the government has committed to building two new aircraft carriers to be based in Portsmouth from 2020. He added: ‘Any military officer will say we want more of everything – more ships, more tanks, more soldiers – and quite right too – but you have to act within the limits of our resource and of course that means tough decisions.’
Former captains were welcomed to the decommissioning ceremony, including Rear Admiral Michael Harris, who was in command of Ark from 1987 to 1989.
He called the day a ‘very sad symptom of the recent defence review’ and urged for the cuts to be ‘debated properly’ in parliament.
He added: ‘In the long term we are in dead trouble – if not immediately.’