SAILORS from Portsmouth were given a heroes’ welcome when they returned home after months battling terrorists and drug gangs.
HMS St Albans sailed into the city yesterday after a testing nine-month deployment in the Middle East, where she worked alongside French and US carriers bombing so-called Islamic State.
Hundreds of people lined the South Railway Jetty at Portsmouth Naval Base to watch the Type 23 frigate’s triumphant arrival.
The 220 ship’s company have sailed more than 38,000 miles on Operation Kipion working with carrier task groups bombing terrorists as well as conducting counter-narcotic operations and tackling weapons smugglers.
First to come off the warship – affectionately nicknamed as The Saint – was her commanding officer, Commander Richard Hutchings.
Cdr Hutchings, who lives in Portsmouth, was embraced by his three young children, Sophie, James and Freddie.
He said: ‘To be back with my family is an incredible feeling. To spend such a long time away from them has been hard.
‘I’m incredibly proud of the entire ship’s company and all their achievements.’
Son Freddie, 11, was thrilled to be reunited with his dad.
He said: ‘I feel really proud of my dad helping to stop the terrorists and to stop the drugs.’
Younger brother James had been counting the days until his dad’s return.
‘It feels really good that he’s back,’ he said. ‘It’s amazing. I’ve missed him a lot and it’s been a long time.’
Families cheered as sailors spilled off the ship and onto the jetty to cuddle their loved ones.
Petty Officer Carl Girt, 33, of Gosport, was met with an emotional embrace by his girlfriend Sophie Haynes, 33.
She said: ‘It’s absolutely amazing to have him back, I have missed him so much.’
Leading Chef Alan Hamilton, 28, was reunited with fianceé Laura Herrity, 30, of Waterlooville, three weeks before their wedding day.
She said: ‘It’s great to have him back. He’s got a job list as long as your arm.’
St Albans’ deployment began with a major drugs bust, just days after she left Portsmouth.
The warship seized 320kg of cannabis with an estimated value of £1m which was destined for European markets.
In the Gulf, The Saint integrated into two separate French and United States aircraft carrier strike groups.
She worked alongside the carrier FS Charles de Gaulle following the terrorist attacks in Paris and later the giant USS Harry S Truman. Both carriers were conducting air strikes into Syria and Iraq.
Executive Warrant Officer, WO Billy May said the mission had been testing and that he was happy to be back home with his two children, Will, nine, and Lara, 11.
‘It was a tough few months so I know we’re all glad to be back,’ he added.
St Albans has visited ports in 10 countries and worked with international partners on live operations and exercises.
Earlier this year the ship also came to the rescue of two Pakistani fishermen whose vessel had lost power and was slowly sinking.
The ship’s engineers were unable to repair the stricken craft so both fishermen were safely returned to Pakistan.
And a specialist embarked detachment of Royal Marines from 43 Commando conducted numerous boardings of suspicious vessels, working closely with the ship’s boarding team.
For many of the ship’s company, the deployment is their first on operations.
Among them is Able Seaman Sea Specialist Kieran O’Hara, who said: ‘It’s been good to put all of our training from the past year into practice for real.
‘The highlight of the deployment for me has been working with the USS Harry S Truman carrier strike group and supporting their operations.
‘It’s been a long trip with lots of hard work, so it will be really good to get home and see my family again.’
The Rev Eddie Wills is the ship’s chaplain. It was also his first time at sea.
He celebrated his 52nd birthday last week and said: ‘Being back home feels like a belated birthday present.
‘It’s wonderful. But I’m going to miss everyone. When you spend such a long period of time with people they become like your family.’
Cdr Hutchings added the support of the city had been a massive boost for the ship’s company.
‘Portsmouth is a wonderful city and it’s really great to have its support,’ he said.
‘It means so much for us all and makes us feel valued.’
The ship’s company are now on summer leave.