Portsmouth ship revealed: The Old Grey Ghost of the Borneo Coast

HMS Albion
HMS Albion

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Mystery solved. Partially. Thanks to all of you (and there were dozens) who contacted me about the spectacular picture on the right.

I published it at the beginning of last week asking if anyone could a) identify the carrier, b) explain its unusual payload and c) name the year.

Many of you suggested the ship leaving Portsmouth Harbour was HMS Bulwark or HMS Theseus.

I had suggested it might have been an Australian carrier and a few correspondents reckoned it could be HMAS Sydney or Melbourne.

None of those was right. The vast majority of you, either with eagle eyes or a good magnifying glass, spotted her pennant number – RO7 – on the side of her bridge tower (circled). This leads to her identification as HMS Albion.

So far so good, but then we hit a snag with the date and the reason for all that army kit on her flight deck.

Former News reporter and ship specialist Tim King, who recognised her immediately as Albion, comes up with two possible dates – 1956 and 1962.

The former was the year of the Suez crisis, the latter the year of the Brunei rebellion on the island of Borneo.

Tim says: ‘Although in 1956 she was flying Sea Hawks, Sea Venoms and other fixed wing planes, it could well be that the picture was taken in 1956 judging by the large number of vehicles parked along the flight deck, because she embarked 42 Commando with all their vehicles and equipment for that operation and supported the landings in Egypt.

‘On the other hand, it could have been taken after she was converted into a commando carrier in 1961 and recommissioned in 1962, when she embarked 845 and 846 helicopter squadrons and took part in operations in Borneo, which was where she got her nickname – The Old Grey Ghost of the Borneo Coast.’

But it’s Bob Todd, from the historic photograph section of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, who might have come up with the right date – 1958.

In July that year a group of Iraqi army officers assassinated King Faisal of Iraq and the Iraqi prime minister and proclaimed Iraq to be a republic, sparking yet another Middle East crisis.

Bob says Albion was exercising in Scottish waters when, on July 17, she was ordered to return with all dispatch to Portsmouth, arriving in the afternoon of July 19.

‘Her squadrons were flown off in mid-Channel and she entered C Lock at Portsmouth to undergo a very rapid conversion into a troop transport.

‘Three days later, at 4.15pm on July 22, 1958, she left Portsmouth, as shown in this picture, carrying the whole of 42 Commando Royal Marines and 361 officers and men of the 19th Infantry Brigade Group, together with nearly 500 vehicles, bound for Malta.’

Bob says dockyard workers had to weld more than 1,000 eye bolts to the flight deck and part of the hangar deck to lash down the vehicles and the remainder of the hangar was fitted with sufficient tiers of steel-framed and canvas bunks to accommodate the whole force of commandos and ‘pongos’ [navy slang for any member of the British army].

‘She refuelled at Gibraltar and reached Malta at 6pm on July 26, just nine days after leaving Scottish waters,’ adds Bob.

Albion also covered the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967 and was involved in worldwide exercises and flag-showing commissions with friendly navies until she paid off in Portsmouth on November 24, 1972.

There was talk of converting her into some sort of support ship for North Sea oil rigs, but that never materialised and she was scrapped at Faslane.

Albion was launched in 1947 but not completed until 1954.

This was partly because she was almost lost in a collision four miles off the Longstone lighthouse under tow from Jarrow to Rosyth in 1949.

She was saved by tugs and towed to Rosyth where the engine room was found to be flooded to a depth of five feet. She was eventually completed in 1954 – two years before she responded to the Suez crisis.