Gun salute, fly-past and family reunions as HMS York returns home

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A STUNNING 15-gun salute announced HMS York’s return to Portsmouth after an action-packed five months at sea.

The 29-year-old destroyer thundered into Portsmouth Harbour yesterday morning after a 29,000-mile deployment which saw the ship called in to help in Libya.

WELCOME HOME Leading Seaman Robert Austin with daughter Katie Austin, 4, and son Thomas, 8

WELCOME HOME Leading Seaman Robert Austin with daughter Katie Austin, 4, and son Thomas, 8

Fort Blockhouse in Gosport responded to York’s salvo with seven rounds of gunfire as the ship came in with her Lynx helicopter flying overhead.

The port tugs paid their own tribute, turning their water cannons on as the warship passed a rainy Round Tower.

York’s captain, Commander Simon Staley, said: ‘Very rarely these days does a warship fire a salute but I expressed permission because it’s possible this is our last entry after what may be York’s last deployment. She only has a year left in commission at the moment.’

The Type 42 destroyer left Portsmouth in February to patrol the south Atlantic. But she was soon called in to war-torn Libya.

BACK Commanding Officer Simon Staley with wife Leonie and son Harry.

BACK Commanding Officer Simon Staley with wife Leonie and son Harry.

With Colonel Gaddafi’s warplanes bombing cities just one minute’s flying distance away, York sailed into the rebel-held city of Benghazi to deliver two tonnes of medical aid and pick up 50 refugees – many of whom were women and children who had travelled for days in hope of being rescued.

Cdr Staley said: ‘It was an interesting situation. Outside of Benghazi we were aware of bombing going on and a lot of movement of Gaddafi forces. In Benghazi itself there was a lot of shelling and gunfire.

‘It was chaotic in the port. There were 2,000 nervous people trying to get out. The people we picked up were distressed but hugely relieved the Royal Navy had turned up to take them away. There was a real spectrum of emotion as those people came onboard.’

York patrolled off Libya for just over a week before she was relieved by frigate HMS Westminster.

She went on to patrol the Falklands for two months, before going to train with the navy in Peru.

She then made a challenging navigation of the Panama Canal before stops in Jamaica and America.

Cdr Staley, who has been in charge of York for almost two years, called yesterday’s homecoming ‘bittersweet’ as he is due to leave the ship in August.

He said: ‘This is my last day at sea and my last homecoming to Portsmouth, my home town for many years.

‘I’ve had a fantastic experience. I can look back at the memories of what we’ve achieved as a ship and of my ship’s company as well.

‘All sailors in the Royal Navy are terrific but I think York’s sailors are the best ambassadors I’ve ever seen for the Royal Navy and the UK.’

A huge crowd of 800 family and friends met the ship at Portsmouth Naval Base and the sailors could not wait to greet loved ones.

Gunner Robert Austin, 36 of Copnor, who was part of the team that fired the 15-gun salvo, hugged his children Katherine, four, and Thomas, eight.

He said: ‘It’s a lovely warm feeling to come home. It feels like we’ve accomplished a lot.

‘Firing the gun salute was the perfect way to end a very fulfilling and successful deployment.’

Leading chef John Sansom, of North End, cradled his 18-month-old daughter Keira and said: ‘I’ve hardly seen her for five months out of the last 18 months. It feels so good to be home even if she’s not quite sure who I am at the moment.’