Helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious has sailed for Spain amid a continuing row with the country over Gibraltar.
The ship left Portsmouth this morning on a routine deployment called Cougar 13.
A number of Royal Navy warships and auxiliary vessels will set sail this week for the series of exercises.
The timing of the deployment coincides with a diplomatic row with Spain over the Rock – and three of the ships are due to stop there.
But for the families who gathered on the Round Tower in Old Portsmouth today, it was business as usual – despite the extra television cameras and news helicopters which descended on the harbour.
Sarah Utting, 20, was there to wave off her boyfriend Air Engineering Technician Leam McDermott, 24.
She said: ‘It’s been very emotional and I will miss him while he’s away.
‘It’s the first time I’ve been down here to wave him off on a ship so it’s quite an experience in itself.
‘It’s good to see so many people here and I guess today is something a bit out of the ordinary.
‘I’ll be looking forward to him coming back in time for Christmas.’
Portsmouth-based HMS Westminster and three Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships are due to visit Gibraltar as they head into the Mediterranean for Cougar 13.
The Ministry of Defence has stressed the deployment has been ‘long-planned’.
The Spanish defence minister, Pedro Morenes, has also said it is ‘totally normal’ for British warships to dock in Gibraltar.
He added that HMS Illustrious has requested, and been granted, permission to stop off at the southern Spanish naval base of Rota on Sunday.
HMS Illustrious’ commanding officer, Captain Mike Utley, said: ‘I am immensely proud of my ship and what has been achieved by everyone on board, in Portsmouth Naval Base and further afield, to get HMS Illustrious and all our embedded capabilities ready to deploy today.
‘We have been trained and prepared as a major part of the UK’s contingency capability, to successful integrate and operate aircraft from across defence and therefore complete any tasking we may be asked to undertake.’
HMS WESTMINSTER WILL SAIL FOR GIBRALTAR
The frigate HMS Westminster is due to leave Portsmouth tomorrow on a routine visit to Gibraltar amid the tensions with Spain over border checks.
The Type 23 will visit the Rock en route to the Mediterranean where she will join other naval ships on a large training exercise.
She will be joined by two Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships – RFA Lyme Bay and RFA Mounts Bay.
The warship is expected to sail at around 10am.
The visit comes as a diplomatic row continues between the UK and Spain.
It was triggered by the creation of an artificial reef by the Gibraltarian authorities, which the Spanish claim will destroy fishing in the area.
Madrid responded by beefing up border controls, leading to lengthy queues, and suggesting that a £43 fee could be imposed on every vehicle entering or leaving the territory through its fenced border with Spain.
Reports in the Spanish media suggest the row could escalate to the United Nations, with Mariano Rajoy’s government receiving support from Argentina.
Spanish foreign minister Jose Garcia-Margallo is expected to propose that both countries present a united front over Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, El Pais reported.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: ‘Our policy on Gibraltar has not changed and is consistent with our policy on other overseas territories.
‘Self-determination matters more than territorial integrity.
‘The people of Gibraltar have repeatedly and overwhelmingly expressed their wish to remain under British sovereignty.’