IT WAS a reunion like no other for the former crew of HMS Illustrious.
Veterans of the aircraft carrier’s 1982 personnel, many from this area, gathered at the city’s Guildhall to exchange memories and greet old friends.
But the main reason was for the veterans to be presented with their South Atlantic Medal, recognising their vital work in the aftermath of the Falklands War.
It has taken 33 years for the crew to receive the medal after prime minister David Cameron extended the honour to them last year.
But for many of the ship’s company, it arrived in the post and they thought a real ceremony should be organised for them to be presented with it.
More than 100 of the crew were at Portsmouth Guildhall on Saturday for the ceremony and even more joined the celebrations in the evening.
Steve Wardman, who is originally from Clanfield, and Clayton Gardner joined the Royal Navy together in 1980.
HMS Illustrious was their first ship and they served as Marine Engineering Artificers.
The pair had tried to stay in touch since leaving the navy but Saturday was the first time they had met up in many years.
Clayton, 55, now of Cheltenham, said: ‘It was fantastic for everyone to come together and receive their medals.
‘Some people I hadn’t seen since being on-board the ship so it’s great to see what they are up to now.
‘Everyone made some strong friendships on Illustrious and that made time on the ship so great.’
Steve agreed. He added: ‘The guys and the camaraderie is one of my best memories of Illustrious.
‘When we joined it was a brand new ship and there was nothing like it.
‘So to be honoured for the work we did, it’s great.
‘Seeing everyone has really topped it off.’
John Trewby, from Petersfield, was a Weapons Engineering Officer and later became a Rear Admiral before retiring.
He said: ‘It was nice seeing everyone from all commanding levels at the event.
‘Some of us live close together and can meet up regularly to play golf or have a drink but it’s been good seeing other people who live all over the UK.’
The day was led by the first captain of HMS Illustrious Admiral Sir Jock Slater, who lives in Petersfield.
He said: ‘The company of HMS Illustrious during 1982 heard only recently that they were entitled to the South Atlantic Medal.
‘The crew arrived to relieve HMS Invincible in the Falklands in late August 1982.
‘They decided at the review of military medals last year that the work of the crew of Illustrious should be entitled to the medal.’
Sir Jock added that the reunion was a great chance for the men to exchange memories about the rush they had to get HMS Illustrious ready for the war.
‘That was a unique experience for them,’ he said.
‘Many of the ship’s company joined me when we left the Tyne in Newcastle.’
‘The ship’s deployment was brought forward by three-and-a-half months which was a remarkable achievement.
‘It took 70 days and 70 nights of leaving the Tyne for us to be fully operational in the South Atlantic.
‘It was tremendous experience for me and the ships company so it is great to see them again.
‘Most people thought it wasn’t achievable for us to complete the ship in the timeframe we had.
‘But we managed to do it and that is one of the great memories I have of Illustrious.’
As well as crew from the ship, Alex Marsh, who was shipbuilding director for Swan Hunter at the time HMS Illustrious was built, was also there. He and his team were tasked with getting the ship ready for the conflict three-and-a-half months early.
The 69-year-old said: ‘HMS Illustrious was always my baby.
‘I always had responsibility for Illustrious so when it came to making it ready for the Falklands, I was adamant that I would take control of that.
‘When we took the decision to bring the ship forward, we were excited to do it.’
He added: ‘It was wonderful to see everyone; some people I haven’t seen for more than 30 years.
‘Illustrious always had a very happy crew.
‘Right from when she was commissioned but in particular because of the Falklands War. Very close friendships were formed.’
HMS Illustrious arrived in the South Atlantic to relieve HMS Invincible after the Falklands War had finished in August to help with dangerous clean-up work.
And the ship played an important role of providing air defence until the airbase on the islands was operational.
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