Sailors from the Royal Navy aircraft carrier will now be reunited with their families for Christmas after the ship’s first deployment that took the UK Carrier Strike Group as far east as Guam in the Pacific, travelling across the Atlantic, Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and the Indian Ocean.
The strike group’s mission saw it bomb the remnants of Isis across the Middle East and safeguard international waters close to China, showing a ‘resurgent Carrier Strike capability for UK Defence’, according to HMS Queen Elizabeth’s Commanding Officer Captain Ian Feasey.
Now those onboard will be looking forward to spending the festive season with their loved ones, after a deployment that had its fair share of frustrations, according to several families lining the Hot Walls, in Old Portsmouth.
Covid-19 restrictions scuppered planned shore leave in Singapore, Japan, and several other destinations, with the ship itself suffering an outbreak of the virus in July.
But now the sailors will be getting the best possible shore leave by being reunited with their families, according to Cowplain resident Gemma Brown, who was eagerly awaiting the return of Petty Officer Gavin Brown, her husband and father of twins Orla and Kobe, aged eight.
The 37-year-old said: ‘It’s been quite a frustrating deployment because of Covid-19. It’s the trip of a lifetime but the restrictions meant they couldn’t come off the ship as much as they would have liked.
‘It’s always really important the locals come out to support the navy. It’s part of Portsmouth’s heritage, obviously.’
Jo Cassabors and husband Philippe came down from Newark, Nottinghamshire, to display a giant banner for their son Alex, who has completed his first deployment as a Royal Marine.
The proud mum said: ‘We know it’s been really, really tough for them.. It’s a deployment that hasn’t worked out as they hoped.
‘It was absolutely extraordinary seeing so many people and Alex said it was incredible to see all the support (when HMS Queen Elizabeth left in May).
‘This afternoon is going to be the same for them.’
The aircraft carrier returned to the city with a bang, thrilling the crowds in Old Portsmouth by firing a 21-gun salute.
But for some it will mark the beginning of just a short break as more hard work must be undertaken before the Christmas holidays, according to Kate Hackett, who was waiting for her aircraft engineer son Sam.
The Northumberland resident said: ‘We won’t be able to bring him home yet, because he has to stay on the ship. It was a concern that he would be onboard over Christmas – but he will be home.
‘We have kept in touch – obviously they go quiet every now and then, but (the carrier group’s) social media has been really good.
‘That makes a big difference.’
The end of the £3 billion ship’s first deployment marks a beginning – and an end – for several sailors onboard.
For Able Seaman Thomas Corby, the return to Portsmouth marks completes his first deployment.
The Royal Navy sailor said: ‘The thing that I am most looking forward to when I get home is being able to hug my grandparents again for the first time in nearly two years owing to Covid and the deployment.’
While for Flight Deck Officer Lieutenant Commander Richard Turrell, the return marks the end of his last deployment at sea after a decade of service.
He said: ‘This is my final deployment at sea and I have completed my career on board the UK’s flagship carrier as the Flight Deck Officer, responsible for four acres of sovereign territory and an air wing of 28 aircraft.
‘This has been personally and professionally rewarding and I will look back over the past two and a half years with immense pride.’
Strike group vessels HMS Defender and HMS Diamond also returned to the city ahead of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s return.
The Queen, who visited the aircraft carrier in May before it set off, said she wished to send her ‘sincere thanks’ to all those serving onboard and within the strike group.
Her Majesty said: "On the return of HMS Queen Elizabeth to her base port of Portsmouth, I send my best wishes to the 1,200 Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Air Force, and United States Navy and Marine Corps personnel on board the ship.
‘I was pleased to hear of the important work you have undertaken to build relationships between the United Kingdom and more than 20 nations during your seven-month-long deployment.
‘I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to the wider Carrier Strike Group and hope you all have a most enjoyable and restful Christmas with your families.’