HMS Liverpool today received a triumphant welcome home in Portsmouth after more than seven months away off Libya.
The destroyer, which fired more than 200 rounds and helped to direct the NATO air campaign, was greeted by around 1,000 friends and families, plus the Defence Secretary and First Sea Lord, who praised the 250 sailors aboard for displaying “the Royal Navy at its very best”.
HMS Liverpool's Lynx flies past the destroyer as she enters Portsmouth Harbour after more than seven months away
Pictures: LA(Phots) Darby Allen, Jay Allen and Gaz Weatherston
BACK to one of the biggest homecomings since the Falklands are the 250 men and women of HMS Liverpool who this morning received a rapturous welcome in Portsmouth.
First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, two Lynx helicopters, a 19-gun salute, a Royal Marines Band, the ship’s company of HMS Brocklesby cheering heartily and, most importantly, around 1,000 friends and families were on hand to welcome the veteran destroyer after more than seven months off Libya.
She became the first British warship to be fired at deliberately since the Falklands conflict 30 years ago – and responded with more than 200 rounds from her main gun to silence pro-Gaddafi gun batteries and stop convoys in their tracks.
Whilst those actions earned the ship – nicknamed the Crazy Red Chicken thanks to the Liver bird on the destroyer’s badge – international media attention, equally important were her roles enforcing the arms embargo to stop weapons reaching government troops and helping to direct the myriad of NATO aircraft enforcing the No-Fly Zone and conducting strike missions.
Ship's company rush down the gangways for emotional reunions with loved ones
Those missions meant the ship’s company spent most of their time in defence watches – six hours on duty, six hours off – and spent 81 hours at action stations when Liverpool was engaged by enemy guns, or threatened with being engaged.
Not once on the ten occasions that Gaddafi’s guns and rocket batteries fired at the ship was the destroyer seriously threatened – but crew said even when rounds fell 600 metres short of the ship, they could feel the vibrations of the impact through the hull.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond chats with Liverpool's gunnery officer Lt Rubin Nash
Mr Hammond – paying his first visit to the Navy since he took office – said the ship’s company could be proud of playing “a vital role” in helping the Libyan people “to rid themselves of a tyrant and end a dictatorship that has lasted for 40 years.
“We are grateful to you and proud of you. You have demonstrated the power of the Royal Navy. On behalf of the whole nation: thank you for what you have done.”
Liverpool's captain Cdr Colin Williams hugs his daughters Isabella and Hermione and his wife Sarah
Liverpool was originally due to sail with the Cougar task group to the Mediterranean and Middle East on exercises.
Instead, she left Portsmouth earlier than planned at the end of March – and arrived home three months later than originally scheduled.
Those changes to the deployment meant that Lt Rubin Nash had to cancel his wedding twice (his expertise as Liverpool’s gunnery officer was deemed indispensable, so he’ll now be tying the knot in the spring – world events allowing) but on the plus side four ship’s company were able to get home in time for the birth of new additions to their families.
“It’s been a long year but a good year,” said 28-year-old LCH Nicola Stirzaker from Bradford who’s now completed her fifth deployment.
“I’ve never done something as big as this. When we heard that Gaddafi had gone you knew that you’d made a big difference.”
Liverpool is due to decommission in the spring after 30 years’ service (a final visit to her namesake city and trials and exercises are in store before the White Ensign is lowered for good) and she leaves the Navy, says her Commanding Officer Cdr Colin Williams, “having played a very good tune on her fiddle.”
He continued: “We were under attack, under constant threat of attack, and that’s not easy – it’s stressful and tiring, but we reacted calmly, professionally, and we’ve all come home safely.”
Cdr Williams praised families for their support throughout – there were times when email and phone communications were down for operational reasons and the ship’s ever-changing programme meant she missed the post for two months.
A big turnout - and a big banner - for PO Simon Hawthorn
Above all, he said his men and women were filled with “a sense of pride and satisfaction at a job well done.
“You can see sailors grinning from ear to ear. We are very proud of what we have done. Keeping people motivated has not been difficult – they could see the difference we were making.”
From Britain’s senior sailor there was the Royal Navy’s traditional words of praise – Bravo Zulu. “Thank you for all you have done,” he told the ship’s company gathered in the hangar before the destroyer entered Portsmouth Harbour.
“You have displayed the Royal Navy at its very best.”
There will be a special report on Liverpool's Libyan mission in the December edition of Navy News