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Joy tinged with sadness as Westminster returns home without one of her family
13 August 2012

Shipmates left a very obvious gap for a missing sailor when HMS Westminster returned to Portsmouth today after seven months away.

The disappearance of Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl meant it was a homecoming with mixed emotions – for otherwise the frigate had enjoyed one of the most successful pirate/terrorism-busting deployments in recent years.

Pictures: LA(Phot) Kyle Heller, FRPU East

THIS is the poignant – and very obvious – gap left by the men and women of HMS Westminster to show that one of their family was missing as the frigate returned to Portsmouth this morning.

The spot on the warship’s upper deck where Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl should have been standing alongside shipmates for Procedure Alpha was left empty.

As they did so, the sailor’s relatives released 77 yellow balloons from Portsmouth’s famous Round Tower – one for each of the days the 27-year-old father of two has been missing.

There has been no trace of the leading hand since he climbed into a taxi in Dubai city in the small hours of May 27 following a night out with shipmates.

LS MacColl’s disappearance cast a shadow over an otherwise hugely successful deployment – and a homecoming charged with the usual high spirits of a flurry of flags and banners and hundreds of families waiting anxiously to see loved ones after seven months away.

While they waited for the frigate to reach its berth in the naval base, they were treated to a flypast from the ship’s Merlin helicopter, before it made for its base at Culdrose in Cornwall, home to its parent 829 Naval Air Squadron.

The Merlin played a key role – as, of course, did the rest of the ship’s company and Royal Marines detachment aboard – in the four main triumphs of Westminster’s deployment.

The Type 23 frigate seized more than 70 bales containing pure heroin – which would have provided terrorists with £14m of funding – from a dhow in the Indian Ocean.

And in a patrol which clocked up more than 44,000 miles, the warship stopped three groups of suspected pirates who were targeting merchant shipping.

Back in the arms of dad… All smiles – and a big cap – for little Olivia Cooper

Westminster also paid goodwill visits across the region from Aqaba in Jordan to Dar-es-Salam in Tanzania, and took part in numerous exercises with coalition and allied forces.

“I am tremendously proud of all that we have achieved. My fantastic ship’s company has risen to every challenge that has been laid before them and we have had a tangible effect in making the UK’s interests more secure as a result,” said Capt Nick Hine, Commanding Officer of the ‘capital ship’.

“Clearly we are all desperately disappointed that LS MacColl remains missing and our thoughts and prayers remain with his family at this particularly difficult time.”

LS MacColl’s disappearance prompted an international response – not just from his shipmates, the wider RN, MOD, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, British Embassy in Dubai, and local police agencies – but also a Facebook campaign.

Some 112,000 people have supported the effort to ‘Bring Timmy Home’, there have been candle vigils held for him and his family, while the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth was floodlit in yellow to highlight the missing sailor’s plight. Posters have been produced and leaflets distributed in the UAE.