Sailor's pride in honouring Leeds' links to HMS Ark Royal a decade after adopted warship decommissioned
Once seen as a symbol of the Royal Navy’s might, HMS Ark Royal became more than just a warship to its adopted city of Leeds.
Embracing its honoured history as their own, the people of the city raised phenomenal sums of around £9m for its revival after it was torpedoed in the Second World War.
When HMS Ark Royal was awarded Freedom of the City by the Queen Mother in 1973, thousands of people thronged the streets to watch and cheer, waving flags and banners.
Now, as today marks a decade since the formal decommissioning of the flagship vessel, those who served within its ranks have spoken of their memories of the ‘Mighty Ark’, and the grand legacy she leaves behind.
“Leeds’ history with the Ark goes back such a long time,” said Stephen Abbott, who as a young aircraft mechanic on the aircraft carrier had met his wife Helen at a parade to honour the serving crew.
“I hope the name will come back again,” he reflected. “I am sure there will be another Ark Royal. Without a doubt it is a name from history.”
The HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned by the Ministry of Defence in 2011 as a money-saving move, five years ahead of its expected sell by date.
Leeds’s links with the ship had first been forged during the Second World War, as the city agreed to adopt the aircraft carrier as part of a government campaign to raise money for the war effort.
But days later it was sunk after being torpedoed by a German u-boat in the Mediterranean, just six months after she had helped sink the Bismarck.
The city’s residents raised £9m to build a replacement, Ark Royal IV, which served for a quarter of a century and was granted the Freedom of the City of Leeds in 1973.
It meant the ship’s company had the right of privilege to march through the city’s streets on all ceremonial occasions.
About 400 crew were in the city for the celebration, which saw a march past from Leeds Civic Hall through the city centre as well as a flypast by 26 aircraft from the ship.
Mr Abbott, then an 18-year-old new recruit, recalls the early morning excitement as crew drilled their parades at 3am ahead of the ceremony.
“It was just one of the most memorable times,” he said. “We practised at silly o’clock in the morning, marching outside the town hall.
“The only people that saw it were the nurses on shift at Leeds General Infirmary,” he added. “They all laughed, watching us from the windows.”
Mr Abbott, 66, would go on to serve on all three of the Invincible class carriers, leaving the ‘Old Ark’ when it was decommissioned in 1978 and joining the ‘New Ark’ for later tours to Bosnia.
When he married Helen, the young woman he had met in Leeds at a party to honour the Ark’s crew, the headlines ran ‘Freedom of City sailor marries local girl’, and last year the couple celebrated their sapphire wedding anniversary.
Mr Abbott left the Navy in 1995 as a Petty Officer for aircraft electrical and weapons and now runs an independent financial services company in Bradford, where he lives.
Recalling the parades in Leeds and the welcome the crew received, he said the city had truly adopted the honour of the Ark, and all who served on her.
“The city did a really good job,” he said. “I remember marching down the Headrow, the people of Leeds were wonderful.
“It was a bit embarrassing really, you couldn’t buy a drink, everybody wanted to talk to you and hear about the Ark.
“I was 18 when I came to Leeds, it was a whole new world to me. It was a busy ship. You can imagine, for a young man to be working on these massive great jets was quite an eye opener.”
The 'Mighty Ark'
Five ships of the Royal Navy have borne the name HMS Ark Royal, with the first having seen off the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The final one, known as the Mighty Ark, saw action during the Bosnian War in 1993 before being sent to lead the British fleet during the invasion of Iraq a decade later.
It was an emotional goodbye, this newspaper reported, as the ship’s ensign was lowered for the final time when it was formally decommissioned on March 11, 2011.
Crew had stood proudly on deck at Portsmouth Naval Base as the last 150 soldiers marched from the flight deck to the sound of the ship’s band playing For Those in Peril on the Sea.