Ark Royal's final return to home port of Portsmouth

Richard Westcott describes the scene as Ark Royal docks

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The commanding officer of HMS Ark Royal said it was a "sad" day as the ship returned to its home port for the final time before it is scrapped.

Crowds of people braved ice and snow to see the Royal Navy's flagship arrive in Portsmouth through thick fog.

The government decided to axe the aircraft carrier as it cut defence spending by 8%.

The ship will be decommissioned in January with a parade in Portsmouth to give the crew a final send-off.

Last month, the Queen made a farewell visit to the ship at an event held to mark the ship's 25th anniversary in service.

Spanish Armada

Commanding officer Captain Jerry Kyd said: "There is no question that there is a certain amount of sadness attached to this final deployment.

"But it is also an opportunity for us to celebrate the silver jubilee of this fine ship and for us to show her off once more.

"She has played a very important role throughout her history and we have always been lucky enough to draw great affection and support from the British public wherever we go.

Harriers took off from HMS Ark Royal for the last time last month

"For me, personally, I have been exceptionally proud to serve as her captain - my very first job after finishing my initial officer training 25 years ago at Dartmouth was in the then-brand new HMS Ark Royal."

The ship's farewell voyage took it around Scotland and on to Tyneside, where it was built by Swan Hunter at Wallsend.

The government's decision to decommission the Ark Royal three years early and also cut the Harrier force has been criticised by several retired Royal Navy admirals including Admiral Lord West of Spithead.

He said losing the ship in "such dangerous times" was "short-sighted".

The ship will be replaced by the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carrier, which will not come into service until the end of the decade.

They will carry F35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, which are replacing the Harriers after they are decommissioned in 2011.

A flypast by the Harriers in Portsmouth was cancelled because of the weather conditions.

The first Ark Royal saw battle in 1588 against the Spanish Armada. The current ship is the fifth vessel to carry the name and saw active service in the Balkans and the second Gulf War.

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