Packed with half the rice in Singapore, HMS Illustrious is now steaming as fast as she can towards the carnage left by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
This has been an extremely rapid change of plans for the almost 956 crew and other personnel aboard, many of whom hoped to be home for Christmas. Instead they’ve been struggling to complete the fleet’s biggest on-load of stores since the Falklands War.
Much of it was loaded by hand round the clock in a marathon session involving a human chain – an exhausting marathon in the sweltering heat of Singapore that involved shifting 500 tonnes of tarpaulins, water tanks, rice, biscuits, into the cavernous hangar in the centre of this aircraft carrier; an iconic vessel which is due to be decommissioned next year.
Its retirement will leave the Royal Navy without an aircraft carrier until the introduction of the new HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2016. HMS Ocean will continue to provide an amphibious helicopter platform once HMS Illustrious decommissions, but HMS Queen Elizabeth will not have its new compliment of F35 Bravo jets until 2018.
It’s a controversial result of the strategic defence review, leaving the Royal Navy to make do without fixed wing jets on its ships for a total of eight years.
In her fourth incarnation HMS Illustrious or “Lusty”, as she’s affectionately known, served in World War II, sustaining heavy damage from German bombing while in the Mediterranean. The damaged ship’s bell from that craft takes pride of place in the Admiral’s suite near the stern of the current ship, where other battle honours are recorded dating back to the Battle of Genoa in 1795.
This fifth version of HMS Illustrious’ was sent to the Falklands towards the end of that conflict, but now its considerable capabilities are focused not on war, but on aid. As a floating communications centre she will assess some of the hitherto unreached outlying islands, to find out exactly how badly damaged they were by the ferocious storm earlier this month.
Her seven helicopters will fan out dropping supplies and Royal Marines and Royal Navy personnel ashore to help with the provision of clean water, food, medical supplies and shelter.
She is equipped with a reverse osmosis system capable of purifying 450,000 litres of seawater each day; enough to provide 1000 people ashore with safe drinking water. For a few of the young cadets aboard this is their first time at sea with the Royal Navy, some only joined up three months ago.
For many others this is the first humanitarian mission with which they have been tasked. Trauma counselling sessions have been offered to men and women who may encounter bodies, as they pick their way through the ruins of towns and villages ashore. But the reality is that more than a fortnight after the massive storm struck, many of the dead were washed out to sea or have already been buried in mass graves.
The focus for the crew of HMS Illustrious is to help the living rebuild physically and psychologically. Neither will be easy.