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Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Villa Irene

HMS Albion to the Rescue! : Stanley Johnson

Published in The Lady April 2010

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I am writing this on my laptop in the train from Portsmouth Harbour to Waterloo. The time is 10pm on Wednesday April 21. I can honestly say that the last few days have been some of the most interesting – and exciting – of my life. Let me explain why.’

 

On Thursday last week, my wife Jenny and I were on board the MV Eclipse, steaming between Santa Cruz and Santiago islands in the Galapagos, which lie in the Pacific some six hundred miles west of the coast of Ecuador, when we heard the news that a volcano had erupted in Iceland. By the weekend, when we were due to fly to Guayacil, on the mainland of Ecuador, and thence to Europe, it was clear that getting home might present something of a challenge. Fortunately, we were booked out of Guayacil on an Air Iberia flight to Madrid and the Spanish airline was still flying. The dust cloud, it seemed, had not yet drifted over the Iberian Peninsular.

‘Do you have a plan for when we get to Madrid?’ Jenny asked me.

‘Not as such,’ I replied.

There were already several hundred people queuing at the Air Iberia information desk when we arrived in Madrid after a 10-hour flight from South America. Spain, it seemed, was acting as a kind of magnet for travellers from all over the world, desperate to set foot on the continent of Europe. They had come from America, Asia, Africa, even Australia. Arriving in Madrid, however, was one thing; travelling on to the next destination was something else altogether.

Trains to Paris were fully booked for days, we were told. If you tried to hire a car, you might have to pay thousands of Euros. For returning UK citizens, the dilemma was particularly acute. Even if – miraculously – you made it to the Channel Ports, you still had to cross the Channel itself. Of course, you could stick around in Madrid and wait for the skies to clear.

We made a quick calculation. Just to get in front of the harried official at the information desk would, we reckoned, take at least a day or two at the rate the queue was moving. So we headed for Madrid’s central bus station instead.

‘Vamonos ,’ I urged the taxi-driver.

There were two seats left on the 4.30pm bus to Santander, in the north of Spain. Our great good fortune was to find five fellow-Brits seated near us at the back of the bus. Janet and Rosemary, making their way back to Britain overland from Morocco, had teamed up with Andrew doing much the same. Kelly and Scott had attached themselves somewhere along the line to form a nucleus of five.

I wouldn’t say that any of the group was particularly sanguine about the chances of making progress. Blackberries and iPods blipped and bleeped. As our bus cruised along the Autovía, suggestions came in from all sides.

‘The best hope,’ Janet said, ‘may be Brittany Ferries. It looks as though they may be taking bookings for Thursday.’

Thursday! That didn’t sound too bad. After all, it was almost Tuesday already.

‘Thursday April 29th, I mean,’ Janet continued, ‘not April 22nd!’

One gobbet of information which filtered through in the course of that five-hour bus journey from Madrid to Santander was particularly intriguing. Scott had a military background with the elite Pathfinders. He had already served two tours in Afghanistan and was due to rejoin his unit within days.

‘I just heard,’ he told us, ‘that they may be sending HMS Albion to Santander to pick up some of our soldiers returning from Afghanistan.’

Our spirits rose. Suddenly, our mad dash on to the bus seemed to make sense. If they were going to pick up British soldiers in Santander and carry them back home to Blighty, maybe they would have room for a few civilians as well. As we cruised into Burgos for a brief pit-stop, I found myself humming: ‘Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing!’

Our bus rolled into Santander at around 10pm. As we drove along the quayside, we looked out for HMS Albion. The consensus among our little core-group was that if HMS Albion had already arrived in Santander, the ship should be easy enough to spot.

Of course, we deferred to Scott in such matters. ‘The Albion’s as big as an aircraft carrier,’ he told us.

We stayed that night at the Real (meaning royal) Hotel on the outskirts of town. Andrew, who was up to speed with such things, had already rung ahead to make reservations.

Next morning, we piled into a taxi, heading for the Brittany Ferries office on the quay. We were ready to charm or cajole – anything to get some assurance that we wouldn’t be spending the next month or more in northern Spain.

A funny thing happened on the way to the BF office. As our taxi drove down the Avenida de la Reina Victoria towards the dock, we saw a huge grey shape looking enormously large against the still handsome Santander waterfront. The vessel dwarfed all the other traffic on the water. As we got closer, we saw men and women in camouflage uniform on the deck. The HMS Albion had indeed arrived! Our boys and girls were already on board!

We jumped out of the cab, hauling our luggage with us to the dock-gates. There must, I suppose, have been 50 or 60 Brits there that morning, all hoping that room would be found for us too, in addition to the two hundred or so who were being brought up from Madrid under the auspices of the British Embassy there.

Stanley with fellow HMS Albion evacuees

Well, this is a story that has a happy ending. Soon after HMS Albion had put out from Santander into the Bay of Biscay, I found myself being invited to tea by Commander John Gardner, the executive officer in charge. He was naturally keen to brief me about the successful rescue operation which the Albion had just completed.

I told him that, as we stuck our nose through the closed gates on the Santander quayside, we had been afraid that we would be left behind. Commander Gardner chose his words carefully. ‘I was not prepared to leave any Brits on the jetty if I could possibly help it.’

Of course there were rules to be observed. The maximum number of people the Albion is meant to carry is 1,150. With 489 military personnel to be taken on board, and with the ship’s own complement of 375, the scope for ‘others’, such as ourselves, to be ‘rescued’ was well defined. In the event, the Albion sailed with exactly 1,150 souls. I will personally vouch for the fact that there were – as far as I could see – no stragglers unaccounted for.

When, later that afternoon, I walked round the vehicle deck with Commander Gardner on a tour of the ship, I found myself talking to two Captains from the Army Medical Corps. If the journey my wife and I had made to get to Santander had been long and eventful, theirs had been doubly so.

‘We left Camp Bastion on Monday,’ Capt. Katie Miéville told me, ‘to fly to Kandahar. Then on Wednesday we flew to Cyprus to wind down for a few hours. Thursday morning we took off from Akrotiri for Brize Norton, only to be turned back an hour and a half into the flight. We took off again yesterday for Zaragosa in Southern Spain, then were bussed up to Santander, arriving after midnight.’

Commander Gardner took us down to the galley to introduce us to the chef and his team. Cooking for 1,150 people is no mean achievement.

‘I have served 20 years in the Royal Navy,’ the Commander says, ‘and this is the best food I have ever tasted.’

I feel humbled to have been involved in whatever small way with this great ship at this time.

We were unexpected guests, yet everyone on board treated us with astonishing warmth and courtesy. If you said ‘loos’ when you mean ‘heads’, they didn’t make a meal of it. If you didn’t grasp the geography of the ship at first sight (with no less than 14 decks it is easy to end up in the wrong place), there was always someone to set you straight. If the volcano cloud made life difficult for people like my wife and me, spare a thought for our soldiers in Afghanistan. Outside the sick bay, I talked to the doctor in charge. ‘The aero-med chain,’ he told me, ‘is severely disrupted at the moment because of the volcano. If we can’t fly gravely injured personnel back to Britain, we have to make arrangements with the US to fly them to the States.’

Happily, of course, with the recent ending of flying restrictions, this particular situation no longer seems so threatening. There were several families with young children on board HMS Albion on her most recent voyage. I am sure that they, like me, will remember this day for the rest of their lives. I hope in particular they remember the soldiers and the sailors who made today possible. I certainly will.

One last memory from this amazing day in particular sticks in my mind. HMS Albion approached Portsmouth Harbour towards sunset. We could see the people waving from the rooftop terraces as the great ship drew near to the quay, to tie up virtually next door to HMS Victory, Nelson’s famous flagship. Helicopters buzzed overhead. Jenny and I were in the crowded bow of the ship, watching the proceedings with most of our fellow ‘evacuees’ when my mobile phone rang.

‘Is that Mr. Johnson? This is BBC News. We heard you were on board. Where are you standing? If you look up at the helicopter overhead and wave your arms, we ought to be able to pick you out!’

So all of us looked up and waved. It was an extraordinary moment, though I am not sure whether the helicopter cameras actually captured it on tape. Minutes later, the sun set over Portsmouth Harbour. The last command Jenny and I heard over the tannoy before we went down to pack our bags was a broadcast command: ‘Attention Upper Deck! Face aft and salute the sunset!’

I am not sure whether my wife and I were really among the intended targets of this broadcast instruction but we heeded it anyway, snapping to attention with a crisp salute. As a way of showing our gratitude to the Royal Navy, to the ship’s company, to the soldiers who travelled with us, to the diplomats who helped organise this ‘mini-Dunkirk’, and – last but not least – to our lively and good-humoured fellow-evacuees whose experiences may have been every bit as dramatic as ours, that symbolic salute seemed the very least we could do.

 

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