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

Rescued by HMS Albion and home by sunset.

By Stanley Johnson. Published in London Evening Standard, 22nd April 2010

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HMS Albion approached Portsmouth Harbour last night in time for the sunset. We could see 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 flagship. Helicopters buzzed overhead.

My wife 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. Where are you standing? If you look at the helicopter overhead and wave your arms, we ought to be able to pick you out."

Stanley with Commander John Gardner, the naval executive officer in charge
It was the end of a journey that began on Thursday last week in the Galapagos Islands. Jenny and I had been travelling there when we heard the news that a volcano in Iceland had erupted. We were booked to fly from Ecuador on an Air Iberia flight to Madrid. The Spanish airline was still flying.

"Do you have a plan for when we get to Madrid," Jenny asked me.

"Not as such," I replied.

Servicemen and civilian 'evacuees' on flight-deck
There were already several hundred people queuing at the Air Iberia information desk when we arrived in Madrid after our 10-hour flight from South America. Spain had become a 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.

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. Or you could stick around in Madrid and wait for the skies to open again.

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 29, I mean," Janet sighed.

Our 'core croup' of escapees, see text. Left to right Janet, Rosemary, Jenny, Stanley, Kelly, Scott, Andrew
One intriguing gobbet of information emerged on the journey.

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 onto 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.

Waiting to disembark, Portsmouth
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.

Next morning, as our taxi drove down the Avenida de la Reina Victoria towards the dock, we saw a grey shape looking enormous against the still handsome Santander waterfront. The vessel was so vast that it 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 against hope that somehow room would be found for us too, in addition to the 200 or so people who were being brought up from Madrid under the auspices of the British Embassy there. And I was on board!

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.

Scene on flight deck as HMS Albion approaches Portsmouth April 21, 2010
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 said masterfully: "I was not prepared to leave any Brits on the jetty if I could possibly help it."

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.

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 Zaragoza in southern Spain, then were bussed up to Santander, arriving after midnight."

Young footballers on flight-deck
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 meant "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 had 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, "had been severely disrupted because of the volcano. If we couldn't have flown gravely injured personnel back to Britain, we would have had to send them to the States." The news that the flying restrictions had been lifted gravely mattered in this case.

Minutes later, the sun set over Portsmouth harbour. The last command Jenny and I heard before we went down to pack our bags, broadcast over the Tannoy, was: "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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