The Queen has flown on board the Royal Navy flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth to wish the crew well as they make final preparations to depart on the carrier’s first operational deployment.
The £3 billion warship, carrying eight RAF F35B stealth fighter jets, will depart later on Saturday for Asia accompanied by six Royal Navy ships, a submarine, 14 naval helicopters, a company of Royal Marines.
The Queen was welcomed on board at Portsmouth Naval Base by the ship’s commanding officer Captain Angus Essenhigh, and Commodore Stephen Moorhouse, commander of the UK Carrier Strike Group (CSG).
She was given a briefing on the 28-week deployment which will cover 26,000 nautical miles travelling through the Mediterranean to the Red Sea then from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean to the Philippine Sea.
The Queen also had a chance to meet some of the 1,700 personnel on board the carrier which include Royal Navy sailors, Royal Air Force airmen and women, Royal Marines, and 250 United States personnel.
Her visit followed a tour by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday.
She was wearing a brick-red military-style cashmere coat with a black velvet collar and buttons, over a crepe wool dress by Stewart Parvin and a Rachel Trevor-Morgan hat.
She was also wearing a scarab brooch which was a gift from the Duke of Edinburgh.
It is understood that the Queen is keen to recommence more public engagements in the coming months instead of the virtual events which have taken up much of her schedule since the pandemic hit.
Captain Essenhigh said: “It’s always a great privilege to host the Queen and to have her as both our sovereign and our lady sponsor come and wish us well as we set off on a seven-month deployment is something incredibly special.”
The Queen presented a medal for 15 years’ long service and good conduct to Petty Officer Matthew Ready, 38, from Gosport, Hampshire.
He said: “It was an incredible honour for me and my family.”
Engineering Technician Marine Engineering (ETME) Billie Matthews, 22, from County Durham, who was one of those who met the Queen, said: “It was brilliant, she was very chatty, very smiley.”
Able seaman Chelsea Paterson, 24, from Chirnside, Scotland, said: “It was incredible, an honour to see her, let alone speak to her, the highlight of my career.”
The CSG will carry out visits to 40 countries including India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore with more than 70 engagements including sailing alongside the French carrier Charles De Gaulle in the Mediterranean.
As well as the UK military units involved in the CSG, HMS Queen Elizabeth will also have a squadron of 10 US Marine Corps F35B Lightning II jets embarked and be accompanied by the US destroyer USS The Sullivans and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who also visited the ship, said: “The UK’s Carrier Strike Group sets sail to write Britain’s name in the next chapter of history – a truly global Britain that steps forward to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, working hand-in-hand with our friends to defend our shared values and uphold the rules-based international order.
“This deployment shows that we are strong on our own, but even stronger with our allies. I want to join the nation in wishing the crews across the Carrier Strike Group every success as they depart on this truly historic endeavour.”
The MoD has announced that the CSG’s F35B Lightning fast jets operated by the renowned “Dambusters” squadron, or 617 Squadron, will join Operation Shader targeting the remnants of so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The F35B jets are multi-role combat aircraft equipped with advanced sensors, mission systems and stealth technology – enabling them to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks.
The carrier had not been expected to return to Portsmouth after taking part in a major exercise off Scotland and the CSG had been expected to gather in the Solent prior to departure.
But heavy winds led to the unscheduled stop in the naval base with most of the other ships waiting at Devonport to regroup before sailing for the Mediterranean.
The deployment has been organised as part of the “UK’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific region” in a bid to “bolster deep defence partnerships” as well as to take part in an exercise to mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Powers Defence Agreement with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.
Accompanying HMS Queen Elizabeth will be a surface fleet made up of Type 45 destroyers HMS Defender and HMS Diamond, Type 23 anti-submarine frigates HMS Kent and HMS Richmond, and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s RFA Fort Victoria and RFA Tidespring.
The Royal Navy Astute-class submarine will also be deployed, armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.
As well as the stealth fighters, four Wildcat maritime attack helicopters, seven Merlin Mk2 anti-submarine helicopters and three Merlin Mk4 commando helicopters will be embarked – the greatest quantity of helicopters assigned to a single UK Task Group in a decade.
Commodore Steve Moorhouse, commander UK CSG, said the Queen was looking forward to some peace and quiet, as the F35B jets based near her home in Sandringham would be away on the deployment for seven months.
He told PA: “It wasn’t lost on her they are from Marham, just down the road from Sandringham, so she hears them regularly, so she was just relieved to see them go to sea and get a little peace over her.”
He added: “It was an absolute privilege to host her majesty on her flagship, she was really fascinated and interested in where we were going and was particularly struck not just by where the carrier was going but where the frigates and destroyers are going and the variety of the trip.”
He said morale was “fantastic” ahead of sailing and added: “The smiles on the faces is as much to meet her majesty but also knowing we will get away.”