A hulking gray Royal Navy warship rescued nearly 800 British soldiers and civilians stranded by the volcanic ash cloud and left on Tuesday to take them home.
Bearing military duffel bags, suitcases and tales of travel chaos, soldiers in uniform and parents with children in tow boarded the HMS Albion, a 570-foot amphibious assault ship, in this port in northern Spain for the 40-hour voyage to Portsmouth, England.
Two other Royal Navy ships are also heading to the continent, including the HMS Ark Royal, as Britain struggles to repatriate its marooned travellers.
Some waved from the deck of the HMS Albion as the vessel was tugged out to sea under cloudy skies.
The 500-odd soldiers, finishing a 6-month tour of duty in the war in Afghanistan, came to Spain via Cyprus, where they had rested for two weeks.
“I have lost count of the number of planes and buses we took to arrive here,” said Angus Henderson, 40, of the 1st Battalion, Royal Welsh, an infantry unit. He said he was in a hurry to get back to Britain for the funeral of a young colleague who was killed in Afghanistan.
One of the 290 civilians, Patricia Quirke of Manchester, said she and nine other families drove all night in taxis and a van from Spain’s northwest corner to catch the Royal Navy ride home. The taxi rides cost €600 each.
“It was like a movie,” said Matthew Connelly, another member of her party.
Yet another of the relieved travellers was Stanley Johnson, the father of London’s mayor, Boris Johnson. Johnson Sr. had been in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador and took a forced detour to Spain as he tried to get back to London. He said he was delighted to be going home with the British military.
“I am absolutely thrilled. You could say it is a bit of Dunkirk spirit,” he said, alluding to the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, France, in World War II.