SMILES on the faces of sailors aboard HMS York widened as the warship inched towards a jetty packed with shouting well-wishers at Portsmouth - more than four months after she set sail for battle in the Gulf.

It was a long-awaited return for families who travelled in their thousands to watch the final leg of the journey of the imposing UK flagship HMS Ark Royal and her escort destroyer, which was flying the white rose of Yorkshire.

Although HMS York was left stained by harsh sand-laden winds in the Gulf, its successful protection mission had seen none of the crew injured or a single weapon fired in anger.

But celebrations were muted by the thought that seven airmen will never come home. Six British crewmen and one American perished when their Sea King helicopters collided five miles off Ark Royal.

Lieutenant Shaun Enever, 32, who commanded flights of HMS York's Lynx helicopter, lost three friends in the tragic accident. "It is a very hard day. This is when it hits home that some guys aren't coming back," he said.

Saturday was a day of reflection for many of the destroyer's 280 crew members.

For Midshipman Greg Powell, who at 20 was one of the youngest officers serving in the conflict, it was an opportunity to savour an incredible experience.

He admitted to moments of fear and loneliness, especially during some of the many chemical or biological alerts that forced the crew to seal the warship, wear respirators and don special clothing.

Sailors also felt the strain of the constant threat of unsophisticated attacks such as guerrilla speed boats or jet skis loaded with explosives as well as sea mines and potential bomb attack.

"There's a lot of waiting going on and it sets everyone's emotions on edge as you are just sitting around waiting for something to happen," he said.

"But I am very proud to have taken part in such an important conflict at such a young age."

Finally, the 4,600-tonne ship was pushed into dock by tugs and families could swarm around their loved ones as they left the boat for two weeks of leave and relaxation.

Petty Officer Daren Cass, of the Isle of Wight, was met by his wife, Ali, and two children, Daniel, five, and Thomas, two. He said he was looking forward to returning to a family routine and spending time with his sons.

Leading Hand Andrew Conner, 25, of Hertfordshire, who has served for seven years in the Royal Navy, was met by his mother, Janet. She said: "Even though we have spoken to each other every week it is still wonderful to have him home."

Updated: 11:21 Monday, May 19, 2003