Warship Wednesday July 22, 2015: The (Giant) Messenger God
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 22, 2015: The (Giant) Messenger God
Here we see the Centaur-class aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (R12) bouncing around the North Atlantic with her bow mostly out of the water in 1977. She currently is the oldest flattop in active service (though armed with just 7 elderly and increasingly cranky Sea Harriers) and has had one hell of a ride.
British carrier problems
During WWII, the Royal Navy saw the writing on the wall in the respect that, to remain a first-rate naval power with a global reach, it needed a fleet of modern aircraft carriers. Entering the war in 1939 with three 27,000 ton Courageous-class carriers converted from battlecruiser hulls, the 22,000 ton battleship-hulled HMS Eagle, the unique 27,000 ton HMS Ark Royal, and the tiny 13,000-ton HMS Hermes (pennant 95, the world’s first ship to be designed as an aircraft carrier)– a total of six flattops, within the first couple years of the war 5/6th of these were sent to the bottom by Axis warships and aircraft.
Further, while two 32,000-ton Implacable-class and four 23,000-ton Illustrious-class carriers, laid down before the war were able to join the fleet, they just made up for the losses of the prewar vessels.
The Brits designed an innovative armed merchantman (CAM ships, for catapult aided merchantman, some 35 freighters armed with a single rocket-assisted Hurricane or Spitfire ready for a one-way trip) and picked up a legion of escort carriers loaned from the Americans to help fight off German Condor patrol bombers and U-boats. However, fleet operations in far-off areas away from the support of land-based RAF fighters needed fast and well-armed flattops.
That’s where the 16 planned Colossus-class light carriers, 4 Audacious-class, 4 Malta-class supercarriers (57,000-tons), and 8 Centaur-class fleet carriers came in. Ordered and designed between 1942-45, these 32 British ships would have been the envy of any navy in the world.
While the Maltas never made it off the drawing board, just 2 Audacious’s were finished (in the 50s), and most of the Colossus-class were likewise completed much after the war (some as late as the 1960s then rapidly sold or junked), the Centaurs were likewise abbreviated to just 4 much-delayed ships. One of these is the hero of our story.
HMS Hermes was laid down at Vickers-Armstrong on 21 June 1944, two weeks after the Allies stormed ashore at D-Day. She was the last of the quartet of Centaurs whose construction was started. Originally to be named HMS Elephant, she picked up the messenger of the god’s moniker of the old carrier (Pennant #95) sunk by the Japanese in 1942.
Envisioned to be the middle ground between the Colossus light carriers and the Malta supercarriers, these 737-foot long, 29,000-ton ships were fast enough (28 knots) to serve with the fleet, could cross the Atlantic or steam as far away as the Falklands (remember this) or Cape of Good Hope on a single bunker load of fuel oil and could carry some 60~ piston engine fighters and bombers (smaller than an American carrier of similar size due to their armored flight deck and hangar).
However, WWII ended before any of the Centaurs could be completed and the four ships under construction, Hermes included, were sidelined.
She languished after the war and was only finished on 18 November 1959 (after 15 years at the builders) with a much-altered plan that included an angled flight deck to allow the operation of jet-powered aircraft at sea.
One of the last ships completed with 40mm Bofors DP AAA guns, she could carry as many as 40 aircraft in a mixed flight wing that included downright chunky Supermarine Scimitars, de Havilland Sea Vixen fighters, and turboprop-powered Fairey Gannet ASW aircraft together with Westland Whirlwind (British-built Sikorsky S-55/H-19 Chickasaw) helicopters.
Spending most of the 1960s in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf area (the Brits were the preeminent naval force in the Gulf at the time), by 1968 Hermes‘ wing had been updated to include a dozen Sea Vixens, 7 Buccaneer strike planes, Wessex choppers (British-built turbine-powered development of the Sikorsky SH-34 Seabat) and 5 Gannets in AEW roles.
The 63 foot long, 30-ton Blackburn Buccaneer was the same size as the later F-14 Tomcat and could carry up to 6-tons of ordnance including the British Red Beard or WE.177 tactical nuclear bombs to a range of some 2,300 nautical miles. The Brits still had these in service as late as 1994, but couldn’t use them in the Falklands as Hermes had her CATOBAR system removed. They likely would have come in very handy if she hadn’t and there were still some in the fleet.
The F-4 Phantom was successfully tested from her decks, but it was deemed that she wouldn’t be able to carry enough (just 12, landing the rest of wing ashore) to matter.
In 1970, her catapults and arrester wires were removed (as were her old Bofors and radars) and she was converted to a “commando carrier” capable of carrying a Royal Marine battalion. Her air wing was some 20 Marine helicopters. She was also given storage and handling areas for 4 LCVP landing craft.
When the Harrier came out, Hermes was given a ski jump to help those VSTOL beauties take off (they would land vertically so no arrester wires were needed) and her wing was fleshed out by ASW helicopters to allow her to carry out the NATO sea control mission concept if needed.
By 1982, with the Malta’s never built, the Colossus and Audacious-class carriers all retired, and Hermes‘s own sister ships HMS Centaur (R06), HMS Albion (R07), and HMS Bulwark (R08) decommissioned in 1965, 1972 and 1981 respectively, she was at the same time the largest, oldest and most effective carrier left in the Royal Navy with only the smaller and barely broke-in 19,000-ton “Harrier carrier” HMS Invincible to back her up.
Ironically both carriers were up for sale at the time, as Parliament was determined to get the UK out of the carrier business.
Then came the Falklands.
With the nearest RAF base some 4,000 miles away at Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island, the aircraft that the RN could carry to the Malvinas were the only ones that would be available to defend the British attempt to retake the colony.
Hermes carried an impressive (for her size) complement of 26 RN Sea Harriers and RAF Harriers (more than half of the British combat aircraft deployed to the conflict) as well as up to 22 big Sea Kings at one time or another (though most were cross-decked to other platforms) and was flagship of Rear Adm. Sandy Woodward’s Task Force 317.8 for the war.
The 100~ ship (though only 27 warships) combined fleet, the largest British flotilla formed since 1956 in the Suez crisis, departed the UK on 5 April and after an epic 25-day trip arrived in the 200-mile exclusion zone surrounding Falklands, with the Argentinians beginning their attacks on the force the very next day.
Arriving in the Falklands, her Harriers conducted both air support for the troops ashore and held up a pretty good CAP against attacking Argentine Mirages and Skyhawks. In all the RN and RAF Harriers (just 38 aircraft, mostly operating from Hermes) flew over 1,500 sorties in the 45 days while on station before the British Jack was hoisted over Port Stanley once more, and were credited with 20 air-to-air kills.
Air group at the height of the Falklands Conflict:
800 NAS – 16 Sea Harrier FRS.1
826 NAS – 5 Sea King HAS.5
846 NAS – 5 Sea King HC.4
No. 1 Squadron RAF – 10 Harrier GR.3
When Hermes sailed back into Portsmouth, she and the Task Force was greeted by everything that floated.
Her Royal Navy career ended 12 April 1984 and she was paid off while on her 15th skipper.
However, although she was the last of her class afloat and her keel had forty years on it, she was still valuable.
Refitted, she was sold to India in 1987 and took the name INS Viraat (R22) and, homeported in Mumbai, she has served the Indian Navy for 28 continuous years, undergoing a further five refits while in Indian service.
Her current name means, “Giant” and she was the largest ship ever operated by the Indian Navy until they bought the 65,000-ton Admiral Gorshkov from the Russians and brought her in service as INS Vikramaditya in 2013.
Of note, Admiral Sir John Forster “Sandy” Woodward GBE, KCB passed the bar 4 August 2013. In his last public act, he decried the decommissioning of Britain’s carrier force before the new Queen Elizabeth class could be brought online, leaving the country that invented the type without a flattop for the first time in a century.
Hermes/Viraat is currently the last British-built ship serving with the Indian Navy, and the oldest aircraft carrier in service in the world, and with over 70 years under her keel and two new carriers on the builder’s ways, its time for the old girl to retire.
From the Hindu Times:
The retirement call was forced, in part, by the dwindling fleet of Sea Harrier fighters operating from the deck of Viraat. While the limited upgrade Sea Harrier (LUSH) programme bestowed the fighters with modern avionics and beyond visual range (BVR) strike capability, the ageing airframe has been a concern. Not more than seven Sea Harriers are available at the moment — some of them cannibalized (used as ‘Christmas Tree’ for spares) to keep the relatively agile ones airworthy.
“Thanks to the Navy’s stringent maintenance regimen, we have been able to operate Viraat without major glitches until now. But the Harrier fleet has dwindled so much that within the Navy, Viraat is often referred to as a ‘One Harrier carrier’. No point flogging it any further,” an official said.
Sadly, the Royal Navy has not carried the name on its roles since 1985.
Displacement: 22,000 tons 28,700 tons full load
Length: 737 ft. (224.6 m)
Beam: 130 ft. (39.6 m)
Draught: 28.5 ft. (8.7 m)
Installed power: 78,000 hp (58,000 kW)
Propulsion: 2 shaft geared steam turbines, 4 Admiralty 3-drum boilers
Speed: 28 knots (52 km/h)
Range: 7,000 nmi (13,000 km) at 18 kn (33 km/h)
Sensors: Radar Type 982, Type 983, Type 275, Type 974
Complement: 2,100 including carrier air wing. 1970-75 as Commando Carrier: 1500 plus up to 800 Marines.
Armament: 32 40mm Bofors guns (2 × 6), (8 × 2), (4 × 1) removed in 1970, replaced with 2 Sea Cat missile system launchers. During Falklands, her armament was increased with the addition of numerous small gun mounts.
Armor: 1.2-inch flight deck, Hangar deck
Aircraft carried: 7-60 depending on year and role
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