Warship Wednesday April 26, 2017: Always a bridesmaid
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 their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, April 26, 2017: Always a bridesmaid
Here we see the fourth ship of the Colossus-class of British Royal Navy carriers, HMS Venerable (R63), in her final career as the Argentine carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo (V-2). As you can tell from this statement, she would go on to change flags a few times and later serve as a very real threat to her original owners.
Venerable was one of 16 planned 1942 Design Light Fleet Carriers for the RN. This series, broken up into Colossus and Majestic-class sub-variants, were nifty 19,500-ton, 695-foot long carriers that the U.S. Navy would have classified at the time as a CVL or light carrier. They were slower than the fast fleet carriers at just 25-knots with all four 3-drum Admiralty boilers were lit and glowing red, but they had long legs (over 14,000 miles at cruising speed) which allowed them to cross the Atlantic escorting convoys, travel to the Pacific to retake lost colonies or remain on station in the South Atlantic (Falklands anyone?) or the Indian Ocean for weeks.
Capable of carrying up to 52 piston engine aircraft of the time, these carriers had enough punch to make it count.
The thing is, only seven of these carriers were completed before the end of World War II and even those came in during the last months and weeks. They effectively saw no service. Laid down beginning in 1942, most of the ships were launched but when the war ended, construction was canceled.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The hero of our tale, the fourth HMS Venerable in the RN since 1784 and the last hull to bear the name in that fleet, was laid down at Cammell Laird in Birkenhead on 3 December 1942 and launched just over a year later. Commissioned on 17 January 1945, she was made flagship of the RN’s 11th Aircraft Carrier Squadron, Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt, CB, CBE, commanding.
Destined for service in the Far East where the war was expected to linger through 1946 or 1947, she was outfitted with an airwing of F4U Corsair fighters and Fairley Barracuda torpedo bombers of 814 and 1851 Squadrons and set off to join TF 37 of the US 3rd Fleet by way of the Med, which by early 1945 was quiet.
She arrived just in time to join with the carrier HMS Indomitable and the battleship HMS Anson to re-occupy Hong Kong in August 1945, followed by the re-occupation of Kowloon the next month. As far as I can tell, Venerable did not engage either German or Japanese forces in live combat during WWII.
October found her in Haiphong, French Indochina, picking up liberated Indian and Commonwealth prisoners of war to be repatriated home. November and December found her supporting Dutch efforts to reoccupy the Dutch East Indies before spending Christmas of 1945 in Freemantle, Australia. The next year saw her continuing her trooping efforts, shuttling refugees, displaced persons, and soon-to-be-mustered out servicemembers from Singapore to Hong Kong and other parts of the Far East, and bringing in fresh troops for garrison duty.
By February 14, 1947, after fleet exercises with the British Pacific Fleet, she set sail for Plymouth where she was laid up in May, having served just 29 months on active duty, mostly as a taxi service.
The British, flush with flattops, broke and at peace, began a clearance sale over the next several years. In the end, class leader Colossus was sold to France as Arromanches. The Australians picked up Vengeance, Majestic and Terrible; the Canadians got Warrior (more on her later), Powerful and Magnificent; and India picked up Hercules.
On 1 April 1948, our still relatively new carrier, Venerable, was sold to the Royal Netherlands Navy, who commissioned her 28 May as HNLMS Karel Doorman (R-81), named after the famed Dutch admiral lost with his flagship light cruiser De Ruyter in WWII. She was the second, and last aircraft carrier of the Royal Netherlands Navy (their previous carrier, also after Doorman, was the former British escort carrier HMS Nairana.)
With the country fighting separatists in the Dutch East Indies and facing the always-curious Venezuelans in the Dutch West Indies, she was quickly given a topicalization that included boiler modifications and partial air conditioning and deployed along with the cruiser Jacob van Heemskerck and frigate Johan Maurits van Nassau to the Caribbean.
She carried a mix of 24 Fireflies and Sea Furies as her initial air wing. For rescue duties, a yellow Sea Otter was included, later replaced by an S-51 helicopter, called Jezebel. On the cruise was Prince Bernhard, who had a long history of military service and had racked up several thousand hours in combat aircraft.
From 1955-58, Venerable saw extensive modernization at Wilton-Feijenoord Shipyard in Holland. During this time, she was fitted with a new steam catapult, an 8-degree angled deck, mirror landing sight, new island, massive mast, and funnel, as well as ultra-modern radar equipment, air search, height search, target acquisition, navigation, and carrier controlled approach radar systems. The latter was produced by the electronic company Holland Signaal.
Her dated AAA guns were replaced by 10 Bofors 40mm/L70s. Her new air wing consisted of 14 anti-submarine Avengers, 10 Hawker Sea Hawks, and 2 S-55 helicopters and she acted as the flagship of Smaldeel V (Task Force 5) operating in the North Sea as part of NATO.
With Indonesia rattling the sabers over West Papua New Guinea, the Dutch carrier embarked a dozen Hawker Hunters besides her airwing and went to the Far East again in 1960 until that crisis was settled through negotiations. The Indonesians had planned to sink her with a six-aircraft sortie of Tu-16KS-1 Badger bombers using a dozen AS-1 Kennel anti-ship missiles, which her Bofors likely would have been unable to counter. Again, the carrier avoided combat by the luck of the draw.
The crisis abated, she returned to the Atlantic and made another trip to the New World in 1962, her air wing modified for ASW-only missions with 8 Grumman S2F Trackers and 6 S-58 (H-34) helicopters along with a company of Dutch Marines.
This is the English version of a film about the Dutch aircraft carrier Hr.Ms. Karel Doorman (R81). It shows everyday life onboard the aircraft carrier during the journey it made in 1962 to Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. The destroyers Hr.Ms. Groningen (D813) and Hr.Ms. Limburg (D814) joined her during this voyage:
In early 1968, the 23-year old carrier suffered a boiler room fire that extensively gutted her engineering spaces. The Dutch, defense budgets always slim, moved to replace her with land-based ASW aircraft and helicopters borne by surface combatants. She was stricken on 29 April 1968, deemed not worth the repair.
Third-hand aircraft carrier? Anyone?
Remember HMCS Warrior mentioned above? The Colossus-class carrier loaned to the Canadians? Well, the Canucks didn’t need so many carriers so they gave her back to the Brits who decommissioned the unmodified flattop in February 1958. Argentina, feeling outclassed by the purchase in 1956 by neighboring Brazil of the Colossus-class carrier Vengeance after the Australians were done with her– the first Latin American country to have a carrier– moved to pick up the Warrior from the UK which the commissioned as ARA Independencia (V-1) in July 1959.
Independencia flew a wing of former USN F4U Corsairs, SNJ-5Cs Texans, and Grumman S2F-1Trackers but, with the Argentines looking to swap their aging Corsairs and Texans for jet-powered F9F Panthers, they needed an angled flight deck. This led them to purchase Venerable/Karel Doorman in crippled condition on 15 October 1968 and refurbish her as a cheaper option than giving Independencia the needed topside improvements to run jets.
Following a six-month repair at Rotterdam that saw her disabled boilers replaced by new ones transplanted from her incomplete sister ship HMS Leviathan, Venerable/Karel Doorman was commissioned into the Argentine Navy as ARA Veinticinco de Mayo (25 May– Argentina’s national day) (V-2) on 12 March 1969. For two years, on paper at least, Argentina had two carriers, though Independencia was soon withdrawn and by 1971 scrapped.
For the next 21-years, the Brazilian carrier Minas Gerais and the Argentine Veinticinco de Mayo— built as sister ships– were the yin and yang of Latina American carrier operations.
In 1971, Argentina bought 16 USN A-4B Skyhawks plus two for spare parts, then modified them with five weapon pylons and the ability to carry AIM-9B Sidewinders, creating A-4Q fighter bombers. These replaced the 1950s era F9F Panthers. Sea King ASW/SAR helicopters were added to the wing. Though it should be noted that in 1969 the Brits tested an early Harrier GR.1 on board her, which the Argentines declined to buy.
With the Argentina military junta in charge in the late 1970s, the U.S. cut support to the country because of the fratricidal Dirty War, which made Veinticinco de Mayo‘s air wing increasingly hard to fly. The Argentines looked elsewhere and in 1978 negotiated a contract to buy 14 Dassault-Breguet Super Étendards and a quantity of air-launched Exocet anti-ship missiles from France. This came in conjunction with the surface-to-surface Exocet sales and France throwing in two corvettes, originally built for the apartheid Regime in South Africa. The corvettes, Good Hope and Transvaal, could not be delivered because of anti-apartheid embargoes. In Argentina, they were renamed ARA Drummond and ARA Guerrico.
The Argentine Navy, with their carrier in the forefront, moved to invade the Chilean islands of Picton, Nueva, and Lennox in the Beagle Channel in a territorial dispute in 1978, however, the junta reversed themselves before the conflict turned hot. Once more, our flattop did not fire a shot in anger.
Then came the Malvinas.
With just four Super Étendards (with five Exocets) and 10 A-4Qs operational in the Argentine Navy, the carrier made ready to sortie for that country’s push to retake the Falkland Islands from Great Britain in yet another dangerous territorial dispute. In April 1982, 35 years ago this month, she put to sea as the flagship of Carrier Task Force (CTF 79.1) tasked by the Naval High Command to support the invasion, codenamed Operation Azul.
Once the Brits mustered a task force to take the islands back, 25 de Mayo was ordered to sea to attack the arriving English carrier battle group, made up of the HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. With the two British carriers bristling with over 25 radar-equipped Sea Harriers armed with later model AIM-9L Sidewinders and surrounded by dozens of Sea Dart and Sea Wolf equipped escorts, the likelihood that the Argentine A-4s could have prosecuted a successful attack on the fleet was slim. Nonetheless, a strike was prepared and, with her S-2’s picking up the British fleet over the horizon, was only scrubbed at the last minute due to poor weather conditions. It would have been the first time since 1944 that a carrier v. carrier fleet action occurred.
Further, once a British submarine sank the WWII light cruiser ARA General Belgrano (former USS Phoenix) with heavy loss of life on May 3, the Argentine Navy lacked the appetite to further risk their carrier. While her Skyhawks and Étendards made gallant and even successful strikes on British escorts and auxiliaries while flying from land at the Rio Grande over the next six weeks, Veinticinco de Mayo returned to port and remained there for the rest of the war, again not bathed in the blood of her enemies.
With the junta swept away after the Falklands War and military funding withering, the Argentines could put all their working French strike planes online but their carrier was increasingly restricted to port with bad engineering casualties. With her Skyhawks lost in 1982, her last air wing in her twilight years was 12 Etendards, six Grumman Tracker ASW aircraft, four SH-3D Sea King ASW, and one utility helicopter.
Inoperable by 1990, the Brazilians were allowed to plunder her for parts to keep their own carrier at sea in exchange for granting Argentine carrier pilots a chance to tail hook on their neighbor’s ship to keep their qualifications up to date.
By 1997, Veinticinco de Mayo was officially decommissioned and towed to India in 2000 for scrapping. As for the Brazilians, they replaced her sister with the larger and slightly more modern French aircraft carrier Foch the same year.
All the Colossus/Majestic class carriers are now gone, with the Indian INS Vikrant/HMS Hercules, saved briefly as a museum ship, scrapped in 2014 ending the era of these well-traveled light carriers.
Oddly enough, the British Imperial War Museum has some Argentine relics of the Veinticinco de Mayo, a UZI submachine gun and FN FAL rifle captured in the Falklands that are Dutch-marked and believed to have transferred with the carrier to the “Argies” then subsequently used with that country’s Marines ashore in the Falklands.
15,890 tons standard
17,500 tons normal
19,890 tons full load
630 ft. (190 m) between perpendiculars
695 ft. (212 m) overall
Beam: 80 ft. (24 m)
Draught: 24.5 ft. (7.5 m)
Speed: 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph) at 120 revolutions
12,000 nautical miles (22,000 km; 14,000 mi) at 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph)
6,200 nautical miles (11,500 km; 7,100 mi) at 23 knots (43 km/h; 26 mph)
Complement: 1,000 + 300 air group
Sensors and processing systems: (1982)
Air search: Lockheed SPS-40B; E/F band
Surface search: Plessey AWS 4; E/F band
Navigation: Signaal ZW06; I band
Fire control: 2 × SPG-34; I/J band
CCA: Scanter Mil-Par; I band
52 piston (as-built)
20~ jets by 1958
(As designed, 1942)
6 × 4-barrelled 2 pounder anti-aircraft guns
16 × twin 20 mm Oerlikon mountings
10 × Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft guns (2 quads, 1 twin)
2 × 47 mm saluting guns
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