A brief history and satellite imagery exploration of what shipsearcher staff like to call the USS Potemkin Maru!
Carrier of dreams or carrier of nightmares? In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s fake aircraft carrier, that depends on your perspective. It might be as simple as which side of the Strait of Hormuz you are looking at it from.
Building an aircraft carrier is no easy task, and few countries in the World are able to marshal the necessary resources, technologies, and shipbuilding capacity to do this. Since the end of World War Two, the US Navy has commissioned about 30 large carriers, each class of which surpassed the last in terms of size and capability. The current Nimitz-class supercarriers routinely patrol the waters of the Persian Gulf, and transit the Strait miles away from the Iranian coastline.
As one response to what Iran sees as constant provocations, it built its own unique carrier: a massive fake target ship. A floating target could be as innocuous as a floating barge or a platform with some markings, but this 670-foot long mock-up, completed in 2014, looks like somebody’s idea of a US supercarrier! Unlike the training aids or amusement park attractions we feature on other pages, such as the People’s Liberation Army Navy (China), this fake carrier is unique: It can be towed out from its home-port, Bandar Abbas, and attacked to test the strike capabilities of the surface units of the Iranian Navy, missile technologies, and the swarm tactics of the fast attack boats of the Revolutionary Guard’s maritime component, in a massive display of carefully staged pyrotechnics.
The thing about the Iranian military displays is that they are not staged in some out-of-the-way backwaters. On one side of the Straits are the United Arab Emirates, on the other is Iran, with Bandar Abbas the major Iranian naval port in the area. Loaded super-tankers transit this tight gauntlet, lined up like a vast convoy. Annually, over 20% of the World’s petroleum pass by here, on the way to facilities across the World – a massive choke-point for oil. During the Iran-Iraq War the supply of oil through the straits was threatened during the so-called “Tanker War.” In 1988, the US Navy’s Operation Praying Mantis struck Iranian targets here, and sank several warships, in part for retaliation against Iranian mine-laying activities. Since 2015, the Iranians have twice pushed the giant target out into the Strait, to stage large attacks against it.
What follows is a satellite imagery survey of the unusual career of what, for want of a better name, Shipsearcher Identification Staff (SIS) dubbed the (fake) USS Potemkin Maru. The staff naval historian assigned to write this post is not certain if those twinkie-eating wiz-kids at SIS came up with this name as a reference to fake Russian villages, Japanese merchant ships, or the simulation that James T. Kirk cheated in Star Trek…or all of these. The SIS hasn’t yet set up a page for the Iranian Navy, so, for now, it makes an “honourable mention” in the USN currently-serving Aircraft Carriers page.
We made the mistake of writing the Potemkin Maru off after it was “battle-damaged” the first time, on 25 February 2015. It lay abandoned outside of the Bandar Abbas restricted naval port breakwaters. But this fake carrier is nothing if not resilient. She was brought back into the port in August, 2018, and was repaired, only to be attacked again. Was there some type of mid-life upgrades? The only visual difference we could see was that the leading edges of the flight deck were slightly modified to be less “curvy.” This made the mock carrier appear less silly.
For the 28 July 2020 attacks, an assault team rappelled down rope from a hovering helicopter. We imagine this would be useful for training on landing a team on a merchant ship like a tanker, not a carrier surrounded by its screen of escorts, and air complement brimming with attack aircraft. Next up, a missile attack was staged: land-based anti-ship missiles and helicopter-fired rockets damaged the target. In the days after the attacks, press reports have not yet revealed what the ultimate fate of the Potemkin Maru is, with some indicating the carrier was “blown up,” and others claiming it was slightly damaged in an underwhelming display of military incapability. Will there be another rebirth of the great simulated ship? In his eloquent commentary on the use despots can make of propaganda victories vs. the actual reality, we can’t improve on poet Robert Graves’ closing lines in The Persian Version: “what repute the Persian monarch and the Persian nation won by this salutary demonstration: Despite a strong defence and adverse weather, all arms combined magnificently together.”
-2020/08/03 Update! More is now known (one day later) on the fate of the fake Iranian Carrier after the 28th of July exercises. It appears in recent imagery waterlogged, capsized onto its starboard side just outside of Bandar Abbas. Fake target carrier to real danger to navigation:
July 3rd 1970 – 50 years ago today, HMCS Bonaventure, Canada’s aircraft carrier, was decommissioned, in a move that surprised many.
July 3rd 1970 – 50 years ago today, HMCS Bonaventure, Canada’s aircraft carrier, was decommissioned, in a move that surprised many. “Bonnie,” the largest and most powerful warship the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has ever operated, had just undergone a major “mid-life” refurbishment.
A few years before this, an official history of Canadian naval aviation produced by the Naval Historical Section, Department on National Defence, had concluded a section on Bonaventure with: “At the time of writing Bonaventure has been in commission over five and a half years, with the prospect of many more to come. Canada being deeply committed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for the defence of the Free World, the carrier will, no doubt, in the future, as in the past, be frequently working with the warships of her allies.”* In fact, Bonaventure, and all carrier-based RCN operations, had little time left. The lengthy refit proved costlier than anticipated. The government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau decided to dispose of the ship, as a cost-cutting exercise, in the fall of 1969. This controversial decision removed fixed wing aircraft from Canadian naval aviation and limited it to helicopters attached to destroyers and frigates.
Bonaventure was a Majestic class variant of the British 1942 Light Fleet Carrier design. The concept was born out of wartime necessity. By mid-1942 the Royal Navy (RN) had lost a total of five fleet carriers, and two escort carriers, to enemy action. The vast sphere of operations, and expanding duties carriers and their aircraft could perform, meant that more “flat-tops” were needed, and they had to be produced faster. The plan for 16 ships was intended to fill the gap between large, expensive, and difficult to produce fleet carriers, and smaller escort carriers, whose roles were more limited. Light Fleet Carriers were also suitable for construction in civilian shipyards, freeing up naval yards for other priority work. They were certainly not intended to be an enduring cornerstone of any fleet. And yet, after the Second World War, of the 15 ships completed under two sub-classes, 10 of them wound up serving for decades in other navies.** For mid-sized navies, including Canada’s, these ships represented an excellent entry-level carrier to build a naval aviation service around.
The careers of some of Bonaventure’s sister-ships are worth mentioning. The aptly-named HMS Venerable entered service early in 1945. During her 52-year career, she served in the Royal Netherlands Navy as HNMLS Karel Doorman, before being transferred to Argentina, as ARA Veinticinco de Mayo. During the 1982 Falklands War, she participated in some limited operations against the Royal Navy, and was also high on the list of targets for RN submarines. By the late 1980s she was inoperable, and became a source of spare parts for her sister-ship NAel Minas Gerais. This ship, also commissioned early in 1945, was originally HMS Vengeance. Vengeance also served in three navies (the Royal Navy, Royal Australian Navy, and the Brazilian Navy). As NAeL Minas Gerais, she became the last of the class in service, decommissioning in 2001, after an incredible 56 years!** This may well be the World’s second longest serving carrier.***
Another sister-ship, the Indian Navy’s INS Vikrant, was decommissioned in 1997. It survived as a museum ship in Mumbai dockyards until 2014. Vikrant’s history is further explored in a recent post about her scrapping and the page for Indian Navy carriers.
The Royal Canadian Navy built its postwar naval aviation service around three of these light fleet carriers, which served Canada successively as HMCS Warrior (1946-1948), HMCS Magnificent (1948-1957), and HMCS Bonaventure (1957-1970). Bonaventure, at 704′ overall length and 20,000 tons full-load displacement, was conspicuous at her usual berth at the Naval Dockyard, Halifax, NS.
During the mid-1950s Canada arranged for the completion, to an updated design, of the ship which was intended to become HMS Powerful. Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast, Northern Ireland, (famous as the builders of ocean liners, including RMS Titanic) resumed work on the carrier, which was commissioned in January 1957 as HMCS Bonaventure. She had a stronger flight deck to operate larger, heavier aircraft, enlarged deck elevators to move them from the hangar, and more powerful steam catapults to launch these aircraft. A mirror landing sight system helped pilots maintain a safe approach, as they also heard audio tones to help them keep their eyes on the carrier, not their instruments.
Most obviously, the carrier was the first in the class to be built with an angled flight deck, a development that made it one of the most advanced warships then in service. This feature helped increase the tempo of flying operations. Bonaventure could operate its complement of Banshee jet fighters, leaving some portions of the deck for landing as other areas could be used simultaneously for takeoffs, helicopter operation, or aircraft parking. The upgrades influenced other navies to embark on similar lengthy rebuilds of their carriers, and Vikrant, mentioned above, went through a similar rebuild of an uncompleted hull, before her transfer to the Indian Navy.
Compared to other ships in the class, Bonaventure had an active, if short, service life, with the standard ports-of-call visits, and many Cold War exercises with NATO allies designed to keep units ready to defend the sea lanes from Soviet submarines and surface ships. She operated several aircraft types, including McDonnell F2H Banshee jet fighters and Sikorsky HO4S helicopters. When the Banshees were decommissioned, the career was reoriented to an exclusively Anti-Submarine (ASW) role, with Grumman Tracker aircraft conducting patrols. Later, the new Sikorsky Sea King helicopters again upgraded Bonnie’s ASW capabilities. This busy career came to an abrupt end with the 1969 decision. Soon after her decommissioning, Bonaventure was sold for scrap, and made a last long journey to a ship breakers yard in Taiwan in 1971.
Fortunately, there are several relics of Bonaventure’s time in Canadian service scattered around Canada. In addition to several surviving aircraft in various museum collections, Bonnie’s “Mule” or deck tractor, is in the collection of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa [click here for a link to the artifact entry]. The ship’s bell is at the Shearwater Aviation Museum, across the harbour from her usual berth, in Dartmouth, NS. Two signal guns are located at HMCS Discovery, Vancouver BC. Two of Bonaventure’s immense anchors are also preserved. The starboard anchor is on display at the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Québec.
The port anchor has been located in Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, since 1973. This 9-ton stockless anchor is the centerpiece of the Canadian Peacetime Sailors’ Memorial, which is dedicated to the memory of post-1945 Canadian naval deaths. In early 2018, the deteriorating monument was substantially rebuilt by local reservist members of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
For a few more views of Bonnie and some related topics, check out our RCN carriers tribute page. We decided to add Bonaventure to our database project, which mostly features google earth images of (at last count) more than a thousand warships from 27 navies, because we intend to find other aerial imagery that allows us to further interpret the history of RCN carriers and other ships, once the World reopens.
* J.D.F. Kealy and E.C. Russell A History of Canadian Naval Aviation 1918-1962 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1965) p.116.
** Differences between the two sub-classes, the original Colossus and the Majestic units, are explored elsewhere on this site, under the relevant navy pages that include these carriers. Two ships of the 15 were also completed as maintenance carriers, and had very different careers.
***The Centaur class carrier INS Viraat (ex-HMS Hermes, shown above), served 58-years, from 1959-2017. By comparison, the longest serving US Navy aircraft carriers have been the USS Midway (1945-1992 – 47 years), and the recently decommissioned USS Enterprise (1961-2017 – 55 years)
The Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, in his celebrated play, Dr. Faustus, wrote of a mythic age, when a thousand warships were launched to grab back Helen, the most beautiful woman. Here at Shipsearcher, the Ship Identification Section (SIS) can’t tell you if any of that happened in distant antiquity – satellite imagery of the Trojan War is poor, to say the least! We can tell you that we’ve now launched over a thousand warshipviews and loaded these in our Google Earth satellite imagery database!
With the recent pages for the Norwegian, German, Danish, and Dutch navies, we have now found more than 1,100 warships using open satellite imagery! A project that began as a quick look at active and retired United States Navy carriers has now documented 27 World navies, from the largest carriers to museum and sail training ships.
So what are some of the most interesting or odd captures we’ve located out there in the wild World? Check out below, where we’ve loaded captions with links to posts and pages to keep exploring the database. It’s a hyperlink-rich environment, folks, so click often and please share!
Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) staff are proud to add a new page – Indonesian Navy current and retired ships – to the project. It is our 22nd navy documented! An interest in documenting the Ahmad Yani class frigates, originally Dutch ships, modeled on the British Leander class design, snow-balled into looking for all other classes of frigates, and then other surface warships – 21 classes and 34 satellite views. With little prior familiarity with Indonesian ships, what we found was a modernizing, expanding fleet which, over recent years, has added some impressive blue-water assets.
These newer ships join a diverse collection of second-hand vessels from the USA, the Netherlands, and, most notably, the defunct Volksmarine of East Germany. In 1992, Indonesia bought as many as 42 former East German warships, massively enhancing the KRI fleet!
Other highlights include a bulked-up humanitarian / disaster relief capability, with two large, modern hospital ships, and a mini squadron of tall ships – sail training vessels. Both of these can be found on the Auxiliaries and Other Ships page. Enjoy!
The Ship Identification Section (SIS) at Shipsearcher are very pleased to announce five new pages of satellite views, giving a veritable tour-de-force of large South American navies! These nations have interesting fleets made up of a diverse collection of ships, often acquired from elsewhere. The pages are for Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador.
These views add 39 more pages, 63 classes of ships, and 94 satellite views to the database. The largest and most capable navy documented is Brazil’s fleet, which ranges from a recently-retired aircraft carrier to the last operational river dreadnought, the Parnaiba, originally commissioned in 1938. We have been trying to locate this active monitor in the interior of Brazil for months! We eventually found it far up the Paraguay River at the Mato Gosso do Sul port of Base fluvial de ladário.
Parnaiba on Paraguay River
Navy of Brazil [Attribution or Attribution]
There is much to discover about the other navies, too! Argentina’s fleet have been going through a lengthy period of neglect, symbolized by the sinking of the retired ARA Santissima Trinidad at its berth in 2013, and the tragic loss of the ARA San Juan submarine in 2017.
Peru’s pages include the recently decommissioned light cruiser, BAP Almirante Grau, which was once the pride of the Dutch Navy. Chile has a great variety of frigates and a lovely sail training ship with a troubled past, the Esmeralda, which was once used by the Pinochet regime as a jail for political prisoners.
Ecuador’s small fleet includes a US Second World War Landing Ship (Tank), and some updated Leander-class warships, which have been serving for almost a half-century. We hope you enjoy these views, and welcome comments and suggestions.
Though not one of the largest or most powerful, there are some fascinating and eccentric qualities to the Romanian Navy’s fleet. Romania’s is the 15th navy documented by Shipsearcher staff. The longtime flagship, ROS Mărășești, was originally conceived as a light cruiser, during the Communist era. As the largest domestic warship design, she emerged as a Romanian original, with a heavy gun and missile armament. By the time of her commissioning in 1992, now on her third name, she had been reclassified as a destroyer. Nowadays she serves as a frigate.
Another remarkable feature of the fleet is the Danube (river) Flotilla, which has a motley assortment of units. The heavy-weights or river dreadnoughts are two distinct classes of river monitors, sailing out of Tulcea and Brăila. These gunboats bristle with an assortment of machine guns and turrets armed with TR-85 100mm tank guns!
2020-04-01 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Norfolk VA, a series of small UFOs have been spotted hovering around the naval dockyards. They have been observed to be completely stationary about 80 feet in the air, near major US Naval assets, including submarines, destroyers, and cruisers. Intent may be other than hostile, but the number of these craft, and their placement in spaced intervals, means they could also be poised for a coordinated first strike.They even appear to be tracking the hospital ship USNS Comfort!There are only two possibilities: this most dire one, or they could also be badly-rendered dockyard lighting towers whose entire support has been omitted in Google Maps 3D view. Shipsearcher staff prefer to believe in the existence of a large shadow force of UFOs! Have a safe, reasonable April Fools’ Day!
The SS America, completed in 1939 for the United States Lines, was a beautiful ocean liner. Graceful sweeping curves and two flared funnels with small winged caps gave her an art-deco styling, like other great liners of the era. Until the construction of the SS United States, in the early 1950s, she was the biggest and best of US domestically-built liners, at 723-feet long and 35,400 tons displacement.
Requisitioned as a troop ship from 1941-1946, named USS West Point AP-23, she was reconfigured to take as many as 7,600 troops at a time. Over the course of her military service, she transported 350,000 soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, and other passengers to and from service overseas.*
In 1946, she was refitted for transatlantic passenger crossings and ran a glamorous service. Her long career followed the ebbs and flows of the last great age of the liners. The transatlantic crossings became uneconomical as travelers opted for air travel, and she was sold in 1964 to Chandris Group, renamed Australis and moved to the Southampton – Australia route. There were numerous attempts to modernize or convert the ship to some other use, including cruising, as a floating hotel, and even a plan to convert her to a prison ship.
A scheme to convert her to a hotel in Thailand led to an attempt to tow the old ship, now named American Star, from Greece, during late 1993. In January 1994, the ship broke free of the tow in heavy weather, and eventually grounded on the coast of Fuerteventura, Canary Islands. Days later the vessel’s keel broke amidships and she was declared a total loss. She became a popular and much photographed shipwreck. The separated stern section quickly fell away and sank out of view by the mid 1990s. As for the bow section, from 1994 to 2007, the 380 foot section from bows to remaining aft funnel only gradually deteriorated. Views of the wreck from the nearby shores show the sublime and spectacular quality to the American Star’s end.
Although the America is now mostly gone, the SS United States, which is still in existence, shares many similarities with America. Both were designed by naval architect William Francis Gibbs. The significantly larger United States, designed more than a decade later, repeated the clean lines, twin funnels with caps, king posts for lifting cargo to the hold in the bows, and general massing of the superstructure of the America. USS West Point and other wartime transports can be found at the page for US Navy Retired Auxiliaries and Other Ships.
In a word, what is going on in the South China Sea is shocking. At the same time that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is building modern aircraft carriers, China is creating bases to project military power far from the mainland. Satellite imagery offers a startling record of this transformation from submerged reef to island military base.
Shipsearcher staff came to this realization in roundabout way – we were looking for PLAN frigates and heard one had been hanging around some place called Mischief Reef. This isolated spot in the Spratly Islands disputed territories went from being a reef to an island fortress in a few years of feverish construction:
Here and at several other sites, dredging and dumping fill radically transformed mostly submerged chains of reefs into new territory, which was quickly militarized – complete with port facilities, substantial airstrips, and missile defences. A new shipsearcher page explores the history of PRC island building, and compares it with Vietnamese, Philippine, Taiwanese, and Malaysian efforts to stake claims on this same patch of disputed ocean real estate. We hope it will encourage readers to further investigate island development and overlapping claims to territory!
Having explored the dismantling of US aircraft carriers in a recent post and more detailed page, we thought we would provide a recent comparative example: the scrapping of India’s first aircraft carrier, the former INS Vikrant (R-11). Check out this slideshow for satellite views of the dismantling:
INS Vikrant commissioned into the Indian Navy 4 March, 1961. At 700 feet long and 19,500 tons full displacement, she represented a capable entry for India into the field of naval aviation. She had a crew and air complement of 1,100. The ship had been left unfinished by the British government at the end of Second World War. Visually, the vessel was similar to other updated sister ships in the 1942 Light Fleet Carrier class, such as HMCS Bonaventure, HMAS Melbourne or the Brazilian NAeL Minas Gerais (found under the shipsearcher Royal Navy carriers page). From 1957-1961 the wartime design was given upgrades, such as an angled flight deck, which enabled her to perform missions with a new generation of aircraft. Originally embarking a mixed complement of British Hawker Sea Hawk jet fighter-bombers and French Alizé Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft (turboprop), she was updated many times and eventually operated Sea Harrier STOVL (Short Take-off and Vertical Landing) jets, and Sea King helicopters. During the late 1980s, in order to operate the Harrier, she was refitted with a prominent “ski jump” at the leading edge of the flight deck.After a long career, she was retired in 1997 and opened to the public three years later as a museum ship, near the main naval port in Mumbai, meters away from the more modern carrier, INS Viraat. For views of the two carriers together, see the pages for Indian Navy. In 2012, she was assessed to be in a state of ill repair, and closed to the public. Despite a popular outcry, she was sold to a nearby ship breaker’s yard in 2014, and run up on a point of land south of the dockyards.
Some of the US carriers scrapped around the same time had been on donation hold for possible transfer to a museum organization. The disposal of Vikrant represents a different category of scrapping – museum ships that were deemed not worth the effort or money to continue to preserve. It is not all a sad story, though: At the same time as this Vikrant was taken apart, the name and traditions will live on in a new, larger ship. When commissioned, this will also be a first for India – the first domestically built carrier.
The Komunna has been salvaging Russian subs since the time of the last Czar, Nicholas II. She was loosely modeled on the Imperial German ship, SMS Vulkan. Shipsearcher staff located the catamaran-style vessel, with four enormous connecting trusses, in a bay near Sevastopol, in the Crimea. This specialized ship is the oldest operational warship in the World. Entering service in 1915, “Volkhov” (her name from 1915-1922), salvaged submarines from the First World War.
During the Second World War, at the Siege of Leningrad, crews worked tirelessly to help Soviet defenders salvage and raise tanks and other vehicles that had fallen thru the ice bridge resupplying the beleaguered city. Russian regimes have come and gone, but Kommuna has remained active salvaging submarines, other shipwrecks, and even advanced aircraft on the seafloor. A 1999 refit saw her outfitted as a submarine rescue ship, with modern equipment. Recent additions include a British Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), the Pantera Plus, and other rescue submersibles. Visit the page for Russian naval auxiliaries and other vessels for Kommuna and other unique Russian warships!
If you have ever had questions about how the World’s largest warships are dismantled, this new page may help answer some of these: Scrapping the Supercarrier. Shipsearcher staff have gone into more detail than the world navies pages, and we hope you’ll find this interesting!
A powerful fleet is emerging from the mists of the South China Sea. Led by a pair of carriers, in line ahead, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, amphibious assault ships, landing ships and other units are being systematically identified and logged in the Shipsearcher Database by Ship Identification Directorate (SID) staff.
The last of the large shipsearcher pages will be the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The PRC fleet was once viewed as an out-dated adjunct to the massive land forces. These days, the furious pace of naval construction is setting China on a path to become the World’s penultimate naval force, second only to the USN. In the meantime, please check out any of the other 13 navies on the site!
Comrades, this is your captain. It is anhonor to speak to you today, and I am honored to be sailing with you on the maiden voyage of our motherland’s most recent achievement. Once more, we play our dangerous game, a game ofchess against our old adversary — The American Navy. For forty years, your fathers before you and your older brothers played this game and played it well. But today the game is different. We have the advantage.(Captain Marco Ramius – Hunt for Red October)
Introducing Russian Surface Units – Current and Retired. It joins the Soviet / Russian submarines page to document many classes of Russian warships, from the massive Kirov class battlecruisers to new stealth frigates. Among the strangest of naval vessels, near the end of the list, are the Ekranoplans: These are the daughters of the “Caspian Sea Monster.” You will have to visit the page to untangle that shipsearcher statement!
Two new pages explore the past and present surface warships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN). For shipsearcher staff, it was particularly challenging to locate imagery of these vessels, as they were all loaded upside down (we hope you enjoyed that truly elevated piece of imagery-related humour)!
Some of the more interesting features of these pages include the RNZN 1963 views of Devonport Naval Base, Auckland’s major naval facility. The aerial views make identification of early Cold War and long-service Second World War-built warships possible. As for the RAN, the range of ship classes depicted speaks to a diversified, potent force capable of undertaking a range of missions. As always, we have taken pains to track down long out of service or preserved warships.