The list of decommissioned aircraft carriers preserved as museum ships or other attractions around the World is not an inspiring one. As of 2021, the only two nations which have successfully preserved carriers are the United States, and China (which has a knack for preserving Russian carriers). India operated the INS Vikrant R-11 as a museum ship at Mumbai from 2001-2012. For a time it looked like the larger INS Viraat R-22, with important service in two navies, could be preserved. Read on for the interesting history, and current status, of the INS Viraat / HMS Hermes.
The Centaur Class was a Second World War design meant to improve upon the earlier British Light Fleet Carriers (what became the Colossus and Majestic classes). As originally conceived, the planned class of eight ships would have had axial (or straight) flight decks. They were to be 45 feet longer and 10,000 tons heavier than their predecessors, with a length just under 740 feet and a total displacement of 28,000 tons.
None of the ships were in service by the end of the War. Throughout the 1950s, four ships were gradually completed. HMS Hermes, which was intended originally to have been named “Elephant,” was the last finished, to the most modern upgrades, with a well-angled 743′ flight deck and powerful steam catapults to operate heavier, modern jet aircraft. These design changes gave her enhancements over her three sisters, and would result in her having a much, much longer service life.
“Happy H,” as she was affectionately known by her crew, served in the Royal Navy from 1959 to 1984. She had a lengthy, varied career, operating in several roles. Completed as a strike carrier, in early 1970s her catapults were removed and her fixed-wing aircraft landed. First she was converted to a “Commando Carrier” with helicopters and LCVP Mk.2 landing craft to embark Royal Marine assault forces. Soon after she became an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) carrier, with an air complement oriented around ASW helicopters. This new connversion was intended to counter the threat of Soviet submarines.
Her most significant modernization occurred in 1981, when in order to operate Sea Harrier STOVL (Short Take-off and Vertical Landing) jets, she was refitted with a prominent “ski jump” at the leading edge of the flight deck. She emerged from refit as a multi-role carrier, able to carry a flexible, well-rounded air complement of strike and ASW aircraft, while still being able to carry assault/landing forces.
Her service as flagship during the Falklands War stands out. Hermes left for the South Atlantic from HM Naval Dockyard Portsmouth 5 April, 1982, only 3 days after the Argentine landings on the Falklands. Hermes led a powerful task force which included the new carrier, HMS Invincible R-05, the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror, destroyers and frigates and other ships. This force eventually expanded to include more than 120 ships. During the conflict, she embarked an air complement of Sea Harriers, RAF GR.3 Harriers, and Westland Sea King Anti-Submarine Warfare helicopters, and also carried a troop of Special Air Service (SAS) and Royal Marines, who were forward-deployed to other ships for assault operations. The Harriers flew combat air patrols. Intended to operate nine Sea King and 5 Harriers, while in the South Atlantic, the ship carried as many as 37 aircraft! After the end of hostilities in mid-June, Hermes went back to the usual exercises, a refit, but then wound up in reserve status by late 1983. “Happy H” was decommissioned from the Royal Navy on 12 April 1984.*
Two years later the Indian government purchased the ship, which was reconditioned at Devonport Dockyard before her departure from British waters. INS Viraat commissioned into the Indian Navy during May 1987. The acquisition of the carrier was a major development for Indian naval aviation, being significantly larger than the first carrier, INS Vikrant. Viraat was the Indian Navy’s pride and joy, serving for 26 years as the navy’s flagship, mostly homeported at Mumbai. Numerous refits at the Cochin Shipyards, Kochi kept the ship operating well into the 21st Century.
As happens to all active ships in modern navies, the vessel was eventually determined to have reached the end of its service, being uneconomical to continue to safely operate. The deactivation process gained momentum during 2014-2015 and culminated in drydock work at Kochi from Aug-Sep. 2016. INS Viraat was formally decommissioned 6 March, 2017, and remained outwardly intact at her usual berth at Mumbai.
A vigorous public campaign to save the ship from scrapping gained media attention during 2018-2019. There are several reasons for preserving this unique warship. She is the last non-US aircraft carrier of any pre-1975 Cold War design…anywhere. Her incredibly long period of service with two navies adds up to about the same time as the only comparable record: USS Enterprise CVN-65’s 55+ years of service. Hermes/Viraat is a substantially older ship, with portions of the lower hull dating from before the end of the Second World War; An important flagship for both British and Indian navies, she is also one of the last remaining combatants of either side from the Falklands War, and could usefully interpret events of that time to the public; Carriers are designed to be upgraded with new technologies to combat obsolescence, but the range of technological transformations of Hermes / Viraat is unique – A ship design intended to operate piston-engined aircraft instead wound up embarking generations of jets and helicopters.
Several British and Indian efforts to preserve Viraat as a museum ship or convert her to some other use, such as an entertainment complex or hotel, failed to secure the needed funds to purchase this ship. She was sold to shipbreakers at Alang during July, 2020, and moved there in late September. Satellite imagery shows the early stages of the end of the Viraat. This veteran warship was moved inshore in early October, amidst many large merchant ships, to be taken apart by the usual army of torch wielding labourers.
The breaking began in earnest in mid-December, with the dismantling of the flight deck over the bows. By late January 2021, the flight deck was removed back almost to the island superstructure, and the hull and forward compartments had been cut down.
And that might have been the usual ending of any number of warships we have listed or found in scrapyards or shipbreakers in our many shipsearcher naval pages, but then things went haywire! In a very unusual development, India’s Supreme Court halted the dismantling of Viraat in early February, to consider a late proposal to save the carrier. Unfortunately, this “12th hour reprieve” seems to have come too late. It is unlikely that the hulk could be used for any purpose without very costly reconstruction (though at this point we would suggest cosmetic restoration using modern materials could be an option). The following tweet, by Vishnu Som, news anchor and journalist involved in the effort to save the carrier, shows the extent of the scrapping effort:
The Staff Naval Historian and all the less-relevant personnel attached to the Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) will continue to update this story when more information becomes available.
Additional Resources: For views of the the INS Viraat and India’s first carrier, the INS Vikrant R-11, see the pages for Indian Navy.
For our earlier work on the scrapping of the last 1942 Light Fleet Carrier Design ship, INS Vikrant, Viraat’s longtime companion see: Last views of the Indian Navy Aircraft Carrier Vikrant
For a detailed look at the plan for dismantling Viraat, see Avinash Nair “Explained: Here is how INS Viraat will be taken apart at the Alang shipyard” The Indian Express 6 Oct. 2021: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/how-ins-viraat-will-be-taken-apart-at-alang-6646446/
*There would not be a larger aircraft carrier in RN service until the December 2017 commissioning of HMS Queen Elizabeth.
**Normally we calculate service based on first date of commissioning, and last date of decommissioning, not focusing on periods out of service for major refits or modernizations. However, for Hermes / Viraat, it makes sense to consider the period fully out of service between RN decommissioning and entry into the Indian Navy as time out of the total. Some sources claim Viraat had the longest service of any warship, but, since we have listed many, many smaller warships that continue to serve in other navies from the Second World War, and even earlier, this is not accurate.