Last Views of the Indian Navy / Royal Navy Carrier INS Viraat / HMS Hermes?

After more than a 50 years of service, is this the end for the Royal Navy and Indian Navy’s longtime flagship, and veteran aircraft carrier HMS Hermes / INS Viraat?

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.

INS Viraat Kochi 2015
A view we title “Viraat fading into history.” A Google splice error shows a combined view of Cochin Shipyards, Kochi in August 2015, when the INS Viraat was in for her last operational refit, and Nov. 2015.

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.

HMS Hermes prewetting 1961 IWM
HMS Hermes, June 1961, with its water jets “pre-wetting” surfaces as part of the ship’s anti-nuclear fallout protection system: © IWM. A-34469

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.

HMS Hermes Sea Vixen trial 1961 IWM
A June 1961 demonstration of the Sea Vixen jet, one of the first generation of strike aircraft Hermes carried. This also shows the massive Type 984 “3-D” or ‘searchlight’ radar above the island:© IWM A 34466 

“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.

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HMS Hermes with the ship’s company and aircraft dressing ship, undated. This appears to depict the “Commando Carrier” phase of her career, when she operated a helicopter-only complement of Westland Wessex and Sea King Anti-Submarine helicopters, along with landing craft and vehicles for an assault force of Royal Marines. © IWM HU 101347

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.

HMS Hermes and Broadsword Falklands
HMS Hermes with HMS Broadsword, Apr.-June 1982, Falklands Conflict. Hermes shows the recently installed ski jump. Copyright: © IWM. MH-27508

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.

INS Vikrant and Viraat Mumbai 2010
INS Viraat R-22 (top) and the former INS Vikrant R-11, which was serving as a museum ship. This May 2010 view represents a half-century of Indian naval aviation.

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.

INS Viraat Mumbai 2020

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.

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INS Viraat R-22 during Exercise MALABAR 2005, with a complement of Sea Harriers, and Sea King and HAL Chetak helicopters. NARA: USN 330-CFD-DN-SD-06-05771 (PH3 Shannon E. Renfroe)

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.

INS Viraat scrapping Alang 2020INS Viraat scrapping Alang2 2020

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.

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Sentinel imagery 2021/11/08 [Edited], slightly further out than the above Google imagery. She was still mostly intact at Alang, Gujarat.

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Sentinel imagery 2021/02/06 [Edited] at Alang, Gujarat. Note the clear visual evidence of the forward flight deck and bow compartments being dismantled.
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 comparative views of the scrapping of US supercarriers, see our work on the dismantling of US aircraft carriers in a recent post and more detailed page.

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.

HMCS Bonaventure – Canada’s Carrier – decommissioned 50 years ago

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.

HMCS Bonaventure model CASMworkFINALBluewithaerials
Overhead photo of a Canadian Aviation and Space Museum artifact, a fine 1/144 Scale model of HMCS Bonaventure made by Dan Linton from Stouffville ON, with various aircraft that served aboard during career. For all use please credit Warsearcher with the URL of the website.

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.

This composite shows Bonaventure and RCN naval aircraft, including many types that operated from the carrier. Late in her RCN career, Bonaventure also operated the new Sikorsky Sea King Anti-submarine helicopter. Crowsnest May-June 1960 edition, p.10. Photo credit would now be Crown Copyright, Department of National Defence, HS-61120

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.

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This Dec. 1969 view of the last sail past of HMCS Bonaventure in Halifax Harbour shows the beautiful lines of this updated design. Credit Library and Archives Canada / Department of National Defence HS 69-3061 Crown Copyright.

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.*** Minas Gerais Brazil 2002

Minas Gerais India scrapping 2004
This remarkable view shows former NAeL Minas Gerais in May, 2004, immediately before she was run up on the beach at Alang, India, for scrapping.

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.

INS Vikrant and Viraat Mumbai 2010
INS Vikrant, at bottom, and the slightly newer INS Viraat (ex-HMS Hermes), both with very long service. Vikrant, the oldest remaining sister-ship of Bonaventure, was scrapped in Mumbai 2014-2015, while the Viraat appears to be destined to become a museum ship.

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.

HMCS Bonaventure HFX 1960 DNS-26014
HMCS Bonaventure in her usual berth under the Angus MacDonald Bridge, ca. 1960. Credit: Library and Archives Canada / Department of National Defence DNS-26014 Copyright belongs to Crown.

Composite view of multiple satellite captures [2003, 2005, 2019/09] of Halifax naval dockyard wharf No. 4 and Jetty no. 5 edited to appear closer to the 1970 arrangement, with a crane added from the nearby government wharf, Dartmouth. Dan Linton’s model of HMCS Bonaventure has been superimposed on a 705’ footprint. Bonaventure would not have been moored across these two berths, but her usual berth at no.4 would place her directly under the Angus L. MacDonald bridge. This composite is inserted only to provide a general mock-up. For all use please credit Warsearcher with the URL of the website.
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.

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Photo of the Mirror landing system, on the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum model, built by Dan Linton from Stouffville ON. For all use please credit Warsearcher with the URL of the website.

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.

[Detail of] HMCS Bonaventure early in her RCN service off England in June 1957. Library and Archives Canada, Department of National Defence image CT-521 Copyright belongs to the Crown. The flight deck’s 7.5 degree angle and modest port projection (compared to a straight axial flight deck) may not seem like much today, but represented a real improvement in flying operations over her predecessors.
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.

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Bonaventure’s starboard anchor on display at the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean, Massey Building, Aug. 2014. Credit: Warsearcher.

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.

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HMCS Bonaventure Anchor Memorial in Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, in 2007. Credit: abdallahh from Montréal, Canada / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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.

HMCS Bonaventure anchor monument Halifax NS 2016For 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)

Last views of the Indian Navy Aircraft Carrier Vikrant

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:

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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.INS Vikrant Mumbai 2010After 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.

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ex-INS Vikrant being scrapped in Mumbai, from top deck down bow to stern. Adam Cohn / CC BY-SA

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.