On the 76th anniversary of her commissioning, we profile the career and end of HMS Rame Head, the last of any version of the vital wartime built Canadian Park and Fort class merchant ships known to exist.
The Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) go to great lengths trying to locate views of the “last” member of whole classes of ships, because it helps us add a broad range of ship types to our listings, and because the staff naval historian feels that locating views of these last ships is a worthwhile “history exercise” HISTEX. Recently, we stumbled across views of what looked like a US Liberty ship being scrapped near Ghent, Belgium. It took some digging, but we eventually traced the story to the last of the Canadian built Park/Fort wartime merchant ships. Today marks the 76th anniversary of her commissioning into the Royal Navy.
During the Second World War’s longest battle, the Battle of the Atlantic, Canada built more than 320 large merchant ships, as one contribution to the Allied war effort against the Axis powers. Every cargo that got through the U-boat-infested waters mattered, and replacing lost merchant ships with Canadian-built hulls helped get new equipment, munitions, and other war supplies to Europe. For a small country with few shipyards, the wartime expansion of naval and merchant shipbuilding capacity, on both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, was spectacular.
Many of these ships originated out of the same basic British “North Sands” design (basically a standard Tramp steamer). The British government, desperately in need of merchant ships, had contracted American yards to build sixty “Ocean ships” in 1940. They were simple to build, with a large amount of cargo space.
The Canadian government quickly agreed to build similar ships, and set to the task in 1941. Some were built with rivetted hulls (North Sands ships), many were welded (Canadian and Victory ships). At 442’ overall and about 14,400 tons displacement, these vessels were not built for grace or speed.** The ships retained for Canada’s merchant fleet were given names of famous Canadian parks, while the ships destined for the British were named after forts.
HMS Rame Head was a member of the 21 ship “Beachey Head” class, which was a naval modification of the basic Fort/Park merchant ships. They were built as depot, maintenance and repair ships for the Royal Navy. The hull was launched in late November 1944 from North Vancouver Shipyards, Vancouver, BC, and Rame Head was commissioned 18 August, 1945, days after the War ended in the Pacific.
During the postwar era, she was updated several times. Starting out as an escort maintenance ship, she then served as an accommodation ship from 1972. She is most remembered for her time attached to the the naval establishment HMS Excellent, at Whale Island, near Portsmouth, berthed in the same location later occupied by HMS Bristol. She then spent many years laid up near Fareham, and was occasionally used by the Special Boat Service for assault training. With the 2001 sinking of the former HMCS Cape Breton (a very similar ex-RN repair ship originally named HMS Flamborough Head) to make a reef, Rame Head became the last Fort/Park class merchant ship in existence. By contrast, there are still three of the more numerous US-built Liberty ships (2 of which are museums), and one slightly larger Victory ship.
In early 2009, following a whole program of scrapping of retired Royal Navy ships, Rame Head was sold off to the Galloo shipbreaking group (Van Heyghen Recycling). The old hull was towed to Ghent, Belgium. A report by the Ministry of Defence outlines the major steps and challenges encountered during the dismantling of this old ship – more asbestos and more concrete ballast had to be carefully removed than was originally estimated. The report notes that only one group had put forward a proposal to save the ship. Dismantling proceeded swiftly. So went the last of the great and vital fleet of wartime Park and Fort ships.
*The title of this post was inspired by S.C. Heal’s book A great fleet of ships: The Canadian forts & parks
**The same British J.L. Thompson & Sons design would later be used for the Liberty ships.
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.
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:
This is tragic -the Supreme Court stays the dismantling of Viraat.. Despite several alerts – many from me personally – on the case moving to the SC – the shipbreaker went ahead and cut up the ship. Yes, there was no legal bar, but why do this when there was a legit legal appeal? pic.twitter.com/prFeCEm70F
*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.
Shipsearcher staff share views of the last of the Algerine class minesweepers that served in vital roles in the Second World War: HMS Minstrel / HTMS Phosamton.
Shipsearcher Identification Section (SIS) staff search extensively for satellite views of some of the last survivors of famous classes of warships. During the Second World War, the British Algerine fleet or ocean-going minesweeper design formed an important class of Allied warship. At 225 feet long and about 1,300 tons displacement, they were larger than other designs, such as the Bangor or Bathurst sweepers.
This new class could be constructed by commercial shipyards – an important feature for speeding up wartime production of the vital hulls. More than half of the 110 ships were built in Canadian shipyards: Port Arthur Shipbuilding, Toronto Shipbuilding, and Redfern Construction. These ships were all powered by reciprocating engines, while some of the British-built ships were turbine-driven. In addition to regular minesweeping duties, ships were quickly pressed into service as ocean escorts, helping to bulk up protection for the vital transatlantic convoys. The dozen Royal Canadian Navy units spent most of their wartime duty in this role, providing important service alongside River class frigates and Flower class corvettes.
HMS Minstrel J-445, was one of the last ships launched from the Toronto, Ontario shipyards of Redfern Construction Company in 1945, as the war ended. Minstrel was transferred to the Royal Thai Navy In 1947 as HTMS Phosamton (or “Phosampton” depending on the source). With most of her sister-ships scrapped in the 1960s, her service stretched on and on into the early 2000s. According to 1980s editions of Jane’s Fighting Ships, she was given an engineering upgrade and modified with a large classroom deckhouse over the quarterdeck, serving as a training vessel.
Most online sources still call the Phosamton the last active Algerine, serving out of Samut Prakan naval base. However, the Navypedia entry notes it was stricken (removed from service) in 2017, with other sources suggesting it was retired in 2012. A Thai news source had a more accurate updated location that we were able to look up, and images online confirm the location. This minesweeper has been located nearby at Samet Ngam since at least 2013, and shipsearcher staff very much hope that it will be saved from scrapping. However, it has been languishing in a deteriorated condition. More recent views show a large barge moored alongside. As the ship is reported to be resting on the bottom at her berth, the barge may be alongside to commence dismantling the venerable sweeper in situ. Thailand has gone to lengths to preserve other contemporary warships, after their long second careers with the Royal Thai Navy, so there is still hope for this last Algerine.
We don’t often “confirm” ship views, as many ships are pretty obvious, and if we are wrong, very few visitors to our site have ever corrected us! In this case, we sketched out the outline of the satellite view, tracing major features of the ship. We then compared this with online sources and plans in Ken MacPherson’s excellent source book on the topic Minesweepers of the Royal Canadian Navy, 1938-1945, which were themselves made from plans now held by Library and Archives Canada. It is always exciting to identify even a single survivor of a bygone era, lingering on into the present, as this allows us to explore the history of the whole class of vessels, and pester the Shipsearcher staff historian to contextualize or interpret our finds!
Check out our Royal Thai Navy pages for other views of the Phosamton, and other veteran ships, originally from a variety of navies, that are being preserved.
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.
“Heart of Oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men, we are always ready; Steady, boys, steady, We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again”…so goes the chorus of Heart of Oak, the official march of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, and several Commonwealth navies [Youtube rendition here]. The oldest ship on this new shipsearcher page – Royal Navy Surface Units – Current and Retired – is the HMS Victory.
This first-rate line of battle ship was being built when Heart of Oak first appeared on the London scene to commemorate the victories of 1759. Our Royal Navy page starts with Victory and spans 260 years to the newly commissioned and largest-ever British carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Another unique feature of this page is the use of the Kent County Council Archives historical aerial mosaic photos (provided to Google Earth), which allow for Second World War-era captures of ships in Chatham Royal Dockyard. These views make ship identification of famous RN ship classes, such as County Class Cruisers, and aircraft carriers possible. For the first time, we also have a category for monitors, which during the first half of the twentieth century were tubby, short vessels that mounted a few battleship-sized guns! As always, we hope you appreciate the listing, and would be happy to hear about issues with any identification: help us identify our views of unknown ships!