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.

ins-viraat-srap-alang-sentinel-2-l1c-image-on-2020-11-08
Sentinel imagery 2021/11/08 [Edited], slightly further out than the above Google imagery. She was still mostly intact at Alang, Gujarat.

ins-viraat-scrap-alang-sentinel-2-l1c-image-on-2021-02-06
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.

The Loneliest Minesweeper?

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.

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A tracing of major deck features of the Algerine Minesweeper class, created for recognition purposes.

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.

A lovely original colour 1943 photograph of HMCS Sault Ste. Marie,  a Canadian-built Algerine, built by the Port Arthur Shipbuilding Co. and similar to the original configuration of HMS Minstrel. Credit: Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada CT-247

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.

An Algerine under construction in a Toronto shipyard during 1944, showing the original appearance of the stern and minesweeping gear combined with depth-charge rails. Credit: National Film Board WRM 4986, Library and Archives Canada

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!

This google earth capture has been overlaid with a hand-drawn plan of an Algerine class minesweeper. The outlines of the enlarged classroom on the quarterdeck can be seen in the satellite view extending towards the stern.

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.

Navies Down Under!

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)!

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HMAS Vampire D-11 ca. 1959 © Australian War Memorial 301609 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/au/

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.

Loch Class D Devonport 1963
Loch Class frigate and Bathurst Class corvettes, 1963 view of Devonport near Auckland, NZ

These posts complement pages on some of the other Commonwealth navies: Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy

Royal Navy Shipsearcher page now up!

“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.

HMS Victory portsmouth 1945
HMS Victory, raising the yards in August 1945 © IWM (A 30810)

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.

HMS Queen Elizabeth R08 Halifax 2019
HMS Queen Elizabeth R-08 in Halifax NS, Sep. 2019

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!HM Monitor Chatham Kent SWW