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Falklands Flagship to be Scrapped

The Indian aircraft carier INS Viraat, previously HMS Hermes, made her last journey to the breakers yard at Alang, India in September 2020 and is now being scrapped: see this video report from the British ITV network.

She was laid down during World War II as HMS Elephant and was a Centaur class light fleet carrier. Only four of the intended eight ships of this class had been laid down by the end of the war and the other four, one of which was to be named Hermes, were cancelled.

The previous HMS Hermes, sunk by the Japanese in 1942, was the first ship in the world to be designed as an aircraft carrier, although the Japanese Hosho was launched and completed first.

The Royal Navy had more carriers than it needed, or could afford, at the end of World War II, so Hermes and her three remaining sisters were not completed for some time. She was launched in 1953 in order to clear the slipway, but was not completed until 1959. This was to a modified design that included an angled flight deck and steam catapults, enabling her to operate the latest jet aircraft.

By the late 60s, she carried an air group of 12 Sea Vixen jets (interceptor), seven Buccaneer jets (strike), five turboprop Gannets (four Airborne Early Warning [AEW] and one Carrier on board Delivery) and six Wessex helicopters (five anti-submarine [ASW] and one air-sea rescue and utility). The Sea Vixens and Buccaneers were subsonic and the RN hoped to equip Hermes with its first supersonic aircraft, the F4 Phantom. However, trials proved that she was too small to effectively operates F4s.

in 1966, it was decided that the RN should no longer operate fixed wing aircraft. A proposal to sell Hermes to Australia fell through and she was converted from 1971-73 into a Commando Carrier. Her catapults were removed and she was modified to carry landing craft and 800 troops. Her airwing was now about 20 Sea King helicopters. In 1976, the threat from Soviet submarines led to her becoming an anti-submarine helicopter carrier.

In 1980-81, she was refitted with a ski jump in order to operate Sea Harrier V-STOL fighters after it was decided plan that the RN should operate fixed wing aircraft. The ski jump enables a V-STOL aircraft to take off with a greater payload than if it made a vertical take off.

Her normal air group was then five Sea Harriers and 12 Sea King ASW helicopters. However, during the Falklands War, she carried 16 Sea Harrier interceptors, 10 RAF ground attack Harriers, five ASW Sea Kings and five commando assault Sea Kings.

It is difficult to see how the British could have retaken the Falklands without the fighter cover provided by the Harriers on board Hermes and HMS Invincible. The RN has now returned to the operation of large carriers, with HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales now in service.

HMS Hermes remained in service with the RN until 1986, when she was sold to India. She was commissioned into the Indian navy as INS Viraat in 1987 and served until 2016, 57 years after she was completed and 63 since she was laid down. Plans to convert into a museum and hotel proved to be uneconomic.

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