History of HMS Hermes R12
The ship was laid down by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness during World War II as HMS Elephant. Construction was suspended in 1945 but work was resumed in 1952 to clear the slipway and the hull was launched on 16 February 1953. The vessel remained unfinished until 1957, when she entered service on 18 November 1959 as HMS Hermes after extensive modifications which included installation of a massive Type 984 'searchlight' 3D radar, a fully angled deck with a deck-edge lift, and steam catapults. With these changes she more resembled the reconstructed aircraft carrier Victorious than the other three ships in the class.
Hermes initially operated Supermarine Scimitar, de Havilland Sea Vixen, and Fairey Gannet fixed-wing aircraft, together with Westland Whirlwind helicopters.
When the decision was made in the mid-1960s to phase out fixed wing carrier operations Hermes was slated to become a "Commando Carrier" for Royal Marine operations (similar in concept to a US Navy LHA). Therefore, Hermes was docked down in number 10 Dock in Devonport Dockyard between 1971 and 1973, undergoing a conversion in which her arresting cables, steam catapults, and 3-D radar were removed. Landing craft and berthing for 800 troops were added and her airwing became approximately 20 Westland Sea King helicopters. By 1976, with the Soviet submarine threat becoming apparent and through NATO pressure, a further mild conversion was performed for Hermes to become an anti-submarine warfare carrier to patrol the North Atlantic. Hermes underwent one more conversion and new capabilities were added when she was refitted at Portsmouth from 1980 to June 1981, during which a 12° ski-jump and facilities for operating BAe Sea Harriers were incorporated.
After this refit the air wing comprised:
800 NAS 5 Sea Harrier FRS.1 fighter
826 NAS 12 Sea King HAS.5 ASW
Hermes was due to be decommissioned in 1982 after the 1981 Defence Review (that would have made the Royal Navy considerably smaller) by the British government, but when the Falklands War broke out, she was made the flagship of the British forces, setting sail for the South Atlantic just three days after the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. She sailed for the Falklands with an airgroup of 12 Sea Harrier FRS1 attack aircraft of the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, and 18 Sea King helicopters. A few weeks after sailing, more aircraft were flown or transported via other ships to replace some losses and augment the task force. Hermes's airgroup grew to 16 Sea Harriers, 10 Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR3s of the Royal Air Force, and 10 Sea Kings (after some of the helicopters were dispersed to other ships) as well as a troop of Special Air Service (SAS) and Royal Marines. As she was the RN's largest carrier, she was considered too valuable to risk in close to the Falklands, due to the possibility of Argentine air force attacks. Her Harriers therefore operated at the limit of their endurance radius but were very successful in keeping the enemy aircraft at bay.
Air group at the height of the Falklands Conflict:
800 NAS – 15 Sea Harrier FRS.1
826 NAS – 5 Sea King HAS.5
846 NAS – 5 Sea King HC.4
No. 1 Squadron RAF – 6 Harrier GR.3
After the Falklands War
After her return home from the Falklands conflict Hermes entered into a much needed 4-month refit to her propulsion and electrical systems, as well as a thorough cleaning and repainting. When this was completed in November 1982, she embarked stores and performed work-ups exercises. She then took part in NATO exercises in the North Atlantic, and the Mediterranean Sea as a commando carrier. In the autumn of 1983 she took part in her last exercise, Ocean Safari, where she reverted to a strike carrier role, embarking 12 Sea Harriers, 10 RAF Harrier GR.3s and 10 Sea Kings. After this exercise, she called into Devonport for a minor refit and thereafter into maintained reserve in Portsmouth.
In 1983, when the proposed sale of the aircraft carrier Invincible to the Royal Australian Navy was cancelled following the Falklands War, an offer was made to sell Hermes and a squadron of Sea Harriers to Australia. However the new Hawke Government decided against purchasing a replacement for HMAS Melbourne.
Hermes served with the Royal Navy until 12 April 1984. On this day she entered Portsmouth with a reduced crew, under her own steam, flying the White Ensign for the final time as a seagoing ship.
In April 1986 Hermes was towed from Portsmouth Dockyard to Devonport Dockyard to be refitted, reactivated and sold to India, recommissioning and sailing as INS Viraat in 1987.