Aircraft Carrier HMAS Melbourne

Aircraft Carrier HMAS Melbourne


HMAS Melbourne conducting damage control drills off Thistle Island, Spencer Gulf, SA, 3 March 1960. The drills gave the crew experience in managing the ship in a simulated damaged condition. Ballast tanks would be flooded alternatively to port or starboard, then steering exercises were done at different speeds to determine handling characteristics. The trials would last most of the day.

HMAS Melbourne (R21) was a Majestic-class light aircraft carrier of the Royal Australian Navy. Operating from 1955 until 1982, she was the third and final conventional aircraft carrier to serve in the RAN. Melbourne was the only British Commonwealth naval vessel to sink two friendly warships in peacetime collisions.

The ship was laid down for the Royal Navy as the lead ship of the Majestic class in April 1943, and was launched as HMS Majestic (R77) in February 1945. At the end of World War II, work on the ship was suspended until she was purchased by the RAN in 1947. At the time of purchase, it was decided to incorporate new aircraft carrier technologies into the design, making Melbourne the third ship to be constructed with an angled flight deck. Delays in construction and integrating the enhancements meant that the carrier was not commissioned until 1955.

HMAS Melbourne sailed from Glasgow in 1956, bringing with her 808, 816 and 817 Squadrons (the first with Sea Venoms and the other two with Fairey Gannets). She also carried Bristol Sycamore helicopters. From 1959 through to the late 1960s, Melbourne served in the Far East Strategic Reserve. She took part in exercises and escorted HMAS Sydney (then used to ferry troops and vehicles) to Vietnam.

On 10 February 1964, Melbourne was involved in the collision with the Daring Class destroyer HMAS Voyager off Nowra, New South Wales. In 1967, Melbourne sailed to the United States, taking on board new Douglas Skyhawk and Grumman Tracker aircraft before returning to Australia for a major refit which kept her in dock for most of 1968.

Melbourne left for the Far East in May 1969 equipped with Skyhawks of 805 Squadron., Trackers of 816 Squadron, and the Wessex of 817 Squadron. Melbourne was involved in another disaster when early on June 3, in the course of an exercise in the South China Sea, Melbourne and the USS Frank E. Evans collided, with the loss of 74 crew from the smaller ship.

Melbourne continued to exercise in Far Eastern waters, until a major refit which lasted for most of 1971. She then took on board 805, 816 and 817 Squadrons in September, and participated in joint exercises near Hawaii in November. She took part in a series of exercises over the next few years, underwent a further refit in 1973, and visited California in 1974. When Darwin, Northern Territory, was devastated by Cyclone Tracey on Christmas Day 1974, Melbourne sailed from Sydney the next day to assist with a large cargo of urgently-needed supplies.

When Australia took delivery of the Westland Sea King helicopter in 1975, they were allocated to 817 Squadron aboard Melbourne, as well as being assigned to the land base at Nowra. After another refit in 1975-76, Melbourne was involved in further exercises. Exercise Kangaroo II, in October 1976, saw Melbourne operating with the USS Enterprise.

Early in 1977, Melbourne collected 16 Grumman Trackers from the US, to replace ten of the aircraft lost in a hangar fire at Nowra the previous December. In May 1977, she sailed with the guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane, bound for England to take part in the celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

Later she remained in Australian waters, with two more periods in dock, one including a substantial refit. Melbourne continued to take part in exercises and occasional rescue tasks until 1981, when she put in to Sydney for maintenance. During this period a decision was made to decommission her, and this occurred on 30 June 1982.

By then she had spent 62,036 hours underway and steamed 868,893 nautical miles. She lay at moorings in Sydney Harbour, awaiting disposal, and after sale to a private Australian company in June 1984 fell through, she was finally sold in February 1985, to China United Shipbuilding Company for $1.4 million. 

But even then the old lady continued to surprise. She departed Sydney on 27 April 1985, under tow for Guangzhou, China. The journey was delayed when the towing line began to part, requiring the carrier and tug to shelter in Moreton Bay, Queensland, on 30 April. The towing gear broke a day later, requiring a second tug to secure the carrier whilst repairs were made. Three days later, Melbourne ran aground while still in Moreton Bay. She finally arrived in China on 13 June 1985. The Australian government reportedly received a Telex on this day, reading:

‘Please be advised that HMAS Melbourne arrived at Port Huangpu, intact and safely afloat, proud and majestic. She has been innocent, never once bowed to the natural or human force, in spite of the heavy storm and the talked about jinx.’ 

Wikipedia reports that the ship was not scrapped immediately; instead she was studied by Chinese naval architects and engineers as part of the nation’s top-secret carrier development program. However, it is unclear whether the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) orchestrated the acquisition of Melbourne or simply took advantage of the situation; Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong, who is both the son of PLAN founder Zhang Aiping and a staff member at the National Defence College, has stated that the Navy was unaware of the purchase until Melbourne first arrived at Guangzhou. Melbourne was the largest warship any of the Chinese experts had seen, and they were surprised by the amount of equipment which was still in place, including the mirror landing system, arrestor gear and steam catapults. The PLAN subsequently arranged for the ship’s flight deck and all the equipment associated with flying operations to be removed so that they could be studied in depth. Reports have circulated that either a replica of the flight deck, or the deck itself, was used for clandestine training of People’s Liberation Army Navy pilots in carrier flight operations. It has also been claimed that the Royal Australian Navy received and “politely rejected” a request from the PLAN for blueprints of the ship’s steam catapult. The carrier was not dismantled for many years; according to some rumours she was not completely broken up until 2002. A 2012 article in Jane’s Navy International stated that the large quantity of equipment recovered from Melbourne “undoubtedly helped” Admiral Liu Hua-qing secure the Chinese Government’s support for his proposal to initiate a program to develop aircraft carriers for the Navy.

Commissioned: 28 October 1955
Displacement: 19,996 tonnes (full load)
Length: 198 metres
Engines: Two sets Parsons single reduction geared turbines, two shafts, 42,000shp
Speed: 24 knots
Range: 12,000nm at 14 knots
Crew: 1,335
Armament: 25 x 40mm Bofors, Sea Venom fighters, Sycamore helicopters, Skyhawk fighter-bombers, Sea King anti-submarine helicopters, Gannet anti-submarine aircraft, Wessex anti-submarine helicopters, Tracker anti-submarine aircraft.