HMS Hermes sailed for two different countries for almost 60 years. Here is her story: Since World War II, aircraft carriers have been one of the most important weapons in a military’s arsenal. A nation with flattops can influence affairs far from its shores, and the more of them it can deploy, the farther it can project force around the world. The financial and technological requirements to build and deploy carriers means only a few countries can develop and maintain them. That barrier to entry means only few countries can field even one carrier.
The US can deploy 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, reflecting its superpower status. China is building or testing three flattops, and the UK has two new carriers. Several other countries, including France, Russia, and India, have at least one.
But carriers, once built, can serve for a long time. One of the longest-serving was HMS Hermes, which spent a total of 58 years in the British and Indian navies.
HMS Hermes was a conventionally powered Centaur-class flattop that was laid down in 1944. Construction was paused for several years and the carrier wasn’t launched until 1953. It entered service with the Royal Navy in 1959.
The flattop began its career as a CATOBAR aircraft carrier and could carry up to five fixed- and rotary-wing squadrons.
Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery, or CATOBAR, carriers use catapults to launch aircraft and arresting wires to recover them, allowing planes to take off and land on a deck that’s only a few hundred feet long instead of a mile or longer.
But in the early 1970s, the Royal Navy decided to convert Hermes to support operations by Royal Marine Commandos — like the amphibious assault ships of the US Navy. Berthing space for 800 troops was added, and helicopters became Hermes’ primary aircraft.
Hermes was refit again in the early 1980s, when the threat from Soviet submarines prompted the Royal Navy to repurpose the ship for anti-submarine warfare. This modification also converted Hermes into a Short Take-Off, Barrier Arrested Recovery, or STOBAR, carrier.
A ski jump was added to Hermes’ bow and it once more hosted fighter jets, namely the Sea Harrier, which was designed for short and vertical takeoffs and landings.
During the Falklands War in 1982, the HMS Hermes was the flagship of the British armada, leading more than 100 ships to the South Atlantic to reclaim the islands from the Argentines.
Hermes’ sister ship and fellow STOBAR carrier, HMS Invincible, were crucial to the UK’s success. Sea Harrier fighter jets operating from the two flattops gave the British air dominance and ensured that ground troops could land on and retake the Falklands.
The Argentines recognized the importance of the British aircraft carriers and tried to sink them multiple times with daring air attacks. They sunk several escort ships and claimed to have hit Invincible, but the flattops emerged from the conflict unscathed. (The British armada included two improvised carriers, one of which was sunk.)
Hermes’ post-Falklands life was brief. After a refit and an exercise, the carrier was decommissioned in 1984, but that wasn’t the end of its career.
The British had previously tried to offload Hermes — including a mid-1960s offer to Australia that fell through because of the high cost to man and operate the carrier — and in 1983, they again offered to sell it to Australia, which once more turned them down.
The carrier was sold to India in 1986. After undergoing a refit, the carrier was commissioned into the Indian navy as INS Viraat in a ceremony held in the UK in May 1987.
It became the flagship of the Indian Navy and participated in a number of operations, including in the Indian peacekeeping mission in Sri Lanka in 1989 and in the Indian blockade of Pakistani ports during the Kargil War in 1999. Viraat als took part in exercise Malabar, an annual exercise involving the US, India, and other navies.
After almost six decades in service, the Hermes was finally decommissioned by the Indian Navy in 2017. In 2019, the Indian government decided to scrap the carrier.
After years of attempts by state governments and private actors to preserve the carrier as a museum, including a last-minute legal effort to prevent it from being totally dismantled, the carrier was broken up in 2021.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.